Article by George Fowler and Vivian Bird, published in The Barnes Review. Issue: May/June 1998. [ curator ]
D-Day Training Disasters
– The Crusade in Europe Cover-Up
A number of magazines and TV production companies earn considerable revenue by churning out articles and documentaries about World War II in Europe. But these largely constitute rehashes that glorify Allied leaders. Now, TBR presents shocking truths that the establishment and court historians would prefer to hide in perpetuity. Among other things, what they don’t want us to know about the “Crusade in Europe” is that the first “Longest Day” of heavy American casualties occurred before June 6, 1944, and not in France, but on the English side of the channel. When sensational revelations of these facts were first published in British newspapers in July 1997, the Pentagon and U.S. Army archivists appeared dumb found ed. This long-buried cover-up involved more than military and home-front morale. Disclosures in 1944 might well have doomed both FDR’s fourth-term bid and the careful presidential grooming of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The invasion of Europe involved the greatest concentration of land, sea and air military might in the history of warfare. The first-wave landings on June 6, 1944 involved 57,500 American ground troops and 75,215 British and Canadian ground troops, plus 15,500 American and 7,900 British and Canadian paratroopers, dropped close inland (within five to 10 miles of the beaches) by parachute and assault glider.
Amphibious operations are among the most complex and potentially lethal aspects of warfare, and require an exceptional degree of preparation. During pre-invasion exercises, sloppy command coordination and gross negligence led to the inevitable: the deaths of—at the very least—half as many GIs in training as were killed at Normandy on June 6. Yet America’s media continues to turn a blind eye to this scandal, even in light of recent startling revelations.
The men of the Allied divisions training to invade the French coast tended to be younger and greener than those engaged elsewhere. The British had kept a number of divisions at home following the May 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, and most of their personnel had not fought in France against the Panzer-spearheaded blitzkrieg. The Canadians sent over their 3rd Division, its members not embittered by personal battle experience but by the callous misuse of their sister division, the Canadian 2nd, which had been swiftly decimated during the sacrificial 1942 Dieppe raid.
Most of the Americans who stepped off troopships onto British soil in early 1944 were equally inexperienced in combat, save for the “Big Red One” 1st Division, which had been through heavy fighting in North Africa and in Sicily. On D-Day, officers and men of this division would avert disaster on Omaha Beach, seasoned combat veterans saving the day despite a poorly run operation.
The initial division to arrive in England in preparation for the invasion was the “Blue and Gray” division—the 29th Infantry Division, composed of Virginia and Maryland national guard units. It included “the Stone wallers”—the 116th Infantry Regiment, composed of personnel from towns in central Virginia and proudly descended from Gen. Thomas Jackson’s immortal Stone wall Brigade. The officers and men of the 116th were among the first to practice amphibious landings, during “Exercise Duck” at the fateful seaside training center at Slapton Sands, Devon.
Devon’s shoreline includes the ports of Plymouth, Dartmouth, and Salcombe. Nothing in its history could have prepared Devon and much of southern England for the hordes of men and machines—there were 16 million tons of supplies and equipment—that descended upon it in preparation for “the big show.”
England had experienced invasion and the threat of invasion on three notable occasions in its history. In 1066 the Norman Conquest took place, the French-speaking invaders prevailing in the October 14 Battle of Hastings. In August, 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte had some 180,000 Grand Army troops ready to embark at Boulogne, at Brest and in Holland. But political complications and British Adm. Horatio Nelson’s Cape Trafalgar victory on October 21, 1805 over the combined fleets of France and Spain ended Napoleon’s hopes.
In 1940, a reluctant Adolf Hitler ordered Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of England, following his inability to strike a peace deal with a Churchill government sure of ever-increasing and inevitably total American intervention. But the anglophile dictator had not wanted to fight England in the first place, and logistical problems plus the Luftwaffe’s inability to win control of the skies caused a cancellation of invasion plans.
Now the Germans, who would suffer the consequences of poor intelligence, “turned” spies, rail sabotage and faulty command decisions, waited along a defended coast that had been much reinforced due to the efforts of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
The Allied invasion was code-named Operation Overlord, while the early 1944 period of immense preparation was named after the pulsing music of Ravel—Operation Bolero. In fact Bolero had been born December 31, 1941, at an Anglo-American military summit conference in Washington. The meeting formalized President Franklin Roosevelt’s long-evident “Germany first” policy.
