June 6, 1944 Dress Rehearsal

Unable to wear their lifebelts correctly due to the large backpacks they wore, many men placed them around their waists. That only turned them upside down and that’s how they died, thrashing in the water with their legs above the waves.

The largest amphibious assault in history began seventy-four years ago today, on the northern coast of France.  British and Canadian forces came ashore at beaches code-named Gold, Juno and Sword.  Americans faced light opposition at Utah Beach, while heavy resistance at Omaha Beach resulted in over 2,000 American casualties.

By end of day, some 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy.  Within a week that number had risen to 326,000 troops, over 50,000 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of equipment.

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The first phase of Operation Overlord, code named ‘Neptune’, achieved its stunning success as the result of lessons learned from the largest amphibious training exercise of WW2, the six phases of “Operation Fabius”, itself following the unmitigated disaster of a training exercise that killed more Americans, than the actual landing at Utah beach.

Slapton is a village and civil parish in the River Meadows of Devon County, where the southwest coast of England meets the English Channel.  Archaeological evidence suggests human habitation from at least the bronze age.  The “Domesday Book”, the recorded manuscript of the “Great Survey” of England and Wales completed in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror, names the place as “Sladone”, with a population of 200.

Slapton_Sands
Slapton Sands

In late 1943, the place was home to 750 families, some of whom had never so much as left their village.  Some 3,000 locals were evacuated with their livestock to make way for “Operation Tiger”, a full-scale rehearsal for the landing scheduled for the following spring.

Thousands of US military personnel were moved into the region during the winter of 1943-’44. The area was mined and bounded with barbed wire, and patrolled by sentries.  Secrecy was so tight, that even those in surrounding villages, had no idea of what was happening.

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Exercise Tiger was scheduled to begin on April 22, covering all aspects of the “Force U” landing on Utah beach and culminating in a live-fire beach landing at Slapton Sands at first light on April 27.

Nine large tank landing ships (LSTs) shoved off with 30,000 troops on the evening of the 26th, simulating the overnight channel crossing. Live ammunition was used in the exercise, to harden troops off to the sights, sounds and smells of actual battle. Naval bombardment was to commence 50 minutes before H-Hour, however delays resulted in landing forces coming under direct naval bombardment. An unknown number were killed in this “friendly fire” incident. Fleet rumors put the number as high as 450.

Two Royal Navy Corvettes, HMS Azalea and Scimitar, were to guard the exercise from German “Schnellboots” (what the Allies called “E-Boats”), the fast-attack craft based out of Cherbourg.

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HMS Scimitar withdrew for repairs following a collision with an LST on the 27th. In the early morning darkness of the following day, the single corvette was leading 8 LSTs carrying vehicles and combat engineers of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade through Lyme Bay, when the convoy was spotted by a nine vessel S-Boat patrol.

8 LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) in single-file didn’t have a chance against fast-attack craft capable of 55mph.  LST-531 was torpedoed and sunk in minutes, killing 424 Army and Navy personnel. LST-507 suffered the same fate, with the loss of 202. LST-289 was severely damaged and grounded in flames, with the loss of 123. LST-511 was damaged in yet another friendly fire incident. Unable to wear their lifebelts correctly due to the large backpacks they wore, many men placed them around their waists. That only turned them upside down and that’s how they drowned, thrashing in the water with their legs above the waves. Dale Rodman, who survived the sinking of LST-507, said “The worst memory I have is setting off in the lifeboat away from the sinking ship and watching bodies float by.”

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LST (Landing Ship, Tank 289: “Severely damaged by a German E-Boat torpedo attack off Slapton Sands, England, 28 April 1944, during Operation Tiger, the rehearsal for the Normandy invasion”.  H/T ExerciseTiger.org.uk

Survivors were sworn to secrecy due to official embarrassment, and the possibility of revealing the real invasion, scheduled for June.  Ten officers with high level clearance were killed in the incident, but no one knew that for sure until their bodies were recovered.  The D-Day invasion was nearly called off, because any of them could have been captured alive, revealing secrets during German interrogation and torture.

