Ships sunk off Devon coast in D-Day rehearsal now protected wrecks

This is a post that might interest Owl’s followers in the USA – [Slapton Sands is on the South Devon coast but to the West of Owl’s normal hunting ground. However, Woodbury Common and Lympstone, locally, were used in WWII to train Royal Marine Commandos].

Tom Pyman 

Two American amphibian landing ships that were sunk in an ill-fated D-Day rehearsal, covered up for years by military leaders, are to be protected.

More than 700 US troops were killed when they were intercepted by German E-boats off the Devon coast during Operation Tiger in 1944.

LST-507 and LST-531, which were carrying hundreds of American servicemen as well as tanks, vehicles and trucks, were torpedoed by the Germans and quickly sank.

They have been scheduled and added to the National Heritage List for England by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

It means recreational divers can still dive the wrecks, but the ships and contents are protected.

The US were practising manoeuvres on Slapton Sands, which had been chosen for its similarity to Utah beach where the Americans would land for D-Day on June 6 1944.

The bulk of the infantry had landed ashore when eight tank landing ships carrying engineers, quartermaster staff, signallers, medics, infantry as well as tanks, trucks, jeeps and equipment found themselves under attack.

A flotilla of nine German E-boats had been ordered to investigate unusual radio activity in the area and believed they had stumbled across several destroyers.

Vessels were bombarded and crews forced to abandon ship, many dying from shock or exposure in the early hours of April 28.

However, this was not public knowledge until around 30 years later, as leaders covered it up over fears the tragedy would have a disastrous impact on morale during the conflict.

Operation Tiger was a series of ill-fated missions aimed at preparing the US and British forces for the Allied invasion of Normandy.

The day before the Slapton Sands incident, around 300 troops were killed in a friendly-fire accident when they were hit by live ammunition as they invaded a beach.

Heritage Minister Nigel Huddleston said: ‘I am pleased that as we prepare to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, these important relics will be protected.

‘D-Day is one of the defining moments of the Second World War and preserving these wreck sites is a fitting tribute to all those who lost their lives in Exercise Tiger.’

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, which recommended the designation, added: ‘The underwater remains of ships involved in the D-Day rehearsals are a tangible reminder of the sacrifices made in planning and delivering this huge military operation on a scale never previously attempted, 76 years ago.

‘By protecting the wrecks of two US landing ships we are remembering all of those who lost their lives in the struggle for liberty during the Second World War.’

D-Day, codenamed Operation Overlord, was the greatest combined land, air and naval operation in history.

It was a massive assault by the allies to invade Nazi-occupied Western Europe and saw 156,000 soldiers from Britain, US, Canada and France land on the beaches of Normandy together with thousands of vehicles and supplies.

Operation Tiger: The D-Day rehearsal that cost hundreds of American lives but was covered up for years to maintain morale

Preparations for D-Day began a year in advance of the famous landings themselves, with 3,000 people in the areas around Slapton, Strete, Torcross, Blackawton and East Allington in South Devon evacuated from their homes so the American military could carry out exercises.

The Slapton Sands area was chosen because of its similarity to parts of the French coast, which would ultimately be the location chosen for the war’s largest invasion by sea.

Ships and landing craft filled up the usually tranquil River Dart, while Nissen huts – quickly-built structures used as temporary housing –  appeared across Dartmouth’s Coronation Park.

The ships were torpedoed in an exercise around the Slapton Sands area, chosen for its similarity to parts of the French coast, to prepare for landings on Utah Beach later that year

Operation Tiger was designed to be as realistic as possible and was eventually launched in April 1944, as landing craft packed with soldiers, tanks and equipment were deployed along the coast. 

But the military were shocked when nine German E-boats – ordered to investigate unusual radio activity in the area – managed to slip in amongst them under a cover of darkness in Lyme Bay.

Two landing ships, LST-507 and LST-531, were torpedoed and quickly sank, while a third was badly damaged.

Many American troops had not been briefed how to don lifejackets and plunged into the Channel, where they drowned or succumbed to hypothermia before they could be rescued. 

The total death toll fluctuates in different reports, but the Ministry of Defence estimates 749 lives were lost.

However, this was not public knowledge until around 30 years later, as leaders covered it up over fears the tragedy would have a disastrous impact on morale during the conflict.  

Their deaths were not in vain, though, as the training at Slapton during Operation Tiger ensured fewer soldiers died during the actual landing on Utah Beach in Normandy later that year. 