In mid-November 1943, Devon’s seaward population was informed that 30,000 acres behind the beaches were to be evacuated within six weeks, to make way for American troop exercises. The British government acted under the 1939 Defense Regulations Act. To these hardy parochial folk, the uprooting was a most unhappy event. In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the invasion, Leslie Thomas wrote in the Daily Mail: “These people had rarely moved far from their birthplaces [and their ancestors] had lived in that corner of England for centuries . . . Bristol was a foreign place, London beyond the Moon.”
However, certain essential personnel were allowed to remain in or enter the requisitioned area. Had it not been for them, the full story of the Devon coast disasters might have remained forever buried. The choice of south Devon’s Slapton Sands beaches was largely the doing of Alamein-famed Bernard Law Montgomery. In France, “Monty” would be co-subordinate with American Gen. Omar Bradley, as Allied ground commander, under the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Eisen hower’s all-British land, sea and air commanders. In 1938, Montgomery had initiated landing-from-the-sea exercises at Slapton Sands. While Eisenhower went about his administrative duties, Mont gomery showed the top American field soldiers old military maps detailing the wide bay, the long beach and, close inland, a series of joined lakes, called the Slapton Leys. He then compared them to Normandy’s “Utah” beach, the most westerly of the five code-named invasion points. The two were amazingly similar.
Evidently the Royal Army had suffered its own training disaster, in 1940, and one that also resulted in an official cover-up. The Mail on Sunday of March 15, 1992 reported “dozens of soldiers were killed in a wartime blunder hushed up for more than 50 years, it was claimed yesterday.” The Mail’s defense correspondent, Chester Stern, wrote that “official documents covering the events at ‘Shingle Street’ on the Suffolk coast in 1940 have been declared confidential until the year 2014.” But evidently knowledge of what happened is deeply imbedded in the local psyche. Suffolk historian Norman Scarfe and others told the Mail that the army was carrying out a mock assault on a remote radar installation at Bawdsey during nighttime training exercises. As is generally known, in 1940 the British relied most heavily on their radar towers in plotting the course of attacking Luftwaffe bomber formations.
Offshore, the Bawdsey radar was protected by a string of primitive but effective underwater mines, gasoline-filled drums that could be brought to the surface and ignited by tracer bullets, turning the surrounding sea into walls of flame. Due to an administrative oversight, sentries guarding the radar site were not informed of a commando-style night landing exercise that would be taking place. When sentries spotted an incoming flotilla of dinghies, they assumed it was a German invasion and detonated the drums. Local art dealer John Rux-Burton said that with daylight his grandfather, an intelligence officer, “found the beach covered with dozens of charred bodies. At first, they were thought to be Germans dressed as British soldiers.”
Shingle Street resident Ron Harris, a Coast Guardsman at the time, said he was ordered to watch out for more bodies. The Mail story stated that the government imposed “a 75-year ban on release of the Shingle Street documents instead of the usual 30-year blackout.”
The blackout and cover-up regarding much more costly American disasters involved not only operations foul-ups but a “sucker punch” slaughter by German E-boats (similar to the U.S. Navy’s PT or Patrol-Torpedo boats) in the early morning of April 28, 1944. This was a rehearsal for outfits of VII Corps, scheduled to land at Utah Beach. It involved 25,000 personnel staging a mock invasion of Devon. The convoy’s route simulated the length of time it would take to journey to Utah Beach on D-Day.
It seems the Germans got wind of it due to poor radio security. Some of the fleeting references to Operation Tiger refer to how the E-boats slipped through a “British destroyer screen” to attack American LSTs [“Landing Ships, Tank”—actually ponderous ships, each more than 320 feet long, designed for landing tanks] of Convoy T-14, engaged in a major exercise off Slapton Sands.
But in fact, only one corvette, HMS Azalea, was deployed to protect Convoy T-14 on its circuitous voyage across Lyme Bay almost to Portland Bill and back to the landing area at Slapton.
