Exercise Tiger, the Allied Disaster at Slapton Sands Before D-Day:

Weeks before D-Day, at a place called Slapton Sands in Devon, England, a training maneuver called Operation Tiger or Exercise Tiger was set into motion. It would become one of the Allies worst training disasters and biggest cover ups of the war in Europe.

In November 1943, villagers around Slapton Sands learned they were to be evacuated and their homes and land turned into a training ground for soldiers. Over a five week period, ending on December 20, 1943, the villages of Blackawton, Chillington, East Allington, Sherford, Slapton, Stokenham, Strete and Torcross were evacuated by British and American authorities with the help of the WVS (Woman’s Voluntary Service). A total of 3,000 civilians comprising 750 families left behind their homes and 180 farms and shops.

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German S-Boot. Known as an E-Boat to the Allies

The beach of Slapton Sands was chosen as the site for the invasion exercise because of its similarity to a stretch of beach in Normandy near the villages of Pouppeville and La Madeleine, Manche. The French beach, codenamed Utah by the Allies, would play a strategic role in the D-Day invasion and its capture would open a path to the vital port of Cherbourg.

At 9:45 pm on April 27, 1944, The US 4th Infantry Division left the docks at Plymouth harbor and headed toward Lyme Bay off the Devon Coast. Their convoy comprised of LST’s 289, 499, 507, 515, 496, 511, 531 and 58 with the British Destroyer HMS Azalea as their escort. The LST’s sailed in an exposed single line formation with HMS Azalea at the front.

Another British Destroyer, HMS Scimitar was meant to be escorting the vulnerable LST’s, but it was back in Plymouth undergoing repairs. Through communication errors, the British forgot to inform the high command that the Scimitar would stay in port leading American and British commanders at sea to be uninformed that one of their escorting destroyers was missing.

In the weeks before Exercise Tiger, German motor torpedo boats, called S-boots by the Germans and E-boats by the Allies, had been attacking ships in the English Channel.

The commander of the HMS Azalea spotted German S-boats operating in the channel but assumed the Americans saw them too and did not directly inform them. To further complicate things, an error in radio frequencies given to the LST’s and their lone escort meant the ships could not contact each other via radio.

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Slapton Sands during Exercise Tiger

At 1:37 am on April 28, after finally realizing HMS Scimitar was still in port, the Royal Navy hurriedly dispatched HMS Saladin to catch up with the vulnerable convoy.

But by that time, German E-boats had already started their attack.

At 2:02 am, LST 507 was hit by a torpedo in its auxiliary engine room that cut off power and caused the ship to burst into flames. Without power, most of the onboard firefighting equipment would not work and an order to abandon ship was given.

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Troops unload from LST’s onto the beach at Slapton Sands

At 2:17 am, LST 531 was struck by a torpedo. The ship rolled over and sank in six minutes. The order for all ships to break formation and head for safety individually was given. LST 289 was also hit by a torpedo but managed to reach shore and beach herself. With little time to launch life boats, the men in the stricken LST’s jumped into the water where many were dragged down by their heavy boots and clothes. The life jackets that were handed out tended to turn men upside down in the water causing many to drown, while others died from hypothermia.

In all, the Americans lost around 700 men in the deadly torpedo attacks. To add to this fiasco, 10 men who had secret knowledge and documents of the Allied invasion of Normandy code-named “Bigot” had been lost that night. By some miracle the bodies of all ten officers were found and the secret of the invasion was not compromised.

For the men and ships that survived the attacks, more tragedy was to come as the invasion exercise got underway on Slapton Sands later that morning.

General Eisenhower wanted live fire used so the men could get used to the destruction and smells of battle. The Royal Navy was supposed to shell the beach shortly before the Americans landed. With a mix-up in timing, the British started their naval bombardment right when the Americans landed on the beach killing close to 300 men. It is estimated that nearly 1,000 Americans lost their lives in Operation Tiger.

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Troops of the 4th Infantry Division during training exercises on Slapton Sands

After the debacle, the military decided to cover everything up and a strict order for secrecy was enforced. Hospital staff who treated the wounded were ordered not to ask the men how they were hurt under penalty of court martial. Relatives of the men who were killed received news that their loved ones had died “in action” with no further details given. The US Army feared a large drop in morale and security risks about the invasion being leaked to the Germans if the losses were made public.

After Operation Tiger, a list of errors like radio miscommunications, lack of life vest training, a need for more escort ships and other problems were compiled and rectified for the actual invasion of Normandy. Men who survived the disaster came ashore on Utah Beach on D-Day despite their harrowing ordeal in training. As it turned out, the 4th Infantry Division lost many more men in the Slapton Sands disaster than on D-Day itself.

Although a short news article about the event was released in July, 1944, many survivors continued to keep silent for nearly 50 years after the incident. The tragedy of Exercise Tiger on the eve of D-Day became a part of the invasion that most people wanted to forget.

For More about Operation Tiger Check Out:

Exercise Tiger: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Silent Few

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