In 1940, the Nazi combined strength made plans to invade the coast of southern Britain, but in spite of mass waves of attacks from the air and the drafting of huge numbers of barges from around occupied Europe, landing troops safely from the sea onto English beaches was a step too far…thankfully.
Early in 1944 villagers living in or around the village of Slapton in Devon were given notice by the Ministry of Defence to evacuate the area. Under a cloak of secrecy, hundreds of American troops were shipped into the area for a huge military exercise that turned out to be the rehearsal for the D-Day landings. The coastline along this bay was similar to that of the targeted beaches, so it seemed ideal for a practice, and as secrets were common in Wartime, little was said by the locals about this.
The official story runs that in the very early hours of the morning of 26th April, a flotilla of eight "landing ship tanks" were heading towards Slapton Sands transporting jeeps, amphibious trucks and engineers, to be offloaded onto Slapton beach, just as they planned to do on D-Day itself. It was a calm, clear night, when suddenly out of the darkness came nine German torpedo boats. They had been on routine patrol just off the Cherbourg Peninsula, and had come to investigate the unusual and heavy radio traffic they had picked up. Spotting in the darkness what they thought were a flotilla of eight destroyers, they opened fire with torpedoes hitting three of the landing ships.
Trapped below deck, hundreds of troops went down with the sinking craft; there had been little time to launch lifeboats, and many who had managed to leap into the cold water were later found to be wearing their lifejackets upside-down, causing them to twist onto their faces in the water, where many drowned as a result, victims of German E-boats.
However, more recent work by The Observer newspaper and local historians refer to accounts of those present that day. These eyewitnesses indicate that, as thousands of GIs swarmed ashore from landing craft, they were cut down by bullets fired by comrades playing the role of German defenders, who had for some reason been given live ammunition.
Lieutenant-Colonel Wolf wrote of shots ‘zinging’ past his ear as he watched helpless as "infantrymen on the beach fall down and remain motionless." A similar tale is told by Jim Cory, a member of the Royal Engineer Regiment at the time. He watched the soldier’s stream from the landing craft only to be "mown down like ninepins. We later found out it was a mistake. They should have had dummy ammunition, but they just carried on shooting."
When the full horrific details began to emerge, the allied commanders turned their concern to the security of the exercise; ten officers among the missing had been closely involved with the invasion plan and preventing any of them falling into enemy hands became a priority.
All ten men were eventually accounted for, and the invasion went ahead on June 6th 1944.
Even so, many people still refuse to accept that hundreds of US soldiers may have been interred in the sleepy Devon countryside 60 years ago. Such scepticism fails to explain the account of former land girl Joyce Newby, who helped to make hundreds of coffin lids at a nearby timber yard in spring 1944. She said they were for victims of friendly fire at Slapton. Or that of former US serviceman Harold McAulley, who tells of dragging dead soldiers off the sands and later helping to bury corpses - the faces black with oil and burning - in a mass inland grave.
The tragedy of that morning is commemorated on the beach at Slapton Sands, and the losses that day, on the quiet Devon coastline, were more than those lost in the actual landing at "Gold Beach" where 419 men lost their lives.