U.S Troop Exercises at Slapton Sands
During the opening weeks of 1944 Slapton Sands and area became the scene of great activity with troops coming in setting up posts, defence positions, converting some buildings to observation 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 positions, 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 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 engage in two separate full scale rehearsals at Slapton. Towards the end of April, 1944, Operation Tiger took place with force ‘U’ and at the beginnings 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 many 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 exercises 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 on the pebble beach at Slapton 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 U.S. Navy.
Disembarkation was also to be covered with air and naval support preceded by preparatory bombardment of the coastal area while the troops were being taken towards the shore in the early hours of 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 from away from the coast the attack by ships and planes could certainly be heard for many miles over the Devon countryside. It would be soon obvious to the local people that a large scale military exercise was under way and that this was a foretaste of a 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 26th 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, marred the 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 during the actual invasion. 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.
First Published November 2010 By The Dart