Little Known Memorial Day History – from across the pond

Earlier this month I went to England for a family wedding. Although my mother was born there, it was my first visit. What I didn’t know was that I would learn a little American history while I was there, just in time for this year’s Memorial Day.

My brother-in-law and his family live in East Allington, a little village in Devon. The only day we had free before returning State side, he said he wanted to take us to the beach at Slapton Sands where we would learn some little known history about America and its connection to his village. We did just that, and I returned home with a deeper appreciation for the connections between America and England and with an understanding of the deep gratitude the British people have for the sacrifices made by Americans during World War II. You see, Slapton Sands Beach is where 946 American lost their lives preparing for the D-Day attack at Normandy, something that was kept secret for 40 years.

American troops landing on beach in England during rehearsal for invasion of Nazi occupied France – By U.S. Signal Corps [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Slapton Sands Beach, May 7, 2017. Photo Credit: Sharon Swanepoel

Through my brother-in-law, Stan, and the research that I did, I found that his village, East Allington, Slapton, and six other villages, were evacuated in December 1943 in order for American soldiers to practice for D-Day, an operation named Exercise Tiger.

Photo credit: Sharon Swanepoel

According to the story in The Saddleworth Mercury, the farmers, their families and local villagers, a total of 3,000 people, had to move out of their homes to make way for an American garrison. In 1954, the United States presented the people of the area who left their homes to provide for the battle practice field a large granite obelisk thanking them for doing so, but it did not mention that 946 Americans lost their lives there. It took another 30 years and an Englishman named Ken Small to do that.

Photo credit: Sharon Swanepoel

When Small uncovered was that on April 27, 1944, a group of nine German E-Boats, on a reconnaissance mission from Cherbourg, noticed the activity on the shores of Devon and attacked an American Landing Ship Tank, killing 749 American soldiers and sailors. In total, 946 Americans lost their lives on the shores of Devon during Exercise Tiger in preparation for the D-Day landing. The Slapton Sands beach has similar topography to Normandy and was thought to be a good practice ground for the young American servicemen who would take place in the D-Day offensive by Allied Troops on June 6, 1944. It was allegedly covered up in order to protect the D-Day launch and somehow stayed that way until 1984 when it was uncovered by Small. As well as uncovering the story, he also recovered a Sherman tank that had fallen off a ship and lay under the waters off Slapton Sands beach for all those years. The tank was salvaged and now stand as a memorial to the Americans who died there. The truth was finally revealed in 1987 under President Ronald Reagan. On Jan. 6, 1987, a Bill was passed in Congress authorizing a plaque at the site of the tank memorial on the beach and a memorial service is held there around April 28 each year.

Photo credit: Sharon Swanepoel

The day that we were there, a wreath had been place in honor of an American serviceman who lost his life there that day. I was touched by the acknowledgement of the British people of the sacrifice that Americans made during World War II. I took some photos, including of my husband a brother-in-law, my husband on the side of the American flag and my brother-in-law on the side of the Union Jack. The village we walked through had building that were dated prior to the 1900s and were likely some of those occupied by the Americans during that time.

From left, Gordon Winterburn (USA) and Stan Winterburn (U.K.) in front of the Sherman Tank recovered from the ocean bed off Slapton Sands Beach in 1984. Photo credit: Sharon Swanepoel, May 7, 2017.
Photo credit: Sharon Swanepoel, May 7, 2017.

I wanted to share this story on Memorial Day as a tribute to those Americans who lost their lives there in preparation for the D-Day landing, and as a thank you to the 3,000 British residents who moved out of their homes to give them the access. We visited the shores of Slapton on May 7, unfortunately too late for the 2017 memorial ceremony, but it was a story that I had not heard and one that I wanted to share. If you click or tap on this link, you will get the full details in the Saddleworth Mercury.

Memorial Day is a time to remember all the sacrifices made, including by those Americans who died on the shores of Devon in 1944 while practicing for the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy.


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