Brixham Embarkation Mural
The Brixham Embarkation Mural is positioned next to the MDL Marina Car Park,
on Berry Head Road, Brixham TQ5 9AB.
The Embarkation Mural was commissioned by BATS to bring together the various separate elements of commemoration of the embarkation of the American troops for both Exercise Tiger and Operation Overlord in the Second World War.
Brixham’s role in WW2 was particularly important from early 1942 onwards, with an aim to liberate Europe from the German occupation. Amassing of forces in Britain were proceeding at an accelerated pace. Amphibious training centres, marshalling areas, supply depots, and hardstandings for loading landing craft dotted England’s south coast. Ports extending around Britain from South Wales to the Norfolk coast were filled with assorted landing ships and craft, as were many inland waterways.
Special concrete loading ramps, nicknamed ‘hards’, were constructed along river banks, beaches and inlets to enable organised embarkation onto landing craft irrespective of tides, in preparation for D-Day and the rescue of occupied Europe. A total of 68 individual hards were constructed between 1942 and 1944 across the southern coast of England, in every county between Suffolk and Cornwall.
Brixham Slipway was called a ‘Hard ‘and was built on ‘Dolphins’
Brixham’s slipways and hard, next to the Breakwater, were built by the British Army Royal Engineers in May 1943 in preparation for men of the United States Army to use in the invasion of France, in what was later to be called Operation Overlord, to take place sometime in June 1944.
Houses had to be demolished.
The tanks and troops travelled down Fore Street and along King Street, damaging buildings on the way. In order to get the tanks and transporters down to the ‘hard’ two large houses in Berry Head Road were demolished to allow for turning. The space left by the demolition is now preserved as Churchill Gardens, to the right of the mural.
Two huge oil tanks and a water tank were located in the quarry next to the mural (now a car park) and a pipeline ran out along the Breakwater to fuel all 100 landing craft and the larger ships lying off in the Bay. It was all controlled by Plymouth Command, whose control base for the Brixham embarkations was at Wolborough House, to the left of the mural.
100 US landing craft filled Brixham’s outer harbour and a flotilla of about 40 Canadian motor torpedo boats massed in the Inner Harbour.
This was the worst training disaster of WW2. It was the final exercise before D Day and involved the US Fourth Infantry Division, who were to land on Utah Beach in Normandy on the 6th June 1944.
There were to be two convoys assembled, both infantry and Sherman tanks. The ships set sail from Brixham and assembled further down the coast.
On the night of 27th April 1944, a terrible tragedy unfolded on and off Slapton Sands. Due to lack of communications and late assembly there was confusion, with some ships opening fire on their fellow ships. 50 American servicemen died and 70 were wounded from ‘friendly fire' and bungled planning.
Four German U Boats then attacked the convoy with torpedoes, killing hundreds of US soldiers and sailors. A total of 749 men died in the convoy attack and 32 died in the friendly fire off Slapton Sands.
On the same night another convoy, in landing ships that had left Brixham slipways, was also attacked by 4 German E Boats. Various landing craft and Sherman tanks were also lost. Many were wounded and bodies later washed up along the south coast.
In total 946 American servicemen died during Exercise Tiger and as part of the build-up to D-Day. The names of 639 of these men are listed at the memorial tank site at Torcross.
This catastrophe was wrapped in secrecy to avoid jeopardising Operation Overlord six weeks later, on 6th June 1944.
Operation Overlord June 1944
Fortunately the plans for D Day were not uncovered and the 4th US Infantry Division left Brixham on 4th June 1944. 2,500 Infantry of the 8th Infantry Combat Group had marched down Fore Street into King Street and onto the large slipway to embark into landing ships, followed by 32 Sherman DD and amphibious tanks loading on the smaller slipway. This convoy then headed to Utah Beach to take part in the Normandy D Day landings.
The D-Day operation of June 6, 1944, brought together the land, air, and sea forces of the allied armies in what became known as the largest invasion force in human history. The operation, given the codename OVERLORD, delivered five naval assault divisions to the beaches of Normandy, France. Brixham had played its part in the liberation of Europe. The slipways continued to supply logistical support to the troops for several weeks to come.
The Brixham hard was heavily used in the period immediately before the invasion and during the subsequent three weeks.
The invasion of Normandy on D-Day 6th June 1944 relied totally on efficient and rapid deployment of substantial numbers of troops, quantities of vehicles and supplies. In the three weeks following D-Day over 850,000 men, 150,000 vehicles and 570,000 tons of supplies passed through about 100 embarkation sites on their way to the beaches at Normandy. The Brixham hard played a critical part in a large and complex logistic system.
The mural shows the embarkation of troops onto the ships, providing a visual explanation of what happened in this period of history, bringing the several sites into a cohesive whole. It will also act as a memorial and a point of interest for visiting relatives of the troops who took part.
What happened afterwards?
The hard in Brixham was derequisitioned on 27th February 1945. At the end of the war the associated jetties were removed and the hard and slipway retained for commercial and leisure use. Between 1952 and 1965 a protective layer of concrete slabs was laid over the original surface.
The Brixham hard is believed to be the best preserved example of the standard type built in England. The two jetties leading out into the harbour no longer survive, although remnants of the ‘dolphins’ upon which they were built still exist. The separate slipway to the north west of the lifeboat house formed part of the original design.
Brixham's hard and slipways played a vital role in the preparations for this part of the British war effort which is why, in 2009, they became Grade II listed as a national monument and an iconic reminder of D-Day. The purpose of this commissioned mural is to bring together information on the sites reflecting a time when Brixham played a vital role in World history.
Thanks and acknowledgements
The Embarkation Mural was painted by Neil Wilkinson-Cave (Sacredart Murals) and officially opened by Deputy Lord Lieutenant Brian Wills-Pope MBE on 15th July 2023.
Grateful acknowledgements for support and donations go to Martyn Sherratt of MDL Marinas Ltd, Robbie Robinson, Phil Trayhorn, Stephen Burchell of Wolborough House, Robin Hooker of Devoncourt, Chris Burns, Gordon Smith and the BATS Board Members, Brixham Town Council and the British Legion, Torbay.