More on the 75th Anniversary Commemorations of “Exercise Tiger” on Slapton Sands

Slapton “Sands” is, ironically, a pebble beach, in Devon. I first visited it in 2016 and noticed the large tank situated at the south end of Slapton Ley. This led me to undertake some research into the history of the beach during World War Two. On 28 April 1944, a large number of US servicemen were killed off Slapton Sands during preparations for the D-Day landings. I have set out the details of this in a previous Post.  The 75th Anniversary of this tragedy took place recently. The four photos at the top of this Post were taken by the US Embassy in London during the Anniversary Ceremony.

The following are reports of the Anniversary which include material on the beach, the Exercise in 1944, and the ceremonies that took place in 2019.

A BBC news report (1 minute 41 seconds long):

Another BBC Report (4 minutes 50 seconds long), with a cross-over to a live reporter on the scene:

CBS News Report (2 minutes 47 seconds long):

Video clip of the Ceremony on Slapton Sands, from Devon Live (31 minutes 19 seconds), along with an article – click here.

Shorter video clip (42 seconds) of the Ceremony, from Devon Live, with a more detailed historical article – click here.

One of the moving speeches from the Anniversary Ceremony can be found here (7 minutes 48 seconds), made by US Rear Admiral David Manero (Defense Attache, US Embassy, London), along with other video clips related to Exercise Tiger.  

Previous TumbleStone Posts on Slapton Sands include: Slapton Sands, Part One: A Visit, Mid-2016Slapton Sands, Part Two: The Protective Significance of the Shingle BeachSlapton Sands, Part Three: The Historical Significance of a Shingle Beach – The 1943-44 EvacuationSlapton Sands, Part Five: Beach Stones in the Rough; and Slapton Sands, Part Six: The Beach Stones Polished.

Slapton Sands, Part Four: The Tragedy of “Exercise Tiger”

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.  

slapton-torcross-sherman-tank06

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”).

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).  

“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 BeachSlapton Sands, Part Three: The Historical Significance of a Shingle Beach – The 1943-44 EvacuationSlapton Sands, Part Five: Beach Stones in the RoughSlapton 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.

Slapton Sands, Part Three: The Historical Significance of a Shingle Beach – The 1943-44 Evacuation

There are two memorials at Slapton Sands. The first is a large granite obelisk that stands at the north end of Slapton Ley, mid-way between Strete and Torcross. Presented by the United States in 1954, it refers to the time when the area was evacuated in 1943 and 1944 to enable military exercises as practices for the landings in Normandy.  

The Memorial reads: “This memorial was presented by the United States army authorities to the people of the South Hams who generously left their homes and their lands to provide a battle practice area for the successful assault in Normandy in June 1944. Their action resulted in the saving of many hundreds of lives and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operation. The area included the villages of Blackawton, Chillington, East Allington, Slapton, Stokenham, Strete and Torcross together with many outlying farms & houses.” [As Muriel and David Murch and Len Fairweather note on page 37 of their book, “The American Forces at Salcombe and Slapton during World War Two” (1984), the village of Sherford was inadvertently omitted from the Memorial.] 

As early as 1938, then-Brigadier Bernard Law Montgomery was pressing for a combined forces (Army, Navy and Air Force) amphibious landing exercise to be held in the summer of that year, in the light of the rise of Hitler. This was to be the first exercise of its kind since Gallipoli in 1915. The plans for the exercise, to be held at Slapton Sands, were meticulous and included a 15-foot model of the Slapton shoreline. The men were brought ashore in cutters and whalers and in lifeboats. Guns, tanks and lorries were landed from flat-bottomed craft. Tracks of heavy canvass with a heavy wire mesh were laid on the shingle to the water’s edge and these proved sufficient to get machinery across the beach. (Source for this paragraph – clicking on this brings up a pdf of an Information Display from Slapton Village.) In her book “The Land Changed its Face: The Evacuation of the South Hams 1943-44” (1973), Grace Bradbeer reports that these exercises (which did not include live firing) were so successful that what had been planned to take place over five days were all completed in one (page 38).

