1st June 2019

History of Devon in WWII

North Devon’s associations with the Second World War are typically considered in terms of evacuees and refugees. What is often forgotten - and so surprises people - is that it in fact harboured one of the most unique and important training camps. 10,000 American soldiers used the area’s beaches, estuaries and sand dunes, stretching 10 miles covering Saunton Sands, Woolacombe and Braunton Burrows to perfect the techniques to invade the German-occupied coastline of Europe.

Brend Hotels - Saunton Sands Hotel during WWII

The art deco hotel was built in 1933 by Sir John Christie, who also built the Glyndebourne opera house, and remained a dazzling destination for holidaymakers for many years, withstanding WWII, but later fell into disrepair. In December 1977, the Brend family, who worked hard to restore the hotel to its former glory and reinstate its prestigious reputation, purchased the hotel and have owned it ever since. 

The fascinating history of Saunton Sands Hotel during the war demonstrates how the hotel played an important role in the war effort in North Devon. From being painted green in camouflage to prevent German bombers using it as a navigational marker (it was thought they used it to line up their route over Cardiff), to in 1940 being briefly requisitioned to house the children of Duke of York’s Military School, which had to be relocated from Dover to make room for troops who were being evacuated from Dunkirk. In compliance with wartime secrecy, the location was kept discreet and guest bedrooms became dormitories with bunk beds to sleep the orphaned children of military recruits. From September 1943 to April 1944 the British government reluctantly offered Saunton Sands, Braunton Burrows and Woolacombe to become the US Assault Training Centre, despite the British previously deeming the area unsuitable for training. American troops then spent the time preparing for the D-Day assault on the heavily defended Normandy beaches.

Luckily, the coastline was ideal for amphibious exercises and every spec of coastline was utilised. Even the 10-mile stretch of sand. Its quality, beach gradient and tidal range was similar topography to Omaha and Utah beaches where the troops would land and begin their assault.

Training was tough, vigorous and unrelenting. The military practiced many exercises including use of live ammunition, explosives, tanks, artillery and air support on the beaches. It is no doubt that use of these North Devon beaches and its similar terrain proved invaluable to the troops. The road behind the Burrows by Sandy Lane car park is known as American Road. On June 6 1944, the greatest and largest amphibious assault in military history took place against Normandy’s coastline, the bloody battle saw the huge courage, sacrifice and devastating loss of allied troops but marked the beginning of the end of WWII.

Read more about North and WW2 at Visit Devon