It is 1943 and the tide of war has turned in favour of the Allies. At the Tehran Conference held in November, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had agreed to launch an invasion of Europe in 1944.
Eisenhower was concerned that the thousands of young Americans drafted into the Army lacked experience and directed that ‘men must be hardened by exposure to real battle conditions’. In November 1943, the US 5th Corp Planning Directive stated the intention ‘to conduct exercises in the Slapton Sands area to train units and staff in embarkation, landing on hostile shores and seizing and holding a beachhead to cover the landing of follow-up forces.’
Why Slapton Sands? Because it resembled the Normandy beaches that were to be used on D-Day.
In order to maintain security it would be necessary to clear the area of civilians. A simple statement that belies the incredible organisation that this would entail in a very short time scale. In November 1943, the Chairman of Devon County Council was informed that 30,000 acres in the South Hams of the county would be requisitioned under the Defence Regulations and Compensation Act of 1939.
The area comprised eight villages (Blackawton, Chillington, East Allington, Sherford, Slapton, Stokenham, Strete and Torcross), 180 farms and shops and 750 families; a total of 3,000 civilians.
At meetings held in East Allington, Stokenham, Blackawton and Slapton, residents were informed that every person would leave the area by 20th December – a period of just 5 weeks.
In order to appreciate the tremendous upheaval that this evacuation would entail, it is necessary to remember that this rural, agricultural area had been largely unaffected by the war. Few households had telephones or motor cars and many people had never travelled further that Kingsbridge, Totnes or Dartmouth in their entire lives. In addition to the residents it was necessary to consider the movement of farm machinery, crops, animals, family pets and the priceless fixtures and fittings of the parish churches.
The evacuation operation was underpinned by British and American forces and 156 members of the WVS (Womens Voluntary Service); the latter providing the transport for families, organising the packing and collection of possessions as well as staffing the Information Centres.
There are many personal stories of tragedy and turmoil surrounding this mass evacuation but the common thread is the phrase ‘without explanation or argument’. 3,000 people were prepared to leave their homes in the unshakable belief that it was for the greater good, ‘to help the war effort’ and with the stoical attitude that ‘there’s always someone worse off that yourself’.
The large granite obelisk that stands mid-way between Strete Gate and Torcross, presented by the United States in 1954, pays tribute to the people of the South Hams who ‘generously left their homes and their lands to provide a battle practice area for the successful assault in Normandy in June 1944, their action resulted in the saving of many hundreds of lives and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operation’.