Taken from local newspaper published Friday April 23 2004, compiled by Graham Collyer. [ Curator ]
Account of RAFVR Pilot, Mr Pete Nevill
“As the South Hams prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of Exercise Tiger, the rehearsal for D-Day that ended in such tragedy, we have heard from Pete Nevill, who was a nightfighter pilot at the time of the disaster in Start Bay.
Mr Nevill, from Portsmouth, sent us a tape recording of his memories, but the following is taken from an article he wrote 10 years ago.
‘In 1942 In interrupted an apprenticeship in Pompey dockyard to volunteer for flying duties with the RAFVR and after pilot training was posted to an airstrip in South Devon to fly Beaufighters at night.
April 27 1944 was my 20th birthday, one which I will never forget. While flying in the vicinity of Lyme Bay at about 0200 on April 28, I witnessed one of the most tragic and avoidable disasters of the Second World War.
My night patrol was from Bolt Head, east to the Isle of Wight, turn west to Land’s End, north to St David’s in South Wales, return to the Isle of Wight, and then back to Bolt Head. My instructions that night were not to proceed beyond Prawle Point or Start Point “as the Yanks are putting on a show in Lyme Bay”.
Towards the end of the second leg of the patrol we passed the airstrip to continue east to turn back at Start Point. As we were a few miles from the coast we could look into Lyme Bay and we could see tracer fire in many directions, and it was obvious that a ship was ablaze.
This was a naval exercise which had gone very seriously wrong. I reported to control and was told to “keep clear”. I insisted that help was needed but was ordered to “definitely not get involved – it’s only an exercise!”
I checked that my Aussie navigator was of the same opinion as me and, contrary to instruction, we circled an area clear of the bay. My navigator spotted movement on his radar which indicated a fast-moving vessel on the sea. We went down for a close look and realised that we were being fired upon.
I turned away, climbed, circled and dived to see three German E-boats heading away. I fired two rockets and hit the after one, setting it ablaze. Climbing away, I turned back in its direction, encountering further fire until it exploded. We lost the other two in the darkness and our fuel was not sufficient to follow and search.
I reported to control and returned to base to refuel. While this was done we made a verbal report of what we had seen and done, and took off again and headed for France.’
Later back at base, they caught up with some sleep. ‘At about 1000 we were awakened to report to the CO. He had received instructions to inform us that under no circumstances were we to tell anyone of the events of the early morning, and that there was a threat of a court-martial for disobeying instructions to keep clear of the exercise, and that we had crossed the enemy coast in a Beaufighter, equipped with new secret radar equipment.
We were not court martialled as many more people would have learned the secret of Exercise Tiger.’ ”