30 May 2014 Last updated at 01:43
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By Claire Jones BBC News Online
The D-Day rehearsal, codenamed Exercise Tiger, was a disaster on a grand scale with the loss of life greater than the actual invasion of Normandy just months later. But the true story was to remain a secret for decades to come.
- Early on 28 April 1944, eight tank landing ships, full of US servicemen and military equipment, converged in Lyme Bay, off the coast of Devon, making their way towards Slapton Sands for the rehearsal.
- So vital was the exercise that the commanders ordered the use of live naval and artillery ammunition to make the exercise as real as possible, to accustom the soldiers to what they were soon going to experience.
- But a group of German E-Boats, alerted by heavy radio traffic in Lyme Bay, intercepted the three-mile long convoy of vessels.
- The heavily-laden, slow-moving tank landing ships were easy targets for the torpedo boats which first attacked the unprotected rear of the convoy.
- A series of tragic decisions – including the absence of a British Navy destroyer which was supposed to be escorting them, but had been ordered into Plymouth for repairs, and an error in radio frequencies – led to three of the tanks being hit by German torpedoes.
- More loss of life was caused by lifejackets worn incorrectly by soldiers and the extreme cold of the sea which resulted in hypothermia.
Temporary graves were made for the Exercise Tiger casualties
The exercise that killed nearly 1,000 American servicemen was considered by US top brass to be such a disaster that they ordered a complete information blackout.
Any survivor who revealed the truth about what happened would be threatened with a court-martial.
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Lieutenant Douglas Harlander US Navy – LST 531
When the attack happened, my ship was in the middle of a convoy of eight LSTs [Landing Ship, Tanks]. When the torpedoes went off, it was an immediate mass ball of fire all over the main deck and all over the tank deck.
I realised that saving the ship was futile, so I turned my attention to trying to save men, grabbing lifejackets and passing them out. I helped 15 men over the side and I was the last man over the port side. As I crawled over, the ship was sinking fast and turning over.
- I dived off and got away as fast as I could to avoid being dragged under by the suction of the ship's descent.
- In the coming weeks I came to realise that the ordeal I survived was not to be officially acknowledged by the navy or the United States or British governments.
- I feel the report was classified to prevent damaging the morale of the D-Day soldiers who had to travel through those same waters to reach their destination on 6 June 1944.
The sad part of the whole thing is that the surviving family members didn't know for so many years what had happened. They were told only that their loved ones were missing in action or killed in action.
I estimate that at least two-thirds of those on board never made it off the ship and today their remains rest at the bottom of the English Channel.
- The Allied commanders were concerned officers who went missing during the attack could have ended up in German hands, where they might reveal the Allied intentions for the D-Day landings.
- The commanders even considered changing details of the operation.
- However, the bodies of every one of those officers with “BIGOT”-level clearance, a codename for a security level beyond Top Secret, were found and the tactics of D-Day were deemed to be secure.
- An article in the US Stars and Stripes magazine following World War Two said family members of the dead were given no information other than what was in the original message about the death.
- The family of Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Thanuel Shappard only knew he had died on 28 April 1944.
- In the late 1980s, while watching a documentary about Exercise Tiger, his mother noticed the date was the same as her son's death.
- It was only after researching the exercise it was confirmed Mr Shappard had been aboard Landing Ship, Tank (LST) 531, which was torpedoed and sunk by the German E-boats.
- Even before the military exercise, villages surrounding Slapton Sands had been evacuated, involving the clearance of 30,000 acres and 3,000 men, women and children by the end of 1943.
- As local resident Ken Small pounded the beach along Slapton Sands in Devon 40 years later, little did he know that the discovery of shrapnel, military buttons, bullets and pieces of military vehicles would lead to an all-consuming mission to tell the world the story that had so long been forgotten.
Exercise Tiger was captured on video days before the men were killed
It was only after a local fisherman told Mr Small of an “object” some three-quarters of a mile out to sea that Mr Small's desire to find out the truth was awoken.
