Exercise Tiger: The Slapton Sands Tragedy
Seventy-seven years ago this week, one of the worst and little-known tragedies of World War II occurred off and on the shores of Slapton Sands on the Devon coast in southern England. During the last week of April 1944, tens of thousands of American servicemen took part in Exercise Tiger, a “dry run,” if you will, for the upcoming invasion of Normandy, France in early June. Due in part to the lack of proper training and miscommunication, over seven hundred American Army and Navy personnel lost their lives during Exercise Tiger.
Slapton Sands was specifically chosen for these training exercises because of its resemblance to Utah Beach, one of the two sections of the Normandy coast where the Americans would go ashore on D-Day. On the morning of April 27th, the first practice assault was set to begin at 0730 hours. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, had insisted that live rounds be fired from ships over the heads of the troops waiting to go ashore so they’d be exposed to the sights and sounds of a real naval assault during the training. Because of confusion over the start time of the exercise that morning, over four hundred Americans were killed by friendly fire.
Early the next morning, the exercise ran into trouble again when nine German E-boats (fast attack craft) encountered and attacked a convoy of eight American LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank—see photo). The LSTs were carrying Army tanks and other vehicles and hundreds of combat engineers to the Slapton Sands beaches. As they sailed in a straight line through Lyme Bay, three of the eight LSTs were either damaged or destroyed by the E-boats, and a fourth was damaged by friendly fire during the chaos. A considerable number of the three hundred and fifty servicemen who died during that attack either drowned or died of hypothermia in the cold waters of the English Channel as they awaited rescue.
The survivors of Exercise Tiger were sworn to secrecy by their superiors. Because the Allied invasion of France was just weeks away, and because of fears of how the news of these American deaths would impact morale, most details about the exercise remained unknown to the world for years after the war.
While researching for today’s post, I learned that a major plotline of one episode of Foyle’s War (a British detective drama series—it aired on PBS between 2002 and 2015) was centered on the Operation Tiger (as they called it) tragedy. I was quite surprised to read that because we’ve watched the series twice (most recently about a year ago after we bought the entire set of DVDs) and I didn’t remember anything about it. So, we watched that episode (“All Clear” from Series 5) last night, and, like all episodes of Foyle’s War, it was exceptionally well done. And I definitely understood what that episode was all about this time. If you enjoy British television programs, especially those portraying characters and settings from the English home front during World War II, you really should check out this series. It ranks right up there with Band of Brothers, another WWII series I highly recommend.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.