Caught in the German attack were the eight LSTs of the convoy’s Task Force 4. Incomplete planning and poor communication added to the vulnerability of the ponderous landing craft. On board LST 507 a medical officer, Lt. Eugene Eckstam, realized that the vessel “was brimful of gasoline and ammunition, but there seemed no danger on that placid evening. Soldiers were sitting around on the decks eating their rations out of tins.” At 0130 hours the sound of a huge explosion woke anyone then asleep. Many men thought it was part of the overall practice.
In the darkness and confusion, LSTs began firing on each other. The convoy was spread across miles of coastal sea, and nothing was seen of the lone British escort. Incredibly, the British and the Americans were operating on different radio wavelengths. Based on interviews with survivors, Horne wrote: “The E-boats ran up and down at will firing their guns and loosing their torpedoes. They sank LST 507 and set LST 531 on fire … A fresh spring dawn came up revealing the whole horror. The sea was full of bodies, young men who had come prepared to fight, but who had been killed without ever seeing the enemy, just rehearsing.”
Juliet Gardiner, who teaches history at England’s Middlesex University and who authored D-Day: Those Who Were There, wrote in the Guardian of May 20, 1994: “At the end of April . . . a rehearsal for the U.S. forces destined for the Normandy beaches and watched in its early stages by the military commanders including Eisenhower and Montgomery, was mounted off Slapton Sands in Devon.”
An LST Navy signalman recalled: “The sea was on fire . . . you couldn’t hear the men screaming out in the water, but you knew they were out there . . . it was just something out of hell . . . I don’t know how many died. The sea is their graveyard.”
This seaman stated that he was told, “under threat of court-martial, never to mention it to anybody, soldiers, sailors, family, to anybody, or there would be dire consequences.”
Thus innocent survivors lived under the threat of courts-martial. But there could be no such actions in regard to those responsible for this terrible pattern of negligence. Invasion security and morale, not to mention Dwight D. Eisenhower’s well-conjured reputation as a great warlord, were the paramount considerations.
But the sea was actually graveyard to only a few of the hundreds of lost GIs, as the tides washed great numbers of the dead ashore. The Guardian story noted that among the most anxious regarding these bodies was Eisenhower, as 10 missing officers had “Bigot” clearance—an oddly named classification above “Top Secret”—and had received considerable briefing about Overlord. Possibly one or more had been fished alive from the English Channel by the E-boats. Anxiety was not dispelled for two weeks, when the last of the 10 bodies of these officers washed ashore.
Interestingly, to this day many who are quite conversant regarding the war’s European theater operations have little or no knowledge of the E-boats-inflicted disaster. Val Hennessy wrote in the November 23, 1996 Daily Mail that it “was hushed up until 1969,” when a Devon man, Ken Small, took a strong interest that resulted in his obscure book The Forgotten Dead. The apparent uninterest of major book publishers and distributors had reduced Small to selling copies of his book to tourists from the tailgate of his station wagon. He was largely responsible for establishing a monument to the history-ignored Americans, a Sherman tank with a dedication plaque that overlooks the Slapton shore.
At his own expense, Small had the Sherman tank retrieved from shallow waters, restored and put its position of honor. Only subsequently and reluctantly, as Small told Hennessy, did the U.S. government deign to put up a plaque commemorating this disaster. Small stated: “My aim was to honor those men who had perished in one of the great fiascoes of World War II. I also wanted to publicize the indifference and concealment that dogged the tragedy.”
But, as few realize, Operation Tiger’s E-boat encounter was not totally concealed, not totally withheld as classified information. Of the very few media sources that have addressed the E-boats disaster, virtually all have conveyed the impression that it had been classified information until quite recently.
The following is contained in Cross Channel Attack, published in 1951 by the Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army. It was written by Gordon A. Harrison, who served as a historical officer with Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. On pages 269-270 of this 519-page work, Harrison wrote that training exercises were held throughout the first five months of 1944, culminating in “two dress rehearsals for the invasion.” The first, Operation Tiger, involved Force U VII Corps units. The assault exercises were held under “conditions simulating as closely as possible those expected in the actual operation.”
