An account, written in the 1970s, of the American Forces assault exercise held at Slapton Sands in 1944 as a rehearsal for part of the D-Day landings in France, by Arthur L. Clamp. [ Curator ]
Account of Exercise Tiger
by Arthur L Clamp
Thirty years and more have passed since American combat troops used Slapton Sands and the neighbouring countryside for full scale rehearsal exercises in preparation for the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, which eventually led to the collapse of Hitler’s Germany and peace in Europe. This area of coast and land was selected as one of a series of training rounds which, in this case, was used because it closely resembled the landing beach, code named Utah Beach, situated on the Cherbourg peninsula. The American forces stationed in Devon and Cornwall were known as U Force, and were part of a much larger invading force which landed in France at five points on the 6th June 1944.
This historic event and its subsequent success marked the closing stages of the Second World War. Never before had such a large and complex number of troops, drawn from different nationalities, assembled in this country for the purpose of launching a major cross-channel attack on an enemy and it is very unlikely that an event of this scale will ever be possible again as the means of detection by satellites would soon bring it to the attention of an opposing army.
Slapton Sands and its immediate land area played a very important part in this enterprise. Many people still recall the evacuation of all its inhabitants and livestock from many farms, villages and homesteads and the appearance of US troops engaged in realistic exercises in which many casualties occurred. This brief episode in the life of the South Hams has not been forgotten and enquiries from visiting Americans still show a continuing interest in this event.
In the preparation of this account of the exercises I was greatly helped by the American military archives in Washington, USA., from which source came the photographs. My thanks go to them and to many others working in Devon and London libraries who gave advice and time willingly. Lastly this title is dedicated to those who lost their lives during the preparations for D-Day and to the local people whose homes and livelihood were disrupted during 1943 and 1944.
THE EVACUATION OF THE SOUTH HAMS
As part of the necessary preparation for the successful invasion of German occupied France, it was vitally important that all troops had to undergo a series of training schedules and then full scale exercises under conditions as near resembling those of the five landing points in Normandy as possible.
Slapton Sands and the immediate landward area was one of four major exercise areas designated for specialised use with live ammunition. Hayling Island, Bracklesham Bay and Littlehampton were the three other main training areas which came under strict military rule from the end of 1943 to the autumn of 1944. Slapton Sands with its small ley, low cliffs at either end of the flat coast road was not all that dissimilar from the beach and cliffs code named Utah west of the River Vire in Normandy. It was smaller, had fewer fortifications but was well away from German planes crossing the Channel towards the more populated areas of England.
A notice of requisition was passed to the Devon County Council under the Defence Regulations Act of 1939 specifying that a certain area of the South Hams was to be fully evacuated of civilians and livestock by the 20th December 1943. This gave six weeks notice for the moving of about 750 families, comprising about 3,000 people, 180 farms, villages, shops, etc. Some 30,000 acres would have to be cleared in these weeks so that troops could move in and start setting up camps, defence points and ringing the area with guards.
The area took in the villages of Torcross, Stokenham, Chillington, Sherford, East Allington, Blackawton, Strete and Slapton and many hamlets. The requisitioned land covered the coast from just north of Strete to just south of Torcross and formed a diamond like area. All movable possessions from homes, shops and farms were to be taken and usable crops still in the land could be removed. Nothing was to be left apart from empty buildings and churches.
Meetings were convened in the various village halls telling people of the plans and how they could get help in the form of packing cases, transport and food and assistance with the actual work of handling heavy furniture, farm equipment and livestock. The people were naturally taken aback by the order to evacuate, but it was wartime and almost anything could take place. Plymouth had suffered a devastating blitz, young children were living in the area as evacuees, husbands were at war, so this move, it was explained, however difficult, upsetting and inconvenient it would be, was necessary and would make a very practical contribution to training troops to win the war.
Two information centres were set up at Blackawton and Stokenham and staffed by the Women’s Voluntary Service. Help was forthcoming from many people throughout Devon and offers of accommodation given while farmers roundabout shared fields and equipment with those who lost their land. Advice was given about obtaining help, seeking alternative accommodation and storing furniture and goods. Emergency kitchens were able to supply meals to those in the middle of moving; transport, in one form or another, was made available for moving out tons of domestic and farming goods to many parts of the West Country.
There were, of course, difficulties especially with the elderly folk many of whom had never left the area before and with sick people where it was necessary to find them beds in nearby hospitals. These and many other problems were overcome by a willingness on most people’s part to pull together and make the most of it. The war was on and this was one consequence of the times.
As the few weeks passed so the land and villages took on a deserted appearance. The once crowded roads down to the shore, the busy farms, the cattle grazing in the fields, the people talking in the village shops were to be no more. The large villages were soon empty then came the many farms and finally the isolated houses. The various churches had to be cleared of valuables and very old furnishings. No guarantee that anything left would be undamaged during the exercises. Treasures such as crucifixes, silver crosses and plateware were carefully packed by experts and monuments, windows and fittings were protected by sandbags. Almost all the churches had a lot of old and fragile woodwork. This required very careful dismantling and packing helped in many cases by the incoming US troops. The inns closed their doors for the last time and the cellars were emptied of their stocks of cider and beer.
During the last few days of the evacuation sentries came into the area, American officials checked on the clearing operation, the last people left taking with them as much of their crops as possible and finally the centres closed and the volunteers moved out. A silence fell over the area, an uncanny feeling that this was the lull before the storm. Weeds soon appeared in unattended gardens and fields, hedgerows grew out of shape and houses, farms and other buildings quickly gathered dust during those last days of 1943.
US TROOP EXERCISES AT SLAPTON SANDS
During the opening weeks of 1944 Slapton Sands and the area became a scene of great activity with troops coming in setting up posts, defence positions, converting some buildings to observations points and preparing obstacles along the beach and main road. The whole area soon took on the appearance of a large military range with guns in position, signal stations working, encampments for the troops and vehicles and supplies stored in depots.
The area had been sealed off completely to civilians and only those with special permits were allowed in or could work close by, such as coastguards and local homeguards who were responsible for maintaining watch along the nearby cliffs.
It soon became apparent to people living close by that something special was going to happen here as the large number of troops and their supplies could not be completely kept out of sight when approaching the area. People were asked not to say anything to anyone about what they saw or heard and troops when allowed out of the area while off duty, were likewise warned of casual talk.
There were also American troops with equipment and supplies stationed at nearby Salcombe, Dartmouth and Brixham but these local areas were not barred to civilians in the same way as the Slapton Sands area. There was plenty of movement between these local stations and many lanes and some roads had to be widened or straightened to cope with the large amount of transport and the size of many military vehicles. It became very clear after a month or two that Slapton would play a very special role in the preparation of forces for the invasion of Europe although at this point in time nobody knew of the exact intentions of all this military activity or when it would leave South Devon on its mission to clear Europe of Hitler’s troops.
Troops of assault forces U and O stationed throughout the West Country were, during the early months of 1944, engaged in a series of very specialised training schemes at selected areas in Devon and Cornwall and along the coast towards Weymouth. These minor exercises were to test various pieces of equipment, procedures and the demolition of obstacles prior to staging a small landing or attacking a given target. One centre was at Braunton in North Devon, the United States Assault Training Centre, where infantry battalions undertook training in amphibious techniques, the reduction of “hedgehog” defences on beaches and attack tactics on fortified gun emplacements. These exercises were designed to test the efficiency of equipment and the effectiveness of small battalions of troops from which experience was gained and some modifications made to equipment and methods of attack.
Meanwhile other troops were undergoing a series of hardening exercises on Dartmoor, a terrain which is difficult to cross especially under poor weather conditions when much of it can soon be covered in cloud. Every effort was made during these preliminary exercises to make them as realistic as possible through the use of live ammunition over the the heads and immediately in front of troops.
