Exercise Tiger, or Operation Tiger, was the code name for one in a series of large-scale rehearsals for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which took place on Slapton Sands or Slapton Beach in Devon. Coordination and communication problems resulted in friendly fire deaths during the exercise, and an Allied convoy positioning itself for the landing was attacked by E-boats of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine), resulting in the deaths of 946 American servicemen. The incident was under the strictest secrecy at the time due to the impending invasion, and was only nominally reported afterward; as a result it has been called "forgotten".
In late 1943, as part of the build-up to D-day, the British Government set up a training ground at Slapton Sands, Devon, to be used by Force "U", the American forces tasked with landing on Utah Beach. Slapton Beach was selected for its similarity to Utah Beach: a gravel beach, followed by a strip of land and then a lake. Approximately 3,000 local residents in the area of Slapton, now South Hams District of Devon, were evacuated. Some had never left their villages before being evacuated.
Landing exercises started in December 1943. Exercise Tiger was one of the larger exercises that took place in April and May 1944. The exercise was to last from 22 April until 30 April 1944, and covered all aspects of the invasion, culminating in a beach landing at Slapton Sands. On board nine large tank landing ships (LSTs), the 30,000 troops prepared for their mock landing, which also included a live-firing exercise.
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 watched the Cherbourg area where German E-boats were based.
The first phase of the exercise focused on marshalling and embarkation drills, and lasted from 22 to 25 April. On the evening of 26 April the first wave of assault troops boarded their transports and set off, the plan being to simulate the Channel crossing by taking a roundabout route through Lyme Bay, in order to arrive off Slapton at first light on 27 April.
Friendly fire incident
The first practice assault took place on the morning of 28 April and was marred by an incident involving friendly fire. H-hour was set for 7:30 am, and was to be preceded by a live firing exercise to acclimatize the troops to the sights, sounds and even smells of a naval bombardment. During the landing itself, live rounds were to be fired over the heads of the incoming troops by forces on land, for the same reason. This followed 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. The British heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins was to shell the beach with live ammunition, from H-60 to H-30 (i.e. 6:30 to 7:00 am) giving the beachmasters half an hour to inspect the beach and declare it safe. Several of the landing ships for that morning were delayed, and the officer in charge decided to delay H-hour for 60 minutes, until 8:30. This message was received by Hawkins, but not by a number of the landing craft, with the result that troops were landing on the beach at the same time as the bombardment was taking place. British Marines on one vessel[clarification needed] 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 American soldiers said they were going straight through the white tape line and were getting blown up.
Battle of Lyme Bay
|Battle of Lyme Bay|
|Part of World War II|
Arrow shows Lyme Bay in southwest Great Britain.
| United States
|Casualties and losses|
2 LSTs sunk
2 LSTs damaged
On the day after the first practice assaults, early on the morning of 28 April, the exercise was blighted when a convoy of follow-up troops was attacked by nine German E-boats under the command of Korvettenkapitän Bernd Klug, in Lyme Bay.
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 ship which was supposed to be present, HMS Scimitar, a World War I destroyer, had been in collision with an LST, suffered structural damage and left the convoy to be repaired at Plymouth. Because the LSTs and British naval headquarters were operating on different frequencies, the American forces did not know this.
When other British ships sighted the E-boats earlier in the night[clarification needed] and told the corvette, its commander failed to inform the LST convoy, assuming incorrectly that they had already been told. British shore batteries defending Salcombe Harbour had seen silhouettes of the E-boats but had been instructed to hold fire so that the Germans would not find that Salcombe was defended.
The E-boats had left Cherbourg on patrol the previous evening and did not encounter the Allied patrol lines either off Cherbourg or in the Channel.[clarification needed] They spotted the convoy (convoy "T-4"), eight LSTs carrying vehicles and combat engineers of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade with a single corvette as escort, and then attacked.[nb 1]
LST-507 caught fire and was abandoned. LST-531 sank shortly after being torpedoed while LST-289 was set on fire but eventually made it back to shore. LST-511 was damaged by friendly fire. The remaining ships and their escort fired back and the E-boats made no more attacks. 749 servicemen were killed:[nb 2] 441 United States Army and 197 United States Navy personnel (note: this adds up to only 638). 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, dragging 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."
As a result of official embarrassment and concerns over possible leaks just prior to the real invasion, all survivors were sworn to secrecy by their superiors. Ten missing officers involved in the exercise had BIGOT-level clearance for D-Day, meaning that they knew the invasion plans and could have compromised the invasion should they have been captured alive. As a result, the invasion was nearly called off until the bodies of all ten victims were found.
There is little information about exactly how individual soldiers and sailors died. Various eyewitness accounts detail hasty treatment of casualties and unmarked mass graves in Devon fields.
Several changes resulted from mistakes made in Exercise Tiger:
- Radio frequencies were standardised; the British escort vessels were late and out of position due to radio problems, and a signal of the E-boats' presence was not picked up by the LSTs.
- Better life vest training for landing troops
- New plans for small craft to pick up floating survivors on D-Day
The casualty statistics from Tiger were not released until August 1944 along with the casualties of the actual D-Day landings themselves.
