|The gun sight on American Landing Ship LST-531 (Photo: Global Underwater Explorer)|
By Cahal Milmo
Nearly 800 American soldiers and sailors were killed during a botched exercise off the Devon coast
When explosions first lit up the night sky around two landing ships taking part in a D-Day rehearsal some 76 years ago, some on board assumed it was the live fire they had been warned to expect to make the exercise as realistic as possible.
Others on board the lumbering American vessels LST-507 and LST-531 knew immediately, however, that things had gone terribly wrong. The ships had been struck by torpedoes fired from high-speed German E-Boats under cover of darkness as they sailed some 12 miles off the Devon coast at Slapton Sands.
Within a few short hours on 28 April 1944 nearly 800 American servicemen would be dead as the German vessels exploited the absence of a Royal Navy escort ship and mistakes by Allied to wreak havoc. Both landing ships sank, trapping hundreds of soldiers and sailors in their hulls as their cargoes of tanks, vehicles and ammunition exploded.
Amid horrific scenes, it was found that lifeboat cranes had seized with rust and many personnel drowned as they jumped into freezing waters alight with burning oil and were unable to right themselves because they had put on their lifejackets back to front. In total at least 749 American servicemen died.
Both wrecks have now been granted special protected status ahead of next week’s VE Day commemorations, ensuring the remains of the vessels cannot be interfered with and their status as reminders of the human cost of preparing for the Normandy landings is recognised.
The disaster during Exercise Tiger, which involved up to 30,000 troops taking part in a mock landing at Slapton Sands, was kept strictly secret at the time for fear of damaging morale and disclosing details of just how and where D-Day was going to happen.
A series of errors, including a mix-up over radio frequencies which meant British naval commanders were unable to warn their American counterparts that the E-Boats had been spotted on radar, added to official reticence over the sinkings.
Relatives of those who perished were told only that their loved ones were either missing in action or had been killed in action. Many families did not find out the details of the catastrophe until decades later when a Devon hotelier - Ken Small - located and salvaged one of the Sherman tanks that sank off Slapton Sands and turned it into a memorial.
'Struggle for liberty'
Duncan Wilson, chief executive of heritage watchdog Historic England, said: “The underwater remains of ships involved in the D-Day rehearsals are a tangible reminder of the sacrifices made in planning and delivering this huge military operation on a scale never previously attempted.
“By protecting the wrecks of two United States landing ships we are remembering all of those who lost their lives in the struggle for liberty during the Second World War.”
Protected status means that any attempt to access the vessels or retrieve items from the seabed will be illegal, though divers will still be able to pass over the wreck sites.
'Not in vain'
Mark Dunkley, maritime archaeologist with Historic England, said that the deaths of those on board had to be remembered in the context of subsequent actions by Allied commanders on D-Day itself, a little over two months after the sinking.
He said: “Lessons were learned from what happened during Exercise Tiger. By D-Day, they made sure that instructions had been issued about how to use life jackets and the issue with radio frequencies had been resolved. They also made sure lifeboats could be launched.
The sacrifice of these men was terrible but it was not in vain - they gave their lives to enable D-Day to be a success.”