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What emerges for me in Plymouth are two stories of America, both to do with sacrifice and both a demonstration of something deeply indicative of what we are about as a people.
And those two narrative timelines are separated by over three hundred years, but cement the strong ties between our two peoples – Plymothians (the adj. form of Plymouth natives) and us Yanks, that is – both fiercely independently minded, both embracing of diversity and the underdog, and both (setting aside, just for now, the most contentious contemporary political debates volleying back and on both sides of the ever increasing political chasm) ever happy to jump in and help to shepherd the poor, tired, huddled marginalised and oppressed masses of the world from a position of persecution to a place of opportunity.
This second, vital, more recent narrative, crystallises for me ever more clearly, minutes after Ian Rutherford, owner of Travel England tours, picks me up from Plymouth Station (whose signage proudly declares itself ‘Britain’s Nautical City’), bringing me back not 400, but barely 75 years into the area’s past, informing me that Plymouth and much of Cornwall only across the bay by ferry, were vital in preparation for the most momentous and one of the bloodiest and most horrific events in the whole of the second world war: The D-Day Landings in Normandy.
‘All through this area,’ Rutherford explains as we traverse the narrow, bumpy country roads that remind me so much of my rural Pennsylvanian adolescence, ‘was little America’. Residents of tiny coastal villages here in this swathe of the South West England were given six weeks’ notice to leave their homes so that the towns could be used to house mostly American soldiers training and preparing to surge against Hitler’s army in occupied France. GIs were then stationed here in the final months of the war, building barracks, paving and widening thoroughfares for tanks and, alongside the British navy, stuffing the harbour with LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks, waiting to take tanks and other armoured vehicles across to fight).
A chill runs down my spine and I feel the ghosts of history running over the sand as we sit on Slapton Sands and Rutherford narrates the story of Operation Tiger, the tragic – and long classified – loss of nearly 1000 lives owing first to friendly fire deaths as a result of two significant communications failures between the British and American armed forces preparing ultimately for Operation Overlord, and then to German E-boats, sensing vulnerability the next day, seizing on an opportunity to pick off and sink as many hostile naval craft as they could.
As the declassified records now tell us, Overlord was imminent in April of 1943, but General Eisenhower and his British counterparts were nervous after a series of rehearsal exercises that yielded unsatisfactory results. So a decision was made to use live ammunition, fired over the troops’ heads in order to better get them used to the real conditions for which they were preparing, the real sights, sounds and even smells of constant artillery fire. They had already chosen Slapton Beach for its similarities to Utah Beach in France, but now they needed to intensify the sense of authenticity for the soldiers, many of which had never seen battle before.
Owing possibly to the fact that some of the landing ships were delayed on the morning of April 27, or possibly some other reason lost to history, Admiral Don P Moon, in charge of operations in Slapton Beach, moved the start of the exercise from 7:30 to 8:30. At the same time, in order to avoid detection and messages being picked up by the enemy, Moon’s British counterparts decided to change the radio communication frequency. For reasons that also disintegrate under the magnifying glass of time, no one told the Americans that day. So the second wave, as Rutherford narrates to me, broadly gesturing to the now restored, breathtaking beaches of Devon, came under friendly fire and tragically suffering many losses.
Still handicapped by a lack of communication, Allied Forces came under fire the next morning by German E-boats patrol from Cherbourg who detected a convoy of LSTs that had been left without sufficient protection.
We sit and reflect a dozen feet away from blissfully unaware sun worshippers and holidaymakers lithely lying on the sand that cradled so many soldiers who eagerly volunteered, their eyes brimming with patriotic tears. I can’t help but think of and mention Tennyson - ‘not though the soldier knew someone had blundered… theirs not to reason why/theirs but to do and die’ - to Rutherford, which he thinks is apt, and proceeds to show me some of the poetry written by soldiers at the time, headily dedicated to the cause of standing with their brothers against oppressive forces.
And closer to home, it puts me in mind of my own personal heritage, of my father who wears his air force cap to theme parks and is regularly thanked for his service; of his father before him, already a family man when the second world war broke out but diligently serving as an air raid warden in Parsippany, New Jersey and of my other grandfather, a submarine electrician during the war, who often morbidly quipped to his family that he wanted to come back in one piece or not at all. It feels poignant. And sobering.
I leave Cornwall and Plymouth with a stirring sense of the role this area has had in American and world history and an unexpected feeling of personal connection that I suspect would be common to many American visitors: all of us have been shaped by the actions of the boys who risked and gave their lives when they set off on that important journey from a corner of the South West of England. As Tennyson puts it, ‘when can their glory fade?’.
Peter Lawler visited Slapton Sands as part of a wider look at the Plymouth area. Read it