Then Harrison wrote: “Amid all the simulation there came one serious note of war. One of the convoys of exercise Tiger was attacked by two German E-boat flotillas, totaling nine boats (as subsequently found in the reports of Marine gruppen kommando West). Losses were heavier than those suffered by Force U during the actual invasion. Two LSTs were sunk and one damaged.” Harrison wrote that about 700 men were killed. The figures of the Allied naval commander-in-chief, expeditionary force, were 638 killed and 98 wounded. A U.S. Army engineers report listed 794 killed—while noting that its figures were incomplete.
Harrison continued: “The loss of three LSTs to the Overlord assault lift was particularly critical in view of the general shortage of landing craft. Gen. Eisen hower reported to the Combined Chiefs of Staff that the sinking reduced the reserve of LSTs to nothing. The Germans realized that they had sunk landing craft but guessed that the craft had been participating in an exercise [not of particular significance]. The incident passed without repercussions [for Eisenhower and his subordinates].”
Therefore, throughout more than four postwar decades, the basic facts of the E-boats attack did not remain universally unknown due to deepest government secrecy. Quite simply, whether by oversight or by choice, no historical or journalistic entity took the available basic facts and developed the story.
In any event, as tragic as were the E-boats attack and the Allied command delinquencies that virtually guaranteed its awesome casualty toll, the LST losses constituted only part (albeit a large part) of an immense and hard-to-believe scenario of wasted GI lives. On July 20, 1997, Christy Campbell and Nigel Lewis wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph of London concerning terrible “friendly fire” carnage in the Slapton area on April 27, just prior to the E-boats disaster.
Lewis is the author of Channel Firing: The Tragedy of Exercise Tiger. Interestingly, a major book store’s computer shows that Lewis’s book (published in 1990 by Harbour Books) is unavailable in the United States and must be ordered from England.
Campbell and Lewis wrote: “Hundreds of young American soldiers were killed by their own side in a training accident on a Devon beach . . . the Sunday Tele graph has learned. Eyewitness testimony to a disastrous ‘friendly fire’ massacre in April 1944 emerged for the first time last week. It hints at a 53-year cover-up of one of wartime Britain’s grimmest secrets —a story too morale-destroying to be told . . . The Pentagon said last night that the testimony was a ‘complete surprise’ and indicated that it would reopen U.S. official records.”
While the Pentagon was calling the Telegraph in London, it was burning up the wires phoning the newspaper that was giving the story the most extensive coverage, the Western Morning News, a regional daily serving Devon and Corn wall. Thus the mighty brass bureaucracy on the Potomac was anxiously seeking information about its own wartime casualties from a provincial English newspaper whose main concern last summer involved the efforts of Tony Blair’s Labor government to ban fox hunting.
The July 20 Sunday Telegraph quoted Jim Cory, now a Cornwall farmer and then with the Royal Engineers as part of a three-man British liaison team. Cory said: “It was about 10 in the morning, the weather was fine, the tide was well out. I was far away enough to be out of the line of fire but close enough to see everything. There were Americans up in the dunes behind, acting as the ‘German’ defenders. The landing craft ran in and dropped the ramps.
“The soldiers came out. I could see their faces, streaked with camouflage paint. The ‘defenders’ opened up rifle fire. I could see and hear it quite clearly. Men started to go down at the water’s edge—they were falling like ninepins. It was clear they weren’t play-acting—they weren’t moving. They were dead all right. I could count at least 150, maybe more.
“My officer, Lt. Blackburn, started shouting. It was clear something had gone wrong. He started telling off the American officers we were with. Shouldn’t they be firing over their heads? Shouldn’t they be using blank ammunition? We drove out of there as fast as we could . . . to our headquarters, a golfing hotel at Churston Ferrers, and I was told never to tell anyone what I had seen. I never saw [Lt. Blackburn] again.”
Campbell and Lewis spoke with Lt. Eugene Eckstam of LST 507, now Dr. Eugene Eckstam of Wisconsin. He told the London journalists: “As far as death on the beaches is concerned, there may have been a continuing cover-up from day one. With the new information, that cover-up may be coming to an end. It’s my fervent hope that everybody who reads this new information will come forward with everything they know. As part of the [E-boats attacked] convoy sailed for Brixham, we heard there’d been casualties at Slapton.”
