The Night of the Bloody Tiger

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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How do you win a massive, terrible war? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: lots of practice. You drill and drill and drill until you get to a point where everyone can do their jobs without having to think too hard on the spot. By doing this, you hopefully eliminate unforeseen variables, and that gives you more control over a chaotic situation. The D-Day landing of the invasion of Normandy in 1944 was a chaotic situation.

It was also part of a big, secret plan (Operation Overlord), which meant the US military had to practice in secret so they could work out the plan’s kinks on a dry run. So far: cool.

But things didn’t go so cool. That dry run turned wetter than expected when it was crashed by a German Kriegsmarine patrol. By the end of the “training” exercise, 749 Allied soldiers and sailors were lost—all  under a death shroud of secrecy, lest the Axis powers learn of the planned Allied invasion. 1

Frogboys with Guns

It was 1943, and England was serving as the launch point for the Allies to invade Europe via Normandy, on occupied France’s northern coastline. That meant lots and lots of training exercises were being conducted in England in the lead-up.

Some early landers during Exercise Tiger, before the German attack.

The training for the American soldiers in England had to focus on two key things: For one, these men were expected to land the biggest amphibious assault in history, so they had to at least get their sea legs first. The other thing was that the Americans entered combat for World War II pretty late. The war started in Europe in 1939, meaning that the Germans guarding Normandy had more live combat experience than the Americans who would be attacking them.

Like, a lot more. For example, the US 29th Infantry “Blue and the Gray” Division was comprised of 15,000 men who would be landing at Omaha Beach. Only five of those guys had ever been under live fire. Chances are a lot of them weren’t wildly comfortable at sea, either.

Given these concerning factors, the Americans needed their amphibious training, and they needed to practice with all the weight of live ammunition and fuel. The training needed to be as much like the real thing as possible. Unfortunately, it was destined to get realer than anyone expected. 2

Stress Test

Full-scale practice landings began in England in early 1944. With just over a month before the landing would happen on June 6, Exercise Tiger began.

It was April 26, and thousands of Americans were set to disembark for a mock landing at Slapton—a village with a beach similar to Utah Beach, where these troops would be landing in Normandy. 3

Here are some of the more important logistics: Taking part in the exercise were some 23,000 men, many of whom were laden with full combat gear below decks with their tanks, trucks, jeeps, and weapons. These vehicles were, in turn, fully fueled and loaded with live ammo since this was a full dress rehearsal. Everything was just as heavy as it would need to be for the invasion.

Tanks landing on the beach. You can see one of the massive troop and vehicle carriers in the background. These were the craft sunk by the German E-boats.

The “assault” was to come in waves, and each wave of American troops and vehicles would arrive at the beach via landing craft packed to the gills with 300 men and 60 vehicles. The first wave made it to Slapton beach and encountered simulated machine gun fire and fake corpses—this was part of the plan. Not part of the plan: a mess of logistical problems caused, more or less, by failures in communication between all the moving parts.

As the first wave scrambled ashore, the second and third assault waves were preparing, loading into their own landing craft. The British Royal Navy, meanwhile, was tasked with protecting the American landers for the exercise. This, too, got all bungled up when the Brits gave the Americans the wrong radio frequencies, killing communications between the allies. So, when one British destroyer needed to bail and head home for repairs, nobody told the Americans that they were now unprotected at the rear.

Brass tacks: Exercise Tiger was a mess from the start, and the American landing craft were left vulnerable to enemy attack. Good thing it was just a drill, then. 4

Germans Arrive, Practice Canceled

With the drill already falling apart under the weight of its own logistics, the war game wasn’t going so well. What the Allies didn’t know was that a patrol of nine German E-boats (fast, torpedo-armed patrol craft) was making their way through the same tract of sea. The German sailors weren’t drilling—they immediately charged the Allied landing craft, firing green tracer rounds and launching torpedoes.

It was total chaos as two torpedoes from one of the E-boats burst into one of the Allied landing craft. As the crafted erupted and began to sink, the fuel from the vehicles aboard the craft ignited, causing the craft’s deck and the surface of the water to burn. Worse still: an earlier order for radio silence meant that the Allied craft couldn’t communicate.

Fifteen minutes later, another of the Allied landing craft was struck by two torpedoes from another pair of E-boats. A massive explosion launched men and equipment into the burning water.

