The second memorial on Slapton Sands is a World War Two US Sherman tank salvaged from a sunken landing ship. Its existence is owed primarily to the efforts of one man, Ken Small, as is the knowledge of the tragedy that led to that tank lying beneath nine metres (60 feet) of water off the coast at Slapton Sands.
Ken Small first came to Torcross on holiday and fell in love with the place. When the opportunity came to move there with his family, he sold a successful hair dressing business in Grimsby. Ken bought Cove House in Torcross and ran it as a guest house. He then started to suffer from depression. As part of the process of dealing with this, he started to take long walks along Slapton Sands and took up the pastime of beachcombing. After a storm in 1969, Ken started to find old bullet cases, military tunic buttons, shrapnel and other military pieces amongst the usual antique coins and broken pieces of jewelry. He asked local residents about where the military pieces may have come from and he found out about live fire exercises that had taken place on Slapton Sands in 1944, during World War Two.
One of Ken’s friends was a fisherman who mentioned that there was something sitting on the seabed about a kilometre off shore of Slapton Sands. Ken persuaded his friend to dive down and investigate – and an American Sherman Tank was discovered. Ken decided he wanted to salvage the tank and after years of frustration and persistence, he finally was able to contact the appropriate office in the US government from whom he could purchase the tank (for US$50). Finally, in 1984, Ken managed to raise the tank and place it where it stands today at the south end of Slapton Ley, just outside of the village of Torcross, as a memorial to those US soldiers and sailors who died during the live exercise in April 1944 known as “Exercise Tiger”(also sometimes referred to as “Operation Tiger”).
Ken Small and the salvaged tank on the way in to shore
The newly-salvaged tank arrived on the beach
Plaque on the Tank Memorial
We know about Exercise Tiger primarily because of Ken Small. Ken’s son, Dean Small, explained (from a Western Morning News article in 26 April 2014): “As Ken learned more about Exercise Tiger and the terrible death toll, he decided to recover the tank and dedicate it as a memorial to those who lost their lives. After some years of negotiating with the American government, contacting US veterans around the world and even speaking to members of the E-Boat crews who torpedoed the convoy, Ken finally achieved his objective in May 1984. As soon as the tank was out of the water the story went international and he received countless letters from veterans and their families and was officially thanked by US President Ronald Reagan.”
Ken was encouraged to write a book about the whole story of Exercise Tiger and the men who died. His book, “The Forgotten Dead”, was published by Bloomsbury in 1988. The following is a brief outline of the history he uncovered:
On the evening of 27 April 1944, Exercise Tiger involved a number of LSTs travelling out to sea and then making a landing at Slapton Sands. An LST is a “Landing Ship, Tank” – a flat bottomed four and a half thousand tons assault ship capable of carrying several hundred men, lorries and tanks, somewhat like a large vehicle ferry. German torpedo boats were known to patrol the English Channel at night but the British vessels tasked to protect the LSTs failed to communicate their sighting of a number of such boats in the vicinity. Eight LSTs were attacked, two were sunk and another was badly damaged. In all, 749 American soldiers and sailors died that night, with another 200 lost at other times during Exercise Tiger due to other mistakes, such as soldiers landing during mistimed naval bombardment of the beach (see here for the full story).
Painting by Ted Archer of the attack on US LSTs during Exercise Tiger, 27/28 April 1944
LST289 was severely damaged in the stern from a torpedo and limped back to port
“COAST” SEGMENT ON EXERCISE TIGER: Below is an extract from a BBC Coast programme on Exercise Tiger – the first 3 minute 50 seconds is about the Evacuation (including an interview with an evacuee), then the training exercises on Slapton Sands are dealt with, the topic of Exercise Tiger starting at 4 minutes 15 seconds (including an interview with a survivor whose tale is horrifying at times):
More details of the story of Ken Small, his discovery of the secret history of Exercise Tiger, and his purchase and salvage of the Sherman tank for a memorial to those who died.
A video of a tribute to Ken Small by a British historian in 2013.
MORE INTERNET MATERIAL: Significant internet material on Exercise Tiger can be found as follows: Exercise Tiger Trust, including a historical document archive, list of YouTube videos on Exercise Tiger, and the full Roll of Honour of those who were killed; Exercise Tiger Remembered, a small voluntary group mainly from Devon; Exercise Tiger Memorial, a website of a non-profit organisation dedicated to the remembrance of the American soldiers and sailors who perished on April 28, 1944, and in support of The Sherman Tank Memorial Site; “The D-Day rehearsal that cost 800 lives” by Claire Jones, 30 May 2014, a BBC News Online story providing an overview of Exercise Tiger; “The Slapton Sands Tragedy”, an article by Kim Seabrook; “US Troop Exercises at Slapton Sands”, an article in By The Dart website, 2010; “The Tragedy at Slapton Sands”, a May 2016 post on A Wee Walk, a blog by David Brown; “Slapton Sands Tank” page on “Submerged”, a website on ship-wrecks in Plymouth and Devon started by Peter Mitchell. On the 75th anniversary of Operation Tiger in 2019, an interesting and informative article has been published in the Daily Mail Australia.
YOUTUBE: “World War II Americas Secret D Day Disaster” – an excellent 46 minute US-made documentary aired on the Smithsonian Channel; Original footage of landing exercises at Slapton Sands; More original footage of the 1944 exercises; A third segment of footage on the 1944 exercises; Drone-shot footage of Slapton Ley and Slapton Sands as the context to the Tank Memorial; “Exercise Tiger Video Trailer 2014”, a 13 minute clip with many different aspects of the Exercise, its commemorations, the people who were involved; “History File 06 – Exercise Tiger and the Battle of Lyme Bay” – a 6 minute home-made account of Exercise Tiger, supported by great photos and historical research;
BOOKS: Among the important books on Exercise Tiger are: “The Forgotten Dead” by Ken Small and Mark Rogerson (1988); “Exercise Tiger: The Dramatic True Story of a Hidden Tragedy of World War II” by Nigel Lewis (1990); and “Exercise Tiger:The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Silent Few” by Wendy Lawrence (2015).
See also the following Tumblestone Posts: Slapton Sands, Part One: A Visit, Mid-2016; Slapton Sands, Part Two: The Protective Significance of the Shingle Beach; Slapton Sands, Part Three: The Historical Significance of a Shingle Beach – The 1943-44 Evacuation; Slapton Sands, Part Five: Beach Stones in the Rough; Slapton Sands, Part Six: The Beach Stones Polished; “Exercise Tiger” 75th Memorial on Slapton Sands; and More on the 75th Anniversary Commemorations of “Exercise Tiger” on Slapton Sands.