The US Army training on Woolacombe Beach

“Sleepy old Devonshire”:

A rural and pleasant land defined by its churches and fields, its small villages and market towns.
It had played its part in the English Civil War, the Boer War and the First World War, but in the 1930s the only real danger to the tranquil and slow pace of life in Devon were the trains of the Great Western Railway speeding the agricultural produce of the county to markets in the East and, in the summer, bringing an influx of noisy and excited tourists to the beaches and coastal towns. 
And yet by 1944 “sleepy old Devon” had evolved into an armed camp in which tens of thousands of primarily American soldiers waited to embark on ships waiting in Devon harbours, to be escorted by fighter and bomber aircraft operating from Devon airfields, to begin the conquest of Western Europe on D-Day, 6 June 1944, the “day of days”.


In the months before D-Day the West Country became home to well over a million US soldiers, and the United States Navy took up residence in West Country ports small and large. Devon was a particular focus of this Army (and Navy) of occupation. 
The first substantial numbers of American troops began to arrive in Devon in May 1943 with, for example, Ivybridge and Bridestowe becoming home to camps housing elements of the 116th US Infantry Regiment, part of the 29th Infantry Division with its headquarters in Tavistock. 
The 531st Shore Engineer Regiment, meanwhile had its headquarters at Exmouth. The 29th Infantry Division and 531st Engineer Regiment would be part of the spearhead for the assault on Omaha and Utah Beaches, the two out of the 5 landing beaches assigned to US Forces. 
Supporting units for the spearhead could be found elsewhere in Devon from Bampton to Bideford to Bovey Tracey to Brixton to Buckfastleigh to Budleigh Salterton (and, yes, dear reader that is just the place names beginning with the letter B in Devon). 
But almost every parish had its share of American visitors with the lanes of Devon becoming busy with American jeeps, trucks and other vehicles. Ashburton, for example, was home to parts of the 389th Engineer General Service Regiment, the 459th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion and the 569th Engineer Dump Truck Company. 
The 81st Naval Construction Battalion was engaged in construction work in a number of locations in Devon. These included the construction of additional naval facilities in Plymouth including sixty 20x48 huts, two 40x100 and two 95x195 hangars – work done by 130 men in a month and a half.
In East Devon Axminister housed the headquarters of the 29th Field Artillery Battalion and those unsung heroes of the 158th Army Postal Unit, the 188th Quartermaster Laundry Platoon (Hospital) and the 315th Station Hospital, Headquarters.
Their work may have been unglamorous, but to maintain a vast army in Devon required a considerable infrastructure and, in the days after D-Day, it was expected that hospital units at Axminister, Plaisterdown on Dartmoor, Stover near Newton Abbot and others would play an essential and grim role.
Even before this, as the date of the invasion approached, they had to deal with the illnesses and accidents that could befall even the fittest of American soldiers, and that was a lot.
These soldiers would bring their culture, their music, their habits and their past times with them. Devon children would get a taste for chewing gum and Hershey Bars. On Plymouth Hoe, and elsewhere, you could watch Americans playing baseball, and the Exeter newspaper carried the pro-baseball results from home to ensure the visitors felt compelled to buy a copy. 
Swing bands provided the music for dances where lonely troops could meet the local girls. Americans learned to come to grips with the local beer and the etiquette of the pub. 
Occasionally there would be fights and the US Forces brought with them the evils of an Army segregated along racial lines with African-American soldiers confined to supporting roles to spearhead troops. 
Expectations of racial violence between white and black troops meant that the US military’s segregation extended into civilian life in Devon with the River Exe being used as a means to segregate black troops with access to one part of the city of Exeter, from white troops with access to the rest. 
In smaller towns facilities would be determined as available to black or white troops only, or available to black and white on different days of the week. Many Devonians found the American politics of race bewildering, upsetting and deeply problematic.
The US Army training on Dartmoor
The US Army training on Dartmoor

