Ready to give their all on D-Day, hundreds of GIs and sailors lost their lives rehearsing for the landings.
In at least one respect, the name Slapton Sands is a misnomer. There is no sand at all on the beach at the edge of Lyme Bay, of the Devon coast—one of several southern English beaches where the Allies were rehearsing for the Normandy invasion. Like the beaches the Americans would be targeting across the English Channel, the beach at Slapton is composed of what geologists call shingle: billions of small, wave-polished black and gray pebbles. The site has other physical characteristics similar to Omaha Beach and, especially, Utah Beach—making it ideal for the D-Day rehearsals that began in January 1944 and continued into April, as the days lengthened and the Channel waters grew slightly less frigid.
In late April, Rear Admiral Don P. Moon, commander of Force U, the task group of naval forces assigned to Utah Beach, and Major General J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, commander of VII Corps, a First Army assault corps targeting Utah Beach, prepared to conduct one last full-scale, eight-day rehearsal, codenamed Exercise Tiger. The plan was for Moon’s amphibians to put the bulk of Collins’ VII Corps ashore at Slapton Sands, from which VII Corps would advance to “capture” the town of Okehampton, 25 miles inland. In order to simulate as closely as possible the actual Utah Beach landings, now only five weeks away, the beach at Slapton Sands was prepared with two lines of steel tetrahedra and barbed wire. Even live mines were put in place.
Moon’s force involved a mix of American landing craft and Royal Navy warships. Such an arrangement was not novel or even noteworthy, though there were some awkward aspects to it. One was that in the Royal Navy, the flag officers serving as commander-in-chief Plymouth and commander-in-chief Portsmouth, based respectively at those Channel ports, had full authority over all vessels, of any nationality, when they were in port. Only when the ships cleared the harbor did command authority shif to the task force commanders.
In addition, the American rear admiral commanding the Western task force, Alan G. Kirk, was concerned that his zone of authority did not extend to the French city of Cherbourg, at the end of the Cotentin Peninsula, which remained the responsibility of the commander-in-chief Plymouth. That worried him because it was from Cherbourg that any German surface units would sortie to assail his right flank.
Some weeks before, Admiral Kirk had sent his chief of staff, Rear Admiral Arthur Struble, to ask the Allied naval commander, British admiral Bertram H. Ramsay, to change command boundaries. Struble may have picked a bad day, for there was a palpable sense of annoyance in Ramsay’s reaction. Ramsay listened to Kirk’s request for a change, then blurted out: “You Yanks want everything. No, I won’t do it. They’re going to stay where they are.” And they did. These arrangements created a certain ambiguity about the Allied naval command structure and a potential for confusion—and even, as it proved, for catastrophe.
Almost all of Moon’s Force U took part in Exercise Tiger. That included 21 LSTs—Landing Ships, Tank; 28 LCI(L)s—Landing Craft, Infantry (Large); and 65 LCTs—Landing Craft, Tank; plus nearly a hundred smaller vessels and the usual escort of warships. Moon and Collins watched the exercise from Moon’s flagship, the attack transport Bayfeld. Other interested viewers watched from shore. Tat audience included much top brass, among them Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Kirk sent Moon a short note to let him know him that Eisenhower was coming, and like all naval messages, it contained what was called padding at the beginning and the end of the message to confuse enemy code breakers. Such padding consisted of nonsense phrases picked at random by the radioman from a thick book. In this case, the padding added to the end of Kirk’s message was: “No luck.”
As the various elements of Force U gathered of Slapton Sands early on the morning of April 27, Moon learned that at least one LCT flotilla was behind schedule. Careful as always, he decided to postpone the landing by an hour to ensure that all the pieces of the invasion force were in place. But Moon made that call at 6:25 for a landing that was scheduled to begin at 6:30. In a complex exercise with army, navy, and air elements, that abrupt notice invited confusion. Some of the Higgins boats, having taken on troops from the transports, began heading for the beach in accordance with the original schedule when the British heavy cruiser Hawkins, adhering to the revised schedule, opened fire on the beach. Shells fell among the landing craft, and caused a number of “friendly fire” casualties. The kink was quickly straightened out and the forces eventually got ashore, but it was not an especially good showing. And it was about to get much worse.
The second-wave assault force for Exercise Tiger, scheduled to land the next day, consisted of eight fully-loaded LSTs collectively dubbed convoy T-4. The commodore of the convoy was U.S. Navy commander Bernard Skahill from New York City, a prim, neat man with a thin neck that protruded stalk-like from his crisp uniform collar. Skahill was a Naval Academy grad, class of 1921, and to the young officers and men of the amphibious force he seemed positively ancient. The Royal Navy escort for the convoy consisted of one small Flower-class corvette, the Azalea—which, at just over 200 feet, was even smaller than an American destroyer escort— plus the larger but much older destroyer Scimitar. The Azalea would lead, and the Scimitar would screen the convoy’s right flank, the likely avenue of approach for any German naval force seeking to interfere with the exercise.
