“I recall we could count nine rows of breaking surf, and would be lulled to sleep by the sound of that magnificent surf, the clouds would sweep up over Lundy Island, and the Devon sun set behind it. I’ll remember Devon as it was when we had that war to flight” Paul W. Thompson 1989
Woolacombe, and the North Devon coastline played a significant role in the events that took place during the D-Day landings in World War 2. Woolacombe today is best known by many as a beautiful seaside resort, it is difficult to imagine it as a home to thousands of American Soldiers, but that is exactly how this area would have looked leading up to events that took place in Normandy in 1944. D-Day, the 6th June 1944, saw 156,00 troops land on five beaches along a 50 mile stretch of France’s Normandy coastline, the aim, to gain a foothold in Europe and ultimately to defeat Adolf Hitler. This ambitious plan, required training and planning. On the 1st September 1943 the Assault Training Centre (ATC) officially opened. The U.S Army located in Woolacombe, taking over this town with their Assault Training Centre. Many of the troops bound for the centre, believed they were going to Wales. Information they had been told as a ploy to keep this large training operation from enemy ears. The headquarters of the ATC were based at The Woolacombe Bay Hotel, and soon this picturesque coastal area saw thousands of troops and tanks move in. Over ten thousand troops were reported to have passed through the ATC during its six months based in the area. Woolacombe beach was altered into a training base, with demolition training areas designated and billets created. The northern part of the beach was designated as a demolition training site, and the billeting area of tents stretched towards Mortehoe. Morte Point, itself was used as a target by anti-tank guns and seaborne artillery. Paul W. Thompson an Engineer Lieutenant Colonel, who ran the training centre, reflected later on the decision to use Woolacombe Beach for the Normandy training.
“It turned out we were lucky beyond measure, the surf, the tides, firmness of sand and flatness of beach of those northern Devon beaches bore an uncanny similarity to the same qualities of the Normandy beaches over which we would ultimately launch the invasion. I never think of my Assault Training Centre without feeling thankful to the British for giving us that wonderful Woolacombe Site, ideal for realistic training” Woolacombe was considered ideal, due to its resemblance to Omaha beach in Normandy. Initial ideas for Thompson to evacuate the whole area giving him free rein, were soon disregarded and the process of integrating such a mass influx of soldiers on a small coastal community began. The beaches and sand dunes were soon occupied by soldiers, and with them came the construction of camps to accommodate so many people, and the make shift fortifications and pill boxes that were required for training. The infrastructure to accommodate the practical needs of so many people started to take place, the construction of roads, sewerage facilities and even the diversion of water from the River Caen to provide fresh water into a concrete reservoir.
The influx of so many people to the area caused both excitment and reluctance from local residents. Mr. Cotton, a local resident felt that: “The confusion and explosion noises of almost constant maneuvers are turning Woolacombe into a nightmare for residents” Others fondly recall adventourous play as children in the area, or the American Troops bringing them sweets and other luxury items that were difficult to obtain during the war. The Red Barn, known then as the Bungalow Cafe, hosted evenings of entertainment for the soldiers, whilst the ballroom at The Woolacombe Bay Hotel would host Saturday morning film shows, put on by soldiers for the local children. Local farm land was soon acquired for training, and houses and hotels in the town soon became requistioned by the War Department, with The Pandora Hotel becoming the U.S forces military hospital. The troops left, as quickly as they had arrived, but their time in Woolacombe will never be forgotten by those who lived in the area at the time. The granite stone memorial, on the Esplanade looking over the beach, is dedicated to the American Soldiers who were based in the area. Take a moment, to imagine this beautiful landscape with aircraft flying overhead, the sound of machine gun fire, mortars going off and landing craft coming along the sands. Soldiers in full kit, where today you see sunbathers, families playing and dog walkers strolling along the waters edge. Woolacombe played a significant part in the events of World War 2, we are hoping to develop a website containing information about the events that took place during these years. If you have any information you would like to add or share with us, we would love to hear from you.