Discover South Devon ~ Summer 2021

Summer 2021 ~ History & Heritage

Written By Robbie Robinson

Exercise Tiger

The True Story

(Royal Army Educational Corps – Retired)

Around 27/28 April every year, our thoughts may take us back to the terrible twin disasters which occurred in training for D-Day during Exercise Tiger. This was by far the worst Allied training ‘cock up’ of WW2. As a long-serving ex-soldier, I use that term with understanding and feeling. In the spring of 1944, sailors and soldiers involved in TIGER were confused by what was going on around them just as readers, TV viewers, and amateur military historians are today; I have five books on the subject in front of me now. All have different versions.

So here is a brief outline of the true course of events, based on intensive research:

EXERCISE TIGER was the sixth of seven training exercises organised by the U.S. AMPHIBIOUS TRAINING CENTRE in Plymouth Naval Dock and was a full dress rehearsal for landing on UTAH beach on the 6th of June.

TIGER involved the U.S. 4th INFANTRY DIVISION of about 15,000 men and several thousand of the 7th CORPS soldiers in units such as Engineers, Signals, Ordnance, Artillery, and Armour, etc., a total of nearly 30,000 troops in two separate convoys.

The exercise was planned to last four days (26th – 29th April 1944) and both convoys (coded T1 and T4) would start from Plymouth, pass Start Point into and around Lyme Bay, from off Portland turn west to Slapton Sands (temporary ‘Utah Beach’).

The role of the Royal Navy (Plymouth Command) for all seven exercises was very important.

To provide an Observation Patrol (4/5 MGB/MTB) for the duration of each exercise in mid-channel watching Cherbourg – the main German E Boat base.

To provide two warships as close escort for each and every convoy – usually a destroyer and a smaller corvette.

To provide a mobile screen as a ‘Blocking Force’ of 7 to 9 small warships from Start Point to Portland to prevent entry into Lyme Bay by German Warships.

The Senior Officer of the convoy escort (usually the Captain of the destroyer) would carry all radio wavelengths to use in an emergency situation.

The famous address given to the allied troops sometime early June 1944, prior to the actual D-Day assault.

CONVOY T1, the Assault Force, left Plymouth escorted by two R.N. Warships at 7 am on the 26th of April, rounded Start Point, and was joined off Berry Head by 8 LCT(A) (Landing Craft Tank (Assault)) each carrying 4 Sherman D.D. Tanks – a total of 32, also several LST (Landing Ship Tank) transporting 2,500 infantry of the 8th R.C.T. (Regimental Combat Team) 4th Division. Each LST was loaded with several LCVP (known as Higgins Boats) which would each take up to 33 soldiers from ship to shore.

T1 rounded Lyme Bay, passed 12 miles west of Portland, and turned west towards Slapton Sands. When halfway across, Staff Officers on board the Command Ship informed the Task Force Commander – Rear Admiral Don Moon U.S.N. that several ships of the convoy had not kept station and were lagging behind.

The ‘GOLDEN RULE’ of live fire training is: ‘STOP or COMPLETE but NEVER CHANGE’ but Admiral Moon postponed or delayed the convoy by 1 hour to enable ‘catch up’.

T1 arrives off Slapton Sands at 8am. The 32 D.D. Tanks are landed into a thick smokescreen covering the beach. Five minutes later 2500 soldiers of 8th RCT start arriving on the beach – the first of 3 waves.

Suddenly, the ‘defenders’ or ‘enemy’ (the 1st U.S. INF. Div.) pour rifle and automatic machine-gun fire into the smoke from the higher ground across the freshwater Ley and at the same time, 4 R.N. destroyers a few miles out to sea start firing 4” shells into the smoke. Much panic, chaos, and death in 15 minutes duration. Thirty U.S. soldiers killed, 70 wounded, and 4 D.D. Tanks destroyed. The dead are body-bagged and buried temporarily on an inland farm. Exercise Tiger continues. The ‘enemy’ guns and warships had not been informed of the one-hour delay and thought the ‘invasion force’ had already cleared the beach.

Convoy T4 leaves Plymouth at 1am on the same day – the 27th of April. This ‘Supply’ convoy of 5 LSTs is escorted by only one R.N. warship, a corvette (small and slow). The destroyer, HMS Scimitar, was involved in a collision the previous day and its replacement (HMS Saladin) failed to turn up. The senior officer of the destroyer carried the emergency radio wavelengths.

T4 rounds Start Point and is joined off Berry Head by 3 more LSTs from Brixham Harbour. It is now a 5-mile long line of 8 LSTs led by a corvette.

By midnight the convoy is 12 miles south of Lyme Regis and German radio operators in Cherbourg are picking up heavy radio traffic. They decide, correctly, that there is considerable naval movement in Lyme Bay.

