A disastrous D-Day rehearsal claimed the lives of more U.S. soldiers than Utah Beach would just six weeks later. Kept secret by the government for morale reasons, the tragedy remained relatively unknown until a sunken tank was discovered 40 years later.
In the early morning hours of April 28, 1944, a three-mile convoy of eight tank landing ships with 30,000 U.S. servicemen converged in Lyme Bay just off the coast of Slapton Sands, which had been evacuated in the months before so the troops could practice with live naval and artillery ammunition.
A British Navy destroyer was in Plymouth for repairs, and the fleet’s rear was consequently exposed. A group of German E-Boats, alerted by radio signals, attacked and sunk three of the ships with torpedoes before getting away unharmed. Almost 1,000 soldiers lost their lives in the ensuing chaos, many from hypothermia in the freezing cold waters.
U.S. leaders ordered a complete information blackout to protect morale at the time, and though the story was shared in publications and speeches immediately following the war, official histories were vague and the event remained relatively unknown until Ken Small found a submerged relic of the 70th Tank Battalion.
Small heard stories of fisherman getting their nets snagged about 60 yards off the beach where he’d comb for shrapnel and bullets, and he and a friend took a boat out to investigate. They discovered the sunken Sherman tank, untouched by enemy fire. Small bought the rights to it from the U.S. government for $50 in 1974, and with the help of local divers pulled it from the depths in 1984.
The tank, officially recognized by the U.S. Congress, acknowledged on a bronze plaque, now sits on a seaside plinth, honoring the sacrifices of those who died that day. In 2014 a plaque recognizing Small’s “tireless determination over 30 years” was added to the tank.
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