There remains a surprising amount of confusion, concerning the final death toll. Estimates range from 639 to 946, nearly five times the number killed in the actual Utah Beach landing.  Some or all of the personnel from that damaged LST may have been aboard the other 8 on the 28th, and log books went down along with everything else.  Many of the remains were never found.

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The number of dead would surely have been higher, had not Captain John Doyle disobeyed orders and turned his LST-515 around, plucking 134 men from the frigid water.

Today, the Exercise Tiger disaster is mostly forgotten.  Some have charged official cover-up, though information from SHAEF press releases appeared in the August edition of Stars & Stripes.  At least three books describe the event.  It seems more likely that the immediate need for secrecy and subsequent D-Day invasion swallowed the Tiger disaster, whole.  History has a way of doing that.

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Exercise Tiger Memorial, Slapton

Some of Slapton’s residents came home to rebuild their lives after the war, but many never returned.  In the early ’70s, Devon resident and civilian Ken Small discovered an artifact of the Tiger exercise, while beachcombing on Slapton Sands.  With little to no help from either the American or British governments, Small purchased rights from the American Government to a submerged Sherman tank from the 70th Tank Battalion. The tank was raised in 1984 with help from local residents and dive shops, and now stands as a memorial to Exercise Tiger.  Not far from the monument to villagers, who never came home.

Slaptonmemorial

A plaque was erected at Arlington National Cemetery in 1995, inscribed with the words “Exercise Tiger Memorial”. A 5,000-pound stern anchor bears silent witness to the disaster in Mexico, Missouri.

In 2012, a granite memorial was erected at Utah Beach, engraved with the words in French and English: “In memory of the 946 American servicemen who died in the night of 27 April 1944 off the coast of Slapton Sands (G.B.) during exercise Tiger the rehearsals for the D-Day landing on Utah Beach“.

In 1988, volunteers from the Army Brotherhood of Tankers repaired, repainted and re-stenciled an M4 Sherman tank, installing a mirror image of the Slapton memorial at Fort Taber Park in the south-coastal working class city of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

New Bedford veteran’s agent Christopher Gomes lost his right leg during the Iraq War, in 2008.  Gomes was succinct that Memorial Day 2016, when he spoke of this difficult chapter in British/American military history.  “People only die”, he said, “when they are forgotten about″.

Left – Memorial Day 2018:  WW2 Navy combat veteran Vincent Riccardi, Exercise Tiger’s oldest survivor, salutes his fallen comrades at Fort Taber Park in New Bedford, Massachusetts. H/T South Coast Today
Right – The M4 Sherman Tank Tank at the Fort Taber – Fort Rodman Military Museum at Fort Taber Park in New Bedford mirrors the one built to the fallen at Slapton Sands, Devon, England.

 

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H/T “Ghosts of time” for this image, Today and Now.

 

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June 6, 1944 A Great Crusade

The amphibious invasion which began this day on the beaches of Normandy, was the culmination of the largest single endeavor in human history.

The amphibious invasion which began this day on the beaches of Normandy, was the culmination of the largest single endeavor in human history.

D-Day landing

3,200 reconnaissance missions were launched leading up to the invasion, to photograph vital locations. Other landing sites were considered, in fact Adolf Hitler expected the invasion to take place at Calais. Normandy was chosen because defenses were lighter, and because advancing troops would have fewer rivers and canals to cross.

“Exercise Tiger”, an earlier practice landing on the beaches of Slaptonkilled more Americans than many full-scale battles.

Five landing zones were selected along a 50-mile stretch of beach. Americans would attack at two points code named Utah and Omaha, British troops at Gold and Sword, and Canadian troops at Juno.

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On the eve of the invasion Eisenhower told his troops: “You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.” Conscious of his own role in the disastrous landings at Gallipoli of the earlier war, a nervous Winston Churchill said to his wife, Clementine, “Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning 20,000 men may have been killed?”

The invasion began in the early morning hours with 1,200 planes delivering gliders and parachute troops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Infantry. Eight different navies made up the invasion fleet, the sun rising that morning on 6,939 vessels along the coast of France.

160,000 US, UK, Canadian and Free French troops landed on the first day. Later invasion phases included forces from Australia, Greece, New Zealand, Netherlands and Norway, combined with the free forces of Nazi occupied Poland, Belgium and Czechoslovakia.

