Back on June 6, I posted an article on Exercise Tiger, which was a tragic rehearsal that took place off Slapton Sands on the coast of Devon. That article brought me to the notice of Nigel Lewis, who has written extensively on the subject. Therefore, I asked him to guest post with us.
The Cover Plan Conspiracy takes a new look at a subject that I first wrote about in a book published thirty years ago. Its American title was Exercise Tiger, after the US landing-operation of that name held in the English Channel in late April, 1944.
Tiger is remembered for an incident in the early morning of April 28th, when the last of its eight convoys – Convoy T-4 – was set upon by German E-boats. Two of its landing-ships were sunk, and 639 Americans lost their lives. The incident is routinely mentioned in the histories of D-Day and the Normandy invasion, and readers might imagine that there is nothing new to be said about it.
But there is. The T-4 incident is usually seen as a temporary setback in the Allied preparations for the invasion. Set in the final few weeks before D-Day, The Cover Plan Conspiracy goes behind the scenes of the preparations and makes major discoveries about Tiger and T-4. I do not peddle some conspiracy theory. The book is based on hard evidence and years of research in the British National Archives. [Please note: The active part of Exercise Tiger, after the ships set sail, was divided into three phases, 1) the seaborne phase, 2) the landings, 3) the movement inland of the troops who had been landed. The piece below concerns only the seaborne phase (1). The landings were on Slapton Sands. The attack on T-4 was during the seaborne phase, and it occurred almost forty miles from Slapton Sands, off the county of Dorset.]
To the men on T-4 and the other convoys, Tiger was just another training exercise. Their commanding officers knew that it was also a dress rehearsal for the Utah Beach landing in Normandy. But there was something else that even their commanders didn’t know. One of my discoveries is that Tiger was tightly locked into the schedule of the invasion’s top-secret deception plan, Operation Fortitude, also known as the Cover Plan. In fact, the exercise was at the cutting-edge of the Plan, its so-called tactical threat delivered on April 24th, the day that Tiger began.
There was, then, a deceptive side to Tiger, which has been hidden by subtle distortions of its history. In 1944, for example, the Allied Naval Commander, Admiral Bertram Ramsay, claimed that the E-boats were on a routine reconnaissance sortie when they chanced to run into Convoy T-4. The Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, made the same claim in 1946. The claim is false and was known to be so. The E-boats did not simply happen upon their targets. Almost two days before the attack, the enemy had learned that there were about to be large-scale Allied amphibious operations in the west of the English Channel.
On the morning of April 26th, just hours before the first convoy put to sea, German photo-reconnaissance aircraft overflew Torbay, a natural harbour in the western Channel where ten of Tiger’s landing-ships lay at anchor. It would have been clear from the photos that the ships were combat-loaded, ready for action. The Germans did not know it was an exercise. To them, it looked like the long-expected invasion. Hitler himself anticipated that the invasion would be on April 26th.
Certain British officers in charge of the shore defences knew that the recce (Reconnaissance) had tipped off the enemy. But by disguising it in the intelligence bulletins as a harmless flight over the sea “off Dartmouth”, they concealed this vital piece of information. An even more disturbing discovery is that the Allied air forces paved the way for the reconnaissance. During exercises, it was considered “essential” that air-patrols should watch over the loaded ships while they were still in harbour. A few days later the even bigger D-Day rehearsal, Exercise Fabius, was patrolled by the RAF. The patrols for Tiger, however, were cancelled, leaving a wide-open window of opportunity for enemy aircraft to fly through.
Early that morning, the E-boats had arrived in Cherbourg, having moved there from Boulogne. Royal Navy intelligence knew that the move meant that E-boat operations in the west of the Channel were imminent. It also knew that the E-boats only put to sea after their targets had been identified by German air reconnaissance. A German message decrypted by the British code-cracking operation, Ultra, revealed that an E-boat sortie “northwestward” from Cherbourg was planned for the night of the 26th/ 27th, but postponed. Also decrypted by Ultra was a report on the air reconnaissance over Torbay. A copy of it was sent to the Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth, Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham.
