For years, deadly D-Day practice run rarely spoken of by survivors, military
Midnight had passed two hours earlier. The eight LSTs of Convoy T-4, packed with men and vehicles, were plying the calm, dark waters of Lyme Bay in the English Channel, on April 28, 1944.
In the belly of LST 511, along with a few hundred other GIs in full packs, was Cpl. Al Rose of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade. The soldiers were to land later that morning on the beaches of Slapton Sands in southwest England, part of Exercise Tiger. It was a practice run for the big invasion coming soon on the shores of Normandy, France.
“We were sitting there with our packs on and everything,” Rose, 81, recalled in a telephone interview. “All of a sudden, we heard this noise. It sounded like we were scraping sand.”
Immediately, general quarters sounded. Rushing to the deck of the LST — landing ship, tank — Rose and the others heard and saw gunfire.
“We had no idea what was going on,” said the retired machinist from York, Pa.
What was going on was the biggest training exercise tragedy in World War II. Before the morning sun would rise on those still waters, several hundred American soldiers and sailors would be dead. Two LSTs would be sunk and another crippled.
The very future of the upcoming invasion of France was put in doubt.
A cluster of German E-boats, similar to American PT boats, happened upon Convoy T-4 while on patrol from Cherbourg, France. With their approach undetected, the small and speedy E-boats had little trouble wreaking havoc. But because of the sensitive nature of the training exercise, soldiers and sailors were told not to speak of it.
“We never did, not even at our reunions,” Rose said.
Although the veil of secrecy was lifted after D-Day, events overtook Exercise Tiger. It remained a footnote to the war in Europe.
Even participants were in the dark for years about what happened on April 28, 1944. Rose would have to wait 40 years to learn what caused the noise he heard beneath his ship.
“What we felt,” he said, “was a torpedo scraping the bottom of the ship.”
The Allies did a lot of training as they prepared for Operation Overlord, the invasion of France that became known as D-Day. The attack would be a complex conglomeration of naval guns shelling the coastal defenses, airborne troops dropping from the pre-dawn sky and small landing craft depositing tens of thousands of men on the sandy threshold of Nazi-held Europe.
Practice was a necessity. Timing would be crucial.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted the practice as realistic as possible. To that end, Englanders along the southwest coast of the country were moved from their homes, and the Royal Navy actually shelled the vacated villages and fields, just as they would the Norman villages and fields on June 6.
Before the carnage that visited Convoy 4, smaller landing craft had taken thousands of men from the 4th Infantry Division ashore at Slapton Sands just as they would on D-Day. Men from the 101st Airborne Division, who would drop into Normandy in June hours ahead of the invasion, were deposited by truck at their landing zones a few miles inland.
The area was chosen for its resemblance to an area of Normandy forever to be known as Utah Beach. The slope of the beach, the sand and the tide were similar enough to give participants a taste of what to expect.
The larger LSTs were to arrive after the initial landing of troops, depositing supplies and reinforcements to bolster the beachhead while the fighting raged.
“The idea is to empty the boat as fast as possible,” said John Gallagher, 80, from his home in Cleveland. “You’re a sitting duck. That … boat is sitting there like a cork.”
Gallagher, a private first class in the 1st Engineer Special Brigade, was already ashore. A veteran of operations in the Mediterranean, he was sitting out this exercise.
“Most of the people on the boats were new to the theater,” he said. “Exercise Tiger was to teach these new people.”
Sitting in a barracks on shore, Gallagher had no inkling of events out on Lyme Bay.
“A guy came in and took one guy’s foot locker out,” he recalled.
That was the first indication Gallagher and the others had that something was amiss.
When a torpedo struck LST 507 in the opening moments of the attacks, Lt. j.g. Eugene Eckstam, a medical officer on LST 507, went below to help any wounded.
“I opened the door on the tank deck and there was a roaring furnace in there,” the 85-year-old retired surgeon said from his home in Bloomington, Minn. “I could hear all these screams.”
Reluctantly, Eckstam was forced to close the door on the hurt and terrified men and secure it. Navy regulations required him to consider, first and foremost, the integrity of the ship.
“I had nightmares for many years about closing that hatch and hearing those screams,” he said.