Their sacrifice has since been marked by an art installation of their bootprints on the sand created by artist Martin Barraud, the man behind the WW1 ‘silhouette Tommy’ statues, placed around the country to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great War.


Fix potholes while roads are empty, councils are told

What a good idea – but where is the money coming from and how quickly?

The budget allocated £500 million a year over the next five years to tackle England’s 50 million potholes but this falls far short of the £11Bn estimated below.

Currently, Councils are strapped for cash.

Jack Wright

Fix potholes while roads are empty, councils are told as breakdowns caused by them soar

  • Department of Transport has told councils to start fixing roads during lockdown
  • RAC research shows that 3,426 cars were damaged by potholes up to this March
  • Britain’s road crisis was exacerbated by a period of heavy storms this winter
  • Councils need to spend £11billion over 11 years to mend roads, research shows 

Councils have been ordered to fix roads while they are empty, as new figures show pothole-related breakdowns increased by nearly two-thirds this year. 

The Department of Transport has instructed local councils to go ahead with planned maintenance during the lockdown to clear a backlog of road repairs.  

Research by the RAC published today shows that 3,426 vehicles were damaged by potholes between January and March. The problems included distorted wheels, broken suspension springs and damaged shock absorbers. 

The Department of Transport has instructed local councils to go ahead with planned maintenance during the lockdown to clear a backlog of road repairs

This was up 64 per cent on the previous three months and 5 per cent on the same period last year, while drivers are 1.6 times more likely to break down as a result of a pothole than they were in 2006, according to the RAC.

Although last winter was relatively mild overall, severe flooding during major storms earlier this year caused damage to road surfaces in some areas.

The start of the coronavirus lockdown – which came into force on March 23 – means the latest data includes nine days when there were far fewer cars on the road than normal, which likely reduced the number of pothole-related breakdowns. 

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: ‘In his Budget in March, the Chancellor committed to funding our local roads and it is clear that the economic recovery as the UK emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic will need to be built on solid infrastructure – which of course needs to include good quality roads.

‘Moreover, it will also be interesting to see if lower traffic volumes during the UK’s lockdown will help prevent further deterioration of roads as fewer wheels going over weaknesses in the asphalt should contribute to less surface wear.’

He continued: ‘The last thing any driver needs on the way to do their essential weekly shop is to suffer a nasty pothole-related breakdown that puts their car out of action, especially with fewer garages open than usual.

‘This means the quality of local roads is, ironically, as important as ever.’

The Department of Transport is understood to have told councils – which will need to spend £11billion over 11 years to mend all roads – to do as much work now as possible during the lockdown as people are confined to their homes. 

David Renard of the Local Government Association called for devolved infrastructure and transport budgets to ensure funding is allocated in advance for five years.


Leaving the coronavirus lockdown is all in the maths

“Going into lockdown was not, to the chagrin of statisticians, a controlled experiment. Ideally, it would have been very gradually imposed region by region, measure by measure. But in the panic to contain the virus we did not have time to, say, let Wales keep its pubs for a month while Oxfordshire lost its schools.

If we had, we would have a clearer picture of the effect of each intervention. We would know, for example, that closing schools does little while shutting pubs does a lot. Then, when it comes to reopening, we could start with schools and feel relatively safe.”

Tom Whipple, Science Editor

From now on, it’s a numbers game. Boris Johnson made it clear that in the weeks to come all that matters in coming out of lockdown is a number known as “R”, the virus’s reproduction rate, and how much each relaxation measure changes it.

But if that sounds like it comes with the comforting certainty of mathematics, the modellers plotting our near future are keen to disabuse you of that idea.

“We don’t have high confidence at all,” says Seth Flaxman, from Imperial College London. “There is a lot of uncertainty.”

R is the reason a virus matters at all. It is a measure of how many people are infected by each new case. If R is above 1, then each new person with the disease infects more than one person and the disease slowly — or not so slowly — spreads. If it is below 1, then each new case results in less than one additional infection and the disease dies out. For measles, R is about 15. For the common cold it is 2.5.

The first problem for Dr Flaxman is that we have only the haziest idea what R currently is for the coronavirus. The second problem is that we have even less idea what effect each of the lockdown measures has on it. The third problem is that as we loosen restrictions, tiny fluctuations in either estimate can have massive consequences.

