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An excerpt from ‘Front Line Surgeons’

A History of the Third Auxiliary Surgical Group.

By Clifford L. Graves, M.D. (Served aboard LST 511)

It was on the morning of 27 April 1944 that we left Plymouth Harbor. The code name for the maneuver was TIGER. It was a Thursday morning. The sun was warm and bright and was reflected like myriads of dancing diamonds from the water of the Channel. It was a peaceful Channel. We were all set for a pleasure cruise.

We had embarked a couple of days before and had waited in the harbor for the maneuver to begin. The actual maneuver was to take place at Slapton Sands, a number of miles farther up the South Coast of England. It was practice invasion. Dress rehearsal for D.Day. According to the plan we were supposed to leave for the invasion coast on that morning, but not to land on the beach until the morning of the following day.

Our own convoy consisted of seven LST’s, all loaded to the gills with implements and personnel for invasion. Six hundred men, approximately, in addition to the crew. We, that is Company D of the 261st Medical Battalion and its attached two surgical teams, were on LST 511, the third from the end in the line of seven as we left Plymouth. As we steamed out, the routine General Quarters alarm was sounded. It means a call to battle stations. Everyone proceeds at once to the position or job he is to occupy in case on battle. It’s a rather frightening sound – loud enough to wake the dead. Everyone remains at his station until the signal is given that General Quarters is over. Our team was to take its station in the ward room. That is the small club and dining room for the officers. It was located in the mid portion of the ship – upper deck level. It all being practice, we just went there when the General Quarters alarm sounded and remained there until it was over.

It was a beautiful morning. The seven ships made an impressive sight outlined against the clear sky. One of the ships ensigns told me we were schedule to pass by Slapton Sands sometime during the middle of the afternoon, but that we would continue on by, moving slowly along the Channel, turn around during the night, and come on in to land on the beach at eight the next morning. I asked him if we were to have any protection now that we were moving farther out into the Channel. “There’s supposed to be a corvette somewhere,” he said.

It was around three o’clock in the afternoon when we passed Slapton Sands. We could make out some of the activity going on around the beach. The first boasts were supposed to have landed and discharged their personnel and material at eight o’clock that morning. We could hear some guns. Everything was proceeding according to plan. We continued on, moving farther out into the Channel. The coast jutted outward and we lost sight of the beach.

Maurice Schneider and I decided to turn in about midnight. The majors had their quarters on deck level along with the Naval Officers. The rest of us slept in bunks in a compartment in the forward part of the ship – the first level below deck. The enlisted men had to sleep anywhere they could make themselves reasonably comfortable.

It was exactly 2.00AM when General Quarters alarms went off. We, thinking it was but practice, were hesitant to get dressed. But that was all decided when one of the crew came running through, closing off the steel water-tight compartment doors. “This is it boys,” up on deck, intending to go on to the ward room. As we came out on deck, we saw a large orange moon hanging very low on the horizon. It looked as though it was just about to fall into the water. It was cool, and we were shivering a little; maybe it wasn’t entirely the cold. What attracted our attention almost immediately was a large fire burning out in the Channel about a mile behind us. It was obviously the last LST in our convoy – burning and going down. U-boats or E-boats? We didn’t know that minute.

There was only one LST behind us now. We could make out its outlines readily in the light of the moon. It was coming on about a hundred yards behind us. Suddenly there was a terrific explosion. It had a dull sound, as though a great heavy mass had fallen onto a heavily carpeted floor. The LST right behind us burst into a great mass of flame all at once. The torpedo must have struck her in the powder magazine because she seemed to have disintegrated with that one burst. Things began to happen on our own ship. It wasn’t more than a minute and all hell seemed to break loose all around us. Colored flashes of light. For a stunned second I didn’t realize what they were. But then I knew. Tracer bullets. The yellow and purple ones were coming out of the water from the German E-boats. The pink ones were going into the water from our own anti-aircraft guns.

There was a lot of shouting and confusion on deck. If I knew then what I have learned since, I would have fallen flat on my stomach and stayed there, but I didn’t. I ducked my head and ran, and after what seemed an age, finally reached the middle portion of the ship, found a doorway and dashed in. I decided I’d better get to the ward room. As I came down the narrow corridor toward the warm room, a soldier came running toward me holding his hands over his belly. “I’ve been hit,” he cried. He fell down at my feet. I looked at his clothing and they appeared to be undamaged. I thought at first that maybe he was hysterical. But I opened his shirt. There was an abdominal wound. The fragment had gone in. I had some soldiers carry him into the ward room. Now that I had something to do, I felt better. Casualties began to be brought in. We administered first aid and treated shock. There was nothing else that we could do at that time.

While we worked, the shooting on our boat stopped. It hadn’t lasted very long – maybe a few minutes. But the show wasn’t over. The E-boats sent a torpedo into the LST directly in front of us. Then some more shooting. The convoy was now broken up. It was every ship for itself. We headed for nearest land, which was twenty miles away. We couldn’t send for help because there was radio silence. To have used our radio would have meant giving away our position as well as that of the boats which still remained afloat. I found out later that the captain of our ship had no chart, 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 get to us in time. The corvette that was supposed to be our protection we never saw. We learned later it had been sunk.

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 could 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 gray mist we were able to make out land. Columbus himself couldn’t have been happier at the sight of land than we were that morning. An hour later, we were anchored in the little harbor of Weymouth. Three other LSTs showed up. Four of us left out of seven. (The two behind had been sunk, the one in front hit but remained afloat and later pulled in).

We unloaded our casualties – 19 on our LST. These included the captain, who had been hit in the leg while standing on the bridge, the executive officer, who lost his right eye, the radioman, who was hit in the arm and in the scrotum; he lost one testicle. Fortunately, no one on our ship was killed. Ralph Coffey went along with those evacuated to the nearest hospital – the British Naval Hospital at Weymouth. The rest of us remained on board.

Shortly before noon we got under way again. General Quarters alarm was sounded as we were leaving the harbor. I knew it was routine, yet it evoked similar emotions to those which I had felt the previous night. It was as though a conditioned reflex had suddenly taken possession of me. This time, as we came out of the harbor, we were joined by two British destroyers. It was like closing the barn door after the horse is gone. We were happy to have them.

Almost 1200 lives wee lost in that maneuver. We felt that it had been a rather expensive session. We landed at Slapton Sands at eight o’clock that evening, just twelves hours behind schedule. The earth felt good under our feet.

Our clearing station was set-up exactly as it was going to be set up on the invasion beach, a month later. I pitched my pup tent for the first time. I fell asleep right away but was awakened by an air-raid during the middle of the night. A German plane was shot down just a short distance from our field. As it fell, it sounded as though it was coming right down on my little tent. But that’s the way they always sound.

Saturday and Sunday were beautiful days and we relaxed in the sun. On Monday May 1, we packed up and drove to our camp at Truro. The maneuver was over. We all got drunk that night.