Painting by Ted Archer of the attack on US LSTs during Exercise Tiger, 27/28 April 1944
Force ‘U’, for Utah Beach, was under the command of Rear Admiral Don P Moon, US Navy, and his troops and equipment were to be embarked in the same ships and for the most part in the same ports whence it was planned that they would leave for France a few months later. During the night of 26/27 April they proceeded through Lyme Bay and out on a long, looping course, to give the impression of the time it would take actually to travel over to France. There were minecraft sweeping ahead of them as if crossing the Channel. As German E-boats sometimes prowled the Channel on favourable nights, the commander in chief in Plymouth, who was responsible for protecting the rehearsal, placed extra patrols across the mouth of Lyme Bay, consisting of two destroyers, three MTB – motor torpedo boats – and two motor gunboats. Another MTB patrol was laid on to watch Cherbourg.
Following the ‘bombardment’ on Slapton Sands, the first landings were made during the morning of 27 April and unloading continued throughout that day and the next, when the follow-up convoy of another eight LSTs – or Landing Ship Tanks – was expected. It would be this follow-up convoy which would meet with death and destruction on a scale they could not have imagined as they set out from port.
Although there were a number of British ships stationed off the south coast, including those facing Cherbourg, only two vessels were assigned to accompany the followup convoy – a corvette, HMS Azalea, and a World War I destroyer, HMS Scimitar. But after being damaged in a minor collision, the destroyer put into port and a replacement vessel came to the scene too late. This was one of the most critical errors of Exercise Tiger.
But that was not the only mistake. Because of a typographical error in orders, the US LSTs were on a radio frequency different from the corvette and the British naval headquarters ashore. When one of the British ships spotted some German torpedo boats soon after midnight, a report quickly reached the British corvette but not the LSTs. Assuming that the US vessels had received the same report as he had, the commander of the corvette made no effort to alert them. So it was that the German E-boats had a clear run to attack the lightly defended convoy. The military details of the night are documented in the Action Reports of the various LST commanders. From a source inside the Pentagon, I have obtained a complete set of the Action Reports, from which it is possible to make a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the part played in Exercise Tiger by the follow-up convoy, codenamed ‘T-4’.
In overall charge of the LST Group was Commander B J Skahill, in the lead ship, the LST 515. It was on 3 May 1944 that he submitted his report of what happened during Exercise Tiger, along with separate reports from each of the commanders of the other LSTs. It is worth remembering that an LST was an ocean-going vessel, capable of carrying several hundred men, lorries and tanks. It was not just a flat-bottomed landing craft to bring a few men onto a beach, but a major assault ship weighing some four and a half thousand tons. To manoeuvre one at night under attack from much smaller and lighter craft, would have been no easy task.
LST Group 32 left Plymouth at 9:45 am on 27 April with the Plymouth section of Convoy T-4 composed of the LSTs 515, 496, 531, and 58 (the LST 58 was towing two pontoon causeways). The Plymouth section proceeded almost due south to a point near the Eddystone Rocks, where it was joined by the escort vessel, HMS Azalea, and then tracked east and northeast along the coast to a point off Brixham where it was joined by the Brixham section of Convoy T-4 composed of the LSTs 499, 289 and 507.
The convoy was proceeding in one column at a speed of five knots and stayed in the order 515, 496, 511, 531, 58, 499, 289, and 507, with each LST about 400 yards behind the next.
During the night, wrote Commander Skahill, commencing about half an hour after midnight, they saw various white and yellow flares of undetermined origin and significance. The number they observed at any one time, in any one locality, varied from one to five. Some appeared to be a rocket-type flare, others parachute-flares with elevations from 10 degrees to 25 degrees and separated by periods of 5 seconds to 30 seconds. At no time during the night did they hear or see any aircraft – friendly or otherwise.
Then, at about 1:30 am on 28 April, gunfire broke out astern. Everyone went to their stations. They did not realise it at the time, but they were being attacked by a formation of nine German E-boats from Cherbourg, which had slipped past the patrols without being recognised. These were a formidable foe.
A German E-boat was a fast moving hunter-killer. By the Allies, they were called ‘E’ for enemy, by the Germans ‘S-boote’, ‘schnell’ or fast boats. Each was armed with either two torpedo tubes and four torpedoes or two torpedoes and up to five mines. In addition they carried three 20mm guns and one 40mm gun. The E-boats were about 35 metres long, grey and slim. They could travel at speeds of up to 40 knots, and had a range of some 700 miles.
