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Resume "Exercise Tiger"

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    Posted: 15 January 2009 at 9:51pm

This short resume is not intended to be a precise account of the tragedy. It is produced solely as an ‘opener’ for wider discussion (and maybe input) from within the Forum.

 The incidents surrounding the catastrophe that befell Exercise Tiger can be briefly summed up as having two distinct and separate phases. 1. The shelling of the beachhead, and 2, the enemy attacks on the follow up convoy T45 (or T4, in which ever research you read).

Both of those phases can at least be accurately stated as having a common thread. This common thread has be-devilled military operations both before and since and will continue if the most recent of military expeditions are anything to go by.

The thread is simply massive ‘human’ failures in basic ‘communications’.

The responsibility of ensuring ‘Good Comm.’s’ is obviously heightened in any theatre of War and it may also go without saying, ‘especially if multinational forces are involved’.

With hindsight, it is particularly galling that Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham RN (C-in-C Plymouth) had recognised the dangers of dual Command and had outlined his own interpretation of ‘Lines of Command and Responsibilities’ etc in a Memorandum to Rear Admiral John Hall USN the American Admiral in charge of the first of several American exercises in his operational area. The broad content of this Memorandum was agreed and adopted from then on by the USN.

To continue with this short resume, reference must first be made to part of another Memorandum issued by SHEAF. (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force.) Which outlined the purpose and expectations to be gained from the Exercises.

“… Exercise Tiger will involve the concentration, marshalling and embarkation of troops in the Torbay-Plymouth areas, and a short movement by sea under control of the US Navy, disembarkation with Naval and Air support at Slapton Sands, a beach assault using service ammunition, the securing of a beachhead and a rapid advance inland…”

In the coming invasion of mainland Europe, under the code name of ‘Operation Overlord’, the American VII Army Corps had been chosen to land on two beaches, dubbed ‘Omaha’ and ‘Utah’.

Slapton Sands, South Devon, had been found to almost match the site chosen for the planned landing at ‘Utah’, an area just north of Carentan in Normandy.

As a full dress rehearsal for the ‘Utah’ landings, Operation Tiger’ was meticulously planned but the mistakes or blunders that followed would cost four times as many casualties as the real thing and severely test the British and American Alliance.

An aide to General Eisenhower, Capt Harry C Butcher USN, had previously reported: -

“…I am concerned over the absence of toughness and alertness of the young American Officers who seem to regard the War as one grand manoeuvre. Many seem as green as growing corn. How will they act in battle and what will they be like in three months time?…”

“…A good many of the Full Colonels also give me a pain. They are fat, grey and oldish, wearing the Rainbow Ribbons of the first War and still seem to be fighting it…”

“…On the Navy’s side,… our crews are also green. I recall in broad daylight, with a smooth sea and our LST standing quite still, she nearly had her stern carried away by a landing craft, fitted out as an Anti-Aircraft ship- we were missed by just inches in clear daylight…”

An American’s honest appraisal of some of America’s fighting men about to go to war? (And maybe a pointer to what was to happen to HMS Scimitar off Plymouth.)

The Allied Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower himself, signed an order that- “…to make exercises more realistic, and to toughen up green troops, ‘live ammunition’ will be used on all future exercises…” (This would have included ‘Operation Tiger’).

Although the use of live ammunition is not in itself unusual in military exercises, it is crucial that any planned use is fully communicated and clearly understood by all those taking part. The failure to communicate ‘fully’, especially to ‘green’ troops, opened the door to one part of the first phase in this tragedy.

Observing from his Command Ship, USS Bayfield, Admiral Donald P Moon USN, decided that certain key elements of Exercise Tiger were not in their correct place and decided on an hours delay before the Exercise should begin. This hour delay was not communicated to all participants in the initial landing of troops. 

