- 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
None of these events were made known to the chief officer of the convoy, Comdr. Bernard Skahill, USN, on LST 515. Nor had Skahill obtained copies of the escort orders or the task-force operations orders. To cap the list of negligences, the orders issued to each LST contained a typographical error that gave them the wrong radio frequency on which to communicate with headquarters ashore or with the Azalea . Thus the American ships were not only poorly informed, but they were unable to get whatever messages would be sent to them en route. They were sailing blind.
By accident, the Germans had roared right into the middle of Tiger, a D-day rehearsal.
To simulate the length of an actual Channel crossing, the convoy took a looping route within Lyme Bay, starting in a northeasterly direction and turning clockwise until the ships were heading almost due west toward Slapton Sands. As midnight approached, T-4 was on a southwesterly course, plodding along at about five knots. Some of the higher-ups on board might have recalled the section of their orders that had warned, “Attack by enemy aircraft, submarines and E-boats may be expected en route to and in exercise area.” But the possibility of such disturbances seemed remote.
Shortly after midnight, HMS Onslow , a fast and powerfully armed destroyer on patrol off Portland Bill, a headland marking the eastern end of Lyme Bay, sighted a graceful, slim, low-silhouetted E-boat darting northward in the bay, then turning south. The German craft was going too fast to pursue, but the Onslow reported the sighting to Plymouth headquarters. A few minutes later the Onslow ’s radar revealed three groups of E-boats some ten miles off the Bill and reported that too. Plymouth relayed this intelligence to the convoy. The Azalea got the word, but, assuming that the American ships had received it too, did not think to pass it on to her flock; her captain said later that his officers had been “studying” the message when the attack occurred—almost two hours later. As for the LSTs, they were listening to the wrong wavelength and heard nothing.
The German emphasis on small craft was a result of restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty, which ended World War I. The Schnellboote , which ultimately grew to be as long as 112 feet, were driven by three Daimler-Benz diesel engines totaling 6,150 horsepower. Some engines had superchargers that boosted their top speed well above forty knots. Most of the boats carried two or three 20-mm cannons, sometimes a 37-mm or 40-mm gun, and twin 21-inch torpedo tubes that could be reloaded twice during a mission. Although there were never more than forty of them operating in the English Channel, their potential for wreaking mayhem was great. Since they were readily spotted on radar and were as loud as unmuffled motorcycles, their policy was to operate only at night, and to hit and run before the enemy could concentrate his defenses.
On the bridge of LST 507, which was bringing up the rear of the convoy, Lt. (jg.) James Murdock heard distant gunfire shortly after 1:30 A.M. and saw on his port quarter a succession of green tracers. (Some of the E-boats had been exchanging fire with patrolling British destroyers to the east. The Germans’ green tracers ignited well away from their firing point, making their source hard to spot.) At the same time that Murdock heard the shooting, his ship’s radar showed blips of two small, fast ships to the starboard about a mile and a half astern. Although he and his colleagues assumed these represented part of their “escort,” all hands were summoned to general quarters.
There was barely enough time: in minutes the pursuing craft turned and headed directly toward the 507. “As they overtook us and came abeam our starboard,” Murdock said, “we were hit by a torpedo that crashed through our hull and exploded near the engine room, knocking out all the lights and the fire lines. Fires started on the tank deck and in the engine room. We had 282 army troops aboard, with trucks, tanks, jeeps, and DUKWs, all loaded with gasoline which caught fire. The burning gasoline poured over the deck and set fire to the leaking fuel oil, causing fires on the water. The bow broke off partially from the bridge and stern, and we couldn’t make contact with the people there.”
Angelo Crapanzano, a nineteen-year-old motor mechanic’s mate, had just entered 507’s engine room when he heard the ship’s 40-mm guns firing. He asked an officer what was happening and was told, “I guess they’re trying to make it as real as possible.” Just then, Crapanzano remembers, “There was a deafening roar, and everything went black. I felt myself going up and then down, hitting my head on something. I must have blacked out for a few seconds, but then I felt cold water around my legs. I scrambled up the ladder. The six guys in the auxiliary engine room, just forward of where I was, never knew what hit them.”