Victory for the Allies in World War II in Europe was never the sure thing most American citizens might have assumed it to be. If there was, however, a single transcendent event of such far-reaching consequence that its outcome could well weigh the scales in one direction or the other, it began in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 on the beaches of Normandy and played out in the following weeks in the French countryside. It would be by every measurement, the most colossal human endeavor in world history.
So immense was the year-long build-up of men and materiel in Great Britain that pundits joked that the entire island sank several inches in the surrounding sea with the sheer weight of it all. As important as the planning and preparations would be, it was of towering importance that the chosen target beaches and timing of the inevitable invasion be a tightly guarded secret. Every imaginable device was employed to insure this iron-clad secrecy, even including the staging of “make-believe” invasion forces and faked radio programming referred to by Churchill as his “bodyguard of lies”. And that leads me to the story for today – exactly 70 years after the “tragedy” at Slapton Sands took place.
Of the five invasion beaches - Sword, Juno and Gold assigned to British and Canadian forces, and Omaha and Utah assigned to American troops – planners believed the latter, Utah, posed the greatest challenge. It was therefore decided that “live” practice at a remote and “safe” location was indicated. Low and behold, such a site was identified at a former seaside resort on Devon’s southwest coast known as Slapton Sands, where approaches, topography and tides seemed a close match to the Normandy target of “Force U” landings.
With an eye to secrecy, local inhabitants of the area were quietly and discreetly evacuated and plans for a nighttime exercise to be known as Operation Tiger were set in motion. The first phase of the practice assault on the evening of April 27, 1944 was marred by a “friendly fire” incident in which U.S. troops went ashore not having been told that orders had been given to bombard the beach area with real ammunition. Casualties resulted, but the real travesty still lay ahead.
In the early morning hours of April 28, a convoy of large Landing craft carrying tanks, heavy equipment and 30,000 men of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division made a wide, sweeping approach through Lyme Bay for the crucial D-Day rehearsal landing on Slapton Sands. Because the British destroyers and shielding Naval vessels providing a protective screen to seaward were unable to communicate on a correct wave length to the landing force en route, it was not realized that due to shipboard problems the crucial lead destroyer had departed the area leaving the LSTs virtually unprotected.
One of the most deadly and efficient sea craft deployed by the German Kriegsmarine in WWII was a fast, wooden-hulled motor torpedo boat known as a Schnellboot. Measuring nearly 100 feet in length and powered by a 3960 h.p. 20-cylinder diesel engine, the “S” craft could travel at speeds of 50 mph, with a range permitting them easy cross-channel transit from bases in Cherbourg. It was a squadron of these patrolling attack craft that intercepted the American LSTs in Lyme Bay two hours after midnight. The surprise attack hit 4 landing craft carrying men of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade, each heavily laden with equipment and untrained in the proper use of life preservers which tended to turn them upside-down in the frigid waters.
Over the years I have pursued a number of accounts detailing the not-so-secret “secret” tragedy of Slapton Sands which slipped out after the fact, and the casualty number varies. Taking into account the two dimensions of the “perfect storm” of Allied mistakes, blunders and oversights and the best estimates of losses available, I believe that at least 1400 American soldiers and Coastguardsmen paid with their lives.
The ripple effect of the incident reached the highest levels, and because ten of the “missing” men carried with them a complete knowledge of the D-Day landings planned for just 38 days hence, the entire enterprise was held in suspense until all ten bodies were accounted for.
The first civilians to guess at the truth of the story were the residents of Slapton Sands who filtered back into an area pockmarked with emerging grave sites. It was these English country folk who wept for American boys and erected a temporary memorial at a place the rest of the world would not hear about for some time.
An Army Signal Corps photo records U.S. troops “storming” the beaches of Slapton Sands, Devon in April, 1944 in the course of a costly D-Day rehearsal.
A Sherman tank which was reclaimed from the sea where it sank along with the LST carrying it on April 28, 1944 is today a part of the Slapton Sands memorial site.