By lunchtime on the 27th, it was clear that E-boats were about to prowl the western Channel, and that great danger awaited Convoy T-4 – the only convoy still in harbour. Leatham had the power to stop it from sailing, but did nothing. Other evidence of underhand action and inaction by him is in Chapters 20 and 21 of my book. He could and should have allocated more warships to Tiger, and because he didn’t its convoys – all apart from the first one – were very weakly defended.
What explains this devious behaviour by one ally towards another? The Cover Plan does. Fortitude was nothing if not devious. Its aim was to divert attention from the real area of the invasion, Normandy, by convincing the enemy that the Allies would land 150 miles away at the narrow, eastern end of the Channel, in the area known as the Pas de Calais. Historians have not appreciated how difficult it was to fit the far western end of the Channel – where the Americans were – into this plan. As I explain in Part 1 of my book, the fact that there were more invasion ports to the west than to the east, and the refusal of the Americans to take the Cover Plan seriously, only added to the difficulty.
The success of Fortitude was considered indispensable to the invasion, and the failure of the invasion was unthinkable. For all its make believe, Fortitude was a major operation of war, in which it was legitimate to take risks. It aimed to save Allied lives, but above all it aimed to expedite the invasion, even at the cost of incurring loss of life.
This all has a bearing on Tiger, in several ways. The key point is that because the Americans were too far away from the Pas de Calais to include them in the master-narrative of the Cover Plan, another story had to be found for them. We cannot be sure what the story was. But a “pretended diversion” to the west was probably part of it, and a provocative “mock-invasion” certainly was.
There is also the distressing possibility that Tiger was a sacrifice operation carried out to create an impression of Allied unpreparedness and weakness in the west. Tiger was not the first exercise to double as a deception, and unwitting Allied servicemen – and British civilians – were sometimes killed in deception operations. The sacrifice was usually on a comparatively small scale, but in late April the tactical threat allowed for great risks to be taken to safeguard the secret that Normandy was the Allied landing-area. The large presence of US forces in the west jeopardised the secret, and the high death-toll of Tiger may be an indication of how much it mattered to establish a fake “cover story” for the Americans.
The western alliance was supposed to be bilateral in its thinking, planning, and decision-making. But where the Cover Plan is concerned, the bilateralism broke down. Fortitude was almost entirely a British operation, and it was certainly the British who took the lead in hatching and implementing the scheme within Fortitude – a secret scheme that deserves to be called a conspiracy – that collaterally contributed to the deaths of 639 Americans in the E-boat attack. An unresolved question is the extent to which Supreme Allied Headquarters and some of its US generals, including Eisenhower, were aware of the scheme.
The English Channel in early 1944 was a highly dangerous place, and Tiger’s seaborne phase was made even more perilous by the lowering of the air and sea defences and the dissembling of the enemy air recce over Torbay. These were all intentional measures, and in my book I suggest that whether or not Tiger was used as the vehicle for a sacrifice operation, it “certainly became one”. I also say that the 639 who died were “sacrificial victims of the Cover Plan”.
I stop short of saying that a sacrifice on that scale was specifically intended. Before coming to that conclusion, I would want further evidence. Meanwhile, there is the evidence that we already have, of premeditation on the Allied side of the Channel. The deceptionists – as the deceivers called themselves – must have realised that their actions increased the odds that one of Tiger’s convoys would be attacked, ships sunk, and lives lost. They may, however, have gambled on the chance that there would be no attack, or, if there were one, that its death-toll would be low – an acceptable price to pay for the security of the invasion.
If so, the gamble did not come off.
Copyright © 2017, Nigel Lewis
Excerpts from The Cover Plan…
From Chapter 1 – Hesketh’s History
In Arlington Cemetery, Virginia, is a plaque to the memory of the men who died that night. Commending their sacrifice, it states that they died in “the Allied cause”. So they did, but the same may be said of any Allied soldier who died in World War II. In their case, the specific cause was deeply hidden. Caught without knowing it in a story designed to delude the enemy, they were sacrificial victims of the Cover Plan, whose ruthless demands were intrinsic to the catastrophe of T-4. The one operation – the training exercise – was mangled in the machinery of the other one: the deception structured around it.
