Friday, May 25, 2018

HM DARTMOOR PRISON UNITED KINGDOM

25 MAY 2018: In our last post, we mentioned a recent trip to England. One of the venues I was particularly interested in was the historic Dartmoor Prison, built to house prisoners taken during the Napoleonic War (England vs France) and the War of 1812 (the American War as it's known in Britain). Many people who are aware of the prison's existence are not aware that it is still in use today as a lower security prison for generally non-violent felons. The images, except as marked, were all taken by your humble scribe while visiting. Of course, getting inside the prison itself was not allowed, but the outside and the French and American cemeteries are most impressive. And the day I was there, it was gray and threatening rain, making the whole site even more depressing. The following (in the interest of time) came from Wikipedia (edited).
     
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Main entrance to Dartmoor - photo cred: B. Henlev



Designed by Daniel Asher Alexander and constructed originally between 1806 and 1809 by local labour, to hold prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars, it was also used to hold American prisoners from the War of 1812. Although the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, many American prisoners of war still remained in Dartmoor.
From the spring of 1813 until March 1815 about 6,500 American sailors were imprisoned at Dartmoor. These were naval prisoners, and impressed American seamen discharged from British vessels. Whilst the British were in charge of the prison, the prisoners created their own governance and culture. They had courts which meted out punishments, there was an in-prison market, a theatre and a gambling room. About 1,000 of the prisoners were black Americans.[3][4]
After the prisoners heard of the Peace of Ghent, they expected immediate release, but the British government refused to let them go on parole or take any steps until the treaty was ratified by the United States Senate, 17 February 1815. It took several weeks for the American agent to secure ships for their transportation home, and the men grew very impatient. On 4 April, a food contractor attempted to work off some damaged hardtack on them in place of soft bread and was forced to yield by their insurrection. The commandant, Captain T. G. Shortland, suspected them of a design to break out of the gaol. This was the reverse of the truth in general, as they would lose their chance of going on the ships, but a few had made threats of the sort, and the commandant was very uneasy.[4]
About 6:00 pm of the 6th, Shortland discovered a hole from one of the five prisons to the barrack yard near the gun racks. Some prisoners were outside the fence, noisily pelting each other with turf, and many more were near the breach (and the gambling tables), though the signal for return to prisons had sounded. Shortland was convinced of a plot, and rang the alarm bell to collect the officers and have the men ready. This precaution brought back a crowd just going to quarters. Just then a prisoner broke a gate chain with an iron bar and a number of the prisoners pressed through to the prison market square. After attempts at persuasion, Shortland ordered a charge which drove some of the prisoners in. Those near the gate, however, hooted at and taunted the soldiery, who fired a volley over their heads. The crowd yelled louder and threw stones, and the soldiers, probably without orders, fired a direct volley which killed and wounded a large number.

Then they continued firing at the prisoners, many of whom were now struggling to get back inside the blocks.[4]
Finally the captain, a lieutenant and the hospital surgeon (the other officers being at dinner) succeeded in stopping the shooting and caring for the wounded – about 60, 30 seriously, besides seven killed outright. The affair was examined by a joint commission, Charles King for the United States and F. S. Larpent for Great Britain, which exonerated Shortland, justified the initial shooting and blamed the subsequent deaths on unknown culprits. The British government provided for the families of the killed, pensioned the disabled and promoted Shortland.[4]
American Cemetery and Memorial

American Memorial and list of Dead American Prisoners


A memorial has been erected to the 271 POWs (mostly seamen) who are buried in the prison grounds.

The American Cemetery is tended, funded, and maintained by Daughters of the War of 1812.
French Cemetery and memorial





















Dartmoor was reopened in 1851 as a civilian prison, but was closed again in 1917, when it was converted into a Home Office Work Centre for certain conscientious objectors granted release from prison; cells were unlocked, inmates wore their own clothes, and could visit the village in their off-duty time. It was reopened as a prison in 1920, and then contained some of Britain's most serious offenders.
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Now, as we mentioned above, the prisoners are men convicted of less serious crimes of a generally non-violent nature. They are allowed some freedoms and many are quite talented artists, woodcarvers, and sculptors. The products they make are frequently sold in the museum store and the prisoners derive some financial benefit from the sales.

