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April 2024

Updated: Apr 2

An Ambulance-Jeep used by the 261st Amphibious Medical Battalion at Pentewan fitted with brackets to hold 4 stretchers with bumper markings showing 1st Engineer Special Brigade

It’s April already. Easter has been and gone. British Summer Time has started even if the summer weather hasn’t. D-Day 80 in June will soon be upon us. Those planning for Operation Overlord in 1944 must have felt time rushing by just the same. In fact, on Sunday 2nd April 1944 the British government introduced Double Summer Time – putting the clocks forward by two hours – in order to maximise the hours of daylight to make the nation’s industry and agriculture all the more efficient, and to allow the vast number of troops awaiting the invasion to maximise the time they had left before embarking for the far shore.

One of the gravest concerns the planners at SHAEF and the politicians in Westminster had was the prospect of a large number of casualties on D-Day. Planning documents showed estimates of 75,000 casualties on the day of the invasion were considered realistic. Overlord’s Air Commander Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory repeatedly warned Eisenhower the Allies 23,000 paratroopers might suffer casualties as high as 75%. Winston Churchill, with his own memories of the disastrous Gallipoli landings in the Great War, told his wife Clementine on the even of the invasion, “By the time you wake tomorrow 20,000 men could have been killed.”

Thus the American dress rehearsal for casualty evacuation for D-Day that took place on a south Cornish beach in April 1944 was to prove of immense significance. Operation Splint was carried out at Pentewan on an unprecedented scale in front of a vast array of V.I.P.’s.

When American troops were moved into Britain in late 1943 with most having very little or no experience of amphibious warfare the US High Command requested a number of training areas to allow their troops to practice the embarkation and disembarkation that D-Day would require. The training area in south Devon around Slapton Sands is probably the most famous, followed by the one at Braunton Burrows on the north Devon coast. The third, and the least well known, was that at Pentewan which would allow the use of all types of craft and movement inland over the beach. So the American High Command requested the British secure the requisition of Pentewan Beach and its hinterland, known locally as the Winnick, as a military training area. By the 24th November 1943 the necessary paperwork was in place and the Americans took control of the site from 1st January 1944. The 531st Engineer Shore Regiment moved in with enlisted men accommodated in huts at the back of the Winnick while the officers resided at the nearby Heligan House.

Among the exercises conducted at Pentewan were Cargo I, II and III and Tonnage I, II and III which were designed to see one battalion involved in the passage of 2,000 tons of supplies onto the beach, moving it inland and then reloading it. These were carried out in February and March 1944. The 531st Engineer Shore Regiment practiced the destruction of underwater obstacles with the Naval Combat Demolition teams. Such activity was considered top secret and the Americans were concerned by the view afforded of the beach from the road that runs down the hill to Pentewan from Mevagissey. So they closed it to all civilian traffic which had to use the old road (the steep hill that was the road before the Turnpike Trust had reduced the steepness of the incline by twists and turns up the hill!) This meant the buses to Mevagissey and Gorran Haven often struggled to get up the hill and drivers would ask their passengers to get off and walk up the hill and re-embark at the top.

Lt General Lee inspecting a jeep with brackets for stretchers during Operation Splint

Operation Splint was scheduled for the 10th to 12th April 1944. The operation was conducted jointly by the US Army and US Navy to allow the treatment of a large number of casualties, their movement to the beach and then their removal to landing ships (LSTs) anchored some distance off the shore. A field hospital was set up in a field on Barton Farm where 200 casualties were made ready for transportation. They were then loaded onto stretchers which were placed on especially adapted jeeps or field ambulances to be transported down to the water line. Here small craft received them and departed for the LSTs. Casualties carried by the LCVPs were loaded directly over the side of the LST while those on DUKWs were embarked directly through the lowered ramp of the ship. I have edited US Navy footage of the exercise into my YouTube video on Pentewan and Operation Splint which you can watch here:

There were a number of high-ranking naval and army officers watching the manoeuvres every day but Wednesday 12th April saw things step up a notch or two. A special train ran from London to Par bringing a number of officers while General Eisenhower’s deputy commander of US forces in the European Theatre of Operations, Lt Gen G C H Lee, flew into RAF St Mawgan where he was met by Colonel Wyman and was driven down to the south coast. Also present at proceedings was Vice Admiral Sir Sheldon Dudley, Director General of the Royal Naval Medical Service, General Sir Alex Hood, Director General of the Royal Artillery Medical Service and Major General Sir Percy Tomlinson, in charge of the Army Medical Corps and a physician to HM King George VI. A full list of observers can be found on the YouTube video which also deals with the rumours that both Eisenhower and King George VI were present at Splint.

Lt. General J. C. H. Lee, CG SOS, ETOUSA, observes a Surgical Team of 3d Auxiliary Surgical Group as they train inside the tented hospital at Pentewan

After watching proceedings for several hours, inspecting the field hospital, the modified jeeps, having a ride in DUKW and seeing how things progressed on board ship, Lt Gen Lee and his fellow observers were taken to Fowey Hall where they enjoyed lunch hosted by the Commander of the US Navy Advanced Amphibious Training Sub-Base: Fowey, Commander L W Snell. A full debrief of the three day exercise was held and concluded Splint was “an efficient, successful and well organised test of the new techniques used”.

The large field hospital set up by 261st Amphibious Medical Battalion personnel in a field on Barton Farm

The 261st Amphibious Medical Battalion under C.O. Major Merle E Smith, M.C. recorded, “This manoeuvre was considered very important by Allied High Command with regard to the evacuation of casualties during the coming landing operations. Two hundred troops were used as simulated casualties. All phases of casualty handling from the time of admission to the reception aboard ships for evacuation were demonstrated. The results demonstrated clearly that large numbers of casualties could be evacuated off a beach without disturbance to the other functions of the beachhead. Companies gained more practical value from this exercise than any other because they had available a large number of men to use as casualties.”

What happened at Pentewan in April 1944 helped save lives on D-Day. The planners’ nightmare scenarios were not realised with just 4,413 Allied soldiers killed on D-Day. While everyone of those casualties is a personal tragedy the numbers were significantly lower than Churchill and the D-Day planners had feared. Even the Naval Combat Demolition Units that trained at Pentewan are credited with saving lives at Omaha by the holes they created in the beach obstacles saving the first assault wave from total wipeout, although the NCDU at Omaha suffered 52% casualties themselves. At Utah they were more successful with only six of their number killed. The speedy removal of the wounded from the beaches back into the LSTs and back to England saved countless lives as procedures rehearsed at scale in Cornwall were put to good effect in Normandy. Pentewan is still a military training area, despite the Winnick having reverted to being a popular camp site, with landing craft from the Royal Marines paying visits most years and even the Royal Netherlands Marines have been known to drop in and on one infamous occasion stick around when one of their landing craft became stranded on a sand bar! Few visitors to the beach today are aware of the crucial role it played in the preparations for Operation Overlord.

Aerial view of Pentewan in a 1970s Postcard

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