Adapted from: "The Tragedy of Exercise Tiger," Navy Medicine 85, no. 3 (May-Jun 1994): 5-7.
More lives were lost in one exercise practicing for D-Day than during the invasion of Utah Beach on 6 June 1944. That rehearsal was called "Exercise Tiger." Planning for the greatest amphibious operation in history required many such exercises, each designed to test the readiness of plans for the invasion of Normandy and the efficiency of the troops. Duck, Fox, Muskrat, Beaver, and Trousers preceded Tiger, and Fabius followed. Each was larger than the last, and the later ones used live ammunition.
Because it resembled Utah Beach, these exercises used Slapton Sands, a beach on the English Channel east of Plymouth in Lyme Bay. Other smaller exercises were held many places in southern England, especially at Woolacomb.
Exercise Tiger involved some 300 ships and 30,000 men. Thirty of the ships were LSTs [Landing Ship Tank], which loaded at Plymouth, Brixham, and Dartmouth. The first units landed at H-hour, the morning of 27 April 1944. H-hour was delayed 1 hour, causing landings and shelling to coincide. And not all ships got the message.
Convoy T-4 consisted of eight LSTs bringing up the rear and due to land at H + 24 hours. I was on LST-507, which was last in line. The convoy circled Lyme Bay at 4 knots. Only one British escort vessel accompanied us, another remained in Plymouth with a hole in its bow. Much later, a replacement was sent, hut too late to effect the tragic outcome of Exercise Tiger. German E-boats (torpedo boats) plied the Channel and Lyme Bay several times a week and the night of 27-28 April was one of them.
I was a brand new Naval Reserve medical officer, fresh out of an abbreviated senior year and internship, totally unprepared for what was to follow. I knew only about the role of such physicians on LSTs and this training was short.
My first assignment in January 1944 was Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. I followed the other physicians on the North Shore electric train to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital and checked in. The next morning I found the difference between Hospital and Mainside! I was assured all the paperwork would be transferred. It wasn't, as I later discovered.
At the recruiting center, Mainside, we examined an average of 1,700 recruits a day. In a week I became an expert in hemorrhoids, hernias, and right ears. Then I, and perhaps 50 other new physicians, reported to Lido Beach, Long Island. A few thousand hospital corpsmen of all ranks were there too. Thus, individual outfits of Foxy 29, the code name for our medical unit, were formed by taking two physicians and an assortment of 40 corpsmen. We were supposed to drill and train our "men." After the brass saw hilarious marching formations colliding, the Marines took over.
Our training at Lido Beach was the introduction to the LST and its uses as a medical evacuation ship. We had some exposure to gas warfare, and endured unpleasant contacts with several chemical agents. Units shipped out at regular intervals on LSTs. We left on 10 March 1944.
As LST-507 was dropping off cargo and loading supplies in various English ports, our medical unit was sent to Fowey for a week of intensive training on chemical warfare and general first aid. This all added up to very little preparation for an invasion with major casualties.
When our medical unit reported back to LST-507, it was in Brixham and had loaded some 290 Army personnel. The tank deck held 22 DUKWs (amphibious trucks) with jeeps and trucks topside, all chained to the deck and fully fueled. Army troops were everywhere.
Loading occurred 24 April 1944. We and two other LSTs sailed from Brixham on the afternoon of 27 April to join five LSTs coming from Plymouth. Only recently I found that our British escort had been warned about E-boats in the area, but the U.S. forces had not been given the correct radio channel to monitor. We sailed along in fatal ignorance.
General Quarters rudely aroused us about 0130. I remember hearing gunfire and saying they had better watch where they were shooting or someone would get hurt. At 0203 I was stupidly trying to go topside to see what was going on and suddenly "BOOM!" There was a horrendous noise accompanied by the sound of crunching metal and dust everywhere. The lights went out and I was thrust violently in the air to land on the steel deck on my knees, which became very sore immediately thereafter. Now I knew how getting torpedoed felt. But I was lucky.
The torpedo hit amidships starboard in the auxiliary engine room, knocking out all electric and water power. We sat and burned. A few casualties came into the wardroom for care and, since there was ample help, I checked below decks aft to be sure no one required medical attention there. All men in accessible areas had gone topside.
The tank deck was a different matter. As I opened the hatch, I found myself looking into a raging inferno which pushed me back. It was impossible to enter. The screams and cries of those many Army troops in there still haunt me. Navy regulations call for dogging the hatches to preserve the integrity of the ship, and that's what I did.
Until the fire got so hot we were forced to leave the ship at 0230, we watched the most spectacular fireworks ever. Gas cans and ammunition exploding and the enormous fire blazing only a few yards away are sights forever etched in my memory.
Ship's company wore life jackets, but the medics and Army personnel had been issued inflatable belts. We were told only to release the snaps and squeeze the handles to inflate. Climbing down a cargo net, I settled into the 42 degree F. water, gradually getting lower as the life belt rose up to my arm pits. The soldiers that jumped or dove in with full packs did not do well. Most were found with their heads in the water and their feet in the air, top heavy from not putting the belts around their chests before inflating them. Instructions in their correct use had never been given.
I recall only brief moments of hearing motors, of putting a knee on a small boat ramp, and then "awakening" half way up a Jacobs ladder. I was on the only American ship, LST 515, to rescue survivors. This was at dawn, about 0600. I had been in the water over 2 hours fully dressed and insulated. Those that had stripped to swim, only God knows where they died. Drowning and hypothermia were the two major causes of death. I often wonder if many "dead" victims were really in a state of hibernation, and what would have happened had we been able to immerse them in warm tubs. But who ever heard of a tub on an LST in wartime? We couldn't even do a reliable physical exam under the circumstances.
Both dead and alive were taken to Portland. The dead went on to Brookwood Cemetery near London where they were buried individually. The rumor of mass graves is false. We got dry clothes, courtesy of the American Red Cross and then an exam at an Army field hospital in Sherborne. An Army physician, Dr. Ralph Greene, was there and later did the first American research on Exercise Tiger.
After a month's leave, all were reassigned and most boarded other LSTs for the invasion of Normandy. Others were given shore assignments. For me, Normandy was a piece of cake. LST-391 made one run carrying Rangers Headquarters Staff to Omaha Beach. We took 125 injured from Utah Beach to England. The Army tent dispensary at the beachhead had done an excellent job with these men. Our supplies contained only about six 20 cc syringes with 1½-inch needles. We gave 1 cc (20,000 U) of penicillin every 3 hours to each of the next 20 men with the same syringe and the same needle, but with no withdrawal of the plunger. After a brief boil, syringes and needles were reloaded. There was no other way to keep the schedule. In England, the medical group was detached to stage for the Pacific.
When I got home, I tried to reestablish my pay and insurance records. Great Lakes Naval Hospital did not transfer my life insurance to Mainside! And me with a fairly recent bride.
All the files of Eugene E. Eckstam, who has done extensive research on Exercise Tiger, are being transferred to the Center for War& Peace, Department of History, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.
1 August 2000