In the long-term planning  for the D-Day landings, amphibious landing training was needed, especially for fresh inexperienced US forces. The subsequent choice of Slapton Sands as the location for D-Day training in 1943-1944 was credited as largely the doing of Montgomery who spotted the similarities in the topography of the area to Normandy’s “Utah” beach. In order to preserve secrecy and security, the villages of Blackawton, Chillington, East Allington, Sherford, Slapton, Stokeham, Strete and Torcross were evacuated of all residents and their possessions – an area of 30,000 acres and a total of 3,000 residents. Only six weeks notice was given. The evacuation area was as follows:

slapton-evac-area

As pointed out by one source, this rural, agricultural area had been largely unaffected by the war up until then. Few households had telephones or motor cars and many people had never travelled further away than 15 to 20 kilometres in their entire lives. In addition to the residents it was necessary to consider the movement of farm machinery, crops, livestock, and family pets. There are many personal stories of upheaval and tragedy surrounding this mass evacuation but the common response of the inhabitants was to follow the instructions of authorities “without explanation or argument”. It was accepted that it was for the greater good, to assist the vital war effort.

Just recently, some archive movie footage of the evacuation from the US National Archives Video Collection has been posted on YouTube. This 11 minute segment shows US Army vehicles in Slapton and its surrounding area, and then shows the loading of evacuees’ household belongings onto trucks:

A documentary film, “Evacuation”, was made  just a few years ago. The story of the evacuation is told largely in the words of seven local residents who were children at the time, mixing in photographs and previously unseen archive footage. The production was put together by local film-maker Ian Phillips and funded by the Slapton Line Partnership, South Devon Areas of Outstanding National Beauty and The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. The following is an 11 minute extract from the 70 minute film:

A number of practice landings by US soldiers took place at Slapton Sands during early 1944, usually with live ammunition being fired across the beach as the landing craft came in. It has been said that more casualties happened on this practice beach than on the actual Utah Beach landings on D-Day. 

“The Evacuation of the South Hams” is an October 2010 article to be found on the “By The Dart” website which is published by South Devon Magazines.

“The Land We Left Behind: A Pictorial History and Memories of the War Years in the South Hams – Produced To Commemorate the 60th Anniversary of D-Day” by  Robin Rose-Price & Jean Parnell is a 96 page local history booklet published in 2004. It provides the evacuees’ viewpoint.

The second memorial to be found on Slapton Sands is the subject of the next Post on this beach.

See also the following Tumblestone Posts: Slapton Sands, Part One: A Visit, Mid-2016Slapton Sands, Part Two: The Significance of the Shingle BeachSlapton Sands, Part Four: The Tragedy of “Exercise Tiger”; 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.

Slapton Sands, Part Two: The Protective Significance of the Shingle Beach

The shingle bar that makes up Slapton Sands, across which the A379 runs, and which protects the freshwater body of Slapton Ley, was deposited about 5,000 years ago. Further deposition has not happened since – any part of the coast washed away is not replaced by natural processes. Recent visitors will see significant signs of erosion along this part of the coast. For example, the beach car park, not far from Slapton village, is clearly being eaten away by the waves when the sea is rougher. Here is a view of the carpark in 2014 from Google Maps streetview, where erosion is not apparent. The following YouTube clips show the effects of a great storm early in 2014, including erosion along the beach:

A year later, 27,000 tonnes of shingle, deposited as a coastal defence measure, were washed away in one day, only three weeks after being put in place: 

Just two or three kilometres to the south of Slapton Sands, at Hallsands, most of the shingle beach was removed in the late 1890s as building material for Devonport dockyards, leaving the village exposed to storms. It was struck by a storm in 1917 and most of the village was washed away. A local historian tells the tale of Hallsands in the following way:

