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The Story of Exercise Tiger
The Story of Exercise Tiger April 28, 1944
Artist's Rendition of Attack in Lyme Bay
On the afternoon of April 27, 1944, thousands of men began boarding Eight LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) at Plymouth, Brixham and Southhampton. They were about to embark on a full dress rehearsal for D-Day on the beach at Slapton Sands, England. Slapton Sands was chosen because of its similarity to Utah Beach, the D-Day assignment for this convoy. The exercise also included military serviceman and live ammunition on the beach. The local British residents made the sacrifice and were evacuated in 1943 from their farms and homes for the duration of the rehearsals taking place.
The soldiers were in full combat gear below in the Tank Deck, along with their vehicles, and the LSTs were loaded with LCTs, smaller amphibious vehicles, tanks, jeeps, weapons, and trucks loaded with fuel and ammunition. The sailors and officers were at their posts as they set sail. The ships were on their way to meet and form one convoy in Lyme Bay. The distance from Lyme Bay to Slapton Sands was the approximate time it would take to make the crossing to Utah Beach on D-Day.
The convoy’s intended escort, the British Destroyer, the HMS Scimitar was kept in port for repairs. The only other British ship with the convoy was the Royal Navy Corvette Azalea. Also, unknown to the LSTs' communications room, a typographical error was made on the radio frequency the ships were given to be informed of enemy activity in the English Channel. The convoy never heard the warnings for the German E-Boat activity in the area.
All of the ships arrived at approximately 2:00 a.m. on April 28th in Lyme Bay and formed one long convoy as they began the journey back to Slapton Sands. Suddenly, four German E-Boats armed with torpedoes approached the convoy and began firing on the ships. General Quarters was sounded on all the ships, but the LSTs had little fire power and protection against these fast moving boats. Initially, the torpedoes missed hitting the LSTs because of their flat-bottom hulls. Survivors from the tank decks recounted stories of hearing the torpedoes scraping the bottom of the hull. Gun fire was exchanged between the E-Boats and the LSTs. The E-Boats quickly made adjustments and LST 507, at the back of the convoy, took a direct hit and was in flames and sinking. LST 531, in the middle of the convoy, then took direct hits from two torpedoes. She would sink within six minutes. LST 289, in front of LST 507, was the third and final ship that was hit with a torpedo. LST 289 did not sink but took extensive damage to the stern and suffered the loss of life of 13 men and many were injured. The LSTs remaining afloat followed orders and moved out in a zig zagging pattern as they began making their way to the nearest port. The E-Boats had left the scene. Captain John Doyle, of LST 515, the lead ship of the convoy, disobeyed orders and returned to rescue survivors from the sea. His crew rescued approximately 134 men that would have surely perished. They remained until the British ship, the HMS Onslow, arrived at dawn to assist in rescuing men and retrieving those who died.
Approximately 639 soldiers and sailors lost their lives. The waters were frigid and hypothermia quickly set in. Soldiers carrying their heavy gear in backpacks did not receive instructions on the proper use of their life preservers and drowned. There were not enough life boats and the surface of the water was in flames from the burning fuel. Those that survived were taken to various established and temporary hospitals. They were told never to speak of what happened under threat of court martial because of the secrecy required for D-Day.
There was no leave given or time for mourning for the survivors. They were reassigned to other LSTs and took part in the D-Day invasion. The survivors began to speak about Exercise Tiger in 1994, the 50th anniversary of the event, and finally the family members of those lost finally knew what happened to their loved ones. Now, 70 + years later, the survivors still weep when speaking about the tragedy and the great loss of life.