Remembering North Devon’s wartime heritage on the 80th anniversary of D-Day

This year marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allied invasion of Europe saw the beginning of the end of Nazi tyranny and the Second World War in Europe – and North Devon played a key role in those earth-shaking events.

It was on the beaches and sand dunes of North Devon where thousands of Allied troops trained for their seaborne invasion and landings on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

While local living history commemorative events are low key this year, as many groups will be attending the anniversary in Normandy, there is still a great deal taking place, with beacons being lit, 1940s dances and much more, plus there will be a convoy of vintage wartime vehicles as well as a special living history morning in Barnstaple on June 6 itself.

Above: World War Two vehicles on Saunton Sands as part of a previous Devon D-Day event. Credit: Tony Gussin

In 1943, thousands of American troops were billeted in the area as they rotated through the specialist instruction at the Assault Training Center.

This was created by the US Army along a swathe of the North Devon coastline that resembled the French beaches codenamed Omaha and Utah that the GIs would be attacking.

Above: Allied soldiers rest above Woolacombe beach during training for D-Day. Credit: Mortehoe Museum

Much of the training – using live ammunition – was centred around Braunton Burrows and even today walkers can still see the remains of concrete landing craft used to practise disembarking vehicles and troops in an amphibious assault, as well as the ‘rocket wall’ used for live bazooka practice.

Above: Training at the rocket wall on Braunton Burrows. Credit: FATC

Recent years have seen the region’s contribution commemorated by Devon D-Day at Saunton beach, a popular anniversary event with vintage vehicles and wartime living history groups organised by the Friends of the Assault Training Center, which looks after the historic area and Saunton Beach Enterprises.

This year has been scaled down as so many re-enactors and surviving veterans will be in Normandy, but people will still be able to get a flavour of that vital wartime period.

Above: Restored vintage wartime vehicles using the concrete landing craft of Braunton Burrows as it was meant to be used. Credit: Adam Simpkins Photography

In Barnstaple on Thursday, June 6, there will be a display of American Second World War vehicles and re-enactors in full GI uniform at the Square from 9am to 11am.

Then on Saturday, June 15 it will be possible to see a convoy of wartime vehicles setting off from Braunton’s Sandy Lane car park at around 10am and making its way to the concrete landing craft, where a wreath will be laid. The Royal British Legion will also lay a wreath at the landing craft on June 6.

*** CLICK HERE for our guide to many more D-Day 80 events around North Devon ***

The Burrows are still used for modern day military training, but as long as it does not clash with any scheduled activity, the convoy is then likely to continue on to the rocket wall before driving along Saunton beach.

The ‘old American road’ across the Burrows is otherwise closed to vehicles, but people can park at Sandy Lane to view the convoy or from the footpaths through the area.

Many of the American training structures were destroyed after the war by the British Army during demolitions practice, but some can still be seen and occasionally others are revealed by shifting sands or research and investigation.

Above: Remains of old Second World War training structures on the former Assault Training Center. Credit: FATC

Before 1943 there was no official guidance on an amphibious assault on a heavily defended enemy coastline, so after a four week conference, one was created, leading to a three week training course.

Because tanks and armoured vehicles could not land on Omaha or Utah, clearing German pillboxes and fortifications was down to the infantry.

Assault teams of 30 men would work together to destroy the strongpoints, with riflemen, machine guns and mortars to return fire to the enemy, bazooka rockets to fire at the pillbox alongside flamethrowers. Then Bangalore torpedoes to blow open barbed wire entanglements and finally, demolition men carrying explosives to rush the pillbox and neutralise it.

All this was practised in North Devon, while men from the 1st, 4th and 29th Infantry Divisions were acclimatised to sea voyages in small landing craft manned by the US Navy, based at Instow and launched at Crow Point.

Above: American troops practice an amphibious landing on Woolacombe Beach. Credit: FATC

Full scale beach assaults with smoke, tanks and artillery were conducted at Woolacombe Beach to round off each three week training course.

Above: Living history groups re-enact the invasion of Normandy at Saunton Beach as part of previous Devon D-Day events. Credit: Adam Simpkins Photography 

Former Instow resident Jackie Morris, who now lives in Colorado Springs, recalls the US Navy amphibious vehicles being ‘parked’ on ‘her’ beach throughout the months before the Normandy landings.

She emailed the Gazette to say: “They took over our beach to practice loading men and machinery. They used most of the large houses along Instow front to house US Navy (military, too) the The Commodore was an important centre for them all at that time, medical and business.

“As children (from Lane End) we were allowed to ‘sit on the wall and watch’, but never on the beach.

“Over by the cricket field they had their commissary huts where they put on Saturday morning films for local children to go to… which included popcorn too! I sat on the wall in front of Miss Rodds’ shop to watch events.

“The memory has travelled many years now with me of the morning I went down to my spot on that wall – and they were all gone.

“I ran back up the lane to my granny and told her ‘No one there today, I wonder where they’ve are’ and then noticed she was sitting there crying.

“God bless our military folks who ‘pick up the call when needed’. Thank you for your great memory of those events.”

Above: Two American GIs who were billeted with the Johns Family in Bideford, pictured with Gertrude and Derek Johns. Credit: Mary Fisher 

Sadly, almost a quarter of the 14,000 troops who trained in North Devon were killed on the beaches of Normandy during the assault – relatively few of the survivors lived to see the end of the war in 1945.

The Friends of the Assault Training Center work to preserve their memory and the wartime heritage of North Devon, through maintaining existing structures, researching and discovering more and passing on the history through guided walks, talks and school visits.

In 1992 a memorial was dedicated on the Greensward overlooking Woolacombe Beach by retired Brigadier General Paul W Thompson, who had been the ATC commandant during 1943 and 1944.

Richard Bass of the ATC Friends said: “In 1992 when the memorial was dedicated by Brigadier General Thompson I remember him saying ‘If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, surely the sands of the North Devon beaches contributed importantly to the success of the assault over the Normandy beaches’.

“Without the beaches of Saunton, Croyde and Woolacombe the ill-prepared American forces had nowhere else to learn, practice and perfect their new D-Day tactics, so this coastline was vital to the overall success of D-Day and in particular the amphibious landings on Omaha and Utah beaches.

“The 6th June 1944 was a turning point in world history, a date commemorated each year by Friends of the Assault Training Center with special significance this year, the 80th anniversary.”

Above: The memorial overlooking Woolacombe Beach. Credit: FATC

You can find out more about North Devon’s wartime history at

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