The Story of Exercise Tiger

The Story of Exercise Tiger        April 28, 1944   

Artist's Rendition of Attack in Lyme Bay

               Introduction:  Planning for "Operation Overlord" (D-Day) began in earnest in 1943.  In November, 1943, Devon County Council was informed by the War Cabinet that the Slapton Sands area was to be totally evacuated, to permit part of the South Hams to be used for practice assault landings for Utah Beach.  Preparations began for a series of exercises, with various code names, to take place on the beaches of Slapton Sands,during the month of April 1944, including naval operations and live fire exercises on the beaches. These exercises included co-ordination the British military.  Below is an account of Convoy T-4, code name, "Exercise Tiger" (also known as Operation Tiger), followed by notes in regard to the casualites from the convoy and the Slapton Sands Beaches.                

     On the afternoon of April 27, 1944,  thousands of men began boarding Eight LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) at Plymouth (LSTs 58, 496, 511, 515, 531) and Brixham (LSTs 289, 499, 507).  They were about to embark on a full dress rehearsal for D-Day on the beach at Slapton Sands, England.  Slapton Sands was chosen because of its  similarity  to Utah  Beach,  the  D-Day assignment for this convoy.   The exercise also included military serviceman and live ammunition on the beach.  The local British residents made the sacrifice and were evacuated in 1943  from their farms and homes for the duration of the rehearsals taking place.

     American soldiers were in full combat gear below in the Tank Deck, along with their vehicles.  The LSTs were loaded with smaller amphibious vehicles, tanks, jeeps, weapons, and trucks that were full of fuel and ammunition.  The sailors and officers were at their posts as they set sail.  The ships were on their way to meet and form one convoy in Lyme Bay.  The distance from Lyme Bay to Slapton Sands was the approximate time it would take to make the crossing to Utah Beach on D-Day.

     The convoy’s intended escort, the British Destroyer, the HMS Scimitar was kept in port for repairs. The American military was not made aware that the escort would not be there.  The only other British ship with the convoy was the Royal Navy Corvette Azalea.  Also, unknown to the LSTs' communications room, a typographical error was made on the radio frequency the ships were given to be informed of enemy activity in the English Channel.  The convoy never heard the warnings for the German E-Boat activity in the area.

     All of the ships arrived at approximately 2:00 a.m. on April 28th in Lyme Bay and formed one long convoy as they began the journey back to Slapton Sands.  Suddenly, four German E-Boats, on a routine patrol, armed with torpedoes approached the convoy and began firing on the ships.  General Quarters was sounded on all the ships, but the LSTs had little fire power and protection against these fast moving boats.  Initially, the torpedoes missed hitting the LSTs because of their flat-bottom hulls.  Survivors from the tank decks recounted stories of hearing the torpedoes scraping the bottom of the hull.  Gun fire was exchanged between the E-Boats and the LSTs. The E-Boats quickly made adjustments and LST 507, at the back of the convoy, took a direct hit and was in flames and sinking.  LST 531, in the middle of the convoy, then took direct hits from two torpedoes.  She would sink within six minutes.  LST 289, in front of LST 507, was the third and final ship that was hit with a torpedo.  LST 289 did not sink but took extensive damage to the stern and suffered the loss of life of 13 men and many were injured. The LSTs remaining afloat followed orders and moved out in a zig zagging  pattern as they began making their way to the nearest port.  The E-Boats had left the scene.   Captain John Doyle, of LST 515, the lead ship of the convoy, disobeyed orders and returned to rescue survivors from the sea.  His crew rescued approximately 134 men that would have surely perished.  They remained until the British ship, the HMS Onslow, arrived at dawn to assist in rescuing men and retrieving the bodies of those who died.

      639 soldiers and sailors lost their lives in this tragedy.  The waters were frigid and hypothermia quickly set in.  Soldiers carrying their heavy gear in backpacks did not receive instructions on the proper use of their life preservers and drowned. There were not enough life boats and the surface of the water was in flames from the burning fuel.   Those that survived were taken to various established and temporary hospitals.  They were told never to speak of what happened under threat of court martial because of the secrecy required for D-Day. 

      There was no leave given to survivors to recover from the trauma, no time for mourning those who died.  They were reassigned to other LSTs and took part in the D-Day invasion.  After the late Ken Small established the Sherman Tank Memorial in 1984, and the tragedy slowly became known to the public, the survivors began to speak about it, a few at a time.  By 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the event, many survivors were interviewed on television documentaries, and finally the family members of those lost finally knew what happened to their loved ones.  Even now, more than 70+ years later, the survivors still weep when speaking about the tragedy and the great loss of life.


Notes:  All 639 deceased have been accounted for.  Individual bodies retrieved at the time were buried temporarily at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, England.  Records were kept on those whose bodies were lost at sea or who went down with the ships.  After the war, the families were asked if they wished to have their family member returned to the USA for burial, or have them remain overseas.  Those whose remains were not returned to the USA, were buried at Cambridge American Cemetery in England.  Those whose bodies were not recovered have their names on the Wall of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery, or on the Wall at the Normandy American Cemetery in France.  110 other casualties resulting from training accidents appear to have been folded in to the Exercise Tiger convoy casualty numbers, which explains some reports of 749 dead.