War, as they say, is hell. When each side is determined to inflict casualties on the other, tragedy is inevitable. And those who go to war, the soldiers on the front line, know this better than anyone.
Still, even in the midst of war, there are times when the threat is unexpected. There are times when you feel you should be safe, at least relatively speaking.
But war is hell, and tragedy can strike at any time.
It was 1944, and on the south coast of England large ships were being loaded with the equipment of war: tanks, trucks, landing craft, pontoons and, of course, soldiers and their weapons.
They would sail overnight before landing under fire on a sandy beach and pushing inland. At least, that was the plan. They didn’t suspect that around seven hundred of the men would not return, that two of those big ships would go down in flames and another would just barely limp back into port. Why should they? These were not the actual Normandy landings in Nazi-occupied France. They were just on a practice run, landing on the shores of Slapton Sands in South Hams of England, and the only “enemy” they expected was their own colleagues, standing in.
Five big ships designated LSTs or Landing Ships, Tank, had assembled in a convoy off Plymouth. They carried the equipment and reinforcements for this practice exercise, and the plan was for them to sail around Lyme Bay in a loop – simulating the length of time they would take to cross the channel in the real assault – before coming in to Slapton Sands in the wake of the primary assault forces.
Rather than names, these ships had numbers; the command ship at the front was 515, and it was followed by 496, 511 and 531. LST-58 at the rear was towing two pontoons which would be used as causeways.
At 11am on the 27th of April, these five American ships were joined by two British ships, an escort provided by the British Royal Navy. HMS Azalea, a flower-class corvette, remained with the convoy, but HMS Scimitar, an s-class destroyer from the First World War, almost immediately returned to port.
The convoy sailed to Brixham, where they were joined at 7pm by three more LSTs – 499, 289 and 507.
James Brown, a Hospital Apprentice 1st Class in the US Navy aboard LST -289, recalled the events of that day.
“We had finished on loading an Army group in the late afternoon of April 27, 1944, and I was leaning against the Port Side Life Rail when a Sergeant came up and leaned on the rail next to me. I remarked, “This is a beautiful sight, the water is smooth and the setting sun is painting a light path on the surface of the water.” The Sergeant agreed and added, “You sailors have got it made. Three “hots” a day, a warm bunk, hot showers and clean clothes. I think I joined the wrong outfit.” I replied, “Yes, it’s nice as long as your ship stays afloat.”
There were now eight LSTs, accompanied by just one corvette, sailing into the night.
Brown was in his bunk when the General Quarters alarm sounded in the middle of the night, summoning everyone on board to their battle stations. He was inclined to stay there, assuming it was another ship-board rehearsal, but he was soon roused.
“…one of the ship’s officers came running through the compartment yelling, “This ain’t no drill boys, hit the deck!” I hit the deck running , passed the officer in the next compartment, and ran up the ladder to the main deck hatch. When I pushed the hatch open it was slammed back in my face by what sounded like a jackhammer. When I opened the hatch again, I was greeted with a myriad of sounds….yelling, cursing, big guns, little guns, and the whining of rounds coming from every angle. But the sight of two burning ships off our starboard beam was what really caught my attention. They were burning from stern to bow, men on fire jumping over the side into a flaming sea of burning oil and gasoline. The vehicles on the decks with full fuel tanks were cooking off as the fire reached them. It was a nightmare that I never want to see again.”
LST-507, at the rear of the convoy, had been hit by a torpedo from a German E-boat.
Motor Machinist’s Mate, First Class, Angelo Crapanzano was in the engine room when the torpedo struck not far away from him. Everything was plunged into darkness, but luckily he knew the engine room well enough to find a way out and reach the deck.
He found the ship on fire, split in half and burning from the bow to the wheelhouse, and remembered seeing soldiers on board panicking and jumping overboard without orders. He saw LST-531, further ahead in the convoy, struck by two torpedoes and sinking, and finally, when the captain gave the order to abandon ship, he jumped overboard into the burning sea.
Ensign Douglas Harlander was the Navigation Officer aboard LST-531.
“I remember being on the navigation deck of the ship when the radar man pointed out a “little peep” on the corner of the radar screen. I went out to take a look and was standing on the starboard wing when the first torpedo hit. It felt like a sledgehammer on my feet. It threw me back eight or nine feet.
We were completely loaded with trucks, vehicles, tanks, and all of them were loaded with fuel to the hilt. As a result, when the torpedoes went off, it was an immediate mass ball of fire all over the main deck and all over the tank deck. A minute later we were hit again with another torpedo. That one really ripped our seams open. The ship started listing right away and started turning over to its starboard side. It would only stay afloat for another six minutes. Attempts were made to put the flames out, but it was impossible with all the gasoline fueling the fire. The four landing craft, used to transport the troops to the beach, couldn’t be used because of damage and shortness of time, because they were tightly secured to the ship.”
