D Day – The Longest Day
June 1, 2024

By Ian Langworthy, Historian and Battlefield Guide

In a few weeks time our televisions screens and newspapers will be full, quite rightly, of the commemorations for the 80th anniversary of the D Day landings. One event which you probably don’t know about and which, unless you live in the south west of England, you will not see on local news was initially categorised as ‘Top Secret’ and then forgotten about until 40 years after the event. This is the story of Exercise Tiger.

Planning for the invasion of mainland Europe had been going on for more than 2 years before the event. Every inch of the French coastline had been studied and considered for its suitability for an amphibious landing by thousands of allied troops and their equipment. The shortest crossing was towards Calais but that was too obvious and well defended and eventually the coast of Normandy was selected. Five landing beaches were selected to land enough men and material on the first day to enable the allies to be able to defend against the inevitable German attempts to ‘throw the allies back into the sea.’

The beaches were code named Utah and Omaha for the Americans and Gold Juno and Sword for the British and Canadian landings. Each beach was carefully surveyed by aerial photography and night time reconnaissance in small boats. It was vital to know the type of beach; sandy, pebbles, distance between high and low tide marks etc. Canadian troops had found to their cost at Dieppe 2 years earlier that tracked vehicles like tanks find it hard to grip on a beach of large pebbles. Areas along the British coastline were looked at with a view to replicating as far as possible the terrain and conditions that troops would encounter in France for carrying out practice landings.

It was in this way that the village of South Ham on the south coast of Devon together with some 30000 acres were requisitioned for use as a training area for American troops. Three thousand people (3000) from 750 families were evacuated from the area and relocated. This area was chosen as the topography was similar to that confronting troops landing on Utah beach with a long shelving beach with a shallow lagoon and flat lands behind. It was here at the end of April 1944, only 6 weeks before D Day, that it was decided to hold an almost full dress rehearsal for the landings involving 30000 men of the US army and Navy together with a small contingent from the Royal Navy. But before you can get troops landing on a beach you first have to take them out to sea and bring them back in landing craft, troop ships and tank and vehicle carriers—-Exercise Tiger.

For the sake of authenticity it was decided that live ammunition would be used in the exercise to be fired over the heads or in front of the landing troops. However although this was known to the senior officers not everyone in the lower ranks was aware and early on in the exercise and before the issue could be dealt with many soldiers were shocked to see comrades being killed or wounded by ‘enemy ‘ fire! The situation was made worse by the fact that due to a typing error different radio frequency numbers had been issued causing a major communications breakdown between commanders onshore, further inland and aboard ship spoiling any coordination between different units involved and the planned sequence in the landings broke down. However landings continued all day in accordance with the tight schedule fixes (remember D Day was only 6 weeks away).

The following day a convoy of Landing Ships (tanks) {LSTs} set off from Portsmouth with their cargoes of men, tanks and lorries. These were major assault vessels weighing some 4.5 thousand tons, not flat bottomed landing craft for troops. Two Royal Navy vessels were to accompany the convoy but in the event only one–HMS Azalea– was on station

. However and tragically in the event HMS Azalea and naval headquarters on shore were operating on different radio frequencies than the American LSTs.

It was known that from time to time the German navy sent out small flotillas (groups) of motor torpedo boats to check on shipping activity in the channel. Nine such boats, carrying torpedoes and mines and armed with heavy machine guns traveling at speeds of up to 40 knots, set off on the night of 27/28 April. In the early hours of the 28th the flotilla came across the convoy of 8 LSTs sailing westwards into Lyme Bay in line one towing a landing platform and apparently without escort. Other British ships had spotted German motor torpedo boats in the area around midnight and reported back to shore. The report soon reached HMS Azalea but he assumed that the American ships had received the same reports and did not attempt to alert them. The German boats were soon amongst the convoy and the first it became aware of any danger was when torpedoes started exploding amongst them. Taking avoiding in the dark was difficult and over next couple of hours the convoy was attacked and 3 LSTs with their crews and cargoes of men and equipment were sent to the bottom. Rescuing those in the water was hampered by the darkness and the fact that the convoy was still under attack.

By the time dawn came and the convoy or what was left of it limped ashore 946 US Army and Navy personnel had died, nearly 5 times as many who died on Utah beach in the actual landings on 6th June.

A court of enquiry was set up immediately but the whole matter was classified as top secret and all involved were sworn to secrecy. It was thought that publicity would be damaging to morale and so it was that there was no public acknowledgment of what happened even to the families of those who lost their lives then or after the war or at all. The matter would have remained a secret but for the work of Ken Small described in his book ‘The Forgotten Dead’. After

Ken moved to Slapton Sands in south Devon he soon became used to military memorabilia being washed up on the beach. Locals told him that fishermen were often snagging nets on a sunken wreck offshore. Kens investigation found this to be a sunken Sherman tank which he recovered and which now forms the memorial to those who died. Unwilling to take no for an answer and despite very little help from the US government initially Ken was able to shine a light on the story and his efforts were eventually recognised in a letter of thanks from US President Ronald Regan in 1988.

Header image: Slapton Sands Sherman Tank: Commemorating the 946 men who lost their lives during exercise ‘Tiger’. © Michael Garlick – geograph.org.uk/p/7062290