Surprise German attack on D-Day training exercise remembered

In the spring of 1944, Exercise Tiger, a practice training mission for the eventual D-Day landings took place. Eight US Navy ships were headed towards Slapton Sands on the English coast to take part in the training, but were intercepted by German S-boats, or fast attack boats.

The result was a disaster with more than 800 US servicemen being killed. In honour of the victims, one of the German S-boats is going to be restored, but at the time the incident was kept as secret as possible so that it wouldn’t lower morale ahead of the actual D-Day landings and anyone revealing what happened would be court martialled.

Survivors who remember the attack said that they had two options – to burn to death on their ship or freeze in the ice cold waters. Steve Sadlon, a radio operator who survived the attack said that the D-Day landings were no comparison. He said it was a nightmare with everything on fire as well as fuel and ammunition exploding on board. Steve opted for the sea and jumped into the icy waters, but had to swim for his life to get away from burning oil floating on the surface.

Hundreds of US servicemen had jumped into the water and were screaming as dead bodies floated past. Once passed the oil and bodies Steve floated until he got hypothermia and passed out. He woke about aboard an LST 515 (Landing Ship, Tank) landing craft. Steve had later discovered that the captain of the LST 515 ignored orders and had gone back to the ships to save as many survivors as possible.

After recovering in hospital, Steve was assigned to LST 500 and was one of the first to tackle Utah Beach on D-Day.

Another survivor, Douglas Harlander remembers how his ship LST 531 received two fatal blasts and began sinking.  Douglas remembers the ship being full to the brim with vehicles and armoured tanks all filled with fuel, so when they were hit the entire ship burst into flames.

Saving the ship wasn’t worth trying for, so Douglas and his comrades jumped ship. He remembers literally walking into the water as the ship’s hull sunk beneath him. Douglas had to swim away quickly in order to not be dragged under the water by the sinking ship.

Unfortunately Douglas saw many of his comrades die that night, and in the early hours of the morning he even hoped he would be rescued by Germans as more and more men fell unconscious and then slipped under the water. At 7am the HMS Onslow arrived on the scene to rescue the remaining survivors.

The LST 531 had almost 500 men on board and on that night, over 300 of them died.

A letter documenting the German version of events has been discovered. The letter was sent from Gunther Rabe, commander of S-Boat S-130 to a US Navy doctor in the 1980s.

Gunther says that it was by pure chance that they came across the US ships in the English Channel, since he and other German ships were on a routine route through the Channel. When they saw the fleet of US LSTs, they noticed there were no escorts and positioned themselves for a torpedo attack.

They began to fire at around 2am. Gunther says that because there were so many ships in the area they did not want to get close to pick up survivors.  Gunther very much regretted what happened that day and hoped that governments would do all they can to prevent a war happening again, the BBC News reports.

The German Schnellboot S-130 will be renovated in honour of the victims.  To launch the boat once restoration is finished, it is hoped that it will sail out to the English Channel and fire the same amount of poppies as those who died that night. It is expected that the renovations will take up to five years, and once completed the ship will become a museum and visitor centre.

There are many reunions and tours for the Exercise Tiger survivors and family members who lost their loved ones in 1944. Some of the tours have included visiting the German Schnellboot, which brings back emotional memories for those who survived.

Read more about the S-130 restoration here

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE