It was the mystery and magic of Slapton Sands that drew Ken Small to Devon, England. He was a happy man running a guesthouse, fishing, netting and potting until one fine day, without any reason, he had a nervous breakdown.
Ken started beachcombing as part of his recovery for his breakdown. He spent several years doing this and found old gold coins, diamond rings and even gold bracelets. To his amazement he also found a large amount of militaria like shrapnel and shell cases, live and used bullets of all calibers, military buttons, and pieces of military vehicles and equipment. He thought that something must have gone terribly wrong during the World War II (WWII). He was quite right. What he found was evidence of the American practice landings for D-Day and the disaster during Exercise Tiger in April 1944.
Sometime later, he was told by a friend, a local fisherman, of an ‘object’ some three quarters of a mile out to sea embedded in 60 feet of water. He ventured out to sea in his boat with his friend and a few divers to find out more. When the divers surfaced having inspected the ‘object’ they said that there was an American Sherman tank intact on the seabed.
He wanted to know more of what had actually happened. Local people from neighbouring villages reported of hearing heavy shelling and bombing during the war. There were also rumours that many American servicemen had died in this area. Ken decided to recover the Sherman tank and put it on display as a memorial to those who had died there.
Having decided to recover the tank Ken did not know where to start. Here he was trying to recover a tank he did not own which was 32 tons and 60 feet under water. Nevertheless, he began by ringing the Customs and Excise office in Dartmouth. The office was bewildered to learn about his intentions and suggested contacting the American Embassy in London. The Embassy in turn passed him on to the American Defense Supply Agency in Alexandria, Virginia.
Not losing heart with the red tape and bureaucracy he had to deal with, it was eventually the office of Defense Property Disposal Service, European region, Wiesbaden, Germany that arranged a contract for him to purchase the tank for fifty dollars from the United States (US) Government. On 25th November 1974 he became the proud owner of the Sherman tank.
As the events of Exercise Tiger become clearer to him and now that he owned the tank, he was more than determined to recover it from the sea and place it as a memorial to the American servicemen who had lost their lives there.
Getting little or no support from the American or British Army, he hired the services of a local diving firm from Plymouth to undertake the salvage operation. Before starting the operation, the Royal Navy had to conduct a mandatory inspection of the tank for evidence of any human remains or ammunition. Luckily they did not find anything and gave the go ahead for the tank’s recovery.
A special technique was adopted to lift the tank from the seabed. Six flotation bags in sets of three pairs were joined together in the front, middle and rear of the tank. Each pair of bags was joined by a thick nylon rope, which were subsequently replaced by metal straps later on as the nylon ropes kept breaking. The bags were taken down to the seabed and attached to the tank, where they were inflated with compressed air which lifted the tank towards the surface.
In spite of facing numerous obstacles and problems, the tank was finally lifted from the seabed on the fifth day from the commencement of the salvage operation. The tank was towed to within 150 yards off the beach.
The British Army, who were to undertake the winching of the tank ashore, pulled out at the last moment. Fortunately a winching firm from Cornwall offered help.
Thousands turned out to see the tank recovered from the seabed, many thousands saw it televised. The tank was finally winched ashore by bulldozers and towed the following day to the location where it is today. It was cleaned, repainted and placed on a plinth. It was Ken’s greatest moment in life. It was not a dream anymore, it was a reality!
On Friday, 9th of November 1984 a special service was held at Slapton Village Church to dedicate the tank. After the service, wreaths were laid at the site of the tank as the bugler played the “Last Post”. Then a plaque was unveiled which said that this American Sherman tank stood as a memorial to those American servicemen who lost their lives during the D-Day practice landings at Slapton Sands in 1944.
Ken’s next challenge was to persuade the American Government to place an official memorial to those servicemen who had died. His constant correspondence with American officials and visits to America paid off. On 6th of January, 1987 a Bill in Congress was passed authorizing the Secretary of Defense to prepare and place a plaque at the site of the tank memorial in Torcross. This to honour the American servicemen who had died there. The ceremony was held on Sunday, 15th of November 1987 which was attended by delegations and dignitaries from both America and England.
Ken Small’s sincere efforts to establish a memorial received letters of gratitude and appreciation not only from relatives and families of those dead American servicemen, but from people from all around the world.
The ultimate appreciation was when he received a letter, personally signed by the US president, Ronald Reagan, thanking him for his kind and generous efforts.
He was invited to America on several occasions to meet veterans, and as a guest speaker. He also had the chance to personally meet several families who lost relatives in the tragedy. Many of these families had never received an explanation to what had actually happened to their loved ones until Ken had unravelled the mystery.
Every year on the anniversary of Exercise Tiger, a memorial service is held at the local church and the tank with local British veteran organizations. The American flag is hoisted that day. Sadly Ken died in March 2004, just weeks before the 60th anniversary of the Exercise Tiger tragedy after a long fight against cancer.
The full story of his efforts can be found in his book “The Forgotten Dead”, available through Ken’s son, Dean Small.