Painting by Ted Archer of the attack on US LSTs during Exercise Tiger, 27/28 April 1944
A fully loaded USS LST-507 was photographed in Brixham Harbor, England, late in the afternoon of April 27, 1944. Less than twelve hours later, she was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel by German E-boats off Slapton Sands, England.
The remains of USS LST-289 in port, after being struck by a German torpedo.
A Sherman tank stands as a memorial for Allied soldiers killed during Exercise Tiger at Slapton Sands, Devon. The tank was raised from the sea in 1984.
Most of us know the significance of June 6, 1944. We have been taught, have read about, and have seen movie and television depictions of how, on that date during World War II, Allied forces crossed the English Channel and stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, in the largest amphibious attack in history. What is little known, however, is the devastating sacrifice of a convoy of ships and men as they staged a rehearsal for the attack on Normandy’s Utah Beach, a sacrifice that resulted in a greater death toll than was later exacted during the actual invasion of Utah Beach.
Plans for the Normandy invasion had been launched in Morocco during the Casablanca Conference, where U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill met with their top military advisors from January 14 to 24, 1943. The plan was code-named Operation Overlord, and its architects were well aware that they were setting in motion one of the greatest military invasions ever launched, one that would include an Allied force of some three million men, including one and a half million Americans. Transportation for this enormous force was to be provided by a fleet of more than 1,200 warships that would protect 4,126 landing craft and 1,600 merchant ships and other vessels. Support was also to be provided by some 11,590 airplanes and 3,500 gliders.
It was, to say the least, to be a monumental undertaking, and there were many Allied officers who were less than confident that their troops were ready for it. As Harry C. Butcher, an aide to Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, wrote in his memoirs,
I am concerned over the absence of toughness and alertness of young American officers . . . they seem to regard the war as one grand maneuver in which they are having a happy time. Many seem as green as growing corn. How will they act in battle . . . ? A good many of the full colonels also give me a pain. They are fat, grey, and oldish. Most of them wear the Rainbow Ribbon of the last war and are still fighting it. . . . On the Navy’s side, our crews are also green, but they seem to know how to handle their boats, yet . . . I recall that in plain daylight, with a smooth sea with our [ship] standing still, she nearly had her stern carried away by a landing craft . . . fitted out as an anti-aircraft ship. We were missed only by inches—in clear daylight.
Butcher’s concerns about the readiness of the Allied forces were far from his alone, and it was decided that in the months preceding the actual assault a series of mock invasions fully simulating the real landings would be staged. Numerous invasion exercises were held in various places in southern England, with several of them being staged at Woolacomb.
During these rehearsals, landing craft would attempt to land “invading” troops on coastlines similar to Normandy while artillery and land forces would try to beat them back. The first of these mock invasions, to be held in three phases in January and February 1944, was code-named Exercise Duck. The second, Exercise Beaver, would take place in late March, and the largest—and most controversial—rehearsal would be launched in April. It was code-named Exercise Tiger.
The military had deemed simulated invasions necessary not only because of concern over the readiness of the troops and the magnitude of the actual assault but also because the real landings would be unlike anything that had ever been attempted. The landings would not only be larger and more complex, but they would also involve a whole new military tactic. Earlier World War II invasions had been carried out by first sending in infantry and combat engineers, who established a beachhead by clearing away mines and any other human or man-made obstacles to a successful assault. Once the beachhead was established, the armored equipment was sent in. At both Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, which were to be invaded by American forces, the procedure was to be markedly different. The initial assault wave would be made up of engineers and demolition teams. Then a relatively new military weapon—amphibious tanks known as LSTs (landing ship, tank)—would be floated in. LSTs would carry the troops, the battle tanks, and all the other armored equipment. First developed after the British disaster at Dunkirk demonstrated a vital need for that type of ship, LSTs were constantly improved during World War II. They had proved to be key to the successful invasions of Algeria and various Japanese-held Pacific islands.
