Slapton Sands, Devon Coast, Southwest England April 28, 1944

Shortly after midnight on this date in 1944 German torpe­do boats (S‑boats, short for Schnell [Fast] boats) on a rou­tine patrol out of Cher­bourg in occupied France sud­denly found them­selves in the middle of Oper­a­tion (or Exer­cise) Tiger, code­named T‑4. Oper­a­tion Tiger con­sisted of 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 landings on France’s Normandy coast 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 just that. 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.

Despite Royal Navy patrols in the English Channel that night, the Schnell­boot raiders made a clean escape under a smoke­screen with­out a single casualty. The offi­cial death count was 749 Amer­i­can service­members; another count puts the dead at close to 1,000. 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. Three hundred and eight more Amer­i­can casual­ties (dead and dying) occurred on Red Beach (stand-in for Normandy’s Utah Beach), the result of friendly naval fire from a British heavy cruiser.

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

Operation Tiger: U.S. troops in England rehearse Normandy invasion U.S. troops march to English embarkation docks, June 5, 1944

Left: American troops practice beach landings in South­west England during a dry run for the inva­sion of Normandy, France. The rehearsal area had been selected owing to its topo­graphical simi­larity to Normandy. (Selec­tion unfor­tu­nately required the for­cible evac­u­a­tion of some English sea­side villagers, sworn to secrecy, and their live­stock.) For more than a week soldiers and sailors tested landing and support craft, equip­ment and vehicles, dem­o­li­tion pro­ce­dures, and various small unit tactics, among other things, in a live-fire setting. The night­time trag­edy off the coast of Devon near Slap­ton Sands, in which perhaps 750 service­men lost their lives on April 28, 1944, 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. Along with the 5th Ranger Bat­tal­ion, the 2nd was tasked with cap­turing the Ger­man heavy coastal defense bat­tery at Pointe du Hoc, a promon­tory with a 100‑ft cliff, 4 miles to the west of the D‑Day landing zone of Omaha Beach. (On June 6 the rangers assaulted Pointe du Hoc only to discover the six 155mm artil­lery pieces had been removed from the loca­tion.) A total of 1.5 mil­lion Amer­i­can service­men and service­women and almost a half-million vehicles were squeezed into Southern England in advance of Operation Overlord. During early June, when troops walked or rode to their embar­ka­tion ports, civilian traffic came almost to a standstill.

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

Left: The German S-boot S 204 flies a white flag of surrender at the British coastal forces base at Suf­folk on May 13, 1945. During World War II, S‑boats (referred to by the Allies as “E[enemy]-boats”) sank 101 mer­chant ships totaling 214,728 tons, plus numer­ous ships of the Royal Navy, among them 12 destroyers and 11 mine­sweepers. Of the 240-odd S‑boats produced during the war, approxi­mately half sur­vived owing in part to their speed, which allowed them to evade enemy pursuers, and in part to their wooden hulls, which allowed them to cross mag­netic mine­fields unscathed. Many of the S‑boats and their larger cousins, the T‑boats, were destroyed in Allied bombing attacks on their French home ports.

Right: 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