Sunday, 11 November 2007

BBC Countryfile comes to Devon

Having observed the two minutes silence and listened to part of the proceedings at The Cenotaph on Radio 4 I turned my attention to the TV because I had a particular interest in today's BBC Countryfile programme. It's not always convenient to watch it but, as at least part of it was centred on Devon, I made a point of seeing it this time.

The main story was centred on Slapton which looks out on Start Bay, a long sweep of coast in The South Hams. Slapton's part in the Second World War is becoming increasingly well known but I'll give a very brief summary here.

Slapton Sands is a long quite steeply shelving shingle beach. Immediately behind it is the A379, the main road from Kingsbridge to Dartmouth. On the opposite side of the road lies a freshwater lagoon - Slapton Ley. The importance of this geography lies in the fact of its close resemblance to Utah Beach, one of the beaches in Normandy that the Americans were due to storm on D-Day; it was therefore deemed to be an ideal location to practise and prepare for the invasion. In order to do this the residents of not only Slapton but a number of neighbouring villages were told to evacuate their homes in 1943, they were given just 6 weeks to do this and it was even worse news for farmers who had to remove their livestock as well.

So the military took over the beach and a large chunk of the immediate hinterland. Many manoeuvres were rehearsed culminating in a particularly large operation toward the end of April 1944 codenamed 'Exercise Tiger'. This was going to be a mammoth affair with a number of landing craft and American troops involved. With a combination of cock ups on the Allied side and the presence of German E Boats in the channel some of the landing ships were picked off by the Germans and tragically 749 American troops died - a larger number than were lost on the assault on Utah Beach.

Understandably this whole disaster was hushed up at the time and it may have stayed like that but for the dogged determination many years later of one man. Ken Small ran a guest house with his wife at Torcross which is at the southern end of Slapton Sands. Now Ken, who died a year or two ago, was very into beachcombing and was for ever discovering odd small bits of military hardware during his searches. But what really intrigued him was the discovery by a fisherman of a very large object submerged out in the bay, an American Sherman tank no less. To cut a long story short Ken was very involved in recovering this tank (it can now be seen just across from the beach at Torcross) and this led him, with a great deal of dogged determination, to unravel the story of 'Exercise Tiger'. Ken Small wrote a book 'The Forgotten Dead' and I remember buying my copy personally from Ken when he sold them at the site of the tank in Torcross.

The Countryfile team did a pretty good job at relating the story and searched out the relevant people. In the programme they also had an item about the cost of homes at Salcombe and East Portlemouth ( the latter recently covered in this blog) and they interviewed Rebecca Hosking whose home is at Modbury because she has inspired that town to become the first community in Europe to be free of plastic bags. Again I've covered that story with a couple of entries.

A good useful programme I thought.

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