- Historic Sites
What Happened Off Devon
On the eve of the Normandy invasion, a training mission in the English Channel came apart in fire and horror. For years, the grim story was suppressed.
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
Ralph Greene was in the lab of the 228th Station Hospital processing some routine tests when he got the order to report immediately to the hospital’s recreation room. It was early in the afternoon of April 28, 1944, and for Greene, a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, the day had begun like every other for the past several months—handling sick call, checking on soldiers with such unmartial ailments as chicken pox and measles, tending to the victims of minor training mishaps. Ever since the previous September his hospital company had been operating its Quonset-hut facility in Sherborne, Dorset, not far from the southwestern corner of England. Everyone assumed the long-awaited invasion of France would take place soon; but while trucks brimming over with troops and supplies constantly passed by, squadrons of aircraft ranged overhead, and searchlight beams crisscrossed the sky every night, there was little for Greene and his fellow medics to do beyond housekeeping chores. Now, however, the adjutant on the phone had a distinct note of urgency in his voice: “Colonel Kendall wants all officers in the rec room at once!”
In minutes the unit’s forty medical officers and eighty nurses were assembled. Col. James Kendall, the Regular Army doctor who commanded the hospital, stood before them in an exaggeratedly military pose, a swagger stick tucked under his left elbow. But his tone was an odd mixture of pride and trepidation. “We’re in the war at last,” he announced. “In less than an hour, we’ll receive hundreds of emergency cases of shock due to immersion, compounded by explosion wounds. SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force] demands that we treat these soldiers as though we’re veterinarians: you will ask no questions and take no histories. There will be no discussion. Follow standard procedures. Anyone who talks about these casualties, regardless of their severity, will be subject to courtmartial. No one will be allowed to leave our perimeter until further orders.”
Greene and his cohorts wondered what kind of secret operation might have snafued. That there was something special about it became apparent to them as they filed out of the room. Their hospital compound was suddenly surrounded by a cordon of counterintelligence troops carrying bayoneted rifles. “They really mean business,” Greene remembers thinking. But what was it?
Half an hour later a stream of ambulances and trucks began pouring through the entrance gates. “They were all filled,” says Greene, “with wet, shivering, blueskinned, blanketed, and bandaged young Army and Navy men.” The doctors, nurses, and orderlies gathered around to help unload them. Before long, several hundred men—cold, wet, and many in great pain—were being treated inside the hut. Except for the medical personnel calling out to each other, there was no talking. The soldiers and sailors said nothing, and the doctors said nothing to them. Groans and sighs were all that marred the silence. Working in this weird vacuum, the doctors were gratified that most of the men responded quickly to “warmth and TLC” and that large numbers soon could be returned by truck to their units—whatever and wherever these might be. Many, however, responded less quickly, and, despite every effort, some died. Meanwhile, there was no explanation.
Just as mysteriously as it had begun, the episode ended for the 228th Hospital a few days later when all remaining patients were removed. Greene and the other hospital personnel did not know where they had gone, or why they had come in the first place. Soon rumors spread that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar casualties had been sent to other hospitals. There was no official acknowledgment. Not until many years after the war did Greene learn of the appalling tragedy that had occurred the previous night; and not until quite recently did he discover the full nature of it. Now a pathologist living in Chicago, he set out to learn what he could about the debacle. “I wanted to know,” he remarks, “because that curious day is just as clear to me now as if it were yesterday.”
For his part, the former Oberleutnant zur See G’nther Rabe, who recently wound up a career in West Germany’s navy and in the service of NATO, also remembers the time as if it had just happened. The evening of April 27 was a good one for scouting and hunting, he says, for the sea was calm, allowing his Schnellboot (”fast boat”) to attain easily its flank speed of thirty-six to thirty-eight knots; the skies were clear, and the moon was just setting. Rabe’s craft and others of its flotilla—British and American soldiers and sailors called them E-boats, E standing for enemy —had stood out from Cherbourg Harbor into the English Channel at 10:00 P.M. , unseen by the network of British destroyers and smaller craft whose job it was to intercept them, and had sped northwest in two columns under strict radio silence. They were heading for Lyme Bay, off Devon on the southwest coast of England. Although they did not know that it was a critical training area for the amphibious invasion forces, their wireless intelligence had hinted of unusual activity.