The former hotelier ventured out to sea in his boat with his friend and a few divers, and embedded in 60ft (18m) of water they found an American Sherman tank intact on the seabed – and that tank unravelled the story.
Ken Small and Laurie Bolton at the World War Two tank after it had been rescued from the sea
- After negotiations over several years, Mr Small bought the vehicle from the US government for $50, finally recovering it from the sea in May 1984.
- Now, 70 years on from its sinking, the tank has not only become a war memorial, but also the place to remember Mr Small.
- Thanks to his efforts, the Sherman Tank Memorial Site was officially recognized by the US Congress and acknowledged by the addition of a bronze plaque.
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- Dr Harry Bennett History professor, Plymouth University
- News of what happened remained a secret for a matter of months – the Germans could not find out about it.
- Following D-Day, Operation Tiger did appear in reports and the American Army magazine Stars and Stripes.
- In terms of the dead, that was a loss of the men's lives, but a bad day in the office for the admirals – it was one tragedy among many.
There was never a cover-up but the story was lost from the public. Ken Small brought that story back to the public's attention. What he did was discover the story for himself and make many, many more people aware of it.
Without Ken Small the tale would have merely been a footnote on the story of the war, so we should all be very thankful for what he did. Ken Small unearthed the story and told it for what it was.
- Mr Small's efforts to establish a memorial received letters of gratitude and appreciation not only from relatives and families of the dead American servicemen, but also a letter from then US president Ronald Reagan thanking him for his efforts.
- In 2014, on the 10th anniversary of his death, Mr Small was recognised with a plaque on the tank he discovered.
- Mr Small told the story of Exercise Tiger and his discoveries in a book called The Forgotten Dead.
- In it he said: “Over the last 17 years it has been my crusade to ensure a proper memorial for the men who lost their lives that night.
- “I felt proud during the service of commemoration, and I still feel proud now, that at long last these men have a just memorial for their sacrifice.
- “I have always considered it was a wrong which should be put right and I have always worked to that end.”
- “My father campaigned tirelessly for a memorial to ensure that the sacrifices made by these young men were recognised,” Mr Small's son Dean said.
- “Also, for those who lost a loved one, there is now a place to visit and remember them.”
A plaque now sits on the tank marking Ken Small's determination to tell the story of Exercise Tiger
- Laurie Bolton from Kingsburg, California, whose uncle Sgt Louis Bolton died during the exercise, has been visiting Slapton Sands for the past 20 years.
- Ms Bolton said she had been “honoured” to unveil the plaque.
- She said: “The Tank Memorial gives us a tangible place to come and pay tribute to our loved ones who died, as well as a place of remembrance for their sacrifice.”
The survivors and their families of Exercise Tiger at the 60th anniversary of the tragedy
D-Day is one of the best known invasions in history, but it did not happen without a high cost
Once the Allies decided to land in Normandy, they identified the need to practice. The event itself would bring together the air, army and navy forces, as well as different allies in an unprecedented logistical exercise against a determined enemy.
In December 1943, 3,000 people were cleared from an area of 30,000 acres in South Devon (amongst other places) so that the Allies could train in preparation.
Many of the soldiers had no combat experience, so a series of exercises were planned to acclimatise the men to battle conditions.
Map of Slapton Sands © Library of Scotland
A duck, beaver, fox and tiger
In early 1944 there were several rehearsals along this coastline – Operation Duck, Operation Beaver and Operation Fox. The next one, Operation Tiger would be an almost full dress-rehearsal at Slapton Sands involving 30,000 men.
That stretch of coast, with its steep shingle beaches was topographically similar to one of the areas where the Americans planned to land on D-Day, codenamed Utah Beach. The practice would begin with a bombardment of the shore on 27 April, after which the first men would disembark on the beach.
This would use live ammunition so that the men would be better prepared for the experience on D-Day.
Then LS(T)s (Tank-landing ships) would land men and military supplies onto the beach. These were large ships, capable of carrying men, tanks and lorries, and weighed around 4,800 tonnes.
However, they had little defensive firepower of their own and were slow-moving, depending on escorts to defend them.
