THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
The WW2 US Assault Training Center in Devon
Richard Bass of the ‘Friends of the Assault Training Center’ in North Devon explains how American soldiers in Devon prepared for D-Day
The US Assault Training Center was a truly unique establishment. It was the only one of its kind in wartime Great Britain where American soldiers learned, trained and practised newly developed amphibious assault tactics to lead the assault across the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, 6th June 1944.
In 1943 its formation came about through sheer necessity, following an unforgivable oversight at the very highest level of American war planning which had assumed troops destined to lead the invasion of Europe would arrive in Britain already trained for their task. Realisation this was not the case created a tense situation that had to be urgently rectified as the proposed date for the invasion of Europe was only a few months ahead.
The American high command had to select an individual with the right qualifications, experience and personality who could head up this task. Combing personnel files the name of Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. Thompson stood out. He was a career engineer soldier, graduating from West Point in 1929, and had spent 1935 to 1937 in Nazi Germany as a military attaché to the United States embassy in Berlin where he had spent a period of attachment with the German 16th Engineer Battalion learning their theory and practice of defensive fortifications. He was described by General John C.H. Lee, commanding Service of Supplies, ETO as “our best informed officer on German technique, organization and tactics”.
Creating a new US Army doctrine
Thompson was kicking his heels behind a military desk in the Intelligence branch, Office of the Chief Engineer in Washington D.C., frustrated at the prospect of the war passing him by with no opportunity to see action, so eagerly accepted the appointment to create and run an Assault Training Center. Arriving in England in January 1943 he discovered that “the Assault Training Center turned out to be little more than a gleam in the eye of the Theater G-3 (Operations section)”. He was confirmed in his title as Commandant of the Assault Training Center, which was activated on 2nd April 1943 and at that stage existed only on paper, but by the end of April 1943 after considerable work in thrashing out just what was expected of him, his mission was finally committed to paper by the European Theatre of Operations headquarters on 6th May 1943, coinciding with Thompson’s promotion to full Colonel.
His mission was two-fold. Firstly, to produce a doctrine for assaulting a heavily defended enemy coastline and establish a beachhead, and having done that from scratch, he then had to train combat troops in those principles. Thompson soon recognised as Commandant of the only American establishment tasked with training soldiers for the invasion of Europe that the very success or failure of the American D-Day landings lay fully upon his shoulders.
His initial research showed that no principle existed within the US Army for assaulting a heavily fortified and defensively prepared coastline, and the only published advice in a US Army Field Manual was ... “Fortified areas are avoided in the initial assault and taken from the rear". Colonel Chase the Assault Training Center’s Chief of training later remarked “nice work if you can get it”. Therefore assaulting the enemy held coastline of Normandy required not only the creation of a new and unique doctrine but also the training of thousands of troops in those principles, and time was short. British and Canadian troops were already well advanced in their training programmes and Allied war planners were steadily evolving logistical solutions for the greatest amphibious assault in military history, except American troops weren’t ready.
The Assault Training Center’s assault doctrine was developed by a conference Thompson convened on 23rd May 1943 to run for a whole month. Military experts were seconded from every Allied service to thrash out a workable method for the Americans to neutralise German defences on their assigned beaches in Normandy. Ordered by Thompson and organised by Colonel Lucius P. Chase, the conference called on speakers from experimental projects, Allied army, navy and air forces and intelligence sources. The conference amassed vast amounts of data and photographs to be analysed, and drew upon the combat experience of commanders of similar amphibious landings, including the raid on Dieppe. The British regarded this as a disaster whereas the Americans believed it to be a partial success because “at least the tanks got ashore”.
Thompson’s conference delegates considered every aspect of the problem, especially the terrain and topography to be encountered on the Normandy beaches selected for the American assault. This was probably the most crucial element that dictated the whole doctrine, for unlike the British and Canadian assaults destined to cross sandy beaches onto undulating grass lands, the Americans would be faced with steep bluffs and only a few narrow valleys leading off the beach to the plateau above “Omaha”. “Utah” beach had different problems of topography with a low dune line behind the beach and then a vast area of flooded farm land with only four causeways across it compelling invading forces to concentrate on securing and using those causeways to take the fight inland. So while the British and Canadians could immediately use their tanks, the Americans had to seize the valleys and causeways leading off their beaches, leaving them no alternative but to attack the defences with infantry, and land their tanks once access off the beach had been secured.
The new doctrine was slowly being shaped not only by terrain characteristics restricting the conventional use of armour and infantry but also by a universal lack of large landing craft. Providentially there was an available surplus of the humble LCVP, a thirty man capacity craft which proved to be the mainstay of the doctrine that was taking shape. This was in accord with the conference conclusion that ... “the outcome of the final assault on beach defences will depend on small unit leadership and thorough training and determination of individual soldiers and small groups to a much larger extent than is normally the case”.
By the end of April 1943 the doctrine was written together with a three week training schedule the conference determined was necessary to adequately train soldiers in these new tactics. The technique for direct assault to be taught at the Assault Training Center followed a general plan ... “Infantry to be reorganized into assault sections; with flamethrowers and high explosive teams being the heart of the assault section”.
Once the doctrine had been finalised, principles of training were addressed. An Assault Training Center (ATC) resident “School Battalion” was created from various sections of the 156th Infantry Regiment. They tested the training programme for a month at Woolacombe when it was found that only a few minor alterations were necessary to individual lesson plans, so the Assault Training Center was ready for its first trainees on September 1st 1943. Colonel Myles W. Brewster recorded that the first combat troops to attend the ATC were the cadre of the 29th Infantry Division that trained for ten days prior to the arrival of their Regimental Combat Team (RCT). “Then under supervision of ATC personnel, this cadre trained the RCT. While the 1st RCT was being trained, the cadre of the 2nd RCT was trained. It, in turn, trained the second RCT. This was the procedure of training of all RCTs. The cadre of an RCT would train with the current RCT, then train its own RCT”.