There is little documentation in official histories about this tragedy. Some commentators have called it a cover-up, but the initial critical secrecy about Tiger may have merely resulted in longer-term quietness. In his book The Forgotten Dead - Why 946 American Servicemen Died Off The Coast Of Devon In 1944 - And The Man Who Discovered Their True Story, published in 1988, Ken Small declares that the event "was never covered up; it was 'conveniently forgotten'". Charles B. MacDonald, author and former deputy chief historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, notes that the incident was reported in a press release issued from the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, and appeared in the July issue of Stars and Stripes. In addition, the story was detailed in at least three books at the end of the war, including Captain Harry C. Butcher's My Three Years With Eisenhower (1946), and in several publications and speeches in the intervening years. MacDonald surmises that the press release went largely unnoticed in light of the larger events that were occurring at the time, the battle for France in the summer of 1944, and the fact that they were just glad that the war was over in 1945. Harison mentioned it in his official Army history of the war (p. 270) and Samuel Eliot Morison also discussed it in his official Navy history, US Naval Operations, vol. 11, p. 66.
Memorials to the victims
With little or no support from the American or British armed forces for any venture to recover remains or dedicate a memorial to the incident, Devon resident and civilian Ken Small took on the task of seeking to commemorate the event, after discovering evidence of the aftermath washed up on the shore while beachcombing in the early 1970s.
In 1974, Small bought from the U.S. Government the rights to a submerged tank from the 70th Tank Battalion discovered by his search efforts. In 1984, with the aid of local residents and diving firms, he raised the tank, which now stands as a memorial to the incident. The local authority provided a plinth on the seafront to put the tank on, and erected a plaque in memory of the men killed. Ken Small documents how the local villagers were of more assistance than either the US or UK military officials. Later the American military honoured and supported him, when at the same time the UK military were snubbing his efforts. Small died of cancer in March 2004, a few weeks before the 60th anniversary of the Exercise Tiger incident.
In 2006, the Slapton Sands Memorial Tank Limited (a non-profit organization, one of whose directors is Small's son Dean) sought to establish a more prominent memorial listing the names of all the victims of the attacks on Exercise Tiger.
In 2012, a plaque memorializing the tragedy was erected at Utah Beach, Normandy, on the wall of a former German anti-aircraft bunker.
An M4 Sherman tank stands as a memorial to Exercise Tiger at Fort Rodman Park in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In popular culture
- D-Day Disaster, an episode of the Channel 4 documentary series Secret History (27 July 1998).
- Exercise Tiger was relocated from Slapton to Bereton on the Devon coast and used as the background to Kate Ellis's book, The Armada Boy, first published in 1999.
- A radio play 'The Tank Man' by Julia Stoneham, describing Ken Small's efforts was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24 October 2007.
- Exercise Tiger provided historical context for "All Clear", a 2008 episode of the ITV drama Foyle's War.
- Exercise Tiger features in Michael Morpurgo's novel The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips.
- Exercise Tiger provides a plot driver for the Jack Higgins novel Night of the Fox.
- Exercise Tiger is also the basis for the 1981 Leslie Thomas novel The Magic Army.
- Exercise Tiger is used as part of the 2004 story of Ike: Countdown to D-Day.
- The play A Proper Caper and No Mistake was written by Anthea Roberts and details the effect of Exercise Tiger on the local community.
- The author Francis Cottam uses Slapton Sands as a background to his 2004 novel of the same name.
- Small, Ken, and Mark Rogerson. The Forgotten Dead - Why 946 American Servicemen Died Off The Coast Of Devon In 1944 - And The Man Who Discovered Their True Story. London: Bloomsbury. 1988. ISBN 0-7475-0309-5
- Fenton, Ben. "The disaster that could have scuppered Overlord" - The Daily Telegraph - London - 25/04/2004
- Savill, Richard. "Last of torpedo survivors remembers brave buddies" - The Daily Telegraph - London - 25/04/2004
- "South Devon Evacuation 1944". Exeterflotilla.org. 1943-11-16. Retrieved 2014-04-28.
- Slapton Line: Slapton Monument Rededication - Devon County Council - devon.gov.uk - Updated 09 Mar 2007
- Stokes, Paul. "Veterans honour 749 who died in D-Day rehearsal" - The Daily Telegraph - London - April 29, 1994
- TV documentary The Secret D-Day Disaster: Revealed, Channel 5, on 20 March 2012
- Sherman Tank memorial (at Torcross) website
- HMS SCIMITAR (H 21) - Old S-class Destroyer
- Exercise Tiger at The Naval Historical Center
- MacDonald, Charles B. "Slapton Sands: The 'Cover Up' That Never Was," Army 38, no. 6. (c/o Naval Historical Center) - June 1988. - pp. 64-67.
- Butcher, Harry C., My Three Years with Eisenhower - includes the initial casualty estimate of 300-400 in the 28 April diary entry (p. 528) and 750-800 in the 9 May entry (p. 535).
- Jones, Claire. The D-Day rehearsal that cost 800 lives at BBC News online, 30 May 2014
- Exercise Tiger Remembered
- BBC Radio 4, 24 October 2007, 14.15 GMT
- Garn, Kenneth H. (2004). The Secret D-Day. ISBN 0-7884-2512-9.
- Lewis, Nigel (1990). Exercise Tiger: The Dramatic True Story of a Hidden Tragedy of World War II. Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-127796-0.
- Butcher, Harry (1946). My Three Years with Eisenhower. Simon and Schuster.
- Exercise Tiger at The Naval Historical Center
- Exercise Tiger U.S. Memorial Site
- Slapton Village Tiger Page
- The Official Exercise Tiger Memorial Website
- Detailed account of Exercise Tiger and of Ken Small's role
- History of Exercise Tiger from the West Virginia State Archives
- Slapton Sands Memorial Tank website
- Five part video podcast documentary about S130 on www.pod3.tv
- The Official UK Charity for Exercise Tiger
- Oral history interview with John Maltese, a survivor of Exercise Tiger from the Veterans History Project at Central Connecticut State University