In Operation Tiger a flotilla of 8 ships would be escorted by a Royal Naval destroyer and a corvette.
Beached LS(T) with bow doors open and ramp down. ©IWM (FL 7222)
German E-boats (so called by the British because ‘E’ stood for ‘enemy’) regularly patrolled the English Channel. These could travel up to 40 knots per hour, around 3 times faster than the LS(T)s.
The Allies needed to protect not just the men and ships in the exercise, but the knowledge of the invasion practice area.
If the Germans recognised it was being used for that purpose, the intended landing site in France would be identifiable and the element of surprise would be gone. That would inevitably mean higher casualties.
From the start of Operation Tiger, the exercise was a tragedy of errors. The Royal Navy changed their radio frequency and the Americans were not given the updated details.
Several of the Landing Craft Tanks, LC(T), small tank-carrying ships with flat bottoms to assist disembarkation, were running behind schedule.
The exercise commander, American Rear-Admiral Don Moon, therefore delayed the start of the exercise by an hour, but this decision did not reach all parties. When the men from these craft landed 110 were killed by friendly fire.
Final dress rehearsal for D-Day © Library of Congress LC-USZ62-132795
The Destroyer, HMS Scimitar, had been rammed by an American craft that morning and remained in Plymouth for repairs. This information was not conveyed until after the convoy had departed.
This left the 8-boat flotilla protected by a single corvette, with much less firepower. Another destroyer was despatched, but not until 1:30am on 28 April.
It would take them at least an hour to reach the LS(T)s.
Captured German E-Boat © IWM A 10820
Meanwhile, a group of 9 E-boats had spotted the convoy. They maintained radio silence as they approached, in order not to alert the allied ships to their presence. The first torpedo struck one of the LS(T)s at 2:30am on 28 April.
Over the following 3 hours 3 American ships were hit, 2 of which sank and another of which suffered extensive damage. Men jumped into the cold waters of the English Channel. There were insufficient working life rafts.
Many men did not know how to use their inflatable life jackets, and wore them wrongly round their waist rather than shoulders. This pushed their heads underwater and they drowned. In areas the sea was covered with fuel which caught fire.
Some men died of hypothermia or burns.
The shore batteries could not fire on the E-boats, as to do so would kill the men in the water and reveal that the stretch of coastline was protected, and thus being used for invasion practice. The corvette tried to attack the E-boats but inflicted no casualties.
How did it all go so wrong?
The very complexity of planning for D-Day meant that commanders in the field were sometimes overwhelmed by a vast amount of constantly changing information. At the same time as Operation Tiger was preparing to start, those in charge were being given the final plans for D–Day. However, the failure to pass down the radio frequency changes and the status of HMS Scimitar were critical.
An estimated 749 American servicemen died in Operation Tiger. The clean-up exercise was conducted in secrecy both for the purposes of security and in order not to destroy morale.
Among the bodies not initially recovered were those of 10 men with the highest security clearance (codenamed ‘Bigot’) who had copies of the detailed plans for the D-Day operation.
If their bodies with the plans were found by the Germans, they would know when and where the invasion would take place. The Allies considered calling off D-Day on this basis, but the bodies were all found.
A memorial to those lost in the exercise © Neil Kennedy / Slapton Sands, The Tank Rescued from The Sea / CC BY-SA 2.0
The Allies learnt some valuable but expensive lessons from Operation Tiger. Radio frequencies were standardised.
Men were taught how to use their life jackets – the date of the exercise was too close to D-Day to replace them.
American casualties at Utah Beach on D-Day (197 including 60 missing) were low in comparison to some of the other areas, and considerably lighter than at Slapton Sands.
West Virginia Veterans Memorial – Remembering Exercise Tiger
Remembering Exercise Tiger
Compiled by Jill Hill and edited by Chad N. Proudfoot
School children in the United States know about the events of June 6, 1944. They know of the combined efforts of the Allies to launch the largest amphibious attack in history.
