One of the great joys of fiction writing is you have two basic options which are to either invent it all or base your work on a real event. You can be said to be writing history.
Historical novels obviously fall into the second category (as do some crime books). One of my favourite books, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, is based on The Princes in the Tower mystery.
Felicity Fair Thompson chose a largely forgotten part of World War Two history to use for her book, The Kid on Slapton Beach, and later she’ll share her thoughts on the joys and pitfalls of writing historical fiction.
The story of Slapton Beach is tragic but, without it, would D-Day have been as we now know it was? Or would D-Day have gone horribly wrong because the mistakes were made then and not at Slapton Beach?
It’s thanks to Felicity Fair Thompson that I looked into the story of Slapton Beach.
Why is the story of Slapton Beach important?
The Slapton Beach story should be more widely known because:-
- It was the practice run for D-Day.
- Had word reached Nazi Germany of what was really going on at this part of the Devon coast, the course of the war would have been altered as they inevitably changed their strategy to deal with this threat.
- The occupants of Slapton (now known as South Hams) had to move out on government orders. About 3000 people had to leave quietly. Secrecy was a must.
- Rehearsals for anything do not always go to plan, which, sadly, was also true for Slapton Beach. Those who died in these rehearsals for D-Day that went wrong should also be remembered.
While I’ve never visited this part of Devon, the pictures show it is a peaceful place. It was anything but peaceful in 1944.
Background: The Slapton Beach
The Slapton Beach rehearsal operation was known as Exercise Tiger.
The British Government decided in 1943 to set up a training ground at Slapton to be used by the American forces who would land on Utah Beach for D-Day. Slapton and Utah beaches had similar terrain.
Exercise Tiger, lasting from 22nd April to 30th April 1944, was meant to cover all aspects of the proposed D-Day invasion and finish with a beach landing. Roughly 30,000 troops were to prepare for this. A live firing exercise was included.
The first practice assault on the beach was held on 28th April. General Eisenhower wanted the men to be hardened by exposure to real battle conditions so ordered that live rounds were to be fired above the men’s heads as they landed.
However several of the landing ships called LSTs at the rear of the convoy were attacked by Nazi E-boats, small fast surface boats armed with torpedoes. (LSTs are Landing Ship, Tank vessels. These were created for World War Two use to support amphibious landings. Later some were converted to use as hospital ships).
One of the Navy vessels with the convoy had been damaged at Plymouth and returned to port. The replacement was late so was not there to defend the convoy’s rear. The codes for signalling between the LSTs and the only escort corvette HMS Azelea,which was ahead of them, had typing errors. Signals did not get through.
The beach bombardment started later than planned so the landing force was wading ashore as shells were falling. And they faced live ammunition from the ‘defending’ forces.
It did not bode well for D-Day…
Allison: Felicity, tell us about The Kid on Slapton Beach. Did you find writing around history difficult? Did it restrict what you could write? (Equally did you find those restrictions helpful? Some authors do).
Felicity: The Kid on Slapton Beach was fascinating to write because of the historical context. It had all been so carefully shrouded in secrecy it was hard even 65 years on to find out everything.
I explored the Devon coast and the area carefully so I knew the places I was writing about. Then I had to invent characters that would seem as real as the true events. The facts did present constraints. Working around them was a challenge but forced me into thinking everything through more carefully than I might have with a completely fictional story
Allison: What attracted you to the story of Slapton Beach?
Felicity: Like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and in The Kite Runner where Amir and his family have to leave home, kids get involved in war. It happens all over the world. I wanted to explore what could happen to a young fictional character set against the tragedy of Exercise Tiger on Britain’s Slapton Sands.
Memorials come in
all shapes and sizes.
Allison: How did you publicize The Kid on Slapton Beach given you are based on the Isle of Wight but the book is set in Devon?
Felicity: Because the story is set in Devon, going to the area gave me the opportunity to talk to people and visit bookshops.
I have spent a lot of time writing, emailing, and generally telling people about the fascinating tale. Because it is real, people really listen. I’ve been on Radio Dart, and we have advertised in the local press in the South Hams area and I have used social media.
But publisher and writer beware, it does take time!
Allison: You have stories online and written other novels (Cutting In and Hold Tight). Which is your favourite and why? What are you currently working on?
Felicity: I think The Kid on Slapton Beach is my favourite so far. The central character Harry is a brave youngster in really difficult circumstances, and who, because his father is missing, has unconsciously stepped into being the responsible member of the family. He’s really trying to hold everything together.
The story has so much to attract readers all year to this fascinating secret from World War Two. Three thousand people left the Devon coast at Christmas. Exercise Tiger was in April. Then there’s D-Day in June, and tourists visit the area all summer and then we’re back towards Christmas.
The war is a world-wide memory too, something so many people experienced. It has been wonderful to write about something so emotional.
Allison: Felicity, what has been the feedback for The Kid on Slapton Beach?
Felicity: I’ve had some lovely reviews. It’s so nice that people enjoy reading my stories.
With The Kid on Slapton Beach I did a D-Day Anniversary evening at Waterstones in Newport on the Island. A lady brought along a handmade quilt to show me.
‘It was made for my stepfather by the Canadian Red Cross,’ she said. ‘He’s the farmer in your book who has to leave his land.’ I found it really touching she had found my characters so real.
People have been in contact to tell me their wartime experiences. Others say they were amazed to find out the rehearsals happened, and in such a peaceful place.
When we have been to Devon, the Dartmouth Tourist Board staff say how excited they are to sell the book. At Dartmouth Community Book Shop where the paperback sells really well, they said the story made them cry.
Felicity: Actress June Brown, Dot in EastEnders read the book and wrote:
‘This book is beautiful. You can’t stop reading even though you don’t want it to end. The writing is sparse yet full of feeling without a trace of sentimentality. I understood and cared about these people. In this imaginative tale about families who reacted to a true historical event, I wanted to know what happened next. A jewel!’
Felicity: Michelle Magorian, author of the wonderful book Goodnight Mr Tom, gave me a great review:
‘Superb on so many levels… I couldn’t put it down. I can see the landscape, feel its texture, smell it. And I can see twelve year old Harry, and all those villagers and their struggles. It’s powerful. I found myself close to tears when I read it and smiling too. A wonderful book!’
Allison: Felicity, many thanks for sharing your thoughts on life as a writer and telling us about The Kid on Slapton Beach. Also many thanks for opening my eyes to a chapter of World War Two history I had been unaware of as I, along with others I suspect, realised there must have been rehearsals for D-day but had no knowledge of the actual details.
Fiction can play a wonderful role in bringing history to life for people. I think it is one reason why historical fiction has always been, and will remain, a favourite genre for many.
How has the story of Slapton Beach inspired you? Share your view in the comments.
Note: Don’t miss Allison’s next post on Friday 10th July 2015.
Visit Allison Symes’ website: Fairytales with Bite
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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