Operation Overlord was the biggest offensive planned by the Western Allies against the Nazis, who had overrun most of Europe. Decisive action was necessary so Northern France was chosen as the location for carrying out an invasion against all of German-occupied Western Europe. Operation Overlord officially kicked off on 6th June 1944 by the commencement of Operation Neptune, popularly known as D-Day when more than 1200 airborne teams along with 5000 vessels swept their way onto the Normandy beaches.
However, before launching such a major operation, the Allies wanted to make sure that nothing goes wrong and each and every division followed a strictly laid out plan. Thus, large-scale plans for a training exercise were drawn up, codenamed Operation Tiger to increase coordination and communication among the Allies. Slapton Beach in Devon was selected for these rehearsals and the operation was carried out under strict secrecy. But not everything went according to plan and the training exercise soon turned into a confused & reckless friendly fire match.
The British Government set up training grounds for at Slapton Sands, Devon in 1943 due to its resemblance to the various sectors charted up by the High Command, i.e. Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, etc. Slapton Beach had an uncanny resemblance to Utah Beach so almost all of the 3000 residents were evacuated.
All aspects of Exercise Tiger were planned under strict surveillance and the date of commencement wasn’t decided or revealed until the very end. All parts of the invasion were to be rehearsed including the landing of infantry units, tank landing ships as well as live firing. All in all, the Operation was as close the Allies could get to Operation Overlord without actually sparring with the Germans.
The Royal Navy was tasked with the protection of the exercise area and 2 destroyers, 3 motor torpedo boats and 2 motor gunboats were sent on all out patrols in the Lyme Bay and Cherbourg Area where the German E-boats were thought to be based.
Quick Fact: The E-boat was a heavily armed, fast attack ship used by the German Navy throughout World War 2 and was capable of sustaining a speed of 50.1mph while the British ship that was engaged could go only 20mph!
The Operation was to be carried out from 22nd April till 30th April 1944. From 22nd to 25th, marshaling drills took place and went on without incident. On the evening of 26th April, assault troops started boarding their transports and started simulating the Channel Crossing through the Lyme Bay. On the 27th, the practice assault took place. Live rounds were fired over the troops so that they would be better aware of the sight, sound, and smell of a battlefield. General Eisenhower was the biggest advocate of this battle hardening tactics. HMS Hawkins was also engaged and ordered to shell the beach with live ammo from 6:30 to 7:30 AM.
The American Admiral decided to delay live firing by navy vessels by an hour but failed to communicate this message to officers in charge of the landing ships. This was the first catastrophe that struck the Allied troops as they landed the same time the bombardment was taking place. Log books of British Marines found on one of the vessels stated that all backup measures were failing and the men on the beach had no idea whether this was a drill or a mistake.
This wasn’t the biggest of their worries. On 28th April, 9 German E-boats made their way into the Lyme Bay area and attacked a convoy of follow-up Allied troops. Two ships were assigned to protect them however only one, the HMS Azalea was present, leading 9 LSTs in a straight line making them an easy target for the oncoming Kriegsmarine. In fact, the E-boats had been spotted earlier by the Royal Navy but they failed to inform the LST convoy, “thinking” they had already been told.
The E-boats opened fire at 0133 and 3 of the landing ships were hit; all three sank. The vessels were ordered not to return fire as they were not prepared for such an attack and even a flash of light would give their position away. Almost 45 minutes later, the convoy was ordered to break formation and move independently ahead. The E-boats followed and kept blazing their guns till 0400.
The HMS Azaleas failed to inflict even a single casualty to the E-boats and as a result, 749 troops lost their lives in addition to 200 wounded. Many casualties came as a result of the ensuing panic. Most soldiers were not used to being at sea so put their lifebelts the wrong way, drowning them instantly.
It was utter chaos and the following morning the Allies’ Command had no idea what to make of the situation. This was meant to be a training exercise for the real invasion but such uncoordinated & unprepared execution turned it into a foolish disaster.
Ten fatalities were of paramount importance. When Operation Overlord was planned, the men who had access to the plans were called “BIGOTs”. In the aftermath of Operation Tiger, ten of these bigots were unaccounted for. Their importance was so great that Allies were thinking of cancelling D-Day, in case they had been captured by the Germans. Fortunately for the Allies, their bodies were found, all ten of them!
The Allies did learn from their mistakes and several changes were made after the Operation, most notably the standardizing of Radio frequencies, the introduction of better life vests for the landing troops and development of smaller crafts for survivors.
The events that unfolded on the Slapton Sands were never made public until August 1944 along with D-Day losses. Medical staff who treated the wounded were first sworn to secrecy by their superiors. In addition, all survivors and personnel who took part were silenced with the threat of court marshals.
Even when information was received, it was limited and no one actually knew the accurate details as to what happened. It is due to this very reason, Operation Tiger has been termed “forgotten”.