Normandy Landing

There were the “Mulberries”, the great steel structures built to form temporary harbors for landing vehicles and equipment, and floated across the 25 miles of the English Channel. By July 4, over a million men, 148,000 vehicles, and 570,000 tons of supplies had passed over them to the beaches.

Operation Fortitude DecoyIt was impossible to assemble the pieces of such a massive undertaking in secret, so an elaborate ruse called “Operation Fortitude” was launched to divert attention from the real objective. Fake field armies were assembled in Edinburgh, Scotland and the south coast of England, threatening attack on the coasts of Norway and the Pas de Calais. The real General George S. Patton was put in charge of the fake First US Army Group (FUSAG). The allied “Twenty Committee”, represented by its roman numerals “XX”, controlled a network of double agents, making the deception so complete that Hitler personally withheld critical reinforcements until long after they would have made a difference. It’s where we get the term “Double Cross”.

What had seemed like an inexorable Nazi tide had begun to slow with the reversal of the German armies in Soviet Russia and North Africa. The allies had gained their first European toehold with a successful landing in Italy nine months earlier. It had been 5 years since the beginning of World War II, 4 years almost to the day, since the National Socialist regime of Adolf Hitler had hurled the English and French armies from the beaches of Dunkirk. The Soviet Union had joined the side of the Allies 3 years earlier, and the United States 2½. The entire European subcontinent was either neutral or under Nazi domination.  The Allies needed to break down the door to get back in.Normandy, Battlefield Cross

Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) commander Dwight D Eisenhower had planned to launch the invasion on the 5th, but the weather was working against it. The invasion couldn’t be held for long, it had to be launched or turned back.

Allied troop convoys were at sea on the 4th, and the full moon which would bring high tides would soon be over. There was finally a break in the forecast, and the invasion began shortly after midnight.

Eisenhower had written two letters.  Only one would be delivered to his superior in Washington, DC, Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall. The first announced the success of the invasion, the second taking personal responsibility for its failure. “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” Eisenhower dated the letter July 5 instead of June 5, a small indication of the enormous pressure the man was under.

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Eisenhower labeled this backup letter “In case the Nazis won.”

Over 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded on that first day.  Almost a year of hard fighting remained before VE Day:  Victory in Europe.  On this day, General Eisenhower would be able to keep that second message, in his pocket.

American Cemetery, Normandy
9,387 Americans are buried at the American cemetery at Omaha Beach 3 Medal of Honor recipients, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., his brother Quentin who was killed in WWI, Army Air Corps crews shot down over France as early as 1942 and two of the Niland brothers, on whom the film Saving Private Ryan is based.

 

April 27, 1944 Exercise Tiger

Estimates of Americans killed in the D-Day rehearsal range from 639 to 946, nearly five times the number killed on the actual Utah Beach landing.

The largest amphibious attack in history began on June 6, 1944, on the northern coast of France.  British and Canadian forces came ashore at beaches code named Gold, Juno and Sword.  Americans faced light opposition at Utah Beach, while heavy resistance at Omaha Beach resulted in over 2,000 American casualties.

By end of day, some 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy.  Within a week that number had risen to 326,000 troops, over 50,000 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of equipment.

The success of “Operation Overlord” resulted from lessons learned from the largest amphibious training exercise of the war, the six phases of “Operation Fabius”, itself following the unmitigated disaster of a training exercise that killed more Americans, than the actual landing at Utah beach.

Slapton_Sands
Slapton Sands

Slapton is a village and civil parish in the River Meadows of Devon County, where the southwest coast of England meets the English Channel.  Archaeological evidence suggests human habitation from at least the bronze age.  The “Domesday Book”, the recorded manuscript of the “Great Survey” of England and Wales completed in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror, names the place as “Sladone”, with a population of 200.

In late 1943, 750 families, some 3,000 locals, were evacuated with their livestock to make way for “Operation Tiger”, a D-Day landing rehearsal scheduled for the following spring.   Some had never so much as left their village.Channel map

Thousands of US military personnel were moved into the region during the winter of 1943-44. The area was mined and bounded with barbed wire, and patrolled by sentries.  Secrecy was so tight, that even those in surrounding villages, had no idea of what was happening.

