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.
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.
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.
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.
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.