- 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
Ralph Greene was in the lab of the 228th Station Hospital processing some routine tests when he got the order to report immediately to the hospital’s recreation room. It was early in the afternoon of April 28, 1944, and for Greene, a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, the day had begun like every other for the past several months—handling sick call, checking on soldiers with such unmartial ailments as chicken pox and measles, tending to the victims of minor training mishaps. Ever since the previous September his hospital company had been operating its Quonset-hut facility in Sherborne, Dorset, not far from the southwestern corner of England. Everyone assumed the long-awaited invasion of France would take place soon; but while trucks brimming over with troops and supplies constantly passed by, squadrons of aircraft ranged overhead, and searchlight beams crisscrossed the sky every night, there was little for Greene and his fellow medics to do beyond housekeeping chores. Now, however, the adjutant on the phone had a distinct note of urgency in his voice: “Colonel Kendall wants all officers in the rec room at once!”
In minutes the unit’s forty medical officers and eighty nurses were assembled. Col. James Kendall, the Regular Army doctor who commanded the hospital, stood before them in an exaggeratedly military pose, a swagger stick tucked under his left elbow. But his tone was an odd mixture of pride and trepidation. “We’re in the war at last,” he announced. “In less than an hour, we’ll receive hundreds of emergency cases of shock due to immersion, compounded by explosion wounds. SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force] demands that we treat these soldiers as though we’re veterinarians: you will ask no questions and take no histories. There will be no discussion. Follow standard procedures. Anyone who talks about these casualties, regardless of their severity, will be subject to courtmartial. No one will be allowed to leave our perimeter until further orders.”
Greene and his cohorts wondered what kind of secret operation might have snafued. That there was something special about it became apparent to them as they filed out of the room. Their hospital compound was suddenly surrounded by a cordon of counterintelligence troops carrying bayoneted rifles. “They really mean business,” Greene remembers thinking. But what was it?
Half an hour later a stream of ambulances and trucks began pouring through the entrance gates. “They were all filled,” says Greene, “with wet, shivering, blueskinned, blanketed, and bandaged young Army and Navy men.” The doctors, nurses, and orderlies gathered around to help unload them. Before long, several hundred men—cold, wet, and many in great pain—were being treated inside the hut. Except for the medical personnel calling out to each other, there was no talking. The soldiers and sailors said nothing, and the doctors said nothing to them. Groans and sighs were all that marred the silence. Working in this weird vacuum, the doctors were gratified that most of the men responded quickly to “warmth and TLC” and that large numbers soon could be returned by truck to their units—whatever and wherever these might be. Many, however, responded less quickly, and, despite every effort, some died. Meanwhile, there was no explanation.
Just as mysteriously as it had begun, the episode ended for the 228th Hospital a few days later when all remaining patients were removed. Greene and the other hospital personnel did not know where they had gone, or why they had come in the first place. Soon rumors spread that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar casualties had been sent to other hospitals. There was no official acknowledgment. Not until many years after the war did Greene learn of the appalling tragedy that had occurred the previous night; and not until quite recently did he discover the full nature of it. Now a pathologist living in Chicago, he set out to learn what he could about the debacle. “I wanted to know,” he remarks, “because that curious day is just as clear to me now as if it were yesterday.”
For his part, the former Oberleutnant zur See G’nther Rabe, who recently wound up a career in West Germany’s navy and in the service of NATO, also remembers the time as if it had just happened. The evening of April 27 was a good one for scouting and hunting, he says, for the sea was calm, allowing his Schnellboot (”fast boat”) to attain easily its flank speed of thirty-six to thirty-eight knots; the skies were clear, and the moon was just setting. Rabe’s craft and others of its flotilla—British and American soldiers and sailors called them E-boats, E standing for enemy —had stood out from Cherbourg Harbor into the English Channel at 10:00 P.M. , unseen by the network of British destroyers and smaller craft whose job it was to intercept them, and had sped northwest in two columns under strict radio silence. They were heading for Lyme Bay, off Devon on the southwest coast of England. Although they did not know that it was a critical training area for the amphibious invasion forces, their wireless intelligence had hinted of unusual activity.
“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.
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.”