Campbell and Lewis wrote that “rumors persisted that the beach exercise death toll was much higher, that there were secret mass graves inside the training area and night burials of men killed on land—and not miles out at sea.” Following the death on May 1, 1997, of Maurice Lund, who was stationed at Dartmouth Naval College in 1944, Nigel Lewis was informed that Lund had bequeathed him a tape recording. On it, Lund spoke of a morning in Dartmouth when his landlord burst in and exclaimed: “’Ere, ’ave you ’eard the goings-on… It’s Germans, dressed in American uniforms. There’s dozens, all dead along the shore—at Blackpool Sands.”
Lund rode his bicycle to the cove. The Sunday Telegraph continued: “What he claimed he saw was heaps of dead GIs. They were on a beach not referred to in subsequent official accounts. Nor could they have been borne there from a disaster miles at sea, because of the tides and distance . . . It now seems likely that these bodies on Blackpool beach included soldiers who had been gunned down in the friendly fire incident on the adjoining Slapton beach and swept along by the currents.”
The July 20, 1997 Telegraph story concluded with: “Last week, a Devon railway historian, Ken Williams, came forward with more evidence. He claimed there had been a three-day shutdown of the station at Kingsbridge for ‘funeral trains’ to run north to ports, for America. Williams told the Western Morning News (August 6, 1997), under the head “Evidence of Disaster Keeps on Grow ing,” that “records kept by a stationmaster at Kingsbridge in 1944 show three trains were loaded with bodies of U.S. casualties under military guard.
“Dale Rodman, who survived the [E-boats] attack, said from California: ‘From 53 years ago I knew I was being told lies. I knew the [cover-up stories told to Army personnel] couldn’t be true. I didn’t believe it at the time, and I still don’t.’”
Jim Cory told Western Morning News (August 6, 1997): “They were using live ammunition when they were supposed to have been using dummy ammunition. I do not know what happened to those bodies, but I think some of them would have been buried (in unmarked graves) up there.”
The July 20 Telegraph article also referred to “an account from a Royal Navy surveyor that as many as 400 men drowned when they were ‘landed’ laden with weapons on a sandbar.” This was in reference to a report of yet another training disaster, by Jason Groves in the Western Morning News of July 9, 1997. Nigel Lewis believes it occurred in January 1944, soon after the first Devon beach exercises commenced. A former Royal Navy officer (apparently since deceased) wrote in 1994 of a U.S. Army exercise off Blackpool Sands (part of Slapton Sands): “The landing craft grounded on an outer, uncharted bar and, in their enthusiasm to rush the beach, some 400 American soldiers were drowned in the deeper water beyond the bar. It was hushed up at the time.”
Mr. Lewis believes these drowning losses occurred during Exercise Duck, the first of the amphibious landing exercises. Groves noted that Lewis “believes the Americans would have had good reason to conceal any major landing accident.” He quoted Lewis as stating: “The Americans were very chary of getting involved in what they saw as gung-ho European heroics, The Charge of the Light Brigade stuff. The U.S. Congress was very nervous indeed, and it had been said in Congress that we were not going to lose any of our boys in training. Any big loss of life on the exercise would be very contentious.”
This of course was true, relative not only to the war effort but in regard to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 fourth-term reelection campaign.
Yet another “friendly fire” disaster of untold proportions emerged in the August 6, 1997, Western Morning News, which had been contacted by Tom Griffiths, 72, a retired Royal Navy commander. As a 19-year-old midshipman aboard the cruiser HMS Enterprise, Griffiths took part in Exercise Fox in March 1944. During it, British and American ships that would subsequently shell German defenses at Normandy were supporting American infantry practice landings with their heavy guns. Griffiths, evidently acting at long last as a result of the July disclosures, had kept a journal (as is required of all midshipmen) aboard the Enterprise.
