Denied a hero’s death: How more Allied troops died during live-fire D-Day training in Britain than those killed storming the beaches of Normandy on June 6
- The June 6 1944 D-Day landings were the most ambitious Allied military endeavour of World War Two
- Thousands of British, American, Canadian and Commonwealth troops died storming the coast of France
- But historian Peter Caddick-Adams reveals in Sand and Steel: A New History of D-Day that more men died in preparation for the assaults, in training exercises and live drills, than at the Normandy beach landings
The number of Allied troops who died during training for the D-Day landings outnumbers those that perished during the fateful final landings, a fascinating new book reveals.
The June 6 1944 operation was the most ambitious military endeavour of the Second World War, with hundreds of boats assembling off the coast of Normandy, carrying men from every corner of Britain, America, the Commonwealth and beyond.
Thousands of them would be dead by nightfall. The objective was to shatter Hitler’s formidable Atlantikwall defence and open a Western Front in the battle for Europe to drive back the Nazi menace while Soviet forces tackled them from the east.
Millions had been brought to the United Kingdom in preparation for the pivotal assault, transforming its towns, coasts, fields and cities into an enormous training camp.
But at least 5,440 died in live fire drills, amphibious landing exercises and flight training compared with around 4,414 at Normandy, says historian Peter Caddick-Adams.
The lecturer was inspired to write Sand and Steel: A New History of D-Day, after hearing the stories of 1,000 D-Day veterans from all countries involved, but it was one soldier in particular – piper Bill Millin, who stormed the German-occupied beaches while blasting tunes on his bagpipes – that sparked the idea.
On the beaches of Normandy in August 1975, piper Millin spoke to Dr Caddick-Adams, then aged 14, telling him: ‘Before we even start with the combat, let’s go back to the training, because getting it right beforehand was the recipe for success’.
In Sand and Steel: A New History of D-Day, Dr Caddick-Adams follows piper Millin’s advice, and reveals the full horror Allied troops suffered as they prepared to overwhelm the Nazis, examining the facts behind the historic assault, and paying tribute to the stories he has heard through speaking to veterans.
At least 5,440 died in live fire drills, amphibious landing exercises and flight training compared with around 4,414 at Normandy, says historian Peter Caddick-Adams (Pictured: Troops coming ashore during training exercises for the Allied D-Day invasion in 1943)
US Army troops and crewmen aboard a Coast Guard manned LCVP approach a beach on D-Day in Normandy, June 1944
946 die in tragedy of Slapton Sands
Devon, April 1944
More than 30,000 men were involved in Exercise Tiger when German E-boats unleashed several torpedoes on Force U.
The exercise took place in Slapton Sands, Devon, in April 1944, intended to be a practise for the eventual storming of Normandy.
But a series of errors saw hundreds of troops killed by friendly fire, and the situation worsened when German E-boats attacked exposed vessels at Lyme Bay.
More people died during the exercise than in the D-Day landing at Utah Beach – with many soldiers sinking and drowning during the exercise weighed down by their heavy kit and sodden clothes.
Up to 946 Americans and sailors lost their lives in the chaos that followed, but due to the disaster happening close to D-Day, Eisenhower kept the truth from people back home.
The legendary general instituted a cover-up that lasted until the 1970s and to this day the number of casualties is contested.
Pictured: American army preparations for D-Day on Slapton Sands, Devon. 749 GIs were killed when one of these training exercises went horribly wrong. In order to give the troops battle experience live rounds were used and unwittingly the soldiers killed many of their comrades
Millions had been brought to the United Kingdom in preparation for the pivotal assault, transforming its towns, coasts, fields and cities into an enormous training camp (pictured: Canadian soldiers study a German plan of the beach during D-Day landing operations in Normandy, France, June 6, 1944)
10 infantrymen drown in a Scottish loch
Inverary, March 1944
Ten soldiers ‘vanished forever’ when they ran down a ramp and into a loch after mistakenly thinking their landing craft had hit land. D Company, 2nd Glosters, were practising how to get in and out of the vessels, Major Francis Goode recalls.
But one set of Marines struck a buoy and due to the exercise taking place in semi-darkness mistook the crash for hitting the safety of the sand.
Lowering the ramp, the men prepared to run onto what they expected to be the beach, hauling with them their heavy weapons.
The ‘fully equipped’ infantrymen hurtled from their assault craft straight into the loch and, dragged down by their equipment, were never seen again.
