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World War 2 History: Exercise Tiger—Disaster Before D-Day

Updated on September 24, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Slapton Sands Today

Torcross and Slapton Sands The beach at Torcross has trapped the Higher Ley, Slapton Ley and Lower Ley lagoons in front of the ancestral coastline.
Torcross and Slapton Sands The beach at Torcross has trapped the Higher Ley, Slapton Ley and Lower Ley lagoons in front of the ancestral coastline. | Source

Slapton Sands

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.

LSTs Unloading

WW2: Sherman tanks disembarking from an LST. LST stood for "Landing Ship, Tank"; their crews referred to them as "Long Slow Targets".
WW2: Sherman tanks disembarking from an LST. LST stood for "Landing Ship, Tank"; their crews referred to them as "Long Slow Targets". | Source

Exercise Tiger

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.

German E-Boat

WW2: A German E-boat (German nomenclature: S-boot). Note the torpedo tubes built into the front sides.
WW2: A German E-boat (German nomenclature: S-boot). Note the torpedo tubes built into the front sides. | Source

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.

A Channel Apart

show route and directions
A markerTorcross and Slapton Sands -
Torcross, Devon TQ7, UK
get directions

Exercise Tiger destination.

B markerCherbourg, France -
Cherbourg-Octeville, France
get directions

Home to the German E-boats

The Attack

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.

Friendly Fire?

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.

Slapton Monument

Slapton Monument, Slapton, Devon, erected by the US Government in thanks to the residents of the Slapton and Torcross area who vacated their homes for 5 months in 1944 to enable Exercise Tiger - training for the D-Day Landings - to take place.
Slapton Monument, Slapton, Devon, erected by the US Government in thanks to the residents of the Slapton and Torcross area who vacated their homes for 5 months in 1944 to enable Exercise Tiger - training for the D-Day Landings - to take place. | Source

Secrecy

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.

Sherman Tank Memorial

American Memorial in Torcross. This Sherman tank. raised from the waters near Slapton Sands, commemorates the US troops who died in an accident in Start Bay, whilst practising for D-day.
American Memorial in Torcross. This Sherman tank. raised from the waters near Slapton Sands, commemorates the US troops who died in an accident in Start Bay, whilst practising for D-day. | Source

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.

D-Day For Real

WW2: Normandy Invasion, June 1944. Landing ships (LSTs) putting cargo ashore on one of the invasion beaches, at low tide. Note the barrage balloons overhead and Army "half-track" convoy forming up on the beach.
WW2: Normandy Invasion, June 1944. Landing ships (LSTs) putting cargo ashore on one of the invasion beaches, at low tide. Note the barrage balloons overhead and Army "half-track" convoy forming up on the beach. | Source

© 2012 David Hunt

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    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Donald. Thanks for commenting. Was your father under orders to keep silent about the disaster?

    • profile image

      donald 2 years ago

      my father,donald w gigger,was on lst 511 at slapton sands that night.

      donald jr

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi PDX, thank you for reading and commenting. It's hard to believe this bit of history is not better known... but time tells.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this bit of unknown history!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Robert, I'm (uncharacteristically) at a loss for words. Seems a bit lame to say "thanks for the compliment", but, thanks for the compliment... and the sharing and voting.

    • Robert Erich profile image

      Robert Erich 5 years ago from California

      You are by far the best historian I have seen on Hubpages! I love this article and will have to pass on your profile to some of my friends that are big into history.

      Voted up and shared!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Larry, thanks for commenting and voting. Yes, it was conveniently under-reported and, of course, the success of D-Day a little more than a month later quickly swamped any other stories.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      V Gates, I'm not too sure myself about the links. I either got away with it or they haven't nabbed me yet. It makes sense to include source links. When I added the link text, it converted the text to links without me doing anything. So we'll see. I try to keep all my source links in my local article document in any case.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California

      Voted up and interesting. I can understand why this story was under-reported in the MSM. The unnecessary loss of life would have tarnished the image of His Ikeness.

    • V Gates profile image

      V Gates 5 years ago

      Thank you, UnnamedHarald, for posting links to some of your research. I hope it doesn't cause you any trouble with HubPages because I truly enjoy your writing.

      I'm new to this business of HubPages and didn't realize that posting links was frowned upon. In fact, I thought documenting one's research was a "value-added" aspect of writing a hub.

      Since I'm not big on writing things that I cannot tie to the work of others, I'm hoping HubPages will tolerate my contributions. I like having this forum for posting thoughts that would otherwise just sit in a journal on my computer or on some obscure web site I whipped together that no one would ever see.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Well, thank you, joan, for reading and commenting-- you are the first documented case of someone discovering a hub of mine through hopping. I'm glad you enjoyed it and hope you enjoy my other hubs as well.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      I am truly glad I found this Hub through a hop! I had never heard of this disaster, and I have studied a lot about WW2. Well written, I voted up and some more concepts. I will be reading your hubs with pleasure. Be happy!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you very much, V Gates. I appreciate your comment about the images-- sometimes I struggle to find images, but I think they are an important part of many hubs. I don't include source links in my articles because I think HubPages might say it's "too promotional" (also "Comments are not for promoting your Hubs or other sites") but I'll list them here and see if HubPages lets me do that:

      http://surviving-history.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/re...

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exercise_Tiger

      http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq20-1.htm

      http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30977039/ns/world_news...

      http://www.combinedops.com/Op_Tiger.htm

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/content/articles/2009/0...

      http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq20-2.htm

      http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/operation_tig...

      http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/86913/Tragedy-...

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Exercise_Tiger#D...

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-boats

    • V Gates profile image

      V Gates 5 years ago

      Thank you for taking the time to post this very well-written and interesting article. The photographs are well chosen and really enhance the overall quality of the information.

      Could you post some information on your primary sources?

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you for commenting, JKenny. I found that the tricky part was separating what was known to be true from what might be true. Hence my hedging on the friendly fire issue-- though I wouldn't be at all surprised to find evidence that it occurred.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Harald, very interesting article. I remember hearing about the Slapton Sands disaster on a BBC programme called Coast, and was pretty shocked that it hadn't been mentioned before. Thank you for writing this. Voted up and shared.