D-Day Rehearsal - Exercise Tiger 1944

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On the 28th of April, 1944 a convoy of eight landing ship-tanks (LSTs) that carried hundreds of American troops left two English ports. Only the highest-ranking allied commanders knew that this mission was Exercise Tiger (1). This D-Day rehearsal was to take place on Slapton sands beach along the south coast of England it looked similar to the beach on the French coast of Normandy that had been given the code name Utah. A few weeks later the soldiers were to use this beach as part of history’s largest amphibious assault. Exercise Tiger was one of several rehearsals done in preparation for the operation to come (2).

More lives were lost in Exercise Tiger than the real invasion of Utah Beach on June 6th, 1944. Exercises like Exercise tiger were created to test the readiness of the plans and troops for the invasion of Normandy. Duck, Fox, Muskrat, Beaver, and Trousers came before Tiger and Fabius came after. Each exercise was more elaborate than the one before and the later ones used live ammunition to simulate real-life conditions. Exercise Tiger used around 300 ships, thirty of them being LSTs which loaded at Plymouth, Brixham, and Dartmouth and involved 30,000 men (3). These exercises were vital to train troops to the combat conditions that they would face as commanders ordered to use live naval and artillery fire this was made possible by the evacuation of civilians from the area around Slapton Sands. Individual soldiers had also been given live fire for their rifles and machine guns. Off the coast of Lyme Bay on the 28th of April, a flotilla of eight LSTs headed toward Slapton Sands transporting a follow-up force of engineers and quartermaster troops along with heavy engineering equipment, trucks, jeeps, and amphibious trucks (2). However, it ended in catastrophe when German E-boats (Torpedo boats) torpedoed three of the amphibious ships killing over 750 soldiers and sailors. This tragedy was not acknowledged at the time and remained a secret for over 40 years to maintain security for the upcoming invasion (3)

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The Exercise had many shortcomings from the beginning, starting with a British destroyer that was assigned to escort the convoy had to return to port for repairs, it was never replaced leaving the convoy vulnerable with only one warship to protect the LSTs. The LSTs were known for their sluggishness given the nickname ‘Large, slow, targets’ (1) Dr. Eugene Eckstam a young Navy medical officer said the German attack during Exercise Tiger was so deadly because of lack of coordination at the top of the command chain. British and American navies had different tactics they used during attacks. The British he says would ‘circle their ships to defend weaker transport vessels’ while Americans would ‘spread the fleet to give the Germans less of a target’ and the allies hadn’t agreed with which tactic to use. Another mistake was that a typographical error gave American ships the wrong radio frequency for getting help but the British fleet was on the right frequency and knew about the oncoming attack while the Americans didn’t (4) Eckstam mentioned ‘‘One British escort vessel accompanied us, another remained in Plymouth with a hole in its bow. Much later, a replacement was sent, but too late to affect the tragic outcome of Exercise Tiger. German E-boats piled the channel and Lyme bay several times a week and the night of 27-28 April was one of them’’ (3).

Survivor John Casner remembers and comments on the confusion many commanders faced during the attack ‘’crewmen on watch at the stern saw LST 507, at the rear of the convoy, go up in flames. General Quarters was sounded shortly afterwards…A a few minutes later, machine-gun fire was directed towards us from the starboard to the port side…At the time, our captain believed all of this was part of our dress rehearsal maneuvers and not an enemy attack, so he did not give the order to return fire’’ (5). Hundreds of troops lost their lives in the confusion surrounding the swift attack as some believed the invasion of Normandy had begun while others thought Exercise Tiger had commenced such as the LST-530s which had 490 men aboard, reports indicate that 467 died as a result of the sinking of the explosions. Radio operators aboard other LSTs received no replies to the queries they sent to the burning LST-507 because the LSTs were stretched out over many miles. Oblivious to the attack the rest of the convoy continued in line (2). Most LSTs carried vehicles loaded with fuel making the explosions deadlier causing more damage and loss of life ‘’We were completely loaded with trucks, vehicles, tanks, and all of them were loaded with fuel to the hilt. As a result, when the torpedoes went off, it was an immediate mass ball of fire all over the main deck and all over the tank deck’’. As the explosion damaged the ships many of them became inoperative making an attempt to warn others or ask for help difficult if not impossible ‘’All electric power failed, telephones were inoperative, and the engine stopped. Firefighting was attempted but futile, the apparatus used failed to function. It was apparent the fire could not be controlled and efforts were not successful due to the flames’’ (6)

Drowning was one of the major causes of death during the attack as soldiers had not received training in how to abandon a fast-sinking inferno many wore heavy steel helmets and were wearing their full packs when they jumped into the water. Along with that no instructions had been given on how to properly fasten the lifebelts (2). Ships company had been issued life jackets while the medics and army personnel were given inflatable belts ‘’we were told only to release the snaps and squeeze the handles to inflate… The soldiers that jumped or dove in with full packs did not do well. Most were found with their heads in the water and their feet in the air, top-heavy from not putting the belts around their chests before inflating them. Instructions in their correct use had never been given. Drowning and hypothermia were the two major causes of death’’ (3). Many soldiers died trapped below decks, hundreds of troops went down with the ships as there was no time for launching lifeboats. Survivor Angelo Crapanzano describes how he spent four and a half hours in the 42-degree water, he watched as men he knew who were with him on the raft sawm away and died in their sleep and joined the countless bodies of those who did not survive. Lou Putnoky said, ‘’ more than 200 men were killed on the beach at Slapton Sands by friendly fire caused by a mix-up created by the confusion of the attack on the ‘invading’ fleet as well as the; Defenders’ aiming directly at the ‘invaders’ and using live ammunition, instead of firing over their heads or using blank cartridges’’.(7) most soldiers recall being warned to keep the event to themselves by their superiors many believing it was to keep morale high for D-Day and so the Germans wouldn’t uncover plans ‘’After we arrived safely, we were told by our division officer that we were not to speak about what happened, or we would be subject to court-martial. They did not want the Germans to find out how much damage had been done or about the plans for D-Day’’ (5)

Due to the lack of preparation for exercise tiger many fatal mistakes were made, a mix up in radio frequencies, and the damaged destroyer not being replaced left the LST’s vulnerable. Many soldiers were unprepared for an attack as they had no knowledge of how to safely use their life jackets and many were not trained for the full 8 weeks. Commanders believed the attack was the beginning of the exercise meaning they did not fire back. Most losses of life happened from soldiers drowning and dying due to hypothermia because they were left without aid for many hours in the 42-degree water. Anyone who witnessed or was involved in exercise tiger was under court-martial threat if they spoke about it this included nurses and doctors who treated soldiers because there was a fear that the Germans would find out about the upcoming plans for D-Day.

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