Southsea Sub Aqua Club in mission to fulfil Patrick’s promise

Southsea divers have played a crucial role in a D-Day veteran’s quest to win recognition as a war grave of a landing craft sunk of the Normandy coast. NEIL FATKIN reports. For years, the wreckage lay below waves just off Normandy, a ship whose crew formed some of the many victims of the Normandy Landings at D-Day.
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But now the story of landing craft LCH 185 will be told and its heroism marked – thanks to the pledge of one its survivors and help given to him by Southsea Sub Aqua Club.

Almost 76 years ago Patrick Thomas was one of thousands of brave soldiers involved in Operation Neptune to puncture the German front line by storming Sword Beach as part of the D-Day landings.

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Then a fresh-faced 20-year-old, Patrick was part of the Normandy Landings aboard the landing craft LCH 185.

Footage showing what may be the ship LCH 185 that Patrick Thomas was on.    
Picture: Go Button MediaFootage showing what may be the ship LCH 185 that Patrick Thomas was on.    
Picture: Go Button Media
Footage showing what may be the ship LCH 185 that Patrick Thomas was on. Picture: Go Button Media

Having already landed 25 Royal Marines onto the beach, the crew was now providing cover on its eastern side when tragedy struck as the vessel collided with a mine sending 40 men to their death.

For more than seven decades, Patrick never spoke about that fateful day until a chance meeting on the beaches of Normandy with archaeologist John Henry Philips. Fascinated by Patrick’s story a pledge was made to help locate the remains of LCH 185.

It was a year later in 2016 that John met film maker Daniel Oron who agreed to make a documentary about John’s promise to Patrick.

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John said: ‘When I befriended Patrick and heard of LCH 185, I felt strongly that something needed to be done to bring the story of the landing craft back from the brink of forgotten history and to preserve it for future generations.

John Henry Phillips, Patrick and the town's mayor at the memorial unveiling
 John Henry Phillips, Patrick and the town's mayor at the memorial unveiling
John Henry Phillips, Patrick and the town's mayor at the memorial unveiling

‘Rarely does an opportunity arise when an archaeological project can directly relate to a person still living, which made this all the more special.

Daniel added: ‘When I met Patrick I fell in love with his story and we decided to make a film about the promise to Patrick.’

In the quest to discover the ship’s resting place the documentary team enlisted the help of Southsea Sub Aqua Club.

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John said: ‘We had received a potential sonar location and having learned to dive I needed a team to accompany me and work with me on the archaeological survey of the wreck. Due to the club’s previous experience in Normandy they were the ideal candidates.’

A possible location of ship off Normandy.   
Picture: Go Button MediaA possible location of ship off Normandy.   
Picture: Go Button Media
A possible location of ship off Normandy. Picture: Go Button Media

Team assembled, the mission to locate Patrick’s ship commenced in April 2018.

Speaking to The News about the first dive, club member and Havant resident, 55-year-old Martin Davies, said: ‘Patrick was the reason the club really bought into this project. There was a real desire to locate the vessel for him and his comrades.’

Martin said that LCH 185 was not only used as a landing craft during the D-Day landings but also as command headquarters to coordinate operations on Sword Beach.

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Patrick Thomas during his time in Portsmouth serving in the Royal Navy. Patrick Thomas during his time in Portsmouth serving in the Royal Navy.
Patrick Thomas during his time in Portsmouth serving in the Royal Navy.
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Martin added: ‘There are a lot of ships in that area which have been there for a long time and have not been identified.

‘We were given the location of the possible vessel and made our first dive back in 2018. It was in around 20 metres of water and the visibility on that day was around four to five metres.’

While determined to help Patrick in his quest, Martin entered the water with trepidation, ever mindful of the sombre story behind the wreck he may be about to discover.

‘On such a dive you are always conscious of people who have lost their lives and sensitive to what may have gone on in the past. As we approached the vessel there was a feeling of sorrow and regret. This was after-all potentially the scene of people’s last remains and you wonder what you are going to see,’ said Martin.

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While bound to secrecy until the first screening of the documentary, Martin did give some indication as to whether the wreck on the sea bed was that of LCH 185 .

‘The ship was upside down but it certainly seemed to match the description and dimensions of LCH 185,’ he said.

