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Secret Tragedy of the D-Day Exercises England 1944

Updated on June 2, 2014
Monument to the sacrifice of civilian's living in and around Slapton Sands, Devon, UK.
Monument to the sacrifice of civilian's living in and around Slapton Sands, Devon, UK.

On 24th July 1954, a dedication of a monument presented by the United States Army and the United States Government took place on a sunny summer's day on Slapton Sands, a two mile stretch of sand and shingle that sits between Dartmouth and Kingsbridge on the pretty South Devon Coast, South West England. The monument was dedicated to the sacrifice of the people of Slapton Sands and the surrounding areas from December 1943 to September 1944. Intriguingly there was no mention on the monument of US Army or Navy Personnel.

Eleven Years earlier, in November 1943, the 3000 residents living in the farms and villages in the area were served six weeks notice by Devon County Council, under the Defence Regulations Act, that they were to fully evacuate their homes and farms, taking with them their possessions and livestock, as the area had been requisitioned by the military. By late December 1943, residents had removed everything they could and moved out of the area to stay with friends, relatives or willing hosts. Towards the end of the evacuation, US Military Police had set up checkpoints and and exclusion zone was created whilst final checks were completed to ensure the area was fully cleared. Although known only to senior military commanders, the area had been requisitioned as a large scale training area for the forthcoming invasion later in the year, Slapton had been chosen due to it's similarity to the beaches west of the River Vare, Normandy, France (an area which would later become known as "Utah") and also far enough west there was less of a chance that passing Luftwaffe would notice the large movement of troops and ships, now that most of their efforts were concentrated in the Southeast of England.

By early 1944, the area was a hive of US military activity, with US troops creating defensive positions on the beaches and clifftops and the roads and narrow lanes filled with GI's and vehicles and various pieces of military hardware. Roads and lanes were widened to accommodate tanks and their transporters, encampments were established with supplies being ferried in and out from depots in nearby Dartmouth, Salcombe and Brixham. After nearly three months of careful preparation, the area was ready for the exercises to begin.

In April 1944, The formulated plans were put into place for large scale training exercises involving both "U" and "O" Assault forces ("U" were based along the Devon coast whilst "O", were mainly based further up the coast in Dorset, around the Portland area and would ultimately land on the now infamous "Omaha" Beach).

The primary exercises would take place between the start of March and last up until early May 1944 and were given codenames - Exercise Fox, Muskrat, Beaver, Trousers, Tiger and Fabius. The earlier exercises began with the British Royal Navy and US Navy carrying out coastal bombardments into the Slapton exclusion zone, one of the earliest casualties was the Golden Sands Hotel, located close to the beach edge,which no doubt was chosen as a good range finder and was completely destroyed! (and was never rebuilt). additionally Air Support would also be provided by the RAF and USAAF, with bombing exercises, helped with guidance on the ground from the 101st Airborne division.

There would subsequently be full-scale beach landing exercises utilizing live ammunition and various Landing Craft embarking from the local ports of Dartmouth, Torquay and Brixham. The Invasion craft included the LCA's (small Landing Craft Assault ships), larger LCI's (Landing Craft Infantry) right up to the LST's (Landing Ship Tanks - flat bottomed vessels capable of landing Tanks and vehicles onto the beach). The ground troops where given limited information during the exercise so although many would have realised they were exercises, some may have thought they would next be landing in France, especially as some of the exercises were during the night and were involving large detours out into Lyme Bay in the English Channel along with Naval escort,

The early part of the exercises were considered a great success with many pointers subsequently utilized during the real operations in the later months, however during the course of the 27th April and into the early hours of 28th April 1944, events would take a dramatic turn....

In the morning of 27th April, a beach landing exercise was underway in which US Army troops would be landed onto the beach following a naval shore bombardment from British Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawkins. The timings were set so that the landing craft would beach once the bombardment was finished, however due to delays from the landing parties and poor communications, the landing craft arrived at the beach whilst the live bombardment was taking place, resulting in heavy US Army casualties, unofficial estimates being in the region of 300.

