As the country turns its attentions to the beaches of Normandy for this week’s 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord, more commonly known as the D-Day landings, my focus is closer to home. I’m responsible for several of DIO’s training areas in the south west, including Braunton Burrows, which was used by American troops to prepare for the D-Day landings.
Wartime use of Braunton Burrows
Once Allied plans were in development to invade occupied Europe, it became clear that troops would need to practise amphibious landings. Most of the suitable beaches in England were already in use by British troops, but a delegation of senior American officers were shown beaches they could use. One of these was Braunton Burrows on the north Devon coast, which is very similar to the Normandy beaches the generals planned to land on.
Braunton Burrows was already in use for training British troops, but the Americans very quickly built a camp and a training school. Every American soldier who landed on Utah or Omaha beaches on D-Day went through training here first.
Even today, there are a number of features on the training area which point to its wartime use. There are several concrete replicas of landing craft for tanks and armoured vehicles, so their drivers could practise driving them on and off the landing craft. One of them has a gouge in the concrete where a tank driver misjudged his line, a tangible reminder that this could be a difficult task even when not under fire.
Further up the beach there are also concrete landing craft for infantry, so they could rehearse exiting the craft to begin the attack. You’d hardly want to do so for the first time when you landed on the beach on D-Day.
These aren’t the only remaining features either. You can still see a thick concrete wall which was designed for troops to practise firing what we would call a rocket launcher, and the troops using them would call a bazooka.
They would fire at specific points of the wall to train their aim for the use of these weapons on German defences in Normandy.
Braunton Burrows today
Although it had a very specific purpose in the run-up to 1944, Braunton Burrows is still used by the Armed Forces. All three services come to train here, but it’s fair to say that we see more Royal Marines exercises than Army or RAF. That’s thanks to the close proximity of the various Royal Marines units in Devon, especially RM Chivenor only three miles away.
Braunton Burrows is still used to train personnel for amphibious landings, but its main use today is for military drivers to practise their off-road driving skills on the dunes and sandy roads. Additionally, it’s used for dismounted infantry training and dropping equipment from aircraft. Even the concrete landing craft are still used for training 75 years later!
Unlike most of the land the Armed Forces use to train, Braunton Burrows is not owned by the MOD. The owners, the Christie Estate, kindly lease it to us for training. It’s also open to the public, so you could go and see these Second World War remains if you like. Just be on the lookout for military vehicles or other activity so you can safely avoid them.