I recently finished Bill Bryson's 20-something-year-old book Notes From a Small Island, and am now reading his recent The Road to Little Dribbling, both extended essays on his travels to small towns in Britain. I may have more to say about the books and Bryson, but for today, the anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, I wanted to share this fact I never knew.
On page 158 of Little Dribbling, Bryson tells of his visit to Torcross, on the coast overlooking Start Bay:
To the north from here stretches a duney expanse called Slapton Sands, so similar to the beaches of Normandy that they used it for a dress rehearsal for D-Day in the spring of 1944. Amid great secrecy, thirty thousand American troops were loaded onto landing craft and taken out in the bay to practice coming ashore, but by chance nine German torpedo boats spotted the activity and cruised at will among then, blowing the landing craft out of the water with ease and causing all kinds of mayhem. No one from the Allied side, it appears, had thought to line up suitable protection for the exercise, so the U-boats were able to move about inimpeded.All of that reminds me of this piece about the speech Eisenhower had written to deliver in case D-Day failed. An alternate history I'm glad the world didn't experience.
One of those watcing the carnage was Eisenhower himself. Nobody seems to know how many people died. Numbers range from 650 to 950 or so. An information board at Torcross says 749 American soldiers and sailors died. Whatever the exact figure, far more Americans were killed that night than died in the actual landing at Utah beach just over a month later. (Casualties were much higher at Omaha beach.) It was the most lopsided rout America suffered during the war, yet nobody has ever heard of it because news of the disaster was withheld, partly for purposes of morale, partly because of the general secrecty surrounding the invasion preparations.
What is most extraordinary is that the Germans, having chanced upon a massive collection of boats and men engaged in training exercises just across the sea from the Cherbourg peninsula, failed to recognize that an invasion of northern France was imminent. (emphasis added)