Slapton Sands, Devonshire Coast, Southwest England · April 28, 1944

Shortly after midnight on this date in 1944 Ger­man torpe­do boats (E-boats, or Schnell­boote in Ger­man) on a rou­tine patrol out of Cher­bourg in occupied France sud­denly found them­selves in the middle of Oper­a­tion (or Exer­cise) Tiger (code­named T‑4), a con­voy of eight Amer­i­can LSTs (landing ship tanks) and their Brit­ish es­corts that were en­gaged in a live-fire dress rehear­sal of the D-Day in­va­sion of Normandy that would take place six weeks later. The LSTs were crammed with am­phi­bious vehicles, jeeps, and trucks, along with 30,000 sol­diers in full battle gear. The nine Ger­man night­time inter­cep­tors were each over hun­dred feet long, armed with two tor­pe­does and two 20mm cannons, and painted black for camou­flage. Capable of traveling at 40–50 knots/hour for as many as 700 nau­tical miles, they were designed to wreak max­i­mum havoc in the Eng­lish Chan­nel, and on this night in Lyme Bay close to Slap­ton Sands they did. At the time the Ger­mans suc­ceeded in getting close enough to the Tiger con­voy to launch their torpe­does, they had no idea what the slow moving ships and the heavier than nor­mal radio traf­fic meant. In quick suc­ces­sion the Schnell­boote crippled one LST, caused another to burst into flames, trapping many of the vic­tims below deck, and sank a third one im­me­di­ately. One quarter­master service com­pany was vir­tually wiped out: 201 of­fi­cers and men out of a total of 251 were killed out­right, wounded, or suc­cumbed to hypo­thermia in the cold chan­nel waters. The offi­cial death count was 749 Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­bers, and for days bodies of sol­diers and sai­lors washed up on the south­west coast of Eng­land. Those floating in the water were scooped up by small landing craft with their ramps lowered. Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Com­man­der of the Allied Expe­di­tionary Force for the Allied gamble that had the poten­tial for deciding the course of the war in Europe, ordered the dead be buried sec­retly in mili­tary grave­yards, refused to deco­rate sol­diers who had acted heroically in rescue opera­tions, and placed the sur­vi­vors in select camps under quar­an­tine and a news black­out. Service­men were threat­ened with court-martial if they leaked news of the tra­gedy. The dead­liest Amer­i­can training in­ci­dent of the war was an omi­nous precursor to D‑Day, June 6, 1944.

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Dress Rehearsal for the Allied Invasion of France, April and May 1944

U.S. troops in England rehearse Normandy invasionU.S. troops march to English embarkation docks

Left: American troops practice beach landings in southwest England during a dry run for the invasion of Normandy, France. The night­time trag­edy off the coast of Devon near Slap­ton Sands, in which nearly 750 service­men lost their lives, pro­vided valu­able mili­tary readi­ness les­sons for Operation Overlord six weeks away.

Right: The 2nd Battalion, U.S. Army Rangers march to their landing craft in Wey­mouth, Eng­land, in this photo from June 5, 1944. The rangers were tasked with cap­turing the Ger­man heavy coastal defense bat­tery at Pointe du Hoc to the west of the D‑Day landing zone of Omaha Beach. A total of 1.5 mil­lion Amer­i­can service­men and service­women were squeezed into South­ern Eng­land in advance of Operation Overlord.

German E-boat flies surrender flag, May 1945LSTs in Normandy, June 1944

Left: The German E-boat S 204 flies a white flag of surrender at the British coastal forces base at Suf­folk on May 13, 1945. During World War II, E‑boats sank 101 mer­chant ships totaling 214,728 tons, plus numer­ous ships of the Royal Navy, among them 12 destroyers and 11 mine­sweepers.

Right: Landing Ship Tank (LST) was the military desig­na­tion for naval ves­sels created during World War II to sup­port amphib­ious oper­a­tions by carrying sig­nif­i­cant quan­ti­ties of vehicles, cargo, and landing troops directly onto an un­im­proved shore, such as the one shown here on the Normandy coast. The class of LSTs in Oper­a­tions Tiger and Over­lord could carry close to 4,000 tons fully loaded. Of the 1,051 LSTs con­structed during the war, only 26 were lost due to enemy action. With­out the LST or some­thing like it, neither the Allied in­va­sion of France nor the Pacific Islands campaign would have been practical.

BBC Production Recounts Operation Tiger Disaster