Training fields

The “Harley Davidson cemetery” buried under the fields of Devon

American troops left a lot behind when they hurriedly left Devon for the beaches of Normandy in 1944. But did they really leave hundreds of classic motorcycles underground in South Devon?

Over the years, many have come forward to say with absolute certainty that there are Harley Davidsons – in pristine condition, in wooden crates and greased to preserve them forever – buried beneath the rolling fields of the south of the Devon.

A rural legend has it that hundreds of them are buried near Bovey Tracey. Another says there are hundreds more under a farmer’s field near Kingsbridge.

An industrial estate and housing estate now sits in the Heathfield area where witnesses maintain the bikes entered the ground.

The secret of the exact location of the Kingsbridge field went to the grave with the people who said they saw the bicycle burial.



One of a series of photographs on loan from Ken Small of Torcross. They show US servicemen training at Slapton Sands during a rehearsal for the 1944 D-Day landing, Exercise Tiger. The exercise tragically took a turn for the worse when more than 700 men were killed by a passing German E-Boat.

The U.S. military had moved into the county in large numbers in preparation for the D-Day landings, training on beaches and headlands that strikingly resembled the coastline of northern France.

With so many troops entering the county, large areas were evacuated to make way for them. Families have been uprooted and ordered to leave. Entire villages of South Hams have been emptied.

About 3,000 people, their property, farm implements and equipment were moved out of villages such as Blackawton, Chillington, East Allington, Slapton, Stokenham, Strete and Torcross.

Jean Brooking from Stokenham told the BBC People’s War project in 2006: “I’m sure when my father came home with the news the mother and everyone else must have been filled with horror and disbelief, watching. their surroundings and wondering long? ”and“ Will we ever come back? ”

The land was requisitioned on November 16, 1943 and the evacuation was completed on December 20. The electricity is cut the next day and the police stations are closed.

In total, 180 farms, village shops, schools and houses were emptied.



An American Sherman tank exits LST 262 on Slapton Sands in 1944
An American Sherman tank exits LST 262 on Slapton Sands in 1944

The Brooking family moved to live with farmer friends in Ashprington.

All around their old home, the training “war” was raging. Thousands of vehicles and weapons were brought into the Devon countryside, including hundreds of Harley Davidson motorcycles, the workhorse of the US military.

The Harley WLA was the military’s go-to motorcycle, with its distinctive bulbous fuel tank and unique saddle

It was used for escort work, messaging and some scouting, as well as for transporting radio equipment. The WLA acquired the nickname “Liberator” because it was seen ridden by soldiers liberating occupied Europe.

The training was tough, dangerous and often fatal. US forces suffered many casualties during live fire training, and more than 700 men were lost in a single night when German torpedo boats attacked landing craft participating in Exercise Tiger, a simulated landings on the Normandy beaches.

More and more troops have arrived in South Devon as the June date for the invasion of Normandy approaches on D-Day.



Tanks are loaded onto landing craft at the Dartmouth Upper Ferry Crossing for D-Day rehearsals at Slapton
Tanks are loaded onto landing craft at the Dartmouth Upper Ferry Crossing for D-Day rehearsals at Slapton

Camps are set up around Torbay, and troops wait in tents on the big day. Areas such as Heathfield were used to store ammunition and vehicles, including jeeps and motorcycles.

Landing craft assembled at Tor Bay ready to depart for the French coast. Local artist Bill Stockman, who saw the extraordinary scene as a schoolboy, told the Herald Express it looked like the bay was “full” of landing craft, as if you could walk from a bridge. across from Torquay to Brixham without getting your feet wet.

On June 6, 1944, the Landing Craft took thousands of Allied troops across the English Channel for what would be the turning point of World War II, establishing the beachhead and ultimately pushing German forces back through France.

And with that, US forces had left South Devon, once again leaving the battered countryside to the locals.

Bomb disposal teams made their way through the countryside, dealing with the remains of explosives.



Hundreds of Harley Davidson motorcycles like this are believed to be buried under the Devon countryside
Hundreds of Harley Davidson motorcycles like this are believed to be buried under the Devon countryside

To this day, shells and other rusting artillery pieces are found on the beaches of South Devon and sometimes in the countryside.

Roads were repaired and compensation was paid to households whose houses had been damaged.

The families picked up the pieces. Some of the buildings they had left behind were beyond repair, but many of them were pretty much as they had left them.

Ms. Brooking recalled the “wonderful household gifts” from the Canadian and American Red Cross as life returned to its normal course. Italian prisoners of war repaired the roads while the army girls worked in the fields.

These days, there are few reminders of the US occupation of the South Hams.

The most visible reminder is a Sherman tank and a memorial in the seaside parking lot at Torcross.



Exercise Tiger activist Ken Small celebrates the lifting of the Sherman tank from the seabed off Torcross in May 1984. Photo by the Torbay News Agency.
Exercise Tiger activist Ken Small celebrates the lifting of the Sherman tank from the seabed off Torcross in May 1984. Photo by the Torbay News Agency.

The tank was salvaged from the seabed in the early 1980s by hotelier Ken Small, who had dedicated years to the project in memory of American troops who lost their lives in preparations for D-Day.

Ceremonies are held beside the float on Remembrance Sunday and June 6 of each year to honor those who have died.

Rumors about the kit the Americans left behind have persisted for nearly 80 years.

The Herald Express and other local newspapers have often reported that local historians claimed to have information about a buried ‘treasure’ in South Devon, but nothing ever came of the stories of motorcycles, weapons and vehicles. long forgotten.

But departing or retreating armies have a long history of burying the kit they cannot or do not want to take with them.



Today in Devon - between Newton Abbot and Bovey Tracey
Today in Devon – between Newton Abbot and Bovey Tracey

And it looks like the stories of treasure beneath the fields or factories of Devon will continue forever.

A user called Urbmark writing on an internet forum dedicated to classic motorcycles wrote: “Near my home is a large industrial area called Heathfield.

“It is well documented that the Americans used this site as a dumping ground before the actual invasions. Included in the funeral where literally dozens of new Harleys are still in their cases.

“A few years ago, before the construction of the second phase of the estate, a major excavation took place to try to locate the buried landfill, but unfortunately nothing was found.

“A deceased friend discovered an abandoned Jeep at another site covered in brambles. He completely restored it and won numerous awards in vintage rallies.

“Oh! To find those Harleys though …”


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