Back on board LST-289, the commanding officer Lieutenant Harry Mettler had initially been uncertain as to whether they really were under attack, or if this was part of the exercise. The explosions were decisive, however. He considered stopping to pick up survivors, but realised that lingering in the area would make him – and the crew and 395 soldiers aboard – a target for the enemy. They took evasive action, but were struck when the enemy launched another torpedo. This hit just forward of the stern, above the water line. Although not as devastating as the strikes on 507 and 531, there was considerable damage, and it took some time to get the fires and flooding under control and re-establish power.
On LST-499, Seaman 2nd Class John Casner, Jr, saw LST-531 go up in a ball of fire.
“I remember seeing a crewman flying end over end in the air and then the guard rail of the ship going up in the air.That was the first time I had ever seen a ship hit and explode I will never forget it. A few minutes later, machine gun fire was directed towards us from the starboard to the port side. I could see the red tracers coming at us from four light machine guns. That was when we realized it must be very fast surface boats that were firing at the convoy. At the time, our captain believed all of this was part of our dress rehearsal maneuvers and not an enemy attack, so he did not give the order to return fire.”
Some of the other ships in the convoy tried to take what action they could against the enemy.
Floyd Hicks, a Gunners Mate 2nd Class on LST-515, said;
“Suddenly there were flares in the air and I saw the E-boats speeding around our convoy. A remnant of one of the flares landed on my right shoulder. I opened fire on the E-boats and there were red and green tracers everywhere. It was difficult to take aim at the E-boats because they were so fast. “
On LST-511, Motor Machinist Mate 2nd Class Nathan Resnick was assigned as a gunner on the top deck.
“LST 511 began firing their guns in the direction of the German E-Boats, but I could hardly see them. Friendly fire from LST 496 and enemy fire from the E-Boats injured 15 men on the top deck of my ship.”
Steve Sadlon, Seaman 2nd class and radio operator on 507, heard the order to abandon ship, but not everyone was prepared to make the leap.
“Our signalman was standing in the stern with the rest of them. He told me he wasn’t going to jump into that cold water. I pointed to the fire and explosions behind us and told him, “Take your choice: you either burn to death on the ship or you’ll freeze to death in the sea.” That was the last I saw of him. He stayed aboard the ship and apparently burned to death.
There were hundreds of guys all around us in the water screaming for help. There were dead bodies floating everywhere. We got past the burning water, the dead, and the people yelling for help. During that time I lost my buddy and never saw him again. I floated by this officer who told me to save my breath and stop screaming for help like the rest of them because nobody is going to help us.”
Many of the survivors from the stricken ships were now in the water, but this too would be deadly for many. Some were upside down, drowned because they hadn’t put their life belts on properly, had tipped over and hadn’t been able to right themselves. Others had sunk because they’d jumped in with heavy packs on their backs and rifles in their hands, and the weight had dragged them down.
Harlander, from 531, said,
“The big problem was the water was 44 degrees…mighty cold. The first half hour the water felt cold but after that your arms and legs just got numb and you couldn’t feel the water. You couldn’t hang on to anything either. As the night progressed, there were fewer people around. They slipped away as they became unconscious. Along about six o’clock in the morning you even wished you could be picked up by the Germans, because the men were falling off like flies.”
Sadlon woke up on another of the LSTs. “I was lying on a mess table in the crew’s quarters with 10 Army blankets over me. A corpsman patted me on the shoulder and said, “You are a lucky guy. We were piling up dead people from your ship and you were foaming at the mouth. So we picked you up and started working on you.”
The command ship, LST-515, was at the front of the convoy, with only the escorting Azalea ahead of them, and initially couldn’t tell what was going on. In addition, there was a little uncertainty in the chain of command. Lieutenant John Doyle was the commanding officer, but Commander Bernard Skahill was also aboard. He was the Commodore of the convoy, and thus actually outranked Doyle. They each had their own priorities: for Doyle, his ship and those aboard, for Skahill, the entire convoy and the exercise as a whole.
515 saw a burning ship (which would have been LST-507) a few miles astern of them, but they weren’t receiving any radio messages about an attack or the presence of enemy ships, and the Azalea was continuing on her heading.
Skahill decided to take no action; the radar contacts they were seeing were assumed to be friendly vessels, and the burning ship was assumed to be unconnected to them.
