Remembering Operation Tiger WWII: Six weeks before D-Day
On this 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings, some remaining veterans are pausing to remember an event that took place six weeks prior, known simply as 'Operation Tiger WWII'.
Operation Tiger was in essence, a practice run for the D-Day Normandy landings to take place on June 6th. It involved 30,000 soldiers; troops from the Infantry Division, 279th Combat Engineers and the 70th Tank Battalion.
These American forces were going to use Slapton Sands as a practice beach for the landings, as it resembled Utah Beach with the cliffs behind it. Little did they know that the German listening posts stationed along the Atlantic Wall in France could pick up the American communication about Operation Tiger and they knew what the Americans were going to do.
The residents of Slapton and Torcross had been evacuated from their homes since 1943 and live ammunition was going to be used.
28 April 1944, landing craft set off from the coast of England carrying soldiers and their equipment, along with a convoy of ships. The Royal Navy provided escorts with HMS Scimitar in the lead and HMS Azalea in the rear.
Suddenly HMS Scimitar in the front was rammed by another vessel and had received orders to stay in port but the Commander of the operation was not told of this fact so the convoy started off with no escort in the front and HMS Azalea in the rear had been told to stay behind. It is thought that a typing error was to blame for this miscommunication and the convoy had no Navy escorts at all.
The accounts of Operation Tiger are taken from the men that survived so some versions differ about what happened.
It is thought however, that when the convoy approached Start Bay, near Lyme Bay, they were fired open by German E Boats and 749 soldiers were killed. The 9 E Boats had been dispatched from Cherbourg and sunk Landing Craft 507, 531 and badly damaged 289. General Eisenhower ordered all the bodies to be recovered as 10 personnel on board had maps of Utah Beach in their possession of the D-Day landings plan, and many think the mission was kept quiet so as not to affect the June 6th landings.
An account of what happened from a survivor of the Operation:
It was two hours after midnight on 28 April, 1944. Since the moon had just gone down, visibility was fair. The sea was calm. A few hours earlier, in daylight, assault forces of the U S 4th Infantry Division had gone ashore on Slapton Sands, a stretch of beach along the south coast of England that closely resembled a beach on the French coast of Normandy, code-named Utah, where a few weeks later U.S. troops were to storm ashore as part of history's largest and most portentous amphibious assault: D-Day. The assault at Slapton Sands was known as Exercise Tiger, one of several rehearsals conducted in preparation for the momentous invasion to come. So vital was the exercise of accustoming the troops to the combat conditions they were soon to face that commanders had ordered use of live naval and artillery fire, which could be employed because British civilians had long ago been relocated from the region around Slapton Sands. Individual soldiers also had live ammunition for their rifles and machine guns.
Eight landing ships were heading towards Slapton Sands with engineers and chemical and quartermaster troops on board along with tanks and jeeps, when suddenly nine German torpedo boats appeared out of the darkness and attacked the convoy of eight ships.
German torpedoes hit three of the LSTs. One lost its stern but eventually limped into port. Another burst into flames, the fire fed by gasoline in the vehicles aboard. A third keeled over and sank within six minutes. There was little time for launching lifeboats. Trapped below decks, hundreds of soldiers and sailors went down with the ships. Others leapt into the sea, but many soon drowned, weighted down by water-logged overcoats and in some cases pitched forward into the water because they were wearing life belts around their waists rather than under their armpits. Others succumbed to hypothermia in the cold water. When the waters of the English Channel at last ceased to wash bloated bodies ashore, the toll of the dead and missing stood at 198 sailors and 551 soldiers, a total of 749, the most costly training incident involving U.S. forces during World War II.
A veteran called Peter Kozak was also part of the operation, although has not spoken much about it.
Only six weeks before D-Day, he'd survived a disastrous ambush on a training exercise called Operation Tiger when German torpedo boats sank several tank landing ships, killing 749 soldiers and sailors.
The Allied forces could not be sure if any prisoners had been taken, especially any of the ten men that held information about the D-Day landings. All of them were accounted for however, and they had all drowned in the sea.
A subsequent official investigation revealed two factors that may have contributed to the tragedy -- a lack of escort vessels and an error in radio frequencies.
Because of a typographical error in orders, the U.S. LSTs were on a radio frequency different from the corvette and the British naval headquarters ashore. When one of the picket ships spotted German torpedo boats soon after midnight, a report quickly reached the British corvette but not the LSTs. Assuming the U.S. vessels had received the same report, the commander of the corvette made no effort to raise them.
Orders were issued after Operation Tiger that no one who knew anything could talk about it as they didn't want the Germans to know how many men they had lost or what they were trying to achieve with Operation Tiger. There was a press release issued of the incident in July 1944 of the tragedy.
Notice of it was printed, among other places, in the soldier newspaper, Stars & Stripes. With the end of the war, the tragedy off Slapton Sands -- like many another wartime events involving high loss of life, such as the sinking of a Belgian ship off Cherbourg on Christmas Eve, 1944, in which more than 800 American soldiers died--received little attention. There were nevertheless references to the tragedy in at least three books published soon after the war, including a fairly detailed account by Capt. Harry C. Butcher (Gen. Eisenhower's former naval aide) in My Three Years With Eisenhower (1946).