Triumph and Tragedy: The True Story of Exercise Tiger 

The tragedies and triumphs of Operation or Exercise Tiger present an opportunity to analyze the consequences and repercussions of a military operation that was a rehearsal for D-Day , and which was the catalyst for establishing the Allied Forces in France. This paper was written with the purpose of analyzing and drawing conclusions about the events that took place in Slapton Sands, in southwest England, on April 28, 1944, in the context of World War 2 and later years.

History is filled with tragedies and triumphs. In the case of Exercise Tiger, both tragedy and triumph can be analyzed. A rehearsal for the real invasion of France, D-Day, Exercise Tiger was a devastating failure for Allied Command that took the lives of more than 800 servicemen and was never fully revealed to the public until the early 1990s. Failure at miss-communication, thorough planning, and inadequate training were the main causes for the tragedies that ultimately occurred. The Allied triumphs, however, would include officially recognizing the causes and effects of the disaster, as well as changing military protocol and training which would help lead to success during the real D-Day invasion.

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December 7, 1941. Japan, one of the Axis powers in World War 2, had just completed a full-scale aerial assault on Pearl Harbor, a United States military base in Hawaii. The United States government immediately announced a proclamation of war, and was soon fighting Germany, Italy, and Japan on multiple fronts. The stakes were high on both sides, and the death toll kept rising. The Allies continually launched attacks and counterattacks in order to battle Japan in the Pacific and to support the Allies in Europe. With the completion of the Atlantic Wall by the Axis Powers in 1942, the Allies started planning the Invasion of Europe.

Operation Overlord, also known informally as D-Day, came into existence because of necessity. Like all military battles, D-Day required strategy and planning, thus, multiple “rehearsals” were commissioned in order to ensure the operation went as ordered. Allied Command chose Slapton Sands, England as the landing zone for one rehearsal: ‘The beaches there are long and they’re wide, so it gave the soldiers plenty of opportunity to really experience what it was going to be like,’ Giles Milton, British historian said. ‘The beaches in the west of England are almost identical to the beaches in Normandy.’ This was the perfect opportunity to “practice” an invasion, but there was just one catch: no soldiers knew what was happening, ‘They told us nothing. They told us absolutely nothing,’ 91-year-old Paul Gerolstein, a gunner’s mate, second class, on LST 515 remarked. Most thought it was an ordinary training mission, a rehearsal to prepare them for the inevitable invasion. But only the Allied Command in London, along with just 10 commanders and generals on site, knew Exercise Tiger, in its entirety, would be commencing.

Even worse, no one communicated to the British soldiers guarding the beach and watching for Germans the exact timing that the Allied soldiers would be landing. This can be blamed on the different cryptic radio frequencies the Allies used at the time – even if a change was communicated, there was only a slim chance soldiers on site could pick up the frequency, since there were many frequencies at the time. The plan, and everyone included in it, was sworn to secrecy. The idea was to immerse the soldiers in an environment which would be close to what they would experience on D-Day.

Exercise Tiger was initiated on April 29, 1944 and was commanded by then General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Everyone assumed the plan was systematic and laid out and that nothing would go wrong. In the early morning hours of April 29, eight landing ship tanks (LSTs) full of Allied servicemen and equipment met in Lyme Bay, off the coast of Devon, England. The WW1 Destroyer, HMS Scimitar, should have been on duty as the main escort, but the ship was kept in port for repairs. This change, however, was not communicated to Allied Command, a mistake that would cost dearly. No replacement destroyer was provided, thus leaving the three- mile long convoy with a major hole in its outer defense.

In the early morning hours, four German E-Boats, alerted by the heavy, cryptic radio traffic, abruptly intercepted the convoy of unprotected crafts. The LSTs (known as Large Slow Targets by the soldiers) proved to be easy prey for the German torpedoes, and the LSTs, with no common radio frequency between all of them and Allied Command, never stood a chance caught unawares. ‘The torpedoes tear into these vessels and literally blow them apart,’ Giles Milton stated. ‘They all catch fire and there’s complete carnage, pandemonium. Men on fire, tanks on fire, the ships on fire. And of course, the ships starting to sink.” The soldiers in the water screamed for help but quickly sank because of their waterlogged boots. Confused Allied Soldiers fired at their own boats, believing that they were firing at the Germans. Allied Command, monitoring safely from London, ordered all the boats to scatter immediately, hoping to avoid any more direct hits from the Germans. However, the order left hundreds of men floating in the frigid waters of the English Channel with no one to save them. Doctor Eugene E. Eckstam, a young medic officer at the time on aboard LST 507, when contributing to the Navy Medicine Volume 85 treatise on the event and documenting the tragedies that occurred and the aftermath said:

The torpedo hit amidships starboard in the auxiliary engine room, knocking out all electric and water power. We sat and burned…All men in accessible areas had gone topside…The tank deck was a different matter. As I opened the hatch, I found myself looking into a raging inferno which pushed me back. It was impossible to enter. The screams and cries of those many Army troops in there still haunt me…Ship’s company wore life jackets, but the medics and Army personnel had been issued inflatable belts…The soldiers that jumped or dove in with full packs did not do well… Instructions in their correct use had never been given…Drowning and hypothermia were the two major causes of death.

