The Beach at Slapton Sands – Part II
Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 8, 2004
Operation Tiger was to be a bloodless rehearsal for D-Day – the largest in a series of practice assaults that had started with Operation Duck in January 1944. To prepare 30,000 raw, enthusiastic Americans for what lay ahead, live ammunition would be used and more than 30 allied warships would bombard Slapton Beach. But blood was spilled early on. Leaping ashore ahead of their allotted time, some men were urged by their officers up the beach before the bombardment ended. Shells from the ships killed 320 American boys in a matter of minutes, but that was only the beginning.
The real disaster came later, after the assault troops of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division had gone ashore in daylight on April 27, a convoy of eight landing ship tanks (LSTs) was heading toward Slapton about 2 a.m. the following night. The ships were transporting a follow-up force of troops and equipment, which on D-Day were to shadow the main assault. But as convoy T4 crossed Lyme Bay, nine German E-torpedo boats from the French port of Cherbourg suddenly appeared after being ordered to check out heavy radio traffic off the Devon coast.
Torpedoes hit three of the massive LSTs. One lost its stern but managed to limp into Dartmouth. Another burst into flames fed by gasoline on board. The third keeled over and sank within 6 minutes. There was no time to launch lifeboats. Trapped below decks, hundreds of soldiers and sailors went down with their ships. Others leaped into the sea but died from the cold or drowned from waterlogged overcoats or wrongly placed lifejackets. Exercise Tiger claimed over a thousand, five times more casualties than Utah beach on D-Day.
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Allied commanders were not only concerned about loss of life, but also the possibility that Germans had taken prisoners who might reveal secrets about the upcoming invasion, code-named Overlord. But the few who knew had drowned and their bodies retrieved. An investigation concluded two factors led to the tragedy – a lack of escort vessels and an error in radio frequencies.
All who knew of the event, including doctors and nurses who treated the survivors, were held to secrecy. Those bodies pulled from the water were hurriedly buried on the beach and later moved to American and British cemeteries. Not until 1974, 30 years later, did the families of the dead know the truth. They had been told only that their sons were missing in action.
In 1974 an Englishman, Ken Small, took over a pub and guesthouse down at the end of Slapton beach. He often walked the shore with his metal detector and after one vicious storm he came across live ammunition, military buttons and shreds of khaki army uniforms. He had never heard of the tragedy but he did know that fishing trawlers had been losing their nets to some large object on the bottom, 60 feet down and about a mile out. It took more than 10 years to put together the money and the team to investigate and retrieve what turned out to be an American Sherman tank, no doubt lost on that terrible night in 1944. It took more years before he could obtain ownership of the tank because both governments denied it even existed.
At great expense to Ken, his team floated the tank and brought it to shore where it rests today as a memorial to the Americans lost there. I have been back three times to see Ken and hear his accounts of hundreds of relatives of those killed who came over to see where it had happened. The parents of those who died never learned of it, but to brothers, sisters, and children of the deceased it is a sacred place. And those who survived still come just to look out to sea and remember that terrible night. They are much indebted to Ken Small who always is there to greet them.
In Part Three the &uot;evicted&uot; villagers of South Hams return to what is left of their ancestral homes.
Robert Pocklington is a resident of Suffolk and a regular News-Herald columnist. He can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com