From the perspective of half a century and through the nostalgic tints of commemorative ceremonies, the Overlord invasion of Normandy has assumed an air of inevitability. This summer's anniversary procession made inspirational stops at all the D-Day ports of call: the five invasion beaches: Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah, Omaha; the Rangers' seizure of Pointe du Hoc; the airborne assault at Ste. Mre ƒglise. In some danger of being lost amid the ritual was the boldness, the fragility, the risk of the original undertaking, and the awful foreboding that had driven Eisenhower to draft--and carry in his wallet for a month after D-Day--a statement in case of disaster:
"Our landings...have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available...if any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."
Eisenhower had good reason to worry.
The time was late April of 1944. Almost everyone in England knew or sensed that the invasion of Europe was imminent, although the location and actual date of the landings were highly classified. Those who knew the details were said to be "bigoted;" even this code name was itself top secret. The British authorities were convinced that the Americans talked too much, and in London assigned a group of attractive girls to see how much we did talk. One senior American Army officer, attending a party at Claridge's Hotel said, "On my honor the invasion will take place before the sixth of June." A furious Eisenhower shipped him home on the first plane. He was reduced in rank, and retired soon afterward.
The whole of England was in the grip of invasion fever. American officers, like myself, who had been bigoted tended to lunch and dine alone for fear of blurting out secret information. Yet everything we did and thought was conditioned and underlined by the war. A walk with a girl through a stubble field, an afternoon with a gun along the river, a visit to a dog breeder who was proud of his dogs--even peaceful pursuits like these were colored by the never-forgotten fact that we were part of a vast machine of destruction. Such pastimes were like sporting prints too heavily mounted, so that the massive frames and broad white borders dominated the small scenes themselves. The war was the frame and border of our lives.
I had been trained in Harbor Defense, and was serving as a naval officer on the staff of Admiral Harold R. Stark, the commander of the London-based Twelfth Fleet. My duties included liaison work with the Royal Navy on German small craft capabilities-- midget submarines, explosive boats, frogmen and the like. Our minds were absorbed in inventing ways to counter these threats. Under Admiral Stark's instructions, I was to take part in something called Operation Tiger. Naturally, the name and date were top secret; my orders read: "You will proceed at will to Port X." I was briefed verbally to go to Fowey in Cornwall, to the Fowey Hotel above the estuary and wait in the garden there. A Royal Naval officer would spot me. He would identify himself by the code name of the operation and then take me to his ship.
The special assignment of this ship was to lay one mile of light "indicator net." Indicator nets were designed to drape themselves around enemy submarine--hence my presence--and trigger a surface flare which gives fair warning of a sub-surface attack. The British planned to lay, or "stream," ten miles of net outside the invasion beaches. Operation Tiger was to be a dress rehearsal for Overlord, small in scale but exercising many of the elements of the real invasion.
The south coast ports of the British "Near Shore" teemed with masses of landing craft and escort vessels. Operation Tiger called for and staged a landing on Slapton Sands, a curving beach on Lyme Bay in South Devon, some eighty miles from Fowey. Slapton Sands was chosen by the joint British-American command because it closely resembled the contours of Utah Beach and its hinterland in Normandy, one of the two areas selected for the American landings. Behind both was a shallow lagoon and good solid meadowland. For the rehearsal, the enemy defenses were duplicated, based on the latest air reconnaissance. These included a dummy minefield and various beach obstructions.
I met the naval officer as planned in the garden high above the beautiful estuary. He turned out to be a member of the Volunteer Reserve (MVR) with a weatherworn face from many years at sea. He rowed me out to his ship, a small trawler with a broad flat forecastle for assembling and streaming the net. There we joined the flotilla that was heading into the English Channel: minelayers and minesweepers and other small craft and one lumbering lst (Landing Ship Transport) crammed with troops. There was a good deal of cheerful banter between the ships. Some of the crew members seemed to think that this was the real thing, but to most it was just a "dry run," perhaps to keep the enemy guessing. Hence the holiday mood.