Amphibious assaults required the closest co-operation of the US Navy who were approached at the earliest opportunity to participate in planning. Across the estuary, opposite the army site were established small British naval bases at Appledore and Instow which appeared to the army to adequately meet the navy’s anticipated needs, but the navy thought otherwise and were almost obstructive in taking them over. This reluctance to assist and support the army continued for some months until the commanding officer was changed. Navy landing craft crews eventually took advantage of army activities and ran their own training courses of between two and four weeks depending upon the army’s requirements and the weather. At the height of activity the US Navy had 60 LCVPs, 16 LCMs and 7 LCTs at Appledore and Instow with a complement of 60 officers and 700 men.
While deliberations to produce this firm doctrine had been taking place, negotiations to secure a suitable training ground had also been under way, but it hadn’t been easy. All good training areas had already been claimed by the British so Thompson had no choice but to accept the Atlantic coast around Woolacombe, in North Devon, a coastline the British judged far too rough and stormy for training. Thompson despatched Major Allen G. Pixton with three colleagues to view the discarded British site to assess its suitability for American uses. Pixton remembers that journey “we travelled in a British Army sedan with a female soldier driver. At that time there were no road or direction signs in all of England so we had a difficult time finding our way to Woolacombe”. But as their site investigation concluded, it became clear that Woolacombe was absolutely ideal for the ATC’s intended purposes. Beach characteristics and size, rise and fall of the tides, harbouring for naval craft, suitable inland terrain, and it was conveniently accessible for the American divisions to be trained as most were already quartered in the south west peninsula.
The boundary of the land Thompson required for full-scale military manoeuvres followed the railway line south for seven miles from Mortehoe Station to Braunton. Every acre to the west of this line he needed for exercises and rehearsals using live ammunition, explosives, tanks, artillery and air support. But nestling in this region were several peaceful, picturesque Devon villages - Croyde, Putsborough, Georgeham and Saunton. The task before Thompson at this stage included not only the neutralisation of enemy beach defences, but also the fight inland off the beaches, these settlements were in his way and he suggested their evacuation. This was deflected by the American High Command, telling him he just had to be careful with live firing and that his mission had been reduced.
He no longer had to teach troops to fight their way inland past the enemy beach defences, just get them through the coastal fortifications. There were several reasons for this dramatic change. The American High Command had found an alternative area where amphibious-landed troops would assume the beach defences had been overcome and could practice the establishment of a bridgehead and movement inland. That area lay just behind Slapton beach in South Devon. A more sinister reason for curtailing Thompson’s initial two-fold mission was the higher command’s revised estimates of casualty rates which they now believed would leave the assaulting units fully spent after the assault, and establishment of the bridgehead would have to rely upon rapid reinforcement. The mission reduction however was a relief for the ATC staff who could now concentrate their efforts to organise and write training programmes, lessons, exercises and practical problems for the infantry and engineers in their individual and combined tasks to hit the enemy shore and break through the crust of beach defences.
Constructing the Assault Training Center and Training Begins
Eventually the land was officially handed to the Americans but before any construction could take place American army engineers had to locate and clear British mines scattered along the shoreline during the 1940 fear of a German invasion. The existing network of narrow country lanes was assessed for movement of troops, trucks and tanks, some being so narrow for military traffic they were designated one-way. For ease of navigation road junctions were numbered, and where no roads existed new temporary tracks were constructed.
Driving in narrow Devon lanes presented real problems for some Americans, especially tank drivers of the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron who were temporarily attached to the Assault Training Center. On 24th February 1944 Technician Sergeant Robert L. Denny of F Company drove a tank from Georgeham towards Croyde, colliding with a stone wall outside Croyde Stores causing an estimated £10.00’s worth of damage. At the subsequent inquiry it was found that Denny was drunk and had taken the tank without authorisation. Just over a month later Technician Fifth Grade Guy M. Elrod of the same company collided with a car driven by a Polish pilot from 304 Squadron, RAF Chivenor. And it wasn’t only tank drivers who found difficulty in negotiating lanes around Croyde and Georgeham. A local farmer reported his van was hit on 7th January 1944 by an American jeep driven by T5 Melvin Silvia of L Company, 156th Infantry Regiment, and on 1st March 1944 Private Alvin J Guidry of Cannon Company, 156th Infantry Regiment collided his jeep with a car driven by the Braunton doctor.
Beaches within the reservation were ideal for basic and advanced amphibious exercises despite the fierce Atlantic surf, and Woolacombe Sands was found to be identical to “Omaha” in nearly every respect of sand quality, beach gradient, and tide range. Major Russ Finn remembers “when I first saw the beach (Woolacombe) I thought I was in California or Florida. It seemed to be an ideal vacation site”.
Training troops to successfully overcome enemy beach defences required ranges for all weapons that would be used in the assault to ensure proficiency in handling, accuracy and repeated exercises in tactics of the new doctrine against accurate replicas of what they would encounter on the enemy shore. Construction of these ranges and training aids - mostly replicas of German pillboxes - had to be done quickly as the training schedule already drawn up had the first units arriving in North Devon on 1st September 1943. To build them US Army Southern Base Section had assigned the 398th Engineer General Service Regiment who had only just arrived in England ... “On August 7th we located ourselves on a hill a mile west of Braunton, North Devon. In fields bounded by stone walls, we pitched our pup tents for the first time on European soil. At night we learned that English soil was no softer than that found in United States on bivouac problems”.
With winter looming, a permanent camp for trainees was needed and just outside Braunton the 398th constructed ... “ 505 Nissen huts for quarters, dispensaries, showers, ablutions and mess halls to comprise a camp capable of housing 4250 men. We laid 5000 feet of sewer line and 8700 feet of water line”. But by mid-October the camp was still only 65% completed with an estimated completion date at the end of that month, ready for the 115th Regimental Combat Team troops to take up residence. By early November the British weather was so bad that the roads were becoming rough, deteriorating and mud was becoming the number one problem.
