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Small memorial service in honour of those lost in Exercise Tiger took place today

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Small memorial service in honour of those lost in Exercise Tiger took place today

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A much smaller memorial service has taken place to mark the 77th anniversary of the tragedy that took place off Torcross in 1944. 

The annual memorial service for those who lost their lives in Exercise Tiger was cancelled due to the pandemic, but the anniversary was still marked by members of the Royal Tank Regiment. 

Dean Small, whose father Ken Small worked to recover the American Sherman Tank that now sits in Memorial Car Park in Torcross as a permanent reminder of the tragedy, along with his wife Sarah, were in attendance and laid a wreath in memory of the 639 men who died off the coast of Torcross on the 28th of April, 1944.

The British and American flags were raised on their respective flagpoles and ten members of the Royal Tank Regiment, Plymouth Branch, including a bugler, were present with Standards to pay tribute. 

According to the Exercise Tiger Memorial, thousands of men boarded eight LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) at PLymouth and Brixham to take part in a full dress rehearsal for D-Day at Slapton Sands. Slapton had been chosen due to its similarity to Utah Beach. Local residents had been evacuated from their homes and farms in 1943, to allow the manoeuvres to be undertaken. 

The rehearsal, which was completed in the strictest of secrecy so as not to tip off the Nazis to a coming invasion, was code named Exercise Tiger

US soldiers were in full combat gear, live ammunition was to be deployed on the beaches and the LSTs were loaded with "amphibious vehicles, tanks, jeeps, weapons and trucks, full of fuel and ammunition". 

The plan was for the ships to become one convoy and sail to Slapton Sands, the distance being similar to that to Utah Beach on D-Day. 

The convoy was supposed to have an escort from the British Destroyer the HMS Scimitar, but she was kept in port for repairs. The US military were not aware the escort would not be in place. In another cruel twist of fate, there was a typographical error on the radio frequency that the ships were given, to be informed of enemy activity in the Channel. The convoy never heard the warnings for the German E-Boat activity in the area.

The Exercise Tiger Memorial website tells what happened next: "All of the ships arrived in Lyme Bay at approximately 2am on the 28th of April, and formed one long convoy as they began the journey back to Slapton Sands.

"Suddenly, four German E-Boats, on a routine patrol, 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 the bodies of those who died."

639 US soldiers and sailors died that day. The water was freezing and men wouldn't have survived long after hypothermia set in. That was if they weren't sunk by their heavy gear and backpacks. There weren't enough lifeboats and the firefight had left the surface of the sea a blaze of burning oil and fuel. 

Because of the importance of secrecy to protect the upcoming D-Day landings, the survivors were threatened with Court Martial to never speak about what happened. And many didn't for decades after the war ended. Those who were able were assigned to different LSTs and took part in D-Day two months later. 

It was only when the tank was discovered in the sea off Torcross that Ken Small brought the story into the open, including with his book The Forgotten Dead, about the tragedy. 

MAIN IMAGE: The Facebook group WW2 Colourised Photos shared a photo of soldiers coming ashore at Torcross. Credit to the US National Archives, recoloured by Richard James Molloy. 

 

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