As ships jostled inside Plymouth Harbor just prior to departure, an American landing craft struck the Scimitar. The collision left a two-foot hole gouged in the Scimitar’s starboard side some 20 feet from the bow. Such collisions were not altogether unusual in a crowded harbor and the damage was not significant, but the commander-in-chief Plymouth, Rear Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham, nevertheless ordered the Scimitar into the yards for repair.
Neither Leatham nor the captain of the Scimitar, however, notified Commander Skahill, who, after all, was not in the Royal Navy chain of command. Skahill saw the Scimitar going in the wrong direction en route to the repair yard, but he assumed this was part of the complicated maneuvering necessary to get all the ships out of port and into formation. As a result, convoy T-4 went to sea that evening with only a single escort—the tiny Azalea—and no flank guard.
After joining up northeast of Slapton Sands, of a coastal headland called Berry Head, the eight LSTs steamed out into the Channel. The idea was for them to spend as much time at sea as vessels would take to cross the Channel to Normandy, thus emulating the experience of an actual assault.
Several hours after Skahill and the LSTs left Plymouth, at about 10:00 p.m., nine small German warships sortied from Cherbourg. The Allies called them E-boats; the German designation for these craft was Schnellboot (S-boat) or fast boat—a particularly apt term. With their 7,500-horsepower Daimler-Benz engines, E-boats could make 40 knots. (See “Blitzkrieg on the High Seas,” July/August 2011.) Built of wood on a light metal alloy frame with a thin sheath of mahogany, they were about 100 feet long (roughly 20 feet longer than an American PT boat), and armed with a 40mm gun, though their principal armament was the four torpedoes they carried amidships that had a range of 7,000 to 8,000 yards—about four miles. The E-boats operated almost exclusively at night, and were painted either gray or in a mottled camouflage pattern that made them very hard to see.
British radar technicians ashore had noted the boats’ sortie from Cherbourg on the night of April 27, but in the dual communications system, no word of it got to Skahill or to the captain of the Azalea, Commander George C. Geddes, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, until after midnight. The news did, however, concern Admiral Leatham, who realized belatedly that convoy T-4 was at sea with only a single escort. At 1:37 a.m. he dispatched the destroyer HMS Saladin, a sister ship of the damaged Scimitar, as a relief escort.
Like the German E-boats, the LSTs of convoy T-4 were running blacked out. They were approaching Lyme Bay at a few minutes past 1 a.m. on April 28 when crewmen and the embarked soldiers on LST 507 heard what one described as “a scraping and dragging noise” under the ship. In hindsight it is evident that this was a German torpedo passing just under the shallow-draft LST. Lieutenant J. S. Swarts, skipper of the 507, sounded General Quarters, though most of the sailors who dutifully headed for their combat stations assumed, quite naturally, that this was simply part of the exercise. Only minutes later, bright green tracer rounds from the E-boats lit up the darkness. Even then, most of the men on board the 507 and the other ships in the convoy assumed this was another, quite realistic, part of the drill.
All doubt evaporated at 2:07 a.m. when the first torpedo exploded. It struck the 507 amidships in the auxiliary engine room, knocking out both the ship’s electricity and its communications and starting several fires. The dozens of vehicles on the tank deck had all been topped off with gasoline and as the fires reached them, they burst into flame one by one. The 507 also began taking on water. Because of their large open tank deck, LSTs had no transverse bulkheads or watertight compartments that could be used to limit flooding. The only thing that could be done was to close as many hatches as possible in the hope of controlling the inundation of water.
Meanwhile, the fires produced “a dull roar,” as one sailor recalled, “punctuated by the crackling and sputtering of small-arms ammunition” cooking of. The ship’s doctor, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Gene Eckstam, looked into the tank deck to see “a huge, roaring blast furnace…. Trucks were burning; gasoline was burning; and small-arms ammunition was exploding.” He could hear the screams of men being consumed by the flames, but he knew there was nothing he could do for them; smoke inhalation would soon overcome any who were still alive. “So I closed the hatches into the tank deck and dogged them tightly shut.”
Crowded as the ship was, with nearly 500 soldiers on board as well as more than a hundred crewmen, the men literally got into one another’s way as they reacted to the crisis. They found that the metal pins holding the life rafts to the bulkheads had rusted in place and couldn’t be pried loose. Crewmen tried to lower the Higgins boats alongside, but the LST was listing so badly the hydraulic gear jammed. A soldier used his rife to shoot the cable holding one Higgins boat, and it finally dropped into the water. Men panicked and began jumping. Soon the sea around the 507 was filled with struggling men, some who could swim, and many who could not.
Eleven minutes after the 507 was struck, a torpedo hit LST 531, followed by another torpedo only seconds later. The result was “a gigantic orange ball” of fame, and the 531 began to sink almost at once. Sailors and soldiers simply leaped over the side into the chill water, trusting their life vests. The water was so cold it drove the breath from their bodies. Moreover, the life vests that had been issued to the soldiers proved worse than useless. Unlike the kapok vests that were standard in the U.S. Navy, the soldiers had been issued something that resembled a bicycle inner tube that wrapped around their chests. Most wore them at their waists so they didn’t interfere with their packs. As a result, when men triggered the CO2 cartridges and inflated the vests, their heads went underwater.