Before the Exercise began, troops had been briefed not to cross certain ‘white taped’ areas on the beach. The pre-landing barrage of the shore commenced, (by ships including an RN Cruiser, HMS Hawkins and an RN Destroyer, HMS Splendid) on the correct amended time. The markers were soon obliterated.

The first wave troops were landed on to the beach unaware of the changed time and for 45 minutes, were being continually bombarded by RN ships with live ‘HE’ ammunition. The troops, who at first had been quite relaxed, were now being blitzed, and much later it was reported that those not in that firing line became further horrified when ‘defenders’ dropped when being hit by their weapons. Several LCI’s and LCT’s were hit in the run up to the landing on Slapton Sands. The first element of the tragedy had happened.

The tragedy that befell Exercise Tiger was not over but was to deepen.

The Royal Navy had been given the responsibility for the protection of Exercise Tiger from enemy interference.

The Slapton Sands training area fell within the Command of Plymouth C in C, Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham RN.

The communication between Admiral Leatham, and Rear Admiral John L. Hall USN, concerning an earlier exercise in the area (Operation ‘Duck’, but also applied to Exercise Tiger), certainly illustrates the attempt to smooth out any difficulties that may arise in complicated multi-national exercises. The communication from Admiral Leatham was dated 1st Jan 1944: -

“…I feel it desirable to put on record my view of the relations in which you and I stand during the execution of the operations.

Broadly speaking, I apply the customs and traditions of the British service, which I believe accord closely with yours and I regard you in exactly the same light as any British Flag Officer in command of a British force operating within my Command.

It is my conception therefore, that from the time of leaving Falmouth you are in Tactical Control of your forces, including British vessels forming the close escort…”

“…. I myself retain full control of the covering forces throughout the operation unless or until otherwise ordered, I also retain overriding control should there arise circumstances make it strategically necessary to cancel or curtail the exercise….”

That communication spelt out very clearly where overall responsibility would lie for Naval operations in the Plymouth area but as the events unfolded, the detail required for ‘Tactical’ responsibilities, would not seem to be completely understood by the Flag Staff of both Navy’s.

The radio frequencies that were allocated to the RN and the USN on the days that covered Exercise Tiger were different. Neither ships of the covering force, nor the Cruiser and the Destroyer bombarding the beach, and most importantly to illustrate this second phase, nor could the British ships, to be allocated as the convoy escort, communicate directly by radio with the American Command. (They could have switched channels but that would have put other lines of communication down- for which there were no orders).

For ‘Exercise Tiger’, H21 HMS Scimitar (Lt Cmdr Rhee), and K25 HMS Azalea (Lt Cmdr Gedder), had both been detailed as escort to a ‘follow up’ convoy, (T45), to the beachhead. This convoy consisted of 5 American crewed LST’s (Landing Ship Tank) with one, (LST58), towing two large pontoons. The British escort comprised of an elderly WW1 Destroyer, launched 1918 and a comparatively recently launched (1943) Flower class Corvette,

The day before the convoy was due to sail (26th April); HMS Scimitar was rammed and holed above the water line by an American manned LCI 324 (Landing Craft Infantry). This was minor damage, but when HMS Scimitar arrived off Plymouth, Lt Cmdr Rhee was signalled to “moor at Buoy 6, to oil, and then await for the RN Dockyard staff to complete the minor repair to her hull”.

At 9.45 convoy T45 left Plymouth, but without its lead Destroyer escort.

It was only after a later interview with Lt Cmdr Rhee was it realised that there was now a lethal gap in the defence for convoy T45. Weak though the original defence was, the situation was now seen to be desperate.

H54 HMS Saladin (Lt Cmdr King), also an elderly British ‘R&S’ class Destroyer (1919), was immediately ordered to raise steam and dispatched to fill the gap. She did not sail until 00:37 the following day (28th April).

