“A first class petty officer ?on LST (Landing Ship Tank) 507, Angelo Crapanzano feeling feverish had fallen fast asleep in his bunk. The blasting of action station horns woke him up. Moments later there was a deafening roar and everything went black. Least did Crapanzano know at that moment the “deafening roar” was a torpedo discharged from a German E-Boat. The Ship was burning furiously from the bow almost right down to the stern. He had no option but to jump in the icy cold sea”.
Slapton’s unspoiled beach of gravel, fronting a shallow freshwater ley and backed by grassy lands seemed perfect to the American forces to simulate practice landings for the launch of Operation Overlord on 6th June 1944, the D-Day landings in Utah Beach, France.
“Exercise Tiger” under the command of Admiral Don P Moon United States (US) Navy? was one of several assault rehearsals conducted at Slapton Sands on the Devon coast. So vital was the exercise that the commanders had ordered the use of live naval and artillery ammunition to make the exercise as real as possible to accustom the soldiers to what they were soon going to experience.
This exercise also turned out to be one of the great tragedies of World War II. Hundreds of American soldiers and sailors died needlessly due to confusion and incompetence. It was one of the military’s best kept secrets until it was revealed to the world almost 40 years later.
The exercise was conducted between 22nd and 30th April 1944 and commenced with the marshalling and embarking of the troops to the LST?s (a landing ship tank is a flat bottomed four and a half thousand tons assault ship capable of carrying several hundred men, lorries and tanks) off the coast of south west England. The first assault landings were made on the morning of the 27th April, following the “bombardment” and was continued throughout the day. A follow up convoy of eight LST was expected later that night and it was this convoy which met with tragedy.
The Commander in Chief in Plymouth was responsible for the safety of the rehearsal. Since German E-Boats, a fast moving boat armed with torpedoes and with a top speed of up to 40 knots patrolled the English Channel at night, the Commander had placed extra patrols across the mouth of Lyme Bay, consisting from the Royal Navy of two destroyers, three motor torpedo boats (MTB) and two motor gunboats. Another MTB patrol was sent to watch Cherbourg, where the German E-Boats were based.
LST Group 32, the Plymouth section of the Convoy-T4, consisted of LST 515, 496, 511, 531 and 58. It left Plymouth at 9.45pm on the night of 27th April 1944 and was joined by the escort vessel, HMS Azela, near the Eddystone Rocks and headed towards Brixham where it was joined by the Brixham section of the Convoy T-4 composed of LST 499, 289 and 507.
The convoy was moving at a speed of 5 knots in a single row, keeping a distance of about 400 yards and stayed in the order LST 515, 496, 511, 531, 58, 499,289 and 507.
On the night of 27th of April, few minutes after 10 pm a group of nine German E-Boats set out on a normal reconnaissance mission from their base in Cherbourg into the Lyme Bay area. They followed the usual channel route without any sign of a convoy or ‘enemy’ ships. As they headed towards the Lyme Bay area, they suddenly came in visual contact with the LST convoy. Since they could not see any naval escorts, they quickly positioned themselves for a torpedo attack.
As the convoy approached Lyme Bay it was manoeuvring a loop to head back towards the shore. It was here that the E-Boats made contact and opened fire. A few minutes past 2 am LST 507 was torpedoed, hitting its auxiliary engine room cutting all electric power.
The ship burst into flames, the fire fighting attempted by the crew proved futile as most of the fire fighting equipment was inoperative due to the power failure. After about 45 minutes or so the survivors of the attack were ordered to abandon ship.
LST 531 was hit by two torpedoes shortly after LST 507 was hit. The ship burst into flames, rolled over and sank in six minutes. Several minutes later LST 289 was torpedoed.
However LST 289 managed to limp back to shore but only after suffering a number of deaths and casualties of its men aboard.
Trapped below decks hundreds of soldiers and sailors went down with the ships. There was little time to launch lifeboats and some of the lifeboats were jammed. Many leapt into the sea, soon many drowned, some weighed down by the waterlogged coats and others who had wrongly put on their life belts around their waists rather than under their armpits. Others succumbed to hypothermia in the cold water. In all 749 American soldiers and sailors died that night, 946 in total during Exercise Tiger.
Subsequent investigations revealed two main reasons for the tragedy, firstly lack of naval escort vessels and secondly an error in radio frequencies. The convoy was supposed to be accompanied by a Royal Navy Corvette and a World War I destroyer. The destroyer having suffered damages was in port for repair, a replacement not available. The carefully prepared radio frequencies were issued with serious typographical errors which resulted in the LST’s being on different radio frequencies to the Corvette and the commanding officers on shore.
When the news reached the allied commanders it greatly worried them that so many lives were lost, particularly the missing officers who had plans that if in German hands would reveal the Allied intentions for the D-Day landings. This was so serious the Allied commanders even considered changing details of Operation Overlord presuming that the enemy must have discovered the details.
Miraculously, the bodies of every one of those officers with BIGOT-level clearance* were found. The Tactics of D-Day were secure. Meanwhile the tragedy was kept a top secret. The survivors were strictly ordered not to talk about it.
After the Normandy invasion the incident was not revealed until 40 years later, through the efforts of an Englishman, Ken Small, the US and British Armies acknowledged the tragedy and the incident was unfolded to the world.
*‘BIGOT’ was a code name for a security level beyond ‘Top Secret’. Only the highest ranking officers and a few specialists held BIGOT clearance.