Gordon Giltrap tracks the unlikely journey of a Regal mandolin that survived the doomed D-Day rehearsal codenamed Exercise Tiger in 1944 that killed nearly 1,000 servicemen
In 1988, a remarkable man named Ken Small wrote a book called The Forgotten Dead about the tragic events that took the lives of nearly 1,000 American servicemen while training off the Devonshire coast for the upcoming D-Day landing “Exercise Tiger”. Ken Small was responsible (after many years of research) for the recovery of an American duplex drive Sherman tank from the seabed that took part in the exercise. Ken purchased the tank in 1974, but it took another 10 years to bring the tank up from the ocean. This culminated in Ken single handedly researching the full heart-breaking story of what took place in the early hours of April 28 1944, and revealing to the world through his book the true extent of the tragic debacle. The tank stands as a memorial in Torcross, Devon, and is a constant reminder of the sacrifice that the men made fighting for freedom and democracy.
Shortly after the book was published, Ken received a visit from a woman who wanted to gift a very special mandolin that had been signed by some of those servicemen who took part in the training and preparation for the D-Day landings and who were fortunate enough to survive that historic event. Apparently, these men billeted with the lady and it is believed that on their return, they continued their stay before heading home to the States. One of the servicemen carried with him on that voyage a 1940 Regal mandolin, typical of the budget war issue instruments that abounded at that time. He obviously wanted to gift her something as a reminder of their friendship, and these servicemen each scratched their names on the back and upper side of the instrument.
The most poignant message scratched onto the upper side reads: “God helped us. USS LCT 639 hit the beach off France on June 6 1944.” Just holding this humble mandolin sends shivers down your spine and is a privilege to have on loan for a while. It is extraordinary that it has survived. The late Ken Small became a friend of my wife Hilary and I, and when he showed us the mandolin it was understandably in a sad state of repair. It was then that we suggested we get it restored for him by the luthier Nick Springett who at the time lived in Leamington Spa, so it made perfect sense to let him do the work, and what a wonderful job he made of it. The instrument isn’t playable and although it probably could have been made to play we didn’t want to destroy its originality.
This mandolin has got to be one of the most important and historic musical instruments of the Second World War. It went to Omaha beach and returned – if this instrument could speak it would have so many tales to tell!
The Regal Musical Instrument Company was formed in Chicago in 1908 and closed its doors in 1954, and although the Regal name continues to this day, the instruments are no longer made in the USA. Their most popular instruments are their resonator guitars.
This mandolin is of basic construction and is probably pine or oak with rosewood for the fingerboard. A couple of the bearings on the machine heads have been replaced but this is purely cosmetic. It probably had a great sound as did many instruments from this period. Let us not forget the basic ladder back bracing found in those lovely old Harmony Sovereign instruments and related models. Just because the construction was simple, doesn’t mean they didn’t produce a full and magical sound.
My friend Paul Brett is an expert in his field on wartime and pre-war instruments, and has used their lineage to produce some outstanding instruments under the Vintage brand for John Hornby Skewes.
Our Sincere thanks go the great man’s son Dean Small and his wife Sarah for the loan of the instrument. Dean is now the custodian of the tank and of course the mandolin since his father’s passing in 2004. A big thank you goes out to Gavin Coulson of John Hornby Skewes for donating a case to protect this priceless instrument. There are plans afoot for this troubadour to undertake some fund raising concerts to help with the upkeep of this marvelous memorial, which is sadly rotting away year-by-year and obviously restoration work of this nature doesn’t come cheap.
Visit the official website for more information on this incredible story.