Crew quarters on E-boats were very limited in space. Everything was stripped down to make them fast and light. Total crew at the beginning of the war was about 28, but this was later increased due to extra armament to between 32 and 34. Only about half the men actually had bunks to sleep in, the others used hammocks, or slept on or under tables in the wireless room, as well as among the torpedo tubes. A very small galley allowed them to prepare hot meals and coffee. Indeed so tight was space that normally they had quarters ashore and went on board only for maintenance work and operations at sea.
On the night of Exercise Tiger, Oberleutnant zur See Günther Rabe was commanding officer in S-130, which belonged to the 9th Flotilla and had been based at Cherbourg since the middle of February 1944 in order to reinforce the German anti-invasion forces. Rabe was 26 years old at the time, and has since passed on to me his memories of that engagement.
During the night of 27/28 April the 5th and 9th E-boat-Flotilla were ordered by the Führer der Schnellboote (officer in charge of E-boats) to carry out a normal reconnaissance mission from their base at Cherbourg into the Lyme Bay area. Rabe does not remember if they had any particular information about ship movements in the area. They knew, however, that during April 1944 there was constant traffic on the coastal route off the south coast of England, as they met with increasing resistance from a rapidly growing number of gunboats, launches and other escorts. Despite the British defenders, however, they were building up a high score of ‘kills’ among the transports rehearsing for D-day, although the Germans of course had no idea from where or when the invasion was actually to come.
That night, after leaving the port of Cherbourg at a few minutes past 10 pm, they turned west, passed the island of Alderney and the rocks of the Casquets, and then turned up to the northwest and made a course towards Lyme Bay. They encountered no British destroyers or gunboats off Cherbourg, which they might have expected to do, since the British had a defensive screen around the area to cover just this sort of eventuality. The 9th flotilla with four boats held the westerly positions, whilst the 5th flotilla with five boats was to head for the eastern part of the Bay. They reached the usual Channel convoy route without any sign of a convoy or ship, nor any contact with covering forces. They crossed the route and set off for the inner part of Lyme Bay, later on turning northeast to east on a nearly parallel course to continue their search. Rabe remembers that there were flares in a southeasterly direction, which he assumed were fired from escorts to illuminate the boats from the 5th flotilla.
Then suddenly they found themselves in visual contact with the convoy of LSTs, lined up, they thought, in a rather long formation. From their position to the south and east of the LSTs, they could not see any escorts, so they approached to a good range at comparatively high speed in order to come to a favourable position for torpedo attack.
From his notes, Rabe knows that his boat fired two torpedoes at about 2:15. As he later found out, S-143 launched her torpedoes against the same LST a few seconds later. A definite hit was observed. Shortly after they saw fire on board the LST and a dense cloud of smoke rose from the ship. The actual sinking was not seen, as by then the S-130 had turned away for a short leg towards the west and thereafter to the south. Conscious of the fact that there were many more ships in the area they felt they could not attempt to close in to look for survivors.
Let us take up the story now from the American point of view. The LST 496 was second in line in the convoy, immediately behind the ship with the commander on board. Shortly after 1:30, LST 507 was observed firing anti-surface from her starboard battery. ‘Action stations’ was called but the ship was unable to pick up any target on radar. At just before 2 am they changed course to come round in a loop and head back in towards the shore. It was here that the E-boats made their visual contact. The 496 was simply following in the wake of the 515. Then LST 507 was torpedoed. The front part of the convoy maintained course and speed. A few minutes later the men on the 496 saw an unidentified LST behind them open fire with her starboard battery at a target about 90-degrees from her. Fire was returned from low in the water with blue tracer. As the convoy continued on course, LSTs 289 and 531 were torpedoed within a few seconds of each other. Now the 496 broke formation. They made a 90 degree turn to port, went ahead at flank speed and gave the order to open fire with their after battery on a radar target that had been picked up at a distance of about one and one-quarter miles. But they hit nothing. The commander gave the order to cease fire and commenced zigzagging, endeavouring to present the ship’s stern to the radar targets. But the attackers by that time had moved on.
