A search has been launched to find families of the “forgotten heroes” who perished on a D-Day landing craft which sank in the Solent.
The Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) who identified the wreck of the landing craft are hoping to organise a memorial service at sea.
They are keen to trace relatives or former comrades of the men who died so they can invite them to the service.
BSAC member Alison Mayor led the team who conducted the diving survey and historical research which located the LCT 427 in the Solent.
The LCT was cut in half and sank in a collision with a British battleship on the way back from the D-Day landings.
Alison wants to ensure the men who risked their lives taking tanks to the Normandy beaches and died in the tragic accident just four miles from home will never be forgotten.
The wreck lies in the main shipping channel approaching the busy ports of Portsmouth and Southampton, which is normally out of bounds for diving.
Special permission was given by the Queen’s Harbour Master Portsmouth to conduct the underwater survey with diving managed carefully around shipping movements.
The two sections of wreck are in remarkable condition at a depth of about 30m, several hundred metres apart, with anti-aircraft guns and ammunition boxes.
Alison said: “In all there were 13 men aboard LCT 427 and only one of them was recovered that night. Sadly, he died two days later and was officially buried.
“The wreck site is much more than an important historical site, it is the final resting place of 12 brave men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country , and in very tragic circumstances.
“We have therefore been extremely careful to treat the find with the dignity and respect it deserves.
“We believe it would be fitting to hold a memorial service for the 12 men who were officially listed as missing presumed killed.
“We very much want to contact any surviving family of the men, and old comrades, to take them to the location where we could hold a simple memorial service.”
The search has the full backing of Mary Tetley, the Chief Executive of the British Sub-Aqua Club.
She said: ” Southsea Sub-Aqua Club have done admirable work in locating the landing craft so that we can honour the brave crew members who perished so close to home.
“We hope that the memorial service will be an opportunity for their families and remaining comrades to have closure and pay homage to their sacrifice.”
Already one 86-year-old navy veteran who knew a sub-lieutenant on the landing craft has said he would love to attend the service and read a passage from the Bible in memory of former comrades.
As an 18-year-old Midshipman, Paul Butler, from Bledington, Chipping Norton, who was returning that night from the D-Day beaches in LCT 454, knew Sub-Lt Frank Freeman, whom he believes was second-in-command on the LCT 427.
Although he could not see it, Mr Butler believes it may have been the LCT 427 he dispatched a message to that night advising they were changing course because his signalman had spotted “a monster silhouette” far away but coming towards them. He heard the next day that there had been an accident and a landing craft had collided with a battleship.
Mr Butler said: “Those who were left behind must be first and foremost in our thoughts. I am sure a service would appeal to many and, as a practising Christian, I would love to read a passage from the Bible – something I do every day - at any service, although I realise there may be others far more deserving than me.”
He had delivered a cargo of four tanks to the D Day beaches that night. “We came under fire but very modest fire compared with what happened later, because by midday the Germans had woken up to what we were doing.
“I was on watch with my signalman that night we returned and he spotted this monster silhouette coming towards us far away. As a result the only thing to do was to get the Hell out of the area as quick as we could. We sent a signal to the ship on our starboard side and I believe it could have been the 427, but I don’t know for sure.”
LCT 427 was in collision with the battleship HMS Rodney. Wireman Kenneth Sumner, 22, from Wilmslow, Cheshire, was the only crew member recovered from the sea that night but died two days later. His grave is at the Royal Naval Cemetery in Haslar, Gosport. The remaining crew were posted missing presumed killed.
The LST and Landing Craft Association, which has recently held its final meeting because of the advancing years of the members, was consulted about the dive and about the memorial service.
The Association’s archivist and historian, Tony Chapman, said: “It would be nice if we could have a memorial service, if we can trace the relatives of the men lost.
“I’m afraid in many respects they are the forgotten because many of the people who knew them, parents, brothers and sisters, will also be gone by now.
“I have to believe that someone out there knows something about these men and hopefully there are relatives left.
“I am sure there are a substantial number of veterans on the South coast who would want to attend a memorial service in honour of these men.”
Anyone who believes they are related to the missing crew listed below, or served with them, should contact Alison on 07740873255 or through www.southseasubaquaclub.org.uk or the Association archivist Tony Chapman on 011629 20160.