Thirty minutes after the strike, the order was given to abandon ship as it began to sink. Eckstam climbed aboard a lifeboat. Some soldiers jumped into the 44-degree water.
“A lot of them were found floating upside down with their feet in the air,” he said.
The men had improperly wrapped their inflatable life jackets around their waists, instead of beneath their armpits. They became top-heavy and turned over in the water, unable to right themselves.
“It wasn’t a pretty sight,” Gallagher said.
Charles Griffey, 82, of Independence, Mo., now retired from the electrical construction business, was a driver of amphibious trucks known as ducks.
He was sleeping on a stretcher attached to the wall of LST 289 when the torpedo struck.
“It knocked me on the floor, knocked the wind out of me,” he said.
Water was coming in the ship and someone was trying to close the hatch, which would have locked him and other soldiers inside. Somehow, they managed to get out and up on deck, where Griffey took charge of a deck gun. A German boat was nearby.
“I got into the [gun] harness and got to aiming at the thing,” he said. “But I didn’t know where the hell the trigger was.”
He said a British ship came steaming across the bay, but ran over many troops who had jumped in the water from sinking and damaged LSTs.
“I don’t know how many they killed — run over,” he said.
Cpl. Dale Rodman of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade didn’t know if it was practice or not when he boarded an LST, but the truth soon became clear.
“They said all the trucks should drive on the left-hand side when we hit the beach,” said Rodman. “We knew we weren’t going to France.”
Rodman, 80, a retired geologist in Carmichael, Calif., was in his bunk below deck when he heard something slam into the ship, like someone hit it with a sledgehammer.
“It was a dud torpedo,” he said.
General quarters was sounded and he went up on deck with others roused from sleep.
“Just as we got on deck, the second [torpedo] hit and exploded,” he said. “I was blown into the air.”
The fire aboard the ship worsened and men climbed into lifeboats. Rodman said the man piloting his lifeboat pulled away from the sinking LST, refusing to pick up men in the water.
“His orders were to pick up people when they swam toward us,” he said. At that point, a bunch of bodies came floating by.
The stern of LST 289 was badly damaged, but the ship was able to limp toward Dartmouth, aided in the morning at the journey’s end by a tug boat.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Earl Thatcher, an electrician aboard the ship, was uninjured, but scared. He didn’t know what had happened.
“They pulled us into the pier in Dartmouth. They were taking the casualties off,” said Thatcher, 79, of Runnemede, N.J. “There were some guys taking pictures. A guy went down there and took the film.
“We were told not to say anything to anybody,” Thatcher said.
Seaman 2nd Class Tom Glynn was also aboard LST 289. After reaching Dartmouth, they were taken to a local college where someone spoke to the survivors.
“He said what happened last night didn’t happen,” said Glynn, 77, of Villas, N.J.
The secrecy was necessary, of course. Had the Germans tied the exercise at Slapton Sands to the beaches of Normandy, the invasion would have been in jeopardy.
In fact, invasion planners were anxious when officers in Exercise Tiger familiar with the D-Day plans went missing. Had they been picked up by the Germans? Relief came when the bodies of the missing officers were found.
The secrecy was lifted after June 6. In fact, an account of the Exercise Tiger tragedy appeared in Stars and Stripes in August. And the official Army history of the invasion, “Cross Channel Attack” by Gordon Harrison, published in 1951, contains a brief description of the attack.
But the news didn’t reach everyone. Soldiers and sailors from the exercise went home at the war’s end still not sure of what they had witnessed.
“I’ll tell you the truth, up until about 10 years ago, I thought all the LSTs except ours was sunk,” Thatcher said.
Family members of the dead were given no further information other than what was in the original message of their loved one’s death.
The family of Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Thanuel Sheppard knew only that he died on April 28, 1944, but they didn’t know the circumstances. In the late 1980s, while watching a documentary about Exercise Tiger, his mother noticed the date was the same as her son’s death.
“It had always been a mystery,” said Sheppard’s nephew, Glenn Wells Jr., who lives in Benton, Ky. His research discovered that, indeed, his uncle was aboard LST 531, which was torpedoed and sunk by the German E-boats.