Late in the evening of 27th April, the planned Exercise Tiger was well underway, with 8x LST's (Landing Ship Tanks) embarking from both Plymouth and Brixham and forming a convoy under escort from the Royal Navy's HMS Azalea out into Lyme Bay, the convoy was to have a second escort HMS Scimitar, but this ship had suffered a collision with one of the LST's and had to return to Plymouth.

Further across the channel, a patrol of 9x German Navy E-Boats (Fast attack launches, armed with cannons and torpedos, perhaps should properly be know as S-Boats/Schnellboot, E-Boats probably is an allied reference to "enemy") were on patrol out of their home port of Cherbourg. Although on a normal patrol, they picked up some heavy radio traffic in Lyme Bay and decided to investigate. The E-Boat prescence had been detected by both coastal and Royal Navy sources and communicated through the Royal Navy channels but the US Navy LST's were not informed of the threat.

Just after 2am on 28th April, just as the LST's had performed their turning manouvres and were heading towards the coastline and Slapton, the E-Boats had identified their target and prepared to attack. LST 507 was first to be hit by torpedoes and was immediately disabled and caught fire, LST 531 was critically hit shortly after and sank very quickly and LST289 was badly hit in the stern and caught fire, but incredibly, was able to limp back to port, although suffering many casualties. LST 511 was not directly hit but was subject to "friendly" fire in the confused defense of the convoy during the surprise attack.

The German E-boats disappeared into the darkness as quickly as they arrived, leaving behind a scene of total carnage....

Slapton Beach Landings 1944
Slapton Beach Landings 1944

Estimates vary on the exact number of casualties, although the general consensus were that 749 US military personnel were killed in the attack. Details of what happened next remain hazy, some reports are that the remaining LST's continued with the exercise and headed towards the beach landing area, others that all LST's were ordered immediately back to port (although there were stories that one heroic Captain deliberately disobeyed this order to stay and assist in the rescue of survivors), regardless, the sea was ablaze with burning oil, killed serviceman and some survivors, desperately trying to cling on to life in the frigid waters of the English Channel.

As the shocking news filtered back to senior military officials, one of their pressing concerns were that there were 10 officers, who were unnacounted for, who had full knowledge of plans for the forthcoming D-Day invasion (known as BIGOT level security clearance) and that as well as trying to find and recover any survivors, it was imperative that these 10 were located, dead or alive.

In the early hours as the first light was appearing, boats were desperately searching for any survivors and managed to locate and pickup a lucky few, however the scenes that met those searching and the few survivors were harrowing. Hundreds of casualties were floating in the water amidst the debris, bouyed by lifevests (which in many cases, tragically, was the cause of death, as the heavilly laden GI's head's were tipped back into the water), the scenes in the morning light would haunt the survivors and rescuers for the rest of their lives.

In the next few days, a major clear-up operation was undertaken, with as many casualties were recovered and sent to Lyme Regis and Weymouth along the coast, to be identified and repatriated, and full scale inquiry into events was undertaken. Even the suspension of the D-Day plan for June was considered by the High Command, but this was then dismissed when the anxious wait was over when all bodies of all 10 of the officers in question, were recovered and the salvage operation wound down. In the aftermath, as was usual for a time of was, all Officers and Men were briefed and sworn to secrecy as to the events of the preceding days, which would have been the normal operational procedure for such a tragedy, but was considered even more critical, in the lead up to D-Day, planned for just weeks away.

Stern Damage on Landing Ship Tank LS-289
Stern Damage on Landing Ship Tank LS-289

In the aftermath of the exercises and the tragic events that were contained within, very important lessons were learned and no doubt, played an important role in the D-Day landings in Normandy two months later. The notable lessons were better radio communications between the British Royal Navy and their US Navy counterparts, better life-vest training for US Army personnel and better small craft support for landing operations.

Perhaps the lessons learned helped ensure that there were relatively low casualties during "U" forces beach assault on Utah Beach (of which the majority of personnel involved in Operation Tiger, were part of) and there is some sad irony that there were approximately 200 casualties on Utah beach compared to the total of 946 casualties that have been cited for the exercises at Slapton Sands and Lyme Bay, although of course, this was no comfort for their brothers-in-arms landing further up the coast at Omaha, who encountered over 3000 casualties in the infamous beach assault.