LST 511 had what was probably the best view of the attacking boats of any of the Americans, though they had little more success in defending the convoy. They were third in line behind the leader, and when LSTs 515 and 496 commenced firing on their unidentified target three of the 511’s 20mm guns and one 40mm commenced firing on the same target. They were immediately silenced by the order ‘cease firing’, as the target had disappeared as quickly as it had come. The guns on the 511 did not fire again during the action, but that was far from the end of the matter for the men on board. As soon as they commenced firing, the after-port guns on LST 496 strafed their decks wounding numerous navy personnel. Their range was no more than the 400 yards separation between the ships. In a fairly charitable comment, the action report of the 511 notes that the 496 ‘may have been trying to fire at an E-boat reported by four witnesses to have passed.’ Certainly the 511 was also hit by German fire, a fact verified by several bullet holes which slanted upward, and could be explained in no other manner. Although it seemed like longer to many of those on board, the entire firing of all ships concerned in this part of the action lasted no more than about two minutes.
The E-boat passed at approximately 40 knots according to American calculations, which meant that it was travelling at full speed. It passed close in, right below their bows. The first they heard was the noise of the motors, which was initially reported to be an aeroplane, as it sounded much like one. The sound, though loud, had a muffled quality. The boat approached on a course heading from port to starboard, passing directly in front of the ship by no more than 15 yards, but at this point none of the guns on the 511 was able to depress sufficiently to fire on it. The boat then made two sharp turns, first 90 degrees to starboard, then back to its original course to port. It then disappeared from view. No reliable description of the craft could be given due to the darkness of the night and its colouring – only the wake end and its gunfire were seen. It had commenced firing when slightly off the 511’s port bow and continued until lost from sight to starboard.
The men on the 511 may have been strafed by their own comrades, and by an E-boat, but in relative terms they were lucky. While the ships at the front of the convoy were observing what was happening, and for quite some time keeping in formation, those further back were under much heavier attack. On board LST 499, the first sign of anything unusual was at about 1:20, when they felt a vibration like that of a nearby depth charge. A few seconds later the same sensation repeated itself. Just prior to the second vibration LST 507, the last in line, was seen to veer to port.
Then an unidentified craft opened fire on the convoy from astern and action stations was sounded. Red and green tracers passed overhead at about mast height, landing all around the ship. The gunfire seemed to originate from an invisible craft on their starboard quarter. The tracers seemed to be spent because of their ‘dropping off’ effect or trajectory, indicating to the men on the 499 that the invisible craft was firing from some distance. This gunfire lasted for about four minutes, and after it ceased the LST 289 moved up to within 300 yards of the stern of the 499 and the LST 507 returned to station. Twenty minutes passed without further disturbance and, because they received no instructions, they assumed the gunfire to have been a part of the exercise. They could not have been more wrong.
At a few minutes past two, a terrific explosion was heard from astern and the LST 507 burst into flames. About the same time they saw the wake of a torpedo abeam the 499 to starboard, and about 100 to 150 feet distant. The wake made about a 45 degree angle with their heading. They immediately gave full left rudder and all engines ahead full. The bow lookout reported that the torpedo wake cleared the bow by no more than 20 feet. They turned on their radar immediately after the LST 507 was torpedoed, but were unable to pick up any suspicious vessels.
There were now a series of confused course changes. At the same time that the 499 gave full left rudder the LST 289 also veered to port. They steered various courses until they were parallel with the LST 58. In other words, the convoy was bunching up at the centre. At just after 2:10, they throttled back to standard speed and then to one-third speed. During all this time they were expecting instructions from the convoy leader or from the escort ship, but they received none. They did not know whether to stay in formation, scatter, or make for shore.
At 2:20, there was another explosion and the LST 531 burst into flames, taking an immediate list to starboard. About a minute before this torpedoing, the LST 531 had been fired upon and she immediately returned the fire and firing between both the LST 531 and the invisible craft continued for a few seconds after the torpedoing. Then a second explosion was heard during this exchange of gunfire and the stern of the LST 531 burst into flames. The 499 again veered sharply to port and changed to full speed ahead. At the same time all the ships scattered.
Just after the second explosion a long, slender, light grey craft, moving at high speed, was seen to the starboard of the LST 531 at an estimated distance of two miles by the officer in charge of the bow guns, the bow lookout, and the No. 3 gun crew. It might have been the convoy escort, they thought. More likely what they saw was an E-boat.
At 2:25 the LST 499 radioed a distress message on the 490 kilocycle wavelength. It was, ‘SSSS SSSS SSSS 3 WYX V 3PQP 2800240 BT SUBMARINE ATTACK BT 2800240’. The signal would be picked up, and relief ships sent out, but they would arrive too late to do anything other than pick up those few survivors still alive after a long night in the water.
