6th June – D-Day. This week, 74 years ago, the Allied forces of Britain, France and America attacked German forces on the beaches of Normandy in an attack known as Operation Overlord. This operation turned the tide of the World War 2 and has been immortalised in such epic movies as Saving Private Ryan, Ike and The Longest Day.
Now learning history through movies is great, but we have to be careful. The movies, and in fact much of the ‘official history’ we encounter in a classroom, is the version of history which has been told by the victors. It’s the parts of history which ‘the powers that be’ want us to know about. It’s the parts of history which provide us with heroes. Think of the movie, Saving Private Ryan. Although graphic in its portrayal of the horror of war, the movie makers still try to leave us with a message of hope, brotherhood and a sense of profound gratitude that heroic young men were willing to face the ultimate sacrifice in order to turn the tide of evil.
There was, however, another event linked to D-Day, an event not found in movies or history textbooks, an event which we should all be commemorating this week. This event has been brought to public attention by Ken Small, author of the book The Forgotten Dead. This book is described as
“the story of nearly 1 000 American soldiers and sailors who died needlessly in one of the great fiascos of World War II. It is also the story of the confusion and incompetence that led to such a great loss of life, of the murderous horror of one dark night off the south coast of England and of the official indifference and deliberate concealment which dogged it for 40 years”
What was this D-Day fiasco and why is it not part of the World War 2 stories?
You and I both know that all great events take planning and practice, and the D-Day invasion was no different. Around the end of 1943, the residents of several Devon villages were evacuated and their homes were taken over by the larger-than-life, fresh-faced, gum-chewing American troops. These troops were there for Operation Tiger, a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the D-Day landings. The Devon beaches were remarkably similar to those of Normandy and were therefore perfectly suited to a ‘practice run’. Great efforts were made to make the Devon operation as realistic as possible:
“Dummy enemy positions and concrete pillboxes were constructed. Each assault team for the rehearsal comprised 30 men, heavily armed with mortars, machine guns, bazookas and flame throwers”.
The dummy attacks began on April 21st, 1944 and for the first few days all went smoothly – well as smoothly as anything could go when people are asked to cope with choppy seas, bulky life jackets, soggy beach sand and shellfire!
Disaster struck however on 27 April, 1944. On that day, the last convoy of troops set off to land in an area known as Slapton Sands. Unbeknown to them, there were also nine German torpedo boats hunting in the same area. British ships did pick up the presence of these torpedo boats but were unable to warn the American convoy boats as the Americans were operating on a different radio frequency. When it was suggested that the Americans could be warned by a burst of signalling from the beach, this was forbidden. Such signalling would alert the Germans to the presence of a mass of armed forces and could endanger the secrecy of the whole, D-Day plan. (Perhaps you can already see why this story remained untold for so long?)
As the convoy approached the shore, torpedoes slammed into the unsuspecting boats. There was no time to even try and launch lifeboats and the following descriptions give us some sense of the horror and terror that ensued:
The ship’s doctor, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Gene Eckstam, looked into the tank deck to see “a huge, roaring blast furnace…. Trucks were burning; gasoline was burning; and small-arms ammunition was exploding.” He could hear the screams of men being consumed by the flames, but he knew there was nothing he could do for them; smoke inhalation would soon overcome any who were still alive.
The result was “a gigantic orange ball” of fame, and the 531 began to sink almost at once. Sailors and soldiers simply leaped over the side into the chill water, trusting their life vests. The water was so cold it drove the breath from their bodies. Moreover, the life vests that had been issued to the soldiers proved worse than useless. Unlike the kapok vests that were standard in the U.S. Navy, the soldiers had been issued something that resembled a bicycle inner tube that wrapped around their chests. Most wore them at their waists so they didn’t interfere with their packs. As a result, when men triggered the CO2 cartridges and inflated the vests, their heads went underwater.
A horror-filled aftermath of the D-Day fiasco
The sea was literally heaving with dead bodies and struggling survivors: “the sea ran red with blood as bodies bobbed in the surf and corpses were piled on the sand”. In direct contradiction of orders ‘from above’, the less damaged convoy boats turned back to help and rescue as many of their drowning comrades as possible. (Another reason to quash this narrative?) As these damaged boats limped into shore, any soldiers who were still unharmed, began to disembark and wade in a state of horrified shock towards the beach. But another horror awaited them. Without any warning, shellfire began to rain down on them from the British cruiser, HMS Hawkins. This shellfire was then multiplied by incessant bursts of gunfire from land. The struggling troops were “mown down like ninepins” and the beach was soon “piled high with corpses”.  To this day, no-one can answer the question, ‘What were the authorities thinking?’ Surely they could see immediately that the shells being used were not dummy shells but live ammunition? Surely they could see that this practice run had turned into something else completely and needed to be aborted as quickly as possible?
No orders came to cease firing or to end this fiasco. By the end of the day, an estimated 1 000 American troops had lost their lives, at least half of whom had been murdered by their own Allies. Nothing was said. The whole affair was hushed up as quickly as possible so as not to ruin morale before D-Day nor to give away plans for D-Day. Many bodies were left in the sea (with the lifejackets deliberately punctured to ensure they would sink); others were buried. (For many years there were rumours of mass graves near Slapton Sands.) The wounded were ferried to hospitals while being told that anyone who spoke out would be court martialled, and for 55 years, the dirty secret was kept.
Looking at Slapton Sands today, it is difficult to imagine the horror and carnage which unfolded there.
Uncovering the shocking truth of this D-Day fiasco
It took the determination of a man named Ken Small to expose the truth about that horrific day on Slapton Sands. In 1999, Ken Small was determined to find out why, on his frequent walks along the beach, he kept finding bullet cases, tunic buttons and large amounts of shrapnel. With dogged determination, Small collected stories from local residents and even organised a deep-sea dive in which he uncovered the remains of an American tank.
The American tank recovered by Ken Small
Thanks to the work of Small, a memorial now stands to the fallen men on Slapton Sands. The grisly facts of a day full of bureaucratic bumbling, blame shifting and barbarism are laid out clearly and without judgement in Small’s book The Forgotten Dead. And the relatives of those fallen men can finally understand why their loved one were ‘killed in action’ on a day in which no action was reported.
Who knows – maybe a Hollywood movie will soon be in the offing?
The Slapton Sands memorial
Is there a lesson to be learnt from this? I believe so. Maybe we all need to be less accepting of the official versions of history; maybe we all need to try and dig deeper into the events taught in the classroom. The Cambridge History syllabi designers are to be commended for doing this. Cambridge students are continually asked to find evidence, weigh this evidence up and make educated judgements about events. Cambridge teaches students not to meekly swallow the information but to do their own research, to argue, to question and to discuss. Studying history through Cambridge and Cambrilearn (our online-learning school) is an exciting journey through events, both well-known and ‘undiscovered’.
Photograph showing some of the action which took place at the D-Day Rehearsal of April, 1944
Watch the introduction to a great documentary about Operation Tiger at:
Watch this clip on Exercise Tiger disaster and the role played by Ken Small:
Learn about ‘historical blunders’ which changed the course of history:
Find out more about the Cambridge syllabi and Cambrilearn at: