Daily Event for April 28

This is the story of the events surrounding ‘Exercise Tiger'. Not all the facts are recorded here and, because of the passage of time, some inaccuracies may have crept into the text. However, it is an honest attempt to cover the main points of a tragic story.

The Planning.

The commanders planning for the D-Day Normandy Landings, Operation Overlord, considered it essential that U.S. troops exercise landing on a defended beach under realistic conditions of live fire. Slapton Sands, in the district of Devon known as the South Hams, was selected as an area closely resembling the Utah Beach landing site on the Normandy coast. For the purpose of the exercise the main assault force, consisting of the 4th Infantry Division, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, landed at Slapton Sands and was followed by a follow-up force of about 4,000 U.S. troops a day later. The whole force was known as ‘U-Force'. Exercise Tiger involved some 300 ships, which set off from Plymouth, Brixham and Dartmouth, transporting some 30,000 men. Thirty of the ships were LSTs (Landing Ship Tank), which set off from the same ports. The exercise commenced on 22nd April with the assembly and loading of men and materials into ships preparation for sailing on 26th April 1944.

The main assault, 27th April 1944.

The first units of the main assault were scheduled to land at Slapton Sands at H-hour, 07:30 on the morning of 27 April 1944. Unfortunately, units of the main assault force were not at their correct positions and the Naval Force Commander, Admiral Don P. Moon, U.S.N. in USS Bayfield (APA-33), which was fitted out as a command ship, decided to delay the exercise by one hour. Consequently the naval bombardment of the beach was thus delayed by one hour. The naval bombardment of Slapton Sands should have been carried out by the WWI cruiser HMS Hawkins and the WWI destroyer HMS Scimitar (H21). I have not been able to discover if other ships were involved in the bombardment. However, on the 26th April Scimitar was rammed by LST-324 and sustained structural damage which caused her not to sail. (The bombarding force for D-Day at Utah, Operation Neptune, was ‘Bombarding Force A' which consisted of U.S. Ships Nevada, Quincy, Tuscaloosa; H.M. Ships Hawkins, Erebus, Black Prince and Enterprise.) However, the convoy transporting the main assault force to the beach was not informed of the delay and managed to land as scheduled at 07:30. This resulted in shells hitting a few LCTs and LCIs as well as landing amidst thousands of American soldiers trying to land and advance up the beach. Not the baptism of action any man there expected.

Eye witness reports, which have recently come to light, mentioned at least 200 soldiers killed on the beach. Official sources have mentioned 308 casualties. The cause of this tragic event was formally attributed to poor signalling procedures, some sources claim that incorrect radio frequencies were used by different elements of the main assault force due to a simple typing error. In the case of a mercantile convoy, the convoy Senior Officer would call a conference for captains of all vessels in the convoy prior to sailing to discuss operating procedures, including the allocated radio communication frequencies. This may not have taken place on this occasion, being a convoy of naval vessels. For whatever reason, the main assault convoy missed the signal advising the revised landing time of 08:30. But, this was only the beginning of a tragedy, there was more to follow.

The follow-up force landing, 28th April 1944.

The main assault was on the 27th April 1944 and the follow-up force was to land twenty-four hours later, the 28th April 1944. This force consisted of engineers, chemical and quartermaster troops and was to be unloaded at Slapton Sands in orderly fashion along with tanks, trucks, amphibious trucks, jeeps and heavy engineering equipment. The first part of the follow-up force convoy departed from Plymouth at 09:45 on 27th April 1944 with a designation of ‘T45' (some sources mention T 5). Its escort consisted of the Flower Class Corvette HMS Azalea (K25) followed by LSTs 515, 496, 511, 531 and 58 proceeding in line, in that order. The destroyer HMS Scimitar (H21) was originally detailed as the main escort. However, HMS Scimitar, as mentioned earlier, was unavailable due to the damage suffered in the collision. Because of communication difficulties this was not made known to the Naval Force Commander until 19:30 that evening. HMS Saladin (H54) immediately put to sea at 01:37 on the 28th April to make up the escort deficiency, but by then she was a long way behind the convoy and played little or no part in the subsequent action. The second part of the follow-up force, consisting of LSTs 499, 289 and 507 (LST 508 did not sail due to collision damage) departed from the port of Brixham and formed up with the convoy taking up positions astern of the first part. Other light forces were deployed at various locations off the French coast and around Lime Bay to intercept German forces but all failed to detect any threat.

Early in the morning of the 28th, at about 01:30, the convoy was attacked by German forces which consisted of E-boats from the 5th Flotilla (S-100, S136, S-138, S140 and S-142) and the 9th Flotilla (S-130 and S-150). Believing their targets were destroyers, torpedoes were launched with the appropriate depth settings. When, at first, no hits were observed the Germans reset the running depths of their torpedoes somewhat shallower and resumed their attack.

LST-507 was the first to be hit by a torpedo at 02:03 and was struck on her starboard side. The vessel was quickly burning and had to be abandoned by 02:30. It partially floated till dawn and was then sunk by fire from a British destroyer. There should have been 165 crew and 282 Army personnel on board. However, there is still some confusion about the number of men on board as soldiers scheduled for sailing in LST 508 may have been transferred to LST-507, but numbers were not officially recorded because of the last minute nature of events. Survivors were rescued by LST-515.

LST-531 was hit minutes later, sinking within six minutes. Of the 496 soldiers and sailors on her, 424 were lost. LST-289 was hit in the stern but managed to limp into port with the assistance of her own LCPs.

And afterwards!

All events which took place on the 27th and 28th April 1944 were subjected to a strict security blanket. Nobody was to mention the bombardment tragedy nor the E-Boat attack as this could have leaked to the Germans and lead to compromising the D-Day invasion plans. Actual casualty figures have been shrouded in a cloak of mystery and range from 749 (improbable) to 947 lives, a quarter of the entire convoy of LSTs. The USN claimed that they lost 71 men in LST-507, 114 in LST-531 and 13 in LST-289, a total of 198 naval personnel lost. But were these figures included in the final tally? This would increase the number to 1,145 lives lost on both days. The actual number of casualties may never be known however. What is clear is that losses were several times more than lives lost on D-Day itself at Utah Beach.

Several reasons were blamed for the tragic loss of life during Exercise Tiger. Mainly, these included the non-standardisation of radio communication frequencies, typographic errors in making out orders and the lack of training and discipline in the use of personal life saving vests by troops. Considering the several beach assaults previously carried out in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and in the Pacific theatre, the planners should have had sufficient knowledge and experience to plan landings with more expertise.

The casualty statistics from Exercise Tiger were not released until August 1944 and were included with the casualties of the actual D-Day landings themselves.

A memorial dedicated to the people of the South Hams was presented by the U.S. War Department and unveiled on the 24th July 1954. It was erected at the middle of Slapton Sands, between the road (A379) and the beach. But, no mention was made of the tragic events which marred Exercise Tiger on the 27th and 28th April 1944 and those who lost their lives

A Sherman tank was recovered from the sea off Slapton Sands during 1984 by Mr. Ken Small and is now preserved at Torcross, close to the main road (A379). It stands as a memorial and is dedicated to all who lost their lives during Exercise Tiger.

© 2012 Philip J. Heydon, I.S.M.

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