One of the greatest wartime tragedies occurred off the shores of Devon in 1944. Nine hundred and forty-six American servicemen lost their lives, as they prepared for the historic D-Day landings. The disaster was of such magnitude that the details weren’t made public until after the war, amid fears it would seriously damage morale.
D-Day was the biggest military naval, land and air operation ever attempted, marking the start of the Allied campaign to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. It involved the simultaneous landing of troops from the UK, the United States, Canada and France on the coast of northern France on 6th June 1944.
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Tens of thousands of troops landed on Normandy beaches to attack the Nazi forces in an assault that was meticulously planned for more than a year. In the early hours of the morning, airborne Allied troops dropped behind enemy lines, while thousands of ships gathered off the coast of Normandy for the main attack.
German military leaders had been expecting an invasion, but mistakenly believed the initial attack was merely creating a diversion. The element of surprise helped the British troops establish a foothold on two beaches – codenamed Sword and Gold. Canadian military forces landed on another beach codenamed Juno and US troops landed on the most westerly beach, Utah. Up to 7,000 ships and boats were involved, transporting 156,000 men and 10,000 vehicles.
The invasion continued throughout the day and by midnight, the Allies had secured the beaches, pushing further inland from Juno, Gold, Sword and Utah. Sadly, up to 4,400 Allied troops died, with a further 9,000 wounded or missing in action. The German forces suffered up to 9,000 casualties.
Six weeks earlier, on the picturesque and tranquil coast of Devon, a practice run had taken place for the D-Day landings. Known as Exercise Tiger, it was a mission planned with the same precision as the landing itself, but no-one could have foreseen the tragic events that would unfold just off Slapton Sands.
Around 3,000 local residents had been evacuated from their coastal homes to enable the American armed forces to train for the D-Day landings. Slapton Sands was chosen because it resembled parts of the Normandy coast, so a simulated mass landing could be organised.
Exercise Tiger began on the morning of 22nd April 1944, when the usually peaceful River Dart filled with ships and landing crafts. New slipways and ramps had been built on the water’s edge from Dartmouth to Dittisham. Steel Nissen huts were erected in Coronation Park in Dartmouth, from which military leaders planned their strategies.
Exercise Tiger was designed to be as realistic as possible, so the troops piled on to the landing craft, while tanks and other military equipment were deployed along the Devon coast. However, the Allied forces were totally unaware the German military had learned about the mass gathering through a patrol of boats from France.
Nine German E-boats slipped into the water at Lyme Bay overnight. As Exercise Tiger began, two American landing ships were sunk and a third was badly damaged when the German E-boats attacked. The US troops were carrying heavy packs and were unused to the life vests, some not knowing how to use them properly.
The surprise German attack resulted in many men drowning, or dying of hypothermia before they could be rescued – more than 700 US troops lost their lives. In the ensuing melee, tragically, a further 200 American soldiers died. Live ammunition was being used and so-called “friendly fire” by the supporting navy ships accidentally killed more servicemen during the firing exercise.
Exercise Tiger was kept top secret at the time. Full details and harrowing eye-witness accounts weren’t released until after the war. The tragic events somehow slipped under the radar and it was 40 years before they became common knowledge. Even some of the troops taking part in the exercise weren’t 100% certain what had happened.
Corporal Al Rose, of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade, was to land with his platoon later that morning on Slapton Sands beach. In an interview many years later, when he was 81, Cpl Rose spoke of being ready to land, when the troops heard a loud and strange noise coming from under the landing craft. “It sounded like we were scraping sand,” he said.
General quarters was sounded and they had to remain on alert until officially told to stand down. They rushed to the deck of the landing ship and saw the gunfire. The retired machinist, from New York, said, “We had no idea what was going on.”
The cluster of German E-boats, sailing from Cherbourg in France, had slipped unnoticed among the crafts in the three-mile-long Convoy T-4. They remained undetected, suddenly wreaking havoc. After the training exercise concluded, many of the soldiers and sailors taking part were deeply shocked but were briefed never to speak of it.
“We never did, not even at our reunions,” Cpl Rose admitted. He waited 40 years to find out the noise he had heard beneath the ship was a torpedo scraping the bottom. The realisation hit him that they could have been blown up at any second.
It was the US Navy top brass who ordered the complete news blackout. Any soldier or sailor who revealed the truth and spoke publicly about what had happened would face a court-martial.
Lieutenant Douglas Harlander of the US Navy spoke of how his ship was in the middle of the convoy when the German attack happened. He realised the ship was going down, so turned his attention to trying to save the crew, handing out life jackets and helping men over the side. He was the last man over the port side when the ship was sinking fast and starting to turn over.
“I dived off and got away as fast as I could to avoid being dragged under,” he said. In the ensuing weeks, he was told the ordeal was not being officially acknowledged by the navy in America or by the British government.
“The report was classified to prevent damaging the morale of the D-Day soldiers,” he added. Had the disaster come to light, it could have affected whether the D-Day landings even took place. He found it sad that surviving family members were told only that their loved ones were missing or killed in action. It would be many years before they knew the truth.
On Sunday 4th June 1944, Dartmouth residents were told to stay indoors as tanks rolled through the town and troops gathered on the harbour, where ships and landing craft waited to take them to Normandy. Within 24 hours, 485 ships had left the harbour. At dawn on 6th June, the Allied invasion of France began.
It was reported that thanks to the training at Slapton, fewer soldiers lost their lives during the D-Day landings, so Exercise Tiger in Devon had served its purpose – although the tragic loss of life at the practice run was something many of the troops found hard to accept.
An account of the Exercise Tiger tragedy eventually appeared in the Stars and Stripes publication, and the official army report of the mock invasion was mentioned briefly in Gordon Harrison’s 1951 book, Cross Channel Attack. However, these reports weren’t widely read, and the disaster remained virtually unknown, until an American documentary was made in the late 1980s, exposing the disastrous events. Surviving family members of troops who had died during Exercise Tiger finally realised the truth.
There was some disquiet that the surviving troops had never been officially told what had occurred. Fred Missele, of Bartlett, Illinois, was a young sailor on LST 496 at the time and remained unaware of the true events until he was 79. He said, “I put it out of my mind for I don’t know how many years.”
How did this affect Devon?
Exercise Tiger impacted heavily on the people of Devon, not least because the 3,000 residents around Slapton Sands had to leave their homes while the training took place. They were evacuated and not allowed back until 1943. In addition, 30,000 acres of land were cleared to simulate the Normandy region.
Around 40 years on, Devon resident Ken Small was walking along the beach at Slapton Sands when a local fisherman chatted to him about a “mysterious object” three-quarters of a mile out at sea. Mr Small was determined to find out more, so set out with a friend and some divers in his boat to investigate.
To their amazement, they discovered a WW2 American Sherman tank, intact on the seabed 60ft below. The find helped him to unravel the mystery of what happened on that fateful day in April 1944. He eventually bought the tank from the US government for $50, recovering it to the surface in May 1984. It has become a memorial to the troops who lost their lives during Exercise Tiger – and to Mr Small, who died in 2004.
Today, the Exercise Tiger Trust has officially listed 635 casualties and has definite proof of their death and burial or memorial details. Sadly, the fate of the remaining US military remains unknown.
Assisted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Normandy Memorial Trust has researched in detail the D-Day landings and compiled a Roll of Honour in memory of those who lost their lives in the conflict.
The Devon SEO Company pays tribute to all those who sacrificed their lives in times of war to make the world a better place for future generations. On 11th November, we will be observing the 2-minute silence. We will remember them.