They have heard their teachers tell how the soldiers crossed the English Channel and stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
They have learned about the sacrifice of those who lost their lives on the beaches, but what they do not know is the sacrifice of a convoy of ships whose mission was to prepare for the Normandy invasion through rehearsal runs.
The sacrifice that proceeded D-Day is not given the attention that it deserves; for years people did not talk about what occurred before the attack because some believed it was a secret. People today need to remember those who took part in the rehearsals for D-Day because many lost their lives to help insure victory at Normandy.
In preparation for D-Day, the United States military held rehearsals involving 300 ships and approximately 30,000 soldiers. To insure as accurate as possible preparation for the invasion the exercises where held on beaches that resembled the beaches of Normandy, which were code named Utah and Omaha.
The military leaders held the exercises on Slapton Sands in England, which the Allies evacuated in the early part of 1944, for its resemblance to Omaha Beach. The training exercises began in December 1943 and slowly escalated until they climaxed five months later with two full-scale rehearsals in late April and early May of 1944.
The government held Exercise Tiger, the military code name for the rehearsal of the 4th Infantry Division's assault at Utah Beach, from April 22-30.
In order to insure that the exercises were as accurate as possible, the troops and equipment departed on the same ships and, for the most part, from the same ports that they would later leave from on June 6.
On April 26, the main force traveled through Lyme Bay with mine crafts ahead of them, to simulate the real condition of the Normandy invasion.
Because the German E-boats (high-speed torpedo boats) sometimes patrolled those waters, the British Commander in Chief sent two destroyers, three motor torpedo boats, and two motor gunboats to protect the convoy. He also sent another patrol to monitor Cherbourg, the German E-boats' main port.
After the rehearsal's attack on Slapton Sands, the soldiers unloaded the ship and waited for another convoy. This T-4 convoy consisted of two sections, the Plymouth section and the Brixham section, which embarked from two different ports.
The Plymouth section included four ships: the USS LST-515, the USS LST-496, the USS LST-531 and the USS LST-58, while the Brixham was composed of only three ships: the USS LST-499, the USS LST-289 and the USS LST-507.
The exercises went well for all the earlier convoys, but not for the T-4. In the early morning of April 28, the convoy, carrying engineers, chemical and quartermaster troops, proceeded through Lyme Bay. The morning seemed peaceful and uneventful but that would soon change.
One LST (Landing Ship, Tank) reported two unknown approaching vessels, but the LST assumed that they belonged to the convoy.1 Between 1:30 and 2:04 A.M., the enemy attacker, presumably nine German E-boats, hit the USS LST-507 with several torpedoes, but they failed to explode.
2 The ship burst into fire when the ship sustained one direct hit and then another struck about five minutes later. The men of the 507 found themselves surrounded by fire and machine gun fire from the enemy ships. Moments later the German E-boats fired on the USS LST-531, which sank in a short six minutes.
3 The USS LST-289 tried desperately to escape the enemy's fire, but the fast German E-boats hit the ship in the stern. The LSTs 496, 515 and 511 returned fire, but the German E-boats used smoke and quick speed to escape the Allies efforts to capture them.
The USS LST-499 radioed for help, but because the radio stations were unaware of the top-secret mission, the call went unanswered. It was not until an alert radio officer heard the words “T-4” did they realize the call was from Exercise Tiger and sent help.4
The senior officers ordered the unharmed LSTs to continue towards their destination and not to pick up survivors. The remaining LSTs obeyed orders at first, but then Captain Doyle, who commanded USS LST-515, decided that he could not leave the men to die in the cold sea. Disobeying a direct order, Doyle asked his men if they wished to leave or turn around and fight.
With his men behind him, USS LST-515 turned around and went back to search for survivors, but they were able to rescue only a few compared to all the many aboard the ship.
5 The Office of Defense Official Records reported 749 dead, 551 US Army and 198 US Navy, which makes Exercise Tiger the highest cost of human life suffered during battle up to that point in the war, excluding Pearl Harbor.6
The morning of April 28 will live forever in the memories of those men, who, through incredible odds, survived the horrible ordeal. The men of the 507 found themselves thrown into a situation that they thought would never happen on a rehearsal run. Before the attack, the men sat down below, on their bunks never believing that something would go terribly wrong.