Many lives and ships were lost that morning. LST 531 was one of the boats that was torpedoed; it sunk within six minutes. Of the 496 soldiers and sailors on her, 424 of them died. The state of Missouri lost some 201 of its men of the 3206th.

Paul Gerolstein’s captain, John Doyle, refused the order to leave and turned his boat back, making a somewhat successful attempt at rescuing his fellow soldiers still in the water, freezing to death. ‘We put cargo nets over the side,’ Gerolstein recalled. ‘I went down the cargo net to the last hole. I put my leg through one hole and my arm through another one. And as the men in the water came by, we’d grab them and pull them onto the net, and they could work their way up.’ Gerolstein’s self-sacrifice shows the measure of duty and loyalty the allied soldiers held towards their respective countries and fellow soldiers. Gerolstein and the rest of the LST 515 crew managed to save another 70 or 80 lives. Later, he recalled seeing the sight at dawn: “When we got back and then the light broke, you could walk across the dead bodies in the water,’ he said. ‘There was over 700 of them killed.’ Life jackets being incorrectly worn around the waist and not the arms, due to bad instruction on the part of Allied Command, and the extreme cold of the sea, caused even more loss of life.

Two of the LST’s sunk, killing about 600 instantly. Another three LST’s were hit and damaged, injuring and killing another 50 soldiers. Allied commanders, fearing the news that their invasion forces were crippled might reach the Germans, immediately ordered a communication blackout. It was only with the recovery of the bodies of the 10 officers who knew about the D-Day invasion was Allied Command assured the Germans didn’t know the details. Earlier in the month, before the rehearsal, many of the towns surrounding Slapton Sands had been evacuated. There would be no chance of the locals saying anything, and years later there were only rumors of mass graves. The soldiers and sailors who survived, and even the medics treating the wounded, were ordered not to speak about the incident, or they would be court martialed. Vincent Ricciardi, age 95, the last surviving serviceman from that day said that, “I didn’t even tell my wife until at least the 1970s.” Many soldiers felt this was wrong, but they had their orders. For many years, the commanders who initiated the attack were not questioned about the secrecy. On the other hand, the Germans were delighted that they had hindered Allied forces. Hans Scherin was in command of one German E boat that attacked the convoy: “We hit three landing ships. Two of which sunk. It was a big success.” In this case, triumph, but from an entirely different perspective.

A total of 749 Allied soldiers and sailors died during the initial assault. The loss of life was greater than that later suffered by the assault troops during the preliminary attack on Utah Beach.

When considering the tragedies of Exercise Tiger, it is important to take into account that the soldiers on the LSTs during Exercise Tiger, and going into D-Day, had relatively no former experience with fighting or war itself, and as new recruits, many were even sea sick during the Exercise. A good number of them as well were not trained to operate firefighting equipment or ready lifeboats and life rafts as quickly as possible if need be. These are just a few more examples of why alone Exercise Tiger was a tragedy, but in context, prepared the remaining soldiers for D-Day.

Many families of the soldiers that were reported MIA that day would question the deaths of their sons for many years to come and would suffer many small personal tragedies as well. Private Thomas C. Reibel was one of the soldiers reported Missing in Action (MIA) to his parents. In one memorial dedication, his family expresses words of anguish and sorrow:

His parents were informed he was Missing in Action without receiving any further information of what happened. His body was never recovered and they did not receive any of his personal belongings as proof of his death, which made it so hard for them to believe he wasn’t ever going to return home. For so many years, his oldest brother felt that he was alive in England, after being wounded, without knowing who he was. More than 40 years passed before he found out the real truth. Tom had died in what was called ‘Exercise Tiger.’ At the time of the practice landings, General Dwight D. Eisenhower had ordered that if any person talked about what happened during that deadly night, they would be Court Martialed. That is why it was kept a secret and why the families were not told the truth. Why all those years had to pass before his family found out the truth is so sad.