The site for Exercise Tiger was carefully chosen, the criterion being a place that closely resembled Utah Beach. And the beach bordering the village of Slapton, Devon, on Lyme Bay, east of Plymouth, fit the bill perfectly. Like the Utah Beach area where the actual invasion would take place, the locale known as Slapton Sands featured a broad gravel beach that fronted a wide expanse of land, which in turn fronted a lake. Like the Utah Beach environs, the area around Slapton Sands was characterized by hedgerows and narrow lanes.
In November 1943, the villagers of Slapton along with those in neighboring Torcross, Strete, East Allington, Blackawton, Sherford, Stokenham, Blackpool Sands, and Chillington received astounding news. Under authority of the 1939 Compensation (Defence) Act, the British government ordered that 3,000 people, 750 families, 180 farms, and numerous village shops be totally evacuated within six weeks. All household goods, animals, farm machinery and other agricultural implements, and as many crops as could be quickly harvested were to be removed. In return, the British government promised to pay all costs connected with the evacuation, pledged that it would do everything it could to find and pay for accommodations for the evacuees, and would pay for any damages to the villagers’ property incurred during Exercise Tiger operations.
The residents of the area were shocked. After repeated explanations from government and military officials, most came to understand the need for rehearsals for the upcoming vital invasion. But why Slapton and the surrounding villages? Why such a rich agricultural area when the need for homegrown food was greater than ever? But there was no room for argument. The government made it clear that the residents had no choice. The stage was set for Exercise Tiger.
This notice was posted several weeks before the evacuation:
The public are reminded that requisition took effect from 16th November, from which date compensation is calculated. They will not, except for special reason, be disturbed in their possession until December 21st, but from that date the Admiralty may at any time, and without prior notice, enforce their right to immediate possession. It is therefore essential that EVERY PERSON SHOULD LEAVE THE AREA BY DECEMBER 20TH.
On December 21st the supply of electricity in the area will cease. The present measures for supplying food will not be continued, but will be replaced by arrangements of a purely emergency character. The police stations will be closing during the present week.
The giant series of rehearsals for Exercise Tiger commenced on April 22, 1944, with the first assault landings scheduled the morning of the twenty-seventh. According to English author Ken Small, who devoted more than twenty years to attempting to unlock the secrets of Exercise Tiger, and others, the initial rehearsal was characterized by the same type of tragic blunders that would mark the entire operation. According to Small, because of concerns over the battle readiness of the officers and troops and in order to simulate real battle conditions, Eisenhower had ordered that live ammunition be fired over the heads and in front of the “invading” troops. But vital errors were made in conveying the radio frequency numbers to be used in establishing communications between the ships that were shelling the beach with live ammunition and the troops that were being landed. The situation was made even more disastrous when the troops hit the Slapton Sands beach a full hour after their scheduled arrival. The result was that dozens of soldiers were killed when the shellings and the landings took place at the same time. And even more men lost their lives when, again because of a lack of communications caused by the radio frequency errors, some fired at one another in mock combat without realizing that their ammunition was live. For years the U.S. Department of Defense denied that these “friendly fire” incidents ever took place. And they were but a prelude to a much greater disaster that lay ahead.
The stage for that tragedy was set in the beginning of the last week of April 1944, when a convoy of eight huge LSTs carrying thousands of troops in the 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Amphibian Division made their way toward Slapton Sands. Also packed from stem to stern on each LST were tons of heavy equipment, including tanks, amphibious vehicles, trucks, and other military vehicles to be used in the actual invasion. They began plowing their way toward Lyme Bay and Slapton Sands. The eight ships (in order numbered 515, 496, 511, 58, 499, 289, 507, and 531) proceeded in a single line with each vessel some four or five hundred yards behind the ship in front of it. Among the orders that commanders aboard the LSTs had been given was “Attack by enemy aircraft, submarines and E-boats [fast-moving surface vessels carrying either two or four torpedoes, “E” standing for “enemy” in the parlance of British and American sailors] may be expected en route to and in the exercise area.” Even though the probability of such an assault seemed slim, several general alarm drills had been held on April 26 and 27. But although the troops and the sailors had been sent scrambling to their assigned positions, they had received absolutely no instructions about procedures for abandoning ship or what was expected of them in the event of an attack.
