As Operation Overlord approached the Allies were embarking on the final exercises for troops involved in the invasion. The aim was to rehearse the movement of troops by sea in as realistic manner as possible, with the men making an equivalent length of journey to familiarise them with sea going conditions. It was not always a comfortable experience.
The last of the rehearsal exercises now began on the south coast of England, beginning with Exercise Tiger for the men destined for Utah beach. On the 28th April the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower was amongst the senior officers watching the manoeuvres at Slapton Sands. His aide Captain H. C. Butcher was accompanying him and recorded the day in his diary:
The maneuver, the code name for which is TIGER, was intended to simulate conditions of the actual landings on the 4th Division’s beach in France. This beach has water behind it and high ground commanding the beach. Our engineers had worked hard and long to copy the scheme of fortifications used on the shore on which the invasion landing is to be made. It had been thought that this large exercise would attract enemy air attacks or possibly attack by surface vessels, particularly E-boats, but none developed on D-Night or D-Day.
The principal innovation is the use of rockets aboard aircraft. The plane dives at the target and the rocket is released. The rocket accelerates to a high speed as the propulsion fluid burns, after which the speed diminishes. If a target is hit during the high speed, extraordinary effect is obtained. Several squadrons of Typhoons, which ﬂy 400 miles per hour, already have been equipped, as have been some American planes.
Then there was a delay in the landing; why, we did not know, although later we heard that H-Hour had been postponed even after the naval bombardment had begun for one hour. This left LCTs and their cargoes of DDs (tanks that float) milling around, waiting. In due time, the DDs were successfuly launched and slowly made their way toward the beach at three or four knots an hour.
One, I noticed, was smoking. It had proceeded about a mile somewhat parallel to the beach when I saw a yellow object pushed from the tank. I ﬁrst thought this was a marker buoy, but soon realized it was a dinghy and that the tank was in trouble. Soon an LCVP sped toward it. In a few moments, the tank crew was in the yellow dinghy and the tank had sunk. This was the only tank casualty and, fortunately, no one was lost.
Then the ﬁrst assault wave of infantry in LCVPs arrived from the transport vessels eight miles out. They landed either with or shortly after the amphibious tanks. This landing was preceded by rocket bombardment, at the postponed H-Hour, from three landing craft that had crept close to shore and ﬁred diagonally at the obstacles, including barbed wire, tank ditch, and other prepared positions. The rockets had made usable pathways through the barbed wire.
In this exercise effort was made to get tanks ashore quickly in order to use their ﬁre power. Engineers were brought in as rapidly as possible to demolish obstacles with hand-placed explosives. The tanks had to wait while these operations proceeded. If there had been enemy ﬁre, the tanks, being quite close together, would have been easy targets, as, indeed, would the landing craft.
I came away from the exercise feeling depressed. But frequently the poorest kind of exercise presages the best actual operation because the failures are noticed and corrected.
As the day closed, I was in Ike’s office when Beetle phoned on the intercommunication system to say that by E-boat action last night, we had two LSTs sunk and one damaged in the exercise. This happened off Lyme Bay—just where we had been. Casualties are estimated at 300 to 400. Beetle said this reduces our reserve of LSTs for the big show to zero.
The following account by Signalman William Smith conveys the grim reality of the incident:
I was a signalman onboard a motor launch – the ML303 – stationed at Portland Harbour and early on the morning of the 28th April we heard a buzz that German “W-boats” had attacked a convoy that night and there were heavy casualties.
Now W-boats had featured in reports as the latest German secret weapon to cause mayhem and were supposed to be a glorified E-boat-cum-submarine that was capable of submerging until a convoy passed over, after which they would resurface, fire torpedoes and guns and disappear fast back to France. There was a special signal in the codebook that read “W BOATS ATTACKING”. It transpired that the convoy had been attacked by E-boats.
About an hour after the news of the incident had circulated a flotilla of motor launches, including the ML303, were ordered to proceed west to the Slapton Sands area.
On arrival we found hundreds of dead US soldiers floating and bobbing around. Their body movements were being accentuated by a heavy swell. They were fully clad with steel helmets firmly fastened. A large proportion had badly burnt faces and hands and from a distance we initially mistook them for coloured troops. Having passed through burning oil-covered sea it would seem a fair number had suffocated and in their death throes had drawn their legs up to their May West life jackets, causing them to hunch up with rigor mortis. We pulled them in with boat hooks and set them on the boat sides, along the rails, with their faces facing outboard; we loaded about fifty or so per boat and returned to Portland.