Pfc. Lowell Renner of the 3206 Quartermaster Service Company died during Exercise Tiger, but, because of the secrecy, the family didn’t know how he died.
“My father and mother died not knowing what happened to my brother, said Vernon Renner, 87, also a World War II veteran. “All they got when he was killed [was] that he was ‘lost in action.’”
In the 1980s, Exercise Tiger came into the light. American writer Edwin P. Hoyt wrote “The Invasion Before Normandy,” a book about Exercise Tiger, in 1985. In 1989, British journalist Nigel Lewis published “Channel Firing: The Tragedy of Exercise Tiger.”
And former British policeman Ken Small, who died in March, wrote an account in 1989 of the tragedy and his effort to place a memorial on the beach at Slapton Sands.
His book, “The Forgotten Dead,” carried a listing of those who died. In 1999, he told Stars and Stripes that many people had told him his book had solved a family mystery.
Men who were there began to ponder what exactly happened that night.
Fred Missele, 79, of Bartlett, Ill., was a sailor on LST 496.
“I put it out of my mind for I don’t know how many years,” he said.
Griffey said the event diminished as the war continued.
“We made the invasion and from then on, we forgot about it,” he said. “It was like last night’s sleep.”
But the absence of attention to Exercise Tiger prompted talk of a cover-up, which some veterans are convinced of to this day.
“They lied to us back then,” Rodman said. He’s convinced a third LST was sunk that night, although he admits he can’t prove it.
He said soldiers were initially told thousands were killed. Although there is disagreement in published sources, the body count is usually reported as 749, including 198 sailors and 551 soldiers.
But Rodman said morning reports of the units involved are missing. He believes double agents working for the Allies were given information about the exercise to pass to the Germans to construct their credibility as spies.
“I think the Germans knew this was going to take place,” he said. “That’s my theory. That’s my opinion.”
Glynn said he has searched the log of LST 289 in the Department of Defense archives and found nothing about the torpedo that nearly sent the ship to the bottom of the English Channel.
“One page is ripped out [of the log],” he said. “That’s a little mysterious.”
David Troyer, 80, of Hutchinson, Kan., was a soldier with the 3207 Quartermaster Company and had taken landing troops ashore at Slapton Sands before the E-boats arrived.
At a reunion years later, he said he talked to a former officer who helped identify the dead.
The officer said he stopped counting at 1,200.
Troyer said there was talk that the landing troops were fired upon by friendly forces portraying the enemy. He has heard stories that the naval shelling landed on troops on the shore.
Stories have circulated for years about mass graves in Devon near the beach where bodies floated in with the tide.
But the official version puts the onus on poor planning and even poorer communications.
“It was a screw-up, that’s all,” Gallagher said.
The after-action report puts the blame on a lack of escort ships and a problem with radio frequencies. Instead of two British ships for escorts — a destroyer and a corvette — only the corvette made it after the destroyer was damaged in a collision leaving port.
And a typographical error in the radio frequency for the exercise prevented the American ships from learning sooner about the presence of the German E-boats.
Historian Charles MacDonald has pooh-poohed the idea of a cover-up. In 1988, he wrote an article called “Slapton Sands: The Cover-up That Never Was” for the journal “Army.”
“The tragedy off Slapton Sands was simply one of those cruel happenstances of war,” he wrote.
But there were lessons learned from the tragedy of Exercise Tiger.
“The first one is that high command didn’t plan for disaster,” Eckstam said.
He said the exercise planners never considered a possible attack from E-boats while defenseless soldiers and sailors floated on Lyme Bay. This gave them a jolt when planning the real invasion.
Also, soldiers were better trained in the use of the inflatable life jackets that had caused so many of them to drown when they misused them in Exercise Tiger.
There were other lessons. Radio frequencies, for example, were known by all concerned.
The men who survived Exercise Tiger believe the success on Utah Beach, where casualties were 10 percent of those on Omaha Beach, is a direct result of lessons learned on April 28, 1944.
Those who were in Lyme Bay that night are convinced the low casualty figure is directly linked to that horrific night.
“The Utah Beach troops,” said Rodman, “took their hit in Exercise Tiger.”