Operation Tiger - Amphibious
D Day Rehearsal Disaster
Lyme Bay, England, 27/28th
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
were heard, so Oberlieutenant zur See Goetschke, correctly concluded that the ships were shallow draft landing craft.
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.
quarters sounded. No target visible. Order to open fire withheld to
protect position of convoy.
02.02 Convoy changed direction to 203 degrees.
astern and LST 507, the last landing craft in the convoy, seen to be on fire.
02.15 LST 531 opened fire.
visible from LST 58.
02.17 LST 531 hit and exploded.
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.
'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.
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.
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
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"The Forgotten Dead" by Ken Small,
published by Bloomsbury, ISBN Q-7475-Q433-4. Price £5.99. Also available in
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
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.]