Cobbaton Combat Collection

By John Norris

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When the first American troops began to arrive in Britain in 1942, they were allocated areas for billeting and training purposes. For example, elements of the 28th Infantry “Keystone” Division were sent to Wales where they used the estate at Margam Park near Port Talbot. Other units went to Somerset, Dorset, and Devon where they were allocated properties such as Saltram Park near Plymouth and Lupton House near Brixham.

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Jeep known as ‘50 Cal Gal’ towing a replica M3 37mm anti-tank gun.

Another area designated for use by American troops was Braunton Burrows near Braunton in Devon. The location was developed into a camp and extensive training grounds which would eventually cover some sixteen square miles. It played a particularly important role in the preparation of troops in readiness for D-Day, by serving as a training area. Each year, a short commemorative ceremony is held on the training grounds to honor the memories of those who served here.

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Auster spotter plane in D-Day markings which flew over in tribute of memorial service.

This past year, a convoy of historical vehicles from the period was organized by Preston Isaac who, together with his father Preston, operates the privately-owned Cobbaton Combat Collection at Umberleigh (www.cobbatoncombat.co.uk). Together with members of the local branch of the Military Vehicle Trust, a convoy of around 40 vehicles was organized for a road run on June 6 to mark the 71st anniversary of D-Day to the day.

Tim Isaac very kindly invited Military Vehicles Magazine to take part in the event and travel as a passenger. Vehicles had been arriving very early at the ground of the Cobbaton Collection so that we could depart at 8am. Timing was critical. The aim was to end the convoy run by parading on the beach at Saunton Sands when the tide was going out.

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Some of the convoy on the concrete stand of a practice LCT.

Jeeps, GMC trucks, various Dodges, and some larger vehicles including an M3 Scout Car and a Ward LaFrance M1A1 Wrecker recovery vehicle made up the convoy. Several British vehicles such as a Morris Commercial C8 15cwt (.75 ton) truck, a couple of Austin Utility “Tillys,” and BSA motorcycles joined the convoy.

The first part of the route was along narrow Devon country lanes which are the same today as they were over seventy years ago when American troops were driving along them. In fact, our route was probably travelled by young GIs who may have passed by the same farms we saw on our journey. At points the lane narrowed to a width of about ten feet and for the larger vehicles it was tight but they still managed to get through.

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Morris Commercial C8 15cwt in markings of 49th Division ‘West Riding’.

Finally, we emerged from the country lanes out on the main road and we could pick up some speed. Pedestrians and motorists were curious and intrigued  to see some many historical vehicles on the move at the same time and they made allowances for the age of the vehicles. On approaching a round-about an escorting motorcyclist would peel off and wait by the junction to direct the drivers along the correct route, which was all very reminiscent of wartime convoys. With an average speed of 25 mph, and traffic conditions, it took about one hour to cover the distance of around 18 miles. The convoy pulled into the side of the road we waited for the stragglers to catch up. Once we were all assembled we continued the drive on to the training grounds at Braunton Burrows which had been used by units such as the 1st Infantry ‘Big Red One’ Division, 116th Regimental Combat Team of the 29th Infantry Division, along with engineering units, tank battalions, Rangers and 101st Airborne Division.

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Weapons Carrier leaving the concrete LCT.

Over seventy years ago Braunton Burrows resounded to explosions, vehicles thundering around the gullies along with gun fire as the troops practiced for the invasion of France. Special practice areas for live firing mortars and bazookas firing were established. Mock-up bunkers and pillboxes were constructed for complete realism which troops attacked using flamethrowers and demolition charges. Obstacles they would encounter, such as ‘Dragons Teeth’ and anti-tank walls were built, which engineer units then had to practice destroying. Driving across the area we were following the route which thousands of troops must have driven or marched along. As we drove, we noticed here and there, poking out from the sand, reminders from those days such as sections of concrete walls and iron brackets.

Today Braunton Burrows is popular with tourists who hike along the paths which criss-cross the site, which during the war was out of bounds to civilians, and who for the most part are oblivious of the area’s importance to the war. The beach and neighboring sand dunes are similar to the landing beaches of Omaha and Utah American troops assaulted on June 6 1944, and we could not help but wonder how much greater the casualty rate would have been had these training grounds not been available.

If one knows where to look, there is still a lot to see which is left from the war years. For example, the bazooka training site, with its massive concrete impact wall, is still in place, albeit rather weathered.

We passed this and several other points before arriving at the location where the remains of Landing Craft Tank (LCTs) were built out of concrete. These were constructed to the same shape and size as the actual LCTs so that drivers could practice getting their vehicles off the vessel and onto the beach. The concrete foundations still have metal fixings which show how temporary sides would have been erected to complete the effect of an LCT. Two of these positions remain and it is in one of these that a commemorative plaque has been fixed to the wall. This is where a short, but poignant, memorial service was held, with wreathes being laid by ex-servicemen. It was a fitting tribute. The significance was not lost on any of the vehicle owners.

The location also served as an opportunity for some vehicle owners to drive onto the concrete base of the LCTs and recreate the exiting techniques by driving off the ramp. It was incredible to see just how many vehicles could be loaded onto the LCTs. The exit ramp is just wide enough for a tank to leave, but for smaller vehicles, there was plenty of room.

The column reformed in readiness to drive the last leg of the journey towards Saunton Sands where amphibious assault training had been completed with vehicles and troops from landing craft. American troops continued to use the area as a training ground until just a few weeks before D-Day. It was inevitable that there should be accidents during the training including many fatalities, the worst of which happened when 98 men were drowned when their landing craft overturned and sank.

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The Sexton had plenty of room to move.

As we drove onto the beach, Tim Isaac from Cobbaton, who had arrived earlier in the day to unload the Sexton SPG from the Collection, was there to greet us. He was in the company of another heavyweight: a Landing Vehicle Tracked Mk IV Buffalo. The owners had brought this unusual vehicle—certainly for  Britain—over 140 miles to take part in the event. The owner explained that it was the prospect of putting it into the sea which made him join the event. This particular Buffalo dates from 1945 and probably had never been deployed in combat.

Here was a rare opportunity for a specialised amphibious vehicle to really be put through its paces in a way which no other location could hope to offer. The sea was choppy, and it was decided that it would indeed be possible to take the Buffalo into the water. What we were witnessing was a unique moment in historical vehicle ownership.

The Buffalo weighs 16 tons and measures around 26 feet in length, ten feet and eight inches in width and is about eight feet in height, yet for all this bulk, it was tossed about in the waves. It was a brave try, but the owners realized to continue under such conditions would be foolhardy. They returned to the beach.

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The LVT Buffalo looked impressive just parked.

Things began to wind down, but before we departed, all the vehicles owners decided to take a high-speed run along the beach. Each owner set off to drive the length of the sand, a distance of about three miles. It was not a race, but an opportunity for owners to see what their vehicles could do under such conditions without any obstacle. Even the Buffalo participated and surprised many with the speed it achieved. Another surprising participant was a Ford GTB (“Burma Jeep”). This particular vehicle is a regular participant in the convoy, and had actually driven from Cobbaton. Once back at the starting point, we each made our own way back to Cobbaton and home. As events go, this was one of the best I have ever attended and certainly a great success. J

{AUTHOR’S NOTE: ON behalf of Military Vehicles Magazine, I would like to extend sincere thanks to Tim Isaac and all owners of the MVT who took part in the event for their support and making my visit memorable. Should any reader be interested, I have a digital PDF copy of a map showing the location of sites on the training grounds at Braunton Burrows. If you would like a copy free of charge, please contact me at: john.norris3@btinternet.com.}

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