In February, before Britain had responded to the virus, the R of the coronavirus in the country was somewhere between 2.5 and 4.5, depending on whose estimate you believe. Today we are pretty certain that it is less than 1 — otherwise the NHS would be in a lot of trouble. How far below determines what we do next.

According to the government it is probably between 0.6 and 0.9. Any move out of lockdown will inevitably increase that number — what is crucial is that it does not tip it over 1. We have, to use the epidemiological term, an R budget of between 0.1 and 0.4 — a big uncertainty.

Testing and tracing will give us — again to use the epidemiological term — a bit, but not a lot, of “negative R” to increase the budget. When it comes to wiggle room, that’s it.

The question is, what do we do with it?

Going into lockdown was not, to the chagrin of statisticians, a controlled experiment. Ideally, it would have been very gradually imposed region by region, measure by measure. But in the panic to contain the virus we did not have time to, say, let Wales keep its pubs for a month while Oxfordshire lost its schools.

If we had, we would have a clearer picture of the effect of each intervention. We would know, for example, that closing schools does little while shutting pubs does a lot. Then, when it comes to reopening, we could start with schools and feel relatively safe.

But we did not have that luxury. Dr Flaxman and his team have tried to measure the effect of each broad intervention by looking instead at when they were implemented in each European country. Then from the later changes in deaths, they have backfitted an estimate for their effect on R.

This tells us, for instance, that banning public gatherings — typically involving ten or more people — reduces R by around 40 per cent. A full lockdown reduces it from this lower level by about 70 per cent again. Other measures have less effect. Social distancing cuts it further by between 0 and 25 per cent. School closures are, they think, between 0 and 10 per cent.

However, even if we are certain that these numbers were true at the time — and we aren’t — that does not mean that they are still true now.

Humans, again to the annoyance of statisticians, have a tendency not to be easily defined by numbers. Our behaviour now is different from our behaviour then. We are more careful — which is good. But we also have less to do. Closing schools may indeed have had a modest effect six weeks ago.

Today, though, dropping off their children at a reopened school would be the social highlight of the parents’ (and virus’s) day.

So how can we be certain we can get out of lockdown safely? The answer is we can’t. The truth is we have to view life as a statistician, and accept uncertainty: we open up gradually, then through testing carefully monitor R. If it tips above 1, we close down again.

And as to which of the many possible measures we might choose first, for this gradual opening? It’s a tough call. “On the record,” says Dr Flaxman, “I have no idea. Off the record, I have no idea.”


NHS dashboard to predict protective gear shortages

The NHS has begun feeding health workers’ use of personal protective equipment (PPE) into a “data store”.

The system is designed to identify which hospitals and GP surgeries are most at risk of running out of kit and address the problem before it occurs.

By Leo Kelion BBC Technology desk editor 30 April 2020

High-level decision-makers should be able to start seeing the information via a computer dashboard within a fortnight.

NHS staff say their lives have been put at risk because of PPE shortages.

The government has said it is working “around the clock” to address the issue.

NHS Providers – which represents hospitals and other NHS trusts in England – told the BBC that supplies of gowns and visors remained an unresolved problem.

Health chiefs already use the dashboard system to help make decisions on how to redistribute ventilators, intensive care unit (ICU) beds and other critical equipment.

However, privacy campaigners have raised concerns about one of the tech firms involved in the project.

‘Dangerous levels’

The BBC first revealed in March that NHSX – the health service’s digital innovation unit – had hired several tech firms to help it make sense of the data it was collecting related to the pandemic.

This involved mixing together information from 111 and 999 calls, diagnostic test results, and use of resources across the NHS, social care and partner organisations – a full list has been posted online.

PPE was not originally included in the initiative. There are hundreds of different products involved – including a variety of aprons, gloves, surgical masks and eye protectors – and they are typically sourced directly by local procurement staff.

But after the British Medical Association warned earlier this month that supplies of some equipment were at “dangerously low levels” in London and Yorkshire, and hundreds of care home providers also sounded the alarm, efforts are being made to help track relevant data centrally.

The effort coincides with other changes to the wider scheme.

Until now, its focus has been to deliver “situational awareness” – showing the spread of Covid-19 and its impact on the NHS in “real-time”.

The next phase involves providing forecasts as to what happens next. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and other expert groups already do this on a national basis.

But the tech companies involved are working with Oxford University’s Big Data Institute (BDI) to provide forecasts at the level of hospital trusts, community hospitals and GP surgeries.