Nine German ‘E’ Boats depart Cherbourg at midnight, slip through the ‘observation screen’ (it was dark and foggy), and arrive S.W. of Portland at 1.30am on the 28th of April. All nine ‘E’ Boats now slip through the Royal Navy ‘blocking screen’ between Portland and South Devon.

Orders from Cherbourg send 5 ‘E’ Boats west towards Torbay, Dartmouth, Teignmouth, and Exmouth and 4 east towards Portland where they discover Convoy T4 travelling south off Portland about 12 miles out.

This is where the second disaster of Exercise Tiger occurred. In darkness and fog at 2am on the 28th of April, 4 ‘E’ Boats led by No. 130 (currently in dry dock in Plymouth being rebuilt) attack T4 12 miles WSW of Portland.

Of the 8 LSTs, the last two (both from Brixham) are hit by torpedoes, No. 8, carrying the ammunition, blows up, but No. 7, although badly damaged, manages to cross Lyme Bay on half and engine! It reaches safety in Dartmouth. No. 5, from Plymouth, carrying the fuel is also hit and blows up.

Now the situation gets much worse. As the Senior Officer of the escort in his destroyer failed to turn up in Plymouth Docks, no one in the convoy has the emergency radio wavelengths.

Due to darkness, fog, and lack of radio contact, Royal Navy Portland, only 12 miles away knew nothing. For 3 hours until 5am, no outside assistance is available and in a sea temperature of 10 degrees centigrade, many men are drowning and dying of hypothermia.

After 5pm, the fog clears and in some daylight, 316 are picked up alive but over the next 3 days, 540 dead are washed ashore on Chesil Beach and 210 dead are carried past Portland up the English Channel; over 100 of these bodies were never found.

Supply convoy T4, after much chaos and panic, seeks the nearest safe anchorage on the West Dorset coast, i.e. West Bay, with over 1,000 of the original 15,000 men dead or wounded. The 9 ‘E’ Boats, unscratched, return to Cherbourg to high praise, medals, and a trip to Berlin. From a German point of view, a brilliant operation.

Onboard, the 3 LSTs torpedoed by the ‘E’ Boats were 10 ‘BIGOTS’. All 10 were missing after the attack but 9 were washed up on Chesil Beach in the following 3 days. A ‘BIGOT’ was a U.S. ARMY or NAVY OFFICER who had been given the highest level of security, even higher than ‘TOP SECRET’. All BIGOTS in the U.S. forces knew the details of the D-Day landings to come – most importantly the ‘LOCATION OF THE BEACHES’.

The first of 4 U.S. military hospitals, No. 228, set up to deal with U.S. casualties arriving back from D-DAY had just been built and opened at Sherborne (where the author of this report was then a teenager at boarding school), about 30 miles inland from Weymouth. As sick and wounded recovered they got out and about in the Sherborne area, in particular on the terraces just outside the town where a large area was given over to sports fields. On those fields we schoolboys watched the recovering ‘YANKS’ play their gentle version of baseball, known as softball. When we saw armed guards we were probably watching survivors of EXERCISE TIGER being allowed to get fit, but not allowed to meet, mix or escape. The 316 men from TIGER were not released to return to their army units or ships until D-Day was over – 6 weeks later!

The U.S. 146 QUARTERMASTER TRUCK COMPANY was ordered to Weymouth to pick up the 540 dead from Convoy T4 and a detachment of lorries sent to Slapton to collect the 30 dead from Convoy T1. All were taken to BROOKWOOD CEMETERY, near Guildford in Surrey for temporary burial. In 1945 the U.S. Government gave all families a choice: the U.S. cemetery at Cambridge, or back to the States – most chose the latter.

Losses were:

  • 749 men (650 soldiers) drowned plus 30 killed and 70 wounded on Slapton Sands.
  • 316 men (250 soldiers) locked up in U.S. Military Hospital, Sherborne until D-Day is over.
  • 2 LST lost and 1 badly damaged and 4 D.D. Tanks destroyed.
  • German losses: nil.

S130 which led the attack on the fateful night of 28th April 1944, now being renovated by the Wheatcroft Collection in Plymouth.

Exercise Tiger Remembrance

In commemoration of the tragedy of Exercise Tiger, this video shows part of the South Devon Coastline where the D-Day practice landings took place, with a Roll of Honour that was last updated in 2018.

A DVD called Dartmouth at War containing archive U.S. Navy footage is available for purchase from the Dartmouth Museum.


Sincere thanks to Captain Robbie Robinson for this valuable contribution.

Dartmouth Museum

Ted Archer (Artist)

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