The beach at Slapton Sands
Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 4, 2004
In past columns I have written about a World War II tragedy in Europe that occurred a month before the invasion of Normandy. Because beaches in South Devon, England were very similar to those on the coast of France we used them to practice invasions in late April 1944, 60 years ago. Because we wanted to use all invasion tactics, including both ship and air bombardment, it was necessary to evacuate the local citizens from several small villages. Over 3,000 people were given only weeks to pack up their belongings including pets, livestock and any crops they could harvest. Where the residents were to go was not the concern of the England’s War Department, but trucks and physical help were made available. Time was of the essence because Eisenhower had plans for the 6th of June, D-Day. Let us visit that time through the eyes of an Englishman who was suddenly &uot;part of the war effort.&uot;
Our South Hams is a sheltered place of undulating countryside, dipping combes and flora-bedecked cliffs descending to the sand-fringed shores, a community that for centuries had been an agricultural haven. In a few weeks it was to be torn apart to serve the war effort. There was nothing for it but to up-sticks and move out – and the picture of the exodus from the villages and scattered hamlets must have looked like something from a grainy black and white film of fleeing refugees.
Every kind of transport – lorries, vans, cars, carts, tractors, and trailer – was roped in to take the hapless residents to temporary accommodations, some with nearby relatives, or sharing farms, put up in empty houses and in many cases, moving much further afield. As rain lashed down and turned the ground into a quagmire, people’s spirits sunk deep into their soggy boots. But there was plenty of stoicism – &uot;It be a proper hindrance, sir,&uot; said one local, &uot;but it is very much better doing it under this country’s weather than it would be like our lads in Italy under shot and shell as well.&uot;
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Most of the residents, given the order to decamp, accepted their lot and put their patriotism to the fore. But there had been some anger over the peremptory order – described in one instance as autocratic and undemocratic methods that threatened to fracture such a close-knit community. A radio station reported, &uot;People are being dispossessed of their ancestral homes. Where will they go, no money could compensate for this upheaval.&uot; For the elderly the jolt was severe, for the youngsters it was an adventure, they weren’t leaving a home they had known for over 50 years. They weren’t wrenched from their lifelong security. There were many tears among the elderly and infirm, some dug in their heels and had to be sedated and forcibly removed, Many were frightened, became ill, suffered heart attacks and more than one committed suicide.
It was terrible, we had only six weeks to clear out. It was a big shock and we didn’t have much farm machinery in those days. All the corn ricks had to be threshed, straw baled, all the root crops taken out. Many pets had to be put down and many cattle and sheep slaughtered because there was no place for them where we were going.
For the majority, however, well over 3,000 cast adrift from their homes, resilience and a sense of patriotism kept them afloat. Those who were fit – families, friends, relatives – helped the old, confused and infirm to move as best they could. The sick were helped in an emergency hospital set up in a converted rectory. Whatever the problems, stoicism won through and a sense of pride. With pubs and stores closed, the crops gone, the area became shabby and unkempt, neglected fields with no animal life, churned up lanes scarred by unfamiliar exiting traffic, empty houses with staring bare windows, weed choked gardens, treasured items sandbagged and secured with barbed wire for protection from what was to come. This was South Devon, England, but as soon as Devon’s South Hams was declared empty the Americans would be coming with destructive power that small corner of England had never in their history seen before. Practice landings on the beaches of Slapton Sands where a human tragedy would be covered up for 30 years.
Robert Pocklington is a resident of Suffolk and a regular News-Herald columnist. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.