(NOTE: The following article represents the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Naval History & Heritage Command)
'Slapton Sands: The Cover-up That Never Was'
By Charles B. MacDonald
(Extracted from Army 38, No. 6 (June 1988): 64-67
"It was a disaster which lay hidden from the World for 40 years . . . an official American Army cover-up."
That a massive cover-up took place is beyond doubt. And that General Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized it is equally clear."
Generals Omar N. Bradley and Eisenhower watched "the murderous chaos" and "were horrified and determined that details of their own mistakes would be buried with their men."
"Relatives of the dead men have been misinformed -- and even lied to -- by their government. "
It was "a story the government kept quiet ... hushed up for decades ... a dirty little secret of World War II."
What was that terrible event so heinous as to prompt those accusations of perfidy 43 years later from the British news media from some American newspapers and in a particularly antagonistic three-part report from the local news of the ABC affiliate in Washington D. C. WJLA-TV?
It was two hours after midnight on 28 April, 1944. Since the moon had just gone down, visibility was fair. The sea was calm.
A few hours earlier, in daylight, assault forces of the U
S 4th Infantry Division had gone ashore on Slapton Sands, a stretch
of beach along the south coast of England that closely resembled
a beach on the French coast of Normandy, code-named Utah, where
a few weeks later U.S. troops were to storm ashore as part of
history's largest and most portentous amphibious assault: D-Day
The assault at Slapton Sands was known as Exercise Tiger, one of several rehearsals conducted in preparation for the momentous invasion to come. So vital was the exercise of accustoming the troops to the combat conditions they were soon to face that commanders had ordered use of live naval and artillery fire, which could be employed because British civilians had long ago been relocated from the region around Slapton Sands. Individual soldiers also had live ammunition for their rifles and machine guns.
In those early hours of 28 April off the south coast in Lyme Bay, a flotilla of eight LSTs (landing ship, tank) was plowing toward Slapton Sands, transporting a follow-up force of engineers and chemical and quartermaster troops not scheduled for assault but to be unloaded in orderly fashion along with trucks, amphibious trucks, jeeps and heavy engineering equipment.
Out of the darkness, nine swift German torpedo boats suddenly
appeared. On routine patrol out of the French port of Cherbourg,
the commanders had learned of heavy radio traffic in Lyme Bay.
Ordered to investigate, they were amazed to see what they took
to be a flotilla of eight destroyers. They hastened to attack.
German torpedoes hit three of the LSTs. One lost its stern but eventually limped into port. Another burst into flames, the fire fed by gasoline in the vehicles aboard. A third keeled over and sank within six minutes.
There was little time for launching lifeboats. Trapped below decks, hundreds of soldiers and sailors went down with the ships. Others leapt into the sea, but many soon drowned, weighted down by water-logged overcoats and in some cases pitched forward into the water because they were wearing life belts around their waists rather than under their armpits. Others succumbed to hypothermia in the cold water.
When the waters of the English Channel at last ceased to wash bloated bodies ashore, the toll of the dead and missing stood at 198 sailors and 551 soldiers, a total of 749, the most costly training incident involving U.S. forces during World War II.
Allied commanders were not only concerned about the loss of life and two LSTs -- which left not a single LST as a reserve for D-Day -- but also about the possibility that the Germans had taken prisoners who might be forced to reveal secrets about the upcoming invasion. Ten officers aboard the LSTs had been closely involved in the invasion planning and knew the assigned beaches in France; there was no rest until those 10 could be accounted for: all of them drowned.
A subsequent official investigation revealed two factors that may have contributed to the tragedy -- a lack of escort vessels and an error in radio frequencies.
Although there were a number of British picket ships stationed off the south coast, including some facing Cherbourg, only two vessels were assigned to accompany the convoy -- a corvette and a World War I-era destroyer. Damaged in a collision, the destroyer put into port, and a replacement vessel came to the scene too late.
