‘Operation Tiger’, or ‘Exercise Tiger’, was part of a series of landing exercises carried out on the beaches of south Devon prior to the D-Day landings in June 1944. However, ‘Operation Tiger’ is most famous for the disaster that occurred at Slapton Sands that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of men – some at sea and some on the beaches of Slapton Sands. Ten times more Americans died in Lyme Bay and on Slapton Sands than at Utah Beach on June 6th.
The beaches off south Devon had been selected for ‘Operation Tiger’ because of their similarity to the beach at ‘Utah’ where the Americans would be landing on June 6th. The population who lived near Slapton were moved out in late 1943 so that any manoeuvres and exercise that were carried out in the area were done so under the strictest of secrecy. The first of the training exercises was carried out in December 1943. The whole idea behind the series of exercises was to give the American forces training there as much of a likeness of what to expect as was possible. Therefore the exercises were tiered up as time progressed to make them as realistic as was possible. ‘Operation Tiger’ was to be one of the larger ones and was scheduled to last from April 22nd to April 30th.
The whole of ‘Operation Tiger’ was planned to be on a big scale – thousands of troops were meant to land under live fire – ordered by Eisenhower to make it as realistic as possible – and their landing ships were escorted by a small flotilla of naval ships headed by two destroyers. The first actual landings took place on April 27th. These were successful. However, a major disaster occurred in the early hours of April 28th that resulted in hundreded of deaths.
The Kriegsmarine kept a flotilla of S-boats in north France, mainly in Bologne and Cherbourg. Another flotilla was based in Guernsey. These were very fast, highly manoeuvrable small ships that carried torpedoes and two 20mm guns. Those involved in the Slapton Sands tragedy were equipped with supercharged engines that gave them a top speed of 40 knots if the conditions were good. They patrolled the English Channel and attacked any ship they came across working on the theory that the speed and manoeuvrability of the S-boats would get them out of trouble. In Britain, the S-boats were known as E-boats; ‘e’ for enemy.
The convoy left Plymouth on April 27th. Its destination was ‘Red Beach’ at Slapton Sands in Lyme Bay.
In the early hours of April 28th, nine S-boats spotted the eight landing ships in Lyme Bay that were sailing in a line and therefore made for an inviting target. The S-boats had been spotted by a Royal Navy corvette, HMS Azalea, but the captain assumed that the landing craft had also spotted them and did not directly inform them of the presence of S-boats.
The attack started at 01.33. Ships in the convoy were ordered not to return fire as this would have given away their positions. Darkness offered the convoy some protection as the logs of the S-boats later showed as they were convinved that they had hit “tankers”.
Three landing ships were hit. One (LST-507) caught fire and was abandoned. LST-289 caught fire but made it to the shore. LST-531 was hit and quickly sank. At 02.18, the order was given for the convoy to break-up formation and for individual ships to make they way independently ahead. The attack lasted until about 04.00. In the chaos that ensued, the nine S-boats left Lyme Bay with no casualties even though HMS Azalea attacked them.
The tragedy highlighted a number of major issues that needed to be resolved by D-Day. First, British naval headquarters and the landing craft operated off different radio frequencies and thus could not contact each other. When HMS Azalea contacted its headquarters in Plymouth with regards to what was going on, naval headquarters could not contact the landing craft direct to find out what was happening to them.
Second, a number of the fatalities had actually survived the torpedoing but when it came to abandoning their ship, had put on their life jackets incorrectly. Survivors later said that they saw men, who were in full combat gear, effectivly turned upside down because of the way they had put on their life jackets and they drowned. Clearly by June 6th, as tens of thousands of men would be carried across the Channel, this also had to be sorted out. Faith was put on the kapok life preserver jacket, which could only be put on in one particular manner. Similar to this another lifesaver was learned. Soldiers in landing craft at sea were advised to loosen their boots after an order to abandon ship had been given. It would make their removal in the sea a lot easier. Those in Lyme Bay would have little chance of removing soaked military boats in decent conditions, let alone at night with chaos all around them.
Third, the planning of D-Day had to be faultless and clearly the planning behind Operation Tiger had exposed a number of serious communication issues. The eight landing ships were meant to be escorted by two Royal Navy ships – HMS Azalea and HMS Scimitar. However, the escort had been reduced to one – Azalea – as Scimitar had returned to the dockyards at Plymouth for repairs. The Americans had not been told this. When the lack of full protection for the convoy was known, HMS Saladin was sent – at 01.37 on April 28th, four minutes after the attacks had started. British shore batteries had seen the S-boats but were ordered not to fire on them because that would give away to the Germans the fact that the shoreline was well defended.
The chaos continued on the beaches when men were killed by incoming friendly fire from HMS Hawkins. Eisenhower had ordered the use of live ammunition to make the exercise as lifelike as possible. However, a further 308 Americans were killed. In total, it is thought that 946 men died at sea and on land. However, some military historians believe that the figure is a lot higher and that this accounts for why there was no official recognition of the tragedy even after the success of D-Day. Keeping quiet about the tragedy prior to D-Day was understandable as any news of what happened would have undoubtedly undermined morale – especially for those on the landing crafts that were going to be used. The lack of any reporting of the tragedy after D-Day may simply be explained by the fact that those in charge had their eyes fixed firmly on what was happening in Normandy.
Ten of the fatalities were of great importance. When D-Day was planned, the men who had prior knowledge of the invasion were known as ‘bigots’. While the daqte was not yet known to the ‘bigots’, the landing sites were. Ten ‘bigots’ were unaccounted for in the immediate aftermath of Operation Tiger. No one knew if by chance any one of them had been captured by the S-boats. It was only after the ten bodies had been accounted for that the plans for D-Day continued.
Obviously nothing of what happened at Slapton Sands was made public. Medical staff at military hospitals who treated the wounded were sworn to secrecy under pain of court martial if they even asked the injured how they acquired their wounds. It was briefly referred to in a July 1944 copy of ‘Stars and Stripes’ but by this month, the interest was very much in what was happening in Normandy.
On May 5th, Rear Admiral John Hall reported on the still highly clasified incident. He apologised to the Americans but put the blame on the sheer intensity of the build-up to D-Day; Hall argued that with thousands of important communication signals being sent daily, some were bound not to get through or be acted on. What happened at Lyme Bay was seen as something that happened in wartime as tragic as it was.