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 COMBINED OPERATIONS

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Operation Tiger - Amphibious D Day Rehearsal Disaster

Lyme Bay, England, 27/28th April 1944

Background

Operation Tiger was a largely USA, pre D-Day training exercise in Lyme Bay, which was to culminate in landings on Slapton Sands. It proved to be a disaster for the American forces involved and for many decades, little information of the debacle was publicly known. This was not surprising, since those involved in the exercise and its aftermath were sworn to secrecy and records were filed away and, perhaps, conveniently forgotten.

[Photo; The view from the road which stretches from the village of Strete down to Slapton Sands (part of Start Bay) and Slapton Ley, Devon, showing the damage to the wall which occurred during training exercises carried out in preparation for the D-Day Landings. This damage was caused by naval shelling in support of American infantry as they attacked the cliff. This photograph was taken looking south west towards Start Point. © IWM (D 21961).]

When President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met at Casablanca in January 1943, they agreed to the establishment of COSSAC (Chief of Staff Supreme Allied Commander) to take over planning for the re-invasion of Europe. In command was Lieutenant General, Sir Frederick Morgan, with Brigadier General, Ray Barker, of the USA Army as his deputy.

Planning for the re-invasion had been in progress since Dieppe the previous September. By June of 1943, a high powered meeting at the Hollywood Hotel, Largs, on the south west coast of Scotland, considered the options. Major influences upon their deliberations were the limited range of fighter aircraft, the need to capture a port with capacity to handle supplies and equipment and the known extent of German defences. Arguably, the most important decision of WW2 was made at that meeting viz. the Allied amphibious invasion would take place on the beaches of Normandy, France. So secret was this decision, that the unique classification of BIGOT was accorded to any documents on the subject. Inevitably, those privy to the information became known as bigots!

Suitable practice and training beaches were identified to simulate landings on the Normandy coast, one of which was Slapton Sands, just south of Torquay in Devon. It had characteristics similar to the Omaha and Utah beaches with, about 10 miles inland, Dartmoor, already in use by the army for training purposes. Other beaches were selected to the east of Portsmouth to simulate landings on Gold, Juno and Sword.

Plans & Preparations

The necessary training manoeuvres would significantly increase naval activity in the area, which would likely be picked up by the Germans. It was, however, hoped that deception and the frequent assembling of large numbers of landing and support craft, followed by their dispersal, would confuse the enemy.

[Photo; Slapton Sands 2017. © 2017 Google.]

The threat to the craft taking part in training exercises in the English Channel did not come from the German Capital ships which, by this stage of the war, had been sunk or confined to port. Instead the threat came from German S-boats, designated "E-boats" by the Allies  - "E" for enemy. These fast motor torpedo boats were commanded by Kapitan zur See Rudolf Petersen as Fuhrer des Schnellboote. From his base at Wimereaux, near Boulogne, he controlled all motor torpedo boat (MTB) activity in the Channel and the North Sea.

On the night of 26/27th February, the 5th Schnellboote Flotilla, operating out of Guernsey, had successfully attacked convoys PW300 and WP300,with the loss of 4 vessels. Over the following few months, the Norwegian destroyer, HMS Eskdale, was sunk by two torpedoes on the night of April 13/14th, while escorting Channel Convoy PW232. When the Slapton Assault Training Area was opened, slow moving traffic in the Channel increased dramatically. The landing craft were very vulnerable to attack by the German E-boats. To reduce the risk of attack, the training exercises would be protected by a cordon of heavy gun ships.

The E-boats were 35 metres in length with a crew of 21. In standard form, they were powered by triple shaft Daimler-Benz diesel engines providing a top speed of 35 knots. However, on the night of April 27/28, the 9 E-boats involved in the attack were supercharged, which increased horsepower from 4500 to 6000 and the top speed to 40 knots. They were armed with twin, 21 inch, fixed forward facing torpedo tubes, with two reloads. On deck there were two or three 20mm canons and occasionally a 37mm canon, or similar weapon.

