Tuesday, October 28, 2014

James R. Benn: "The Rest is Silence."

We're so happy to have James Benn with us again. His latest Billy Boyle book, The Rest Is Silence,  has been garnering great reviews since it was released on September 2nd. Agatha Christie even makes a cameo appearance! Thanks for joining us, Jim and welcome back.

The Rest Is Silence presents the military training disaster at Slapton Sands as a backdrop the ninth Billy Boyle World War II investigation. The events behind this historical tragedy began in November 1943, when the British government took over a large area of the Devonshire coast in southwest England for invasion trainings. An area called the South Hams, over 30,000 acres of seafront along the protected Lyme Bay, was evacuated. The residents of this rural district – 750 families, 180 farms, 3,000 people in all – were given only a few weeks to clear out and take everything of value with them; livestock, furnishings, farm equipment, harvested crops, anything that might be damaged by bombs and thousands of troops on maneuver. The deadline was five days before Christmas 1943; for some, it was too much. One couple in their eighties (he had never left the South Hams and she had never ridden in a motor vehicle) hung themselves in their barn rather than move. But the rest did, finding shelter where they could. Most accepted the sacrifice for the sake the war effort. Everyone knew realistic training for Allied soldiers could help save lives.

It wasn’t long before the Allied command noticed a fortunate accident of geography within Lyme Bay. A beach known as Slapton Sands with low cliffs at either end of a flat coastal road and a marshy lake behind the shore was almost an exact duplicate of the beach code named Utah in Normandy. It was the perfect place for assault troops to train, and by April 1944, a large scale operation called Exercise Tiger was about to kick off. The 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Engineer Special Brigade – the troops set to hit Utah beach – were to land at Slapton Sands for a live-fire training exercise.

Things went wrong immediately. On April 27, the first phase of the exercise began as 4th division GIs were landed on the stony beach at Slapton Sands at 7:30 am. The landing was to be preceded by a live fire exercise to acclimatize the troops to the sights & sounds of a naval bombardment. The British cruiser Hawkins was to shell the shoreline before the landing craft hit the beach. But several of the landing craft were delayed, and the navy decided to postpone the shelling for 60 minutes, until 8:30. This message was received by Hawkins, but not by the landing craft – so troops were on the beach as the bombardment began. Over three hundred were killed.

Exercise Tiger continued even after that tragedy. In the pre-dawn hours of April 28, another convoy made for Slapton Sands. Eight LSTs carrying combat engineer and support troops slated for Utah Beach, over a thousand men in each ship, sailed in single file on a moonless night on calm seas. The convoy was supposed to have been escorted by a destroyer a smaller corvette, but the destroyer had been damaged in a collision and the navy failed to find a replacement. An error was also made in assigning radio frequencies – the escort vessel and shore installations were assigned one frequency, and the transports another. There was no way for them to communicate.

Disaster might have been avoided, if not for a patrol of 9 German E-boats – small, heavily armed and swift craft operating out of Cherbourg. They found the convoy. One LST was sunk immediately, one left in flames to sink later, and a third heavily damaged.

Confusion reigned. Hundreds of men were trapped below decks as the two LSTs sank. Many who jumped overboard into the forty-two degree water went in wearing heavy overcoats and packs. GIs had been issued life belts, but navy crews failed to explain their proper use. They were to be worn under the armpits so they’d function as a life preserver when inflated, but the troops buckled them around their waist. When inflated in the water, the belt pitched the torso forward, shifting the center of gravity - keeping the head underwater and feet above.

Hypothermia took those who didn’t drown immediately. 198 sailors and 551 soldiers died in the Channel. Many of those soldiers were highly trained specialists, men who had important roles to play in the real invasion. The 1st Special Engineer Brigade was essentially wiped out. The sunk and damaged LSTs left none in reserve for D-Day. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.  Ten BIGOTs were missing.

BIGOT was a security classification beyond Top Secret. Those who knew the date and/or place of D-Day were described as "Bigoted." When General Eisenhower learned about the catastrophe, he wanted to know whether any of the dead or missing were BIGOTs. If any of them were picked up in the Channel by the Germans, or even if the enemy learned of the convoy’s destination – that beach doubling for one in Normandy – the secrets of D-Day might be compromised.
This is where Billy Boyle enters the historical record. It’s his job to find those ten BIGOTs among hundreds of bodies washing ashore along the coast of Lyme Bay. The dead were buried in temporary graves, and their families were informed they were killed on D-Day, June 6th.