The Museum is quite well done and offers a pretty complete view of the history of Dartmoor Prison. 

On a final note, this weekend marks, in America, Memorial Day, a day we remember those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. A solemn and fitting tribute from a grateful populace. 

Until next time, 
                                     Fair Winds, 
                                       Old Salt

 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

SLAPTON SANDS, DEVON, ENGLAND

16 May 2018: Unless you have been there (as I was) or have been involved with WWII history - especially the D-Day invasion of Normandy - you probably have not heard of Slapton Sands. I had not. I learned of it while exploring the sites in France of the Normandy landings and the ensuing battles in 1944. After I crossed the Channel to England, I made certain to visit this little-known spot - a beautiful beach in Devon where the cold waters of the English Channel lap with timeless continuity, uncaring of the tragedy that occurred in April of 1944.


I found a reasonable write up of the event in a British publication put out by BBC in 2014. The photos accompanying this post are mine, taken a few weeks ago.

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The D-Day rehearsal, code named Exercise Tiger, was a disaster on a grand scale with the loss of life greater than the actual invasion of Normandy just months later. But the true story was to remain a secret for decades to come.
 
Early on 28 April 1944, eight tank landing ships, full of US servicemen and military equipment, converged in Lyme Bay, off the coast of Devon, making their way towards Slapton Sands for the rehearsal.

So vital was the exercise that the commanders ordered the use of live naval and artillery ammunition to make the exercise as real as possible, to accustom the soldiers to what they were soon going to experience.

But a group of German E-Boats, alerted by heavy radio traffic in Lyme Bay, intercepted the three-mile long convoy of vessels.

The heavily-laden, slow-moving tank landing ships were easy targets for the torpedo boats which first attacked the unprotected rear of the convoy.
A series of tragic decisions - including the absence of a British Navy destroyer which was supposed to be escorting them, but had been ordered into Plymouth for repairs, and an error in radio frequencies - led to three of the tanks being hit by German torpedoes.
More loss of life was caused by lifejackets worn incorrectly by soldiers and the extreme cold of the sea which resulted in hypothermia. 


The exercise that killed nearly 1,000 American servicemen was considered by US top brass to be such a disaster that they ordered a complete information blackout.
Any survivor who revealed the truth about what happened would be threatened with a court-martial.


As local resident Ken Small pounded the beach along Slapton Sands in Devon 40 years later, little did he know that the discovery of shrapnel, military buttons, bullets and pieces of military vehicles would lead to an all-consuming mission to tell the world the story that had so long been forgotten.

It was only after a local fisherman told Mr Small of an "object" some three-quarters of a mile out to sea that Mr Small's desire to find out the truth was awoken.
The former hotelier ventured out to sea in his boat with his friend and a few divers, and embedded in 60ft (18m) of water they found an American Sherman tank intact on the seabed - and that tank unraveled the story.


Ken Small and Laurie Bolton at the World War Two tank after it had been rescued from the sea
After negotiations over several years, Mr Small bought the vehicle from the US government for $50, finally recovering it from the sea in May 1984.
Now, 70 years on from its sinking, the tank has not only become a war memorial, but also the place to remember Mr Small.
Thanks to his efforts, the Sherman Tank Memorial Site was officially recognized by the US Congress and acknowledged by the addition of a bronze plaque.



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There is more to the story than we have the room to post, but that's the important stuff. Should you find it interesting, I would suggest you Google "Slapton Sands" - you will find an amazing amount of information including personal stories from participants. It is not hard to stand on the peaceful beach, stretching away almost as far as the eye can see, and picture the practice landings, tragedy, and the sacrifice those American men made for the cause of liberty. With thanks to Richard and Caroline Bawden of London and Devon who took me to this beach, ensuring I got the whole story.

Until next time,
                            Fair Winds,
                                  Old Salt