- 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
Aside from the blame, however, a larger question loomed. What, if anything, had the Germans learned about possible invasion plans from the incident? The mere staging of a rehearsal exercise was not thought to have been a giveaway; in fact, SHAEF felt that the repeated massing and subsequent dispersal of invasion craft would serve to confuse the enemy. But the possibility that men had been captured was something else. In particular, the high command worried that some officer had been captured who was “Bigoted"—privy to the most sensitive secrets surrounding the invasion, which were classified under the “Bigot” label. Ten such officers were thought to have taken part in Tiger. Any one of them would likely know both the date and planned location of Overlord. Official German wireless communiqués gave no clue as to what might have been discovered: all that was put out was that three ships in a convoy, totaling nineteen thousand tons, had been sunk. There was no mention of any loss of life. This faulty information was published by British papers the next day. But SHAEF felt that the secrecy of Overlord was in grave jeopardy.
Divers were sent down to the sunken ships to remove dog tags from the bodies they found.
Intelligence officers hurried down to Devon, went among the survivors, and checked the list of dead to make sure the Bigoted officers were accounted for. By great good fortune, all were. But this did not end the peril, for some other persons in the exercise force undoubtedly knew at least something of the invasion plans. So the order went out to account for every single participant in Tiger. Divers were sent to the bottom of Lyme Bay—fortunately it is quite shallow—to enter the sunken wrecks, cut open compartments, and enter all vehicles, including tanks. They removed the dog tags from every body they found, and these were checked against unit rosters. In the end, most of the participants were identified. Some bodies, to be sure, might have been carried away by the tide, but SHAEF felt it had done all it could.
Just a week after the calamity, the Allies had reason to fear the worst; intelligence reports indicated that the Germans were moving troops into Normandy. By that time, however, it was too late to change the plans. Luckily the buildup turned out to be only moderate; the German high command kept the main body of its forces to the east. Overlord finally was launched on June 6. The casualties at Utah Beach, for which Tiger’s participants had been training, turned out to be only a fraction of those from the incident of April 28.
Long after the war ended, it was discovered that the E-boats had not, after all, picked up anyone. As Hans Schirren, who today is a successful Hamburg ship broker, told Dr. Greene: “Our system to keep alive and avoid destroyers and escorts was to hit and run always at high speed. It did not occur to us to stop.” The intelligence that prompted Hitler to shift his forces as much as he did came from an entirely different source: eavesdropping on American and British wireless communications ashore.
The last casualty of exercise Tiger was Rear Adm. Don P. Moon, who was in overall command of the naval part of the operation. Although not himself at fault, he was brutally reprimanded by his immediate superior, Rear Adm. Arthur D. Struble, in the presence of his officers and given a lesser command. A few months later he took his life, the only high-ranking American officer to commit suicide during World War II.
In the excitement and success of the actual D-day landings, and because of the continuing cloak of secrecy that was maintained so long, the Tiger tragedy was all but forgotten. When most of the remaining secrets of World War II were lifted in 1974 through the Freedom of Information Act, the entire story became available. But no one bothered to report it fully. In the early 1980s Ralph Greene, researching a book on outbreaks of malaria and hepatitis during the war, came upon some of the previously secret accounts. Temporarily shelving his medical project, he set about discovering additional information on the episode and seeking out survivors from both sides.
Almost all the participants he tracked down were greatly relieved to be able to tell their stories. Eugene Carney probably spoke for most of them when he said in a letter to Dr. Greene: “I’ve had to keep this locked in my mind and heart all these years because no one seemed to remember or care to talk about this. Much has been written about the invasion of France, but no details [have been published] about the 4th Infantry Division being in combat before D-day.”