Although the BDI is also involved with NHSX’s coronavirus contact-tracing app, the two efforts are otherwise independent of each other, and there are no plans to mix information gathered via the app with that of the data store.

There is also an ambition to make the dashboards available to regional managers in the future.

Privacy questions

Amazon, Microsoft and Google are all involved in the data store project.

But two smaller companies are at its core.

Faculty – a London-based machine learning specialist – has developed the dashboards, models and simulations.

And Palantir – a California-based company that helps clients integrate and “clean” various sources of data, so that new connections and other insights can be discovered – is providing its Foundry software and staff to help NHSX pull all the information together. It is not charging for the work.

The involvement of the latter has proved to be a concern to privacy campaigners.

Palantir has been used by US immigration officials to track down undocumented workers, causing controversy among civil liberties organisations. It also has a reputation for secrecy.

On Wednesday, Privacy International, Big Brother Watch, Foxglove, MedConfidential and the Open Rights Group sent a joint letter to the company asking it to disclose more details about its involvement with the coronavirus data store.

NHSX has said that all the data involved remains under its control – and that Palantir cannot independently store, access or pass on any of the records. But the privacy groups say they still want to know if the company will retain any “insights gleaned”.

“It would be misleading and cynical for Palantir to offer services to the NHS without being fully transparent about how the company may benefit,” said Privacy International.
It is Palantir’s standard contractual policy that all insights and analysis undertaken with its software belong to its clients.

Bid to turn Axminster United Reformed Church into art gallery is withdrawn

Plans to transform the shut United Reformed Church in Axminster into an art gallery, studio and residential accommodation have been withdrawn.

East Devon Reporter 

Proposals for the Grade II listed building, in Chard Street, were submitted to East Devon District Council (EDDC) in March.

Blueprints stated there is a ‘low probability’ the ‘redundant’ premises will be used as a church again and it would need ‘extensive modification’.

They had vowed every effort would be made to ‘retain the character of past use’ and to ‘achieve a modern interior that is synonymous with an art gallery design’.

No reason has been given in the withdrawal as to why the scheme – which would have seen a gallery and artists’ studio created on the ground-floor and accommodation on the first-floor – has been shelved.

Applicant Mr Neil Burford had asked for permission for a change-of-use and to convert the building.

The plans had stated: “The building is unlikely to be used as a church again.

“The opportunity now exists to convert the building to provide a gallery, studio and residential accommodation above. The new gallery and studio will provide a benefit to the local community.

“The building is currently redundant and should now have a different use.”

The application was withdrawn on April 21.


If Boris were a virus he would be deadly.

[The best bit from John Crace’s – the politics sketch]

Breathless Boris is left floundering as he faces foe he can’t outbluster 

John Crace 

….Boris then breezed on to the R rate – AKA the reproduction rate. Here satire nearly died. For as scientists struggle to pin down the UK’s R rate to between 0.6 and 0.9, no one has the first idea of Boris’s own reproduction rate. We know its current level is at least six – though even Boris doesn’t appear to know if it’s more – and with every likelihood of adding to the score in the years ahead. If Boris were a virus he would be deadly.

On and on he bumbled. We would have to wait until some time next week for the government to make it clear it still had no real plan for ending lockdown. Things were definitely getting better but no one had a clue how to ease things while ensuring R remained lower than one. Even Vallance and England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, couldn’t help Boris out with that one. The only certainty was more uncertainty……

Otherwise, there was just more of the same. The scientists urging caution while Boris talked big about the economy bouncing back, avoiding the second peak and enforcing the wearing of face masks which only a month ago he had said were a waste of time. But deep down, Boris knows he’s met his match. Up till now, he’s never found a situation in his life which he couldn’t bluster his way out of. Now he’s come up against a power greater than himself; coronavirus is so far immune to almost everything. In a straight contest between coronavirus and bullshit, the coronavirus wins every time.



Matt Hancock faces a nail-biting day waiting to find out if he hit his target of 100,000 coronavirus tests on Thursday. The health secretary will lead the government press conference this afternoon to either drink in the victory of success or try to seize back the narrative after missing the bullseye. At the very least, a minister who staked his reputation on what sounded like an impossible mission is willing to face the nation no matter what the outcome. Respect to that. [From POLITICO]


Fatcat developers created our housing crisis. Here’s how to stop them

Housebuilders, armed with foreign cash and backed by top lobbyists, keep property prices high. But author Bob Colenutt has brilliantly exposed the grip they have on Britain [introductory paras with link to full review of the book]

Oliver Wainwright 

If you want to see who influences the government, you can do worse than look at Whitehall’s neighbours. In a grand Victorian building opposite the House of Commons in Parliament Square stands the headquarters of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. With a history dating back to 1792, the RICS is an illustrious professional body, promoting the highest international standards in the valuation and development of land and property. But it has another side.

