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June 6, 2006

Exercise Tiger: the Disaster Before D-Day

You're familiar with Operation Overlord, the official name of what has become known as D-Day.

If not, and even if you are, Blackfive has an excellent tribute that is well worth reading.

The Donovan has a great photo essay you ought to check out while you're at it.

Total Allied casualties that day were around 10,000, which includes approximately 2500 dead (there is no official casualty figure for D-Day alone). During the Battle of Normandy, which lasted another month or so, the Allies suffered 209,000 including nearly 37,000 dead for ground forces and a further 16,714 deaths for Allied air forces. The battle cost Germany 200,000 casualties and another 200,000 taken prisoner.

Not to be forgotten, between 15,000 and 20,000 French civilians were killed, mostly due to Allied air bombing.

Exercise Tiger

Obviously, you don't just send 165,000 men ashore and subject them to withering fire from a highly trained and disciplined enemy without practicing doing it a few times. We spend the months before June 6 doing just that.

Just as obviously, whenever you've got hundreds of thousands of men doing anything that involves water, ships, airplanes and landing craft, there will be training accidents. I don't have the figures, but I'm sure there were many losses.

By the spring of 1944 everyone knew that we were going to land somewhere in northern France. It was only a question of when and where.

The Germans, not being stupid, knew that we had large numbers of men in Britain and were practicing landing on British beaches. And they knew that these training exercises would involve large numbers of slow, unarmored, unprotected, transport ships and assorted landing craft. In other words, big fat targets.

The Germans saw an opportunity to strike, and they took it.

Exercise Tiger, which would take place April 27 1944, involved 23,000 US soldiers, and was one of the largest such practices to date. The American forces involved would be the ones who would land on Utah beach 3 months later.

We get the story from the Exercise Tiger website

At 0135 on the morning of April 28th, 1944, eight Tank Landing Ships (LST's) and thier lone escort, the British corvette HMS AZALEA, were en route to the landing area. Slapton Sands was selected because its beach looked every bit like the beaches at Normandy that would be code named Utah and Omaha by the allies.

The eight LST's of LST Group 32, formed convoy T-4. they were the support group for elements of the 4th & 29th Infantry, 82nd Airborne and 188th Field Artillery Group already ashore at Slapton Sands.

The LST's were carrying the 1st Engineer Special Brigade, the 3206th Quartermaster Company from Missouri, the 3207th Company and 462nd and 478th combat truck support companies as well as other elements of the US Army's engineer, signal, medical and chemical corps along with some infantry.

Miles south in the mouth of Lyme bay, lay the bulk of the Tiger naval force. Protected by the cruiser USS AGUSTA and the new British "O" class destroyers HMS ONSLOW and HMS OBEDIENT as well as the Tribal Class destroyer HMS ASHANTI and a covering force of motor torpedo boats. Anchored along with LST's 55 and 382 they would be of no help to the ambushed LST force of T-4.

Attacking in the pitch black night, 9 German Navy "E" boats (torpedo) struck quickly and decisively. Without warning LST 507 was torpedoed first. Explosions and flame lit the night. At 0217 LST 531 is torpedoed. It sinks in six minutes. Of the 496 soldiers and sailors on her, 424 of them died. It would be on this ship that the state of Missouri would lose some 201 of its boys of the 3206th.

LST 289 tried to evade the fast German "E" boats but was hit in the stern. LST's 496, 515, and 511 all began firing at their attackers, LST 289 joined in returning fire while lowering landing craft to pull it out of harms way.

At 0225 the LST 499 radioed for help.Minutes later the lead ship ,LST 515 sent out an urgent and chilling message. " 'E' boat attack". Radio stations along the coast pick up the dramatic calls for help. Unaware of the top secret operation underway, the calls go unanswered. Only after an alert radio operator heard the words "T-4", did the Naval Command realize the calls were from "Tiger" and send help.

By 0240 the horror was slowly realized. Two LST's sunk, a third lay crippled. Of the 4000 man force nearly a fourth were missing or killed . Official Dept. of Defense records confirm 749 dead , 551 US Army and 198 US Navy. The death toll makes "Tiger" the costliest battle to U.S. forces at that point in the war after Pearl Harbor.

749 dead Americans.

In a training exercise.

Kept Secret

The extent of the disaster was kept a secret for at the time. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the order for secrecy, fearing that a full release would demoralize his forces, not to mention the public.

I think we all know how some among us would react if such a thing occured today. First they'd demand the president's head for keeping it secret, and then they'd insist that we call off the invasion. Finally, calls for a negotiated peace would reach a crescendo.

But that was then, and this is now. They won their war, and we've still to win ours. We should take inspiration from the bravery and fortitude of that greatest generation.

Posted by Tom at June 6, 2006 8:42 PM

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