In his journal he described, with an English gentleman’s understatement, “an unfortunate incident” during which live shells from one of the other warships began to land among the troops. Griffiths told Western Morning News: “It would not surprise me in the least if many were killed.” Of further significance is that his journal entry was signed by a senior officer and by the ship’s captain as being an accurate record. The fact that Griffiths was set on pursuing a naval career may have strengthened any admonitions that he not speak of the matter.
The day that this story appeared, August 6, the Western Morning News was contacted by one Jimmy Green. Green stated that he “was a sub-lieutenant in 551 Flotilla, in command of the first wave of landing craft … We landed, and we were supposed to make a dash for the beach as soon as the firing [the shelling of ‘German’ defensive positions] stopped.
“But in fact after the main fire stopped, the 16-inch guns from the USS Texas straddled the landing craft.”
Mr. Green said that, although he didn’t actually see any American infantrymen killed, “there were a lot of shells falling around that should not have been . . . The whole exercise was a shambles, really. We were given the wrong tidal information, and we started off in the wrong direction . . . In the end we saw more shells at Slapton than we did at Omaha.”
As this issue of TBR goes to press, the U.S. media blackout (whether due to design or ignorant uninterest) of these shocking “friendly fire” slaughters continues. TBR contacted the U.S. Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., which last summer told the English newspapers that it would look into their disclosures. Given the enormity of the cover-ups, and the fact that they persist after more than five decades, it hardly seems fair to single out by name the individuals who had to field TBR’s questions. At the history center we spoke with an amiable professor about the 1997 testimony of British and American veterans regarding casualties beyond those of Operation Tiger.
He said, “These were the only training losses we know of, in Tiger. There were no other significant losses in [D-Day] training exercises as addressed in the report.” From our discussion it was clear that there is no intention of pursuing the 1997 testimony and the attendant evidence and leads. The professor said he would gladly provide TBR with the related section of the report he referred to. He suggested we might obtain additional information from Department of the Army’s Casualty and Memor i al Affairs Oper a tions Center, in Arlington, Virginia.
A division of that office would have been involved in the 1987 placing of a memorial plaque with Ken Small’s reclaimed Sherman tank at Slapton.
As we related the bare substance of the English newspaper reports, the gentleman with whom we had been put in contact interrupted: “This is the Depart ment of the Army you’re speaking to.” Without answering that we were well aware that we were not seeking this information from the Florida Grapefruit Growers Association, we tried again. The gentleman interrupted for a second time, by stating: “I’ve never even heard of Operation Tiger.”
The report photocopies that the professor provided consisted of pertinent sections from the historical file of the Office of the Chief of Military History. It was compiled in 1946 in the office of a Lt. Clifford E. Jones for the Historical Division, United States Forces, European Theater. Upon examining it, we realized that in providing it in such a forthcoming manner, the professor may well have been cooperating in a way that such games involving government cover-up are often played. As in “I can’t tell you anything, but when you check what you have against this report, you’ll see how shoddy it is.”
The 1946 report stated: “The first major exercise, known as Duck I, was held in early January 1944, and from there on there were almost continual exercises. As written above, the aborted landing of GIs during Duck I may have resulted in some 400 drowned. But the report stated: “Landings were not entirely according to plan, and some craft came ashore in the wrong wave, but by and large the landings were smooth. The ley, or runnel (a rivulet or small brook) caused a great deal of trouble, since bridging equipment failed to arrive on time.”
The report contradicts its “smooth landings” observation in its conclusions on the simulated assault: “Mis placing of craft in waves resulted in confusion. Movement was slow, and Gen. [Leonard T.] Gerow doubted if any of the men landed on one of the beaches would have gotten off alive. Troops bunched together under simulated fire. Troops were overloaded with equipment…”
Aside from the apparent lack of candor as to how badly Duck actually went, its litany of foul-ups and those in the coming months of assault exercises beg the question—where did the buck stop? What did the great crusade leader, Gen. Eisenhower, know or want to know regarding the wholesale negligence and ineptness that led to heavy, unnecessary losses on both sides of the channel? Was the supreme commander so distracted by his long-trumpeted diplomatic triumphs in achieving U.S.-British cooperation that he had no time for the troops, save for a few instances such as his much-photographed walk-around among the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne just prior to their takeoffs for France?