Protection for the convoy was the responsibility of the Royal Navy. Two British destroyers, three motor torpedo boats, and two motor gun boats were assigned to patrol the entrance to Lyme Bay, and several motor torpedo boats were sent to monitor the Cherbourg area, where German E-boats were based. Leading the convoy itself was HMS Azalea, a 205-foot Royal Navy corvette, armed with one four-inch cannon and several anti-aircraft guns. A second British vessel, the World War I destroyer HMS Scimitar, was assigned the task of flanking the flotilla of eight LSTs for added protection.
Shortly after midnight on the twenty-eighth, just as the convoy was entering Lyme Bay, HMS Onslow, one of the destroyers patrolling the area, spotted an E-boat racing across the bay. The German vessel was moving too rapidly to be pursued, but the Onslow reported the sighting to British headquarters at Plymouth. Minutes later, the Onslow’s radar detected three groups of E-boats some ten miles outside the Lyme Bay entrance. This news was also immediately conveyed to headquarters, which relayed the information via radio to the Azalea and the eight LSTs.
The Azalea got the message, but those aboard the LSTs heard nothing. Once again, errors had been made in conveying radio frequencies, and the radiomen aboard each of the LSTs were tuned to the wrong wavelength. For the same reason, the LSTs did not receive another bit of news: the Scimitar had experienced mechanical problems and had put into Plymouth for repairs. Only one destroyer, and a slow one at that, was now protecting the convoy.
By about 1:30 a.m. on the twenty-eighth, the convoy was well inside Lyme Bay. Aboard the LSTs, preparations were being made for the most efficient landing of troops and the hundreds of vehicles once the beach at Slapton Sands was reached. Suddenly, out of the darkness, nine E-boats appeared. On routine patrol out of Cherbourg, their commanders were startled to see a long line of Allied ships.
Called Schnellboots (literally, “fast boats”) by the Germans, the E-boats were a special kind of war vessel. Because of restrictions imposed by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that limited the size of military ships built by Germany, the E-boats were thirty-eight yards long and were powered by three Daimler-Benz engines totaling 6,150 horsepower. This made them extremely fast—ideal vessels for hit-and-run raids. In addition to torpedoes, most E-boats were equipped with two or three twenty-millimeter cannons. Some were armed with either a thirty-seven-millimeter or a forty-millimeter gun.
The E-boats that came upon the LST convoy had left Cherbourg at about 10 p.m. on the twenty-seventh and had been undetected by the British destroyers and smaller vessels responsible for monitoring the area. Later, one of the E-boat commanders, a German lieutenant named Günther Rabe, described what happened in Lyme Bay some three and a half hours later. “We crossed the convoy route without any sign of ships,” Rabe recalled, “and cruised easterly in the inner bay. Shortly before [2:30 a.m.] on the twenty-eighth we saw in the southeast, indistinct shadows of a long line of ships that we did not immediately identify as LSTs. . . . We thought at first they were tankers, or possibly destroyers.”
As the Germans came within firing range of the LSTs, each E-boat slowed down to ten knots and launched two torpedoes. Manny Reuben, a petty officer aboard USS LST-496, the second LST in line, was on the bridge of the vessel when, as he later recalled, someone shouted, “I can see a bow wave.” Then, as he remembered,
We all saw it. A speedy craft, low and slender, was indistinctly seen, about 1,000 yards off our port bow, slipping through the silky smooth water. We fired many rounds at it with our standard 40-mm battery but observed no results, although it was clearly outlined by our tracers. The captain zigzagged, trying to keep our stern directed toward flares and a searchlight that flashed off after a few seconds. Our lookout reported a torpedo passing forward of our bow. An excited soldier in a half-track on our deck fired its 50-mm machine gun to the port quarter at what he imagined was an E-boat. It was too dark to tell. His slugs struck LST-511 behind us, causing—I later learned—many severe wounds. We also had several holes slanting upwards, from the low-slung E-boats shooting high at us with their 20-mm and 40-mm cannon. One of these shells hit our galley and another creased my head, knocking me out.