Those who could clung to one of the small, two-man rafts, which soon became over-crowded. One raft had more than 20 men clinging to it and to each other in concentric circles. As the cold overcame them and they lost consciousness, they let go and drifted into the dark.
Then LST 289 was hit. The skipper, Lieutenant Henry A. Mettler, saw the torpedo coming and ordered, “Right full rudder.” The maneuver may have saved the ship because the torpedo struck the ship’s stern rather than its broadside. The blast blew of the after section of the 289 containing the crew’s quarters and the galley, while the rest of the ship remained afloat; in this instance, the fact that LSTs were shaped like bathtubs proved an advantage.
By now both the 507 and 531 were gone. The 507 broke in half, with the bow and stern sections rising up to form what one sailor described as “a fiery jackknife” before they went under. The 531, hit by two torpedoes, went down in only six minutes. Gunners on the remaining LSTs fired at the swift, dark shadows in the night as red (American) and green (German) tracer bullets filled the air. German tracers had a delayed illumination so it was difficult to determine their point of origin, and in the confusion and poor visibility, many of the American shells struck other LSTs.
Commander Geddes, in the Azalea, heard the explosions from his position a mile ahead of the convoy and circled back at flank speed. He was reluctant to fire a star shell in order to illuminate the scene, for he knew that it would also expose the LSTs. He did not even know from which direction the attacks had come, or whether the attacker was a U-boat or an E-boat. For his part, Commander Skahill in LST 515 ordered the remaining ships of the convoy to head toward shore. This was the correct and well-established protocol when a convoy came under attack. But the order did not sit well with the captain of Skahill’s flagship, Lieutenant John Doyle.
Doyle was much younger than Skahill and he was what was called a “mustang”—that is, a former enlisted man. Thickset, bluff, hearty, and short-necked, he was a bulldog to Skahill’s aging greyhound. Doyle objected vociferously to Skahill’s decision to turn shoreward while two, and perhaps three, of his ships were sinking. Doyle wanted to go back and pick up the survivors.
Skahill knew that this was not only a violation of standing orders, but also that trying to pick up survivors more often than not resulted in yet another ship being sunk. Doyle didn’t care. In an act of near mutiny, he got on the loudspeaker and explained the situation to the men on board. Their shipmates and fellow soldiers were dying out there, he announced. Who wanted to go back to get them? A rousing cheer went up, and Skahill capitulated. The 515 returned to the scene.
It was too late. With the sun coming up, the E-boats had withdrawn, but it had been more than two hours since the first men had gone into the frigid water. Even most of those who could swim, or who had found something to cling to, had lost functionality in their limbs. The Saladin arrived to help, and men on Doyle’s 515 and on the Saladin began retrieving those who were left alive. Most of the bodies in the water, however, were not moving. After rescuing the few survivors, the 515 and the Saladin began retrieving the lifeless forms from the water with the intent, no doubt, of giving them a proper burial. Ten orders arrived from shore to leave them where they were. There were complaints about that, too, but this time the orders held, and the ships left the scene.
Hours later, crewmen on LCT 271, which was passing through the area en route to Portland Harbor, noted that the sea around them was filled with hundreds of small floating objects. “As we got closer,” a sailor recalled, “we noted that they were American GIs.” Crewmen used a boat hook to pull one of the bodies alongside. It was a U.S. Army soldier, “in a sort of sitting position with all his clothes on…. His eyes were wide open and staring.” He looked, a sailor recalled, like he knew he was going to die. After reporting the discovery, the crew, too, got orders to leave the bodies where they were, and LCT 271 continued on to Portland, though it had to zigzag “to keep from running over the bodies.”
The final death toll from Exercise Tiger was 198 sailors and 441 soldiers killed, which was more, as it happened, than would die during the actual landings on Utah Beach five weeks later.
But no one was to know about the slaughter that had occurred in Lyme Bay. The news, after all, would be a crushing blow to morale, and would cast a pall over the other major rehearsal scheduled to take place in only five days. Indeed, if news of the disaster became public, it might even undermine support for the D-Day landings themselves. Certainly the Germans would take increased confidence from knowing how badly the Allies had been hurt. So the decision was made at the very top—very likely by Eisenhower himself—that the incident would remain a secret until after the invasion.
When Skahill, Doyle, and LST 515 arrived in Portland late on the afternoon of April 28, every U.S. Navy ship in the harbor was flying its fag at half-staff. The men assumed that this was because hundreds of sailors and soldiers had just perished in the Channel. It was not. They soon learned that Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox had died earlier that day, and the fags had been lowered in his honor. In an effort to keep news of the debacle in Lyme Bay from spreading, survivors were placed in hospitals. Officially they were under observation, but to some it felt like incarceration. The government informed families of their losses without explaining the circumstance, and until well after the war was over, the incident remained little known.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.