The Assault Training Center had a progressive, fluid policy based on the early receipt of intelligence on German beach defences so they could immediately produce counter tactics. As a consequence of this constant up-dating, layouts of some training aids were altered, some added to, others removed or even abandoned between September 1943 and March 1944. The 398th Engineers had moved on before units arrived for training and their place was taken by the 146th Engineer Combat Battalion assuming the responsibility of maintenance and construction of the entire site. They found it took too long to replace or repair replica pillboxes that were constantly being attacked, damaged or destroyed by troops under training so devised an alternative. Concrete “faces” – pillbox sized solid concrete blocks with a sculpted or painted embrasure as an aiming point. These could be quickly and easily repaired by the simple application of an additional layer of concrete to the damaged area.
Breaking Through Fortress Europe
As soon as France had been overrun in May 1940 the Germans had carried out detailed topographical surveys of the French Channel coastline, identifying all the natural strong points which were reinforced to create a deadly chain of defences. The Germans then had several years to become acquainted with the area, time to zero their artillery, mortars and machine guns across the open beaches and cover weak spots with minefields and wire entanglements. Every draw and gulley, every valley and stream bed leading inland off the shore was covered by fire from concrete pillboxes. In one four mile stretch of “Omaha” beach alone there were 128 defensive positions. In front of them on the sand were mile upon mile of parallel lines of anti-invasion obstacles of steel and concrete. They were monstrous steel and concrete traps designed to ensnare and repel any seaborne assault and slow their advance allowing defenders to destroy them by concentrated overlapping arcs of fire.
All this had been considered by the doctrine conference and the beach obstacles were truly daunting for combat engineers to deal with under fire. Czech Hedgehogs were one of the most common German beach defences. Constructed of three 4 foot lengths of heavy gauge steel angle, two secured in a cross with a bracing plate and the third at right angles through this centre plate and sometimes topped with a “Teller” anti-tank mine they were intended to disembowel and sink landing craft as well as being an effective anti-tank obstacle. Tetrahydra were constructed of heavy gauge angle iron or concrete, standing about 4 ½ feet high with a triangular base forming a three sided pyramid topped with a spiked steel cap, again intended to disembowel landing craft and act as an anti-tank obstacle. Mined stakes were one of the simplest and most numerous anti-invasion obstacles, seven feet long, angled seawards just under the high tide level. Some were topped with a “Teller” anti-tank mine secured by quarter inch steel bands and fitted with a strong spring to prevent the sea from detonating the mine. Others had a serrated steel blade to cut open landing craft. Timber ramps were twenty foot long heavy timbers inclined seawards supported by a ten foot high upright and a shell attached to the peak with the intention of impaling landing craft and Element “C” also known as “Belgian gates” were constructed of six inch steel girders in a form ten feet wide, fourteen feet deep with cross braces and three ten foot high horns to tear open landing craft.
The task of blowing gaps in these obstacles to allow infantry landing craft to reach the shore lay with the combat engineers and were all replicated at the Assault Training Center where experiments were carried out to determine exactly how much explosive was required and where it should be attached to destroy it.
Fortifications and defences fronted by these obstacles presented a seemingly impregnable line and the attacking Americans had to fight their way past and through these obstacles before confronting pillboxes and bunkers. The doctrine conference had realised the importance of tanks in the initial assault to support the infantry although their presence in the very first waves wasn’t calculated into the Infantry Assault Sections’ method of dealing with enemy pillboxes. Tanks would be in separate craft from the infantry and only scheduled into the first support waves, so initially engineers and infantry would be alone on the beach facing the enemy’s gunfire with no large calibre support.
Major Reginald Page was ... “in charge of the training of Engineer troops for the assault wave of the invasion, whose mission was the removal of obstacles to the landing of the main body. We had good intelligence from low-level aerial photography, and from personal scouting of the Normandy beaches by men landed from submarines ... We got technical advice from the US Chief of Engineers as to the quantity and placement of explosives”.
Reality and safety had both to be considered. Live ammunition and explosives were used at every opportunity but during landing exercises where instructors played the role of enemy defenders blank ammunition was issued with strict orders that ... “it will not be fired closer than 20 yds to personnel” and ... “Physical contact between members of opposing forces is prohibited”. To ensure that all participants obtained the maximum training, casualties were not assessed but ... “In order to permit essential training of the battalion medical detachment with the landing team, designated personnel of the defending forces at each pillbox will, after the pillbox has been assaulted, be tagged by the umpire at the pillbox, the tag showing the type of wound. The tagged personnel will remove their red hatbands and remain in vicinity of the pill-box, and thereafter emulate and be considered as casualties of the landing team and will be treated and handled by the medical personnel of the landing team as such”.
Assault Sections were the very backbone of the Assault Training Center’s doctrine. Comprising thirty infantrymen, divided into eight teams, each trained in specific skills which together worked as a self-contained unit. The Assault Section was ... “designed for frontal attack upon enemy fortified position, depending upon a system of coordinated fires to advance a highly specialized group to destroy the enemy fortifications. The section is not designed for thorough mopping up but for breaching the enemy "crust" of defense”.
Each Assault Section was commanded by a lieutenant as section leader assisted by a sergeant, second in command of the section. The section itself consisted of sub-teams. Riflemen armed with either a bolt action rifle or their preferred choice of a self-loading rifle – the M1 Garand which performed well under rough conditions, and one practical advantage of this rugged design was that the gas operated reloading mechanism could be stripped and re-assembled using only the point of a bullet. Fed from an eight round magazine it could fire at the rate of thirty rounds a minute.