Because of a typographical error in orders, the U.S. LSTs were on a radio frequency different from the corvette and the British naval headquarters ashore. When one of the picket ships spotted German torpedo boats soon after midnight, a report quickly reached the British corvette but not the LSTs. Assuming the U.S. vessels had received the same report, the commander of the corvette made no effort to raise them.
Whether an absence of either or both of those factors would have had any effect on the tragic events that followed would be impossible to say -- but probably not. The tragedy off Slapton Sands was simply one of those cruel happenstances of war.
Meanwhile, orders went out imposing the strictest secrecy on all who knew or might learn of the tragedy, including doctors and nurses who treated the survivors. There was no point in letting the enemy know what he had accomplished, least of all in affording any clue that might link Slapton Sands to Utah Beach.
Nobody ever lifted that order of secrecy, for by the time D-Day had passed, the units subject to the order had scattered. Quite obviously, in any case, the order no longer had any legitimacy particularly after Gen. Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, in July 1944 issued a press release telling of the tragedy. Notice of it was printed, among other places, in the soldier newspaper, Stars & Stripes.
With the end of the war, the tragedy off Slapton Sands -- like many another wartime events involving high loss of life, such as the sinking of a Belgian ship off Cherbourg on Christmas Eve, 1944, in which more than 800 American soldiers died--received little attention. There were nevertheless references to the tragedy in at least three books published soon after the war, including a fairly detailed account by Capt. Harry C. Butcher (Gen. Eisenhower's former naval aide) in My Three Years With Eisenhower (1946).
The story was also covered in two of the U.S. Army's unclassified official histories: Cross-Channel Attack (1951) by Gordon A. Harrison and Logistical Support of the Armies Volume I (1953) by Roland G. Ruppenthal. It was also related in one of the official U.S. Navy histories, The Invasion of France and Germany (1957) by Samuel Eliot Morrison.
In 1954, 10 years after D-Day, U.S. Army authorities unveiled a monument at Slapton Sands honoring the people of the farms, villages and towns of the region "who generously left their homes and their lands to provide a battle practice area for the successful assault in Normandy in June 1944." During the course of the ceremony, the U.S. commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Gen. Alfred M. Guenther, told of the tragedy that befell Exercise Tiger.
All the while, a detailed and unclassified account of the tragedy rested in the National Archives. It had been prepared soon after the end of the war by the European Theater Historical Section.
For anybody who took even a short time to investigate, there clearly had been no cover-up other than the brief veil of secrecy raised to avoid compromise of D-Day. Yet, in at least one case -- WJLA-TV in Washington -- the news staff pursued its accusations of cover-up even after being informed by the Army's Public Affairs Office well before the first program aired about the various publications including the official histories that had told of the tragedy.
Yet why, a long 43 years after the event, the sudden spate of news stories and accusations?
That had its beginnings in 1968 when a former British policeman, Kenneth Small, moved to a village just off Slapton Sands and bought and operated a small guest house. Recovering from a nervous breakdown, Mr. Small took long walks along the beach and began to find relics of war: unexpended cartridges, buttons and fragments from uniforms. Talking with people who had long lived in the region, he learned of the heavy loss of life in Exercise Tiger.
Why, Mr. Small asked himself, was there no memorial to those who had died? There was that monument the U.S. Army had erected to the British civilians, but there was no mention of the dead Americans. To Mr. Small, that looked like an official cover-up.
From local fishermen; he learned of a U.S. Sherman tank that lay beneath the waters a mile offshore, a tank lost not in Exercise Tiger but in another rehearsal a year earlier. At considerable personal expense, Mr. Small managed to salvage the tank and place it on the plinth just behind the beach as a memorial to those Americans who had died. The memorial was dedicated in a ceremony on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
That ceremony prompted the first spurt of accusations by the British and American press of a cover-up, but they were soon silenced by publication of two detailed articles about the tragedy: one in American Heritage magazine co-authored by a former medical officer, Dr. Ralph C. Greene, who had been stationed at one of the hospitals that treated the injured; the other in a respected British periodical, After the Battle. Those were carefully researched, authoritative and comprehensive articles; if anybody had consulted them three years later, they would put to rest any charges of a cover-up and various other unfounded allegations.