With the success of D-Day and the subsequent Allied victory over the Nazis, there was suggestions that the Slapton Sands/Lyme Bay (now popularly known as Exercise Tiger) tragedy was a big conspiratorial cover-up, although some argue that the secrecy secured in the aftermath of the event just lingered on and was conveniently forgotten in time, although in the area, there had long been rumours and whisperings of dark and tragic events of these times.

As mentioned, in the opening paragraph, in 1954, the US Army unveiled a memorial for the sacrifices of the local civilian population only and this was how it would be remembered up until the early 1970s when due to the efforts of a local man, Ken Small, that the tragic events of that fateful couple of days would become well known to a wider audience. Ken Small was a local guest house owner and after some illness, spent many mornings walking and beachcombing along Slapton Sands and frequently found an unusually large amount of military hardware such as bullet casings, shrapnel and even vehicle parts. This he found intriguing and led him on a quest to research what had happened 30 years previously and gradually he was able to piece together what had actually happened.

Ken Small had discovered, through a friend that there was an object in the sea, less than a mile off the coast and making all the arrangement with a small boat and some local divers, they were to discover the object was a Sherman Tank! After various correspondence with Government Agencies from both the UK and US, Ken Small was able to purchase the Tank for $50 in 1974 and then was faced with the task of recovering it.

10 years later in 1984, Ken Small raised enough money and support to recover the tank onto the shore and it was recovered with a shore winch and buoyancy aids along with the able assistance of a team of divers from nearby Plymouth (incredibly, it has been said, as soon as the tank reached the beach, the tracks began to turn, after 40 years in the sea!), the tank was moved the next day to where is located today, at the edge of the village of Torcross and acts as a lasting memorial to the brave US Service personnel who lost their lives in April 1944 in the area. Ken Small was quoted as saying it was the greatest moment in his life!

The tank and the small garden surrounding it was dedicated as a memorial in November 1984 and Ken Small then turned his attention to the US government and to convince them to provide an official memorial of their own. In 1987, again, through one mans dedication and determination, in November 1987, a memorial was unveiled on the site dedicated to those who lost their lives, attended by UK and US officials. Ken Small published a book a few years later - "The Forgotten Dead" written with Mark Rogerson , which detailed the events in 1944 and the subsequent efforts of the author to uncover the history and truth. Sadly, Ken Small died in 2004, however the memorial is also a proud monument to the man's efforts.

Exercise Tiger Memorial, Torcross, Devon, UK
Exercise Tiger Memorial, Torcross, Devon, UK
Slapton Sands, South Devon
Slapton Sands, South Devon

Today, Slapton Sands is a quiet and very beautiful stretch of beach. It has an unusual geographical makeup with a freshwater ley at the cliffs edge, which is protected by the causeway and road which runs the beach length, although there are worries that this unusual feature is at risk from coastal erosion, few would guess the area's dark past if it wasn't for the presence of the Sherman Tank memorial at the far end of the beach (and there have been rumours, but never substantiated that there is another Sherman sunk in a pond at the other end!). The memorial is very poignant and alongside are plaques with the names of those who perished along with information boards outlining the events.

Interestingly, the only known surviving S-Boat/E-Boat and one of those used in the attack is currently residing a few miles down the coast and is being restored in a boatyard just over the border of Cornwall near Torpoint, across the river from Plymouth - See

The cause of Ken Small has been carried on by his son, Dean Small and a charitable organisation established to care for the monument and preserve the memory of the tragedy and those lost and would recommend you visit their website, which provides much more detailed information and photos of the period, if you are interested in learning more;

They are planning a 70th Anniversary commemoration event for the weekend of 27th and 28th April 2013 (while 2014 is the official year, they have decided to bring it a year forward to enable as many veterans to attend as possible) and if all goes ahead as planned, promises to be a poignant and moving tribute.

More Books on Exercise Tiger


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