The wire-cutting team carried Bangalore torpedoes to blow gaps in barbed wire or blow a path through a minefield. A simple British invention, they were metal tubes filled with explosive and could be linked together. By D-Day they were considered obsolete by the British who had developed more sophisticated means of blowing gaps in wire entanglements but they were ideal for the ATC tactics.
The Assault Training Center adopted the anti-tank “Bazooka” which fired a hollow charge warhead rocket which could penetrate most side and rear armour at a limited range. But they recognised the potential of firing a projectile through the embrasure of a pillbox to quickly neutralise it or cause the occupants to close the embrasure thus enabling the demolition team to approach.
Flamethrowers were a fearsome weapon and adopted by the Assault Training Center as their use would encourage pillbox defenders to “button-up”, closing embrasures and doors thereby allowing the demolition team to rush the building with their explosive charges. These were “Pole Charges”, simply a number of 1/2 pound TNT blocks taped to a ten inch square board on a swivel headed pole. The intention being that a demolition team member would run forward once a pillbox had “buttoned up”, lodge it against a door or embrasure, ignite the time fuse and rapidly retire.
Overcoming All Obstacles
Trainee soldiers were young, fit men but the “Infantry Assault Teams” had to be at the peak of physical fitness, and to monitor this they were subjected to strength and endurance tests known as “burp-up” exercises. Passing this earned them the “Expert Infantryman’s Badge” and an extra $10.00 in their monthly pay, failure resulted in a transfer to a non-combat unit. To qualify for this coveted badge the 100 yard run had to be made in 12 seconds, doing 35 push ups and 10 chin ups, completing the obstacle course within the target time as well as qualifying on pistol, rifle and machine gun ranges. Some found this relatively easy to achieve and a limited amount of cheating was ignored to retain suitable men.
The obstacle course was over 800 yards long, stretching over sand dunes in the shape of a horseshoe, travelling south taking a semicircular turn to the right before heading north so that the beginning and end of the course were only 100 yards apart. The course was ten yards wide and run in teams of five abreast. Originally it was designed to acquaint soldiers with obstacles that may be encountered on crossing the beaches but later additions included obstacles to be found onboard ship such as ships ladders and cargo nets. Not only was it a test of the troops’ physical condition but it encouraged team work as well as individual proficiency and brought into play muscles neglected by the general physical training of an infantry division as arm, chest and stomach muscles were strengthened by tugging and pulling on walls, ladders and ropes.
The southern part of the Assault Training Center, behind Saunton beach named Braunton Burrows, comprised a vast expanse of shifting sand dunes and slacks which contained over fifty live-firing ranges and dummy pillbox clusters where infantrymen were taught, step-by-step, the individual tasks of their sub-team and once mastered they progressed onto exercises and practical problems alongside the other sub-teams as a fully co-ordinated “Assault Section”.
At the most southern part of Braunton Burrows on Broadsands beach were many structures associated with elementary lessons of vessel embarkation, loading and debarkation highlighting the Assault Training Center’s emphasis on swiftly familiarising infantry soldiers with the amphibious element of a beach assault and these lessons were first on the training schedule of every unit. This shoreline provided a sheltered loading area whatever the weather or state of the tide and it was from these beaches that all landing craft embarkations took place, setting out seawards across the treacherous Bideford Bar, if it was negotiable, before heading north for landings on Saunton, Croyde or Woolacombe beaches.
Between here and the town of Appledore across the estuary was moored the USS "President Warfield". As a Chesapeake Bay steamer she had peacefully plied her trade of ferrying cars and passengers between small harbours along the Virginia shoreline until the summer of 1942 when US War Shipping administration claimed her, and after modifications she sailed for England. For her first few months in England she was moored at Instow, Devon, where, fast in the mud at low tide she served as a Combined Operations training and barracks ship. In July 1943 the ship was reclaimed by the United States and became USS. "President Warfield" (IX-169). In April 1944 she was moved to Barry Roads to continue her training role as an assault boat training base, crossing the Channel on D+30 to serve as a station and accommodation ship for harbour control. In 1947 "Warfield" began transporting Jewish emigrants to Palestine having been renamed "Exodus" by her new owners, and starred in the book by Leon Uris and the subsequent cinema film".
Units destined to spearhead the Normandy landings, the 1st, 4th and 29th Infantry Divisions plus miscellaneous units to be involved in the first waves all trained here but facilities used by the Assault Training Center were also available to units other than the seaborne invasion spearhead units under training and in April 1944 ... “two groups of about 1000 men each from the 101st Airborne Division each received five days training. They were made up of composite units so that companies spread throughout the division would be trained. Again both the (ATC) staff and the 101st felt it was valuable and regretted that more of them were not able to be in on it. Their assault training did not include dropping or landing by glider and of course no amphibious work. It assumed they had reached the area of their objective and started from that point. They did not use the 30 man assault team (based on the capacity of the LCVP), but proposed teams of parachute infantry platoons consisting of two officers and 35 men and glider infantry platoons of one officer and 46 men. A special area was turned over to them for their final assault problem and this was in the nature of a rehearsal. They showed exceptional energy and enthusiasm”. Their rehearsal area was a replica of the German field artillery position at St Martin de Varreville in Normandy, one of the D-Day objectives of the 101st. Despite this detailed rehearsal, on D-Day airborne troops simply by-passed this position.
The promontory of Baggy Point was a late addition to the Assault Training Center’s training areas when a need for Company sized rehearsals was identified. This was noted by the ATC on 25th October 1943 and the highest priority was given to constructing the necessary training aids. Just over two weeks later the ATC Diary Notes ... "A new type of exercise has been added to our training which is that of the assault company. It was found that there was too great a gap from the training in individual and team assault to the complete battalion exercise. The company exercises are held in the Baggy Point area and live ammunition is used”.
