I Was Told A WW2 Secret

Photo by Joël in 't Veld on Unsplash

About 20 years ago a WW2 veteran told me a story which he had kept secret for over 50 years. As he is no longer with us, and because there are similar accounts online, I feel now is the right time to share the information.

One summer’s day, my wife and I decided to take our two young kids to an outdoor attraction, not far from the town of Launceston in north Cornwall. We had not been there before, but as it had been recommended to us, we thought we would give it a go. It was not difficult to find, and after parking up and paying the entrance fee we soon had two happy kids.

It looked as though a farmer had decided to diversify, as the main play area was in a small field next to a farm house. Having been brought up on a farm myself, I decided to have a look around and soon found an old tractor and some agricultural machinery. As I walked back towards my children I noticed an old man leaning over a gate, keeping an eye on things. I am not very good at judging ages, but he must have been at least seventy. I assumed he was the owner or possibly a relative helping out. I said hello and as he seemed keen to talk, I stopped to have a chat. I found out later he was called Jim Cory.

After discussing the weather and such like, I said how I used to live nearby and still had relatives in the area. I asked if he knew my grandad, as he was of a similar age and lived in the next village. He thought he knew him, and after I mentioned that he had fought in Italy during WW2, we started talking about different aspects of the war. At first we discussed my grandad, but then Jim started to mention his own experiences and what he had seen. I have always had an interest in military matters and like hearing stories from people who were actually there, so I listened carefully to what he said. At first Jim talked about the war in general, but then he started describing a specific event which he had personally witnessed. He said he had kept it a secret for 50 years, but was now willing to share it with people who were interested.

6–6–1944 was D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history, and the beginning of the operation to liberate Western Europe. After a plan had been agreed in terms of when and where the landings should take place, training exercises began in earnest. Numerous camps were set up, with many in the southern counties of England. Certain parts of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset had beaches and cliffs which were similar to the Normandy coastline, so these were used for landing exercises. One such beach in Devon was Slapton Sands.

Anyone who has read about or watched documentaries on D-Day, may know of that location as one of the worst disasters involving troops training for the invasion. I won’t go into detail here, as there are already numerous articles and books on the subject – just look for Exercise Tiger.

In summary it was a week of training exercises in south Devon which took place during the last week of April 1944. To say things didn’t go according to plan would be an understatement; German E boats torpedoed the LSTs (landing craft) sinking two and damaging others, survivors drowned because they were not wearing their life belts correctly, the British and American forces could not communicate due to different radio channels and following a change to one of the landing times men were hit by their own naval bombardment.

Understandably the incident was kept quiet to prevent a loss of morale, and the number of casualties was not quoted until August along with the D-Day figures. Some say it was covered up, but that is not strictly true, as the event was written about, but then quietly forgotten. People had other things to deal with as the war in Europe continued for another year.

In the 1970s a Devon resident started to find evidence along the shoreline whilst beachcombing and after some investigation decided the tragedy should be commemorated. With the help of local residents and divers, in 1984 he raised a submerged Sherman tank which now sits on a plinth on the seafront. People started to come forward to state what they had seen or heard during and after the exercise, and a local paper covered the story.

So what did Jim tell me? Well, if I remember correctly he said he was in the Royal Engineers, and during the spring of 1944 was attached to an American unit in Devon. Although Jim did not mention Exercise Tiger specifically, he did say he was an observer at Slapton Sands. On the day in question he was with another engineer and an officer, positioned at an observation post next to a beach.

I can’t remember his exact words, but the following will be very close: “Numerous landing craft approached the shore and thousands of American troops ran down the ramps and up onto the beach. GIs up in the dunes were acting as German defenders and started to fire on the men running towards them. They started falling like ninepins and were not getting up, they were being shot at with live ammunition. I must have seen at least 100, maybe more lying dead on the beach. The next day we were hauled up in front of a high ranking officer and told in no uncertain terms to forget everything we had seen and never to speak of it to anyone.” Jim said he kept quiet for about 50 years.

Jim was not the only person to witness the tragedy, and various people including soldiers, sailors and civilians have told similar tales. Some have kept quiet their entire lifetime, only to speak of it on their deathbeds. Nobody seems to know exactly what happened to all the bodies, but there are various stories about mass graves in fields, lots of coffins being made and three trains taking away hundreds of dead GIs. The authorities have admitted to the disaster at sea where the German E boats attacked the landing craft convoy, but have never said anything about the naval bombardment or the shooting of troops. The total number killed is quoted at 749, but it may actually be closer to 1000.

Exercise Tiger was designed to simulate what landing at Utah Beach in Normandy would be like. Although it was a disaster, some lessons were learnt, and it is ironic that less men were killed on Utah Beach than at Slapton Sands.

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