by Ellen Castelow
On the night of 27th April 1944 during World War Two, a terrible tragedy unfolded just off Slapton Sands on the coast of Devon. 946 American servicemen died during Exercise Tiger, the rehearsals for the D-Day landing on Utah Beach in Normandy, France.
As part of the build-up to D-Day, in 1943 some 3,000 local residents in the areas around Slapton, Strete, Torcross, Blackawton and East Allington in South Devon were evacuated from their homes in order for the American military to carry out exercises.
The area around Slapton Sands was selected for these exercises because it bore a great resemblance to parts of the French coast, the location chosen for largest invasion by sea of the war – the Normandy landings.
The beautiful and usually tranquil River Dart filled up with landing craft and ships for the operation. Nissen huts sprang up in Coronation Park in Dartmouth and new slipways and ramps were built on the river’s edge, all the way from Dartmouth up to Dittisham.
Exercise Tiger was designed to be as realistic as possible and on 22nd April 1944 it began. Landing craft loaded with soldiers, tanks and equipment were deployed along the coast.
However, unbeknown to the military, under cover of darkness nine German E-boats (fast attack craft) had managed to slip in amongst them in Lyme Bay. Two landing ships were sunk and a third badly damaged. Lack of training on the use of life vests, heavy packs and the cold water contributed to the disaster: many men drowned or died of hypothermia before they could be rescued. Over 700 Americans lost their lives.
Despite this, the rest of the exercise continued at Slapton beach, but with disastrous results. The practice assault included a live-firing exercise and many more soldiers were tragically killed by ‘friendly fire’ from the supporting naval bombardment.
Because of fears of its impact on morale, the terrible loss of life during the exercise was not revealed until long after the war.
Later that year on Sunday 4th June, the people of Dartmouth were ordered to stay indoors: tanks rolled through the town and troops converged on the harbour with its landing craft and ships. The following day 485 ships left the harbour, taking a full day to clear the mouth of the river and at dawn on the 6th June, the invasion of France began.
Thanks to the training at Slapton, fewer soldiers died during the actual landing on Utah Beach than during Exercise Tiger, and so the training in Devon was not in vain.
Slapton was not the only site in Devon to be used by the American military during World War Two. The north coast around Woolacombe Bay was also used for practising amphibious landing assaults in preparation for the D-Day landings.