The 499 was not directly attacked, but further along the line of the convoy, other LSTs were clearly being hit. It was at 2:40 that LST 507 was struck. All electric power failed, the craft burst into flames, the fire got out of control and the survivors were forced to abandon ship. One of those on board LST 507 was Lieutenant J S Murdock. He reported afterwards that at approximately 1:45 they had heard gunfire and observed tracers apparently coming from their port quarter.
‘Action stations’ was sounded, but they could not work out the source of the firing. They heard intermittent firing between the time of the first shots and the moment when the ship was torpedoed on the starboard side. The torpedo actually struck the auxiliary engine room and all electric power failed immediately. The main engines stopped and the ship burst into flames. Fire-fighting was attempted by the crew but nearly all of their equipment was either inoperative, due to power failure, or inaccessible due to fire. What fire-fighting equipment was available was used, but it was inadequate. The fire gained headway relentlessly.
At some time around 2:45 on the morning of 28 April, Lieutenant Murdock abandoned ship with the then commanding officer, Lieutenant J S Swarts. They had given the order to abandon ship 10 minutes previously and stayed on board to ensure an orderly evacuation. As Murdock put it later: ‘As far as could be observed the abandoning of the ship was orderly. The opportunity was afforded only to launch two lifeboats and at least two life rafts.’ Survivors of the LST 507 have related the grim events of abandoning ship and struggling in the water in some detail.
It was not until almost 5 am that the LST 515 arrived on the scene, lowered boats and engaged in picking up survivors. Murdock was on a raft which went alongside the LST 515 and he was hoisted aboard. The official statistics for the LST 507 were as follows. Originally aboard, Navy – 165; Army – 282. Navy: 47 dead and 24 missing. Army: 131 dead and missing.
A few minutes after the 507 came under attack, LST 531 was hit by two torpedoes, burst into flames, and within six minutes had rolled over and sunk.
Ensign Douglas Harlander was the senior survivor on LST 531, and he compiled the report of what happened. ‘Action stations’ was sounded shortly after 1:30, as elsewhere in the convoy. When Harlander got to the bridge he was informed that gunfire was heard and tracers had been seen, though he himself did not see the tracers nor hear any gunfire. He was told that the gunfire was from the direction of their stern but was not directed at his ship and that the firing had not lasted over one minute. Then a ship was reported on fire in the distance off their starboard quarter. Ensign Cantrell, who saw the ship, and Ensign Harlander both observed the fire and were puzzled as to its identity. It was in fact the burning 507. Just about the time they realised it was an LST, their own ship was torpedoed on the starboard side by two torpedoes separated by about one minute. The first torpedo hit squarely amidships, the second in the vicinity of number three lifeboat. The ship immediately burst into flames and their 40mm gun commenced firing to starboard. All electric power failed, the telephones were inoperative, and the engines stopped. Fire-fighting was attempted but was futile, as all the apparatus they tried to use failed to function. It was quickly apparent to those on board that the fire could not be controlled and they tried to release one of the remaining lifeboats. These efforts were no more successful than the fire-fighting, due to the intense heat, while two further lifeboats had been demolished by the initial explosions.
Shortly afterwards, the ship rolled over and Harlander gave the command to abandon ship; he estimated that not more than 15 men were in his vicinity at the time; many of the soldiers and sailors had already jumped overboard. There were 142 Navy and 354 Army personnel on board the LST 531 when she set out. Totals of dead and missing were 114 Navy and 310 Army. It was not until 7 am that morning that the Navy survivors were picked up.
The last ship to come under attack that night was the LST 289. She had sighted an E-boat at just before 2:30 and opened fire. The E-boat retaliated with a torpedo hit. A number of men were killed, but the LST managed to make port under her own power.
Harry Mettler was commanding officer of LST 289. Like many of the others he had experienced ‘bumps’ or shocks near the boat, but the first clear indication of an enemy attack was when he saw the tracer being fired at the 507 about 600 yards astern of them. He was in the super con – or control room – at the time. In the opinion of Mettler and his gunnery officer it appeared to be 40mm gunfire from 2,500 to 4,000 yards distance, and coming from almost due west, but at no time did anyone see the craft firing, even though the fire came almost directly down the path of the moon, which was then very low in the sky. The 507 sheered to their port and came ahead nearly abeam of them. The enemy fire was then diverted to the 289 from dead astern, most of it being well over the ship. But at no time were any flashes observed, making it futile for them to return the fire, and only serving to give away their own position.
