By Tim Stone on June 6th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.
I say, you cut that a bit fine. A minute later and 43-15211 would have slipped the surly bonds of earth/RAF Chivenor. Flare Path’s 70th Anniversary D-Day day trip would have left without you!
As you’ll know having read the glossy brochure from cover to cover, this year we’re doing something a little different. Instead of crossing the Channel and buzzing the invasion beaches and DZs, we’re staying in Blighty. Today we’ll be visiting places in southern England with interesting links to D-Day and remembering those unlucky liberators that perished closer to friendly shores than hostile ones.
Strapped in? Splendid. The first point of interest on our flightpath is barely a mile from the end of Chivenor’s runway.
That tract of sand and scrub down there is Braunton Burrows, the largest dune system in England. In Autumn 1943 the Americans, noticing that the beaches in this corner of North Devon bore an uncanny resemblance to ‘Utah’ and ‘Omaha’, established their Assault Training Centre here. By D-Day over 10,000 US soldiers had been schooled in specially-devised beach assault techniques at the centre. See those five pale shapes next to the track? They’re concrete landing craft used by infantry and vehicles for embarkation and disembarkation practice.
A short hop westwards across the muddy Taw-Torridge estuary squats the perpetually excited holiday resort of Westward Ho! On the sands here, a spectacular D-Day might-have-been was put through its paces. Designed to gallop up beaches and blow breaches in the Atlantic Wall, the rocket-powered Great Panjandrum proved more dangerous to cameramen and canines than enemy fortifications. It was never used in anger.
Hang on to your Hoegaarden, we’re about to turn sharply to port. The next leg of the journey takes us south across the treeless wastes of Dartmoor to the South Devon coast.
Desolate eh? The granite pate below is High Willhays, the highest point on the Moor. In a couple of minutes we’ll be crossing Holming Beam Anti-Tank Range, the godforsaken gorsehole where the AT gunners of the American 4th and 29th Divisions practised Panzer puncturing in the run up to June 6.
Those sprawling china-clay pits at two-o’clock (Lee Moor Quarry) mean we’re approaching Dartmoor’s southern fringe. That’s Ivybridge in the middle-distance, a town with a rather tragic D-Day association. The small burg of Bedford, Virginia, lost more residents per head of population on June 6, than any other American community. Amongst the first ashore at Bloody Omaha, the so-called Bedford Boys were barracked in Ivybridge from May, ’43. Their last training sessions were conducted on the moorland near the town…
(from a marching song popular with local troops)
“I want to go again to the moors,
To follow their winding trails,
To stand again on their lonely slopes,
In the cold and the rain and the gales,
Oh, I’ll go out to the moors again,
But mind you and mark me well,
I’ll carry enough explosives,
To blow the place to hell.”
…and their last pints were supped, their last kisses snatched, in the cosy snugs of the King’s Arms and Sportsman’s Arms.
15 miles to the south-east is another Devon location forever haunted by painful D-Day memories.
In the small hours of April 28, 1944, nine German torpedo boats hunting in Lyme Bay, happened upon a flotilla of poorly protected American landing craft on manoeuvres. In the ensuing chaos, two LCTs were sunk, two more heavily damaged. By the time the E-boats turned for home 946 US servicemen were dead or dying in the debris-strewn water. Hushed up for years, the training catastrophe that was Exercise Tiger is now relatively well-known. If you look to your left as we fly along the shingle spine of Slapton Sands (Tiger’s objective) you should be able to make out the black bulk of a Sherman tank. The vehicle was raised from the deep in 1984, and now serves as a memorial to the tragedy.
We head north-east from here up the coast to the Exe estuary.
There’s no mistaking Dartmouth nestling in its steep-sided valley. In the days leading up to the landings, the town’s harbour would have been crowded with vessels. Protecting those vessels and the Royal Navy’s famous Britannia College (utilized in ’44 as a US HQ) from audacious Axis surface raiders was one of Britain’s only shore-based torpedo batteries.
I doubt there’s much I can tell you about Operation Deadstick that you don’t already know, but were you aware that the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry trained for their daring glider-borne swoop on the Pegasus and Horsa bridges, near Exeter? The rehearsals at the Countess Wear crossings (currently on our ten-o-clock) almost ended in farce after a pre-invasion pub-crawl finished up with many of the glider troops locked in police cells.
Our next nav point is due east. We should be there in approximately ten minutes. Feel free to coup de main the plates of sandwiches and sausage rolls Bill, the co-pilot/chief steward, has just laid out in the radio room.
Eyes left, ladies and gentlemen. We are currently passing the ammonite-studded cliffs of Burton Bradstock. It was to these sandy West Dorset ramparts that the US Rangers came to hone their climbing skills prior to Point du Hoc. While here they also tested one of WW2’s strangest AFVs – amphibious DUKWs fitted with telescopic ladders scrounged from London fire engines. The results of the tests are not known but on French soil the DUKWs proved to be of limited value.
“One DUKW was already sunk, and the other three could not get a footing on the shingle, which was covered with wet clay and thus rather like greased ball bearings. Only one ladder was extended. Sgt. William Stivinson climbed to the top to fire his machine gun. He was swaying back and forth like a metronome, German tracers whipping about him. Lt. Elmer “Dutch” Vermeer described the scene: “The ladder was swaying at about a forty-five-degree angle — both ways. Stivinson would fire short bursts as he passed over the cliff at the top of the arch, but the DUKW floundered so badly that they had to bring the fire ladder back down.”