The action of placing the bodies facing outwards was to avoid the crew having to look at the damaged and grotesque faces. However, this served little purpose as the next boat alongside had done the same and we could easily see the awful visage on those boats.
American ambulances manned by coloured GIs were waiting to load the bodies and at first they attempted to carry two on a stretcher but that did not work, as the gangplanks were too narrow and encumbered with safety rails. It was rumoured that they were taken to a local field near Portland and temporarily buried to keep it a secret. The total death toll we later heard was over 700.
We did two trips that day and it was a very subdued crew that evening with the added warning that it was a complete hush-hush affair and under no conditions were the day’s events to be discussed outside the ship, or reported in letters home.
Read more about this and the life of a Royal Navy Signalman at Smith RN.
The final death toll as a consequence of the incident remains unclear, it certainly exceeded the 200 dead on Utah beach on the day of the invasion itself.
Naturally the whole event could not be fully acknowledged during war time, it was impossible to make any reference to the ‘D-Day rehearsals’. There was no ‘cover up’ but the true circumstances were not revealed at the time – and the incident was not remembered with a memorial for many years.
Although the disaster is associated with Slapton Sands in Devon, where the troops were exercising on the beaches, the incident happened some distance away in the Channel. The boats were actually torpedoed off Portland Bill in Dorset, within sight of gun crews on the cliff tops. Wartime attitudes about the exact circumstances of the incident meant that the facts were not uncovered for some time.
the precise locations of both Tank Landing Ships with references, courtesy the Admiralty Chart:
LST 507: Latitude 50˚ 26´ 08˝ N, Longitude 2˚ 44´ 01˝ W.
LST 531: Latitude 50˚ 26´ 08˝ N, Longitude 2˚ 43´ 39˝ W.
That puts them under between ten and eighteen fathoms of water, ten miles west-south-west of Portland Bill and twelve miles south of Burton Bradstock – which is 45 miles from Slapton Sands.
One of the E-boats, or German ‘Schnell’ boats, that took part in the attack, S-130, is now undergoing restoration in Britain.
Exercise Tiger: The “Friendly Fire” Incident
A 2019 study, Disaster Before D-Day: Unravelling the Tragedy at Slapton Sands examines all aspects of the incident. In particular it raises the issue of a separate disaster befalling US servicemen that occurred just the day before:
One of the issues with the Exercise Tiger story is a lack of clarity on what really happened: how many men were actually killed and where they were buried. Most of the bodies of the American servicemen who died were taken to Portland where they were processed by the US Army’s 605th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company.
After the 605th’s work was done, the bodies were taken by the 146th Quartermaster Truck Company by road to the Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey where American military personnel were buried at the time. It wasn’t until August 1944 that US casualties were buried and commemorated at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial which is between the villages of Coton and Madingley.
It was estimated by the 605th Graves Registration Company and the 146th Truck Company that they had processed ‘in the ‘region of’ 500 bodies – there is no exact number, just an approximate one – but burial records at Brookwood Cemetery only related to 268 graves.
I believe the reference to a cover-up relates to two separate aspects of the exercise.
There was the friendly fire incident that occurred on 27 April 1944 when an undisclosed number of American soldiers were killed by friendly fire after a confusion over the start time of that day’s training exercise.
Shelling of the beach by the Royal Navy’s HMS Hawkins was originally planned to begin at 0730 hours, but it was delayed by one hour until 0830. Unfortunately, this change in the start time of the exercise was incredibly not passed on, which meant that rather than the subsequent artillery fire landing ahead of the disembarking American troops, it landed when they were already on the beach.
There has never be a denitive answer as to the number of men who were killed in that incident; estimates vary between 200 and 500. This aspect of Exercise Tiger has never officially been recognised, confirmed or admitted by the American government or military authorities. This seems somewhat strange, as America came clean about the E—boat incident way back in l954, so why they wouldn’t confirm or clarify this aspect of the disaster is not clear.
What makes matters worse is that because of this stance nobody knows for sure where these men were buried. Maybe their deaths were conveniently wrapped up with the casualty figures for the D-Day landings in Normandy.
The other case of alleged ‘cover-up’ is in relation to the aftermath of the E—boat attack, when hundreds of survivors were taken to nearby hospitals for the treatment of burns and immersion.
One of these hospitals was the US Army Field Hospital at the 228th Camp Unit at Haydon Park near the town of Sherbourne, which first opened for business on 18 September 1943. The hospital’s staff, including doctors, nurses and orderlies, who were all military personnel, had no prior knowledge of the arrival of the wounded men. They were told to treat them but not to ask any questions about how they sustained their injuries and warned that they would be placed before a military court martial if they dared discuss the incident with anybody.