Slapton Sands Friendly Fire Disaster
As D-Day approached allied forces trained for the decisive landing phase. In the South Hams district of Devon the coastal village of Slapton, between Kingsbridge and Dartmouth, was evacuated prior to its use as a rehearsal stage for the assault landings, the spot chosen for its likeness to what would be Utah Beach in Normandy.
In April 1944 two tragedies occurred during such training exercises there, some of the largest undertaken, codenamed Operation Tiger. On the 27th American troops were to storm the beach, the event made as lifelike as possible by the use of live ammunition fired over their heads by troops playing the role of defenders, and by the bombardment of the beach by a British cruiser before their arrival. General Eisenhower hoped that by exposure to the sights, sounds and even smells of battle the untried soldiers would be better prepared.
Things went tragically wrong. A delay to landing craft meant that the time when the cruiser, HMS Hawkins, would shell the beach was put back, but that decision was not communicated to several of the landing craft, with the result that American servicemen charged a beach under fire from the sea. Additionally it appears that those given live ammunition to fire over the invaders’ heads were not properly informed of their task or the nature of their ammo, aiming at the men arriving on the sands.
The disaster was for obvious reasons of morale and the protection of D-Day plans kept secret at the time. It is thought that the bodies of about 150 men killed in the fiasco were hastily buried in mass graves a little way inland, their remains later exhumed and removed to destinations unknown. Some have suggested far greater casualty numbers.
Incredibly the horror of the 27th was surpassed the next day. A convoy of landing craft (LSTs – Landing Ships – Tanks) was sailing via a circuitous route to mimic a Channel crossing. The convoy in Lyme Bay should have been protected by two large naval vessels but was left vulnerable when one was damaged in a collision, subsequently making its way to Plymouth for repairs. German E-Boats, small and extremely fast torpedo vessels, were attracted to the area by radio traffic. They evaded British patrols off Cherbourg and homed in on the convoy.
These E-Boats were sighted and a warning passed to the British corvette accompanying the landing craft, but its commander failed to inform the Americans, assuming they had been told already. Shore batteries in Salcombe were refused permission to fire on the Germans for fear of revealing the defensive strength there. The German attack was made easier by the convoy having formed in a straight line.
Two LSTs were sunk, another two badly damaged. In all 638 American servicemen were killed, some blown up or burned on the boats, others drowned or succumbing to hypothermia. Many drowned because they donned life-jackets incorrectly, the devices turning them face-down into the water.
Tragic though these events were they informed the planning of D-Day. It has been suggested the great day was actually put back from May to June 1944 because some of the officers lost in the convoy disaster had extensive knowledge of the invasion plans, and the action was put on hold until all their bodies had been found, the fear being one or more may have been captured by the E-Boat crews. Lessons learned included the need for British and American radio frequencies to be coordinated; more extensive life-jacket training; provision for small craft to shadow the troop carriers to collect any men in the sea after their boats had been sunk; and the dangers of line-astern convoys presenting the enemy with easy targets.
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