While reading the book “1944” by Jay Wink, I came across the details of Operation Tiger, a large scale rehearsal for the D-Day invasion of Utah Beach in Normandy held in 1944.
I was surprised that this was an event not covered during my school years, or by any of the countless World War 2 documentaries I have seen. My surprise turned into shock as I learned of the tragedy that unfolded, and the magnitude of the impact it had on the D-Day invasion.
The operation was a week-long exercise that began on April 22nd with marshalling and embarkation drills and culminated on April 28th with beach landings on Slapton Sands. This area in southwestern England was selected for its resemblance to the beaches in Normandy.
The exercise was so vital that Allied commander General Dwight D Eisenhower kept the operation a secret from the men who were to be involved and ordered the use of live ammunition.
On April 28th, eight large tank landing ships (LSTs) carrying thousands of men began its approach towards Slapton Sands for the mock landing. This flotilla was intercepted, however, by a group of nine German E-Boats (fast attack craft) which had picked up the heavy radio traffic.
The Allies lacked a proper destroyer escort from the British Navy, as it had been ordered into port for repairs, and the US and UK forces operated on separate radio frequencies. This made the slow moving LSTs especially easy targets for the torpedo boats.
Three LSTs were hit by the German E-Boats. LST-289 caught fire but made it to shore with the loss of 123 servicemen. LST-507 was sunk with the loss of 202 servicemen. LST-532 sank in under six minutes with the loss of 424 servicemen.
Many of these casualties were the result of improperly worn lifejackets and hypothermia from the cold sea.
The 749 lives lost would not be the end of the tragedy.
As American soldiers stormed the beach at Slapton Sands, there was a miscommunication with the British who were conducting a naval bombardment. The resulting friendly fire led to approximately 300 to 400 deaths, though there is no official casualty count. Survivors and medical staff treating the wounded were sworn to secrecy or face court martial.
Allied commanders were so concerned that the Germans might have picked up missing officers with top security clearance that they considered changing major details of the D-Day operation. The bodies of all the officers in questions were found, and Operation Neptune was carried out successfully using the lessons learned from Operation Tiger.
In the end, Operation Tiger led to more deaths of US forces than the actual landing at Utah Beach a few weeks later.
For decades after the war, the embarrassing and tragic events of Operation Tiger were kept relatively unknown.
In 1984, local resident Ken Small recovered a sunken Sherman Tank off the coast of Slapton Sands, turning it into a memorial site recognized by the US Congress. He also wrote a book telling the story of Exercise Tiger called “The Forgotten Dead”.