The cannon fire from the E-boats was doing damage, but aboard his vessel Rabe was surprised that the two torpedoes he had launched had not struck home. For the first time he began to suspect that perhaps the Allied ships were shallow-draft LSTs and that the torpedoes had passed harmlessly underneath them. Aiming higher, he launched two more torpedoes at the last ship in the convoy. “[At 2:30 a.m.],” he later reported, “We saw that we had hit the target. Fire was spreading from bow to stern rapidly, and a dense cloud of smoke rose from the ship.”
The ship that Rabe had hit was USS LST-507, and the result was something that Eugene Eckstam, a young doctor aboard the vessel, would never forget.
General Quarters rudely aroused us. . . . I remember hearing gunfire and saying they had better watch where they were shooting or someone would get hurt. . . . I was stupidly trying to go topside to see what was going on and suddenly “BOOM!” There was a horrendous noise accompanied by the sound of crunching metal and dust everywhere. The lights went out and I was thrust violently in the air to land on the steel deck on my knees, which became very sore immediately thereafter. Now I knew how getting torpedoed felt. But I was lucky. The torpedo hit amidships starboard in the auxiliary engine room, knocking out all electric and water power. . . . I checked below decks aft to be sure no one required medical attention there. All men in accessible areas had gone topside.
The tank deck was a different matter. As I opened the hatch, I found myself looking into a raging inferno which pushed me back. It was impossible to enter. The screams and cries of those many American troops in there still haunt me. Navy regulations call for [closing and locking] the hatches to preserve the integrity of the ship, and that’s what I did. [It was] one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, and one that gave me nightmares for years—and still does . . . but knowing that there was absolutely no way anyone could help [those below in the tank deck], and knowing that smoke inhalation would end their miseries soon, I closed the hatches. . . .
We were forced to leave the ship. . . . Gas cans and ammunition exploding and the enormous fire blazing only a few yards away are sights forever etched in my memory.
LST-507’s nineteen-year-old motor mechanic’s mate, Angelo Crapanzano, had his own vivid memories. When he heard his ship’s guns firing, Crapanzano approached an officer to ask him what was happening. The officer replied, “I guess they’re trying to make it as real as possible.” The officer’s words were hardly out of his mouth when, as Crapanzano later recalled,
There was a deafening roar, and everything went black. I felt myself going up and down, hitting my head on something. I must have blacked out for a few seconds, but then I felt cold water around my legs. I scrambled up the ladder. The six guys in the auxiliary engine room, just forward of where I was, never knew what hit them. . . .
When I got topside, I couldn’t believe what I saw: The ship was split in half and burning, fire went from the bow all the way back to the wheelhouse. . . . And the water all around the ship was burning, because the fuel tanks ruptured. And the oil went into the water. . . . We had fifteen Army ducks [amphibious vehicles] and every Army duck had cans of gasoline on them, and all that was going into the water, so it was like an inferno.
Four ships ahead of LST-507 on USS LST-511, medical officer Clifford Graves looked on in horror as LST-507 erupted into flames. “Suddenly,” he later wrote, “there was [another] explosion. It had a dull sound, as though a great heavy mass had fallen onto a heavily carpeted floor. The LST behind us  burst into flames all at once. She seemed to have disintegrated with that one burst.”
Gazing in horror at USS LST-531, seaman Thomas Holcombe, aboard one of the other LSTs, saw “trucks, men, and jeeps flying through the air.”
Less than ten minutes after being torpedoed, LST-531 sank to the bottom.
In the explosions that had destroyed both LST-507 and LST-531, almost every lifeboat had been obliterated. Faced with only one choice, those aboard these ships who had survived the blasts were forced to jump into the waters of Lyme Bay. “Now we’ve got to go into the water,” Crapanzano remembered.
There were a lot of guys on the front end of the ship, and the tank deck was burning right under them. . . . A lot of guys didn’t want to jump into the water right away. I didn’t want to either. It got so hot on the deck that [our] shoes started smoking, because the tank deck was burning fiercely, and that’s all metal. It’s just like a gas jet stove, and all the heat’s going up to the top deck. . . .
