D-Day in Devon
Devon D-Day in 2019 is a summer-long commemoration of the American GI presence in north Devon in 1943-44, during the preparations for the D-Day landings of World War II.
10,000 American soldiers were stationed on the north Devon coast as World War II moved towards its final months, using the area’s beaches, estuaries and sand dunes to perfect an amphibious assault capable of overcoming the ‘Atlantic Wall’ – a network of heavy fortifications all along the coastline of German-occupied Europe.
As Engineer Lieutenant Colonel Paul W Thompson, the person chosen to organise the soldiers’ training, recalled: ‘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’.
The area’s topography so closely resembled the Normandy coastline that it provided the perfect stand-in for it, helping prepare the American forces who would undertake the landings on the beaches codenamed ‘Omaha’ and ‘Utah’ on 6th June 1944.
Find out which D-Day events are happening here.
Re-enactors at Cobbaton Combat collection. Re-enactors will feature in the 2019 event at Saunton Sands
75 years later, in summer 2019, the experiences of GIs, and the north Devon communities they lived among, will be marked at significant coastal locations from Hartland in the West to Mortehoe in the East.
Bringing all of the activities and events together, a new World War II heritage trail will link towns, villages, coastal heritage sites and museums, enabling visitors to tour all of the important locations during a stay in north Devon. An illustrated booklet will accompany the trail and be available from museums, visitor centres and Tourist Information Centres across the area.
Along Saunton beach on the weekend of 15th and 16th June, a large-scale living history event will bring the story of D-Day to life. Re-enactors in a ‘Little Normandy’ camp will create a German bunker and trench system, while a ‘Little America’ American camp will have stations along the beach, representing the engineering and 22nd infantry units that trained in north Devon. In ‘Little Britain’, re-enactors representing the Women’s Auxillary Air Force will set up a radar map room. A finale will feature an assault on the German defences of Little Normandy by GI re-enactors.
For the first time, 2019’s commemoration at Saunton Beach will include a new educational day on Friday 14th June, inviting schools to learn about the key role that north Devon played in preparing for D-Day.
Devon D-Day event 2013, the 70th anniversary of the setting up of the Assault Training Center
Elsewhere, in the village of Braunton, the Parish Hall will host a 1940s style GIs’ Tea Dance, complete with refreshments and a Big Band. Tickets will be on sale for this special community event.
Exhibitions capturing the human stories, the military training experiments and the role of the landscape itself, will feature throughout the summer, with main exhibitions at Braunton and District Museum and North Devon Maritime Museum in Appledore. Smaller displays will be showing at Combe Martin Museum, Ilfracombe Museum, Barnstaple Guildhall and Northam Burrows Visitor Centre.
Alongside the Devon D-Day exhibitions themselves, a display of original paintings by Braunton-born artist Brian Chugg (1929-2003) will tour to Braunton Parish Hall, Ilfracombe Museum, Combe Martin Museum and Northam Burrows Visitor Centre. The Aftermath of War will feature Chugg’s paintings of beach defences along the north Devon coast and training mock-ups used by American soldiers on Braunton Burrows.
Photo – Courtesy of Tony Koorlander
There will also be one or two secrets and surprises along the way. For now, these are staying under wraps. Keep watching.
Devon D-Day is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, with additional financial support from North Devon Council, North Devon Coast AONB Sustainable Development Fund and North Devon Marketing Bureau.