- 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
Like many others, Crapanzano had meanwhile made a horrifying discovery. There had been no abandon-ship drill for the soldiers on 507, and although he and other Navy men were wearing kapok life jackets that supported them well and retained some warmth, the soldiers had been issued inflatable life belts that probably would have saved them—if only instructions in their proper use had been given. Most of the soldiers had put the belts around their waists instead of under their armpits. The low center of gravity pitched the weakened men forward, face down into the frigid water.
LST 507 took longer to sink than 531. Tom Clark remembers that, as he fought to survive in the water, he saw 507 “broken aft of the center, afire, stern and bow high, like a huge jackknife.” Sometime later the stern sank, but her bow remained jutting into the night. An hour after the first explosion, men were still hearing the rasp of the E-boats, and the remaining LSTs kept maneuvering furiously. The ship towing the causeways cut them loose and headed for shore.
And what, during all this ghastly activity, had become of the Azalea , supposedly responsible for guarding the convoy? She had seen the early tracers and the explosions, and her captain decided to zigzag along the starboard side of the convoy and radio for help. He saw no E-boats, he reported after the battle, and was surprised that he received no signals from any of the LSTs (which were, of course, on the wrong wavelength). “There was intimate fighting between LSTs,” he said, “and I thought they were firing towards us. I remained astern of them as they spread over a wide, three-mile front.” For some reason he “saw no people in the water, and didn’t pick up any survivors, as we have instructions not to do so until the actual attack is over.”
Help finally did arrive at 3:15 A.M. in the form of HMS Saladin , the Scimitar ’s tardy replacement, which came upon 507’s protruding bow and found fifty numbed survivors clinging to it. The Saladin cautiously crept alongside, and her crew helped the men up onto her decks. A full hour later Lt. John Doyle, captain of the convoy command ship LST 515, decided he had a duty to save lives if he could. He spoke with Commander Skahill—in charge of the convoy as a whole—and argued for going back. Skahill, a Regular Navy officer (Doyle was a “mustang"—a former noncom commissioned during the war), directed him to head for port. Doyle ignored the order and put 515 about. Skahill reprimanded him verbally. Doyle paid no attention. (Later Ensign Clark came upon Skahill pacing up and down 515’s wardroom, muttering nervously: “Did I do the right thing? I did what I had to do.” After the episode was over, he withdrew his reprimand, and in his official report stated that “the C.O. of LST 515 [Doyle] is worthy of commendation for his rescue of survivors.”)
Doyle knew that E-boats did not customarily linger after an attack, and that they would have to clear the Channel by daybreak to avoid being fired upon by Allied aircraft; but at 4:15 A.M. it was still not certain they had departed. In any event, Doyle ordered 515’s bow doors opened and the ramp lowered so that his LCVPs could be launched quickly, and he had lights and landing nets rigged along the ship’s sides. His officers later expressed their admiration for his boldness, for 515 was, as one remarked, “a sitting duck.”
As the cold, wet, exhausted men came aboard, some being helped up the bow ramp, others pulling themselves up the nets, they were taken to the messroom, where they were stretched out on tables and their equipment and clothes cut off. Then they were wrapped in blankets and given a shot of whiskey, which was enough to revive most. A soldier who was assisting the ship’s doctor was astonished to hear one of the rescued men refuse the drink. “I’ve never tasted whiskey,” he said, “and I promised my mother I never would.”
But some of those who had survived until 515 appeared were unable to make it onto the ship. Tom Clark had been hanging onto a raft with another officer, named Huffman, who had no life belt. “With rescue in sight,” Clark said, Hoffman “was having delusions. He petered out and drifted away from our raft. I grabbed him and told him to buck up. He murmured, ‘OK.’ We were floating down the port side of the LST….They threw lines down to us. I grabbed one and tried to make it fast, at the same time trying to hold Huffman. My hands were too cold to do both, so I held Hoffman.” Another man trying to clutch the line missed it and, in desperation, caught hold of Clark’s head, pushing him under the raft. In the struggle to free himself, Clark lost his hold on Huffman. “I managed to get a useless frozen leg through the bottom rung of a Jacob’s ladder, when helpful hands reached down and lifted me aboard, but poor Huffman was lost in the dark.”