Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Chillies, Sherman tanks and super-moons

As we hurtle, once again, towards the end of the year - and, of course, Christmas - it's pleasant to recollect late summer travels. In the final week of September, we managed to have a summer holiday at the very last moment before the switch was thrown and autumn kicked in.

Festive-looking chilli?
(c) Tony Gillam
The part of the Devon coastline that lies between Torbay in the west and Plymouth to the east is known as the South Hams.  Apart from a dimly-recalled holiday in Paignton when I was 13, I had no memory of visiting this part of the world, but I'd heard good things about the pretty towns of Totnes and Kingsbridge.

Colourful and quirky
(c) Tony Gillam

The area was full of surprises - some colourful and quirky, some poignant and solemn.  On the colourful, quirky end of the scale was the South Devon Chilli Farm at Loddiswell. Here you could sample pieces of chilli chocolate or enjoy a savoury variation on the theme of a traditional Devon cream tea - a cheese scone with chilli jam.  The chillies in the show tunnel are a joyful sight and seeing images of them now, in the run-up to Christmas, they have an almost festive look about them.  The place does for chillies what Yorkshire Lavender does for lavender (see Windmills, pineapple sage and a dream pub - December 2010).

The  Exercise Tiger Memorial at Torcross
(c) Tony Gillam
If we were somewhat surprised to find a chilli farm in the Devon countryside, imagine our amazement at coming across an American Sherman tank from the Second World War, overlooking the coastline at Torcross.  The tank was salvaged from the sea in 1984 - four decades after it had been submerged during Exercise Tiger.  In 1943, Torcross and other villages in the area were evacuated and requisitioned by 30,000 US troops, in order to practice for the D-Day landings.  Slapton Sands was considered an ideal place to rehearse the landings that would take place for real in June 1944. Exercise Tiger turned out to be one of the great tragedies of World War Two.  Troops practising came under real attack, both from German E-boats on a reconnaissance mission and from 'friendly fire' as, to make the exercise as realistic as possible, a decision had been taken to use real ammunition.  Nearly 1,000 lives were lost in the operation and, presumably so as not to damage morale or jeopardise the real, planned invasion, the tragedy was kept secret until after the war. A few weeks after Exercise Tiger, in the actual D-Day landings on Utah beach, around 200 men were killed. Had it not been for the exercise, many more allied troops would have died on D-Day (including, perhaps, my own dad ... in which case I wouldn't be around today to write this tribute to all those brave young men.)

In a bookshop in Dartmouth, I spotted a novel based on the events of Exercise Tiger.  The Kid on Slapton Beach by Felicity Fair Thompson tells the story of the evacuation of Slapton and Torcross from the point of view of a twelve year old boy.  This beautifully produced novel (suitable for children or adults) is a compelling adventure with a proper villain and a brave young protagonist.  In simple, pacey prose, the turmoil of the characters is dramatically conveyed, against the backdrop of Torcross and Totnes, giving a real sense of the upheaval of a community and the terror and confusion of war.

(The author Felicity Fair Thompson was born in Australia and worked as a dancer and in West End theatre management, before becoming a novelist and screenwriter.)

And, if chilli farms and Sherman tanks weren't enough excitement for one summer holiday, this was also the week that a total lunar eclipse coincided with a super-moon - also known as a full perigee moon, or blood moon, because of its blood-red appearance.  The prospect of this was a bit alarming as I'd recently read RC Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript - a novel about the moon colliding with Earth (see Two Forces for Civilisation- June 2015).  

We did see the super-moon over our village and, luckily, it kept a respectful distance from Earth. It was eerily large but sadly didn't appear blood-red and, by the time of the eclipse, we were fast asleep. So, I suppose, we'll just have to wait until 2033 for the next one. But, in the meantime, let's enjoy what remains of 2015 and look forward to a peaceful and enjoyable Christmas.
Slapton Sands, September 2015
(c) Tony Gillam


  1. Slapton Sands looks so peaceful, it's hard to believe it was the setting for Exercise Tiger, the rehearsals for D-Day that went so badly wrong. The South Hams in Devon is a really beautiful part of Britain and well worth seeing and taking time to discover this extraordinary hidden secret of WW2.

  2. Indeed. Thanks for your comment, Felicity, and congratulations on the success of your 'Slapton Sands' book.
    Best regards,

  3. Thanks for lovely review for Linked In. 27th/28th April is coming - the anniversary of Exercise Tiger on Slapton Sands. Wars have many secrets - Slapton is fascinating, and a secret well kept for decades.
    Thanks for being such a great supporter of writers and writing.

  4. You're very welcome, Felicity.


About me

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).