Patrick “Patsy” Giacchi was one of those men, who was down below in the ship. In an interview, he told how he and his friends sat in their bunks relaxing after a hard day's work. The men played cards, sang along with the ukulele, wrote to love ones, and talked about what they would do when they got back, never thinking that they might not make it back.
While relaxing, Patsy heard scrapping noises, and then he got knocked off his stretcher. He feared that something was wrong, but the others told him not to worry because it was a “dry run.” Ignoring the assurances of his comrades, Patsy put on his shoes and helmet and went up top anyway.
7 When the torpedo made the direct hit, Patsy's friends down below did not have much of a chance to escape.
The deck was a terrifying experience for those men who made it to the top. They were surrounded by blazing hot fire and machine gun fire from the enemy ships. The men on the deck began to panic. Some of them immediately jumped overboard, before the captain gave the order, because they did not know what else to do.
Once the captain did give the order to abandon ship, all around even more men began to jump into the cold water below. Once in the water, the men were still not safe. Because so many men surrounded the ship, another man jumping overboard could crush them.
Even if they made it away from the side of the boat, they had to fight their way to the few lifeboats that those aboard managed to release. Only six lifeboats were released and one of those flipped over because it could not support the weight of all the men who tried to get in it.
The lifebelts also proved to be dangerous because the men sometimes used them incorrectly, causing the person to flip upside down, or they contained a defect.8 Those who did manage to get into a lifeboat still had a long ordeal ahead. They had to float in the cold water not knowing if anyone would come to their rescue.
After floating in the cold, dark waters for hours, the USS LST-515 finally picked up the survivors.
The disaster that may have saved D-Day
SLAPTON SANDS, England — Lured across the English Channel by an unexpected frenzy of radio chatter, the Nazi predators sliced through the waves toward an unknown enemy.
It was shortly after midnight on April 28, 1944. Within a matter of 2-1/2 hours, an ambush by a German E-boat flotilla had brought misery to hundreds of American families.
A secret dress rehearsal for D-Day had been interrupted with deadly consequences.
Nicknamed “Long Slow Targets” by their crews, the U.S. landing craft proved to be no match for the 50-mph German torpedo boats. The hit-and-run attack left two American vessels ablaze and sinking. A third had been struck in the stern and was badly damaged.
As hundreds of American servicemen floundered amid the burning oil and cold water off England's southern coast, futile cries of “help” and “mom” echoed across the darkness. At least 749 U.S. sailors and soldiers would be dead by dawn.
Code-named Exercise Tiger, the ill-fated D-Day dry run was at the time America's costliest incident of the war (only Pearl Harbor was worse). The attack claimed more than three times as many lives as the amphibious landing at Utah Beach in France, the assault they had been practicing for at Slapton Sands in picturesque Devon county.
But now, 65 years after the disaster was hushed-up by military chiefs, historians believe lessons learned from the little-known tragedy helped to ensure the success of the D-Day landings less than six weeks later.
“These people were training for a military operation in the midst of a war,” said Dr. Harry Bennett, a World War II expert based at Britain's University of Plymouth. “Without Exercise Tiger, the liberation of Normandy, France and Europe might have been a more protracted and bloody process.”
Haunted by carnage For the servicemen who made it back to shore, such sentiments don't make the horrors they witnessed any easier to bear.
Many survivors say it isn't memories of Utah or Omaha beaches that haunt them decades later. It's the carnage of the pre-invasion practice gone wrong that live on in their nightmares.
Steve Sadlon, who was a radio operator aboard the first landing craft struck by the German E-boats that night, recalls being awakened by the “scraping” sound of a torpedo that failed to detonate. Moments later, an explosion ripped through LST 507, which was fully loaded with trucks, military equipment and soldiers. (LST is an acronym for Landing Ship, Tank.)
“It was an inferno,” said Sadlon, speaking from his home in Ilion in upstate New York. “The fire was circling the ship. It was terrible.
