Day 858: The Tragic D-Day Dress Rehearsal

originally published May 7, 2014

June 6, 1944 was the day the Allied forces heaved their collective mass up against the first mighty domino that would eventually lead to the collapse of the Third Reich and an absolute victory in Europe. Over 160,000 American, British, Canadian, Greek… hell, you know who the good guys were… anyway, over 160,000 troops made a beach party along the coast of Normandy and set about the job of liberating France from German control.

D-Day was the result of months of planning, preparation and practice. Yes, practice. The Allied forces didn’t want to float a city’s worth of fresh-faced yokels straight out of basic training into the most important battle of World War II. They needed a dry run, a simulation that could prep these guys for the real thing.

That pre-season battle was known as Exercise Tiger. It was successful, if you judge it by the fact that the Normandy invasion was a victory when it happened for real. But the practice run killed roughly 20% as many Allied soldiers as would die on D-Day, and it very nearly snuffed out the mission a month and a half before it was to happen.

Tucked along England’s underbelly, in the picturesque county of Devon is a place called Slapton Sands. This was to be the training ground for the team that was going to target Utah Beach in June – the terrain was very similar: a gravel beach, followed by a strip of land with a lake tucked behind it. The British government evacuated all 3000 local residents, including some rather sedentary folks who hadn’t ever left their village.

Beginning in December of 1943, ships were practicing their beach-landing techniques. 30,000 troops were brought in for the April 22 mock-invasion, tucked aboard nine LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank). The Royal Navy scattered a few protective ships around the edge of Lyme Bay just in case the Germans should come a-snoopin’. The soldiers spent a few days rehearsing the process of getting from boat to shore. Then on April 27, the ships set out on a channel-crossing simulation around the bay, with the intent of simulating the real deal at first light.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower felt that a more realistic simulation was in order for the April 28 run. He wanted the troops to experience the true sensory input of battle. The HMS Hawkins was ordered to shell the beach with live ammunition roughly an hour before the landing, with a 30-minute buffer window to allow the beach to be inspected for safety before the troops showed up. A few of the landing ships were running behind though, so the entire mission was delayed. The HMS Hawkins was told this, but radio frequencies hadn’t been standardized, so some of the LSTs didn’t get the message. This was not good.

A number of ships were pulling up to the beach at Slapton Sands while the HMS Hawkins was still firing, providing more of an accurate simulation than even Eisenhower had wanted. There was a strip of white tape along the beach that was supposed to keep the troops away from the portions of land that were being shelled, but for whatever reason a number of soldiers charged past it. By the time the shells stopped landing, more than 300 American soldiers had been killed by the friendly fire.

And the day was just getting started.

American LSTs were still making their approach across Lyme Bay. For whatever reason, they were travelling in a straight line – not the best tactical formation. One of the two British destroyers who was supposed to be protecting the fleet was back at Plymouth getting patched up after an accidental collision, so when the nine German E-boats who had been skulking around in the bay saw the opportunity, they took a shot and opened fire.

This all comes back to the radio frequency problem and a general clusterfuck of miscommunication. The information about the damaged destroyer never reached the American forces, nor did the British intel about the presence of German boats (which had been spotted the night before). The Brits simply assumed the Americans knew. The E-boats saw some easy prey; from a military perspective, it made sense to attack.

LST-507 was the first to be hit. The ship caught fire and was abandoned less than half an hour later. 424 US Army and Navy personnel perished aboard this ship. LST-531 was next, blasted by a torpedo and quickly pulled to bottom of the bay. LST-289 was also hit, but while the flames raged on deck, the ship was able to hobble back to shore. The other ships and their one British escort corvette fired back, but they were out-gunned.

Panicking soldiers put on their lifebelts incorrectly, which meant the weight of their combat packs would flip them onto their back with their heads underwater. Several drowned in the frigid bay while awaiting rescue. Ten of the officers who were missing actually possessed high enough clearance that they knew all about the Normandy invasion. Eisenhower was ready to call off the entire plan for June 6 unless those officers (or their bodies) were found. If they’d been captured alive they could have given away the Allies’ most important secret.

When the smoke cleared, 749 servicemen were dead from the attacks, bringing the day’s total up to 946, with about 200 wounded. By comparison, 4,414 were confirmed dead on the day of the actual invasion. This was a huge embarrassment for the Allies, and because of this all survivors were sworn to secrecy, at least until the real invasion went down. Radio frequencies were synched up between the nations and proper life vest training was provided for all troops. Despite the high number of deaths during what was supposed to be a training exercise, Exercise Tiger (also called Operation Tiger) gets very little airplay in the history books.

At first glance this may seem like a cover-up. Not so, according to those historians who have looked into it. A press release was properly issued and a mention of the day was included in the July issue of Stars and Stripes. But D-Day was the big military story of that year, and as those massive dominoes toppled and the pendulum of war clearly swung in the Allies’ favor, the events of April 28, 1944 became – in the words of author, historian and actual resident of Devon, Ken Small – “conveniently forgotten.”

Given the lessons to be gleaned from a day like that, I’m thinking they shouldn’t be.

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