LYME BAY, ENGLAND, 27/28th APR 1944
Operation Tiger was a pre D-Day training exercise in Lyme Bay which was to culminate in landings on Slapton Sands. It was a disaster for the American forces involved. For many years little information about the debacle was publicly known since those involved in the exercise and its aftermath were sworn to secrecy on pain of court martial.
The decision to mount Operation Tiger had its genesis over a year earlier when President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met at Casablanca in January 1943. They agreed to the setting up of COSSAC (Chief of Staff Supreme Allied Commander) to take over the planning of the re-invasion of Europe. In charge were Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan and 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 and 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 were the limited range of fighter aircraft, the perceived need to capture a port with significant capacity to handle supplies and equipment and the level of known German defences. Arguably the most important decision of WW2 was made ... 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. Slapton Sands, just south of Torquay in Devon had characteristics similar to the "Omaha" and "Utah" beaches and about 10 miles inland was Dartmoor which was 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.
Allied planners realised that the Germans would be well aware of the greatly increased navel activity in the channel during the training period. 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. The threat did not come from the German Capital ships which, by this stage of the war, had been sunk or confined to port. Much more serious was the threat from German S-boats - designated "E-boats" by the Allies ... "E" for enemy. These motor torpedo boats were under the command of Kapitan zur See Rudolf Petersen in his role of 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. There were other German successes over the following months including the loss of the Norwegian destroyer H.M.S. Eskdale on the night of April 13/14th. When the Slapton Assault Training Area was opened the amount of slow moving traffic in the Channel increased dramatically and so did the target opportunities for the very fast German E-boats as the night of April 27/28 would so tragically confirm.
The E-boats were 35 metres in length with a crew of 21. They were powered by triple shaft Daimler-Benz diesel engines with a top speed of 35 knots but on the night of April 27/28 the 9 E-boats involved were supercharged which increased their horsepower from 4500 to 6000 and their top speed to 40 knots. They were equipped with twin 21 inch fixed forward facing torpedo tubes with two reloads and two or three 20mm canons and occasionally a 37mm canon or other similar armament.
At 0945 hours on April 27 convoy T45 left Plymouth for Lyme Bay. Its primary purpose was to carry USA tanks and men for "red" beach. At its head was the escort corvette H.M.S. Azalea followed at 2000 yards by LST 515 and, at 700-yard intervals, LSTs 496, 511, 531 and 58 (towing two pontoon causeways). The WW1 Destroyer H.M.S. Scimitar should have been on duty as the main escort but was holed above the waterline in a minor collision the day before. The decision to keep Scimitar in Plymouth for repairs was not communicated to higher command, notably Com Force "U" (Commander Force U) and as a consequence no replacement vessel was provided. The communication breakdown did not become clear until 1930 hours. The Captain of the Scimitar was interviewed and only then did the extent of the gap in the defences of the convoy become clear. H.M.S. Saladin was immediately detailed as relief escort and departed Start Bay at 0137 hours on the 28th.
There were other defences in position between Start Point and Portland Bill designed to protect the whole operation in Lyme Bay. In addition three MTBs were positioned off Cherbourg to intercept any E-boats departing from their base. However at 2200 hours 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, and 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. (Click on map to enlarge).
From the French mainland Kapitan zur see Petersen radioed the bearing of a possible target at 2317 hours and the E-boats of the 5th Flotilla split up into pairs for the attack. Positive identification of targets was difficult if not impossible 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 opened fire with double shots at 1400 metres but when no explosions were heard 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 of 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;
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 ... but elsewhere the scale of the debacle only became apparent in the hours following the action. LSTs 507 and 531 had been sunk with the loss of 202 and 424 respectively - a total of 626 out of a total US Army and US Navy complement of 943. LST 289 was damaged with the loss of 13 and LST 511 was hit by fire from LST 496 resulting in 18 wounded. (Photo; Sherman tank lost in the action and recovered from the sea at Slapton Sands - A 379 about 10 miles south of Brixham.)
