The Forgotten Dead, by Ken Small

My best friend got me totally hooked on Foyle’s War, so I watched the whole series a few weeks ago. It’s such a brilliantly done police drama set in Hastings during WW2; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Anyway, in the last episode, one of the plot points revolves around Exercise Tiger, a training exercise for D-Day that went horribly wrong. I’d never heard of Exercise Tiger before, but the idea that there was a training exercise that ended up as an actual attack where several hundred soldiers and sailors died, which was then “conveniently forgotten” (as Ken Small puts it in his book), intrigued me.  I’m not huge on military history in more than a general sense (General Sense! *salute*). I don’t know troop movements and details of weaponry and things like that, even in wars that I am otherwise fascinated with (WW1 and the Hundred Years War are two notable examples of wars I am fascinated with). The stories behind the battles are much more interesting to me, and it seemed like Exercise Tiger had a good story.

Within days of watching the last episode of Foyle’s War and first hearing about Exercise Tiger, this book came into the charity shop where I volunteer. I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t just learned about Exercise Tiger; it would have just been stored with all the other hundreds of donated books until it was time to go on the shelves. (I love this shop. Donate your books to charity/second-hand stores, kids.) But I had, so I did, and I took it home to read it.

The book was published in 1988, just after the memorial to Exercise Tiger was dedicated. It moves fairly chronologically through the battle, the discovery by Ken Small of a tank submerged off the Devon coast, and his struggle to raise the tank and put up a formal memorial to those who died in Exercise Tiger. There is a lot of detail – military details about the exercise itself, a brief biography of Ken Small himself to provide context for his search, and details about the bureaucracy and paperwork necessary for the memorial. It’s a great story, both about the exercise and the struggle (for it was a struggle) to recover the tank and put up the memorial.

It’s not the greatest book in the world. The prose isn’t exactly sparkling, to say the least. It’s not bad, it’s just not great. It tends very much toward the “this happened. And then this happened” style. But, then, it doesn’t pretend to be any different. I’m not going to say it has flaws; I’m just going to say that if I’d been ghostwriting it, there are things I would have done differently. The military detail at the beginning is, I’m sure, informative. But it meant very little to me, since I don’t have the background knowledge of tanks and procedures. I was much more interested by the personal stories from survivors, and wish there had been more of them. I would have liked to know what a typical run would have been like, from the point of view of a participant instead of the dry details, in order to understand what was different about this one.

The parts about the memorial also got bogged down in some of the details, although not to a frustrating extent. Again, I would have liked more of the personal stories, more of the emotional connection. If it were me, I probably would have structured it a little bit more like a novel with flashbacks – but that’s just my own personal preference from a 2010 perspective, and not 1988.

But, like I said, the story is pretty much unbeatable. Men training for D-Day, through a series of unfortunate coincidences and mistakes, were actually attacked by E-boats. The survivors were ordered to forget about it, not to discuss it. The dead were barely identified. And almost forty years later, one English man finds what he thinks is a tank, does everything he can to break the wall of silence built around Exercise Tiger, and recovers the tank and sets up a memorial to the dead using only his own resources.

I have no idea if Ken Small is still alive, still running the guest house, still keeping up the memorial. If I’m ever down near the Devon coastline, though, I’m definitely going to look for it.

(Also, this copy of the book was signed by Ken Small in April 1997. Cool, yes?)

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

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