But the tragedies continued. Due to more miscommunication by the Allied Command, English troops watching Slapton Sands for a potential German invasion, not an Allied one, started firing on the wounded Allied troops coming to shore after their boats were destroyed by the German E-boats. Within minutes, 300 more American, Canadian, and Norwegian troops were dead. This mistake can be analyzed as a tactical error because no one communicated to the British the exact timing the Allied soldiers would be arriving to finish their “training run” after the delay caused by the German E-boats. The Allied soldiers were supposed to make a direct run from Slapton Sounds to Lyme Bay and back again but were intercepted on the way back by the Germans E-boats.

On June 6th, 1944, the LST’s were once again on the beach, this time in Normandy, where even though suffering heavy losses, they were able to claim the beach. Compared to Slapton Sounds, many service men said that Utah Beach was a ‘walk in the park.’ The overall triumph of D-Day would overshadow the tragedy of Exercise Tiger, even though D-Day was one of the crucial wins that would lead the Allies to eventually win World War 2. Nevertheless it (it what???) was also definitely a tragedy. When writing a classified report for Allied Command on the event, Ensign Douglas Harlandar stated, “I estimate that at least two-thirds of those on board never made it off the ships and today their remains rest at the bottom of the English Channel.” Can you find more in his official report ?? Overall, it was thanks to the bravery and determination of the Allied Soldiers involved in Exercise Tiger that the D-Day occurred as planned. Exercise Tiger was officially declassified, but not publicly revealed, in early August 1944, two months after the Normandy Invasion.

Nevertheless, Exercise Tiger was a model of what not to do or have happen during an invasion, even a practice one and some important lessons can be drawn from it. In this way, some internal benefits and triumphs came about. Allied Command ordered better life preservers, and issued new protocols to ensure the soldier’s boots wouldn’t get waterlogged in case they would ever be in the same situation again. They also made sure each soldier was properly trained to use their life preserver and a system was put in place to collect soldiers who were left stranded out in the water. But the most important change was fixing the broken system of communication. Most, but not all, of the naval radio frequencies were all standardized so a disaster on the same scale as Exercise Tiger could never occur again. Overall, Exercise Tiger was the tragedy that led to the triumph during the real Invasion of Normandy, D-Day.

Another triumph would not occur until about 40 years later however in 1969. Local resident of Devon, England, Ken Small was walking along Slapton Sands when he noticed shell casing and shrapnel. Over the next few days, he heard stories and rumors about an “object” some three quarters of a mile out to sea. By raising money and enthusiasm among his friends, Mr. Small was successfully able to uncover one of the lost LSTs and eventually bought the vehicle from the US government for $5 in 1984. He erected it as a memorial for all those who had lost their lives during Exercise Tiger, and it still stands as a memorial today, even though he is deceased. Thanks to his efforts, the Sherman Tank Memorial Site was officially recognized by the US Congress and acknowledged by the addition of a bronze plaque. The US Government has said that there was never a cover-up but that the story was just “lost” from the public. Some may believe that. Most probably do not, considering their sons never came home, and they didn’t know where they were for more than 50 years. Ken Small brought Exercise Tiger back to the public’s and media’s attention. Small increased awareness of Exercise Tiger for many people all around the world.

But with the recovered tank came the floodgate of questions and accusations of why the story had been “lost to the public” for 40 years. Even today, not many know about Exercise Tiger because the US Government and department of the Navy has minimized its response to the event. The names of some of the known dead were recently obtained from the Military Institute of Pennsylvania and were checked against names on file with the Army Battlefield Monuments Commission in Washington. These records showed that most of the victims of Exercise Tiger were quietly recovered after Exercise Tiger and buried in a random field in a mass grave in England. Some Allied soldiers had been quietly moved to other cemeteries after war, while Exercise Tiger still remained an official, classified secret. Isolated Army publications in 1951 contained little information can you get these ?? on the Exercise and the loss of more than 900 lives, but attracted little public attention.

Schoolchildren in the United States know about the events of June 6, 1944… They have learned about the sacrifice of those who lost their lives on the beaches, but what they do not know is the sacrifice of a convoy of ships whose mission was to prepare for the Normandy invasion through rehearsal runs. The sacrifice that proceeded D-Day is not given the attention that it deserves; for years people did not talk about what occurred before the attack because some believed it was a secret. People today need to remember those who took part in the rehearsals for D-Day because many lost their lives to help insure victory at Normandy.

Five weeks after Operation Tiger, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops charged onto the beaches of Normandy, a decisive victory that was the beginning of the end of World War 2. Today, on the beaches of Slapton Sands, there remains a small memorial to the 946 men who lost their lives. In a Congressional Report presented to the Senate in 2009, it was recorded that: “The servicemen who participated in the Battle of Exercise Tiger are to be commemorated for their heroic actions. These men were an example for all American soldiers and a credit to the United States as it remains the free and great country that it is today.”

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Triumph and Tragedy: The True Story of Exercise Tiger . (2021, Nov 24). Retrieved from