Explore Braunton - The Most Biodiverse Parish in England

World War Two

Braunton, and particularly the Burrows, were absolutely vital during World War II. In 1943 Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. Thompson was tasked with training the Americans for their assault on the heavily-defended Normandy beaches.

WWII vehicle on a walk back in timeAll good training ground had been claimed by the British and so Thompson had no choice but to accept the Atlantic coast near Braunton. The perimeter of the land he needed did in fact stretch south from Morthoe Station to Braunton, and the River Caen to the Taw Torridge Estuary. Every acre was needed for exercise and for rehearsals using live ammunition, explosives, tanks, artillery and air support – all of which became features of the US Assault Training Centre.

Amphibious Exercises

War time training on Braunton BurrowsThe beaches here were ideal for amphibious exercises, despite the fierce Atlantic surf, and the nearby sands were soon found to be identical to Omaha in every respect – including sand quality, beach gradient and tidal range.  Anyone who has seen Omaha beach will instantly recognise an uncanny resemblance to Woolacombe and Saunton.

Thompson was originally tasked with teaching the troops how to neutralise the enemy beach defences and then fight their way inland, although the second part of his mission was later relocated to Slapton beach in South Devon.

Weapons Ranges

Concrete replica landing craft near Crow Point 2007 aRanges for all weapons were required in order to help the troops practise and construction of such ranges and other aids had to be carried out quickly, as the first units arrived in North Devon on 1st September 1943. Most were replicas of German pillboxes.

As winter approached, a permanent camp was needed; most troops had been accommodated in tents until then. 505 Nissen huts were erected to house 4250 men, although hearsay suggests that this number would later increase to tens of thousands.

Some of the narrow country lanes were made one-way for ease of use and where no metalled roads existed temporary tracks were laid. One such track is the old ferry way, which extended from the south end of Sandy Lane across the back of the dunes to the White House near Crow Point. This road was widened and straightened and exists today as ‘the American Road’.

American Visitors

Mortar practice on Braunton BurrowsLocal people were generally pleased to host their American counterparts and were intrigued by their sudden presence in the hitherto sleepy village. For six months, Braunton resounded with speeding army vehicles, lumbering construction machinery and the almost non-stop distant sound of explosions.  The village pubs overflowed with boisterous young men in American uniforms and the trans-Atlantic twang could be heard in all the shops.

Within weeks however, an eerie silence settled – the troops had gone. On 6th June 1944 the greatest amphibious assault in military history was launched against the coast of Normandy, marking the beginning of the end of Nazi supremacy in Europe. At the spearhead of these bloody landings were the American friends of North Devon. 

War Memorial

There is no doubt that Braunton and its Burrows were invaluable to the success of the D-Day landings. After the war however, the American occupation was all but forgotten until, in May 1992, a memorial dedicated to the memory of those soldiers who had trained here was unveiled by Brigadier General Paul W. Thompson himself.

Military Debris

Military debris near Crow Point, 2004Nowadays, those who are curious about the concrete debris scattered over the Burrows can refer to Richard T. Bass – a renowned Military Historian and Battlefield Guide, who has written extensively about the Assault Training Centre and its presence on the Burrows. Details of his books and tours can be found on his website.

Part of the clear-up operation involved ridding the beach of mines and this dangerous job is described here by Mike Inglis (Major, retired, Bomb Disposal):

“In May 1947 I was posted to the Beachmine Clearance Detachment then based in the Saunton Golf Clubhouse. The detachment included Royal Engineers personnel and also German ex-POW volunteers. The minefield consisted of a double row of anti-tank mines, each of 25lb high explosive, laid above High Water Mark from Saunton beach car park almost to Airey Point as part of World War II invasion defences.  The task was to remove these mines. To achieve this, as approximately 15 feet of sand had developed over parts of the minefield and the locating posts and attached cables had corroded away, it was necessary to use a high pressure water jet to wash away the sand.

As seawater could not be used because of the large tidal range, water had to be transported from the River Caen in Braunton to the dunes. This was accomplished by a pumping station beside the Caen in what is now Caen Field. This delivered water via a 12 inch pipeline across Braunton Great Field to a high pressure pump set behind the dunes which in turn delivered water via an 8 inch pipeline along the length of the dunes. A jetting nozzle was mounted in a Bren gun carrier with additional armour on the landward side and a similar carrier with a field telephone acting as observer on the seaward side.

The water jet was used to carefully wash away the sand until the mines were exposed and hopefully rolled down into the slurry at the base of the dune without exploding! They were then detonated using a gun cotton slab or plastic explosive. After a section was cleared so far, an armoured D7 bulldozer was used to angledoze the slurry down to High Water Mark and out seawards. As a final check, an ERA mine locator was used to check down a further 6 feet to ensure that no mine had been left.” 