To create this new exercise range some of the original farm banks and hedges were removed and the gaps can still be seen today. Three huge concrete blocks representing enemy pillboxes are situated within the boundary hedgeline and behind the main training area are several smaller training “faces”. Fingered into the wet concrete of one is the name, A.A. Augustine. His unit was responsible for many of the constructions in the Assault Training Center, and landed ahead of the infantry on the enemy shore. Private Alfred A. Augustine, Company B, 146th Engineer Combat Battalion was killed in action on “Omaha” beach on D-Day.
At the very tip of the headland was the Observation House which only exists today as a low sandy mound with some mortared brickwork protruding above ground level and the Troop Shelter was never a construction, just a wall of sandbags along the rim of a disused quarry on the cliff top. Ranger battalions tasked with destroying the troop shelter confounded the exercise umpires by taking an unexpected approach across the cliff face from Croyde and took the position from the rear.
As the Rangers proved, there were uses for the cliffs of Baggy Point but the ATC had already noticed them. The Assault Training Center Diary Notes for 22nd October 1943 explains their pioneering work ... “The practice of landing small groups by rubber boats in odd places has been sufficiently successful, to lead, to the attempt to make a much more important factor of it. It is referred to as “Infiltration Landings”. In several of the early trials he (Captain Melody) made successful landings on the rocks of Baggy Point. About the first of September 1943, a “raider” section of one officer and 29 men was set up for specialized training in raider tactics and techniques. The mission was to land on rocky shores, inaccessible to ordinary craft and establish a small bridgehead. The experiment was so successful that an infantry company is now being trained in these tactics. The ultimate aim is to make this nucleus of a larger group which will land on an unfavorable - hence weakly defended coast, and establish a strong bridgehead which will neutralize enemy coast artillery fire on the assault troops on the beaches. Note that the concept has departed from that of raiding in its usual sense. These forces, to be known as infiltration troops, are not to be hit and run - but to hold on to what they seize till the main force can take over. In this point they resemble airborne units and are in fact, intended to be used in conjunction with them. They carry enough supplies for 48 to 72 hours - counting on resupply over the beaches or by air as the situation permits”.
So already the Assault Training Center had pre-empted Ranger operations and undoubtedly their experience greatly assisted those Rangers who tackled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc in Normandy on D-Day.
The international golf course at Saunton was included within the ATC reservation and the clubhouse housed elements of the 146th Engineer Combat Battalion, the equipment sheds were workshops and the course itself went under concrete as a motor pool, tank park and flamethrower range.
Around the eastern edge of Saunton golf course were several training aids including the Obstacle Course and “Ship Sides”. These were three huge scaffold towers, draped with cargo nets where troops practiced their descent into landing craft.
Adjacent to the golf course was the “Hedgehog”. The culmination of every three week training course resulted in this area being assaulted by the trainees tackling twelve individual obstacles or fortifications which had to be overcome by the Infantry Assault Teams assisted by tanks, artillery and air attack. 1st Lt Gordon S Ierardi’s fact finding mission in October 1943 included watching a hedgehog assault ... "This involved the use of foot troops and tank destroyers who assault and overwhelm two succeeding groups of pillboxes and hills. The exercise began at 1:30 with 105mm artillery laying down a barrage on the positions to be attacked. Three Spitfires then attacked the pillboxes, spraying them with a concentrated fire from their machine guns. The artillery then laid down a barrage of white phosphorous smoke shells which covered the scene. The 81mm and 60mm mortar crews then went into action, while the first wave of foot soldiers swept forward. They were well camouflaged with faces painted and foliage inserted in their helmet nets. As they crept ahead, the artillery of the tanks and tank destroyers went into action with their 3 inch guns. As the infantry moved closer to their objective they threw smoke grenades which concealed their further progress. As they arrived at the pillboxes, the assault platoons went into action, the wire cutting team, the Bangalore demolition team, the flamethrowers and the machine guns”.
On the wire cutting range instruction was not only given in the use of Bangalore torpedoes to blow gaps in barbed wire entanglements but included safe movement across minefields on the approach as it was known that German wire defences were preceded by anti-personnel minefields. In December 1943 an analysis of ATC notes and diary entries were made by 2nd Lt William J Fox and found the course involving mines had been modified … “because it was felt our troops were becoming too mine-conscious, and as a result, over-cautious. It is felt that they must be more aggressive, take the risk with the mines not exploded on the beaches, and move forward quickly, avoiding the greater risk of remaining exposed and easy targets for too long”. On the mine and booby trap range platoons were rotated. One would lay a field of anti-tank and anti-personnel dummy mines detonating thunder flashes for effect, and a second platoon would clear it. Gaps were marked with tracing tape and also a single strand of barbed wire strung through the top eyes of long screw pickets set along each side of the gap. “After a vehicle gap has been made through a minefield, the platoon leader will have a truck driven through the gap to test thoroughness of the clearing. The floor of the driver’s compartment will be sandbagged prior to this operation”.
Training in Earnest
The seaside town of Woolacombe was hardly touched by the war. The inhabitants had enjoyed the presence of various rear echelon British units, watched convoys steam across the bay and relied upon their Home Guard to keep them safe at night but that all changed with the American arrival in August 1943. The Assault Training Center’s headquarters was ensconced in the Woolacombe Bay Hotel with the town’s boarding houses accommodating many staff officers.
The three mile long sandy beach was now divided into four beaches. Blue Beach was at Putsborough in the south, Red Beach was directly in front of the town, between them were Green Beach and Yellow Beach which were the two main destinations for full-scale amphibious assault landings once the troops had learned, practised and mastered their new tactics. The first formal landing exercise had been made on 14th October by “School troops” on Woolacombe sands and it was recorded that ... "Colonel Thompson was the first American to step ashore and the inexperienced troops were judged enthusiastic doing well, and the Navy personnel handled their craft well in the surf conditions”.