Farther up the line of ships, crewmen on LST 531 had also seen the green tracers and, just after 2:00 A.M. , the sudden blaze and explosion made by the torpedoing of 507. Minutes later, at 2:17, a torpedo struck their own ship on her starboard side, with another following shortly after. The ship exploded with a tremendous roar, and a gigantic ball of orange flame shot skyward. Seaman Thomas Holcombe on a nearby ship saw “trucks, men, and jeeps flying through the air. The green tracers of the E-boat swept over the port side of the burning ship. One of our men returned their fire with a 20-mm gun that sent out red tracers until he was hit and fell. His gun continued to fire red streaks straight up.” On the command ship—LST 515—the executive officer, Lt. Moses Hallett, returned to the bridge around this time to find “a bit of a spectacular going on"; each ship in the convoy was firing red tracers in every direction, and the rasping noise of E-boats could be heard all around. On the crippled 531 all electric power failed, as did the telephone system and the fire-fighting apparatus. With the lifeboats ruined, men began jumping off the blazing ship. Many ironically shouted, “Dry run!” as they leaped. Fewer than ten minutes after being hit, 531 sank with a great rushing noise. Of the 496 men aboard, 424 died.
At about 2:30 A.W. Manny Reuben, a petty officer on LST 496 near the head of the convoy, was on the bridge when somebody yelled, “I can see a bow wave!” Everyone looked astern. “We all saw it,” he says. “A speedy craft, low and slender, was indistinctly seen, about 1,000 yards off our port bow, slipping through the silky smooth water. We fired many rounds at it with our starboard 40-mm battery but observed no results, although it was clearly outlined by our tracers. The captain zigzagged, trying to keep our stern directed toward flares and a searchlight that flashed off after a few seconds. Our lookout reported a torpedo passing forward of our bow. An excited soldier in a half-track on our deck fired its 50-mm machine gun to the port quarter at what he imagined was an E-boat. It was too dark to tell. His slugs struck LST 511 behind us, causing—I later learned—many severe wounds. We also had several holes, slanting upwards, from the lowslung E-boats shooting high at us with their 20- and 40-mm cannon. One of these shells hit our galley and another creased my head, knocking me out.”
When guns were fired, an officer said they were just trying to make it seem real.
LST 496’s zigzagging saved her from further damage, but another vessel was not so lucky. Immediately after seeing 531 explode, the captain of LST 289, Lt. Harry Mettler, ordered full flank speed and began zigzagging. Torpedo wakes foamed past on every side, and soon the men saw a low, rakish boat overtaking to port. A broad-waked “surface-runner” torpedo headed toward 289’s stern. (The commander of the E-boat that launched it, Oberleutnant zur See Hans Schirren, remembers today that it was a defective torpedo; a malfunctioning depth control kept it on the surface.) Mettler ordered full right rudder and for a moment thought the torpedo would pass by. But it struck the stern with a flash and roar. Martin MacMahon, a petty officer on 289’s deck, felt a terrific jarring “like an earthquake” and looked back to find the ship’s stern section “smashed and curled over the navigation bridge.” Everybody on the bridge was blown off onto the deck, some suffering fatal injuries.
Mettler, only slightly hurt, picked himself up from the deck and resumed command. The entire forward end of his ship, he discovered, was unharmed, and both of the propellers worked. But the rudder was out. Mettler lit on an ingenious solution: ordering his LCVPs—small landing craft—lowered, he stationed them ahead of his ship and attached them by towlines to the forecastle so they could pull and steer him. He used a red-lensed flashlight to give directional orders, one flash for starboard and two for port, and LST 289 began limping toward shore. Four of Mettler’s crewmen had been killed outright in the action, eight were missing and presumed dead, and eighteen had been wounded—one of whom would later die in a nearby hospital.
LST 289 left behind a scene of desperation and horror. Hundreds of men in full battle kit floundered in forty-two-degree water. “Their life-belt lights,” said an observer, “were snapping on and off like lightning bugs.” Flames were all about. The captain of the torpedoed 507 gave orders at 2:30 to abandon ship, but only three lifeboats could be launched, and most of the life rafts were frozen solid to their racks with rust. Those few already on the water were burning. Ens. Tom Clark, 507’s gunnery officer, went around the ship encouraging men to jump but found some so frightened that he had to pry their hands off the rail. Murdoch and the captain, Lt. James Swarts, struggled up to a raft already filled with men and clung to its side, “trying to paddle away from the fires, and moving to keep from freezing. We could hear cries for help all around us.” Angelo Crapanzano could hear men “yelling—screaming—praying—dying. The cold water was taking its toll. Minutes passed into hours and the yelling, screaming and praying tapered off—the men were falling asleep, letting go of the rafts—and dying.” Murdock and Swarts held on for more than three hours until they were picked up by another LST, but Swarts died on its deck of shock and exposure.
