Among the 80-year-old sunken D-Day wrecks that line the coasts of Britain and France, wildlife is thriving. The story is particularly poignant this past week because it was the anniversary of the landings that produced those wrecks.

       Stretching for miles along England’s Devonshire coast, between the sea and a patchwork of hills, lies the shingly expanse of Slapton Sands: Humpback whales can occasionally be spotted offshore; a thatched pub at the far end sells fish and chips in an oak-beamed bar; and each year, at dawn on 27 April, hundreds of dead soldiers rise up out of the waves and march across the fields. Or so goes a local ghost-story.

       The tale has its roots in tragedy. In the spring of 1944, the coastline had become a training area for American troops. Their mission was to complete a secret, full-scale practice of the upcoming D-Day invasion of Utah Beach in Nazi-occupied France – part of an operation in which 160,000 Allied troops landed along 50-miles (80km) of the Normandy coast. But disaster struck when German E-boats snuck in amongst the practice flotilla, torpedoing the gasoline-loaded ships, and leaving scenes of burning carnage.

       More than 700 Americans died in the chaos: one of the largest single-incident losses for the U.S. after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The figure is much higher than the death toll for the eventual assault on Utah.

       Today, visual reminders of both the D-Day landings, and its preparatory exercises, are few and far between. Yet beneath the waves, tanks still litter the seafloor, alongside ships, landing craft, planes and an artificial harbour. And it is among these 80-year-old wrecks that an even more intriguing tale of life-after-death can be found.

       Steve Mortimer is a diver who specialises in identifying wrecks around U.K. waters. “Wrecks are a time-capsule underwater. They’re very moving: the final resting place of people who fought for our country,” he says.

       On wrecks from World War Two, you may first spot the paraphernalia. Mortimer has documented guns, degraded ships and even – on the Leopoldville, which sank off Cherbourg in 1944 – the helmets of GI soldiers. The picture above is the tail of a Messerschmitt 109 fighter. But then, he adds, you start to notice that these man-made relics are not alone.

       “Gigantic” mushroom-like sea anemones, in their hundreds, as big as your fist, cover ships and trap plankton in their feathery tendrils. Starfish cling to hulls. Fish, which would normally use natural reefs for cover, take up residence: pollock, ling, conger eels and sea bass, among others. “It is fascinating to see nature reclaim things that were once a scene of disaster and tragedy and bring them back into the fold.”

       The Normandy invasion (and its build-up) contributed numerous examples of these artificial reefs to the current underwater English Channel womderland. 

       When the D-Day flotilla set off from the U.K. on 5 June 1944, weather conditions were so bad that numerous landing craft and tanks succumbed to the weather before arriving at their destinations. On D-Day itself, only a handful of tanks made it ashore at Omaha Beach. By 21 June, more than 40 allied vessels in the region had been sunk or damaged by German mines.      

       Once these objects hit the seafloor, however, a new story began. When these tanks went to the bottom, they sat proudly, forming a home for smaller creatures and plants. The      wrecks become “a silver lining to a sad story”.

       The shipwrecks are not only of interest to divers and archaeologists; they are vessels for new life, and biologists are turning their attention to the estimated three million that exist worldwide. 

       Fishermen avoid wrecks to save their nets, and marine life moves in, forming mini, island-like marine parks for wildlife. In a 2014 paper looking at wrecks off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Thomas Stieglitz, an adjunct professor at James Cook University, even observed the biological influence of wrecks extending many metres from the original wreck site. 

       As well as providing “oases” for wildlife, wrecks can help protect stocks of blue carbon: the carbon dioxide captured by ocean and coastal processes. By sitting on seabed sediment, wrecks stop the currents from washing it away, and as species live and die on these artificial reefs, they also replenish the carbon-sequestering sediment underneath. As the world’s array of offshore energy infrastructure ages, shipwrecks could act as proxies for studying the long-term effect of rigs and wind farms.

       Above ground, back in the carpark at Slapton Sands, visitors come to see the dredged remains of a large Sherman tank. Its hulking carcass is a rare reminder of the area’s lesser-known history. Across the Channel in France, the concrete ruins of a Mulberry Harbour – floating docks used to unload cargo during the landings – can be viewed lying, like vast stranded dinosaurs, at Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains.

       The anniversary of the D-Day landings, and the resulting D-Day wrecks, are a poignant reminder that wars do not go away easily, and they may even have some environmental benefits once they are over.

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