Dick Strawbridge visits a resident of Slapton Sands who recalls the evacuation announcement by the Army in November 1943, when 3,000 homes were requisitioned.
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By 1943, the civilian population of Britain
were well accustomed to sacrifice.
The inhabitants around Slapton Sands were about to pay the price
for living near this particular stretch of coastline.
In November 1943, the tranquil atmosphere of villages
surrounding Slapton Sands were shattered.
3,000 residents received official notification
that their homes were to be requisitioned for military purposes.
They were given just six weeks to pack up and move out.
There were no exceptions.
John Hannaford was only 17 at the time.
His family have owned and run the local butchers
near Slapton Sands for four generations.
He can remember that even before the evacuation announcement,
there was a feeling that something strange was going on.
Well, there were all these rumours going around,
but when you're a teenager, it's over your head.
You don't think about these things, it's never gonna happen to you.
And then they got more serious, that they were gonna commandeer this area
and people weren't very happy. It was such a big upheaval for them.
You see, an awful lot of them,
I suppose they'd never been away from their home, you know.
It was a situation, there was a war on,
and that was at the back of everybody's mind, you know.
There was war on, you had to do these things.
Everybody living in an area covering 46 square miles,
and including 180 farms, had to leave their properties,
taking whatever they could manage,
not knowing when, if ever, they would be able to return.
Did you actually know what was going to happen here?
Did you have a feeling for what was happening?
Well, of course, you had an idea.
If it was going to be used as a battle training area,
well, you knew what was going to be.
Well, you prepared yourself for the worst.
Would it be here when you came back,
or would it be here for you to come back to?
What kind of battle training could possibly justify
evacuating such an enormous area?
What the residents didn't know was that for months
the military had been planning the most important offensive
of the Second World War - the landing on the beaches of Normandy,
to begin the long-awaited liberation of Europe. D-Day.
If the Allied Forces were to be successful,
it was crucial that they found somewhere suitable to practise.
The Allies had spent a long time planning for D-Day.
One of the main beaches to be assaulted was Utah.
And at Utah, you've got the sea, you've got the beach,
and duned with the coastal road on it,
and inland of that, in the hinterland,
the Germans had flooded that area as an obstacle,
which meant that the infantry and vehicles would have a real problem.
If I turn this around, we've got the sea, we've got sand.
We've got dunes, a coastal road, and inland here,
we've got Slapton Ley, which is a flooded marshy area,
which would allow people to train in exactly the same conditions.
The War Office had found the perfect spot.
All they had to do now was turn it into a little bit of Normandy.
By Christmas 1943, the last of the residents had left their homes.
With the streets deserted,
the American Forces who would be attacking Utah Beach
moved in to start training for the impending invasion.
On Slapton Sands, the training exercises were deadly serious.
In an attempt to recreate the intense hostility of a battle field,
live ammunition was used.
Today, a rusted Sherman tank stands as a memorial to one particular
exercise that went disastrously wrong and cost hundreds of lives.
One of the few survivors of the tragedy
is Steve Sadlon.
In 1944, he was a 19-year-old radio operator in the US Navy.
On the 23rd April 1944, Steve was one of the 23,000 Allied Troops
involved in the biggest practise exercise to date -
a full-scale simulation of the D-Day landings,
code-named Exercise Tiger.
Out in the English Channel,
Steve's assault craft was making its way towards Slapton Sands.
This is a dry run. Exercise Tiger was just like the real thing.
When we were going towards Slapton Sands,
I-I-I heard a scrape underneath the ship,
and the next thing you know I heard GQ...
and I thought to myself, "My gosh, they're making things pretty real."
Next thing you know, I got hit.
I got torpedoed...
auxiliary engine room, and that's right below me.
Suddenly, it was no longer an exercise.
Steve's ship was at war, under attack by German torpedo boats.
The enemy boats had been spotted by the British Fleet,
but due to a simple administrative error
the radio warnings never made it to the convoy.
We were on a wrong frequency.
They knew that these E-boats were approaching us,
and they never let us know that we were in danger.
I staggered into the wheel house,
and here the fire was already approaching the wheel house,
and the skipper was still there.
He says, "Well, we can't do anything, so we'd better abandon ship."
And I jumped in there, you know, it was cold.
And this signalman says, "Steve, I'm not going in that water!
"It's too cold!"
So I said to him, I says, "OK, take your choice."
So I pointed to the water, I says,
"Either you're going to freeze to death..." and I pointed to the fire,
and I says, "..Or you're gonna burn to death."
He burned to death. He took that choice.
Before I passed out...
..I-I-I just remembered my mother cradling me in her arms,
when I had the scare and everything else,
and then I thought about the green grass of home.
And I said, "If I ever get there," I says, "I'm gonna kiss that grass."
I says, "I'm gonna hug my mother." I said, "Boy, this is, is...you know."
And that's the last I remember.
I passed out, you know.
The rest of the convoy were immediately ordered back to port,
but the captain of one of the ships disobeyed the order
and returned to pick up 132 survivors,
including Steve who'd been in the freezing sea for over four hours.
When I woke up, a sailor he was shaking me and waking me up.
Then he says, "You know, you're a lucky person."
He says, "You were piled with the dead.
"You were frothing at the mouth." And he says, "We took you off the pile,
"and we worked on you."
The official death toll for the 28th of April 1944 was 749.
But despite the loss of life, the training at Slapton continued
and the disaster was kept secret
until after the successful D-Day invasions.
In spite of his horrific experience,
Steve still took part in the landings on Utah beach.
Ironically, more soldiers were killed during Exercise Tiger
than died on D-Day attacking the very beach they'd trained for.
It was 43 years before this memorial was built on Slapton Sands
to commemorate the US servicemen who lost their lives that night on Exercise Tiger.
Further down the beach, the Americans left their own memorial
dedicated to the 3,000 evacuees like John Hannaford,
who were finally allowed back home after 12 months away.
John feels that the hardship he suffered was a small price to pay,
especially in comparison to the tragic loss of life that took place in Exercise Tiger.
The sad truth is that without the sacrifice of the people who lived
and trained around Slapton Sands,
the casualties at D-Day may have been far higher.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Dick Strawbridge visits a resident of Slapton Sands who recalls his experience of the evacuation announcement by the Army in November 1943. Three thousand homes were requisitioned for military purposes in Slapton Sands during the war and residents had to leave their homes, not knowing when they would return. Dick also joins an American serviceman on an emotional journey, as he returns to the beach where he was given up for dead during World War II's secret, and disastrous, 'Operation Tiger'.