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.
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 the 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.
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.)