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Village remembers America's 'virgin soldiers': Service commemorates 749 troops who perished in a D-Day practice run that was kept secret for decades. Mary Braid reports

Evelyn Brannock, 55, from Kansas, stood outside a tiny Norman church in Devon yesterday remembering her mother's tortured screams that day in 1944 when her brother was reported lost in action.

The body of Private James Cottrell, 20, one of thousands of United States 'virgin soldiers' sent to aid the D-Day invasion of Europe, was never recovered.

It was more than 40 years before Evelyn discovered that her brother had been one of 749 US servicemen killed off the coast of Devon when a practice run for the Normandy landings was ambushed by German torpedo boats. The disaster was hushed up to preserve morale and protect D- Day plans.

Military honours, a lone bugler and a service of remembrance in Slapton yesterday quelled 'some of the bitterness' many feel about the decades of secrecy which surrounded the deaths of those who died in Operation Tiger on 28 April 1944.

'I was only five but I remember my mother running outside screaming that she wanted to die . . . I have letters my dad wrote to the US Army as late as 1949 trying to discover how his son died,' Mrs Brannock said.

'I finally found out what happened to my brother in 1987 after following up a newspaper article.'

Yesterday's service at St James's Church brought together 12 US survivors, and scores of British servicemen who pulled the dead and injured from the sea.

They were joined by more than 100 villagers evacuated so their homes and land could be used in a practice run for the Normandy landings.

The veterans and evacuees were honoured by villagers who stood between tomb stones and beyond the churchyard singing hymns in the misty morning and listening to the relayed service.

It was a day of commemoration, not celebration. Most said the 'dignfied' approach should be adopted at all D-Day events.

It was a day of sadness for the old soldiers. John Perry, from Pennsylvania, recounted how the convoy was ambushed by nine torpedo boats, which sank Landing Ship Tanks 507 and 531, and damaged another.

'The ship was like a fireball when I jumped over. I don't remember seeing anyone. In the water I clung with 11 other men for hours. We never said a word to each other. I had to wait more than 40 years to find out the boy I worked with did not survive.'

Some complained that they had felt 'more like prisoners than survivors' after being rescued. 'We were told in no uncertain terms that we should not talk about what had happened. We were threatened with court martial,' one said.

Military historians believe that a mix-up over radio frequen-

cies led to the convoy missing a warning about the German boats.

Dr Gene Eckstam, an Operation Tiger survivor who read from St John's Gospel at the service, blamed 'high command' for the fact that the convoy 'sailed on in blissful ignorance like sitting ducks'.

Before the last post was sounded yesterday, Major General John Hendrix, deputy chief of staff for operations, US Army Europe, called the men who perished 'great heroes'.

Asked about the secrecy, he said: 'The people who made those decisions had the weight of the time on their shoulders. They did not want the operation in Normandy compromised.'

After the service the veterans set sail alone in fishing boats to place a wreath in the channel where their commrades and friends were lost.

(Photograph omitted)