- Historic Sites
What Happened Off Devon
On the eve of the Normandy invasion, a training mission in the English Channel came apart in fire and horror. For years, the grim story was suppressed.
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
“We crossed the convoy route without any sign of ships,” recalls Rabe, “and cruised easterly in the inner bay. Shortly before 0200 on the twenty-eighth we saw in the southeast indistinct shadows of a long line of ships that we did not immediately identify as LSTs [landing ship, tank]. We thought at first they were tankers, or possibly destroyers.” Slowing momentarily to ten knots, each Eboat launched two torpedoes. The first ones hit nothing—which the German officers took to mean that their prey were shallow-draft vessels that the torpedoes had passed under. Perhaps they were LSTs, most likely empty vessels heading for some embarkation port to load up for the invasion that was believed to be in the offing. Rabe then launched two more torpedoes, aiming at the last ship in the convoy. He learned later that another commander had done the same. “At 0207,” he says, “we saw that we had hit the target. Fire was spreading from bow to stern rapidly, and a dense cloud of smoke rose from the ship.”
Within the next half hour two more ships were set ablaze and two of the stricken vessels sank. The surrounding seas became infernos of burning gasoline and oil. The German coastal raiders had hurt Allied shipping on previous occasions, but this strike would be their most successful killing of the entire war. Unbeknownst to the Germans, they had not hit an ordinary line of cargo ships but had roared right into the middle of Exercise Tiger, a rehearsal staged in preparation for Overlord, the invasion that was scheduled for early June.
Exercise Tiger and other rehearsals had been necessary because the projected landings would be different from anything previously attempted. Not only were they to be larger and more complex, but a new’tactic was to be employed. Heretofore the early invasion waves had been composed mainly of infantry, accompanied by engineers, who secured the beachhead so that armor could be brought in. At Utah Beach in Normandy, which along with Omaha Beach was to be taken by American forces, the procedure would be reversed: after an initial wave of engineers and demolition teams had removed obstructions, amphibious tanks—a new development—would be floated in to make up the principal assault. Tiger’s target area, in fact, had been chosen because its topography closely resembled that of Utah Beach: just back of Slapton Sands, the beach on which the practice landing was to be made, lay a body of water similar to one beyond Utah Beach, and inland the countryside was characterized by narrow lanes and hedgerows, much like the Normandy bocage area. Because live bombs and ammunition were to be used in the practice landings, the Devon area surrounding Lyme Bay had been cleared of its civilian population many months earlier.
The ill-fated Convoy T-4 that G’nther Rabe glimpsed in the early morning of April 28 was only the final part of Tiger. On the twenty-seventh the initial landing forces had hit Slapton Sands. Not long after they had gone ashore—amid some confusion and mishaps—the T-4 ships came out from Plymouth and Brixham and formed up in Lyme Bay. T-4’s mission was to act as a “buildup” convoy delivering tanks and other armored equipment. Leading the convoy was HMS Azalea , a 205-foot Royal Navy corvette armed with a single 4-inch cannon and a few antiaircraft guns. With a top speed of only sixteen knots, she would be ill-equipped to deal with anything so fast and elusive as an E-boat, though she might be able to do some damage. The eight LSTs following her at four-hundred- to five-hundred-yard intervals contained troops of the VII Corps—the 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Amphibian Engineer Brigade, plus tanks, jeeps, DUKWs (amphibious trucks), conventional trucks, and halftracks, all jammed in bumper to bumper and fully loaded with gasoline and explosives. One LST towed a pair of floating causeways that were to span the narrow lagoon behind Slapton Sands so the tanks could move rapidly inland.
“We had been told,” recalls Eugene Carney, who was at that time a corporal in the 4th Infantry Division, “that British destroyers would flank us on right and left for protection.” Not only was the Azalea neither as fast nor as well-armed as a destroyer, but the second ship detailed to the duty was not present. HMS Scimitar was a relic of World War I, part of the package of aging destroyers sent by Roosevelt to the British in 1940. Although the antiquated 276-foot fourstacker could no longer reach her one-time speed of thirty-one knots, her presence might have lessened the toll considerably. But during the previous night, while preparing for an assaultwave exercise, she had been rammed by a landing craft in Plymouth Harbor. The overworked dockyard was unable to handle the job immediately, and she was ordered to stay in port. Her captain protested that as the hole made by the collision was twelve feet above the water and had been temporarily plugged, she could perfectly well carry out her assignment with Convoy T-4. His request was mistakenly routed to the wrong headquarters and temporarily mislaid. By the time the British naval command discovered the lapse and ordered a substitute, HMS Saladin , to join the convoy, the German attackers were closing in.