Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Forgotten Dead by Ken Small and Mark Rogerson

On June the 6th, 1944 some 23,250 US troops were safely landed on the Normandy beach codenamed ‘Utah’. Unlike their compatriots on the neighbouring ‘Omaha’ beach, the men on Utah were comparatively lucky and met with little resistance.

Officially, there were approximately 200 casualties.

The true cost of the Utah landings was, however, far higher – but that drama wasn’t played out on a Normandy beach. It happened on a beautiful stretch of the English coastline in South Devon, in the spring.

The Forgotten Dead is the full story of what happened on the night of the 27th/28th of April 1944 at Slapton Sands.

It’s also the story of an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing; and it all started because he was depressed and went beachcombing.

At the end of 1943 the entire civilian population of the South Hams area of Devon was evacuated. The order came down from the War Office and the reason given was ‘troop training’. Ken Small takes over the story:

Slapton and its surrounding area became the focus for intensive military activity, with the establishment of observation and defence posts, roadblocks, gun emplacements and fortifications. Roads were straightened, gates removed, gardens trampled down … all local people apart from civil defence officials were barred and the US troops were banned from talking to outsiders. Secrecy and suspicion dominated the coast. The troops’ purpose became a little clearer to the locals when the stories started to leak out of night-time explosions and seaborne activity, not that they knew the code-words or the details, of course. Because this was the series of landings which would lead up to Exercise Tiger, the main rehearsal for the Utah Beach landings, set for the 27th of April.

The plan was to stage real landings, in full, as they would happen on the day. Landing craft would try to land troops while shore-based and naval batteries would try to stop them. Because there were worries about the battle-hardness of the largely inexperienced officers and men, the decision was taken to use live ammunition, to be fired in front of and over the heads of the men.

Things soon started going terribly wrong. A communications breakdown caused by typographical errors in the radio frequencies being used triggered chaos. Critical timings went awry, troops fired on each other without realizing they were using live ammunition, panic spread, and the death toll started to mount. Then, just when it must have seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

The first landings after the bombardment were made on the morning of the 27th of April, and unloading of the troops proceeded through that day. They were to be followed up with another wave of landings from a convoy of eight Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) – large, shallow-draft transports capable of carrying both troops and military hardware.

LST Group 32 should have been accompanied by a destroyer, HMS Scimitar, and a corvette, HMS Azalea. The Scimitar however had sustained minor damage earlier in the operation, and was in port for repairs. The convoy therefore only had the small and lightly-armed corvette for company. The replacement destroyer arrived too late.

The typing error meant that the LSTs were on a different frequency to both the corvette and headquarters ashore. When a pack of German E-boats was sighted in Lyme Bay, the warning message never reached the LSTs. They were quite literally sitting ducks.

Few of the men on the LSTs had any idea of what the correct emergency procedures were. They were mostly young – scarcely more than boys – untried and untested, and in the dark and the confusion, they understandably panicked. The life preservers they were given were designed to be worn under the arms, but the equipment the troops were loaded down with meant that it was easier to fasten them around the waist – lethally altering the body’s centre of gravity and drowning the wearer. Lifeboats jammed in rusted winches. The litany goes on.

The result was inevitable and appalling. A total of 749 US troops were killed in the E-boat attack. Those who didn’t die from their injuries succumbed to hypothermia before they could be rescued.

In all, Exercise Tiger resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,000 US troops.

It would, of course, have been disastrous for morale had news of what had happened got out . . . and so it was hidden, deep within Whitehall and the Pentagon, not so much covered up but, as Ken Small says ‘conveniently forgotten’.

Inevitably rumours circulated of ‘something’ having happened on the south coast . . . an attempted invasion repelled was the most popular theory . . . but all through the 50s and most of the 60s, the secret of Slapton Sands remained buried. Gradually, however, people began to piece the evidence together. The Sands were a treasure trove for beachcombers. Bullets, rings, pendants, shrapnel, shell cases, military buttons … after a storm there was no telling what would be uncovered.

Ken Small took up beachcombing to combat his depression. The value of his finds more than covered the cost of his first metal detector, but his instincts told him that something was wrong. It just ‘didn’t feel right’ finding so many personal possessions. When he spoke to a local fisherman about it, he was told about thePhoto credit - Watt Dabney, on Flickr. military manoeuvres in the bay and the persistent rumours that something terrible had happened. He also said that there was a wreck of some sort just offshore, upon which fishing boats snagged their nets. His curiosity piqued, Small went out with the fisherman and a couple of divers – and discovered that the wreck was, in fact, a Sherman tank.

