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The Story of Exercise Tiger

by Wendy Lawrance

In April 1944, preparations for the Normandy Landings were well under way. All around the British Isles, men and women of various nationalities were making ready for the forthcoming advance into Nazi-occupied Europe. One of the many military operations was taking place on the South Devon coast at Slapton Sands. This area had been evacuated of civilians during the previous year, the beach there having been specially selected for its resemblance to the area between Pouppeville and La Madeleine in Northern France – codenamed Utah beach.

Taking part in the practice landings at Slapton Sands were 30,000 American troops consisting of Infantry, Artillery, Engineers, Medical personnel, Tank Battalions and support staff. The purpose of this operation was to prepare these troops for the D-Day Landings in surroundings as similar as possible to those they would eventually face on June 6th, including the use of live ammunition. The codename given to this operation was Exercise Tiger.

In the early hours of 28th April 1944, with the bulk of the infantry already ashore, eight tank landing ships (LSTs) were making their way towards Slapton. These ships carried engineers, quartermaster staff, signallers, medics and some infantry as well as tanks, trucks, jeeps and equipment. These men and their supplies formed part of the vital support for the initial assault troops.

Without warning, the LSTs suddenly found themselves under attack. Unbeknownst to the American servicemen, a flotilla of nine German E-boats had been ordered to investigate unusual radio activity in the area. The E-boat logs show that they believed they had stumbled across several destroyers and they immediately opened fire.

LST507 was the first to be torpedoed. Lieutenant James Murdock was the Executive Officer on board. He stated that, noticing these boats on the radar, they had assumed that ‘perhaps they were part of our escort’. His account continues: ‘As they came abeam we were suddenly hit by a torpedo on the starboard side which tore through the sides and exploded in the near vicinity of the auxiliary engine room.

In addition to her crew of 165 men, LST507 was also carrying 282 Army personnel together with trucks, jeeps and gasolene, which immediately caught fire. The flames quickly spread to the decks and as the fuel spilled and leaked over into the water, the sea too appeared to catch fire. The ship’s company tried to extinguish the flames on board, but to no avail and she began to sink by the stern.

Eventually, the ship’s Captain, James Schwartz, gave the order to abandon ship. Although only two lifeboats were undamaged by fire, these were quickly lowered. Both the army personnel and the ship’s company were wearing life jackets and those that could not make it to a lifeboat found themselves in the chilling water, swimming as best they could, away from the sinking ship and flaming water. Many of these men died from shock or exposure, including Captain Schwartz – who, according to Naval tradition had been the last man to leave the stricken ship. The survivors, including Lieutenant Murdock, were picked up by LST515.

Within minutes of this initial strike, two more ships were hit. LST531 was torpedoed and sank inside six minutes, with the loss of over 400 lives, while LST289, having been hit in the stern, managed to eventually limp back to port.

During this attack, other LSTs opened fire on the enemy craft and sent frantic radio messages requesting urgent assistance. However, their small naval escort was, due to a typing error, using a different radio frequency to the LSTs, so their calls initially went unanswered. In addition, due to the top secret nature of the operation, the radio stations along the coast also did not answer the calls until one radio operator heard the words ‘T-4’ and it was realised that the messages were coming from ‘Tiger’.

HMS Attack, a shore-based establishment on top of Portland Bill, ordered six Rescue Motor Launches (RMLs), each with a 16-man crew, to Lyme Bay. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived, the damage had been done. As the RMLs prepared to take survivors on board, they were issued with orders to return to Port. HMS Attack had become aware that the LSTs were firing indiscriminately and it was feared that the RMLs would be mistaken for E-boats. These rescue craft carried over 2000 gallons of high octane fuel and the Naval commanders feared that there would be an even greater loss of life, should they be caught in the cross-fire. Reluctantly, the RMLs obeyed their orders and returned to port, leaving the US soldiers and naval personnel to fend for themselves.

At first light, the RMLs set off once more to search the area of the previous night’s attack. Upon arrival, they discovered a considerable amount of flotsam and many bodies floating in the water. Serving on board HMRML532 was Second Coxswain John Cullen, who was ordered by his Captain, Commander Scott, to go into the water and bring these bodies alongside the vessel so they could be brought aboard. The water was very cold and John Cullen worked quickly at his punishing task. Within two hours, he had recovered all the visible bodies and was able to return to his own craft, where he ‘quickly donned three or four woolen blankets.’ He went on to recall: ‘I could not stop shivering… I still remember the atmosphere so very well. There was absolute silence, the engines were stopped, there was no barking of orders, the crew spoke in hushed tones and even the seabirds were quiet. It was as if the world was paying reverence to the brave dead men lying on the deck.’

All those who took part in Exercise Tiger and its aftermath were sworn to secrecy. The Allies feared that if any information leaked to the enemy, plans for the D-Day Landings would be jeopardised. Ten officers who had been lost, were carrying detailed plans for the D-Day landings and, until these men could be accounted for, there were fears that the Normandy Landings would have to be cancelled altogether. It would be many months before the US military authorities revealed minor details of the events of that night, and over forty years before the whole story was disclosed.

Forty days later, on 6th June 1944, the D-Day Invasion began and many of those who had taken part in Exercise Tiger also took part in the landing at Utah Beach. In the ensuing months, as the Allies progressed through occupied territory and eventually into Germany itself, the events of 28th April 1944 were all but forgotten, by all except those who had participated. In total over 630 US servicemen lost their lives that night…

…Theirs was a quiet sacrifice.