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.

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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.

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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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September 1 (est.), 911 A Different Normandy Story

Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him.

The warlike men who sailed their longboats out of the north tormented the coastal UK and northwestern Europe, ever since their first appearance at Lindisfarne Monastery in 793.

These “Norsemen” (“Normans”), attacked Paris early in 911. By July they were holding Rollothe nearby town of Chartres under siege. Normans had burned the place to the ground back in 858 and would probably have done so again, but for their defeat at the battle of Chartres on July 20.

Even in defeat, these people presented a formidable threat. The Frankish King approached them with a solution.

King Charles III, known as “Charles the Simple” after his plain, straightforward ways, proposed to give the Normans the region from the English Channel to the river Seine. It would be the Duchy of Normandy, some of the finest farmlands in northwest Europe, and it would be theirs in exchange for an oath of loyalty to Charles.

Rollo the WalkerThe deal made sense for the King, because he had already bankrupted his treasury paying these people tribute. And what better way to deal with future Viking raids down the channel, than to make them the Vikings’ own problem?

And so the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day in 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo pledged feudal allegiance to the King of Western Francia. Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him. He must have been some scary character with a two-handed battle axe.

At some point in the proceedings, The Walker was expected to stoop down and kiss the king’s foot, in token of obeisance. Rollo recognized Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Eptethe symbolic importance of the gesture, but wasn’t about to submit to such degradation himself. The chieftain motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as huge as himself, to kiss the king’s foot. The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

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.