Slapton Sands and Exercise Tiger

Start Bay looking towards Start Point

Slapton Sands and Exercise Tiger

The sweeping arc of coastline between the mouth of the River Dart and Start Point is known as Start Bay, and includes a two-mile-long beach that extends from Blackpool Sands to Hallsands.

The most easily accessible part of the beach is between Strete Gate and Torcross, where a road just manages to separate the freshwater lake of Slapton Ley from the sea, but for how much longer I wouldn’t like to say.

Slapton Sands, as this part of the beach is called, gets its name from the small village of the same name which lies just about a mile inland: Why the beach is called Slapton Sands I have no idea because it consists mainly of shingle and pebbles.

Slapton Ley
Slapton Ley
Slapton Sands

The whole of this section of coastline is included in the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) with a relatively small number of people living in just a few villages, and it was this combination of a large beach and small population that was to have a major impact on the local community back in 1943.

In December of that year around 3,000 people were given 6 weeks to evacuate their homes without any explanation: The reason for all this cloak and dagger stuff was because Slapton Sands had been chosen as the location for Exercise Tiger, a prelude to the D-Day landings in Normandy by United States forces at Utah Beach.

The similarities between Slapton Sands and the proposed landing beach on the Cotentin Peninsula were obviously of paramount importance, but the displacement of just a small number of people must have also been a consideration.

The improvisation of Slapton as Utah Beach would have made complete sense for the exercise, but in the end it all went horribly wrong.

Torcross
Torcross

On 28th April 1944, after a week of successful exercises, disaster struck.

The dress-rehearsal involved Landing Craft, based in Brixham and Plymouth, transporting men and machines around to Slapton to attack the ‘German’ positions that had been hastily erected to mimic the expected reception in France – and to make it seem as real as possible live ammunition was to be used.

The British cruiser HMS Hawkins was to bombard the beach and afterwards the assault troops would wade ashore with defensive positions firing over their heads. It seemed simple enough but H Hour was put back due to the late arrival of some of the Landing Craft. A lack of communication then resulted in the assault troops being on the beach at the same time as the bombardment. The number of fatalities has never really been acknowledged, but possibly as many as 400.

As if this wasn’t bad enough there was another, even more serious incident, taking place. The flotilla of Landing Craft was to be guarded by two British warships in Lyme Bay but in the end only HMS Azalea was available. It wasn’t enough because German E-Boats from Cherbourg had picked up the scent and although Azalea had clocked them, the frequency between the British and American radio signals were on a different wavelength and the landing craft were unaware that they were about to be attacked.

The consequences were catastrophic. Torpedoes from the E Boats did enormous damage to the convoy inflicting hundreds of casualties.

The official death toll for Exercise Tiger is 749, but that could well be a conservative estimate. It’s probably much nearer to a thousand, perhaps more, but whatever the true number is it’s still more than the number of men who fell doing the real thing on Utah Beach.

For many years after the war ended local people still seemed sworn to secrecy, and the episode was never talked about – that was until a local man by the name of Ken Small decided it was time the truth came out.

With help from others he dragged up a Sherman Tank from the seabed and managed to write a book called ‘The Forgotten Dead’ before he died in 2004.

The tank stands proudly on display at Torcross where there’s a roll of honour of those who are known to have died next to it, as well as a plaque dedicated to Ken Small himself.

Ken Small's Sherman Tank
Ken Small's Sherman Tank
Plaque dedicated to Ken Small
Plaque dedicated to Ken Small

Further along the beach towards Slapton village is a monument given by the U.S. army in recognition of the locals who left their homes for the cause, but for many years the event was never officially recognised, confirmed or admitted by the American government or military authorities.

At the base of the column, people lay wreathes for the U.S. troops who should have also been remembered.

Monument from the U.S. Army to the people of the South Hams villages
Monument from the U.S. Army to the people of the South Hams villages

Some people say that what happened at Slapton helped pave the way for a successful assault on D-Day – and they may well be right – but the question still has to be asked as to whether a thousand people needed to die at Slapton first, but perhaps even more to the point, why those lives weren’t seen as being important enough to be officially recognised for so long: If it hadn’t have been for Ken Small, we may not have been any the wiser now. Perhaps that’s how some people wanted it to be.

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23 thoughts on “Slapton Sands and Exercise Tiger

  1. bitaboutbritain

    You’ve covered this really well, Malc – excellent writing – thank you. I also heard that live ammunition was fired from above the beach into troops landing on it? A real cock-up all round – SNAFU as the Americans might have said. Shocking criminal waste of lives.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Thanks Mike. SNAFU sums it up perfectly! If you haven’t seen it, Ken Small’s tank somehow is a more poignant reminder of the events than an official memorial could ever be.

      Reply
  2. Stuart Templeton

    A really interesting article Malcolm with some stunning photos as always. That tribute is really lovely – and very worthy to the efforts of Ken Small.

    I’ve read about Tiger before, and can understand the huge amount of secrecy that surrounded it at the time, as did anything to do with D-day and Operation Overlord. It does seem a bit strange that the lack of recognition has continued but in some ways I can understand it, because if the governments place special recognition on this in particular tragedy – were on earth would they stop?