Operation Tiger

At 09.45 on April 27, convoy T45 left Plymouth for Lyme Bay. Its primary purpose was to carry USA tanks and men to "red" beach on Slapton Sands. At its head was the escort corvette HMS Azalea, followed at 2000 yards by LST 515 and then, at 700-yard intervals, LSTs 496, 511, 531 and 58 (towing two pontoon causeways).

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

The WW1 Destroyer, HMS Scimitar, should have been on duty as the main escort but she was kept in Plymouth for repairs after being holed above the waterline in a minor collision the day before. This decision was not communicated to higher command, notably Com Force "U" (Commander Force U) and consequently no replacement vessel was provided, leaving a major gap in the convoy's outer defences.

The communication breakdown did not become clear until 19.30, when the Captain of the Scimitar was interviewed. HMS Saladin was immediately detailed as relief escort and departed Start Bay, south of Slapton Sands, at 0137 hours on the 28th.

Other defences, designed to protect the whole operation in Lyme Bay, were in place between Start Point and Portland Bill. In addition, three MTBs were positioned off Cherbourg to intercept any E-boats leaving their base. However, at 22.00 on the 27th, the 5th and 9th Schnellboote Flotillas, comprising six and three boats respectively, managed to evade the British MTBs. Travelling at 36 knots, while observing radio silence, they made rapid progress westward to break through the outer defensive screen across Lyme Bay. Meantime, the slow moving convoy had been joined by the Brixham Section comprising LSTs 499, 289 and 507 (508 failed to make the rendezvous). The convoy, by this time, was west of Tor Bay heading in a NNW direction before commencing a large turn, first in an easterly direction then southerly for the final westerly approach to Slapton Sands.

From the French mainland, Kapitan zur see Petersen radioed the bearing of a possible target at 23.17 and the E-boats of the 5th Flotilla split up into pairs for the attack. Positive identification of targets was difficult and Rotte (formation) 3 comprising S-136 & S-138, soon spotted two "destroyers" at a range of 2000 metres. S-138 fired a double salvo at the stern of the right hand ship and S-136 fired single torpedoes at the other. After 100 seconds, S-138 observed an explosion and a minute later S-136 noted simultaneous explosions on the second.

Formation 2, comprising S-140 & S-142, both fired double shots at 1400 metres. No explosions were heard, so Oberlieutenant zur See Goetschke, correctly concluded that the ships were shallow draft landing craft.

Formation 1, comprising S-100 & S-143, alerted to the action by red tracers to their north, proceeded to the area and noted that a "tanker" was already well ablaze. Both boats fired two torpedoes at a target estimated to be around 1500 tons. After 76 seconds an explosion was observed.

 

The 9th Flotilla, comprising S-130, S-145 and S-150, attracted by red tracers from the 5th Flotilla (although at the time they thought they were from allied ships, since they understood that yellow tracers were to be used by their own forces), made for the area of action. S-150 & S-130 engaged in a concentrated torpedo attack against a single ship, while S-145 broke off to attack "small armed escorts" most likely lowered landing craft.

From the vantage point of LST 58, positioned in the middle of the convoy, the following events were noted;

01.33 Gunfire directed at convoy. Probably AA to draw return fire.

01.33 General quarters sounded. No target visible. Order to open fire withheld to protect position of convoy.

02.02 Convoy changed direction to 203 degrees. Explosion heard astern and LST 507, the last landing craft in the convoy, seen to be on fire.

02.15 LST 531 opened fire. No target visible from LST 58.

02.17 LST 531 hit and exploded.

 02.18 Decision to break formation and to proceed independently.

02.24 Order given on LST 531 to abandon ship.

02.25 E-boat sighted at 1500 metres. Four 40mm guns and six 20mm guns on LST 58 fired off 68 and 323 rounds respectively. The E-boat turned away and at "cease fire" was about 2000 metres distant when it disappeared from view.

02.30 LST 289 was hit.

02.31 LST 289 opened fire but target not seen from LST 58.

02.37 Surface torpedo reported off bow of LST 58.

02.38 to 04.00 Bright magnesium flares sighted in all directions with the intention of discouraging the scattered convoy making for shore. E-boat engine noises heard on many occasions.