As to security, this final Army report admitted that it “was very bad. Camouflage of assembly areas was very poor. Radio silence was consistently violated. A radio intelligence section, without previous knowledge of the situation, obtained a complete battle order of the participating units, the composition of the naval forces, the call signs of the command and alternate command ships . . . the time the corps headquarters landed.”
Such intolerable violations should have been addressed with utmost immediacy. Yet it seems quite obvious that, three and more months later, things were not remedied, thus allowing the Germans to know all they needed to know about Operation Tiger, and to pounce on the LSTs with terrible consequences to the Americans and with no losses to themselves save for the expenditure of torpedoes and ammunition.
As to Exercise Fox, of which statements were given last year about rockets as well as live shells from (at least) the battleship USS Texas falling among landing troops, the Army report said: “Fox was held at Slapton Sands 9-10 March 1944 . . . Assault landings were satisfactory, and there was naval gunfire support with live ammunition [ships not specified]. Cri tiques agreed, however, that the buildup and consolidation of the beachhead suffered from hasty planning and preparation . . . Available critiques fail to give complete details of assault results, but they indicate that the assault suffered from lack of coordination between the Navy and the Army, and between various headquarters. This was partially caused by lack of time.”
According to the like testimony of honorable men of two nations who never knew each other, there certainly was a very lethal “lack of coordination between the Navy and the Army.” Yet apparently their evidence, including the superior officers-signed log of then-Midshipman Griffiths, is being dismissed without any U.S. governmental inquiry.
As to the troop landing exercises that were part of Operation Tiger, and during which “German” defenders raked the “invaders” with live rifle and machine gun fire, there was no admission of or reference to the carnage described by Jim Cory (and Lt. Blackburn) of the Royal Engineers, that GIs were “falling like ninepins.” The report stated that they went ashore after “a pre-H Hour naval bombardment of the simulated enemy defenses . . . and made their way inland to join the elements of the 101st Abn Div [Airborne Division] which had arrived previously [but which, as stated in the report, did not have the benefit of a practice jump because C-45 planes had not been procured].”
The last sentence of this assault landing report would almost be humorous had not the witness-stated reality of it been so tragic: “As in previous exercises, the greatest deficiency noted was the failure of many combat troops to take adequate cover.”
Of Tiger’s LST losses at sea, the report states that “presumably the LSTs were escorted by a corvette, but this vessel does not seem to have been in the vicinity.” There is no reference to the total lack of U.S.-Royal Navy radio coordination, that in fact they were on different wavelengths. Listed are a number of problems that contributed to loss of life, including poor discipline, inadequate instruction of enlisted men in case of trouble, E-boat strafing of men in the water and foul-ups regarding alarm systems and life belts. Col. James M. Caffey, 1st Brigade commanding officer, was quoted as saying “officers and NCO’s cannot expect their men to remain cool when they themselves seem to go completely crazy.”
The report lists casualties on various LSTs and their respective units, concluding that “a complete list of casualties is not available, but Army records, possibly not complete, state that 759 were killed and more than 300 [were] either injured or suffering from severe exposure.”
The report stated that survivors of “the unfortunate sinking of the LSTs” were “warned to keep all details a secret, and no account was released until after the invasion.” In such situations, secrecy regarding the enemy and overall troop morale is totally understandable. But what of bringing to account those re sponsible for such disasters? Is that not the just and honorable military course?
The report on Tiger concluded that “critiques of the mounting and assault indicate that results otherwise were fairly satisfactory.”
In other words, in spite of the subsequently published but still little known LSTs disaster, in spite of eyewitness accounts of landing exercise GIs “falling like ninepins” only hours before, the results of the great exercise were “otherwise fairly satisfactory.”
Evidently, the ongoing “case closed” attitude of the U.S. military and civilian government establishments rests on this pathetically inadequate report, compiled in 1946 and bearing no name but that of a second or first lieutenant now known only to family and friends.