At the beginning of June 1944 an ammunition train blew up near Soham in Cambridgeshire. At this time thousands of tons of munitions were being transported around the country in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Europe. Pictured: An American Lend-Lease ‘utility’ engine lies half on its side, hurled from the track by the explosion
Dr Caddick-Adams said he feels he has become the ‘torch-bearer’ of the stories he learned from the 1,000 veterans he spoke to, and says in Sand and Steel he is handing those stories on to other people (pictured: US Army troops in an LCVP landing craft approach Normandy’s Omaha Beach on D-Day)
How a Scottish piper who stormed Normandy in a kilt inspired book that revealed the extraordinary loss of life during D-Day training
Pictured: Bill Millin, personal piper to Lord Lovat on D-Day, pictured at Pegasus Bridge
When he was just 14, Dr Caddick-Adams met piper Bill Millin, who was in his 50s, striding up and down the Normandy beaches in August 1975.
‘He told me about striding down the ramp on the morning of D-Day and because he was wearing the kilt, and as is traditional he had nothing on underneath the kilt, he said the cold water of the English Channel played havoc with his anatomy, and then he remembered his kilt riding up around him “like a tartan jellyfish, floating in the water all around”,’ Dr Caddick-Adams told MailOnline.
‘Those are big impressions on a 14-year-old.’
Piper Millin has since passed away, but a statue of him still remains in Normandy.
Speaking of his inspiration behind writing Sand & Steel, Dr Caddick-Adams said: ‘It was talking to one veteran [piper Millin] about D-Day, and he said “well, before we even start with the combat, let’s go back to the training, because getting it right beforehand was the recipe for success”.
‘And he was absolutely right.’
The historian added that feels he has become the ‘torch-bearer’ of the stories he learned from the 1,000 veterans he spoke to, and in Sand and Steel he feels he is handing those stories on to other people.
‘This is quite deep, and this is not something I’ve put together in the last year or so,’ he says.
Sand & Steel, the historian says, is a about D-Day, but half of it is about the training before the day even begins.
‘Had it not been for the tough, brutal training, for up to a year beforehand, then I’m sure that we wouldn’t have prevailed on the day,’ Dr Caddick-Adams said.
‘Most of our understanding of D-Day comes from perhaps the movie The Longest Day, or more recently Saving Private Ryan – and both of those really begin in the surf, and not much earlier.
‘The entire preparation period for 2.5million soldiers in southern England, in some cases for far longer than a year, but certainly for a minimum of a year for everybody, is just glossed over in the previous history books.
‘So half of my book is abut that – setting the scene, and then I go into the troops wading through the surf, on both sides of the beach.’
Dr Caddick-Adams said he met Millin in Normandy in 1975, and his story of storming the beaches wearing his kilt left a lasting impression with him, prompting him to speak with 1,000 veterans about the operation – and the often-forgotten training exercises ahead of the day itself. Pictured left: The statue of Millin in Normandy)
US troops among 98 dead at Woolacombe
Devon, September 1943
South of the border, a 16-square-mile Assault Training Centre had been set up for Americans to train.
The Woolacombe base on the county’s north coast was the site of machine gun, mortar, rocket-launcher and flamethrower drills.
Troops used their proximity to the water to test out their landing craft, with 14 drowning on December 18 1943 when three of the vessels foundered in surf.
Five GIs died and 14 were wounded by machine gun fire. The deadly mishap occurred during an exercise in which the barrage was supposed to soar over troops’ heads.
Ninety-eight soldiers died at Woolacombe, most of them American, as they prepared for the day on which they hoped to overwhelm the Nazis.
American marines practising D-Day landing on Slapton Sands in 1944. More than 30,000 men were involved in Exercise Tiger when German E-boats unleashed several torpedoes on Force U. Up to 946 Americans and sailors lost their lives in the chaos that followed, but due to the disaster happening close to D-Day, Eisenhower kept the truth from people back home
‘Wasteful of human life to the point of disregard’
Wiltshire, April 1944
An entire platoon perished in Exercise Dreme at Tidworth Barracks, where training was ‘wasteful of human life to the point of disregard’ in the eyes of Captain Charles R Cawthon.
The glider training camp saw regular parades of coffins, draped in flags, as red berets carried their comrades to be laid to rest.
Exercise Dreme was a gargantuan undertaking that involved a total of 140 aircraft performing night-navigation tasks.
During the sessions, a Stirling bomber towing a Horsa glider smashed into a tree, killing all six of the bomber’s crew, both of the pilots on the Horsa and the 24 passengers being towed. The fatalities wiped out an entire platoon of the 7th King’s Owen Scottish Borderers.