The area of flat sand and scrub immediately behind the beach and below the American constructed road that is now Marine Drive was divided, chequer board style, into small exercise areas, each containing different types of obstacles that engineers and infantry would encounter on the enemy shore and where they learned and practised demolition, mine-laying and mine-removal techniques. Time was devoted to the demolition of underwater obstacles and an area was set aside at the southern end of “Blue Beach” below Putsborough. Engineer squads would collect scrap pipe, rail and wooden piling, set them in shallow water, then make up charges, place and fire them. The ATC noted ... "experiments on passage of underwater obstacles have taken on an increased importance because the Germans have begun to use them to a much greater extent”. While engineers under training continued with routine obstacle demolition lessons and practical exercises the 1278th and 299th engineers undertook experiments in conjunction with a tank company and some naval elements to produce counter tactics against this new German threat.
Woolacombe Sands saw some of the most intense, large scale military activity of the Assault Training Center and on Thursday 28th October 1943, Lieutenant Gordon S Ierardi ... "accompanied and witnessed an assault attack on Woolacombe beach by five infantry companies who landed from DUKWs. Saw the loading and rode with the men into the assault onto the beach. As explained to me by Colonel Ely, the purpose of the attack was to hold the captured bridgehead and the hills back of the beach. The group attacking the left flank were to be held up while the two groups attacking the center and the right flank were to be permitted to reach the top of the hills, which were their objectives. If the center companies gain the top of their hill and then swing off and encircle the left hill, relieving the left companies who are under fire from the hill, and thus permitting them to advance, the problem is a success and the attackers have won. If the center attackers reach the top of their hill, hold it, and maintain a strong reserve, the problem is considered a draw. If the center attackers achieve the top of their height and then swing away off to the right or continue their advance forward, it is assumed that the whole attacking force would be split and the beachhead lost. The attacking force followed the correct course and the problem was adjudged in their favor. The unit which carried out this exercise was the 2nd Battalion of the 116th Infantry”.
This was Field Exercise #1 and assaulting formations were given detailed information in order to plan their attack which, unknown to them, was exactly like the real invasion plan. The attackers were to assume that a Ranger battalion had seized the high ground on their flanks and destroyed fixed guns that threatened their landing. The British forces were to their left, and their landing was to be in daylight. Realism was added too by the presence of School Troops at the “enemy” fortifications - and they had their orders too. They were allowed a generous amount of blank ammunition for machine gun and anti-tank weapons, and instructed to loose off parachute flares in order to confuse signals of the landing force as well as laying trip wires connected to small sticks of explosive in the barbed wire.
The beach at “Woolacombe Red” was too dangerous for amphibious assault landings because of its proximity to the rocks and was used as a buffer zone for craft that were swept off their designated landing spots. On 18th December 1943 during one beach landing exercise a fatal incident occurred. Casualties were from 743rd Tank Battalion who lost 7 men and the US Navy lost three sailors. This tragedy is recalled by Major Pixton who ... “was unable to be on the beach as the initial waves were coming ashore, but was in my office on the third floor of the headquarters hotel, the office facing the beach. I looked out the window to see the waves of landing craft approaching the beach. Off to my right were three landing craft by themselves which were much too far to the north of the beach area and were heading directly for the rocks. The landing craft were LCMs, which were designed for carrying a tank, a truck, a couple of jeeps, or personnel. Each of these three LCMs was carrying a tank. They waited until they were close to the rocks before they took any action. Then as if by command, all three of them turned to their right toward the sandy part of the beach area. By then they were inside the line of breaking waves. The minute I saw them I yelled at an assistant who was in the office to bring me my chest waders immediately. As I was putting them on I was watching the three landing craft and the inevitable happened. Because the surf waves were big that day, and the landing craft were travelling parallel to the waves, all three of them capsized. I ran to the beach to help in any way possible, but there was nothing which could be done at that time. The tide was in and the surf was heavy. We had to wait until the tide receded before we could do anything. There were fourteen men killed that day in that incident, nine soldier tank crewmen and five Navy landing craft crewmen. I personally pulled nine drowned tank crewmen out through the turrets of the three tanks. Lifting that dead weight was extremely difficult. We also had to turn over the upside down landing craft so they could be recovered and removed. That was the most physically exhausting day of my life, as well as the emotional strain which accompanies such incidents. To my knowledge that was the single most costly training accident we ever had at the training center”.
Today, overlooking this beach is the Assault Training Center memorial which was dedicated in May 1992 by Brigadier General Paul W. Thompson. The inscription reads ... “On the sixth of June 1944 three Allied armies - British, Canadian and American invaded the continent of Europe over the heavily fortified beaches of Normandy - It was the greatest amphibious assault in military history and was a decisive battle of World War II - In the autumn of 1943 the United States Army Assault Training Center was established at Woolacombe with headquarters in the village and encompassed Woolacombe and Saunton Sands their adjacent hinterlands and the sea approaches - This memorial is dedicated to those thousands of American soldiers whose preparation on the sands of Woolacombe and Saunton in the months preceding D-Day carried them to glorious victory on the sands of Normandy.”
Overlooking Woolacombe is Morte Point a gigantic rocky headland which formed the most northern practical boundary of the Assault Training Center and became an artillery target.
Major Russell T. Finn joined the Assault Training Center staff in early 1943 as head of the artillery section and was almost immediately confronted by the problem of supplementing direct fire onto enemy fortifications as the assault waves closed on the shore. And he came up with an ingenious scheme. He remembers ... “To the best of my knowledge artillery had never before been fired from landing craft. The ATC experimented with the idea and had a partial solution. The difficulty with firing land based artillery pieces from landing craft is the lack of a stable platform. The two requisites, direction and distance (range) are the same whether on land or sea. The landing craft can be moved in the general direction of the target and the range can be determined with range finders on the craft. The range is normally set on the cannon by means of levelling a bubble. The solution we used was for the range finder operator to continuously call out ranges. The range setter on the weapon would set the ranges and the gunner responsible for firing would watch the range bubble, and when centred, would fire”.