I run to the railing and I look down and I see all those guys in the water already. Now I say, “what am I gonna do? I’m gonna jump and I’m gonna hit somebody.” Then I’m saying—this is all in a split second—“when I jump in the water how deep down do I go before I come up? Or do I come up right away?”
[What I know] because in the engine room you had to take readings of a bunch of gauges . . . . was that the reading on the salt water coming in was 43 degrees. What I didn’t know was what 43 degrees felt like. So when I hit the water, it took my breath away, that’s how cold it was.
Hundreds of the soldiers and sailors from LST-507 and LST-531 died from hypothermia in the frigid water. And there was another terrible problem. Not only had there been no abandon-ship drills conducted on the LSTs as they made their way to Lyme Bay, there had been absolutely no instructions given to the soldiers on the proper way to put on their inflatable life belts. Already loaded down with backpacks and rifles, the soldiers found it easier to put their life belts around their waists instead of under their armpits as they should have done. The horrible result was that their high center of gravity pitched scores of men face down into the frigid water, where they drowned. “The worst memory I have,” crew member Dale Rodman of LST-507 later exclaimed, “[was] setting off in the lifeboat away from the sinking ship and watching bodies float by.” LST-507 and LST-531 were not the only unfortunate vessels in the bay. As torpedo wakes surged past both sides of USS LST-289, its captain, Lieutenant Harry Mettler, began zigzagging his vessel furiously. Just when it looked like the evasive action would be successful, another torpedo was sighted heading for LST-289’s stern. Immediately Mettler ordered full right rudder, but it was too late. As petty officer Martin MacMahon, stationed on LST-289’s deck, later reported, the torpedo struck his ship “like an earthquake.” When MacMahon looked behind him he saw that the entire rear section of the ship was “smashed and curled over the navigation bridge.” Everyone on the bridge had been blown off onto the deck, many of them terribly injured. Miraculously, Mettler was not badly hurt. Observing that the forward end of his ship was free of damage, he came up with what proved to be a brilliant plan. Immediately he ordered that the two small landing craft aboard the LST be lowered and that towlines be attached to them. Although it took hours, LST-289 was eventually towed to shore.
As Graves later wrote, LST-511 was even more fortunate.
The convoy was now broken up. . . . It was every ship for itself. We headed for the nearest land which was 20 miles away; . . . I found out later that the captain of our ship had no chart, and no idea of the minefields that had been laid down by the British. Even if he had been able to call for help, it could never have got to us in time. The corvette that was supposed to be our protection, we never saw.
We sat and waited for the torpedo we knew would come. Our work was done. There was nothing to do but wait. But the torpedo never came. The only way we would figure it was that they had run out of torpedoes. Nothing else was there to stop them. At about six o’clock in the morning, in the grey mist, we were able to make out land. An hour later we were at anchor in the little harbor of Weymouth. Columbus himself wouldn’t have been happier at the sight of land than we were that morning.
Graves had been right about the corvette assigned to protect the convoy. Throughout the entire disaster, from the time the surface firing began, through the torpedo strikes and the sinkings, the LSTs received no help from the Azalea. Remarkably, the corvette’s captain later reported that he saw no E-boats and received no calls for help from the LSTs (that, at least, was understandable given the tragic wavelength errors). And Graves was also correct in assuming that his ship and shipmates had been spared because the E-boats had run out of torpedoes—that, and the fact that the whole operational policy of the German raiders was to hit and run as quickly as possible.
As they sped back to Cherbourg, the commanders of several of the E-boats were still uncertain as to what type of Allied ships they had torpedoed. But they could not help but be aware that they had made a major strike. What they could not know was that theirs was to be the most successful E-boat raid of the entire war. The carnage they left behind was horrific. Hundreds of soldiers and sailors had been killed in the explosions. Hundreds of others had drowned. Scores of frightened men remained in the sea, waiting to be saved.