An American officer examines a 500lb bomb crater made during a beach bombardment exercise on Slapton Sands, March 14 1944. A bombed hotel is pictured in the background. Operation Beaver was part of the disastrous rehearsals for the D-Day Landings three months later
Pictured: Troops from the 48th Royal Marines at Saint-Aubin-sur-mer on Juno Beach, Normandy, France, during the D-Day landings
Dakotas collide in mid-air killing all on board
Berkshire, May 1944
Two C-47s – nicknamed Dakotas by those who flew in them – crashed mid-air, killing every airman on board during the relentless four-day training sessions titled Exercise Eagle.
Paratroopers had aimed to drop under the cover of darkness around Hungerford and Newbury, with glider troops landing the next day.
But two aircraft from the 316th Troop Carrier Group smashed into one another – killing a total of 14. The commander of the 36th Squadron, and two 505th Parachute Infantry officers were among the fatalities.
One pilot recalled the terrifying moment that he saw one of the aircraft deviate from formation, climbing up to strike the other plane soaring above.
‘We flew directly through the flames and debris,’ he told the author, adding the experience ‘gave us a horrible foretaste of what the Big Day might be like’.
The first stage, codenamed Operation Duck, of a doomed rehearsal of the D-Day landings. Here on January 6, 1944, American General Grant’s tanks are loaded onto landing craft at Kingswear, near Dartmouth, in preparation for the first large-scale practise landings at nearby Slapton Sands
Floating tanks sink with a watching Churchill unaware of the horror
East Wittering, May 1944
Several Canadians drowned as a violent undertow pulled the heavily-laden troops under water as they disembarked at Bracklesham Bay.
Winston Churchill was watching during exercise Fabius III, in which servicemen were honing their amphibious landing skills.
Though the wartime leader was unaware of the tragedy unfolding before his very eyes as he watched from the beach, Lieutenant Peter Hinton of the 262nd Landing Craft Infantry Flotilla watched the soldiers being dragged under with horror.
Private Richard Harris was 18 when he took part in the follow-up drill, Fabius IV, when he firmly believed he was actually headed to France to confront Hitler’s forces.
After sailing throughout the night ‘somewhere in the direction of France’, he found himself storming English beaches between Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to a backdrop of smoke and explosion pyrotechnics.
Pictured: British troops disembark from the Canadian navy infantry landing ship HMCS Prince David on D-Day in Normandy, June 6, 1944. Millions had been brought to the United Kingdom in preparation for the pivotal assault, transforming its towns, coasts, fields and cities into an enormous training camp
Sub-machine gun falls
Off Sword Beach, D-Day
Accidents continued right up until the hour of attack. As the 2nd East Yorks sailed to Sword Beach, a loaded Sten gun was placed on a table on their vessel.
The weapon fell onto the deck as the landing craft pitched on rolled while the soldiers made their approach to take on the Nazis.
As it crashed onto the floor of the boat, it fired, and several rounds fired around the steel bulkheads, striking one man in the heel. But another wasn’t so lucky. One bullet cut a soldier’s femoral artery. Sergeant Eirc Ibbetson bled to death.
Landing Craft Infantry of the US Coast Guard during training exercise Fabius at Slapton Sands, Devon, May 3 – May 9, 1944. General Eisenhower instituted a cover-up that lasted until the 1970s and to this day the number of casualties is contested
Sacked Padre takes his own life
A padre killed himself after he was sacked because his pre-battle service was a ‘rotten sermon about death and destruction’.
Servicemen complained about his words, which had left them shocked shortly before they were heading to fight Hitler’s troops in Normandy.
Though the incident was largely forgotten among the men who heard the sermon, the cleric took his dismissal from the camp badly. On the last day in the camp he killed himself. His death was recorded as a battle casualty.
Pictured: An LCM landing craft manned by the US Coast Guard, evacuating US casualties from the invasion beaches, brings them to a transport for treatment on D-Day in Normandy, June 6 1944
About Dr Peter Caddick-Adams, one of the country’s foremost military historians
Dr Caddick-Adams, who has a doctorate in military history and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, is a lecturer of international renown on military history, leadership and current defence issues, who has taught at Cranfield University and the UK Defence Academy for over 15 years.
His earlier books include Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell (2011) and Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives (2012).
The historian has also maintained a parallel career in the reserve forces, serving on operations in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
His latest book reveals how and why more men died during training exercises than during the landings themselves, starting with the years of painstaking and costly preparation, through to the pitched battles fought across France’s northern coast, from Omaha Beach to the Falaise and the push east to Strasbourg.
Sand and Steel draws upon ten years of first-hand battlefield and archival research, along with personal testimonies and interviews, in what is said to be the first book to offer a full analysis of the yearlong invasion preparations, what lay in wait for the Allies across the Channel and how close to disaster the whole endeavour truly came.
Dr Caddick-Adams, who has a doctorate in military history and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, is a lecturer of international renown on military history, leadership and current defence issues
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