What followed is the most extraordinary story of an obsession that would consume his entire life, cost him thousands of pounds and end his marriage.

He decided to buy the tank, bring it to the surface and uncover the truth of what actually happened on Slapton Sands. His quest eventually took him all the way to the office of deputy US Defence Secretary William Taft. Amazingly, the Pentagon released to him every document they had on Slapton Sands and The Forgotten Dead contains a detailed blow-by-blow account of the fate of each of the LSTs and the people on them. As word spread of what he was doing, survivors came to him with their stories, many of which are repeated in the book. They make chilling reading.

The story of how he finally managed to raise the tank and place it on the foreshore at Slapton as a memorial to the men who died takes up a large part of the second half of the book and is told with a certain lugubrious humour. It’s hard, for instance, not to smile when he informs you that his wife more or less cited the Sherman tank as co-respondent in the divorce proceedings.

Why did he do it? He has no idea really … but hundreds of families in the US are grateful to him for revealing the truth of how their fathers, brothers and sons really died.

The style of the writing is a little cumbersome at times – but it gets the job done with clarity and sincerity and never gets in the way of the story it’s telling.

Baby Dinosaur on FlickrAnd what of the dead?

They were buried for the duration in temporary mass graves in the area, then exhumed and reinterred in the beautiful American Cemetery at Madingley in Cambridgeshire. There are, of course, those who claim that some of them still lie beneath the fields of South Devon. There’s no proof either way, but if you ever visit Slapton Sands, it could do no harm to tread softly.

Bloomsbury. 2004. ISBN: 0-7475-0433-4. 241pp.

(Photo credits: The Tank at Slapton Sands is by Watt Dabney and American Cemetery is by Baby Dinosaur – both from Flickr.)

(The disaster at Slapton Sands featured in the final episode of the popular wartime drama series Foyle’s War, as discussed by Jay Benedict in his interview on Vulpes in July.  You may read the interview here.)

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21 comments on “The Forgotten Dead by Ken Small and Mark Rogerson

  1. Lisa
    June 27, 2008

    Moira, I spent many a summer at Slapton Sands, mostly for the sea swimming, and used to walk warily past that tank, not knowing much about the disaster that had happened there. A horrifying story. That so much could go wrong beggars belief. Thanks for this thoughtful review.

  2. marygm
    June 27, 2008

    A chilling review, Moira. It’s incredible how disposable the lives of men become in war. Thank you for this.

  3. Mark Thwaite
    June 27, 2008

    Goodness me. Had no idea about any of this. Excellent review. Thanks for it.

  4. Jackie
    June 27, 2008

    Considering how powerful your review is, I can only imagine how much more so the book is. What an amazing story. So many lives lost because of stupid and simple mistakes. I’m glad that Ken Small had the backbone to follow through with his instincts, despite the cost to his personal life. This is such an interesting subject on so many levels. And the poetry in which you ended your review was fitting.

  5. Leena
    June 29, 2008

    Chilling is the right word… and that last picture is so sad but beautiful.

    Your reviews are always more than just reviews, Moira…

  6. Jackie
    June 29, 2008

    That was poetic, yourself, Leena and very true. Sometimes Moira is very Yoda-ish.

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  8. Andreas
    July 19, 2008

    The former Deputy Chief Historian of the US Army, writing on the US Navy website, has a different view on the question of whether there was a cover-up:

    http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq20-2.htm

    From “Cross-Channel Attack”, the official history published in 1953:

    STARTS
    The assault exercises were held at Slapton Sands on the coast of Devon southwest of Dartmouth under conditions simulating as closely as possible those expected in the actual operations. As a result of the exercises certain minor technical improvements were made, but the basic organization and the techniques as worked out at the Assault Training Center were unchanged.