“Guys were burning to death and screaming. Even to this day I remember it. Every time I go to bed, it pops into my head. I can't forget it.”
Sadlon, who was aged 20 at the time, retrieved his pistol and a floatation belt before leaping into the frigid English Channel.
“Guys were grabbing hold of us and we had to fight them off,” he recalled. “Guys were screaming, 'Help, help, help' and then you wouldn't hear their voices anymore.”
Tracers light the sky Paul Gerolstein, then a gunner's mate 2nd class, recalls a fireball rising “60 or 70 feet in the air” after Sadlon's LST was struck by the second torpedo.
“Our radar gave us the German positions and we started to return fire,” said Gerolstein, an 88-year-old retired police lieutenant who now lives in Port Charlotte, Fla. “I vividly remember the German tracers were light green while our tracers were red.
“The convoy was given orders to scatter and the battle was over before we knew it.
“But my captain, John Doyle, decided to stay. 'We came here to fight the Germans and we will stay here and fight,' he ordered. We went back and threw cargo nets over the side and picked up 70 or 80 survivors.”
Gerolstein recalls working with a “strong as a bull” colleague named Gerhard Jensen to pull seven or eight wounded servicemen to safety.
Sadlon ended up spending about four hours in the frigid English Channel before he was finally hauled aboard an American landing craft. Unconscious and suffering from hypothermia, he was initially mistaken for dead.
Exercise Tiger – Historic UK
On the night of 27th April 1944 during World War Two, a terrible tragedy unfolded just off Slapton Sands on the coast of Devon. 946 American servicemen died during Exercise Tiger, the rehearsals for the D-Day landing on Utah Beach in Normandy, France.
As part of the build-up to D-Day, in 1943 some 3,000 local residents in the areas around Slapton, Strete, Torcross, Blackawton and East Allington in South Devon were evacuated from their homes in order for the American military to carry out exercises.
The area around Slapton Sands was selected for these exercises because it bore a great resemblance to parts of the French coast, the location chosen for largest invasion by sea of the war – the Normandy landings.
The beautiful and usually tranquil River Dart filled up with landing craft and ships for the operation. Nissen huts sprang up in Coronation Park in Dartmouth and new slipways and ramps were built on the river’s edge, all the way from Dartmouth up to Dittisham.
Exercise Tiger was designed to be as realistic as possible and on 22nd April 1944 it began. Landing craft loaded with soldiers, tanks and equipment were deployed along the coast.
However, unbeknown to the military, under cover of darkness nine German E-boats (fast attack craft) had managed to slip in amongst them in Lyme Bay. Two landing ships were sunk and a third badly damaged.
Lack of training on the use of life vests, heavy packs and the cold water contributed to the disaster: many men drowned or died of hypothermia before they could be rescued. Over 700 Americans lost their lives.
Despite this, the rest of the exercise continued at Slapton beach, but with disastrous results. The practice assault included a live-firing exercise and many more soldiers were tragically killed by ‘friendly fire’ from the supporting naval bombardment.
Because of fears of its impact on morale, the terrible loss of life during the exercise was not revealed until long after the war.
Later that year on Sunday 4th June, the people of Dartmouth were ordered to stay indoors: tanks rolled through the town and troops converged on the harbour with its landing craft and ships. The following day 485 ships left the harbour, taking a full day to clear the mouth of the river and at dawn on the 6th June, the invasion of France began.
Thanks to the training at Slapton, fewer soldiers died during the actual landing on Utah Beach than during Exercise Tiger, and so the training in Devon was not in vain.
Slapton was not the only site in Devon to be used by the American military during World War Two. The north coast around Woolacombe Bay was also used for practising amphibious landing assaults in preparation for the D-Day landings.
D-Day’s Deadly Dress Rehearsal
Troops coming ashore at Slapton Sands during Exercise Tiger. (Credit: NARA)
In the early morning hours of April 28, 1944, an Allied fleet slinked toward the coast of southern England. Along with a lone British corvette, the flotilla included eight American tank landing ships, or LSTs, each one of them filled to the brim with soldiers from the U.S.