Curious Finds

During 2007, some contractors were working on the Burrows and discovered some twisted metal framework among the dunes. It was moved on to the track near the south car park (Broadsands) and lay there for some time.  Interested locals found a picture of something resembling it in a book and came to the conclusion that it could be the remains of an explosive delivery system mounted on a set of mine rollers, called “carrot”.  It is believed that the system was tested on the dunes during the Second World War but it was pushed along by a Matilda tank, a design that was practically obsolete by the mid 40's, which leads us to believe that the remains were present on the Burrows before the arrival of the Americans.  It is difficult to confirm these assumptions because very little information is available about the experiments themselves but the system was one of a small collection of odd projects known as Hobart's "Funnies" after Percy Hobart, the person who organised their design.  As far as we know, the “carrot” system didn't really work and although probably never used in combat, it paved the way for other designs which were eventually used in the Normandy landings.  Less than half of the original structure was found and is in a typical condition for something that has been blown to bits and left for nature to dispose of!

War-time Training

Flamethrower range on Braunton BurrowsFor another personal account of war-time training in Braunton, please read on about the experiences of Mr. Gillibrand.

Braunton had a special visitor in May 2008, when Mr Gillibrand re-visited the village that he had been posted to near the end of the Second World War.  He hadn’t been back for more than 60 years but brought with him tales of the village as it was then – in 1944.

Mr Gillibrand was a professional footballer in his early days and played for Preston – where he was friends with football legend Tom Finney, who went on to play for England. The outbreak of war however meant that football was suspended and many of the players, including Mr Finney and Mr Gillibrand, were called up. Mr Gilibrand joined the Artillery when he was 18 and spent time in Sandwich and Southwold but it was during his time in London that disaster struck. He was based at barracks near the Enfield Rifle Works, which were the target of enemy bombs. Although no bombs hit the Rifle Works, a doodlebug (V-1 flying bomb) did hit the barracks and killed 70 or 80 ATS.  Mr Gillibrand’s foot was injured and this meant that he was invalided out of the Artillery. 

He didn’t leave the military though – he was transported to Bovey Tracey in Devon to recuperate but the journey there must have been awful, he travelled with six or seven other soldiers in a wagon known as a Boneshaker!  Having arrived he was soon moved again to Braunton, where a camp was being set up and a cook was needed. He came to Braunton prior to D-Day in 1944 with ten or so other people and witnessed the first Nissan huts being erected on Saunton Fields.

Within two or three months there were hundreds of huts and, never having cooked before, Mr Gillibrand suddenly found himself feeding several hundred troops. Scottish and Irish troops were there to train and others were, by this time, returning from Burma where two of Mr Gillibrand’s brothers had been killed.

He remembers planes taking off from Chivenor airfield and the training that took place further afield on Exmoor. He helped to teach survival skills on the moor and cook for the soldiers, but remembers one particularly hazardous trip to Exmoor via Lynmouth when – due to a heavy fog and poor visibility - one of the vehicles that transported the soldiers overturned and killed several of the occupants.

This vehicle was known sometimes as the ‘Liberty Wagon’ and represented a treat, when the commanding officer allowed the soldiers use of the vehicle to get away for a bit. Mr Gillibrand remembers the joy of sitting on Saunton Sands beach, to watch the surfers, and visiting the Parish Hall (three times a week) for dances and organised entertainment.

He was a keen walker, despite his injury, and argues that there was not much else to do. One of his favourite walks was over the hill to the north of the camp towards Georgeham and Croyde – enjoying the magnificent views along the way. He says there were a lot less shops and houses on the Saunton Road in those days but that there was a cafe on one corner that had a famously fat cat. He remembers the railway that ran from Ilfracombe, through Braunton to the market town of Barnstaple and the cattle pens at Barnstaple market, which have now disappeared.

Despite the luxury of a railway, he favoured walking and remembers scrumping apples on the route between Braunton and Barnstaple. He walked sometimes to Ilfracombe and Morthoe too.

His notable football skills were soon put to use playing locally and on one occasion he played for England in a match against the Irish troops in the centre of Braunton. Following the match, a lithe 11-stone Mr Gillibrand had his first taste of alcohol and, after a refreshing pint, learnt the effect of Taunton Rough cider!

His departure from Braunton was sudden and without warning – having been here for around 14 months he was simply told, on waking one morning, that he must pack his bags as he was off.He found himself on a train to Crewe without a chance even to say goodbye to his friends.  He didn’t want to go as he had enjoyed his time in Braunton so much and looks back upon those months during his 21st year with fond memories.

He returned during 2008 to see the places he knew and shed some fascinating light on how the area has changed.

Modern Day Training

Braunton Burrows is still highly valued as a training ground for our armed forces.  The fact that it is so difficult to navigate makes it ideal for land-based exercises, although the sandy conditions are useful to all disciplines, as the pictures here testify.

Modern day military training on Braunton BurrowsMilitary 2

Military 1Hercules 1

explore braunton, the most biodiverse parish in england - a north devon aonb project