At the completion of these localised movements Divisional Commanders were briefed on the next stage of training when the whole of assault forces U and O would be enaged in two separate full scale rehearsals at Slapton. Towards the end of April 1944, Operation Tiger took place with force U and at the beginning of May Operation Fabius followed with force O. Both exercises were conducted under conditions simulating as closely as possible those expected in the actual D-Day landings. The troops were not informed of the real purpose of these, although no doubt some guessed their true nature and some, it was reported, actually thought that when they had embarked and set course towards the South Devon coast, they were on the way to France. The rehearsals were organised and conducted with all the detail and thoroughness of the actual invasion. 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 Channel to France. Assault teams were made up and plans of the rehearsal, objectives to reach and the conditions under which the troops would be landing were made known.
Within the very tight restrictions imposed by security along the whole of the English coast both exericses were to embody every detail that would be required for the landings on the Normandy coast. Troops were assembled in marshalling areas, briefed on their mission, taken to loading hards and assigned to the appropriate landing craft. The number of men involved and the manner of their grouping and use of equipment was exactly as it would be for the real operation. A course was set along the south coast to approximate the length of the channel crossing and the timing of departure and subsequent landing was to follow the prepared schedule for D-Day. The sea journey was to be covered by air support and under the control of the US Navy.
Disembarkation was also to be covered with air and naval support preceeded by preparatory bombardment of the coastal area while the troops were being taken towards the shore in the early hours of the their assigned landing day. Naval vessels would be stationed in Start Bay to soften up positions along Slapton Beach minutes before the troops were to land.
So the scene was set in this part of normally quiet Devon when people would often look out to sea and watch a few fishing boats go by or an occasional large boat on the horizon. Many of them must have been very surprised to see numerous landing craft coming into the area during the last days of April and the first few of May during that eventful year of 1944. If the craft could not be seen far away from the coast, the attack by ships and planes could certainly be heard for many miles over the Devon countryside. It would soon be obvious to the local people that a large scale military exercise was under way and that this was a foretaste of the later event to take place somewhere in Europe.
A variety of objectives had been set up along the beach and its immediate landward area. These included gun emplacements, defended buildings, a dummy aerodrome and other features to resemble those to be expected on the Normandy coast. The beach assault forces were to use live ammunition and, of course, come under live fire from attacking planes and ships while moving towards the shore. Smoke screens were to be used as well to cover troop movements up the beach and ground units were to call in support from fighter and medium bombers to destroy obstacles in their way.
Operation Tiger was planned from 22nd to 29th April and involved troops stationed between Torbay and Plymouth, that is assault force U. Major troop units involved were the 4th Infantry Division and the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions with support from other units. D-Day was planned for 27th April and the attack on the coast for first light of that day. The first object was to secure a beach-head and then make a rapid advance inland to secure certain objectives. The exercise finished on 29th April and the troops then returned to their various marshalling areas.
This first rehearsal was very successful and from it a number of co-ordinating lessons were learnt and then applied to the real invasion. One incident, however, married this event. Two German E-boat flotillas totalling nine boats managed to pass the defending ships (there had been some last minute changes causing a weakness in the security) and stumbled on the exercise taking place during the hours of darkness. Two landing craft full of troops were sunk and one was damaged causing the death of about 700 men – more than were killed on Utah beach itself – such is the irony of war. The loss of the craft was critical to the Overlord assault lift as these craft were already in short supply. The Germans realised that they had sunk landing craft but fortunately did not conclude that they were part of a large military exercise.
Operation Fabius was planned along similar lines to Tiger and took place during the early days of May, 1944. The participating troops came from the Dorset area and comprised of units designated assault force O. The objectives of the rehearsal were the same and the conditions under which it took place were to be as realistic as possible. The sea journey was also to be of the same length as that of the Channel crossing with troops and ships being accompanied by planes and ships.
Once again the Slapton Sands area came under attack procedure on fortified beach defences. This was immediately followed by waves of troops being brought into the area by landing craft and then staging an assault on the beach and penetrating inland as fast as possible towards given objectives.
So the days of Slapton Sands usefulness as a training ground came to an end when the smoke had cleared and the noise and activity had finally ceased. All was now ready for the real invasion of Europe to take place within a month of the ending of the two exercises.