Kenneth Small, meanwhile, wanted more. Although persuaded at last that there had been no cover-up, he nevertheless wanted an official commemoration by the U.S. government to those who had died. Receiving an invitation from an ex-Army major who had commanded the tank battalion whose lost tank Mr. Small had salvaged, he went to the United States where the ex-major introduced him to his congresswoman, Beverly Byron (D-Md.), who as it turned out is the daughter of Gen. Eisenhower's former naval aide, Capt. Butcher.
With assistance from the Pentagon, Rep. Byron arranged for
a private organization, the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Association
of the U.S. Army in Colorado, where the 4th Infantry Division
is stationed, to provide a plaque honoring the American dead.
She also attached a rider to a congressional bill calling for
official U.S. participation in a ceremony unveiling the plaque
alongside Ken Small's tank at Slapton Sands.
Information about that pending ceremony scheduled for 15 November, 1987, set the news media off. There were accusations not only of a cover-up, but also of heavy casualties inflicted by U.S. soldiers, who presumably did not know they had live ammunition in their weapons, firing on other soldiers. Nobody questioned why soldiers would bother to open fire if they thought they had only blank ammunition ... or why a soldier would not know the difference between live ammunition and blanks when one has bullets, the other not. Nor was there actually any evidence of anybody being killed by small arms fire.
There surfaced a new an allegation made earlier by a local resident, Dorothy Seekings, who maintained that as a young woman she had witnessed the burial of "hundreds" of Americans in a mass grave (she subsequently changed the story to individual graves). Dorothy Seekings also claimed that the bodies are still there.
At long last, somebody in the news media -- a correspondent for BBC television--thought to query the farmer on whose land the dead are presumably buried. He had owned and lived on that land all his life, said the farmer, and nobody was ever buried there.
That tallies with U.S. Army records that show that in the first few days of May 1944, soon after the tragedy, hundreds of the dead were interred temporarily in a World War I U.S. military cemetery at nearby Blackwood. Following the war, those bodies were either moved to a new World War II U.S. military cemetery at Cambridge or, at the request of next of kin, shipped to the United States.
Yet many like Ken Small continued to wonder why it took the U.S. government 43 years to honor those who died off Slapton Sands. Those who wondered failed to understand U.S. policy for wartime memorials.
Soon after World War I, Congress created an independent agency, the American Battle Monuments Commission, to construct overseas U.S. military cemeteries, to erect within them appropriate memorials and to maintain them. Anybody who has seen any of those cemeteries, either those of World War I or of World War II, recognizes that no nation honors its war dead more appropriately than does the United States.
Only the American Battle Monuments Commission--not the U.S. Army, Air Force or Navy -- has authority to erect official memorials to American dead, and the American Battle Monuments Commission limits its memorials to the cemeteries, which avoids a proliferation of monuments around the world. Private organizations, such as division veterans' associations, are nevertheless free to erect unofficial memorials but are responsible for all costs, including maintenance.
Soon after the end of the war, veterans of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade, which incurred the heaviest losses in Exercise Tiger, did just that, erecting a monument on Omaha Beach to their dead, presumably to include those who died at Utah Beach and those who died in preparation for D-Day.
At Cambridge, there stands an impressive official memorial erected by the American Battle Monuments Commission to all those Americans who died during World War II while stationed in the British Isles. That includes the 749 who died in the tragedy off Slapton Sands, and there one finds the engraved names of the missing.
Long before 15 November, 1987, the U.S. government had already honored those soldiers and sailors who died in Exercise Tiger.
CHARLES B. MacDONALD is a former deputy chief historian at the Army's Center of Military History. He is the author of a number of books including Company Commander and A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge, his most recent work.