D-Day 80th anniversary to be marked by tank patrol at Studland

An amphibious World War Two tank will once again roll onto the beaches of Studland Bay in Dorset, 80 years after a major training exercise was held there to prepare for D-Day.

Studland was chosen by the government for Exercise Smash in April 1944 to see how the floating Valentine tanks would hold up to the task of storming the beaches of Normandy later that year.

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Tank at Knoll Beach Studland

John Pearson’s Valentine tank was last on Studland beach in 2019

World’s last DD Valentine tank

And to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the top secret operation, which was watched by King George VI, Winston Churchill and General Dwight D Eisenhauer, an exhibition, talks and a guided walk will be held in Studland between Wednesday 3rd April and Friday 5th April 2024.

The highlight of the event will be the return of the world’s only surviving complete Valentine amphibious DD tank and its owner, John Pearson, who will drive it onto Knoll Beach and reveal exactly what goes into restoring such an important piece of military history.

Studland Bay was chosen for Exercise Smash because it was similar to the beaches in Normandy, with long shores and sandy dunes. Some 10,000 men took part in the live fire exercise, where the British tested their amphibious tanks.

Tank at Knoll Beach Studland

It’s not every day you get to see a tank driving down the beach!

Studland’s Exercise Smash at 80 itinerary 2024

Wednesday 3rd April

  • 10.30 am to 3 pm: Exhibition at Studland village hall with photographs, Pathe reels, physical ordnance and apparatus from the tanks. There will be guests from the Isle of Purbeck Sub Aqua club and the National Trust member present to answer questions
  • 2 pm to 4 pm: A guided walk to World War II at Studland, led by local historian Pam White. Tickets are £5 each and can be booked through the National Trust website

Thursday 4th April

  • 12.30 pm to 4 pm: The world’s last remaining amphibious Valentine tank at Knoll Beach car park and on beach patrol.
  • 10.30 am to 3 pm: Exhibition at Studland village hall with photographs, Pathe reels, physical ordnance and apparatus from the tanks.
  • 2 pm to 4 pm: A guided walk to World War II at Studland, led by local historian Pam White. Tickets are £5 each and can be booked through the National Trust website

Friday 5th April

  • 10 am to 3 pm: The world’s last remaining amphibious Valentine tank at Knoll Beach car park and on beach patrol.
  • 10 am to 11.30 am: Talks at Studland village hall with Major Graeme Green about Exercise Smash, John Pearson about the restoration of his Valentine tank and Nick Reed from the Isle of Purbeck Sub Aqua club about diving the sites of the sunken tanks
  • 12.30 pm to 3 pm: Exhibition at Studland village hall with photographs, Pathe reels, physical ordnance and apparatus from the tanks
An archive photograph from Exercise Smash shows a Valentine tank with skirt around it lowered into Studland Bay
BOVINGTON TANK MUSEUM

An archive photograph from Exercise Smash shows a Valentine tank with skirt around it lowered into Studland Bay

Seven sank, killing six soldiers

The duplex-drive Valentine tanks were designed to be launched in the sea when big naval carriers couldn’t dock, an audacious and largely untried plan designed to take the Germans by surprise during an invasion of Nazi Europe.

However, on Tuesday 4th April 1944, the exercise took a tragic turn when the tanks were launched too far out from the shore and they started taking on water when the weather turned.

Seven of them sank, killing six soldiers and the wrecks of the tanks still lie on the seabed at Studland Bay, honoured as war graves.

In April 2004, for Exercise Smash 60, a memorial to the men lost in the tanks was unveiled at Fort Henry and serves as a physical reminder of Dorset’s significant involvement with D-Day – one of the largest military operations the world has ever seen.

NATIONAL TRUST / JOHN MILLAR

Fort Henry from above, the observation post for the live ammunition exercise, used by King George VI and Winston Churchill

“Lessons learned would impact D-Day”

Jamie Lamb-Shine, National Trust senior visitor experience officer said:

“It’s hard to imagine how somewhere as naturally beautiful as Studland Bay would have looked 80 years ago.

“The beaches and sea would have been teeming with around ten thousand soldiers and they were watched over by top commanders including the King and Winston Churchill.

“The lessons learned at Studland would directly impact the events on D-Day. It is a great honour for National Trust Studland to commemorate this most important moment in history.

“We are humbled by the men who lost their lives here and honoured to be able to commemorate them. We’d love to see as many people as possible here to learn about Exercise Smash and the courageous men who fought in World War II.”

NATIONAL TRUST / JOHN BISH

Dragon’s teeth, the concrete anti-tank barriers to protect Studland, are still in evidence at Middle Beach

Studland’s vital role in WWII

Although Studland today is best known for its miles of sand, a naturist beach and an important national nature reserve, there is still much evidence of its vital role in World War Two.

This includes a pill box, dragon’s teeth dotted around the dunes – concrete anti tank defences designed to prevent an enemy incursion into Purbeck – and Fort Henry, an observation bunker overlooking Studland Bay.

It was believed that Studland was a prime location for a German invasion in the first years of the war and anti invasion defences were built in 1941. Guided walks will be held during the anniversary to reveal some of the village’s hidden past.

There will also be an exhibition in Studland village hall to recount the story of Exercise Smash and the Valentine tanks, told through photographs, Pathe news reels and artefacts from the war years.

The Studland fort where the liberation of Europe was planned in 1943 is opening for Heritage Days

Fort Henry on Redend Point, was built in 1943 by the Canadian Royal Engineers with walls three feet thick to protect those inside

Tank to drive on the beach

A display by the Isle of Purbeck Sub Aqua Club will tell the story of the club’s mission to commemorate the lives lost during Exercise Smash and looks at how nature has taken over the tanks which lie in Studland Bay.

The National Trust will share the story of when the Ministry of Defence took over large parts of the village, the lead up to Exercise Smash and the fascinating artefacts and discoveries still being found to this day.

There will also be items from the private collection of John Pearson, who bought the last remaining amphibious Valentine tank in 1984 at a factory sale and lovingly restored it over the next 20 years to take part in the 60th anniversary of Exercise Smash.

John and his crew will be driving the tank along the beaches of Studland Bay on the afternoon of Thursday 4th April and throughout the day on Friday 5th April 2024.

MILITARMY

There’s another chance to see the Valentine tank back on Studland beaches

Further information

  • The National Trust has more information about the event on its website

Video: Watch the Valentine DD tank in action on the beach

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