    Amid all the simulation there came one serious note of war. One of the convoys of exercise TIGER was attacked by two German E-boat flotillas totaling nine boats.3 Losses were heavier than those suffered by Force U during the actual invasion. Two LST’s were sunk and one damaged. About 700 men lost their lives.4 The loss of three LST’s to the OVERLORD assault lift was particularly critical in view of the general shortage of landing craft. General Eisenhower reported to the Combined Chiefs of Staff that the sinkings reduced the reserve of LST’s to nothing.5 The Germans realized that they had sunk landing craft but guessed that the craft had been participating in an exercise.6 The incident passed without repercussions.
    ENDS

    Great review of what appears to be a flawed book.

    http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/7-4/7-4_8.htm

    All the best

    Andreas

  9. Moira
    July 19, 2008

    Hello Andreas,

    Welcome to Vulpes and thank you very much for the link and the quote.

    In fact, the book doesn’t suggest that there was a cover up. If I gave that impression, I did Ken Small an injustice.

    What the book said was that – in the immediate lead-up to D-Day – the news was suppressed because of the effect it would have had on morale. An entirely sensible decision.

    (In fact, it wasn’t – and couldn’t be – completely suppressed. My 86 year old mother remembers news spreading of ‘something’ happening on the south coast with massive loss of life … she says the gossip at the time was that it was an attempted invasion that was fought off.)

    Subsequently, it wasn’t so much covered up as just forgotten as people set about trying to piece their lives back together again – hence the book’s title. No-one really asked, and no-one volunteered the information …

  10. Andreas
    July 21, 2008

    Hello Moira

    That’s my misunderstanding then! I read ‘buried’ as ‘buried by the authorities’, not ‘buried in memory’. :)

    All the best

    Andreas

  11. Moira
    July 21, 2008

    That’s probably also me not making myself clear in the first place! :mrgreen:

  12. Grognard
    July 30, 2008

    Try reading Slapton Sands:The Coverup That Never Was.
    The Navy listed 198 lost and The Army 551 lost for an actual total loss of life as 749 soldiers and sailors. Stars and Stripes published an article in the August 7, 1944 edition. The information was only withheld until after the actual invasion. Anyone who has ever served in the military knows how they operate and the “coverup” has more to due with “military intelligence” than anything else. Does make for a good story for those who believe in conspiracy (right wing and otherwise).

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  14. GRAHAM
    November 20, 2008

    Just read the book AMAZING. An amazing man ken small. Such a loss to humanity. God rest.

  15. David Reynolds
    August 12, 2011

    Hello-Do I gather Ken Small has passed away as I was hoping to meet with him? I’m very interested in his amazing account following years of research in this incredibly sad story. I recently visited Slapton Sands, the obelisk and the tank, Captivating location especially viewed from the Strete side cliff-top road approach as the sands curve away towards Torcross.

  16. Moira
    August 12, 2011

    Hello David,

    Thank you for your interest and your comment. Yes, I’m afraid that Ken Small died six or seven years ago after a long fight with cancer.

    Moira

  17. Dr.Roger dagg-Heston
    March 20, 2012

    I was very lucky to have a signed copy of his book 0n 21 June 2001…he was ” The Saint in Black” totally dedicated …in the boot of his car, in which he sat every day next to the tank,was a framed letter from Ronald Regan thanking him and acknowledging his good work…i recommend the book very srongly,especially if you are a person who reads between the lines…Ken made historical facts available to the man in the street…God bless his soul…

  18. Andrea
    September 2, 2012

    Listend to the cd on our coach trip within Devon area and cried soo much ..I want to read this book and my kids read it and grandchildren to pass it on ..god bless you Ken Small Rip xx

  19. Andrea
    September 16, 2012

    I have got the book Ken Small your legacy lives on so grateful for what you had portrayed and am settling down to read before it does the family and friends circle x

  20. Dr.Roger dagg-Heston
    November 16, 2012

    many lessons to be learned from this book, least is the futility of wars…we should rise above the destructive instinct of humans killing each other and being victims of reptilian evil humanoids who have the reigns of power…peace on earth…

  21. Tony HILL
    October 5, 2014

    Ken was a policeman in Grimsby in the 1960′s before he moved to Devon. I have spoken to some of the old retired policemen at Grimsby in what was a “Borough Force”, and some can still remember him. I myself retired from the force in 2001, having served 15 years at Grimsby and 15 at Cleethorpes. I have purchased two copies of “the forgotten dead” and one is now in the hands of one of the retired “Borough Men”.

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This entry was posted on June 27, 2008 by in Entries by Moira, Non-fiction: history and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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