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Sands Assault Exercises
28 April 1944
The Army's Best Kept Secret
In the fall of 1943, an area of land on the southwest coast of England, just south of Dartmouth and known as Devon, was ordered to be evacuated of all civilians. All people, livestock, equipment and personal belongings were to be totally evacuated by 20 December 1943.
This particular area of land on the coast, known as "Slapton Sands", (30,000 acres), inhabited by about 3,000 people, very closely resembled the proposed Utah Beach invasion and landing area in Normandy, France, and was to be utilized by the "U-Force" in practicing for the actual invasion scheduled later, on Utah Beach.
This area was totally and completely sealed off to civilians, once they had evacuated the area, and only those military personnel with special permits were allowed into and out of the area.
The local people, those who had been moved, and those in the surrounding area where the locals had been relocated to, were sworn to secrecy as to the reason for their movement.
There was also an "O-Force", which was also doing similar practice landings for the scheduled invasion on Omaha Beach. This "O-Force" was engaged in their practice landings further to the east in the vicinity of Littlehampton.
"Exercise Tiger" as it was named, was planned to take place from 22 - 29 April 1944. Assault Force "O" was made up of the following major units: 1st Infantry Division and the 29th Infantry Division, with support from some other units, one of which was the 743rd Tank Battalion, which was an integral part of the 30th Infantry Division. Assault Force "U" was headed up by the 4th Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division, also with support from some other units.
Each of these Assault Forces were undergoing intensive practice assault landings on their respective beaches, and infiltrating inland to certain objectives. These exercises were conducted to test various pieces of equipment; how to prepare this equipment with waterproofing; procedures in demolition of various types of obstacles in preparation for the actual landings; attacking a given target or objective, and to test the efficiency and preparedness of the 'small unit', and to use this experience to make modifications to the equipment being tested as well as checking on procedures and methods of attack.
Upon completion of these preliminary small unit practice assaults, the next stage of training was scheduled for whole unit assault forces, which would engage in full scale rehearsals of the actual proposed invasion landings on Utah or Omaha Beaches.
Landing craft were assigned from various bases along the south Devon coast, to carry troops and equipment on a sea journey of the same length and time as it would take to cross the English Channel to Normandy, France.
Troops were assembled in the marshalling areas, briefed on their mission, and then loaded aboard their respective landing crafts. Everything was loaded in proper order according to its use and mission, as it would be for the real operation.
The sea journey was to be covered by adequate air support, and under the control of the U. S. Navy.
The de-embarkation and landing was also to be covered with air and naval support, preceded by a preparatory bombing of the coastal area, while the troops were being taken towards the shore in the early hours of the morning.
So, the stage was set!
This first rehearsal was very successful - up to this point, and a number of lessons in coordination were learned, which were then applied to the actual invasion.
One incident, however, marred this well planned event.
Two German E-Boat flotillas, numbering nine (9) boats, managed to pass through the defense line set up to protect this 'invasion armada'. There had been some unanticipated last minute changes made, resulting in a weakness in the security. It was called a "calculated risk". These German E-Boats thereby 'stumbled on' the exercise taking place during the early morning hours of darkness, and they fired several torpedoes at these landing crafts.
Two Landing Craft Infantry (LCI), full of troops, and one Landing Craft Tank (LCT), loaded with heavy equipment, were sunk quickly, resulting in the death of 749 U.S. soldiers, and 197 U.S. Navy men. This was more than were actually killed on Utah Beach during the actual invasion on 6 June 1944.
Almost immediately, almost all personnel, Army & Navy, were sworn to secrecy about this incident. Some were told that they were not only sworn to secrecy for the duration, but "for the rest of your natural lives"!
The German E-Boats were aware that they had sunk some landing craft, but fortunately they did not conclude that they had stumbled upon such a "top secret" practice invasion landing, or the magnitude of it.
The loss of these craft were extremely critical to the Operation Overlord, as those particular craft were already in short supply.
So, with appropriate replacements brought into these units to build them back up to Table of Organization strength, they continued practice assault landings - all under live fire. Their practicing time had come to an end and they were ready for the real invasion on 6 June 1944 on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France.