In 1917 a huge bank of shingle was removed from about two miles off Hallsands, just south of Torcross, to help in the construction of a new breakwater at Plymouth harbour. W hen the next gale came, this vacuum filled with a gigantic wave  which swept wildly inshore , up the beach, and completely engulfed the little fishing village of about twenty cottages. Even those cottages which were built higher up in the cliffs were affected, but happily no lives were lost. The vilage was never inhabited again, save by one occupant, the daughter of a fisherman. She had been born in the cottage, up on the cliff, which had always been her home, and soon after the disaster she returned to live alone, the only occupant of this ghost village. There she stayed until her death in 1970. (Grace Bradbeer, 1973, “The Land Changed its Face; The Evacuation of the South Hams 1943-44”, page 30.)

The view of Hallsands on Google Maps today  shows houses atop cliffs – the original village was at the foot of these cliffs. Will Torcross be spared the same fate? The following YouTube clip from a “Britain is Great” TV programme tells the story of the importance of the shingle beaches of South Devon:

See also the following Tumblestone Posts: Slapton Sands, Part One: A Visit, Mid-2016; Slapton Sands, Part Three: The Historical Significance of a Shingle Beach – The 1943-44 Evacuation; Slapton Sands, Part Four: The Tragedy of “Exercise Tiger”;  Slapton Sands, Part Five: Beach Stones in the RoughSlapton Sands, Part Six: The Beach Stones Polished.

Slapton Sands, Part One: A Visit, Mid-2016

In mid-2016 a visit was made to some beaches on the south coast of England. One of these beaches was Slapton Sands, about 45 kms east of Plymouth. Driving through the village of Slapton, you come out to the coast just north of Slapton Ley, the largest natural freshwater lake in south-west England, being 2.4 kms (1.5 miles) long. The Ley is separated from the ocean by a bar of shingle, known as the Slapton Line, with Slapton Sands being the 4.8 kms (3 miles) long shingle beach on the ocean side. 

Below are two views northwards of Slapton Sands from the village of Torcross, just a couple of kilometres south of where the above photos were taken. The first photo was taken in 2012 and is from the Flickr account of Mark Coleman, with the second photo being from the “Essentially England” website page on Slapton Sands:

A two minute YouTube clip of Slapton Ley, Slapton Sands and its local region, mainly from an aerial drone, produced by the Field Studies Council. It includes views of the Field Studies Council’s Slapton Ley field centre, the Start Bay field centre, and Slapton Ley Nature Reserve.

A two minute YouTube clip posted in 2016 by Cornwall and Devon TV, on Slapton Sands for tourists – very beautiful.

A six minute YouTube clip of a person’s visit to Slapton Sands in 2011, showing Slapton Ley and its birdlife, the beach, and surrounding features.

The history of the Slapton Ley and Sands area is presented on the website of the Slapton Line Partnership, going back 100,000 years – click on the small circles under the timeline.

See also the following Tumblestone Posts: Slapton Sands, Part Two: The Protective Significance of the Shingle BeachSlapton Sands, Part Three: The Historical Significance of a Shingle Beach – The 1943-44 Evacuation; Slapton Sands, Part Four: The Tragedy of “Exercise Tiger”; Slapton Sands, Part Five: Beach Stones in the Rough;  Slapton Sands, Part Six: The Beach Stones Polished

“The Pebbles on the Beach” by Clarence Ellis (1954/1965)

This book was first published in 1954 (this paperback edition appeared in 1965) but in many ways it is the best book I have so far encountered on the topic of beach stones. It is 20 cm by 13 cm and has 163 pages. Published by Faber and Faber of London, it deals with beach pebbles in the UK but most of its content is relevant to many other localities. This is particularly so of the first four chapters about the beach processes that shape pebbles and the different kinds of  pebbles.

There are four colour plates of stones with accompanying interpretive diagrams labeling and describing each stone. Many of these stones can be found in New Zealand too. 

I bought this book for NZ$26 (including postage) through Amazon, and it came from Langdon e-traders, a UK charity business established in 2014 to employ and support young men and women with disabilities.