Allied Forces Begins Exercise Tiger as Rehearsal for the D-Day Invasion of Normandy
In late 1943, as part of the war effort, the British Government evacuated approximately 3000 local residents in the area of Slapton, South Hams District of Devon.
Some of them had never left their villages before.
Landing exercises had started in December 1943. Exercise Tiger was one of the larger exercises that would take place in April and May 1944. The make up of Slapton Beach was selected for its similarity to Utah Beach, namely a gravel beach, followed by a strip of land and then a lake.
The exercise was to last from 22 April until 30 April 1944, at the Slapton Sands beach. On board nine large Tank landing ships (LSTs), the 30,000 troops prepared for their mock beach landing.
Protection for the exercise area came from the Royal Navy. Two destroyers, three motor torpedo boats and two motor gun boats patrolled the entrance to Lyme Bay and motor torpedo boats were watching the Cherbourg area where German E-boats were based.
The first practice assaults took place on the morning of 27 April. These proceeded successfully, but early in the morning of 28 April, German E-boats that had left Cherbourg on patrol spotted a convoy of 8 LSTs carrying vehicles and combat engineers of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade in Lyme Bay and attacked. One of these E-Boats was S-130, now in dry dock in Plymouth, Devon. One transport caught fire and was abandoned, a second sank shortly after being torpedoed, a third was set on fire but eventually made it back to shore. The remaining ships and their escort fired back and the E-boats made no more attacks.
638 servicemen were killed, compared to only about 200 in the actual Utah Beach landing, 441 U.S. Army and 197 U.S. Navy personnel. Many servicemen drowned in the cold sea while waiting to be rescued. Soldiers unused to being at sea panicked and put on their lifebelts incorrectly. In some cases this meant that when they jumped into the water, the weight of their combat packs flipped them onto their backs, pushing their heads underwater and drowning them. Dale Rodman, who travelled on LST-507, commented "The worst memory I have is setting off in the lifeboat away from the sinking ship and watching bodies float by."
Of the two ships assigned to protect the convoy, only one was present. HMS Azalea, a corvette was leading the nine LSTs in a straight line, a formation which later drew criticism since it presented an easy target to the E-boats. The second boat which was supposed to be present, HMS Scimitar, a World War I destroyer, had checked into Plymouth for minor repairs. The American forces had not been told this. When other British ships sighted the E-boats earlier in the night and told the corvette, its commander failed to tell the LST convoy, assuming incorrectly that they had already been told. This did not happen because the LSTs and British naval headquarters were operating on different frequencies. Also, British shore batteries defending Salcombe Harbour had seen silhouettes of the E-boats but had been instructed to hold fire so the Germans would not find that Salcombe was defended.
When the remaining LSTs landed on Slapton Beach, the blunders continued and a further 308 men died from friendly fire. The British heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins shelled the beach with live ammunition, following an order made by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, who felt that the men must be hardened by exposure to real battle conditions. British marines on the boat recorded in its log book (the only log which has since been recovered from any of the boats) that men were being killed by friendly fire. "On the beaches they had a white tape line beyond which the Americans should not cross until the live firing had finished. But the Marines said they were going straight through the white tape line and getting blown up".
What began as a top secret naval operation to prepare US Army and Naval forces for the June 6th D-Day Invasion, would end with one of the highest losses ever suffered in combat by the US Army and Navy in WW II.
At 0135 on the morning of April 28th, 1944, eight Tank Landing Ships (LST's) and thier lone escort, the British corvette HMS AZALEA, were en route to the landing area. Slapton Sands was selected because its beach looked every bit like the beaches at Normandy that would be code named Utah and Omaha by the allies.