Here's What You Need To Remember: Soldiers who ventured out of line or formation ran a terrible risk under such close fire with live ammunition. It was only by adhering to clear timetables and strict discipline from unit leaders that a maneuver of this kind could be carried out successfully.
In the early 1970s, a former British Royal Air Force policeman–turned-hairdresser, Ken Small, visited South Devon on England’s Channel coast. While snow lies thick on the heights of Dartmoor in winter, one can walk about here on the coast in shirtsleeves; it is that warm. And Ken Small from Britain’s rugged chilly north thought he might settle here and enjoy that warmth.
Things turned out vastly different for the bespectacled ex-policeman. For on his first visit to the Slapton Sands area of South Devon, where a quarter of a century before U.S. troops had practiced for the Normandy landings, he met a local fisherman and diver who set him off in a completely different direction which would dominate his life for the next 30 years. The fisherman told him that one of the American tanks used in these 1944 exercises had sunk when it had left its landing craft and now lay intact on the seabed a couple of hundred yards offshore. The hairdresser was intrigued immediately. Within 24 hours he had made his decision. Somehow he would raise that tank and set it up on the shore at Slapton Sands as a permanent memorial to all the U.S. servicemen who had lost their lives liberating Normandy just across the English Channel.
The Tank at the Bottom of the Sea
But who owned that tank at the bottom of the sea? It took a year to find out, and in the end Small bought the Sherman tank from a U.S. government agency for $50, which was about all he could afford.
Now came the next problem: how was he going to raise his tank? Nine years later he was still looking for help and money to retrieve a rusting Sherman he had never seen and which had lain at the bottom of the sea since March 1944. The U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, once known to England-based GIs as “Eisenhower-platz,” said it had no funds for such projects. Small turned to the ordinary folk of the area. Offers of money and help poured in from British people still grateful to the Yanks. Even the British army chipped in, offering soldiers and equipment from the elite 3rd Royal Tank Regiment.
Thus it was that after 10 years, with the TV cameras whirring and a large crowd waiting in tense expectation, that on Saturday, May 17, 1984, the salvage crews descended 65 feet below the surface of the sea to raise Small’s tank. Fortunately, everything went well, unlike most of these recovery jobs. For Small was racing against time. He wanted the Sherman in position on a hard stand at Slapton Sands ready for the 40th anniversary of D-Day. He made it just in time, and there the Sherman rests to this day, the muzzle of its cannon pointing out over Stuart Bay where it had all happened and the mystery had commenced.
Ken Small, proud of his achievement after a decade of wheeling and dealing, did not realize the recovery of that tank from the U.S. 70th Tank Battalion would reopen the debate about controversial events that would continue long after the ex-hairdresser was dead.
The recovery of the small tank had aroused worldwide publicity. With that publicity had come the reemergence of rumor and dark talk of a U.S. Army cover-up that dated back to the war itself. There was talk of mass graves, trainloads of dead GIs being shipped to other parts of the United Kingdom (U.K.) to be buried there secretly, a mass censorship ban, and strictest secrecy being imposed on all U.S. personnel who had been in the Slapton Sands area that fateful spring, including all nurses and doctors who had treated the survivors of some mysterious major incident that had taken place there.
That censorship ban, according to the rumor mongers, had never been lifted even 40 years after the war. Ostensibly, the reason was because the Pentagon did not want Joe Public in the States to learn that there had been a major foul-up in the training for the U.S. landing at Utah Beach, which had cost four times as many U.S. casualties than on D-day itself.
Small, now somewhat of a local celebrity, published his own version of what had actually happened in his book on Exercise Tiger, as this mysterious and controversial operation was called. Tiger involved 30,000 GIs from the 4th “Ivy League” Infantry Division, the 297th Combat Engineers, and the 70th Tank Battalion, who would practice a mass landing at Slapton Sands. Supposedly, the shoreline bore a close resemblance to Utah Beach in Normandy where in two months’ time the real assault landing would take place.
Unfortunately, according to Small and others who believed they were to reveal the great cover-up for the first time, the Germans had picked up the American radio traffic of the convoy in the English Channel and had launched an attack by E-boats from their home port of Cherbourg, France. This force attacked the U.S. and British ships with torpedoes and cannon fire, sinking two U.S. landing crafts, 507 and 530, and badly damaging another. That night of April 27, 1944, several hundred GIs were killed or drowned and a very worried General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, ordered all bodies to be recovered at all cost and the whole matter hushed up, presumably forever. But now, 40 years later, the matter was finally out in the open. Who in the Pentagon had continued to maintain the great cover-up?
But Had There Really Been a Cover-up in the First Place?
Immediately after the war, despite the rumors circulating in the Devon of the 1980s, there had been several books outlining the Slapton Sands tragedy (indeed the Stars & Stripes had already made reference to it during the war itself in July 1944). Captain Harry Butcher, Eisenhower’s personal assistant and naval aide, had given a fairly detailed account of the event in his My Three Years with Eisenhower (1946). It was also referred to in the U.S. Army’s official history, Cross Channel Attack (1951), and in Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison’s official U.S. Navy history, The Invasion of France and Germany (1957). So where was the cover-up?
Indeed, on the first official anniversary of D-day, when the U.S. authorities unveiled a monument at Slapton Sands honoring the locals for giving up their land and homes so that the Americans could use the area as a training ground, General Alfred Guenther gave a full account of the tragedy that had befallen Exercise Tiger.
Still, the ugly rumors persisted, not only in the U.K., but in the States too. In Washington D.C., WJLA-TV pursued the matter relentlessly. The station manager was told by the Army’s Public Affairs Office that there had been no cover-up. Exercise Tiger had been well documented years before. But Small’s book, The Forgotten Dead, continued to fuel the conspiracy theory, especially as Small maintained that if those GIs of Tiger had been killed out at sea, why was he continuing to find bits and pieces of U.S. Army equipment on the shore itself. Who had died on Slapton Sands then?
Had there then been not just one foul-up at Slapton but two—one out at sea and another on the land? Small was put in contact with Congresswoman Beverly Byron, who turned out to be no less a person than the daughter of Eisenhower aide, Captain Butcher. In her turn, she introduced Small to the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army in Colorado, where the 4th Infantry Division was stationed.
In Colorado it was proposed that a small plaque would be erected at Slapton next to Ken’s tank. This was done on November 15, 1987. Once again the conspiracy theory was raised in the media. This time it was alleged that heavy casualties were inflicted on those GIs landing on the beach by their own comrades who defended it and fired live ammunition at the assault troops.
“Hundreds of Americans in a Mass Grave.”
Suddenly, eyewitnesses began to appear. Local resident Dorothy Seekings maintained that as a girl she had witnessed the burial of “hundreds of Americans in a mass grave.” BBC TV tackled that one. The BBC reporters queried the farmer on whose land the mass grave was supposed to be. The farmer maintained he had not seen a single bone there in years of plowing his fields.
Still, the ugly rumors persisted. Now, Americans who had been there at the time came forward to testify they had seen “hundreds of Americans” mown down by their own men on the shore. U.S. records were discovered referring to hundreds of dead being transferred to nearby Blackwood Cemetery where they were interred temporarily. What happened to the bodies thereafter seems unclear. Were they sent home at the request of their next-of-kin, or were they permanently interred at the U.S. Cambridge Military Cemetery? Or were those bodies buried somewhere else, their place of internment never recorded for security reasons?