Sunday 1 May 2011

The Sherman at Slapton Sands, Devon (1944)

A Bank Holiday in the UK (courtesy of William and Katherine) provided the time for a family day out on the South Devon coast. It's a beautiful area with picturesque towns, meandering waterways and rolling hills. There are stretches where the beaches take on a different character however. One such beach is the six mile strip at Slapton Sands. 

In December, 1943 this area began to be used for trial landings in preparation for D-Day. Slapton Beach was selected because of its similarity with Utah Beach. Those of you who have visited the latter will recall a long gravel beach fronting a strip of land with a lake beyond.

Today, next to a cluster of holiday homes and a couple of popular pubs, the horizon is marked out by the familiar profile of a Sherman Tank (below). Closer examination shows that the tank was recovered from the sea in 1984 by a local hotelier called Ken Small. The Sherman had been 6o metres underwater, 1km out to sea since it was lost during 'Exercise Tiger' in April, 1944.

The story is a tragic one. A full practise assault was scheduled for the 29th April, 1944. Eight LSTs carrying vehicles and combat engineers were intercepted by marauding German E-boats out of Cherbourg. The result was catastrophic for the American troops. Two LSTs were sunk (LST-531 and LST-289) and a further craft was badly damaged. In total 946 lives were lost - most at sea but some on shore later - a result of friendly fire.

Afterwards the survivors were sworn to secrecy. Earlier the village had been evacuated with some 3,000 residents moving elsewhere. News of the tragedy was released in August 1944 but only after the recovery of the bodies of ten officers where there was a particular sensitivity because of their knowledge of D-Day plans.

At the opposite end of the beach there is a striking memorial erected by the United States Army Authorities 'to the people of South Hams who generously left their homes and their lands to provide a battle practice area for the successful assault in Normandy in June 1944'.

An interesting footnote to the story is that one of the original E-boats involved in the attack is currently being restored at Southdown in Cornwall. Incredibly the boat saw extensive service after WWII - eventually being decommissioned from the Kriegsmarine in 1991. The restoration is being funded by Kevin Wheatcroft (an individual with a passion for restoring WWII relics).