Then, a torpedo was sighted heading right for them. Doyle ordered evasive action, and it missed, but it was now evident that the attack was real. The explosion of LST-531 underscored this. The gunners on 515 opened fire, but their success was minimal; they couldn’t even see their targets.
Skahill ordered the remaining LSTs to scatter and head for shore, but not all obeyed. In fact, the ship he was on was one that didn’t. Doyle argued with Skahill, knowing that there were probably a large number of men still alive in the flaming water and if they were left they would either burn or freeze. One account claims that Doyle asked the men aboard 515 what they should do – flee or look for survivors amidst the ongoing attack – and received the answer, “Let’s stay and fight!”
Whether this actually happened is uncertain – it isn’t exactly common for such decisions to be made by the crew instead of the officers – but 515 did indeed turn around at 3:58am to search for survivors.
LST-289 was ordered to return to Brixham, but knowing that the torpedo that struck them had caused injuries which couldn’t be handled there – Brixham had no medical facilities – Mettler sailed to Dartmouth instead.
And as they reached the shore, orders of secrecy began to be issued.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Harry Thatcher, on 289, said, “They pulled us into the pier at Dartmouth. They were taking the casualties off. There were some guys taking pictures. A guy went down there and took the film. We were told not to say anything to anybody.”
Similarly, Brown described how a Naval Officer had told them that, “ as far as we were concerned, nothing had happened to us. If anyone was caught talking, they would be Court Martialed. Although I had served with sailors who were part of Exercise Tiger, I never knew what it was called, until 1987, when a news magazine broke the story to the public.”
Veldon Downing, a US Army engineer from Kansas who was on LST -531 said,
“They told us to keep our mouths shut, and we did. After the war, the parents of one of the kids I served with and who’d been lost drove all the way out here from New York just to ask me what happened. I told them I couldn’t talk about it.”
Though they couldn’t talk about it, the events hit everyone involved hard. Brown recalled seeing a helmet lying on the deck of his ship.
“It had been split up the sides and was as flat as a plate from being slammed up against the underside of the gun tub. It bore the name of the Boatswain Mate who was trying to activate smoke pods when the torpedo hit. The overwhelming feeling of everyone I talked to was anger. “Where were the protecting ships that we should have had?” There was only a small Corvette that I saw when we weighed anchor and headed out into the English Channel, but no one that I know of ever saw it during the attack.”
The exact number of casualties is somewhat uncertain. The generally accepted figure is 749, a figure based on a cable sent by Rear Admiral Moon on the 28th August 1944. However, survivor Eugene Eckstam pointed out that the numbers in this cable were estimates, and his calculations came to a figure of 639. The Exercise Tiger Trust lists the names of 637 men confirmed to have died during the exercise. Some, however, claim that the figure was actually much higher. Another survivor, Dale Rodman, who was on 507, put forward numbers as high as 1,404.
Whatever the exact number, it was far too high a death toll for a practice exercise. So how had this come to happen?
It began back in November 1943, when the Big Three, the leaders of the three main Allied forces, Franklin D Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, met in Tehran.
They were planning the invasion into northern Europe, and while they agreed that the long-awaited second front would be opened in spring 1944, they didn’t agree who would take charge of the invasion. Churchill thought the British should be in charge, since they had been fighting the war for longer, but Roosevelt thought that it should be under American command, since they would be supplying the majority of the forces.
This question was never entirely resolved, even after General Dwight D Eisenhower, an American, was appointed to the post of Supreme Allied Commander. He appointed British commanders to oversee the land, air and naval forces, but senior American officers still wanted to maintain control over their troops on the ground, so he appointed American secondary commanders.
Each side had their own view on how things should be done, and this caused communication issues. For example, the British Rear-Admiral Leatham, in charge of the port facilities at Plymouth, agreed that all shipping during the exercise would come under US Navy jurisdiction. During this time, he would pass on any information he received about enemy activities and suggest what action, if any, the American commanders might take. This seemed reasonable to the British, since they knew their own waters best, but to the Americans, the idea of such suggestions seemed to imply that they couldn’t handle things themselves.
While all this was going on at the top, the men who would actually carry the plan out were gathering in camps in the south-west of England, where they would begin training. Many had never been to war before, but soon they would be expected to carry out an amphibious landing, under fire from the enemy, and push through to establish beachheads and lines of supply. It was a pretty big ask.
It wasn’t just the men who need training either; it was the officers and commanders, too.
And that’s where Exercise Tiger came in. It was one of a series of exercises that would allow the assembled forces to practice the huge task ahead of them.
The area of Slapton Sands, in the South Hams, had been chosen for these exercises because it was a pretty similar landscape to the one at Normandy.
And in order to get the soldiers involved used to what they would face, to make the exercises as realistic as possible, they were going to use live ammunition.
