Writing and walking are closely connected for some writers. I explored some connections in a blogpost in August: Steps to Improve Your Writing. In this post I explore a project in which I participated which explicitly links writing and walking. It was an homage to John Buchan and his novel The 39 steps.
26 Steps in 62 words
In March I agreed to contribute to a project called 26 steps, part of an on-going collective writing programme, hosted on the 26 steps website. Writers undertook a walk, wrote about it, drew a sketch map and added a B&W photo. The walks were linked by the letters of the alphabet: the first walk was from a place beginning with A to another beginning with B, then the 2nd writer walked from a place beginning with B to another starting with C and so on. My route was Stoke Fleming to Torcross: S-T. The distance was about six miles and followed a section of the South West Coastal Path. I usually plan circular walks, so this required organising a taxi from Torcross to Stoke Fleming so that I could rejoin my car at the end of the walk. My plans were not helped by storm damage to the sea wall at Torcross just before the scheduled walk in March, and by several stormy days.
Walking and writing are not things you can do simultaneously. But I always carry my notebook. And my camera. And my map. I finally chose a day when the clouds were high, there was a chance of sun and I was a couple of weeks into a fitness programme.
The route took me along Slapton Sands. It is impossible to live in the South West and not know that something happened at Slapton Sands, an event that was rarely spoken about immediately after it happened, and only exposed by the campaigning a local resident, Ken Small. He finally obtained permission to dig up an M4 Sherman tank that had been buried in the sand and it was placed in Torcross car park in 1984, a memorial to the men who died on Slapton Sands.
The story begins in the 1940s when the US joined the war effort, and plans were made for the invasion of the Normandy coast. Elaborate plans to persuade Hitler and his generals that the invasion would happen nearer the Straits of Dover were successful. There were decoys to distract attention from the huge number of troops and equipment being moved to the South West coast, ready to cross to the beaches of Normandy.
Slapton Sands were selected for rehearsals because its coastal bar resembled ‘Utah’ Beach. The local inhabitants moved out. On Slapton Sands there is a granite stone, put up by the United States Army Authorities. It has a long inscription thanking the people of the villages in the area who moved out of their homes and farms to make way for the troops in order that rehearsals could take place.
On 27th April 1944 a rehearsal went very badly wrong, resulting in the deaths of 946 American servicemen by ‘friendly’ fire. Signals had not been coordinated to the same frequency. Some ships were delayed and the information was not received by some participants. Men, large numbers of men were killed by their own allies.
Among the missing were ten BIGOTs, officers who knew the details of the invasion plans. Until all these were accounted for it was impossible to be confident that the plans hadn’t fallen into German hands. Until all ten were accounted for, the Normandy Landings were at risk.
The armed forces do not celebrate their mistakes, and after 1944 other events captured people’s attention, such as the end of the war in Europe and the final stages of the war in Japan. For these reasons, it seems, the whole incident was ‘conveniently forgotten’ in the words of Ken Small.
It is impossible to walk along the Sands without this knowledge, of the war, the preparations, the Normandy Landings and the cover-ups. Not much of it reflects well on humans. The story is present even while people enjoy the beach, watch the wild fowl on the freshwater lake that lies behind the Sands, fish, bathe and go naked on the naturists’ beach.
I tried to capture all this in my 62-word description of the walk. This is what I wrote:
Stoke Fleming to Torcross
Sea is constant, caressing the sand, careless of leaping dogs, naturists, anglers, the granite monument of gratitude from US forces, walkers, sea wall, and Operation Tiger in 1944, when almost a thousand men were rehearsing and killed by friendly fire, jeopardising the D-Day landings. The Allies went to Normandy and I walk along the sands in sun, liberty and knowledge of this.
You can find all the contributions – A-Z – to the 26 steps project on the website here together with other projects undertaken by the group.
There have been several fictionalised accounts of the events. Among them are:
The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo, adapted as the play 946.
The Night of the Fox by Jack Higgins
An episode of Foyle’s War called All Clear (2008) also drew on these events.
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