    It sounds horrible, but at the time it really wasn’t that uncommon. I don’t want to use the term ‘acceptable loss’ because even at the time I suspect the commanders took it badly, but it was part of life. Nearly a 1000 men dying in a training accident to us (with today’s benefit of hindsight) seems like an horrendous tragedy – and it was, but if you consider that the RAF alone lost over 8000 aircrew in training alone, it starts to put it into context. Death was just part of fighting the war.

    Tragedies during the war were not uncommon, Norway, Dieppe, Crete – there are countless deaths that probably could have been avoided, had we know better at the time. Friendly fire incidents were also not uncommon. The Western Allies alone lost nearly a million men during the war – I wonder what percentage of those poor souls were killed needlessly or by our own hands – as I said, where would the government start to apologise for that? So I’m not surprised there’s been no official recognition, it’s not right, but it is in someway understandable – I still can’t believe it took until 2012 to have an official memorial for the men of Bomber Command.

    Every single one of those deaths should be remembered I agree – and I really applaud the work of Mr Small and others like him, because as long as we remember, we care and we keep these people alive in our memories – I suspect that would mean more than anything official.

    Sorry, I went off on a ramble there.

    One last thing I will say though, is that there were a lot of lessons learned in operation Tiger, lessons that were put into place for the landings in Normandy and others that followed. So although tragic, then men that died in Slapton did not die in vain, for their sacrifice helped save the lives of countless more of their comrades on D-Day then had they not occurred.

    It’s just a shame that wasn’t the last costly mistake we made…

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      That’s a very fair assessment of the whole thing Stuart, and I totally agree with everything you’ve said, but I still think it could be acknowledged with an official memorial without any blame being attached

      Reply
      1. Stuart Templeton

        Oh I do fully agree Malcolm, It would be nice to see one, especially after the amount of attention Mr Small has brought to it.
        and it may well still happen – as I said, it took until 2012 for the RAF one to be built – but at least it did get built.

        Reply
  3. Malc Post author

    Nowhere in particular Alli. It looks as though we’ve run out of space in our comments, so this reply will probably end up at the top of the page again.

    Reply
  4. Alli Templeton

    Oh my goodness, Malc, what a terrible thing to have happened. And after all those poor people died they hushed it up. I shouldn’t be surprised really, but I am. I’d never heard of Exercise Tiger before. Good for Ken Small for letting the cat out of the bag and creating such a poignant and fitting memorial.

    It’s a real paradox: such a beautiful and peaceful stretch of coastline with such a tragic and haunting story to tell. I’m glad you’ve told their story too. Great post.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      It’s quite a story isn’t it? For quite a time after Ken Small brought it to our attention, the powers that be failed to admit what had happened. Although it’s more widely known about now, there’s still no official American monument at Slapton

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        Throughout history the Brits have done some terrible things and failed to own up to them, or covered them up. We may be great, but we’ve done some terrible things too. I hope they will sort out an American monument there – it’s only right, especially in view of how many victims there were.

        Reply
        1. Malc Post author

          You’re absolutely right. I can certainly understand why it was all hushed up during wartime, but there’s no real excuse not to honour the sacrifices made now.

          Reply
          1. Alli Templeton

            Exactly. it was a long time ago. But we’ve never been very good at owning up to our misdeeds, preferring to appear as the exemplary nation. However, the truth will, and should, out…

            Reply
            1. Malc Post author

              I often wonder how many stories have gone untold. My one regret is that my dad never told me about the things that happened during his time in the war, but there was obviously quite a few things

              Reply
              1. Alli Templeton

                If he was jumping out of aeroplanes into enemy territory there must have been masses of things that happened to and around him. As you say, so many stories untold, and I agree it’s a shame, as the stories are memorials in themselves, and it doesn’t seem right that they fade into the obscurity of history.

                Reply
                1. Malc Post author

                  Some of the stories from those days must be incredible. On a lighter note, are you going anywhere this weekend?

                  Reply
                  1. Alli Templeton

                    Indeed, I expect they are.

                    As for the weekend, I think it’ll be a bit of a mixed bag. Hoping to get out for a walk in Stratford-upon-Avon tomorrow early evening going out as far as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and back, then ending up in the pub, of course. I know it’s Tudor, but it’s a nice city. I’m also hoping to get some kind of blog post out, but goodness knows what as I’m so bogged down with mountains of revision. Looking back I can’t believe how much we’ve covered in 8 months, and how consequently much I’ve forgotten! Then it’s more revision on Saturday, but on Sunday morning Maddie is sailing again which will be lovely. She’s very excited. 🙂 Incidentally, we watched a programme on the SS Great Britain last night, and it’s amazing life story. Great stuff. 🙂

                    Reply
                    1. Malc Post author

                      A visit to Stratford-upon-Avon sounds lovely, especially with a visit to a pub at the end of it.
                      I know it might be a bit of a pain to have to do revision, but it’ll be worth it in the end, just you wait and see.
                      Now that you’ve seen a programme about the SS Great Britain you won’t need to go now 🙂
                      It sounds like you’ve a busy weekend ahead of you, so I’ll give you a bit of peace and quiet. Enjoy the weekend whatever you end up doing 🙂

                    2. Alli Templeton

                      I know. That’s the idea… Where were you when we talked about it the other day, then? 😉

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