It was 1944, and the troops were waiting nervously for the barrage on the beach to end. Their stomachs heaved as their clumsy landing craft rode the swell. Nearby, the support vessels and destroyers watched as their orderly line headed for the landing spot. The men concentrated on trying to overcome their sea sickness, their impending landing and the assault they’d have to make once they made it to shore.
This wasn’t the heart-in-mouth assault on the beaches of Normandy on June 6 – one of history’s greatest ever naval landings that signalled the end of Hitler’s dominance in Europe. No, this was a few weeks earlier – at Slapton Sands, a beautiful beach in Devon, England.
It was a Royal Navy and US Army training exercise called Operation Tiger – the last one before the real thing. But the events that would unfold on the morning of April 28 would prove to be a costly affair. Many of the men on those landing craft would never make it to dry land again. In a very short time, hundreds of them would be dead in the water.
Tiger was a week-long exercise meant to simulate as close as possible the actual landing on D-Day itself. Slapton was chosen because it had a beach of coarse gravel. It was a shallow lagoon backed by high bluffs and as such was almost a replica to what was codenamed Utah Beach on the Cherbourg peninsula.
Unfortunately, five German torpedo boats picked up British naval signals and moved into the area in darkness as nine landing craft were approaching the beach. British onshore batteries had actually identified the silhouettes of the German E-boats but, following orders, did not open fire for fear they would reveal their own positions.
What followed was like shooting fish in a barrel. Torpedoes slammed into the landing craft. One burst into flames, the soldiers on board being engulfed in burning fuel. It is said that 190 men were killed. Another sank within minutes – 411 men died on it – while a third was badly damaged and limped back to port with 13 dead.
Many men survived the attack but drowned in the dark waters due to their inability to don lifejackets properly.
But the carnage didn’t end there. General Eisenhower had wanted his men battle-hardened and so had ordered that live rounds be used to bombard the beach before landing craft approached. But timings and communications were off between the controller of the landing craft and the commander charged with firing the shells onto the beach.
The result was carnage, with men rushing off landing craft and through white tape, which had been placed there to stop their advance – straight into the deadly barrage.
The number of dead at Slapton is disputed. Certainly many hundreds died – some put the figure at more than 700 dead – a figure actually higher than the casualty rate on Utah Beach itself.
The seriousness of the episode was underlined by the fact that ten of the officers missing held ‘Bigot’ clearance – which meant that they knew the plans for D-Day itself; and for a period, the Normandy invasion was actually in doubt up until all ten bodies were retrieved from the sea.
There was the inevitable inquiry, which drew up some recommendations, namely that troops be given better training in the use of lifejackets and that rescue protocols be established to pick up survivors from sinking craft. Radio frequencies were also standardised between the various military wings.
Operation Tiger was a dreadful disaster, and it was hushed up for security reasons. The young men involved never did taste real battle, never fired a gun in anger nor even saw a German soldier, but they gave their lives nonetheless, by the hundredfold . . . on a pretty beach in the south of England.
Their loss was terrible, but not futile. As brutal as it sounds, their sacrifice helped pave the way for a smoother operation come D-Day itself. That’s not a pleasant fact to admit, but war is never pleasant and casualties come in all guises – and that includes young lads who died through the inefficiency of others and by sheer bad luck.