Towards the end of 1943 about 3,000 people from a number of villages in the South Hams area of Devon were given 6 weeks to pack up and leave their homes with little explanation. In early 1944 American troops arrived in their thousands, invading the tiny Devon roads and lanes. These GIs who on D Day would assault the beaches of Normandy.
Prior to this their training would be intensified. This included a large rehearsal of a beach landing on Slapton Sands, codenamed “Exercise Tiger”. The plan was to amass landing craft in the Channel from Plymouth and Brixham, then stage landings on Slapton Beach which was similar to Utah Beach near Cherbourg. The Allied commander General Dwight D Eisenhower wanted the rehearsal to be as lifelike as possible.
The week-long dummy “invasion” went well until April 27th when the last convoy set off for Slapton Sands. This flotilla of several landing craft contained troops, amphibious trucks, jeeps, heavy equipment and hundreds of men.
Under darkness, German E boats off the Devon coast picked up Allied radio traffic and spotted eight boats sailing in a line in Lyme Bay. The 9 German torpedo boats had stumbled on operation Tiger. Soon torpedoes without warning hit the landing craft. One burst into flames. Men on deck were engulfed in fire from blazing fuel from the exploding vehicles. Another lost its stern but was able limp into port. A 3rd landing craft rapidly sank in the pitch dark and with no time to launch life rafts of the 496 soldiers and sailors on her, 424 drowned. Commanders ordered all the boats to scatter immediately, hoping to avoid any more losses. The men left in the sea, many soon sank, weighed down by sodden clothes and kit.
The GIs who made it to the shore were to suffer a further danger, an incident that to this day is not acknowledged by the Pentagon. As they staggered onto the beach they came under direct fire from a British Cruiser and “friendly fire” from beach gun emplacements. The truth of the friendly fire on the sands remains unproven though well attested to by those who were there. When morning came the official death toll was 749 men, far more than were killed on the storming of Utah beach on the real D-Day. What happened at Slapton Sands was not made public at the time.