What no one knew was that on that same morning of April 28, Royal Air Force reconnaissance flights over Cherbourg had spotted nine German e-boats leaving the French port, just ninety miles away. The RAF report reached naval headquarters at Plymouth, but it got lost in the heavy communication traffic and was never relayed to the convoy commodore. So as we worked our way along the Devon coast we were entirely unaware that our "dry run" was in mortal danger from the e-boats, with their torpedoes and 45-knot speed.
The operation was in two parts. The small craft in our convoy were to clear beach obstructions on Slapton Sands and go through the motions of sweeping dummy minefields. The slower lst accompanying us was to join seven other lsts, which would land troops and amphibious tanks.
Off Plymouth we caught up with and soon passed the lst convoy, leaving our craft astern. The lsts were escorted by one corvette, H.M.S. Azalea. She was the sole protection against enemy marauders. The minimum requirement was two escorting vessels, one on either flank, but a second, larger escort had been in a collision earlier that day. This information had not been passed to Plymouth and no action was taken to send a replacement.
As the first, faster flotilla neared Slapton Sands, our net layer received its instructions to detach from the other small craft and head twelve miles out into the Channel. "Proceed to lay the indicator net in the designated area and secure the indicator flares." The installation took a good part of the afternoon but was finished toward dusk. Soon it was dark, a moonless night with a fifteen-foot tide ebbing strongly down the narrow seas towards Land's End.
Just over the horizon to the north, searchlights began to cartwheel across the night sky. Soon we heard the mutter of gunfire from the English coast. It was obvious that something had gone very wrong. Then a Royal Navy destroyer surged out of the dark and spoke to us in no uncertain terms: "Get that bleeding net up soonest and go back to your home port. There are enemy e-boats in the vicinity." We immediately started hauling away at the net. There was no time to deactivate the indicator flares, which went off at random as the net came over the side. Soon we were lit up like a Christmas tree as we headed for shore.
Instructions came through to head for Plymouth instead of Fowey. There the MVR skipper and I were told the bare facts of what had taken place. The nine German e-boats had flushed the lsts as they neared Slapton Sands. Two lsts had been sunk, and one badly damaged. Loss of life had been heavy but the numbers could not be revealed. The Allies were able to keep the episode out of the newspapers. But throughout the high command there was the inevitable question: if the Germans could wreak such havoc at a dress rehearsal, what would happen when the balloon really went up?
Everyone was sworn to secrecy. In my case I returned to London the following day to make my report. It so happened that I was dining that night at the house of a British official in the sub-Cabinet. I had a drink or two after all the excitement of the previous hours and found the company of a good-looking English girl on my right particularly agreeable.
"Commander Wilkinson, I hear you were on Operation Tiger."
The voice was so pleasant and reassuring that I found myself answering, "Yes, I was." After a short interval the pleasant voice went on, "I hear we took some bad casualties."
The fog in my brain cleared a little, and common sense set in. I put my hand over hers and I said, "I really don't think we should be talking about this."
That night, I left for Scotland to join my ship in the Firth of Clyde, which was one of the staging areas for the upcoming D-Day. All the way to the station I expected a hand on my shoulder and a security officer saying, "Come with me." Nothing happened but I had learned a sharp lesson.
The 749 men who lost their lives in the Battle of Slapton Sands, for the most part U.S. soldiers and sailors, were buried in haste and secrecy in a field behind the lagoon and beach. Next of kin were told that they had "lost their lives on active duty in the European Theater of Operations." Over the years many details of the tragedy have seeped out, but mysteries remain. Almost as many casualties were caused by the icy waters of the Channel as by the torpedoes and gunfire of the e-boats, for the rescue operation was badly botched. All the German e-boats returned to Cherbourg without major damage.
The disaster did have positive consequences; any complacency about the D-Day invasion vanished. By June 6 communications and staff were vastly improved. Proportionally, far fewer lives were lost on Utah Beach six weeks later than in Operation Tiger. Eisenhower had no need to send a message of failure.