US troops in Exercise Tiger
Exercise Tiger remembered
By Laura Joint
April 2009 marks the 65th anniversary of the Exercise Tiger tragedy, in which 749 US servicemen died off the South Devon coast.
In the early hours of 28 April 1944, a convoy of eight American landing ship tanks (LSTs) were carrying out a D-Day dress rehearsal off the South Devon coast when they were ambushed by German E-boats.
Two of the LSTs were sunk in the attack off Slapton Sands, killing 749 US servicemen - a higher death toll than at the initial D-Day landings which were to take place on Utah Beach, Normandy, two months later.
In fact, the operation - called Exercise Tiger - proved to be the most costly Allied training incident, in terms of lives lost, in the whole of World War Two.
LST 507 had departed Dartmouth for the operation and LST 531 had left from Plymouth. Neither were to return.
The remaining LSTs headed for port as fast as possible, apart from one: LST 515, whose captain disobeyed orders to stay behind and rescue over 100 men.
"I remember it as if it were yesterday..."
Paul Gerolstein was on board LST 515 and is one of three Exercise Tiger veterans who travelled to Torcross to attend the annual memorial service and ceremony on Sunday 26 April 2009.
Archive photos: Paul Gerolstein and Nathan Resnick
"I remember it as if it were yesterday," said Paul, who was gunners mate in the US Navy. "Our captain, John Doyle, decided to stay on station and pick up survivors. 'We came here to fight the Germans and we will stay here and fight,' he ordered.
"I don't remember the exact number of troops our ship picked out of the water, but I believe it was around 170.
"The medical personnel were ordered, under threat of Court Martial, not to ask anybody about what happened. It was imperative that the Germans did not know what we were doing."
Paul went on to take part in the D-Day landing at Utah Beach.
He was joined by two other veterans, Frank Derby (LST 496) and Nathan Resnick (LST 511), and relatives of men lost in the tragedy.
Frank Derby, pictured during WWII
Gunners mate Frank Derby was on watch and saw one of the other ships in the convoy get hit in the bow. He later saw action at Omaha Beach, where LST 496 hit two German mines and sank. He was knocked unconscious but recovered and was rescued by colleagues. However, many men lost their lives in the incident.
Nathan Resnick was a motor machinist on board LST 511. He was asleep at the time of the attack off the South Devon coast but when the alarm sounded, he became one of the gunners on the top deck.
When he arrived on deck, LST 507 had already been hit and was in flames. He saw LST 531 get hit by two torpedoes, before the craft exploded into a fireball. It was pitch black, but his vessel fired towards the direction of the German E-boats.
Friendly fire from LST 496 and enemy fire from the E-boats injured 15 men on the top deck, but it could have been worse - he watched torpedoes strike his ship, but they didn't explode.
On D-Day, LST 511 was assigned to Omaha Beach, where the ship made 50 crossings from an offshore position to unload troops and equipment and pick up injured troops.
Among the relatives who attended the 2009 ceromony was Laurie Bolton, whose uncle, Sgt Louis A Bolton, was killed on board LST 531.
Sgt Louis A Bolton died on board LST 531
"He was in the tank deck on board LST 531 when it took a direct hit to that area. His body was never recovered," says Laurie, who lives in California.
"He was newly married, but had no children. I was born on his birthday eight years after he died.
"His name is on the Wall of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery in England, along with many others never found. Those whose bodies were recovered are buried there."
Relatives of four other men who perished on board LST 531 and LST 507, Eugene Henley, Alexander Kirzanosky, Jacob Bohl and Felton Fitts, were also in South Devon for the 65th anniversary.
Slapton Sands, Torcross, was chosen for Exercise Tiger because of its similarity with Utah Beach, Normandy.
The landing ship tanks were on their way to Slapton Sands at 2am on 28 April 1944 when they were attacked.
The LSTs were sitting ducks. German documents detailing the attack at the time said: "The (E) boats took advantage of the minimal security of the group, with good results.
The US Army made the Slapton area their base
"The landing training group was broken up and sailed around relatively helplessly. One can see how ponderous, poorly manoeuvrable and poorly coordinated such groups are."
Some of the American servicemen did not have their life jackets inflated, while other jackets weren't fitted properly - adding to the death toll.
The survivors were told not to talk about the incident but in recent years, more and more details of the disaster have emerged.
At the time, the Slapton area was deserted of local residents - all the surrounding villages had been evacuated, to make way for thousands of US troops ahead of the D-Day invasion by Allied forces.
The three visiting veterans are now in their late 80s, and this could be their last chance to travel to the remembrance event.
They attended a service at St Michaels and All Angels Church, Stokenham and a ceremony at the Tank Memorial site at Torcross, where the Last Post was sounded.
The Sherman Tank Memorial at Torcross
The annual service of remembrance is organised by the Devon and Cornwall branch of the Royal Tank Regiment Association
The Sherman tank at the memorial site was recovered from the seabed off Slapton Sands in 1984 by the late Ken Small, a local hotelier. His son, Dean, still looks after the tank.
"My father campaigned tirelessly for a memorial to ensure that the sacrifices made by these young men were recognised and for those who had lost a loved one, there was somewhere to go and think of them," said Dean.
"I have met many of the survivors and their families over the years and have never ceased to be impressed by their courage and determination to remember their colleagues who never returned.
"We are hoping to raise sufficient funds for a memorial, naming all those who lost their lives."
View the video link on this page to watch archive US Military footage of the preparations for Exercise Tiger.
And you can learn much more about Exercise Tiger by clicking onto the website links on the top right of this page.
last updated: 27/04/2009 at 12:55