Although the Azalea was still nowhere to be seen, two sister ships of the Onslow did arrive to help in a rescue effort. “We arrived in the area at daybreak, and the sight was appalling,” a warranty officer aboard one of the British vessels later wrote. “There were hundreds of bodies . . . in the sea. Many had their limbs and even their heads blown off, but some were still alive. We took aboard all those we could find living and applied first aid and resuscitation. . . . Small American landing craft with their ramps down were literally scooping up bodies, driving them ashore, and dumping them on the beaches. . . . Of all those we took on board, there were only nine survivors.”
The rescue effort had actually begun even before the two British ships arrived. LST-507’s Dale Rodman had managed to climb aboard the one lifeboat that had survived the destruction of his ship.
We pulled away from
sinking LST and began to pick up people from the water. I was startled to see scores of dead soldiers floating in the water with their packs and lifebelts on. The backpack and the lifebelt around their waists made them top heavy and they were lying on their backs with their heads underwater. They had been knocked unconscious by the impact of hitting the water when they jumped overboard with their belts inflated, and they had drowned before they regained consciousness. Those of us on the lifeboat located what survivors we could in the darkness from the sound of their cries for help. Altogether there were between fifty and sixty survivors aboard when we were picked up by a British destroyer, HMS Onslow, at about 6:30 A.M. As I climbed to safety, I looked out over the water and saw hundreds of bodies still floating there.
Once it became clear that the E-boats had left the scene, the overall commander of the convoy had ordered all the surviving LSTs to head immediately for Slapton Sands. But Lieutenant John Doyle, captain of USS LST-515, could not bring himself to obey the order. How could he leave men from the other ships behind to die in the sea? Ignoring the consequences of disregarding a direct command, and with the overwhelming approval of those aboard LST-515, he began to search for survivors. Sadly, there were only a few who could be rescued, among them Ralph Bartholomay, a naval gunner on the stricken LST-507.
Describing what he experienced after he had been in the water for some time, Bartholomay later recalled,
I spotted some wreckage with a few people hanging on so I swam over. There were the first live persons I had seen in a while and it was encouraging. We were holding on to a small piece of wreckage that wasn’t too stable and one fellow was trying to sit up on it. Every time he tried, the object turned over and would spill us all into the water. It seemed almost like a game. No one became angry, we were all too tired. This is where I started to say the Lord’s Prayer over and over. I was beginning to get drowsy, a bad sign in cold water, and praying supplied some hope. I was starting to slip in and out of reality, with the unreal parts getting longer, when I heard the faint sound of a boat engine with someone calling out. Maybe some day I will hear a more welcome sound, but that night it sounded like the answer to a prayer. When the boat came close enough, I saw it was the LST-515 come back to pick us up. I mustered what strength I had left and swam over. It was the longest ten yards I ever swam.
Bartholomay and several others owed their lives to Doyle’s determination to follow his conscience and disobey a command. As for Doyle, he not only escaped reprimand, but was eventually officially commended for his actions.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, 749 servicemen were killed during Exercise Tiger. Eventually, other reports placed the death toll considerably higher. Whatever the exact figure, this largest training disaster of the war was only the beginning of the Exercise Tiger story. For decades, the story of what had taken place at Lyme Bay was kept totally secret. The public was never told what had occurred. When relatives of those who had been killed tried to find out what happened to their loved ones, they were met with a wall of silence. Eisenhower, the man in charge of every aspect of the training exercise, never said a word about it in his best-selling memoirs.
The veil of secrecy began as early as mid-morning on April 28, 1944, when most of the surviving ships of the LST flotilla reached shore. “When we got closer to land,” Corporal Eugene Carney of the 4th Infantry Division recalled, “we saw a long, sloping road leading down to the water. Ambulances were lined up bumper to bumper—a pitiful sight. We were unloaded from the ship and put into trucks before the dead and wounded were removed. We were told to keep our mouths shut and were taken to a camp where we were quarantined.”