The Assault Training Center Diary Notes record that ... “On 21st September 1943 artillery was fired from landing craft for the first time at the Assault Training Center, and for the first time in ETO. Battery “A” 224th F.A. 29th Division furnished the materiel and personnel. The battery was loaded aboard an LCT5 at Crow Point and moved out to the vicinity of Baggy Point. The target range was located on Morte Point. Ranges of 5,000 yards and less were fired”. On 24th January 1944 the Assault Training Center Diary Notes had to add ... “In connection with firing weapons from craft it is interesting to note that the artillery officers of the RCT’s that come for training are generally very dubious when they hear of it, and are surprised by the successful results”.
The target on Morte Point was a two hundred yard square subdivided into four one hundred yard squares. Data taken at the time shows that accuracy on the smaller target was between 34 and 45 per cent, and on the larger 200 yard target, accuracy more than doubled, giving Major Finn the optimism to quote that an accuracy of 60 per cent was achievable.
Encouraged by their initial success, and continuing the tradition of the Assault Training Center of innovation, experiments were conducted in firing the 155mm self-propelled gun from an LCT. The conclusions were that it was as accurate as the smaller 105mm field pieces, but to justify its use in the early waves it would need to hit individual pillboxes, something that could not be guaranteed. The Assault Training Center Diary Notes of 14th November 1943 observed that ... “Owing to its flat trajectory, “lost overs”, when firing on Morte Point were a cause of considerable concern to the range officer”. In December 1943, encouraged by their artillery success, 57mm anti-tank guns were fired from DUKWs but their accuracy was found to be poor, so despite being technically achievable their value was “highly questionable”.
Loose Lips Sink Ships
With so many secrets to keep, the Assault Training Center covered itself with a shroud of official secrecy so successfully that decades later it remains almost impenetrable. The ATC’s mission was so vital to the success of the impending D Day that even the local population really knew very little of what went on, but there were occasions when limited media exposure suited the ATC.
There was already a never ending queue of visitors to the Assault Training Center from the very day of its opening. Military personnel were professionally intrigued by what was happening here, and it was a showcase of American military might, proudly exhibited on chosen dates, to diplomats, politicians, and military “top brass”. But even by 30th September 1943 as the Center’s Diary Notes ... “Unofficial ‘observers’ and hangers-on are to be eliminated in future”. The situation became so intense that the Assault Training Center took official action as was noted on the 14th October ... "It has become evident that this organization has become a center of attraction for high ranking officers and officials of both nations. As a result of this and other factors the office of Headquarters commandant was set up, one of its functions being that of Visitors Bureau”.
Media interest was intense and although the press were made welcome to what was a “secret” establishment, they were closely chaperoned around carefully selected activities, as on 31st October 1943 when the Center ... "received large (46 in number) delegation of press representatives. Day passed very successfully all representatives agreeing that day was very much worthwhile. They were impressed especially with precise organization of their schedule”.
Then came one of the two most important inspection visits of all. Just about every unit commander of the Allied invasion force was to descend in one party on 19th November 1943. For security reasons they travelled in two separate trains from London. Thompson recalls ... “A train party of the highest brass, American and British descended on Woolacombe to observe a regimental combat team landing assault operation ... practically everyone of note except Lord Louis Mountbatten (we always thought it irked him that Woolacombe had turned out so well for us)”. Their schedule of events opened with a brief introduction to the Assault Training Center, and then a description of what they would be seeing ... “All events on today’s program are normal training schedule items. Troops concerned are chiefly elements of the 115th RCT of 29th Infantry Division. Troops have been at Center 10 days and will remain 7 days more. First 9 days have been devoted to individual and small-unit training; today’s schedule marks start of training on battalion scale. Training period ends with a regimental landing-assault exercise”. The top brass were then escorted around the Assault Training Center in a long, winding convoy of jeeps, and parked finally in Woolacombe to watch an assault landing on Woolacombe Sands.
On 20th and 21st February 1944 another very important party arrived under the code name “Exercise Brandy”. This time it was a group of Russian officers who were given the grand tour of the Center, perhaps as a politically supportive gesture to the British and American promise to Stalin of opening the “Second Front”. Witnessing the activities and objectives of the Assault Training Center would hopefully convince the Russians of the sincerity of that promise. Their only recorded Russian comment was ... "Where are the supporting aircraft?”
"the price which must be paid for this most valuable training"
Colonel Thompson ordered that live ammunition and explosives were to be used at every opportunity to acquaint troops with the sights and sounds of battle and considering the vast number of troops involved in live-fire exercises, and the realism of battle added by instructors, it is a tribute to the safety rules imposed by the Assault Training Center that the casualty rate for troops under training was not much higher.
Invariably casualties were the result of some unforeseen circumstances or complete accidents. As Lieutenant Ierardi reported that in the week prior to his arrival on 26th October 1943 ... “A most unfortunate accident occurred. While troops were being trained to advance under machine gun fire, one of the guns either went out of control or lost the correct range, firing into a group of men, killing five and wounding fourteen. On Saturdays Hedgehog, another couple were hurt. An inexperienced 57mm gun crew went completely haywire and fired a shot into one of the houses of the little village of Croyde from the training area. In every week there are several casualties, but this is the price which must be paid for this most valuable training”.
On 25th October 1943 Colonel Thompson interviewed the officers and non-commissioned officer involved in the machine gun fatalities, reported his findings to higher headquarters and appointed a board of officers to investigate the accident but his preliminary questioning failed to disclose the cause. Settings on the gun were found to be correct when checked immediately after the accident. The following day Thompson visited Colonel Lee to discuss the accident and it was emphasised to him that “training must continue and officers must so conduct themselves that there will be no loss of confidence on the part of the men”.