John Henry Phillips and Patrick discussing the whereabouts of the ship.John Henry Phillips and Patrick discussing the whereabouts of the ship.
John Henry Phillips and Patrick discussing the whereabouts of the ship.

While the definitive outcome is yet to be revealed, the club’s work has been recognised by the Nautical Archaeology Society’s prestigious Adopt a Wreck Award - also recognising the wider role the dive team played in documenting other Second World War wrecks in the area in a bid to get protective status.

Martin’s dive partner and club spokeswoman, Alison Mayor, said: ‘The wreck is just one of at least 150 wrecks in the Baie de Seine believed to be associated with the allied forces invasion.

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‘Our report has been submitted to the French Maritime Cultural Department (DRASSM) and will form part of the documentation supporting the application for Unesco World Heritage Site designation.

‘We hope that our work will help keep the memory of these events alive and properly recorded within history.’

If the vessel is that of LCH 185, it will be first time it will have been seen since that fateful day on June 24 1944. For Patrick, the whole experience brought memories flooding back.

‘I was on wireless watch that day and was manning the communications,’ he said.

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‘It was then at around 1pm we were hit by an acoustic mine. I remember staggering to the port rail. The force of the explosion drove the bows under the water and then she came back up. When I got to the port rail the water was up to my knees so LCH 185 was already sinking.

‘Wounded in the head and wearing lace-up boots I had no choice but to get into the water. I then had to get away from the vessel as she reared and turned towards me,’ added Patrick.

Fearing for his life in the mine infested, icy water, Patrick was literally thrown a lifeline by an allied ship.

Patrick said: ‘A sailor threw me a line and pulled me aboard. Exhausted and injured I was transferred to a tank landing ship where I saw a bright light shining towards me.

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‘Medics were operating on a badly-injured sailor and there was blood everywhere.

‘They hurried me away where they shaved part of my head and bandaged me up. Several hours later I was back on the upper deck with shells still going off all around me.’

Many of Patrick’s comrades including one of his best pals, Jack Barringer, were not so lucky.

Patrick added: ‘I saw Jack in the water a few yards from me and he was badly injured and drowning.

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‘Another sailor had both legs broken and was screaming in the water. I had a life belt but I let him have it in case he took me down with him.’

Later that day Patrick attended an impromptu funeral for the 40 men lost before returning to Portsmouth for further treatment on his injuries.

After the dives, Patrick, along with Daniel, John and the dive team, made an emotional journey by lifeboat to the believed site of LCH 185. For Patrick, now 95, it was the first time he had returned to the scene he witnessed such terrible carnage more than 70 years earlier.

Patrick said: ‘Going back was very emotional because it was to remember all my shipmates that perished. Unfortunately it brought back all the memories of that day. It was a very sad time.’

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The ceremony afforded Patrick the opportunity to have some closure and to finally pay his respects to his fallen shipmates.

‘It was important to find the ship as I wanted it to be protected as a war grave. I learnt that anyone could dive on these ships and take items or disturb them. I wanted my shipmates last resting place to be acknowledge and defined along with being able to pay my last respects to them by laying a wreath.

‘Identifying the resting place of LCH 185 and registering it as an official war grave would protect them. War graves should not be disturbed as they are the graves of many that lost their lives in the protection of our freedom and democracy.’

During the ceremony, Patrick read a moving rendition of the poem No Roses on a Sailors Grave which was adopted as the documentary’s title.

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Patrick said: ‘I lost 40 of my shipmates when LCH 185 went down and there are no gravestones to remember them. This poem describes that reality for sailors that go down with their ship. But now there is an actual memorial to them on Lion-sur-Mer promenade to remember them.

‘That will stand the test of time when LCH 185 is only a shadow on the seabed.’

Still vivid in his memory the passage of some seven decades has not diminished the fervour of Patrick’s mission to keep alive the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Patrick said: ‘It was tragic for them and their families to have their lives cut short at such young ages.

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‘They made the ultimate sacrifice and the nation should never forget. Wars should never be forgotten so we can remember the losses and the cost.

‘When people forget the hardship and losses it can happen again. When you’ve lived through it, it isn’t something you want to return to or for others to go through.’

The documentary is due to be screened next month.

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