British historian John Keegan’s description of the T-4 incident, “sad but subordinate”, no longer applies. It would be more accurate to say that it was made to seem subordinate. The emotive story of the doomed convoy turns out not to be random, after all. It can no longer be regarded as an optional add-on to the pre-D-Day history of the Normandy landings – it is right at the heart of that history. Nor can it be construed simply as a “sad” story, sad though it is. General Bradley, the commander of First US Army, rightly called it “one of the major tragedies of the European War”.
What happened to T-4 was monstrously unfair, but there is also a certain wartime inevitability to it, and it is a tragic inevitability. It seems incredible that hundreds of men could die merely for a story. But there were powerful forces at work in the background to Tiger, and the British too were prey to those forces, as we will see …
The deceptionists worked under a disadvantage. They were not responding to events so much as setting the scene for events yet to come, trying to mould an outcome that still lay in the future. Knowing that it was a successful outcome, we are less likely to be amenable to the idea that it might have been less successful if there had been no deception around Tiger, or that T-4 may have forestalled a greater tragedy. Those arguments now look frail and hypothetical. But the deceptionists lived with hypothesis on a daily basis. In trying to second-guess the enemy, they could only act on the basis of conjecture. The ramifications of this point will become clear as the story progresses.
The Cover Plan posed ethical dilemmas that most of us would find intolerable. But the deceptionists could not let the dilemmas detain them for long. They had to choose. They acted out of military necessity, as they saw it, and it is often hard to see how, in the circumstances, they might have acted differently.
But decisions that may have seemed inevitable to them at the time do not necessarily seem so to us in the present-day. There was, as we will see, an objective basis for the Tiger deception, but was it objectively necessary to go ahead with it? There can be no definitive answer to that question. It lies in the realm of “might-have-been” history. Objective necessity does not eliminate the human factor, however. That too had a part to play, as it usually does. Character-defects in some of the commanders make one suspect that the Tiger deception may have got out of hand and run away with itself. I am thinking of the stubborn pride and arrogance that the Greeks knew as hubris, and the misplaced “gung-ho” enthusiasm that is the fatal flaw of many a military disaster. Wartime deception is a dangerous game – the deceptionists may have played it too assiduously.
I will present the evidence known to me, and set the T-4 disaster in the context of the extreme and exacting circumstances in which the decision to weave a deception around Tiger seemed inevitable and right. Before the reader rushes to judgement, I ask that those circumstances be taken into account. It is not my intention either to blame the British en bloc, or to absolve them from blame. But it would be an over-simplification to take the story out of context and see it in black-and-white terms, with the British as the villains of the piece. Their judgements may be in doubt, but not their motives. They were not driven by narrow British self-interest. It was their duty to ensure the security of the invasion, and they took the decisions they did because they saw Allied advantage in taking them. They did not die in the Allied cause, but they did act in that cause. If this is immoral, it is the immorality of war itself.
The concept of the Tiger deception seems to have been British, and the operation was British-led, but readers should be aware from the outset that Americans too took part. The full extent of US participation is unclear, but there were certainly Americans active in carrying out the operation, and others who covered it up. It was eventually an Allied operation, as the Cover Plan was supposed to be. The story unfolds within a warring family – what Eisenhower called “the family relationship of SHAEF”. Americans and British were of course on the same side, not like the house of Atreus in Greek tragedy, warring with one another. It is well known, however, that they were not always as united in thought and deed as they liked to present themselves as being. T-4 – a secret grief of the western alliance – takes that knowledge to a new level.
From Chapter 6 – Sacrifice
Because of Allied protocol, the British could not directly intervene in the crisis in the west. But protocol could not be allowed to get in the way of the overriding operational need for a fully effective Cover Plan. Given US unwillingness to co-operate in the Plan, only the British could save the day by creating the “necessary false picture” in this area. They therefore had to intervene, but could only do so indirectly. Soon enough, Harold Kehm’s prediction of 1943 would come true, as the British took over the American share of the Cover Plan.
To repeat my earlier caveat, all the people in this story – British and American alike – were under the compulsion of the impersonal forces unleashed by war. It would be a mistake to interpret the story in wholly personal terms, to imagine, for example, that the British set out to settle a grudge and punish the Americans for their negligence and non-co-operation in the Cover Plan. That is not how it was. It was the misfortune of the Americans that they had the geographical bad luck of occupying the area that it was most problematic for the deceptionists to accommodate within the Cover Plan. At the same time, it was an Allied responsibility – which became a British responsibility – to ensure that the Overlord cover was watertight and comprehensive. Despite the high-level US reluctance to get involved in the Cover Plan, and despite the extreme difficulty posed by the West Country and the US forces concentrated there, leaving them out of the Plan was not an option.