The German 5th E-boat flotilla, based at Guernsey, was under the overall command of Kapitan zur See Rudolf Petersen, Fuhrer des Schnellbootes. (Officer in charge of E-boats) as was the 27th and 9th flotillas based in Cherbourg. On the night of 26\27th they had made successful raids on convoys WP300 and PW300 and at 22:00 hrs on the 27th, the flotillas again made to rendezvous.

The British had 3 MTB\MGB’s waiting off Cherbourg hoping to pounce on any E-boats that left but, with their low silhouette and ‘silent’ running, they evaded initial detection. From the French mainland Kapitan Petersen radioed co-ordinates of possible targets and the 5th Flotilla, consisting of 6 boats, split up into 3 pairs for an attack.

The slow moving convoy, now moving at 3½-4 knots only, had been joined by a further 3 LST’s that had sailed from Brixham. Their course had been set as a great loop into the Channel and then to approach the beachhead after a reasonable ‘sea journey’ to familiarise the troops with the actual planned journey for the Invasion of the Continent.

The convoy now comprised of HMS Azalea (the Corvette), at the head of 8 American LST’s. 515, 496, 511, 531, with LST58 towing the pontoons and 499, 289, 507, from Brixham, bringing up the rear.

Rotte 3 (group 3) of the split 5th E-boat flotilla (S-136 & S-138) reported ‘spotting two Destroyers’ at a range of 2000 metres. S-138 fired two torpedoes at the ‘right hand’ ship and S136 fired a singe ‘at the other’.

Rotte 2. S-140 & S-142 opened fire with two shots each at 1400 metres but no explosions were heard. (Oberlieutenant zur See Goetschke (S-142) correctly concluded that ‘they’ were shallow draught Landing Craft).

Rotte 1. S-100 & S-143 were alerted to the action by red tracer to the North and raced to the area and observed that “a tanker was well ablaze”. Both fired two torpedoes at 1500 meters.

The 9th E-boat flotilla (three boats only) S-130, S-145 and S-150, also attracted by the Tracer fire raced to the scene. S-130 and S-150 fired their torpedoes at a single target while S-145 engaged ‘small armed escorts’. These were later identified as probably being lowered Infantry Landing Craft.

The battle was very confused but what is now certain is that LST 507, the last ship astern in the convoy, was the first to be hit and set ablaze. Shortly after, LST 531 was observed to suffer a massive explosion and an order was given to ‘Abandon Ship’. LST 239 was then hit but seen to be returning fire.

There are several eye witness accounts of the harrowing scenes aboard the stricken LST’s and of the heroism displayed that night but the death toll was to prove horrendous. 198 US Navy and 441 US Army (later rising to 551) dead were the first figures released.

A major panic gripped SHAEF staff as 10 Senior American Officers on board the LST’s had detailed knowledge that could have compromised the coming invasion of France. It had been reported that an E-boat had cruised among the then many survivors in the water and played a searchlight over the surface but then slipped away. It was something akin to ‘macabre relief’ when 10 bodies were later identified as being the 10 Senior Officers. (These Officers had the code name of “Bigots”)

Being so close to ‘Operation Overlord’, a complete news black out and strict censorship regarding the two incidents came into force. (Military personnel were threatened with the most severe of penalties then available under Courts Martial and sworn to secrecy).

Truly, stupendous events then began to unfold, as ‘Operation Overlord’ took centre stage.

Exercise Tiger’s tragedy’s were pushed beyond any chance of public scrutiny and quietly forgotten, but forty years later the outcome of this particular episode would lead to serious accusations ranging from ‘incompetence’ to ‘treason’ and even ‘murder’!

The belief of a massive ‘cover up’, to protect Senior personnel involved, even up to and including General Eisenhower himself, began to grow after a local Hotelier, a certain Mr Kenneth Small, began to find small pieces of military debris whilst walking along Slapton Sands Beach.

Long after the War had ended, part of Ken Small’s recuperation (from a serious illness) had been through developing his ‘new’ hobby of beach combing. While out on long walks along the beach he had found several spent rounds of ammunition and other military paraphernalia etc but he began to find jewellery, tunic buttons and coins etc.

