Here is the second episode of our history. Read the first one here.
Training for access
To prepare for an ‘easy’ access to the Normandy beaches, the U.S. troops trained their amphibious assault skills by rehearsing actual landings. These practices took place on several spots along the British coast that are similar to the Normandy coast. All the participants involved noticed how much went wrong due to insufficient material, traffic jams, coalition at sea and overall chaos. These problems prompted more training and on the night of 27 April 1944, Operation Tiger was initiated to address the issue.
A convoy of 114 transport ships called LST’s (Landing ships and tanks nicknamed ‘Large Slow Target’) dropped 25,000 soldiers on the beach of Slapton (Slapton Sands) in Southern England. Slapton Sands was perfect because of its similarities with the French beach codenamed ‘Utah’ in which a part of the real landings on D-Day would take place. Eight LST’s took a detour to simulate the voyage to Utah beach.1
On board the LST 507 at 2:00 hours, 18-year-old marine medic Arthur Victor awoke jolted out of his bed from an extremely loud noise. It seemed like an army of carpenters was hammering the neck. Nobody knew what was happening, there was no enemy to be seen. After the signal all clear had been given, Arthur went back to bed. At that moment, he heard another exceedingly loud bang.
“I was lifted up and smacked against the wall. I severely bounced my head but my helmet took the worst of it. A tooth went through my lip but that was all the injury I had. My body was shaking all over when I got up.”
The LST’s engine room had been hit by a torpedo. This was not a drill! The convoy was under attack by nine German torpedo boats called ‘Schnellboote’. They had spotted the LST convoy and were shooting at it with their torpedoes and 20mm rapid-fire cannons. The Schnellbootes were able to hit two more LST’s. In the chaos and panic, one British ship shot one of the Allied ships. Two LST’s sank and one was badly damaged. When Arthur’s LST was sinking, he was laying in the very cold ocean while at the same time, the surface of the water around him was burning from leaked fuel of hit vessels .
“All around me people were dying (…). I didn’t understand why young and healthy men could give up so easily and die”.
Arthur Victor survived the night of Operation Tiger. The attack of the Schnellboote was not the only cause of death - many people also died due to friendly fire when soldiers landed on the rehearsal beach of Slapton Sands. In total, the assault on Operation Tiger had cost the lives of 1,405 American soldiers and British sailors. The landing on Utah beach on 6 June 1944, 200 soldiers died - a much lower amount than the rehearsal. The scale of the disaster was kept secret until the late 1980’s when, by accident, hotel owner Ken Small found evidence of the tragedy on the beaches of Devon. 2
American troops landing on Slapton Sands, Southern England during rehearsals for the invasion of Normandy. Life ammunition, badly coordinated artillery and miscommunication resulted in many casualties. 4
The badly damaged USS-LST 289 who made it to Darmouth harbour after being attacked by Schnellboote. Note the 40mm single gun platform hanging vertically. 3
1 Duncan Anderson, De val van het derde rijk, van D-Day tot de val van Berlijn 1944-1945(Oosterhout, 2003)26-27.
2 Jannik Peterson, ‘Oefening loopt uit op drama, D-Day, operation Tiger’, Historia, wetenschap in beeld (2/2014)36-41.
3 https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/31/e9/60/31e960c2420150ee5ac6ad9470c8a4ef.jpg , U.S. National Archives photograph, #80-G-283500.