Additional late-breaking information appeared in the Western Morning News of April 15, 1998 under the headline “Horror on Training Beach.” That story stated:
Evidence is mounting that hundreds of soldiers were killed by their own side in a tragic training accident on a west-county beach in the run-up to D-Day. Officially, all deaths in Exercise Tiger have been attributed to enemy action against the tail end of a convoy code-named T-4 at sea early on the morning of April 28, 1944. Now the WMN has uncovered corroborating testimonies—many breaking a vow of silence for the first time—which suggest hundreds of men were killed in a “friendly fire” massacre 24 hours earlier, soon after the exercise began. During April 1944, former American Army Capt. Ralph Greene was stationed at Kings wear when suddenly on the 27th he was drafted to help with “several hundred” bodies being transported to Sherborne Hospital in Dorset. He remembers being briefed by a colonel that they were expecting soldiers’ bodies, some with injuries and hypothermia. “I went to ask what had happened. He said no questions were being taken,” said Mr. Greene, who now lives in Chicago, Illinois…
His recollection is similar to that of former U.S. Navy officer and Tiger survivor Dr. Eugene Eckstrom, . . . who said, from his home in Wisconsin:… “What happened at Slapton Sands and Blackpool Sands is a totally different incident [from] the T-4 incident. Mixing up all these casualties has got to quit.”
“What [Greene] says certainly tends to support a friendly fire theory,” said Richard Bass, the Exeter war historian who has been examining the D-Day landing exercises for 10 years.
Military cover-ups and scapegoating are limited to no nation or period of time. The vile realities of them protect the skins and the reputations of favored responsible parties, while their victims lie professionally crushed or dead, apparently not a few of them in unmarked mass graves on the English side of the channel.
On Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1995, the Associated Press ran a story from Arlington National Cemetery telling of the dedication of a plaque to those who “suffered and perished” in Exercise Tiger. Had it not been for veterans of the disaster getting wind of Nigel Lewis’s book, obtaining it from England and using it as leverage to force a commemorative ceremony, there seems little doubt the nation’s civilian and military authorities would have continued to ignore a scandal that, as the AP stated, “resulted in the highest number of U.S. fatalities in a single day of the war, topped only by the attack on Pearl Harbor.” Again, this relates only to the Tiger fatalities, the Center of Military History being “satisfied” that as many or more GIs did not perish in the course of other deadly “snafus.”
In running the AP story, the Los Angeles Times referred to it as “the World War II training disaster hushed up for decades.” Also noted was that “Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened to court-martial anyone who revealed the training debacle.” In a statement read at Arlington to 300 Tiger survivors and friends, President Bill Clinton, about as knowledgeable regarding military matters as the average man is about quantum mechanics, said: “Although Exercise Tiger ended in tragedy, the lessons learned contributed to the success of the D-Day landings and the ultimate triumph of democracy over tyranny in World War II.”
On April 21, 1997 the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press wrote of a ceremony in Lakehurst, held by members of the New Jersey Exercise Tiger Association. Navy Secretary John H. Dalton released a statement that said “[A]lthough the loss of life was tragic, the lessons learned produced [sic] by Operation Tiger had a truly positive and invaluable impact on both the success of D-Day [SIC].” Thus, more than a half-century later, and only due to insistent pressure by a dedicated few, we have grudging, partial admissions, couched in the terminology used by Adm. Louis Mountbattan to put a positive spin on the 1942 Dieppe disaster: Dieppe, it was said, “unlocked the secret” for the great invasion of Europe that was to come.
This entire grim scenario reveals so well the pattern of establishment disclosures regarding awful events that would prove more than embarrassing to Very Important People: Admit only the minimum regarding what can no longer be concealed (while placing the best possible phony face on it) and continue to cover up and deny as much of the remainder as possible.
Sources in addition to newspapers in main text:
Blumenson, Martin, The Battle of the Generals, William Morrow and Co., New York, 1993.
Harrison, Gordon A., Cross Channel Attack, U.S. Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1951.
Hastings, Max, Overlord, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1984.
MacDonald, Charles B., The Mighty Endeavor, Oxford University Press, New York, 1969.
Tsouras, Peter, Disaster at D-Day, Greenhill Books, London, 1994.
George Fowler served with US Army Intelligence (Army Security Agency) in Japan and Korea. Mr Vivian Bird, a Royal [sic] Army veteran, contributed significantly to this article. Mr Bird is from Devon, England.