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Blog South Devon Coast Path and Coastal Defences – Part 3

Having provided an overview and some detail on Plymouth in recent blogs, we’ll now look at the fascinating history of Start Bay, Torcross and Slapton Sands.

In the Torcross car park, you can’t miss a large Sherman tank.

It’s there to honour the memory of servicemen who perished in one of the many tragedies during WW2, and marks the importance of Slapton Sands and surrounding areas in the preparation for D Day Normandy landings, which themselves signaled the beginning of the end of the war.

Allied Generals thought Slapton Sands was very similar to some of the Normandy beaches and so selected it as a training ground for US troops. And in December 1943 over 3000 inhabitants from Torcross and surrounding villages (Slapton, Stokenham, Chillington, East Allington, Blackawton) and farms, were evacuated to accommodate 30,000 troops and millions of tons of equipment - and the area sealed off for security reasons. US navy bases were set up in Salcombe and Dartmouth, and more than 500 ships sailed from these ports as part of the D Day force.

Exercise Tiger

Training exercises gradually increased in intensity from late 1943 into 1944; live ammunition was used which resulted in many casualties, but the most tragic event happened during Exercise Tiger in April 1944.

The idea was to practice beach landings with LSTs (slow flat-bottomed landing ships carrying hundreds of troops, lorries and tanks.) These craft set off from Plymouth and Brixham towards the Slapton exercise area, but unfortunately 4 German E-Boats (fast moving ships armed with torpedoes) discovered a poorly protected convoy of LSTs and torpedoed 3 of them.

639 men died that night as the ships burned and sank. It’s widely recognised that the success of the eventual D-Day assault was due, in no small part, to the rehearsals carried out at Slapton Sands.

Survivors were ordered not to talk of the disaster and the story was covered up for 40 years, until in 1984 local hotelier Ken Small recovered the sunken tank from the bay and brought it the beach with the help of local fishermen.

The tank has become a focus for remembrance of those who lost their lives in preparing for the D-Day invasion, and there are other memorials further along the beach acknowledging the sacrifice made by all at that time.

For those who want to find out more, the Cookworthy Museum in Kingsbridge or the Dartmouth Museum are worth a visit.

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