The story follows the facts behind this disaster, except for the addition of an 11th BIGOT – a victim who was not supposed to be part of Exercise Tiger. A final irony is that during the actual landing at Utah Beach on June 6th, there were only 197 men killed or wounded. The death toll was one-tenth of that of Exercise Tiger.
Billy Boyle does have some help with his investigation from two historical personages who were both in the area at the time: Yogi Berra and Agatha Christie. There is no evidence they ever did meet, but they were a stone’s throw across the Dartmouth River from each other. I tremble to consider the conversation had they met.

Yogi, at the left in the picture above, just before going overseas, volunteered for duty in the rocket boats; small craft that preceded the invasion fleet at D-Day. Here’s a few snippets of conversation with Yogi as Billy commandeers his boat to search for the missing BIGOTs. See if you can spot the real Yogi-isms from the ones I made up.

 “Yogi?” I said, taking the lifebelt from him. He was stocky and dark, with a ready smile and sharp eyes.
“What kind of name is that? You look Italian, maybe.”
            “I am,” he said. “Gunner’s Mate Lawrence Berra, but they call me Yogi.”
            “Why?” Big Mike asked, taking his lifebelt and trying to cinch it around his waist.
            “No, no, that ain’t right,” Yogi said. “Not around the waist. You put it around your chest, right up under your armpits. Then if you gotta go in the water, you inflate it with these CO2 cartridges, here. See? If you wear this around your waist, you end up head over heels in the water, which don’t work so good as far as breathing goes.”
“Yeah, I volunteered back in basic. They asked if any guys wanted to get into the rocket boats, and I was readin’ a Buck Rogers comic book at the time. I guess I thought it was going to be something like that, you know? But here we are, on dry ground, except it’s water. I was kinda disappointed, but I don’t mind. The future just ain’t what it used to be, you know?”
“Gettin’ killed would make our job a lot harder.”

The Buck Rogers comment is true, and ‘the future ain’t what it used to be’ is classic Yogi.
Mrs. Mallowan’s conversation with Billy is less vivid, but perhaps more important to the case. The British Admiralty had taken over her country place—Greenway House—for the duration, and it was a headquarters for the US Navy command in charge of the Exercise Tiger convoy. Murals painted on the walls by a navy officer, depicting previous ports of call, have been preserved. Mrs. Mallowan enjoyed them as well when she moved back in after the war.

Jim for Cara—Tuesday


  1. A fascinating but horrifying story, James, and one I knew nothing about. Not exactly "our finest hour." I can't wait to read your new book.
    Best wishes

  2. James, Horrifying indeed. More evidence that something as complicated as war can not be entrusted to human beings. We need to stop trying to settle arguments with weapons, just go about our everyday business, and leave it to the angels to fight things out.
    Thank you for bringing in Yogi to lighten my mood. I have actually had the privilege of meeting him several times over the course of a lifetime. Your benign and hilariously wise depiction of him is delightful! I am buying The Rest is Silence as soon as I finish typing this comment!
    Thanks so much for coming by.

  3. Okay Annamaria, I expect your next blog to recount your meetings with Yogi! Thank you.

  4. Jim, tune in next Monday. I will post the story with a photo of me and the great man.

  5. Thanks, Jim! A well-told story of ... unsettling events. "The Rest Is Silence" sounds like it will be a great read!

  6. It is very like the fact that more American airmen in WWII died in training in the USA than in combat. Great blog. Thanks.

  7. As I wrote to you before, I thought the book was splendid. The Slapton Sands debacle was a plot point in the "Foyle's War" episode "All Clear." Foyle's friend, an America major in the Engineers, recounts how he lost so many of the young men under his command. Moving, and upsetting. Since I'd never heard of the tragedy either, I assume that the government can be very good at keeping embarrassing and unpleasant secrets.

  8. Jim, you have a knack not only for discovering the most emotion charged, mystery laden topics, but in expressing them in an irresistibly compelling style all your own! What a book. Can't wait to get a signed copy at Bouchercon.

    1. Jeffrey - Missing B'Con this time around. Let me know if you'd like a copy sent.
      Have a drink at the bar for me!

    2. BooHoo. We will miss you, Jim. The history-mystery discussion won't be the same without you.

    3. Thanks, Jim, I'll miss you. But will have the drink and no need to send me a copy. I'll get Annamaria to buy me one. :)