- 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
A great many succumbed after being picked up. Eugene Carney recalled: “A lot of men died that night and piled up on us. I asked some soldiers to move them onto litters so we could take them below…. Although our work was now easier, most of the younger men had never handled a corpse and hesitated to take hold of the dead. My uncle had owned a funeral home, and I had helped him, so I had experience. I would take hold of a body under the armpits, and tell a squeamish soldier to grab him by his shoes, so that he wouldn’t have to touch the remains. From then on the men lost their fear of the dead, and we did this detail all night, over and over until daybreak.”
None of the German craft had been touched by all the firing from the LSTs.
As the first glimmer of dawn appeared, those still in the water had one consolation: the E-boats had vanished. HMS Onslow , the destroyer that had first sighted the German craft shortly after midnight, had taken off in pursuit after the first LST had been hit, and soon other destroyers joined the chase. Their radar plainly revealed the small vessels, but already the E-boats were escaping under cover of the smoke from the burning ships. None of the German craft had been touched by all the firing from the LSTs or by the several salvos the Onslow let loose from her 4.7-inch guns. As the destroyers hastened southward they were joined by a group of British MTBs—small craft much like the E-boats. The British ships raced full throttle after the attackers, but, one of their officers recalled, “Unfortunately we arrived just minutes too late, in time to see and identify our targets passing the Cherbourg breakwater entrance.”
Two sister ships of the Onslow came speeding in from the west to sink the still-floating bow of 507 and then help pick up survivors. A warrant officer who was aboard one of the newcomers recalled: “We arrived in the area at daybreak, and the sight was appalling. There were hundreds of bodies of American servicemen, in full battle gear, floating in the sea. Many had their limbs and even their heads blown off, but some were still alive. We took aboard all those we could find living and applied first aid and resuscitation. Those the doctor pronounced dead were pushed back into the sea. One American I was attending in the wardroom collapsed and died, obviously from the terrible shock of the ordeal… .Small American landing craft with their ramps down were literally scooping up bodies, driving them ashore, and dumping them on the beaches…. Of all those we took on board, there were only nine survivors.”
By midmorning on the twenty-eighth most of the remaining ships had moved back to shore. Says Eugene Carney: “When we got closer to land we saw a long, sloping road leading down to the water. Ambulances were lined up bumper to bumper—a pitiful sight. We were unloaded from the ship and put in trucks before the dead and wounded were removed. We were told to keep our mouths shut and were taken to a camp where we were quarantined.”
On April 29 an official report stated that 638 had been killed and 89 wounded, but a few months later a U.S. Army historian examined the available data and put the number of dead at 749, a figure that in the intervening years has generally been accepted. The problem was that unrecorded transfers and the like had rendered many personnel rosters and loading lists vague or inaccurate. A few years ago a former Royal Navy officer, Harry Unsworth, who is now the historian of a small town in Devon, took a different approach. Adding up figures gleaned from various sources, including harbor masters’ records of bodies brought ashore in the Lyme Bay area, he came up with a total of 785. Allowing for a number simply missing, he said, the figure could go well over 800.
Whatever the total, the bodies had to be disposed of quickly, if only for security reasons. A mass grave was bulldozed in the meadow not far from Slapton Sands, and a woman whose father was a baker supplying U.S. troops in World War II and so was permitted to enter the closed area remembers that she chanced to see the “bodies, in American battle dress, laid flat and stacked, one on top of the other—there must have been dozens, all wet.” There was no marking of any kind to denote the grave, and the woman is sure no bodies have ever been exhumed. The Pentagon, however, says she is mistaken: some 450 bodies were never recovered and still lie on the bottom of Lyme Bay not far from Slapton Sands. More than 300 were indeed buried in the mass grave, but by 1956, the Pentagon insists, all had been clandestinely removed to official cemeteries.
In the days following the disaster, the Americans, bitter about the lack of adequate escort, demanded a full explanation from the Royal Navy. Adm. Sir Ralph Leatham, in command at Plymouth, apologized and offered the Americans his profound regrets. He ascribed the lapses to an overworked staff, to confusion resulting from the huge volume of communications, and to the late distribution of orders covering the various aspects of the exercise. Meanwhile, senior British officers conducting an investigation laid blame both on the inadequacy of the escort and on the lack of initiative displayed by the Azalea ’s captain. They made no mention of the wavelength blunder, and there was no further inquiry.