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Operation Tiger: The Disastrous D-Day Rehearsal

Operation Tiger

In 1943, 3,000 residents were evacuated from their Slapton Sands homes. Similar to Utah Beach with its shingle slope, strip of land and a lake, it had been marked for D-Day rehearsals. From 22 – 30 April, Operation Tiger would cover all aspects of invasion, culminating in a beach landing.

Slapton Sands. Slapton Lea to the left.

Naval protection came from destroyers and Motor Torpedo Boats covering all access areas to the Channel, while watching for German E-boats. On board nine Tank Landing Ships, approximately 30,000 troops waited, not knowing what was to come.

Unbeknownst to them, a German patrol fleet was amongst them and launched an unexpected E-boat attack. LST 501 was torpedoed, hitting the auxiliary engine room and cutting all power. Bursting into flames, the crew abandoned vessel. LST 531 suffered two hits, sinking within six minutes, while LST 281 – hit once – managed to return to shore. Remaining vessels were ordered to scatter, leaving the men in the icy waters.

Willocks' Recollection

“I was first to see in the water what seemed to be…bundles of clothes,” recollected Willocks, a sweeper attached to the operation. “The bundles turned out to be bodies of Americans.” Incorrect use of lifejackets and extreme cold caused the greatest loss of life.

Willock’s Recollection.

The Disastrous D-Day Rehearsal

The rest of the rehearsal was set to continue with real battle conditions. But a breakdown in communications proved deadly; British open fire was to end shortly before men reached the shore, but a confusion in timings resulted in Americans coming ashore under friendly fire. Within minutes over 300 were dead.

For almost 40 years, Operation Tiger remained a secret; with over 600 dead, Allied Command did not want troops headed for Normandy to know of the disasters. Bodies were rumoured to have been temporarily buried in surrounding fields.

Operation Tiger, in fact, proved more deadly than the Utah Beach landing itself, where fewer than 300 Americans lost their lives.

Slapton’s shingle slope makes a quick exit extremely difficult.

Modern Slapton

Today, Slapton is popular for its beach and protected fresh water lea. D-Day seems far from the minds of visitors. It is also a popular wild swimming spot, frequented weekly by myself, NMRN’s Devonport Curator. As the sun rises on a calm sea, I am worlds away from the horrors that occurred. But, I am distressed to think of the men who succumbed to the waters, especially when I time my partner and I's swims, ensuring we get out before one of us ends up violently shivering. We park metres from a Sherman Tank used in the exercise and raised by local, Ken Small, in the 1980s. Every April a memorial service is held here.

Operation Tiger Memorial

Even now you might spot the Coastguard racing to secure a section of Slapton; on 31 January 2021 they met the Royal Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal after two children located an unexploded anti-tank mine. Two nights later, we witnessed them forced to return for yet another suspected explosive.

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