This, combined with the need for utter secrecy to prevent the enemy getting wind of what they were doing, meant the evacuation of all the civilians in the area. Several villages had to be completely emptied. People who had literally never left their village, never even travelled in a car before, had to pack up and go somewhere else, miles away, among strangers. They generally accepted it, though – it was all part of the war effort.
The first stop for the American troops was Woolacombe in North Devon. The Assault Training Centre there ran them through a three-week course, teaching them how to get on and off the landing craft, establish those beachheads and fight inland.
45,000 troops would pass through the centre in seven months.
Then, they moved onto the exercises at Slapton Sands. These exercises were intended to train the officers who would be in direct control of the units involved.
But things went wrong right from the start of the exercise. At 6:30 am on the 27th of April, Royal Navy were due to begin bombarding the shore – with live ammunition, remember – an hour ahead of the first assault forces landing.
But just a few minutes before then, Rear-Admiral Moon, the commander of the naval forces carrying the men, was told that some of the landing craft were running behind schedule. He was unable to consult with General Collins, who was in charge of the land forces actually making the assault, because Collins had already gone ashore. He decided to delay for an hour.
Unfortunately the new orders didn’t reach everyone, so when the Royal Navy began the bombardment at the new time of 7:30, some of the attacking troops were already making their landing. The number of casualties this caused has never been made clear.
Then, there was the question of the escort. The eight LSTs in the convoy were supposed to have two ships accompanying them, but HMS Scimitar had been ordered back to port. She had suffered some damage in a collision the previous day, and this required inspection. It was assumed that this order either came from Rear-Admiral Moon or at least had his authority, and that another ship had been ordered out to replace her.
It was several hours later that they realised this wasn’t the case, and the convoy was already under fire by the time the HMS Saladin was ordered to go out and catch up with them as their replacement escort. And the Saladin had an unreliable boiler, so she couldn’t reach them in time to do much more than pick up survivors.
The remaining escort, the Azalea, had received a notification that there were German E-boats in the area at about midnight, but the rest of the convoy never got this information. Lieutenant-Commander Geddes, the Azalea’s commanding officer, said afterwards that the message was still being decoded when the attack began. Quite why it had taken so long to decode – it was two am when the first torpedo struck 507 – wasn’t explained. Not that it would have made any difference; the British ships were operating on a different radio frequency to the Americans, so they couldn’t actually communicate with each other at all.
Geddes and Skahill, the commodore of the convoy, did have a chance to coordinate their frequencies before they sailed, but somehow nobody thought it was important and it didn’t happen.
If they had been able to communicate, and the convoy had received the warning, they might have been able to sail closer to shore. It was generally agreed afterwards that if they’d done so, there could have been less damage and fewer casualties.
But the real problem was that nobody in charge had reacted to anything until it was too late. Tracer fire had been seen. The e-boats had been spotted on the radar. The Azalea had seen one of her convoy burning and carried on, thinking it was nothing to do with them.
What had caused this complacency? The obvious answer is that it was because they all thought, “it’s just an exercise.” They had done so many in the preceding weeks and months that they had probably all got a bit bored of it all. They had stopped taking it seriously, and this slowed their reactions.
And the casualties could have been reduced by better training. Although some of the survivors said that they had been trained on how to wear their inflatable life belts, others said they hadn’t. Wearing one wrong – putting it around your waist instead of under your arms – would unbalance you and sink your head underwater. The Army men had also not been trained in how to respond to an emergency on the ship; some panicked, and most had no idea what they were supposed to do. By comparison, the Navy men had all undergone drills and were better prepared when the order came to abandon ship.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the survivors of Exercise Tiger got some relief from the horrors of war after all this; that they got to rest and recover, perhaps get some shore leave. You’d be wrong. They were still needed for the Normandy landings.
Sadlon, the radio man from LST-507, said, “After getting out of the hospital a week or two later, I was reassigned to LST-500 as a radio man and that ship was one of the first on Utah Beach on D-Day. In comparison to the E-boat attack, Utah Beach was a walk in the park.”
The forces involved in Exercise Tiger did learn valuable lessons that night, which they put to good use. They didn’t suffer as many casualties when they landed in Normandy.
Officially, the veil of secrecy over Exercise Tiger was lifted after the real landings took place. Most of the men involved didn’t know this. They continued to keep their secrets, never talking about the attack, even at their reunions, until many years later. Gradually, they saw other people talking about it without getting court-martial led, and began to tell their stories. Today, though, that long silence means that it’s a tragedy that still isn’t widely known. And that’s not fair to those men who lost their lives. They deserve to be remembered.
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