He was aware of the area being used, during the War, for military exercises and had been told about the evacuation of whole surrounding communities for the War effort but there was also rumour that a major tragedy had occurred and that it had been ‘hushed up’.

There was an American acknowledgement, by way of an inscribed plinth, made to the sacrifices borne by the local inhabitants who had been evacuated from the area etc, erected near the beachhead, but no mention of any calamity.

Mr Small’s dogged curiosity eventually became a life long endeavour to get the Authorities, both British and American, to properly recognise the ultimate sacrifice made by so many young American men. He went on to ‘buy’ (off the American authorities), and raise, a 60-ton Sherman Tank, from 60ft under the bay, and today it stands, thanks to Kenneth Small, dedicated as a Memorial for those many men who died.

Several books have been written on the subject of ‘Operation Tiger’, including one by Kenneth Small himself- “The Forgotten Dead”, and several Web sites are also available for serious Students to study. A robust defence, against there being any such ‘American cover up’, was, among others, made by Charles B. Macdonald, Chief Historian at the American Army Centre of Military History.

Mr Kenneth Small however remained unconvinced, he was not sure that the same ‘defence’ could be made for the British but decided to concentrate his energy on getting a Memorial to commemorate the tragedy.

Mr Kenneth Small died on March 4th 2004.

Any ‘What ifs’ would surely include ‘what if those ashore had been able to communicate directly with HMS Hawkins and HMS Splendid (to cease their bombardment). Would the early casualty figures have been any less? Bearing in mind the original order, to use live ammunition, was made to give ‘Green’ troops ‘experience of being under fire’

The complete communications fiasco can be again included in the ‘what if’ list: What if HMS Scimitar had alerted its then American Command (as outlined in the communiqué between Admiral Leatham RN and Rear Admiral John Hall USN) of its inability to take station in the escorting of convoy T45.

What if: the British Command had notified the American Command that an attack by E-boats was imminent. (The E-boats had been tracked by radar, by Plymouth Command for 2 hours before the attack began). HMS Azalea, the escort, had been notified (by Plymouth Command) of the E-boat foray at midnight, (and had even picked them up on her own radar set, just before the attack began). This lone British escort, being unable to radio direct to the American ships, must also surely point fingers at Flag Staffs of both navies.

And finally, what if HMS Scimitar had not been damaged and had taken up its proper position as lead escort. Would those E-Boats have had such an impact on that small convoy?

Resume produced by ‘Pioneer’

(April 2005)



Edited by ForumManager - 06 August 2012 at 11:15am
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote kelly Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13 April 2012 at 9:23pm

Exercise Tiger has been very difficult to research, so many versions of its history by so many people.  This account is one of the better ones but there is a glaring error.  The paragraph starting 'Before the Exercise began.......' quotes 'RN Destroyer, HMS Splendid'.  HMS Splendid was sold for breaking, on the 8th January 1931.  The next Splendid was a submarine of the S class, launched in 1942 and sunk on the 21st April 1943 after being damages in the Mediterranean by a German destroyer.  The name was not used again until it was given to a nuclear submarine.  I do not know which destroyer assisted with the bombardment, certainly not HMS Scimitar(H21) as she was involved in a collision on the 26th April.


I have some difficulty in believing that the bombardment of Slapton Sands was carried out by just one or even two ships, there must have been others involved but I cannot discover their names or, indeed, if they were US or RN.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Pioneer Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13 April 2012 at 10:03pm
Hello 'Kelly'
You are obviously correct regarding the wrong name of the British Destroyer accompanying HMS Hawkins, it is now believed to have possibly been HMS Obedient. Although it cannot be stated with any certainty that she had actually participated in the beach head shelling, she was part of the RN naval force on that day.


Edited by Pioneer - 14 April 2012 at 8:29am
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