D Day in Devon
When you think about WWII era Britain, you likely think of the Blitz in London and teams of evacuees heading to the countryside, but did you know that Devon was actually a strategic location for Britain during the war? From evacuees to being home to an American army base to the location of a host of military exercises, there are plenty of ways to find out more about WWII when visiting Devon.
Evacuees touched the majority of people in Devon’s towns and villages, they were not just evacuated out of large cities across the country, but also from Plymouth and Exeter into the more rural locations. While this did cause logistical problems in the short term with stories of up to eight children being housed in tiny houses with existing families and overcrowding at local schools. Tiverton’s Middle School had to make room for the girls from Devonport High School when Plymouth suffered under heavy Nazi bombing. One particularly bad moment for the residents of Plymouth was in May of 1941 when there was a succession of raids on Plymouth as the enemy focused their efforts on Britain’s naval bases.
Exeter Hospital was also hit during air raids, with women in the maternity ward being given enamel bowls to hide under should they need protection. And, as with most rural places, occasionally fleeing aircraft would drop bombs over fields to aid their escape, leaving craters all over the landscape.
It was however, the arrival of the GIs that saw Devon turn into a hub of training camps. The British troops who had initially arrived in the towns were replaced with the fresher faced American soldiers who were all new to the war that had been happening in Europe. With them came a new way of life, getting treats, such as gum and candy was a rarity under rationing, but the GIs brought all those things with them. They also introduced the locals to dances which were regularly held in parish halls around the county.
New recruits were trained on the fields of Devon in the hope that it would prepare them for the battlegrounds in France, so it became completely normal to see convoys of troops travelling along the A38.
The varied landscape of Devon served training soldiers well, with the RAF choosing Torquay as one of their seaside resort towns to host their initial training wing. Many of the airmen were housed in the local hotels or with residents during their time there. The US Assault Training Centre was based in North Devon where soldiers used the coast line to train for their missions in France.
Ilfracombe became a garrison town, with the golf course being requisitioned and Hele Beach being covered in barbed wire. Woolacombe and Braunton Burrows were major training areas and PLUTO (the Pipe Line Under The Ocean), the oil supply to Mulberry Docks was tested between Watermouth Cove and Wales.
One major war time memory for the people of Devon is Exercise Tiger, the disastrous D Day rehearsal, where the loss of life was actually greater than the actual invasion of Normandy, just a few months later.
The Exercise took place on 28th April 1944, when eight tank landing ships full of US soldiers and equipment converged in Lyme Bay, just off the coast of Devon, they were on route to Slapton Sands, where the rehearsal was to take place. The exercise was so vital to the military strategy, that the commanders used live naval and artillery ammunition to make the experience as real as possible, so the soldiers would be fully prepared for their actual mission. The use of real ammunition was probably what led to the survivors making it back to shore as a group of German E Boats, who were investigating the heavy use of radio traffic in Lyme Bay intercepted the vessels.
What happened next was horrific for everyone on board, the tank landing ships were heavy, unprotected and slow moving making them easy targets for the German torpedos. Almost 1,000 American servicemen were killed in the exercise after three of the tanks were hit and many of the men who managed to escape into the water caught hypothermia from the cold water and incorrectly wearing life jackets. At the time of the exercise, any surviving soldier was threatened with court martial if they revealed the truth about the exercise. Allied Commanders were concerned that any officers that went missing during the attack could have found their way into Nazi hands, could end up revealing the intention for the D Day operation leading them to consider changing their tactics. Memorials for Exercise Tiger can be found at Slapton Sands where a tank marks the memorial site.
To remember the people who lived and worked in Devon during the war, a series of events to commemorate D Day are taking place across the county. The events will include a trail around the WW2 training camps and exhibitions in Appledore, Bideford, Ilfracombe, Combe Martin and Barnstaple.