The 289’s gun stations were put on local control with instructions to open fire only if an enemy craft was in view. When they were attacked, they were manning one bow and one stern 40mm gun, after which they immediately went on action stations. The firing lasted about 10 minutes and they received no hits out of 200 to 300 rounds fired. Shortly after the firing ceased, the 507 came back into formation about 700 yards astern of them. Like those on the LST 499, they started to wonder whether the firing might after all have just been a part of the exercise. Then there was an explosion amidships on the starboard side of the 507, with a great flash of flames which seemed to spread instantly from stem to stern. The middle part of the convoy broke formation. The 499 pulled up on the port side of the 58 and the 289 sheered to port.
Aware both of the full load of Army personnel for whom they were primarily responsible and of their own vulnerability, the officers on the 289 considered it unwise to go to the assistance of the 507.
By this time, the entire convoy was out of formation and when the next ship exploded they were unable to identify it. They were by then running at almost full speed using right and left full rudder at 4- or 5-minute intervals to make an evasive pattern. It was later reported by several gun crews that a torpedo wake passed astern off their starboard quarter and another across their port bow. Their erratic course had clearly achieved its goal. Just before 2:30, four port 40mm guns and three 20mm guns opened fire at what some gun crews described as a fast white boat similar to the British M1 series, while others were firing at a torpedo wake which was headed for a point one fourth of the way forward of the stern. The torpedo was approximately 100 yards away from the ship when the officers in the super con saw it. They had to move very quickly. The order had just been given for left full rudder, but as the ship was still swinging fast to the right the prior order was belayed and the rudder returned to full right. The torpedo appeared to be going at not more than 15 or 20 knots and from the super con it seemed at first that it was going to miss. But it hit the ship near the stern. It exploded with considerable flash and roar, but did not shake the ship noticeably – only a few light bulbs had broken filaments and there were no injuries. Fortunately, it struck sufficiently high that the screws themselves were not damaged.
Fire broke out in the crew quarters and on the navigation bridge, but the fire hoses were brought from amidships and the fire was put out before gaining any headway. With their electrics still intact they were in a much better position to fight the fire than those on the other two crippled ships. One steward’s mate carried a blazing mattress up the ladder and threw it over the side. Their fire-fighting was providential, as there was dripping fog oil all over the decks and wreckage.
When they started their engines they found they could go ahead, but only to port, even when backing down on the starboard engines, so they had to make a circle in towards the two blazing LSTs before heading away from them. They had ungripped their six lifeboats at the beginning of the action, so they immediately lowered the five undamaged boats and powered them up, to aid in heading the ship.
Some while later they received a signal to proceed to Brixham. They protested, believing there were no adequate medical facilities at Brixham, and were given leave to proceed to Dartmouth where they arrived early in the afternoon of the 28th. There were just four men killed during the action, eight missing and eighteen wounded, one of whom died at the base hospital. All those were Navy men. Army casualties were four wounded. The commander of the LST 289 was both lucky and skilful that night, and many of his crew undoubtedly owed their lives to him. He later wrote:
It will be observed that at no time were we given any apparent support from our escort or any other source, even though 33 minutes elapsed between the surface fire and the torpedo attack. It is to be hoped that future operations will avoid such futile sacrifices.
The comments of the commander of the LST 499 were in the same vein. The speed of advance of the convoy had been set too slow, he felt. Lack of information led them to believe that flares and gunfire were part of the exercise instead of enemy action. There was clearly an insufficient number of escorts. After the attack was made no orders or instructions were received and no rendezvous was given in case of scattering if attacked. In a nutshell, they had absolutely no idea what tactics to adopt if they came under attack, and they were almost without defence. Yet this was in waters which were regularly patrolled by German E-boats. The official loss of life in this brief action – 197 sailors and 441 soldiers – was actually much greater than the invasion forces suffered on D-day at Utah Beach.
For their part, the Germans had a successful night. On their way southwards, back to base, the E-boats reported that they were involved in several actions with escorts – Günther Rabe thought with gunboats as well as destroyers. They managed however to return to Cherbourg without any losses. At that time and for many years afterwards, Rabe was of the opinion that they had hit an empty LST heading towards a port of embarkation for the expected invasion. The commander of the 9th Flotilla, Kapitan Zur See Rudolf Peterson was awarded Oakleaves to his Knights Cross for the most successful killing of World War II, on 28 April 1944 in the English Channel. The 9th flotilla’s total was: S-130, 1/2 Kill (shared with S-150), sunk LST 507; S-145, 1 Kill, sunk LST 531; S-150, 1/2 Kill (shared with S-130), sunk LST 507 and 1 Kill, damaged LST 289.