04.32 Order given on LST 507 to abandon ship.

04.42 LST 515 lowered boats and picked up survivors from LST 507.

In the confusion of the action and darkness, it was impossible to be certain what was happening. The British ship FDT217 (Fighter Direction Tender) had sailed out of Portland to provide radar and communications cover under operational conditions. It was one of three FDTs that would provide stalwart service off Normandy two months later. However, in the early hours of the 28th, FDT217 received a signal to "Make port all haste", which they did successfully.

[Photo; A '379' Sherman tank lost in the action and recovered from the sea at Slapton Sands, about 10 miles south of Brixham.]

LSTs 507 and 531 had been sunk with the loss of 202 and 424 service personnel respectively. Out of a total Army and Navy complement of 943, 626 were killed. LST 289 was damaged with the loss of 13 and LST 511 was hit by fire from LST 496, resulting in 18 wounded.

Outcome

Rear Admiral, John Hall, expressed profound regret to the Americans in his report of May 5. The main cause of the enemy's success in penetrating the protective cordon was attributed to inordinate pressure of work on staff. Factors included the concurrency of Operation Tiger, Operation Fabius and actions against enemy destroyers on the 25th and 26th, with a further planned action on the 28th. Under these extraordinary circumstances, communications and signals were delayed and some reporting was incomplete.

Lessons were learned but the appalling loss of life had little or no compensating benefit to the allied landings at Normandy. Recommendations included;

  •  using larger escort forces if available,

  •  the need for rescue craft during any large scale landing,

  •  ensuring that vital information on enemy contacts was disseminated quickly,

  •  introducing standard procedures and special communication circuits for each Operation, including the use of the same radio wavelengths,

  •  reinforcing the message for all hands not to look at flares or fires ... to do so reduced ability to see objects in the dark,

  •  carrying only sufficient fuel for the operation itself to reduce combustible material and thereby fire risk,

  •  making rifles and pistols more generally available to fire on E-boats when they paced close aboard, especially when fixed guns could not depress sufficiently,

  •  making life boats and life rafts as near ready for lowering as possible,

  •  issuing illumination rockets to help 'slow moving' large ships locate E-boats in darkness,

  •  improving fire fighting equipment, including the installation of manually operated pumps for LSTs and other ships carrying large amounts of inflammable material,

  •  providing training in the use of the kapok life preserver jacket in preference to the CO2 single type. The former was more effective in keeping heads above water,

  •  loosening boot laces where an order to abandon ship seemed likely to make it easier to remove heavy waterlogged boots in the water.

When 10 "bigots" were reported missing, the possibility existed that the plans for the reinvasion of Europe had fallen into enemy hands, seriously, possibly fatally, compromising the invasion plans. At the time of Operation Tiger, the date for D-Day was not known, even to Eisenhower but the 10 missing officers did know the location of the invasion beaches ... information of vital interest to the enemy. A vast search of Lyme Bay was undertaken and miraculously the bodies of all ten officers were recovered. Although the loss of the "bigot" officers was tragic, there was immense relief amongst the allied planners in knowing that their invasion plans had not been compromised.

To the outside world, the disaster of Operation Tiger was kept a closely guarded secret. No official communiqué was issued and the staff of the 228th Sherbourne Hospital in Dorset, who received hundreds of immersion and burns cases, were told to ask no questions and warned that they would be subject to court martial if they discussed the tragedy.

The total of 749 Americans killed and missing was 10 times the actual losses on Utah beach on June 6, 1944. A memorial stands about 10 miles south of Brixham on the A379 road.

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in, or copy and paste the title of your choice, or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords.

"The Forgotten Dead" by Ken Small, published by Bloomsbury, ISBN Q-7475-Q433-4. Price £5.99. Also available in hardback.

The author arranged the recovery of a sunken Sherman Tank lost during the action. It is mounted on a plinth in the car park at Slapton Sands. There is also a plaque commemorating those lost in the action.

Correspondence

Diving expedition. I am a Royal Marine trying to put together a diving expedition to dive the wrecks of operation Tiger in April 2014. If you know of any one who has accounts of that tragic day or would like us to raise a flag on the wrecks in memory of the men who made the ultimate sacrifice, please ask them to contact me. [Please click on the e-mail icon opposite to contact Gareth.]

Kind Regards

Gareth Thomas
 


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