Most of us know something of D-Day. On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline, to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which, “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 Ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foot-hold in Continental Europe. The cost in lives on D-Day was high. More than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded, but their sacrifice allowed more than 100,000 Soldiers to begin the slow, hard slog across Europe, to defeat Adolf Hitler’s crack troops.(Army.mil)
But what do you know of EXERCISE TIGER? Off Slapton Sands on the coast of Devon, 946 American servicemen perished during what was known a Exercise Tiger, a rehearsal for what would be the D-Day landing on Utah Beach in Normandy, France. This occurred but nine days before the event mentioned above – on April 27, 1944.
History.com describes Exercise Tiger thusly, “The dry run was designed to simulate the confusion and carnage of combat, but it became all too real after German torpedo boats stumbled upon the landing fleet and sank several of its ships. Despite the loss of some 750 American servicemen, the fiasco was initially covered up to ensure the D-Day mission remained secret. In the early morning hours of April 28, 1944, an Allied fleet slinked toward the coast of southern England. Along with a lone British corvette, the flotilla included eight American tank landing ships, or LSTs, each one of them filled to the brim with soldiers from the U.S. Army’s VII Corps. In just five weeks, these same troops were scheduled to land in France as part of Operation Overlord, the Allies’ secret plan to invade Nazi-held Western Europe. Overlord was integral to the Allied strategy for victory in World World II, and to ensure it went smoothly, military brass had organized a sweeping dress rehearsal codenamed ‘Exercise Tiger.””
Some 3000 residents from Slapton, Strete, Torcross, Blackawton and East Allington in South Devon departed their homes as part of the exercised designed by the American military. Slapton Sands reportedly resembled the Normandy coast line, and, therefore, it was chosen for the military simulation.
Historic UK tells us, “The beautiful and usually tranquil River Dart filled up with landing craft and ships for the operation. Nissen huts sprang up in Coronation Park in Dartmouth and new slipways and ramps were built on the river’s edge, all the way from Dartmouth up to Dittisham. Exercise Tiger was designed to be as realistic as possible and on 22nd April 1944 it began. Landing craft loaded with soldiers, tanks and equipment were deployed along the coast. However, unbeknown to the military, under cover of darkness nine German E-boats (fast attack craft) had managed to slip in amongst them in Lyme Bay. Two landing ships were sunk and a third badly damaged. Lack of training on the use of life vests, heavy packs and the cold water contributed to the disaster: many men drowned or died of hypothermia before they could be rescued. Over 700 Americans lost their lives.”
The exercise conducted upon Slapton beach also proved disastrous. It included a live-firing exercise creating what we now call “friendly fire” deaths from the naval bombardment. The losses occurring during this event were kept secret until long after the war had ended.
“Later that year on Sunday 4th June, the people of Dartmouth were ordered to stay indoors: tanks rolled through the town and troops converged on the harbour with its landing craft and ships. The following day 485 ships left the harbour, taking a full day to clear the mouth of the river and at dawn on the 6th June, the invasion of France began. Thanks to the training at Slapton, fewer soldiers died during the actual landing on Utah Beach than during Exercise Tiger, and so the training in Devon was not in vain.” (Historic UK)
Slapton was not the only site in Devon to be used by the American military during World War Two. The north coast around Woolacombe Bay was also used for practising amphibious landing assaults in preparation for the D-Day landings.