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.

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