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Exercise Tiger: The Forgotten Dead
Ken Small kept alive the story of one of the biggest disasters for American forces of World War II in a little known rehearsal for D-Day. His son Dean tells us about updating Ken’s book and looking after his legacy.
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Thank you for talking to us about your father’s book, The Forgotten Dead and Exercise Tiger. Could you start by telling us a little about what happened at Slapton Sands?
Of course. American forces had chosen Slapton Sands for ‘full scale, live fire practice landings’ in the lead up to D-Day’s Normandy landings. This was due to its similarity to Utah Beach in France. Slapton Sands would have been the final destination of the LST convoy taking part in Exercise Tiger. It was one of several planned assaults on Slapton Sands. Many of them were killed when the exercise went tragically wrong.
Your father, Ken Small, who wrote the original The Forgotten Dead had to fight a lot of his own battles to uncover the truth behind Exercise Tiger. As his son, what are your memories of that struggle?
This was a long time ago! In the 1970s, before the internet/email. I remember Dad spending hours on the telephone (at huge expense!) mostly in the early hours. It was the only realistic way for him to establish contacts who could potentially help him, both in the purchasing the Sherman Tank from the American government and uncovering the truth about Exercise Tiger. His struggle was mostly with bureaucracy and ‘red tape’. I think his biggest personal battle was dealing with his own frustration! I also remember hearing him on his typewriter for hours at a time. Old typewriters make a lot of noise!
Why do you think your father felt it was so important to create a lasting legacy to those American soldiers who lost their lives at Slapton Sands?
A great question! My dad was a sensitive and emotional man. There is no doubt in my mind that the discovery of the Sherman Tank and the story that subsequently unfolded (Exercise Tiger) was in some way my dad’s destiny. Suddenly, he became focused and determined. He was driven by the fact that so many young American servicemen had lost their lives unnecessarily. That their sacrifice had been covered up for so many years troubled him. What better way to make good the wrong than to uncover the truth and honour them with a lasting memorial.
You’ve recently updated The Forgotten Dead, and you’ve also taken on responsibility for the Sherman Tank which stands as a memorial at Slapton Sands. Has the legacy of this incident become an important part of your life too?
Yes. It was Bloomsbury Publishing that introduced me to their imprint Osprey Publishing. I was instantly impressed by their enthusiasm about The Forgotten Dead and their plans to update it. It now has a great new cover and most importantly includes several ‘survivor accounts’. I took on the responsibility of the Sherman Tank when my dad passed away in 2004, even though I had painted it many times in previous years. I remember my dad saying to me a few weeks before he passed away ‘son, one day this will all be yours,’ we both laughed! I think the reason for our laughter was that we both knew that he had dedicated over thirty years of his life to the Tank Memorial and the story of Exercise Tiger. How could I possibly step into his shoes? Truth is, no one could, it was his life. Every day (other than Christmas) he sat in his car next to the Tank, from dawn till dusk, speaking to literally thousands of visitors. I very much hope that my dad would be proud of my efforts to continue his legacy. I do so willingly and in the knowledge that family members of deceased loved ones and surviving veterans have a tangible place to pay their respects. I am often told how much that means to them. It has become a very important part of my life.
In the digital age, is it difficult to keep the memory of key historical events alive, and what can Brits and Americans in the UK do to safeguard those memories?
I think it is relatively easy to keep memories alive. In the case of Exercise Tiger and my dad’s book, we have a very informative website, www.exercisetiger.com, as well as the memorial site itself. It is a fact that very few Americans are unaware of the tragedy. I very much hope that I am able to maintain the Sherman Tank and improve the memorial site, which will inevitably require funding, and I would like to think this could come from both the USA and the UK. It is our duty to do whatever is needed to ensure that those who made the ultimate sacrifice are never forgotten.
2019 marks the 75th anniversary of Exercise Tiger - how will you be marking the occasion?
I am fortunate to have the help of The Royal Tank Regiment, who have organised the annual memorial service at the tank for some 30 years. It is held on the nearest Sunday to the 28th of April. We usually keep the service short, not too formal and most importantly respectful. I suspect that the 75th will be a larger event, hopefully attended by high ranking US Army and Navy representatives, along with local dignitaries. Very importantly there will also be a group of 25–30 visitors from the USA. Nearly all of them lost loved ones during the exercise. The group has been organised by Laurie Bolton who lost her uncle onboard LST 531, his body was never recovered. Laurie visits the UK every year to attend the memorial service and is a point of contact for veterans and family members of the Exercise Tiger community.
A slightly lesser known matter affecting Slapton is the recent erosion of one of the main roads to the village during the ‘Beast from the East’ storms. In terms of keeping the memories of Exercise Tiger alive, is the road’s continued maintenance important, and what can be done about it?
As I write this (9th August 2018) the work to repair/realign the road (A379) along Slapton Beach is underway. The work should be complete by the end of October. The importance of this road and the protection of it cannot be understated. Visitor numbers to the Sherman Tank have significantly reduced as many people travel to it by coach from the Torquay and Paignton hotels. Their journey to Torcross would normally be around 40 minutes but now it can be almost double that. The local community very much hopes that the government will continue to support the ongoing maintenance of the road. Unfortunately, funding has not been provided to ‘protect’ the road, only to repair it.
What do you hope readers of The Forgotten Dead and visitors to Slapton Sands take away from the experience?
That an ordinary and humble person started out on a journey of discovery and though hurdles were put in his way he never gave up. At the end of the book you will see a list of those who lost their lives. From that we should take away a feeling of sorrow and respect as we remember them. I hope visitors to the memorial in Torcross clear their mind as they look along the 2.5-mile-long beautiful beach and try to imagine what it was like all those years ago.
Donations for the memorial site can be made at www.exercisetiger.com, whilst copies of The Forgotten Dead are available from the Osprey Publishing website, www.ospreypublishing.com/the-forgotten-dead, and all good book shops.