Now, it so happened that our U.S. Air Force did not give this Exercise Tiger the appropriate amount of aerial support and surveillance which had been planned.
At this same time, in the early hours of the morning, an RAF patrol was passing overhead and spotted the German E-Boats 1-1/2 to 2 hours prior to their intercepting the craft in the flotilla of Exercise Tiger. One pilot reported this to his airbase - in adequate time for evasive action to be taken, but this information was never passed on to the flotilla. The pilot was ordered to take no action, but to return to his base with the rest of the patrol. Contrary to these orders, he broke away and fired a few rockets at the E-Boats, possibly sinking or damaging two or more of them.
All through the many years following the war, no mention was ever made referring to this incident.
Many inquiries were made to the U.S. War Department concerning this incident, but each one was answered by the same "cliché" response, that this NEVER happened!
In July 1954, the U. S. Army presented to the people of this area, a granite obelisk monument with a bronze plaque, "thanking the people of the south Hams area, who generously left their homes and land, to provide a secret battle practice area, for the successful assault on Normandy on 6 June 1944".
No mention was ever made about the "Slapton Sands" incident, whereby 749 U.S. soldiers and 197 U. S. sailors perished at this site! Still total denial after all of these years!!
until some years later, about 1972, a young man, Kenneth Ssmall, having an inkling
that "something had gone wrong" in the short time frame, prior to the
invasion, that he started doing some research on it. He got this inkling when,
while beach-combing in this area, long after the war was over, he found many small
artifacts that had washed ashore during the intervening years.
After considerable correspondence with the U. S. War Department, several trips to the U.S.A., to lobby with Pentagon officials, and their continual denials that any such incident ever happened, Mr. Small started his own serious research in depth, based only on his intuition and his personal recovery of the many artifacts washed ashore in the immediate area.
Many forays were made in small boats out into the projected exercise area, and using sounding devices and drag lines, he finally located a small area with a large amount of debris, consisting of many huge pieces that he could not move.
Upon confronting the U. S. War Department again, with this new information, and pinpointing the coordinates of this find, it was still denied, with the suggestion that it was perhaps some old fishing vessel or possibly a German submarine that had been sunk in a storm. No records of any such American incident in this area!!
Not satisfied with this, Ken Small went about promoting his idea to salvage some of this "unknown equipment". He was able to raise funds to enable him to engage the services of a marine salvage company.
They began work in the area, retrieving many small pieces of wreckage, and after a few days, they lucked up on a "big find". It was a real big and heavy piece - perhaps the hull of one of the LCI's, but No, it was a Sherman tank!! A diver was engaged, and it was found that there were 'several' tanks, artillery pieces and several vehicles in the area on the bottom of the sea.
The Sherman Tank was retrieved and brought ashore, and at this time, Ken Small and a crew, started cleaning the 40+ years of sea-bottom debris from the tank, and soon found the unit ID's and the motor serial numbers!! It was then determined that this tank was from the 743rd Tank Battalion!!!
Armed with all of this data and photographs, Mr. Small again confronted the U. S. War Department with these facts. Lo and Behold! The War Department then did admit that such an incident "may have happened", but their records were not complete as to ID's etc.
Mr. Small paid the American authorities $50.00 for this Sherman Tank, after spending thousands of dollars (Pounds), in raising, recovering and refurbishing this tank.
Soon after the actual disaster, many bodies were washed ashore, many of whom were not identifiable by our Graves Registration Unit. All of those bodies recovered, are buried in the American Military Cemetery at Brookwood, Surrey, England.
Only in November, 1987, was a granite monument with a bronze plaque erected and dedicated with full military honors by the U.S. Government, at the site where the Sherman Tank is now resting. This event was attended by over 2,500 U. S. & British people, many of whom were the 4th Infantry Division survivors and next of kin to those who were lost.
This plaque was dedicated to all of those men who sacrificed their lives in this catastrophe, for the Liberty and Freedom of the people of Western Europe.
This is the only monument ever set up to honor the dead soldiers and sailors, who died before the battle for Europe had begun.
So ends this story of the tragic epic of "Slapton Sands", England.
Frank W. Towers
30th Inf. Div.
Copyright, Frank W. Towers, 2003
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