As D-Day approached, training intensified. Troops were told only what they needed to know; they certainly had no idea about when or where they’d be going into action. Troops trained embarking and disembarking from landing craft. (The flat-bottomed Landing Craft, Assault vessels (LCA) weighed ten tons each, could carry thirty-eight men and travel up to ten knots per hour, while the much larger Landing Ship, Tank, LST, carried three hundred men and sixty tanks. Both vessels could sail right onto a beach.)
It was at one such training exercise, one that involved the use of live ammunition, that tragedy struck. 23,000 American troops, the entire invading force of Utah beach, and 300 vessels were rehearsing on Slapton Sands in South Devon on 27 and 28 April 1944 in an exercise codenamed Tiger designed to acclimatize troops as accurately as possible to what they could expect at Utah during the real thing, right down to a number of pretend dead bodies strewn around. Six villages in the area had seen the evacuation of their 3,000 inhabitants. They’d been told they would, one day, be allowed back. But when, no one knew. (Pictured: US troops in training for the Normandy Landings.)
30,000 acres of land around Slapton Sands, chosen because of its similarities to the intended target area of Utah beach, had been sealed off with barbed wire and sentries. On the 27th, during Exercise Tiger, poor communication resulted in a number of troops being fired upon by their own ships.
28 April 1944
The following day, even greater casualties occurred when a patrol of nine German torpedo boats bumped into a convoy of American landing craft, LSTs, quite by accident. The convoy was being escorted by a British corvette (a small warship specifically designed for escort duties) but the main escort, a destroyer, had been involved in a collision the day before and was temporarily out of action while receiving repairs in Plymouth. At 01.30, The German patrol began firing on the LSTs. Some of the American soldiers mistook the German attack for part of the exercise. Many troops, aboard LSTs, having not been instructed on how to fasten their inflatable life jackets, and laden down in full battle dress, drowned. Fuel caught fire and many men suffered terrible burns. Between the two events, 946 servicemen were killed and some 200 wounded.
The tragedy of Exercise Tiger was kept hidden, the dead swiftly buried, and survivors sworn to secrecy, lest it should damage morale. Doctors, treating the wounded, were told to ask no questions. The full extent of the disaster was not fully known until the 1970s. Ten of those declared missing, presumably dead, were of high enough rank to be carrying highly secret instructions and plans. The commanders feared that some of these men might have been picked up by the Germans and taken prisoner. Had such a scenario manifested, the whole D-Day operation would have been in serious jeopardy. Much to all-round relief, divers accounted for all ten corpses.
(Pictured: A Sherman tank raised from the sea bed in 1984 which today acts as a memorial to those who lost their lives during Exercise Tiger).
On D-Day itself, 6 June 1944, 23,250 US troops landed in France via Utah beach for the cost of 210 men killed or wounded, considerably less than the casualties sustained during Exercise Tiger exercise on Slapton Sands.
Rupert Colley’s enthralling novel, set in Nazi-occupied France, The White Venus, is now available.
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