News: Exercise Tiger tragedy remembered during Cambridge ceremony
Story by Staff Sgt. Brian Stives
MADINGLEY, United Kingdom – Members of the 423rd Air Base Group and its mission partners commemorated the 69th anniversary of the Exercise Tiger tragedy during a ceremony at Cambridge American Cemetery, in Madingley, United Kingdom, April 23.
“I laid the wreath for the ceremony to honor the participants of Exercise Tiger, including my great uncle, Private 1st Class Clarence Laswell,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Scott Reed, 501st Combat Support Wing Regional Contracting Office NCOIC. “I am really honored to be here, having family that is part of this operation is a source of great pride for me.”
Exercise Tiger, under the command of U.S. Navy Adm. Don Moon, was one of several assault rehearsals conducted at Slapton Sands on the Devon coast of England. So vital was the exercise that the commanders ordered the use of live naval and artillery ammunition to make the exercise as real as possible to accustom the Soldiers to what they were soon going to experience. Slapton Sand's unspoiled beach of gravel, fronting a shallow freshwater ley and backed by grassy lands seemed perfect to the American forces to simulate practice landings for the launch of Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944, the D-Day landings in Utah Beach, France.
This exercise also turned out to be one of the great tragedies of World War II. Hundreds of American soldiers and sailors died due to confusion and incompetence. It was one of the military's best kept secrets until it was revealed to the world almost 40 years later.
The exercise was conducted between April 22 and 30, 1944, and began with the marshaling and embarking of the troops to the landing ship tanks (a LST was a flat bottomed four and a half thousand ton assault ship capable of carrying several hundred men, trucks and tanks) off the coast of south west England. The first assault landings began the morning of April 27 and continued throughout the day. A follow up convoy of eight LSTs were expected later that night and it was this convoy that met with tragedy.
“The first thing I remember was a flare and these two white things coming at the ship,” said John Casner Jr., a seaman 2nd class in 1944 and one of two surviving veterans of the exercise in attendance , “I didn’t know what they were - until the ship in front of us blew up.”
As the convoy approached Lyme Bay, it was maneuvering a loop to head back toward the shore. It was here that the E-Boats made contact and opened fire. A few minutes past 2 a.m. LST 507 was struck by a torpedo. The ship burst into flames, the firefighting attempted by the crew proved futile, as most of the firefighting equipment was not working due to a power failure caused by the attack. After about 45 minutes, the survivors were ordered to abandon ship. Two torpedoes hit LST 531 shortly after LST 507 was hit. This ship burst into flames, rolled over and sank in six minutes. Several minutes later LST 289 was also torpedoed. LST 289 managed to limp back to shore suffering a number of deaths and casualties of the men aboard.
“Then they started machine gun firing on us,” said Casner. “They never told us to return fire, because we thought it was part of the maneuvers. I kinda figured that when that ship blew up, something was going on. But, they didn’t ask my opinion, because I was a full seaman 2nd class.”
Trapped below decks, hundreds of soldiers and sailors went down with the ships. There was little time to launch lifeboats and some of the lifeboats were jammed. Many leapt into the sea, soon many drowned, some weighed down by the waterlogged coats and others who had wrongly put on their life belts around their waists rather than under their armpits. Others succumbed to hypothermia in the cold water. In all 749 American soldiers and sailors died that night.
“We were poking along at 5 knots, and how they got that close to us is a big mystery,” said Casner.
When the news reached Allied commanders, it worried them that so many lives were lost, including missing officers who had plans that would reveal the Allied intentions for the D-Day landings. This was so serious the Allied commanders even considered changing details of Operation Overlord presuming that the enemy must have discovered the details.
Miraculously, the bodies of every one of the officers with BIGOT-level clearance ('BIGOT' was a code name for a security level beyond 'Top Secret') were found. The Tactics of D-Day were secure. Meanwhile the tragedy was kept a top secret and the survivors were strictly ordered not to talk about it.