Exercise Tiger; Normandy Prequel That Killed 749 U.S. Soldiers

When the practice round for WWII’s Normandy landing took place, we could have never anticipated we’d lose more soldiers than the actual attack. Friendly fire and passing German ships gave us a shake-up we couldn’t have planned.

D-day remains the largest sea landing in history. Coordinating that attack was more than sketching out a plan in a war room, then crossing our fingers. We needed a stage on which to move the actual pieces.

We found one on the shores of England, not far from where the actual attack would take place…

Slapton Sands

For most of the people who lived on the Slapton Sands beach in Devonshire, they’d never left their home.

The flyer distributed that day in 1943 by the allies was clear, though. There were to be no exceptions. Over 3,00 residents needed to pack up and evacuate; the allies needed their beach for military training.

The BBC interviewed John Hannaford, a teenager in Slapton Sands during the evacuation, who said,

“People weren’t very happy. A lot of them had never been away from their home.”

The people of Devon might have lived in a small town, but they knew the implications of the war. They knew this call to action was necessary, even if they didn’t like it.

Remarked Hannaford of the evac,

“You prepared yourself for the worst…Would it be here when you came back?”

The geography of Slapton Sands closely matched Utah Beach, a code name for one of the main beaches we intended to storm in occupied France. It was a gravel beach, then a coastal road, followed by a flooded plain, an obstacle created by the Germans.

Slapton Sands had a marsh, quite like Utah, just after the coastal road along the beach. It was perfect.

The Training

Allied forces began training in Slapton in December of the same year, practicing the beach landing first. By April they intended to run a full-scale model of the attack, sorting out any challenges before the real one.

Between the gravel beach and the water barrier, the landing was more than just surviving the shells and bullets. Once they landed, allies had to solve navigating the water obstacle or they’d never get off the shore.

These exercises were all top secret, of course, a build up to Operation Tiger, which was itself a top secret exercise. Only high-ranking officers knew the details of this attack.

Operation Tiger

Supreme Commander of the war, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, insisted they take every measure to create the smells, sounds, and dangers of war.

They would use live rounds fired over the heads of the troops. The soldiers knew this too.

Eisenhower wanted them used to every distraction that they would encounter on a real day so by the time they landed in Utah, flying bullets and the stench of war would be no big deal.

Since they couldn’t cross the English channel to simulate that tense build-up to the attack, they would circle Lyme Bay, just south of Slapton Sands.

First Blunder

On the 27th of April troops were to run the first simulation, bullets flying and all. The landing ships would float into Slapton Sands under fire, unload and cross the barrier.

The morning of the 27th, several landing ships were late. The officer in charge made the decision to delay the exercise for an hour, but several of the ships did not get the change. They proceeded as commanded, against all threats, even friendly fire.

We don’t know how many allied soldiers died that day, but the rumors were in the hundreds.

Operation Tiger was already suffering, but what about Normandy? There would be no room for these types of mistakes when we hit Utah Beach.

Second Incident

Traversing Lyme Bay, a convoy of eight landing ships (LSTs) led by the HMS Azalea, came under attack from a German E-boat in the area.

There were to be two escorts for the convoy, but the other ship had an accident and was being repaired. British naval operators attempted to call off the exercise, but they were on a different frequency than the Azalea.

They’d tried to radio the convoy about the e-boats, but their messages never reached the ships. The Germans had no idea why the allies were there, but they wouldn’t pass the opportunity. They pursued then torpedoed four of the LSTs.

Of the incident, Steve Sadlon, a 19-year-old Navy radioman aboard one of the LSTs said in the same BBC interview,

“I heard a scrape underneath the ship.” A torpedo had hit his vessel. “I thought to myself, man this is it. They’re making thing pretty real.”

Two of the landers sank in the bay. The other two suffered damages and casualties. Amongst them, 759 service people died, all Americans. If they didn’t die in the initial blast, they died from hypothermia in the water, waiting for rescue.

Heightened Secrecy

The survivors of the Operation were sworn to secrecy, which was a lot to expect from such a large operation, but we were counting on success. We needed this to go well.

The designs on secrecy were so tight, we had to stall the actual attack because of missing officers. We lost track of 10 officers in Lyme Bay. Those men had full details of the planned attacks, a compromise to our security if the Germans had captured them.

The plan to push forward had to wait until we could confirm their deaths. Because of the heightened level of secrecy, after the attack, long after the war, many families who lost loved ones never knew what happened.

For one mother it wasn’t until 1980 while watching a documentary on the incident when she did the math. The dates of Operation Tiger matched the date her boy died.

June 6th: For better or worse, we lost fewer (197) in the actual attack on Utah Beach than Operation Tiger.

For many, the soldiers lost on Slapton Sands and in the bay were as much a part of D-day as those who stormed Normandy. It’s the only respectful way to look at it.

Source: BBC, NPR,