As D-Day approached, training intensified. Troops were told only what they needed to know; they certainly had no idea about when or where they’d be going into action. Troops trained embarking and disembarking from landing craft. (The flat-bottomed Landing Craft, Assault vessels (LCA) weighed ten tons each, could carry thirty-eight men and travel up to ten knots per hour, while the much larger Landing Ship, Tank (LST) carried 300 men and sixty tanks. Both vessels could sail right on to a beach.)
US troops in training for the Normandy landings.
It was at one such training exercise, one that involved the use of live ammunition, that tragedy struck. Twenty-three thousand American troops, the entire invading force of Utah beach, and 300 vessels were rehearsing on Slapton Sands in south Devon on 27 and 28 April 1944 in an exercise codenamed Tiger. It was designed to acclimatize troops as accurately as possible to what they could expect at Utah during the real thing, right down to a number of pretend dead bodies strewn around. Six villages in the area had seen the evacuation of their 3,000 inhabitants. They’d been told they would one day be allowed back. But when, no one knew. Thirty thousand acres of land around Slapton Sands, chosen because of its similarities to the intended target area of Utah beach, had been sealed off with barbed wire and sentries. On the 27th, during Exercise Tiger, poor communication resulted in a number of troops being fired upon by their own ships.
The following day, even greater casualties occurred when a patrol of nine German torpedo boats bumped into a convoy of American landing craft, LSTs, quite by accident. The convoy was being escorted by a British corvette (a small warship specifically designed for escort duties) but the main escort, a destroyer, had been involved in a collision the day before and was temporarily out of action while receiving repairs. At 01.30, the German patrol began firing on the LSTs. Some of the American soldiers mistook the German attack for part of the exercise. Many troops aboard LSTs drowned, having not been instructed on how to fasten their inflatable life jackets and laden down in full battle dress. Fuel caught fire and many men suffered terrible burns. Between the two events, 946 servicemen were killed and some 200 wounded (a greater number of casualties than suffered on the actual attack on Utah beach).
The tragedy of Exercise Tiger was kept hidden, the dead swiftly buried, and survivors sworn to secrecy, lest it should damage morale. Doctors, treating the wounded, were to ask no questions. The extent of the disaster was not fully known until the 1970s. Ten of those declared missing, presumably dead, were of high enough rank to be carrying extremely secret instructions and plans. The commanders feared that some of these men might have been picked up by the Germans and taken prisoner. Had such a scenario manifested, the whole operation would have been in serious jeopardy. Much to all-round relief, divers accounted for all ten corpses.