World War 2 History: Exercise Tiger-- Disaster Before D-Day
During the months leading up to the D-Day landings in France on June 6, 1944, the Allies secretly trained for the invasion code-named Operation Overlord. Slapton Sands beach in Lyme Bay on the southern coast of England was chosen for its resemblance to Utah beach, where, along with Omaha beach, the Americans would be invading. In the autumn of 1943, approximately 3,000 villagers in the area were evacuated-- many against their will-- so the beach landings could be held in total secrecy.
As D-Day approached, the training became more vigorous and involved more and more ships and men. Exercise Tiger, planned for April 22 – 30, 1944 was a full dress rehearsal, involving 30,000 men and many ships, including nine large tank landing ships (LSTs, short for Landing Ship, Tank) fully loaded with men, tanks, fuel and other military equipment. LSTs were designed to run up to the beach and open their front cargo doors, allowing its cargo of tanks and vehicles to drive out onto the sand.
The Royal Navy patrolled the entrance of Lyme Bay with two destroyers and five smaller boats; across the Channel, they had motor torpedo boats watching the waters around Cherbourg, France, to keep an eye on marauding German E-boats.
E-boats (designated “E” for “Enemy”) were large, 100-foot-long, fast torpedo boats which could reach speeds of 40 knots-- almost 50mph-- and had been intercepting ships in the English Channel. The German designation was S-boot, for Scnellboot, (literally “fast boat”). Their headquarters in Cherbourg had noticed the increased radio traffic arising from Exercise Tiger and sent nine E-boats to investigate. They managed to evade the British torpedo boats patrolling Cherbourg.
The sweep of Lyme Bay encompasses Weymouth in the east to Torcross in the west.
Exercise Tiger destination.
Home to the German E-boats
In the early hours of April 28, as the LSTs approached Slapton Sands in a column, the E-boats discovered what they thought was a convoy and prepared to attack. Just past 2:00am, LST-507 was torpedoed and burst into flames; its surviving crew abandoned ship. A few minutes later, LST-531 was torpedoed and sank in only six minutes, trapping most of its men below. Other LSTs and the two British destroyers opened fire on the speeding E-boats without effect. LST-289 was then torpedoed and badly damaged. At least one other LST was struck by a torpedo, but it failed to explode.
The attack was finished by 4:00am when all the E-boats escaped back to France. Two LSTs were sunk and one was one badly damaged, managing to limp back to port. Flaming oil covered the waters, burning to death many who had abandoned ship, while many who escaped the flames perished from hypothermia. All other ships were ordered to continue the exercise or return to port-- it's not clear from the record which-- leaving the dead and dying to their fate, but the captain of LST-515 disobeyed his orders and lowered boats and threw cargo nets over the side to pick up survivors, saving more than 100 men. When it was all over, 749 soldiers and sailors had been killed. No figures have ever been published for the number of men wounded in the attack.
While the military, over the years, has acknowledged the aforementioned facts, there are additional allegations that revolve around the order from Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower that real ammunition be used during the exercise in order to acclimatize the men to actual battlefield conditions. It is alleged that, later, as the exercise continued, HMS Hawkins, a British cruiser, fired live shells while the surviving American soldiers stormed the beach. The soldiers were to proceed no further than a white taped line that had been set up, but, in the confusion, many soldiers went straight through it. A further 200 to 300 men are said to have been killed by friendly fire.
In any case, everyone involved, including the doctors, nurses and other personnel in nearby military hospitals filling up with wounded and burned men, were sworn to secrecy on pain of court martial. The invasion was almost called off because ten “bigot” officers-- men who knew the locations of the actual invasion beaches-- were missing and it couldn't be known for certain whether any of them were captured by the enemy. The invasion was back on after all ten of their bodies were found. When the survivors of Exercise Tiger stormed Utah Beach on D-Day, 200 were killed or wounded.
The Locals Remember
To this day, the only memorial to the incident is in the village of Torcross by the beach where locals put up a plaque commemorating the dead, along with a Sherman tank that was raised from the waters. Although the military eventually put up a memorial thanking the villagers for evacuating their homes during this period, there is no official memorial to those killed during Exercise Tiger. Survivors of the horror of that night still make pilgrimages to Torcross, but their numbers are dwindling.