Ierardi continued ... "The training undertaken at the Assault Training Center is taken most seriously and at times is definitely hazardous. Training with live ammunition presents a real problem. The problems (exercises) must be intense enough to acquaint the participating troops with actual battle conditions and indicate to them proper methods of self-defense but on the other hand, they must not be so intense as to frighten the individual soldier and injure his fighting spirit. The Center makes every effort to achieve this goal and I believe that they achieve their aim. However occasional violent accidents are unavoidable”.
There was no accounting for freak accidents such as the sergeant who was killed by a bullet ricocheting off a steel stake supporting barbed wire entanglements during a battalion assault exercise. A mortar exploded killing two of the crew, probably due to a manufacturing defect in the mortar or ammunition, and during a Hedgehog exercise an infantryman was badly injured when a 60mm mortar shell landed short of its target and a fragment of its exploding shell penetrated his thigh.
In an October exercise, a 57mm anti-tank shell fell through the roof of the Saunton Sands Hotel which temporarily housed the Duke of York School evacuated from the dangers of Dover. Colonel Thompson remembers “jeeping immediately to the scene, being welcomed (?) by the headmaster, being shown the hole in the ceiling through which the projectile had come, being shown how close it had come to where, normally, students would have been sitting – and finally being presented with the projectile itself”.
He also recalls another incident, this time involving a Group Captain Chilton from RAF Chivenor ... “I took care to keep the worthy Group Captain advised of our training schedules, and I had impressed upon him that our realism in training included artillery, mortar and anti-tank fire, some of it with high trajectories. This however did not deter him from a sport he relished, going aloft in his little Tiger moth to observe our exercises as from an elevated grandstand seat. It was a Regimental combat team landing assault exercise and I was observing from a knoll, and alongside was the division commander. All at once the general says to me “Thompson, is that part of the exercise?” I followed his gaze and saw (a) a little Tiger Moth airplane disintegrating, and (b) a parachute beginning to open. Taking time to tell the general, “No, that is not part of the exercise, but I know what it is”. I with great reluctance put in train the process for suspending the exercise, we sent a DUKW out in the bay and fished the Group Captain out of the water ... As for the Group Captain – as he floated seaward he was observed methodically to divest himself of all clothes except underwear; before shedding his pants, he was observed to extract his wallet, which he was clutching when pulled aboard the DUKW”.
Countdown to D-Day
The majority of staff posts were permanent at the Assault Training Center, although some junior posts were filled on rotation by officers from combat divisions. When the Center began to wind down from March 1944 onwards, many officers requested postings to active combat units, or were simply re-assigned as their post was no longer relevant or required. Colonel Finn left for an artillery brigade. Colonel Pixton left in April to join the 5th Engineer Special Brigade and landed on “Omaha” beach at noon of D Day. Major Page moved to US First Army headquarters in Bristol and returned to the United States from Belgium in December 1944.
On 18th January 1944 Colonel Thompson was transferred to First US Army and given command of the 6th Engineer Special Brigade which was to play such an important role in the first vital hours of the “Omaha” landings. He took advantage of the ATC’s training facilities by sending about 1,600 men of his new command to exercise in unloading freighters, establishing dumps, clearing the beaches of obstacles and mines, and the construction of beach exits. He always considered this training was of great benefit, particularly following the collapse of the American “Mulberry harbour” when these same units moved more tonnage across the open beaches than the peacetime port of Cherbourg.
Thompson was awarded the “Legion of Merit” for his services in establishing and directing the Assault Training Center. He was replaced on 7th March 1944 by Colonel John B. Horton who had already lost ... "twenty seven of the key personnel, and this trend continued to an even greater degree in the last months. They were taken in spite of requests and protests as the work continues in full force and with many new problems due to the specialised nature of the units being trained”. By 20th April 1944 Colonel Horton’s biggest problems were turning in supplies and equipment and placing personnel in new assignments. About the same time he estimated that the training area and buildings should be ready to be turned over to the 18th Field Force Replacement Depot by 1st May.
A study of the Assault Training Center concluded ... "So we have come to the end of this, and, as Colonel Thompson put it, the success or shortcomings of our work will only show up on the first few thousand yards inland from the beaches of Europe”.
Thompson arrived on “Omaha” beach at H plus 140 minutes and found his engineers pinned down by devastating fire from German fortifications and snipers. Identifying the most prominent enemy emplacement he quickly organised an ad hoc infantry Assault Team from men of various units around him and led the attack. It was successful but Thompson wasn’t seen again until the early afternoon when he was found, severely wounded, laying in the draw below the gutted and still smoking German casemate. He survived and became European director for “Stars and Stripes” until war’s end.
First Lieutenant Russell J Kelley transferred from the ATC Station Complement to 23rd Infantry Regiment, was killed in action 27th July 1944 and is buried in Normandy.
First Lieutenant John I Mathewson was attached to the Infiltration Section at the ATC and was killed in Exercise “Tiger” off the south Devon coast on 28th April 1944.
Second Lieutenant Garland Nachand transferred from Infantry Section at the ATC to 8th Infantry Regiment and was killed in action on 13th June 1944 and is buried in Normandy.
First Lieutenant James M Watkins, Administration Officer, Assault Section at the ATC was killed in action 5th March 1945 with 320th Infantry Regiment and is buried ion Margraten, Netherlands.
Major Edwin J Wolf, Chief, Assault Section, Amphibious was severely wounded on D-Day bringing DUKLWs into Omaha beach and was ordered off the beach.
For over 24 years Richard Bass has been researching and writing about the US Assault Training Center and American wartime army units in England and Europe. A more recent innovation has been the founding of a volunteer group “Friends of the Assault Training Center” whose aim is to explore and excavate the training grounds and to educate schools and the general public about the ATC for many local people still don’t know what went on here.
Essential Weekly Reads for Overseas Americans. Free