Training areas

It was all very well to have the troops in Devon, but they needed to be prepared for the combat that was yet to come. 
The fields and lanes of Devon became mock battlefields, and more than a few American soldiers learned to truly hate Dartmoor with its clinging damp, peat bogs, tors and tussocks that just seemed to go on forever.  
In addition, to toughening bodies the techniques of infantry assault on an enemy held coast would have to be learned and perfected. Thus, in April 1943 a broad section of the coast of North Devon had been taken over by the US Army to create an Assault Training Center. 
From Morte Hoe to Braunton Burrows a succession of American units learned the techniques of beach assault including the use of bazookas and demolition charges against pillboxes, the clearance of mines and the use of mortars against defences inland. 
Essential amphibious practices were learned and rehearsed including landing on beaches in invasion craft, driving through surf in vehicles, and the delivery of invasion stores across a beach once it had been secured. 
There were new techniques designed to cut a path through the obstacles and defences on well-defended beaches, and the level of co-operation between ship and shore, between different units, in the chaos of an assault landing, required careful training and then practice, practice, practice. 
Larger rehearsals required more space than was available at the Assault Training Center in North Devon, so in late 1943 part of the South Devon coast around Slapton and Blackpool Sands, together with a hinterland including several small villages (just some 30,000 acres and 3,000 people), was cleared as a beach landing rehearsal area.  
Facing out across Lyme Bay, Slapton would see a range of landing exercises growing in complexity and extent for units of the American Army, and the Anglo-American naval units whose job it was to get them ashore. One of those rehearsals (Exercise Tiger) would meet with disaster in April 1944 when a convoy of tank landing ships was attacked by German motor torpedo boats with the loss of 749 lives.
The US Army training on Woolacombe Beach
The US Army training on Woolacombe Beach


By 1944 almost every small port and anchorage in South Devon had its own flotilla of invasion craft to carry the waiting army across the Channel. 
At Dartmouth the concentration of shipping was such that it was said that you could cross from one side of the River Dart to the other without ever getting your feet wet by leaping from one ship to the next of the waiting Armada. 
The bigger the port, the bigger the ships and the greater their number, but amongst the smaller ports even Salcombe would put to sea over 60 vessels for D-Day.
To cater for the vast fleet of vessels facilities had to be built including “hards” concrete landing ramps from which invasion craft could load vehicles from the land, hard-standing on foreshores so that landing craft could be serviced, and advanced amphibious bases for the US Navy at places like Teignmouth and Salcombe to administer, supply, maintain and control flotillas of specialist invasion craft.


The naval Armada would be supported by squadrons of aircraft, some operating from Devon airfields. From RAF Smeatharpe (Uppottery) and RAF Exeter the American paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division would make the jump into Normandy on 5 June in advance of the amphibious landings. Fighters from RAF Harrowbeer and Bolt Head would help to soften up German defences and gain air superiority in the skies above Normandy in the run up to the landings.
Meanwhile Coastal Command aircraft from RAF Chivenor, would protect the flanks of the invasion force by hunting for U-Boats. That role would continue long after D-Day as the vital flow of supplies across the English Channel had to be maintained.

Command sites

The forces that were to be sent against the enemy in June 1944 required careful control and co-ordination. 
While Southwick House in Hampshire would serve as Allied Naval Headquarters, and the advance Headquarters for the Allied Expeditionary Force, Plymouth in particular had an important role to play as headquarters for the principal naval command in the West. 
As Allied naval units prepared to embark and leave port for D-Day some 4,000 messages a day were coming out of Plymouth Naval Command and as the invasion force neared the enemy coast Admiralty House in Plymouth, together with its combined arms headquarters bunker, would play a vital role co-ordinating movements and evaluating threats as it acted as a receiving centre for messages and intelligence.
The US Army on Woolacombe Beach
The US Army training on Woolacombe Beach


In late May 1944, with D-Day scheduled for 5 June (it would be put back to the 6th as a result of the weather) the camps which housed the American units in Devon began to empty. In many cases the move would happen overnight as soldiers went to special forward camps (known as sausages) to await loading from their embarkation point.  
For many of the locals who had got to know their American guests, and many of the local girls who had formed relationships with American soldiers and sailors, there would be no forewarning, only a sense of emptiness at the site of an empty camp and trepidation at what they knew was to follow.
For the lucky ones it would be several weeks until a letter would arrive from “somewhere in Europe”. For the unlucky ones there would only be eternal silence since the friend that they had once known was no longer in the land of the living.
After the war, as the camps were tidied away, and as even the concrete of the invasion hards began to crumble, many Devonians would still be left wondering about those that they had known in 1944 and their own role in Sleepy Old Devon’s role in the greatest military operation of the Second World War.

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