If you were on Flare Path’s 70th Anniversary Dambusters Tour you’ll have recognised that last section of the coast. The 18-mile arc of Chesil Bank has brought us to one of the largest man-made harbours in the world. At the time of WW2, the site of a significant naval base, Portland Harbour incorporates two wonderfully preserved examples of Phoenix breakwaters (Close to our nose in the above pic). Part of the ingenious modular harbours towed across the Channel in the days following D-Day, the vast Phoenixes were designed to protect more vulnerable Mulberry elements like the ‘Spud’ piers and ‘Whale’ floating roadways. An appropriate moment to break out the postprandial mulberry gin? I think so.
That distinctive coastal bitemark is Lulworth Cove. In a moment we will cut inland following a finger of woodland to…
…Tyneham, a village depopulated not by Luftwaffe bombs, but by a Government eviction notice issued in late 1943. The 252 inhabitants of this sleepy Dorset hamlet were told they could return to their homes after the war, but the handback never happened. The Army compulsorily purchased the village in 1948, making it a permanent part of the Lulworth Ranges. Today most of the cottages are roofless shells. One of the only buildings to survive the excoriations of weather and weaponry is the parish church where, just before Christmas 1943, departing resident Evelyn Bond pinned-up the following message:
“Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”
Time to leave Tyneham and leap across the Isle of Purbeck and Poole Harbour to Lepe on the shore of the Solent.
You wouldn’t know it from looking at it, but much of the petrol that fuelled the bridgehead breakouts passed under this unremarkable stretch of beach. Lepe was the spot where PLUTO, an engineering marvel as brilliant in its own way as the Mulberry Harbours, first plunged into the sea (admittedly, before clambering ashore again on the Isle of Wight).
Talking of plunging into the sea, our next navpoint, Stokes Bay at Gosport, was the centre of Duplex Drive Tank training in the lead up to D-Day. If you were part of a British Sherman crew in Spring ’44 there was a very good chance you’d end-up in Gosport facing a trial similar to the one Stuart Hills memorably describes in his memoir ‘By Tank Into Normandy’.
“I had never particularly liked the sea and was more than a little afraid of water… I was therefore very apprehensive about going to sea in a tank. We loaded from the quay on to an LCT and a few hundred yards from the shore the ramp lowered, the screen inflated and the tank moved down the ramp into the water. The driver could tell when the tank was sea-borne because on his dash panel there was a white tube, similar to a condom, which inflated with the pressure of the water. Once afloat, he engaged third gear and we headed for the beach, which was generally the Isle of Wight. the freeboard on the Sherman was higher than on the Valentine, but this did not prevent us from shipping a good deal of water when the sea was choppy. In heavy swells the tank wallowed alarmingly and seemed liable to founder at any minute… More exercises followed, some of them when the weather was bad and the tides were indifferent. Tim Olphert became stuck on a sand-bar, and Monty Horley, another desert veteran, fired a round which landed very close to where an old lady lived, scaring the life out of her.”
The provision of a Royal Navy-style rum ration was of limited consolation. Exercising DD tanks did occasionally sink during bad weather. On April 4 six vehicles were lost, together with six of their crew.
Six miles east of Stokes Bay is Hayling Island, our penultimate ponder-place. Like many spots on the south coast, it was a busy Mulberry construction site. One caisson that never made it to Gold or Omaha, lies just off the sand bank down there.
But the real reason we’re here is the Sailing Club on the other side of the island. After the Dieppe débâcle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, established Combined Operations Pilotage Parties. Based at the Sailing Club, it was this secretive organisation that took on the perilous job of reconnoitring the D-Day beaches. Working on the darkest nights, operatives would travel across the Channel by midget submarine, then swim ashore to examine beach defences, measure topography, and take core samples. Deft searchlight dodgers and tireless tide battlers, COPPists may never have got the Hidden & Dangerous or Commandos levels they deserve, but they earned medals aplenty, and their bravery and sacrifice has recently been commemorated on the island they called home.
Fasten your seatbelts, that’s Thorney Island airfield up ahead. In June 1944 it was a buzzing beehive, constantly despatching and receiving lantern-jawed Hawker Typhoons. Today, slightly ironically, the RAF have gone and it’s home to an artillery regiment equipped with the British Army’s most potent short-range anti-aircraft weapon. Barring Starstreak-related mishaps, we’ll be touching down in a couple of minutes. I hope you enjoyed the flight and will consider joining me the next time Flare Path indulges in a spot of topical aero-archaeology.
The Flare Path Foxer
Last week’s perfectly synchronised flag party consisted of All is Well, Smion, Matchstick, Commander_Zeus, Beowulf, Stuart Walton, eeldvark, skink74 and Palindrome. Between them the duster busters identified…
a. Various military crosses
b. The twin bridges known as the Crescent City Connection
c. A Sord M5 computer
d. An M25 ‘Dragon Wagon’ tank transporter
e. An Angkor Wat plan
f. A Lockheed Super Constellation
g. Adler, one of Germany’s first steam locos
h. An AK-47
Roman, the chief foxer setter, is being a right morbid Maud at the moment. Ever since the staff outing to Bognor, during which he somehow managed to draw the ace of spades in eight successive games of pontoon, he’s been muttering about ‘mortal coils’, ‘allotted spans’ and the like. Yesterday I found him Street Viewing the locations where his personal heroes perished or were fatally injured. Eight of them are pinned up below. Name one of the featured fatalities to win a Flare Path flair point made from coffin nails and Nepalese funeral confetti.