Onward Through the Fog, Exercise Tiger
In my last post about the battle of Kiska, I discussed a battle that was fought even though the enemy side didn’t show up. Nonetheless hundreds of casualties were incurred by friendly fire before the “fighting” was over. I should also have added that in modern warfare, IE since gunpowder, about ten percent of wartime casualties are caused by friendly fire. While some incidents are harder to understand than others, it’s easy enough to understand that when one has millions of people firing deadly long range weapons at each other, mistakes will be made. General Grant’s right hand man, Stonewall Jackson, was killed by friendly fire. And equipment malfunctions. The Tang, America’s number one submarine ace of World War Two … was sunk by their own torpedo that swerved back and hit them. In fact if Kiska had been defended by the Japanese, there likely would have been more deaths by friendly fire, since there would have been a lot more fire, period.
In any event, while there are other battles in history that have been fought even though one side didn’t show up, I thought it would be interesting to write about a battle that was fought when the enemy made an unscheduled appearance. I am talking about Exercise Tiger, another American embarrassment in World War Two. Well, maybe not embarrassment, more like “let’s not mention this happened, OK?” This occurred while the allies, especially the Americans, were preparing for the D-Day landings. Eisenhower decided the American troops needed to practice the invasion under realistic conditions, and Exercise Tiger was born. Basically, an area of coastline with a good beach was evacuated (about 3,000 locals were moved,) and American troops would practice landing on it under realistic conditions. There would be a bombardment of the coast beforehand, and the bombardment would continue inland from the beach even after the troops hand landed. This way the troops would have some exposure to real gunfire in their proximity. More than 30,000 troops were involved, this was a big deal.
The exercise started on the morning of 27 April 1944. The shelling of the beach was to end half an hour before the troops waded ashore, giving officers on the shore half an hour to make sure no live rounds were laying around the beach. The shelling was delayed by an hour though. Some of the landing craft didn’t get the message … so numerous landing craft put ashore half an hour before the bombardment was finished. Oops. It was ugly, to say the least. Several hundred troops were killed, and many more wounded. Not an auspicious start to what was simply supposed to be a training exercise.
The next day, things got worse. A convoy of American LSTs (a large ship for landing troops and tanks on a beach) sailed out to practise landing the follow-up force to the landings of the day before. They had two British warships escorting them, however one of the warships developed mechanical problems and had to return to base. Unfortunately the Americans and British were using different radio frequencies, so the Americans weren’t informed about this. And since no one expected to be attacked, the ships were travelling in a big line. Think ducks in a row. Then the British escort ship received a message stating that German ships had been sighted in the area the previous night. The British assumed the Americans had also been informed of this. They hadn’t. So when nine warships appeared on the horizon, the Americans thought they were part of the exercise. And in a way, they were, just not a scheduled part of it. The nine warships were in fact German E-boats, or torpedo boats as they are called in America. They had no trouble telling friend from foe, and swooped in to attack the more or less defenceless American LSTs.
This is where it got really ugly. Two LSTs sank, one was severely damaged. A fourth was damaged by friendly fire. The remaining American ships and the British escort returned fire and the Germans fled, but the damage had been done. More than 600 Americans drowned. Later it turned out that many had drowned because in their haste they had donned their life vests wrong, so when they jumped in the water their vests flipped them upside down … head underwater. The survivors were sworn to secrecy, partly because the news would hurt morale and partly because they didn’t want to give the Germans intelligence and propaganda fodder. It’s been claimed by some that they were sworn to secrecy for life, but that isn’t the case. They were sworn to secrecy until the end of the war. And in fact the Allies announced the catastrophe quietly, both during and after the war, but it was overshadowed by greater events and more or less forgotten for decades.
Fortunately this story has a silver lining. Yes, the troops got some training under extremely realistic conditions. More importantly, major deficiencies in training and planning for D-Day were revealed. Three major changes were made. The British and Americans started using the same radio frequencies. A force of small rescue boats was added to D-Day invasion plans for rescuing troops in the water if their ships were sunk. And of course troops all got much better training on how to don and use their life vests. So no doubt these deaths saved many lives on D-Day, they didn’t die in vain.
God rest their souls.
(The above image is LST-289, hit and set afire by E-boats, it still made it back to port. Since the eighties efforts to memorialize these forgotten casualties have been underway, here’s a few links: The Slapton Sands Memorial Tank website. Yes, a Sherman Tank that sank in the disaster has been hauled out onto the beach and used a a memorial. The Slapton village memorial site. And of course the official US memorial site.)