Army’s VII Corps. In just five weeks, these same troops were scheduled to land in France as part of Operation Overlord, the Allies’ secret plan to invade Nazi-held Western Europe.
Overlord was integral to the Allied strategy for victory in World War II, and to ensure it went smoothly, military brass had organized a sweeping dress rehearsal codenamed “Exercise Tiger.
” Before they stormed Utah Beach on D-Day, the men of VII Corps would get in a practice run at Slapton Sands, a picturesque British seafront that bore a striking resemblance to the coast of Normandy.
Exercise Tiger had begun six days earlier, when some 23,000 G.I.s assembled at staging areas in England. After putting to sea just as they would on D-Day, the men circled back for a series of simulated landings on the Devon seacoast, which was dressed up to resemble a warzone.
The secluded beach at Slapton Sands had been converted into a maze of mines, barbed wire and concrete obstacles, and the nearby civilian population had been evacuated from their villages.
To give the soldiers a taste of the chaos of battle, the British Royal Navy planned to shell the beach with live fire until just moments before the American troops made their mock landing.
Lyme Bay, England. (Credit: Steinsky/Wikimedia Commons)
Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower was on hand to watch the exercise unfold, but its first wave was plagued by delays and miscommunications.
On April 27, a scheduling foul-up had even seen a few of the American Higgins boats land on the beach in the midst of the British Navy’s bombardment.
The shelling was quickly called off, but not before the American forces suffered several friendly fire casualties.
Eisenhower and the rest of the officers were hoping for a more orderly landing on April 28, when VII Corps’ second wave of engineers and back-up troops approached the coast in a convoy of eight landing ships.
Until then, there had been no threat of enemy intervention in the exercise, but as the flotilla steamed through Devon’s Lyme Bay, it caught the attention of nine German “Schnellboote,” or “fast boats.” Known as “E-boats” to the Allies, these small, nimble raiders were outfitted with torpedoes and 40mm guns.
Upon discovering that an Allied fleet was in the region, they immediately sped to intercept it.
Troops coming ashore Slapton Sands during the exercise. (Credit: NARA)
It was around 1:30 a.m. when the German E-boat attack began. As the eight American LSTs lumbered toward the coast, their crews were startled by an eruption of gunfire and the flash of tracer rounds in the night sky. “All hell broke loose,” one American sergeant remembered. The flotilla was caught completely off guard.
British forces had been monitoring the approach of the E-boats, but due to an error, they were operating on a different radio frequency than the Americans. To make matters worse, the landing ships’ main escort, a British destroyer called the Scimitar, had sustained damage earlier in the evening and returned to port for repairs.
When the shooting started, their only protection was a 200-foot corvette called the Azalea.
The Allies’ confusion turned to panic shortly after 2 a.m., when a German E-boat torpedo careened into the side of an American landing ship called LST-507. Lieutenant Gene Eckstam, a medical officer who was aboard the ship, described hearing “a horrendous noise accompanied by the sound of crunching metal and dust everywhere.
” The explosion set the LST ablaze, killing dozens of troops and forcing others to abandon ship. “The assistant navigator and I jumped over the side of the LST into the near freezing water 25 feet below,” radio operator Steve Sadlon later wrote in an account of the attack.
“The sea around the ship was covered with an oil slick from the badly damaged LST, and the surface was on fire.”
Troops on Slapton Sands beach during the exercise. (Credit: Library of Congress)
While LST-507 burned, another landing ship called LST-531 was hit by two torpedoes in quick succession and consumed in a ball of flames. As its crew hurled themselves overboard, a fourth torpedo plowed into LST-289, turning its stern into a mangled hulk.
LST-289 would manage to stay afloat in spite of its damage, but LST-507 and LST-531 both sank within a matter of minutes. The survivors of the wrecked landing ships huddled in life rafts or floated helplessly in the chilly waters of Lyme Bay.
Having not received proper instruction in the use of their lifejackets, many drowned under the weight of their bulky combat gear.