Its royal charter states that it exists to serve the public interest, yet most of its members’ fees come from landowners and developers, not the public sector. Through its Red Book, the RICS sets the standards by which land and property are valued, but it is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the development industry, representing the interests of landowners and developers at the highest levels of government. It directly advised on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012, which led to 1,300 pages of policy being reduced to 65 in a triumphant bonfire of red tape, and it has numerous committees influencing policy on all aspects of land planning and valuation. It describes part of its mission as “unlocking the inherent value held within the world’s physical assets”, but the question is, for whom is the value being unlocked? And who, consequently, is missing out?

In the eyes of Bob Colenutt, the answer is clear. In his urgent new book, The Property Lobby, he identifies the RICS as one of numerous actors in a complex network of landowners, housebuilders, financial backers, professional bodies and politicians who are engaged in propping up the status quo to ensure that their interests prosper – at the expense of everyone else. The housing crisis is no accident, he argues, but the calculated product of an elite group who have no reason to fix it.

 Many books have attempted to explain the roots of Britain’s housing crisis, but Colenutt is better placed than most to unpick the mess. His career in community planning and local government regeneration has taken him from campaigning in Southwark, south London (helping to lay the foundations for the community-led Coin Street housing project on the South Bank) to battling the development of Docklands and working for various London councils, before moving into academia. In 1975, he co-authored The Property Machine, a book whose message was nicely summed up by its cover illustration of a fat-cat developer gobbling up people’s homes. Then, the big developers were office builders, backed by insurance companies and pension funds. Now, they are housebuilders, armed with an unimaginable arsenal of global capital. Many of the themes remain the same, but, in the intervening years, through successive takeovers, intensive political lobbying and close integration with the finance sector, the leading developers have swollen into an unstoppable force………..

Full article here:

  • The Property Lobby: The Hidden Reality Behind the Housing Crisis by Bob Colenutt, is published by Policy Press.


Geo-social distribution of COVID-19 in the UK 

Press release: published 29 April

Latest results from Professor Tim Spector’s team at King’s College from the Covid-19 symptom tracker app.

COVID-19 prevalence and severity higher in urban and most deprived areas 

London, UK COVID-19 is disproportionally more common and more severe in people living in urban areas and regions of higher poverty, a new study from King’s College London reports.

These results come from the analysis of the health data logged by more than 2 million people over 24 days on the COVID-19 Symptom Tracker app in the UK.

The team also found that COVID-19 cases and severity has decreased since the lockdown began.

These results illustrate how data from symptom tracking apps can be used to successfully monitor the pandemic over time, helping to identify areas that need more support and healthcare resources to cope.

As part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at King’s College London and healthcare science company ZOE developed the COVID-19 Symptom Tracker app. More than two million UK users nationwide are now using it to report daily updates on symptoms, healthcare visits and COVID-19 testing results.

The team studied 2,266,235 unique app users reporting daily on COVID-19 symptoms, hospitalisation, COVID-19 test outcomes, demographic information and pre-existing medical conditions over 24 days immediately following the introduction of major social distancing lockdown measures announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 23rd March 2020.

On the link between COVID-19 and poverty, lead researcher Dr Cristina Menni said:

“This could reflect that individuals in more deprived areas are more exposed or vulnerable to the virus.  It may be that they work in jobs requiring work out of the home, where they are more likely to be exposed to circulating virus. We know from previous research that deprivation is closely linked with increased health issues and disease burden; our results suggest that COVID-19 is no exception.”

Dr Claire Steves, joint senior author said:

“This finding is important for allocation of resources in this pandemic.  Areas with higher rates of poverty will need greater supply of PPE and more hospital capacity.  This is likely to continue to be important when the social distancing measures are eased.”

The full research paper with the full findings is available in non-peer reviewed archive format at the medRxiv site here. [as pdf – Owl]

MS ID#: MEDRXIV/2020/076521  

MS TITLE: Geo-social gradients in predicted COVID-19 prevalence and severity in Great Britain: results from 2,266,235 users of the COVID-19 Symptoms Tracker app