An unlikely memorial to the D-Day invasion lies half-hidden in a narrow wind-ravaged valley among the sand dunes of Braunton Burrows on the north coast of Devon, England. While the remembrance sites in France have become places of pilgrimage, this isolated spot in rural England is virtually unknown.
In September 1943, thousands of Allied troops began training here for the invasion of France. The troops encamped on the Burrows and on adjacent farmland and golf courses. They came here because the tidal reaches of the estuaries on this coast of England are similar to the conditions at Normandy.
The armies built roads, dug bunkers and trenches and erected tent compounds. Old photos in the rebuilt golf club depict the frenetic activity of earthmovers, tanks and phalanxes of soldiers transforming the area into a vast training facility for the recapture of Europe.
Today, Braunton Burrows is again a pristine nature reserve. Golfers now crowd the rebuilt courses, while hikers clamber over the dunes, sheep graze the farmlands and rabbits scurry through the grass. Little evidence remains of those desperate days except for four oddly aligned concrete slabs near a rough gravel track that locals still call “The American Road.”
The strange slabs are not visible from either the beach or the American Road. No signposts mark their location. If you don’t know where to look, you would be lucky to chance upon them, as I recently did.
I was walking along a high dune when I spotted what appeared to be miniature runways and climbed down to explore. The “runways” are flat rectangular pavements about 120 feet long and 35 feet wide lying in an overgrowth of scrub. Around the edges of each are rows of broken, rusted posts and rings. At the front, two low concrete walls narrow onto a concrete ramp. The ramp descends into a trough of slimy green water.
In this incongruous setting, it took me a few moments to realize that I was standing on the deck of a simulated infantry landing craft and the stagnant water I was peering into was “Omaha Beach.” The posts and rings must have supported the sides and stern of the “vessel.”
Sixty-seven years ago, soldiers in full battle gear charged down that ramp through the trough and on to “France” in final preparations for June 6. For one vivid instant, I could almost see the ramp drop and machine gun fire riddle the front row.
When that awful image gave way again to the calming whir of insects and the cries of sea birds circling against the misty sky, I noticed an unobtrusive granite plaque on the forward wall. It simply reads: “IN COMMEMORATION OF THOSE MEMBERS OF THE ALLIED FORCES WHO TRAINED HERE FOR THE LIBERATION OF EUROPE, “D” DAY JUNE 6TH 1944.”
And it silently reminds a few passersby of those men’s impending sacrifice and of another time when the world was not a secure or a peaceful place.