“Exercise Tiger” - The Rehearsal that went Wrong

Post by: Dee White
20 May 2019

The Sherman Tank Memorial - Torcross. Photo by Dee White

You may wonder why this Sherman tank is standing in a small Devon village in the south west of the UK surrounded by tranquil countryside. It honours the memory of servicemen who perished in one of the great tragedies of World War II and marks the importance of Slapton Sands and surrounding area to the Allies’ preparations for D-Day.

This year on 28th April 2019, the 75th anniversary of the disaster was marked in a memorial service to remember the dead and survivors of one of the Second World War’s most terrifying and shocking events.

Slapton Sands was identified as being very like Utah Beach, one of those to be attacked on D-Day and Field Marshall Montgomery selected this rural area as a training ground. In December 1943 over 3,000 inhabitants were evacuated from their villages and 30,000 acres of land. They were given 6 weeks to pack up their belongings and leave, knowing they would not return for at least 10 months. They made way for 15,000 U.S. troops who over the following months engaged in battle exercise.

The plan was to enact realistic trial runs of the coming landings and Slapton was just one of the venues chosen along the south west coast. On the orders of the Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower, live ammunition was used for firing, bombing and shelling, as he wanted the men to be hardened to real battle conditions. The first training rehearsal, known as Duck 1, took place in December 1943 and for 5 months there were almost continual exercises (Fox, Muskrat, Beaver & Trousers), each larger than the last, culminating in Exercise Tiger and Exercise Fabius.

On the afternoon of April 27th 1944, thousands of American soldiers began boarding Eight LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) at Plymouth and Brixham, preparing for a full dress rehearsal for D-Day on the beach at Slapton Sands. The soldiers were in full combat gear below in the Tank Deck along with their vehicles which included small amphibious vehicles, tanks, jeeps, weapons and trucks that were full of fuel and ammunition. They were heading for Lyme Bay where they were to meet and form one convoy which would then proceed to Slapton, this being the approximate time it would take to make the crossing to Utah Beach on D-Day.

By 2.00am on April 28th all the ships had arrived in Lyme Bay and formed one long convoy, but it was at this stage that things started to go wrong. The convoy’s intended escort, the British Destroyer HMS Scimitar, was kept in port for repairs, leaving only the Royal Navy Corvette Azalea to escort the convoy. Also, unknown to the LSTs, an error had been made on the radio frequency the ships had been given to be informed of enemy action in the English Channel. The convoy never heard the warnings about German E-Boat activity in the area.

Suddenly four German E-Boats, on a routine patrol, armed with torpedoes, approached the convoy and started firing. The ships of the convoy were sitting ducks, having little fire power and protection against the fast moving German boats. Three of them received direct torpedo hits, causing two of them to sink within minutes. The remainder of the convoy followed a zig-zag course trying to get to the nearest port. Captain John Doyle who commanded the lead ship, disobeyed orders and returned to rescue survivors from the sea. He and his crew rescued approximately 134 men who would have otherwise perished. At dawn the British ship HMS Onslow arrived to assist in rescuing men and retrieving the bodies of those who died.

639 soldiers and sailors lost their lives in this tragedy, making it the most costly training incident in terms of lives lost in the whole of World War Two. The sea was freezing and hypothermia quickly set in. Soldiers carrying their heavy gear in back packs did not receive proper training about using 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. All those concerned were told never to speak of what had happened under threat of court martial because of the secrecy required for D-Day. There was no leave given to survivors and no time for mourning those who had died. They were reassigned to other LSTs and took part in the D-Day invasion. Exercise Tiger was buried and forgotten - or was it?

Ken Small & the Sherman Tank

Ken Small was a retired hairdresser, who, having visited Torcross and fallen in love with it, decided to settle there and run a guest house. Walking the shoreline at Slapton Sands he began to find antique coins, broken pieces of jewellery, shrapnel, bullet cases and tunic buttons. Wondering how these items came to be on the beach he started questioning the local residents and they told him what had taken place in 1944. Knowing how interested Ken was, a close friend and local fisherman told him about an object about three quarters of a mile offshore and 60 feet below the surface. Ken decided to investigate, arranging for divers to inspect the object. Their discovery of an American Sherman Tank on the seabed led to his research about the tragedy of Exercise Tiger and his determination to recover the tank and create a lasting memorial to honour those who died.

After years of bureaucracy, he finally purchased the tank from the American government, but it would be another 10 years before he eventually achieved his dream to raise the tank and place it where it stands today in Torcross. The international media attention led to contact with American survivors and family members, who began to tell their stories after 50 years of silence. Eventually the memorial was recognised by the U.S. Government.

The Memorial Service

There has been a ceremony on the last Sunday of April since 1984, but this year’s was the biggest ever. Ken Small’s surviving son Dean has taken over the custodianship and repaints the tank each year. Attending the ceremony were 60 serving men of the Royal Tank Regiment, Cyclops Squadron and a further 60 RTR veterans, as well as representatives of the Royal Navy, many of them laying wreathes as an act of remembrance.

There were also staff and cadets from Dartmouth Sea Cadets, family members of the dead and survivors, dignitaries and members of the public. The wet, grey, Devon weather could not detract from the poignancy of the occasion, as Laurie Bolton form California, whose uncle died in the disaster, described the conditions on the stricken ships. She said she felt frustrated and sad at the mistakes that led to the tragedy and the cover-up. “For so long the sacrifice these men made was not acknowledged. It’s especially important this year because so many survivors are passing away. They are leaving us so quickly and there are so few to tell us first-hand what happened”. Sadly not one of the survivors was present. They are now in their 90s and most are too frail to travel from the United States.

In spite of tragedy, loss of life, mistakes and cover-ups, it is widely recognised that the success of the eventual D-Day assault was due, in no small part, to the rehearsals carried out in this rural and tranquil setting of Slapton Sands.

Slapton Ley - Torcross. Photo by Dee White