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.”
A great many succumbed after being picked up. Eugene Carney recalled: “A lot of men died that night and piled up on us. I asked some soldiers to move them onto litters so we could take them below…. Although our work was now easier, most of the younger men had never handled a corpse and hesitated to take hold of the dead. My uncle had owned a funeral home, and I had helped him, so I had experience. I would take hold of a body under the armpits, and tell a squeamish soldier to grab him by his shoes, so that he wouldn’t have to touch the remains. From then on the men lost their fear of the dead, and we did this detail all night, over and over until daybreak.”
None of the German craft had been touched by all the firing from the LSTs.
As the first glimmer of dawn appeared, those still in the water had one consolation: the E-boats had vanished. HMS Onslow , the destroyer that had first sighted the German craft shortly after midnight, had taken off in pursuit after the first LST had been hit, and soon other destroyers joined the chase. Their radar plainly revealed the small vessels, but already the E-boats were escaping under cover of the smoke from the burning ships. None of the German craft had been touched by all the firing from the LSTs or by the several salvos the Onslow let loose from her 4.7-inch guns. As the destroyers hastened southward they were joined by a group of British MTBs—small craft much like the E-boats. The British ships raced full throttle after the attackers, but, one of their officers recalled, “Unfortunately we arrived just minutes too late, in time to see and identify our targets passing the Cherbourg breakwater entrance.”
Two sister ships of the Onslow came speeding in from the west to sink the still-floating bow of 507 and then help pick up survivors. A warrant officer who was aboard one of the newcomers recalled: “We arrived in the area at daybreak, and the sight was appalling. There were hundreds of bodies of American servicemen, in full battle gear, floating in the sea. Many had their limbs and even their heads blown off, but some were still alive. We took aboard all those we could find living and applied first aid and resuscitation. Those the doctor pronounced dead were pushed back into the sea. One American I was attending in the wardroom collapsed and died, obviously from the terrible shock of the ordeal… .Small American landing craft with their ramps down were literally scooping up bodies, driving them ashore, and dumping them on the beaches…. Of all those we took on board, there were only nine survivors.”
By midmorning on the twenty-eighth most of the remaining ships had moved back to shore. Says Eugene Carney: “When we got closer to land we saw a long, sloping road leading down to the water. Ambulances were lined up bumper to bumper—a pitiful sight. We were unloaded from the ship and put in trucks before the dead and wounded were removed. We were told to keep our mouths shut and were taken to a camp where we were quarantined.”
On April 29 an official report stated that 638 had been killed and 89 wounded, but a few months later a U.S. Army historian examined the available data and put the number of dead at 749, a figure that in the intervening years has generally been accepted. The problem was that unrecorded transfers and the like had rendered many personnel rosters and loading lists vague or inaccurate. A few years ago a former Royal Navy officer, Harry Unsworth, who is now the historian of a small town in Devon, took a different approach. Adding up figures gleaned from various sources, including harbor masters’ records of bodies brought ashore in the Lyme Bay area, he came up with a total of 785. Allowing for a number simply missing, he said, the figure could go well over 800.
Whatever the total, the bodies had to be disposed of quickly, if only for security reasons. A mass grave was bulldozed in the meadow not far from Slapton Sands, and a woman whose father was a baker supplying U.S. troops in World War II and so was permitted to enter the closed area remembers that she chanced to see the “bodies, in American battle dress, laid flat and stacked, one on top of the other—there must have been dozens, all wet.” There was no marking of any kind to denote the grave, and the woman is sure no bodies have ever been exhumed. The Pentagon, however, says she is mistaken: some 450 bodies were never recovered and still lie on the bottom of Lyme Bay not far from Slapton Sands. More than 300 were indeed buried in the mass grave, but by 1956, the Pentagon insists, all had been clandestinely removed to official cemeteries.
In the days following the disaster, the Americans, bitter about the lack of adequate escort, demanded a full explanation from the Royal Navy. Adm. Sir Ralph Leatham, in command at Plymouth, apologized and offered the Americans his profound regrets. He ascribed the lapses to an overworked staff, to confusion resulting from the huge volume of communications, and to the late distribution of orders covering the various aspects of the exercise. Meanwhile, senior British officers conducting an investigation laid blame both on the inadequacy of the escort and on the lack of initiative displayed by the Azalea ’s captain. They made no mention of the wavelength blunder, and there was no further inquiry.
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.”