The subsequent report from Rear Admiral John Hall dated May 5 offered profound regrets to the Americans. The main cause of the tragic incident was attributed to inordinate pressures on staff. Factors included the concurrency of Operation Tiger and Operation Fabius and actions against enemy destroyers on the 25th and 26th and 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. However recommendations included;
When 10 "bigots" were reported missing there was a strong possibility that the plans for the reinvasion of Europe had been seriously and possibly fatally compromised. At the time of Operation Tiger the date for D-Day was not known even to Eisenhower but the 10 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 by a miracle the bodies of all ten officers were recovered whilst 100s of others were, at least for the moment, lost at sea. Although the loss of the "bigot" officers was regrettable the relief amongst the allied planners, to know that the their invasion plans had not been compromised, can only be imagined.
To the outside world the disaster of 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 simply told to ask no questions and warned that they would be subject to court martial if they discussed the tragedy.
The total of 749 American killed and missing was 10 times the actual losses on Utah beach on June 6 1944.
An American perspective on Operation Tiger.
"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.
(6/05) Operation TIGER, Slapton, Devon. Every year the Devon Military Vehicle Club drive our wartime jeeps, GMC truck, Dodge Weapons Carrier and open Humber Staff car from Totnes to Torcross on the first Wednesday in June (nearest Wednesday to the anniversary of D. Day). The purpose is to visit the Sherman D.D Tank, a journey of about 15 miles each way. The tank, 21 years since being recovered from the sea, is looking a bit sad, although the anti rust coating has done a wonderful job where it was sprayed. However there are areas it didn't reach and these are suffering from rust and decay. The tracks are breaking up, it is possible to see the engine compartment and view what's left of the air cooled radial engine. At the moment it is still possible to 'explore' the tank, however, in the opinion of many, if the rot continues it may need be fenced in for safety reasons. Ideally it needs to be under cover and cosmetically restored. Sadly Ken Small, who was instrumental in raising the tank in 1985 died of cancer last year. It would be a shame to see the tank crumble in the years ahead as it is one of few tangible links between the war years and now. (Photos courtesy of Duncan Millman showing the external appearance of the tank and the rusting interior).
If anyone would like any photos of any part of Devon or any local information (maybe you or your father, grandfather was stationed in Devon before D. Day) and would like to know what it now looks like, Email me and I will see what I can do. Regards. Duncan Millman email@example.com
(11/04) Tank Memorial at Slapton Sands
A special trust involving U.S. war veterans could be set up to finally safeguard the future of the Sherman Tank memorial at Torcross. For the last 20 years, the Second World War tank has acted as a war memorial to the soldiers and sailors who died in a D-Day training tragedy off the South Devon coast, and a place of pilgrimage for U.S veterans and their families. Dean Small, who inherited the tank from his father Ken who died earlier this year, feared he would have to fence the site off amid concerns over expensive insurance liabilities.
But now South Hams Council has agreed to take on the insurance costs for next 12 months so that the seaside memorial site, which councillors were told had become an international monument, can remain open to visitors. It will give Dean a chance to set up a permanent trust to look after the machine and the memorial plaques around it involving British and U.S veterans associations as well as the U.S Army and Navy.
"I am delighted by the council decision. It's a big weight off my shoulders," said Dean whose father Ken raised the tank from the sea off Torcross and dedicated his life to the recognition of the 700 Exercise Tiger victims of what had become a secret and forgotten war time disaster. "The goal is to be able to pay for what is required to ensure that the tank stays there and the site is kept in a good condition," he added.
Dean, who lives with his wife Sarah, a short distance from the memorial site, has already made initial contacts with various organisations with the aim of forming a trust. He had asked the district council to include the memorial in its public liability insurance and warned that if the answer was no, he would have to fence off the tank to ensure there was no chance of any accidents. The council executive had been urged by officers to reject the request on the basis that any claims would hit taxpayers with a £1,000 a time insurance excess. But following e-mails from Dean explaining his trust proposals the councillors agreed to ignore the recommendation and cover the tank insurance for the next year.
Both the U.S Army and Navy have held prominent memorial services at the site and set up official plaques of remembrance. The council have agreed to provide cover for another year, but we must help to save the tank, if you have any contacts with relevant Americans please forward this info. Many thanks firstname.lastname@example.org
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