The secrecy continued when the wounded survivors of Exercise Tiger were taken to area hospitals. Captain Ralph Greene of the U.S. Army Medical Corps served in the laboratory of the 228th Station Hospital at Sherborne, Dorset. On the morning of April 28, he was going about his regular duties when an announcement was made that all personnel in the hospital were to assemble in the facility’s recreation room, where they would be addressed by the hospital’s commander, Colonel James Kendall.
What a tense Kendall had to say came as a complete surprise. He announced,
We’re in the war at last. In less than an hour we’ll receive hundreds of emergency cases of shock due to immersion, compounded by explosion wounds. SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force] demands that we treat these soldiers as though we’re veterinarians: you will ask no questions and take no histories. There will be no discussion. Follow standard procedures. Anyone who talks about these casualties, regardless of their severity, will be subject to court-martial. No one will be allowed to leave our perimeter until further orders.
It was an astounding announcement, and if Greene or any of his fellow hospital staff members had any doubts about the seriousness of the situation, they were removed once they looked out one of the hospital’s windows. The entire compound had been surrounded by counterintelligence troops, each man carrying a bayoneted rifle.
About half an hour later, a host of ambulances and trucks began pulling up to the hospital. “They were filled,” remembered Greene, “with wet, shivering, blue-skinned, blanketed, and bandaged young Army and Navy men.” In the hours that followed, hundreds of men, many of them in great pain, were treated by the doctors, nurses, and orderlies without a single word being exchanged between them. Many of the patients responded quickly to the treatment. Many others required longer hospitalization. Others died.
A few days later, the bizarre episode ended as abruptly and as mysteriously as it had begun when all the remaining patients were suddenly removed from the hospital. Neither Greene nor any of his fellow personnel had any idea of where they had come from or where they were taken. The code of silence remained unbroken.
Unbeknownst to Greene, the same scenario had been played out in other hospitals and casualty stations throughout the southwestern corner of England. Wounded soldiers had suddenly arrived, hospital personnel were forbidden to talk with them, armed troops surrounded the hospital, and within days, whatever patients remained in the hospital were abruptly taken away.
So powerfully had the military authorities emblazoned the need for secrecy on the survivors of Exercise Tiger that for decades they did not discuss it publicly. In an interview he gave more than thirty years after the events at Lyme Bay, Crapanzano stated that in all the years following the disaster he never told anyone about it, not even his psychiatrist.
In 1974, many of the secrets of World War II became available through the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. By this time, the Exercise Tiger episode had been so long and so thoroughly buried that, despite the FOIA, it remained largely unreported. Greene, however, had never forgotten what he termed “that curious day” at the 228th Station Hospital. And in the early 1980s, while gathering material for a book he intended to write on the effects of malaria and hepatitis in World War II, he unexpectedly got the opportunity to try to satisfy a mystery that had perplexed him for more than forty years.
Stumbling upon previously unrevealed accounts of Exercise Tiger, he decided to put his book on hold while he attempted to contact survivors of the episode named in the documents he had encountered. What he discovered was that those who responded to him, including Eugene Carney, were enormously relieved to at last be able to relate their stories.
These initial accounts, when revealed, elicited a response from the British and American media that perhaps should have been expected. Typical of the statements included in newspaper reports and in a three-part report aired by a Washington, D.C., television station were such proclamations as: “It was a disaster which lay hidden from the world for forty years . . . an official American Army cover-up.” “That a massive cover-up took place is beyond doubt. And that General Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized it is equally clear.” “Generals Omar N. Bradley and Eisenhower watched the ‘murderous chaos’ and were horrified and determined that details of their own mistakes would be buried with the men.” “Relatives of the dead men have been misinformed—and even lied to—by their government.” “It was a story the government kept quiet . . . hushed up for decades . . . a dirty little secret of World War II.”
Strong words—but was it really a cover-up? Or were there legitimate reasons why Exercise Tiger was cloaked in secrecy? In the 1980s, when more information about the ill-fated exercise became available, it became clear that there might well have been an important reason for strict suppression of information immediately following the disaster. Records revealed that among those aboard the eight LSTs were ten officers who had so-called Bigot-level clearance for the invasion of Normandy. That meant that they knew such vital details as the date and location of the assault. If, following the E-boat attacks, these men had been captured and made to reveal what they knew, it would have jeopardized the invasion.
