We’ve all been there: the point where researching for your upcoming final paper somehow led you on a strange journey through the depths of the internet to find a video of a dog flying a plane. You scratch your head as you wonder how you got so off topic, but keep watching because it’s probably more entertaining than whatever is on JSTOR. For me, this incident happened a few weeks ago, as researching about German Nationalism in the 1920s somehow brought me to a more distant, and much more interesting article about an unknown Allied military blunder that occurred during World War II: Exercise Tiger.
Exercise Tiger, also known as Operation Tiger, was the code name for one in a series of large-scale exercises in preparation for the D-Day invasion. This particular exercise took place on the shores of England’s Slapton Beach, on April 28th, 1944 as the terrain of the beach mimicked that of Normandy’s Utah Beach. In addition to its similar landscape, the exercise tried, as realistically as possible, to simulate the atmosphere of the future attack. More specifically, the exercise planned to have U.S and British landing crafts and convoys join together off the coast of the English Channel and approach the shore together. Once the boats neared the coast, real gunfire and shellfire were to be fired at them from the coastline by British forces, and were to stop as soon as the men exited their landing crafts. In order to further simulate the conditions of the invasion, the men were not informed that this operation was merely a training exercise. Ultimately, what ensued on the shores of Slapton Sands that afternoon was far from sheer simulation; some would argue it was true warfare.
The problems with the exercise started off shore. Around three hundred Allied boats were sailing off the coast of the English Channel when, by chance, a German patrol fleet picked up the vessels on their radar. Within a few moments, Germans boats launched torpedoes at the Allied vessels closest to them. Paul Gerolstien, now 91 years old, recounts the terror that ensued:
“A flare broke over our head, over our ship, I said, ‘Oh my god, we’re gonna get it.’ And apparently we didn’t. It must have gone under us…I looked to the stern and saw LST 531 or 532 get torpedoed.”
The torpedoes tore into dozens of vessels and blew some apart, leaving men on fire and ships sinking. Allied commanders, monitoring the situation from London ordered the boats to scatter at once. Unfortunately, this order caused more casualties, as more chaos ensued, and more ships were hit by German torpedo fire.
As fires raged across Allied vessels, many men looked to jump ship. The only problem with this act was that many servicemen did not know how to properly use their floatation devices. Because the vests were called “life belts”, many men put them around their waists instead of their chests. Due to the buoyancy of the vest along with the heavy kits they were carrying, hundreds more men toppled over head-first into the water, and unable to turn themselves right-side up, drowned.
It is estimated that around 700 men were killed, either from direct fire or from drowning, in these off shore attacks.
Although it may seem like the exercise should have ceased here, it did not. The ships that remained afloat sailed on towards the shores of England towards their intended destination. As mentioned, the British gunfire from the coastline was supposed to end as soon as the American men left their vehicles and stormed the beaches. Yet, there was a miscommunication between British and American soldiers on which radio frequency to use. So, when American men on the boats signaled over radio to British men on shore to cease fire, the Brits did not receive the message. In effect, hundreds more soldiers died or became injured on the shoreline as seemingly friendly fire continued after the men left their vehicles.
As a result of this simple radio miscommunication, 300 more men died, raising the total death toll of the exercise to around 1,000.
Most shockingly, the storming of Utah Beach during the actual Normandy invasion killed fewer men, around 600 soldiers.
For years to follow, the failed exercise remained a secret. Top military officials told nurses on duty not to ask questions about the specifics of the attack, and informed victims’ families that their loved ones were simply “missing in action” after maneuvers at sea. Furthermore, these officials threatened the men involved with court-martial if they ever discussed what had occurred. Many took this threat very seriously. Nathan Resnick, who was aboard one of the attacked landing crafts, said:
“We were told not to say anything. I was married for 40-something years and never told my wife a word.”
The military officially declassified the details of the exercise in August of 1944, two months after the Normandy invasion. However, the event did not make its way into the public eye until decades later, in 1968, when a man who lived in a beach house on Slaton Sands began to find cartridges, parts of uniforms, buttons and other military paraphernalia scattered along the shore. Baffled, he asked his neighbors if they knew anything about a military invasion on the beach. His neighbors informed him that the British military ordered them to vacate the area during 1944, and, years later even commemorated them with a small monument for their cooperation. After going to see the monument, the man realized that nothing on the memorial mentioned the servicemen who lost their lives during the devastating practice mission on Slapton Beach. Ultimately, he concluded that this mission was a massive cover-up by both the British and American governments.
News stories eventually hit Britain and the U.S with mixed sentiments. Some referred to the accident as the mission that saved Normandy, while others criticized its secrecy and deception. The exercise did help the Allied militaries better prepare for the invasion of Normandy, as better communication tactics and life vest training became imperatives. However, the question today remains, should the loss of these servicemen be considered an unforgivable blunder or a necessary evil?