Operation Tiger





Image taken with permission from dorsetlife.co.uk 


Image taken from Deborah Harvey's blog, permission pending

The South Hams of coastal Devon is an area of rich beauty and an even richer history. Slapton Sands in particular played a critical role in the Second World War, as the location of one of the most covered up events of the war, “Operation (or Exercise) Tiger.”

At first glance, Slapton’s beaches are not obviously striking—but that might just be a reflection of my own bias. Growing up in awe of the beaches of the Pacific Coast of the U.S. where powerful waves either collide with enormous cliffs or peter out over wide margins of sand, the beaches of Slapton felt tame to me. However, even if the narrow strip of sand is not a particularly impressive stretch of surf, this landscape was exactly what the Allied Forces desired in 1944. What they sought was a safe place, bearing a resemblance to the beaches of Normandy, where American troops could practice coming ashore for “Operation Overlord,” or D-Day.

The tale of Slapton Sands and the events that took place there were kept secret by the British government until nearly 50 years after the end of WWII. Since then, the stories were released to the public, telling a tale of pain and tragedy. As the American forces arrived for D-Day rehearsals, the residents of the South Hams were forced to evacuate. Within a few weeks, 3,000 civilians had left. They were forced to abandon not only their homes but also their livelihoods. The crops over which they had meticulously labored were in jeopardy of having all been for naught. Livestock had to either be brought to temporary accommodations or sold. Much of the evacuated population had always lived in relative seclusion, with trips to neighboring county towns being seen as rare and out of the way. Although they knew their sacrifice went toward assisting the Allied Powers in the war, those 3,000 residents were plunged into a world of instability and unfamiliarity.

Nor was the evacuation the only tragedy to strike the South Hams during that period. Operation Tiger was the codename given for one in a series of Allied rehearsals at Slapton Sands for the invasion of Normandy. The exercise was only supposed to last about a week, from the 22nd to the 30th of April, 1944. Allied forces poured into the area. Estimates range with regard to how many there were, but most place the number at around 30,000, as well as a number of ships stationed nearby for protection.

On the 27th of April, the first practice assault began – and with it the first tragedy. A live firing exercise was planned in order to accumulate the troops to the conditions they’d experience at Normandy. The beach would be shelled from 6:30-7 in the morning by the British heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins. After that, the beach would be inspected for shells, and then the troops would practice landing. Due to a miscommunication, the bombing was pushed back to 8:30, and went off while troops were practicing the landing, killing and injuring several soldiers.

The next day failed to bring better tidings. Nine German E-boats attacked a convoy of tank landing ships (LTS) in Lyme Bay. Only one of the two ships designated to protect the convoy, the HMS Azalea, was present. The other had gone to Plymouth for repairs. As a result, the convoy found itself largely helpless. LST-507 was torpedoed, resulting in the deaths of over 400 US Army and Navy personnel. LST-531 was also torpedoed. It sank within 6 minutes, losing another 303 Army and 108 Navy personnel. Two other ships were damaged but managed to return to shore. The remaining ships fired back, driving away the German assault, but with a heavy price. Once again, estimates vary, but most place the number of deaths for the American servicemen at near 1,000, with another 200 wounded. One of the men onboard LST-507 said of the tragedy, “The worst memory I have is setting off in the lifeboat away from the sinking ship and watching bodies float by.”

Though disaster struck on that April 27th and 28th, and the deaths of so many noble heroes passed in silence for around 40 years, today, their actions are being rediscovered. Monuments have been erected all around the beach area, and for the residents of the South Hams who chose to return home, their memories were something that could never be forgotten.

Leaving behind the beach, we were fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to speak to publican Kevin Watson, of The Queens Arms in Slapton, about the experiences of the town during this unusual period of its history. After we finished our respective meat pies—which warmed away the wind chill and delighted the taste buds!—Mr. Watson kindly sat down to speak with us. Even though he did not have first-hand experience of the event, he had heard stories for years from his fellow townspeople who still remembered the events of 1944 with clarity. Around the pub hang several pictures of Slapton and pieces World War II memorabilia, including an announcement issued to the public regarding the evacuation.

Mr. Watson told us numerous stories about the land and the ways in which the community has been forever shaped by Operation Tiger.  There was one story of a woman who claimed to have seen hundreds of bodies being thrown into a mass burial. She didn’t know what to think about it at the time, but when she later learned of the disaster of the first attempts of Operation Tiger—and the subsequent cover-up—she knew that what she had actually witnessed. He also told us of how people had initially blamed the American troops for looting the empty houses, but later discovered that it was actually local English thieves taking advantage of the community’s vulnerability.

One thing the U.S. Government was responsible for, however, was the installation of running water and electricity into the abandoned homes in the South Hams, which was accomplished because of the troops’ need of them during the long months of training. The evacuees were gone for quite some time; some never came back, but those who did return came home to a change in the land they once knew so well, forced to pick up the pieces of lives that would never be the same.

Listening to Mr. Watson’s stories in the pub, the walls covered in artifacts of a past still freshly felt, it became clear how a community with nothing very unusual about it at all can suddenly be defined by a random occurrence beyond its control. Much like the generational influence of a brutal hurricane or reckless tornado, mankind too can wreak its own havoc and irrevocably alter a community with a single event. Everywhere you look, it’s obvious that the South Hams still bears the scars of a past it didn’t choose.

What remains clear is that the history of the region, despite the lengthy silence, never truly became forgotten. The forced evacuation, the deaths of nearly 1,000 American soldiers, and the undeniable benefit Operation Tiger provided for the success of the D-Day invasion continue to live on, etched both into the hearts of the people and the very landscape itself. May their names live in glory for evermore.


How the Land Changed its Face: The Evacuation of Devon’s South Hams by Grace Bradbeer







Text © Brianna Levesque with historical paragraphs added by Ben Koses