In the days following the Exercise Tiger disaster, divers were sent to Lyme Bay to check the bodies lying at the bottom of the bay, in the wreckage of the sunken LSTs, and in the tanks and other vehicles that rested there. The divers removed the dog tags from every body they found. Remarkably, when these tags were checked against the roster of those who had been aboard, it was discovered that every one of the “Bigoted” officers had been killed and had taken the secrets of D-Day with them.
There could have also been other reasons for the suppression of information immediately following the disaster. The military may well have been determined to keep secret any clues that might link the rehearsals at Slapton Sands to the planned invasion of Utah Beach. But a giant question remains. Why the cloak of secrecy for the better part of forty years after World War II had ended? And why, in 1954, when the United States erected an obelisk to thank the people of Slapton Sands and its neighboring villages for leaving their homes, was there absolutely no mention of the hundreds of lives that had been lost?
Another mystery that remains is more macabre. What happened to the bodies of the men who sacrificed their lives in the D-Day rehearsal? According to Slapton Sands resident Ken Small, who in the early 1970s conducted an extensive search for records of their interment, the only thing that is known is that some of the remains were buried near Cambridge, England, at a place called Madingley Hill. Other than that, according to Small, there are “virtually no records of the disposal of the bodies.”
We do know, through accounts by survivors such as Eugene Carney, that immediately following the tragedy, scores of bodies were buried in temporary graves. And there is a seemingly reliable eyewitness account from a woman who swore that she saw a mass unmarked grave in a meadow close to Slapton Sands in which soldiers in American battle dress were buried. According to the woman, who visited the site often, the bodies were never exhumed. The U.S. Department of Defense, however, disputes that part of the woman’s testimony. According to the Pentagon, approximately 450 bodies were never recovered and still lie on the bottom of Lyme Bay. The Department of Defense agreed that more than three hundred bodies were buried in that mass grave, but by 1956 all had been secretly transferred to various official cemeteries. Again, if true, why the need for secrecy?
What is unmistakable is that the operation known as Exercise Tiger was a major disaster from the very beginning. Even when the exercise was well over, the tragedy continued, as evidenced by the fate of Exercise Tiger’s last casualty—Rear Admiral Don P. Moon. Moon, the officer in charge of the naval part of the invasion rehearsal, was severely reprimanded by his superior in the presence of his own officers and reduced to a lesser command. He never recovered. Months later he took his own life, the only high-ranking American officer to commit suicide during World War II.
The story of Exercise Tiger, deliberately hidden for so long and mostly forgotten today, is one that needs to be remembered. Out of the many tragic blunders that were committed came changes vital to D-Day’s success. Radio frequencies were standardized to prevent the type of tragic errors in communication that had plagued the ill-fated rehearsals.
The conveyance of detailed instructions for the proper use of life belts was made mandatory on every type of naval vessel. New, more effective procedures for the rescue of survivors in the sea were created. All proved invaluable in the Normandy invasion. Most important, what must be recaptured from the lost pages of history is the story of the sacrifices made by so many who gave their lives to give their country and its allies their best chance of victory.
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English, Susan, and Aaron Elson. A Mile in Their Shoes: Conversations with Veterans of World War II. Maywood, NJ: Chi Chi Press, 1998.
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Lewis, Nigel. Exercise Tiger: The Dramatic Story of a Hidden Tragedy of World War II. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990.
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Naval Historical Center. Oral Histories—Exercise Tiger, 28 April 1944, Recollections by Lt. Eugene E. Eckstam, MC, USNR (Ret.), adapted from “The Tragedy of Exercise Tiger,” Navy Medicine 85, no. 3 (May–June 1994): 5–7.
Small, Ken. The Forgotten Dead. London: Bloomsbury, 1988.
Stokes, Paul. “Veterans Honour 749 Who Died in D-Day Rehearsal.” Daily Telegraph (London), April 29, 1994.