Exercise Tiger was scheduled to begin on April 22, covering all aspects of the “Force U” landing on Utah beach, culminating in a live-fire beach landing at Slapton Sands at first light, on April 27.

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Slapton Sands Landing

Nine large tank landing ships (LSTs) shoved off with 30,000 troops on the evening of the 26th, simulating the overnight channel crossing. Live ammunition was used in the exercise, to harden troops off to the sights, sounds and smells of actual battle. Naval bombardment was to commence 50 minutes before H-Hour, however delays and scheduling confusion resulted in landing forces coming under direct naval bombardment. An unknown number were killed in this “friendly fire” incident. Fleet rumors put the number as high as 450.

Two Royal Navy Corvettes, HMS Azalea and Scimitar, were to guard the exercise from German “Schnellboots” (“S-Boots” – the allies called the “E-Boats”), the fast attack craft based across the channel, at Cherbourg.

German_S-Boat_S_204
German Fast Attack Boats known as ‘Schnell-Boots” or, “Fast Boats”

Scimitar withdrew for repairs following a collision with an LST on the 27th. In the earlymorning darkness of the following day, the single corvette was leading 8 LSTs carrying vehicles and combat engineers of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade through Lyme Bay, when the convoy was spotted by a nine vessel E-Boat patrol.

8 landing craft in single-file didn’t have a chance against fast-attack craft capable of 55mph.  LST-531 was torpedoed and sunk in minutes, killing 424 Army and Navy personnel. LST-507 suffered the same fate, with the loss of 202. LST-289 made it to shore in flames, with the loss of 123. LST-511 was damaged in yet another friendly fire incident.

Unable to wear their lifebelts correctly due to the large backpacks they wore, many men placed them around their waists. That only turned them upside down in the water and that’s how they died, with nothing but legs visible above the waves. Dale Rodman, who survived the sinking of LST-507, said “The worst memory I have is setting off in the lifeboat away from the sinking ship and watching bodies float by.”

Survivors were sworn to secrecy due to official embarrassment, and the possibility of revealing the real invasion, scheduled for June.  Ten officers with high level clearance were killed in the incident, but no one knew that for sure until their bodies were recovered.  The D-Day invasion was nearly called off.  Any of them could have been captured alive, revealing pending invasion plans to German interrogators.  Particularly under torture.

There’s a surprising amount of confusion about the final death toll.  Estimates range from 639 to 946, nearly five times the number killed in the actual Utah Beach landing.  Some or all of the personnel from that damaged LST may have been aboard the other 8 on the 28th, but log books went down along with everything else.  Many of the remains, have never been found.

Even that number would surely have been higher, had not Captain John Doyle disobeyed orders and turned his LST-515 around, plucking 134 men from the frigid water.

Sherman_Tank_Operation_TigerToday the Exercise Tiger disaster is largely forgotten.  Some have charged official cover-up, though information from SHAEF press releases appeared in the August edition of Stars & Stripes.  At least three books contain the information.  It seems more likely that the immediate need for secrecy and subsequent D-Day invasion swallowed the Tiger disaster, whole.  History has a way of doing that.

Some of Slapton’s residents came home to rebuild their lives after the war, but many never returned.  In the early 1970s, Devon resident and civilian Ken Small discovered an artifact of the Tiger exercise, while beachcombing on Slapton Sands.

With little or no help from either the American or British governments, Small purchased rights to a submerged Sherman tank from the 70th Tank Battalion, from the United States Government.  The tank was raised in 1984 with the help of local residents and dive shops, and now stands as a memorial to Exercise Tiger, not far from a monument remembering those villagers who never came home.Slaptonmemorial

A plaque was erected at Arlington National Cemetery in 1995, inscribed with the words “Exercise Tiger Memorial”.  A 5,000-pound LST stern anchor bears silent witness to Exercise Tiger in Mexico, Missouri, as does an M4 Sherman tank at Fort Rodman Park in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

In 2012, a granite memorial was erected at Utah Beach, engraved with the words in French and English: “In memory of the 946 American servicemen who died in the night of 27 April 1944 off the coast of Slapton Sands (G.B.) during exercise Tiger the rehearsals for the D-Day landing on Utah Beach”.