About the Books…
Set in England in the momentous final few weeks before the Normandy invasion of June 6th, 1944, this is the astonishing true story of the deadliest, best kept secret of the Anglo-American alliance of World War II.
The Cover Plan Conspiracy is a complete reappraisal of one of the most publicised but also most misunderstood episodes of the whole D-Day period. In the early morning of April 28, 1944, enemy torpedo-boats attacked an American troopship convoy in the west of the English Channel. Convoy T-4 was the final follow-up convoy of Exercise Tiger, a huge US dress rehearsal for the Normandy landings. The story ever since has been that the 639 Americans killed in the attack were the accidental victims of an unforeseen disaster in training.
The real story, told here for the first time, is devastatingly different. Nigel Lewis draws on extensive research and a wealth of fresh evidence to show that Exercise Tiger was secretly enmeshed in the Allied deception plan for Normandy, the invasion’s so-called “Cover Plan”. Without their knowledge, the men taking part in Tiger were entangled in Allied deception strategy, acting out a narrative designed to mislead the enemy before D-Day. The hundreds killed in the convoy disaster were secret sacrificial victims of the D-Day Cover Plan.
Shedding unprecedented light on Allied disarray and the secret war waged by the Allies before Normandy, this book breaks new ground. The Cover Plan was intended to fool the enemy for a few months. The cover-up of Tiger and T-4 has deceived the historians and peoples of two nations for more than seventy years.
The Cover Plan Conspiracy falls naturally into four parts – The Plan, ‘A Larger Plan’, The Operation, and The Cover-Up. All four parts are available here.
Please note, there are no maps in the book.
Part 1: The Plan sets the scene for the whole book and describes Anglo-American disagreements and other problems that led to the larger plan …
Part 2: ‘A Larger Plan’ shows the net closing around Tiger, and explains the circumstances in which the exercise got caught in the Cover Plan …
Part 3: The Operation exposes the covert steps taken to weaken Tiger’s defences and tip off the enemy, culminating in the attack on its final convoy …
Part 4: The Cover-Up reveals what was done in 1944 and afterwards to conceal the Tiger deception and the real causes of the convoy disaster …
You might also check out…
Exercise Tiger: The Dramatic True Story of a Hidden Tragedy of World War II Hardcover – July, 1990
(This book is only available from 3rd Party book sellers (starting at $3.95)
In the autumn of 1943, the United States armed forces, with the cooperation of the British government, evacuated seven villages and took over 30 acres of Devon to set up a high security camp where thousands of young American recruits could be trained for the forthcoming invasion of Europe. Known as Exercise Tiger, the operation included manoeuvres and rehearsals on landing craft in the English Channel. On the night of April 28th 1944, the landing craft had an inadequate escort of warships and seven German E-boats in the area moved in. At first, the Americans thought they were part of the exercise, but then they saw that their friends were being wounded and killed on several of the vessels, the order was given to abandon ship. Many of the soldiers who jumped, drowned soon after hitting the water.
Meet Nigel Lewis…
Nigel Lewis was born in Central America in 1948 and is a graduate of Cambridge University. He was a journalist for twenty-five years, for the BBC and other outlets. The Cover Plan Conspiracy is his second excursion into the investigative history of World War II. His first book, Paperchase (1981), exposed a state secret of the Soviet bloc, the secret purloining, by Poland, of thousands of priceless musical and other manuscripts evacuated during the war from the Prussian State Library in Berlin. He is also the librettist of The First Commandment, the English version of an early Mozart opera.
In the late 1980’s he wrote a blow-by-blow documentary account of the E-boat attack on Exercise Tiger in 1944, published in the UK as Channel Firing and in the USA as Exercise Tiger. He is currently working on another book about the US presence in wartime Britain – Bugbear: the Americans and the Beaches of the West Country, 1943-1944. He lives in London, and spends part of the year in Italy.