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March 3, 1920 The Craziest Pilot in the Canadian Air Force

Doohan practiced voices and accents ever since he was a kid, and he was good at it. The skills he acquired would serve him well in his later acting career.

Born March 3, 1920 in Vancouver, British Columbia, James Montgomery “Jimmy” Doohan enrolled in the 102nd Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps in 1938. By the outbreak of WWII he was commissioned a Lieutenant in the 14th Field Artillery Regiment of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.landing

Doohan’s first taste of combat took place on D-Day, on the Normandy beach Canadian landing forces knew as “Juno”. Crossing through a field of anti-tank mines, the Canadian’s luck held.  None of them were heavy enough to set one off.  Leading his men to higher ground, Lieutenant Doohan personally shot two German snipers, before taking up positions for the night.

That night, Doohan had just finished a cigarette and was walking back to his command post.  A nervous sentry opened up on him with a Bren light machine gun, striking him four times in the leg, once in the chest and again on the middle finger of his right hand. The chest shot hit the cigarette case his brother had given him for good luck, and doctors were able to save his life.  Not so much for the finger. That had to be amputated. He would always hide the injury in his later life.

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After healing up, Doohan served as courier and artillery spotter, aboard a Taylorcraft Auster Mark IV.  In the spring of 1945, he slalomed his aircraft between telegraph poles, just to prove that it could it be done.  Though the man was never an actual member of the CAF, the stunt forever marked him as “the craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force”.

Doohan practiced voices and accents ever since he was a kid, and he was good at it. The skills he acquired would serve him well in his later acting career.

He heard a radio drama after the war. Knowing he could do it better, Doohan recorded his voice at a local radio station, winning a two year scholarship to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and studying with the likes of Leslie Nielsen, Tony Randall, and Richard Boone.

Doohan appeared in over 4,000 radio programs and 450 television shows throughout the forties and fifties. Coincidentally, Doohan played “Timber Tom”, the northern version of Buffalo Bob, in the Canadian production of Howdy Doody. About the same time that a young actor named William Shatner was playing Ranger Bill in the American version. The two would appear together on the 1950s Canadian science fiction series “Space Command”. It wasn’t the last time the two would appear together.

Auditioning before Gene Roddenberry in 1965, Doohan performed several accents. Asked which he preferred, he responded “If you want an engineer, in my experience the best engineers are Scotsmen.” He chose the name “Montgomery Scott”, after his grandfather.

Chief Engineer aboard the Starship Enterprise was supposed to be an occasional role, but Doohan’s character proved irresistible.scotty

Soon he was #3 in command, a regular cast member playing alongside William Shatner (Captain James T. Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy).  Doohan’s voice talents helped behind the scenes as well.  It was he who helped develop the Klingon and Vulcan languages.

Star Trek was canceled in 1969 due to poor ratings, but returned to broadcast syndication in the 70s.  The series has since become a cult classic. There is hardly a woman, man, puppy boy or girl who isn’t steeped and marinated in the program.

The “Scotty” character was so iconic, that many fans credit him with their interest in the technical fields.  Among them was the engineer-turned-astronaut Neil Armstrong, who personally thanked him in 2004.

doohan-1Doohan’s health declined in his later years. He developed Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, along with fibrosis of the lung, blamed on his exposure to noxious chemicals during WWII. He was experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s by 2004, though he was able to attend the ceremony held in his honor after receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, that August.

James Montgomery Doohan passed away on July 20, 2005, survived by third wife Wende, their three children, his four adult children from a previous marriage, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His youngest daughter, Sarah, was five at the time of his death.

On April 29, 2007, a SpaceLoft XL rocket lifted off from the Spaceport America launchpad in Las Cruces.  Onboard were the ashes of astronaut Gordon Cooper, and James Montgomery Doohan.  Cooper’s wife Suzan and Wende Doohan pushed the launch button.

In Linlithgow, Scotland, there is a museum, claiming the West Lothian town as the future birthplace of chief engineer Montgomery Scott.  He will be born there, in 2222.

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