Caught by surprise by a nebulous, hard-to-detect enemy, and without communication, the Germans picked the Allies apart. Amid the confusion, the Allies fired blindly, sometimes hitting their own ships.

Other Allied troops weren’t even aware that this wasn’t part of the exercise. They figured the explosions were a part of the immersion, and didn’t even know they had been issued live ammunition. Usually, when your forces are under attack, you expect them to know two things: that the attack is real, and that they can shoot back. And for those who did know they had live rounds and that this wasn’t a drill, they were just as likely to fire erroneously at their own comrades, rather than the black-painted German E-boats screaming through the dark of night.

In the wee hours of the morning, another landing craft took a torpedo to the stern, but managed to stay afloat. A Royal Navy destroyer, figuring “better late than never” raced to the scene, but couldn’t keep track of the evasive E-boats.

LST 289, in harbor after being hit in the stern by a German torpedo.

Finally, by 3:30 in the morning of April 28, Exercise Tiger’s commander ordered his six surviving landing craft to head back to port, picking up 45 survivors along the way. 5

This Never Happened, Got It?

The next day, the Allies took stock of the damage. All told, some 441 Army and 198 Navy personnel were dead, with another 110  determined to be missing or killed. Many of these drowned or froze in the Channel. Their packs were too bulky and heavy, and forced many soldiers to wear their life vest around their waists. When they hit the water, the vests and gear forced them to float upside down, their heads beneath the waves.

The American military hadn’t lost this many lives in a single incident since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. For its drastic and unexpected loss of life, the encounter became known as the “Night of the Bloody Tiger.”

Of course, this was all unofficial. Officially, none of this happened. It was absolutely paramount that the Germans not know the Allies’ D-Day plans. Any personnel that had taken part in the ill-fated training exercise was instructed to keep f**king mum about it. Survivors were quarantined in sealed camps, and threatened with court martials. According to one survivor, they weren’t even allowed to talk to the cooks while waiting on the mess line.

Of great concern was the fact that around 10 officers with “BIGOT” status were missing. BIGOT, of course, was the term used for personnel who had elevated security clearance, and would know of top-level D-Day plans. A weird choice for a name, but I guess optics aren’t a concern when you’re aiming for top secrecy.

LST 289, again. That’s what a torpedo does to a ship stern, if you were wondering. This was supposed to be a drill.

The fear was that the Germans may have captured some of these men alive, and extracted valuable information, jeopardizing Operation Overlord. Luckily for the Allies, navy divers collected dog tags and determined all 10 BIGOT officers were indeed dead. It’s a shitty situation when it’s “lucky” that all your men are dead, rather than captured, but there it is.

The Exercise Tiger incident remained unreported until a few weeks after D-Day, when the information was no longer a risk to the plan. Further, the event was far from a boon for morale in the field and at home. It revealed glaring weaknesses in the Americans’ readiness and preparation, but was also damning of the Royal Navy, who arguably made the biggest key mistakes, providing the Americans with the wrong radio frequencies, causing the communications failures.

There’s a lot to learn from the Night of the Bloody Tiger. Communication and preparation are big lessons, of course. But the bigger one is this: much of the sacrifice made in war is not glorious: it is often hidden or unknown, divorced from patriotism or glory, or even from knowing what the f**k is going on, that you were even issued live ammunition, and that this isn’t a drill.

Food for thought, as the world begins disassembling the multilateral partnerships put together by our war-battered grandparents.

 

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Hull, Michael. 2018, June 8). Night of the Bloody Tiger: German Raid on a D-Day Exercise. Retrieved from https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/night-of-the-bloody-tiger-german-raid-on-a-d-day-exercise/
  2. Hull, Michael. 2018, June 8). Night of the Bloody Tiger: German Raid on a D-Day Exercise. Retrieved from https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/night-of-the-bloody-tiger-german-raid-on-a-d-day-exercise/
  3. Exercise Tiger Memorial. (Accessed November 12, 2018). The Story of Exercise Tiger. Retrieved from http://www.exercisetigermemorial.co.uk/story-exercise-tiger
  4. Hull, Michael. 2018, June 8). Night of the Bloody Tiger: German Raid on a D-Day Exercise. Retrieved from https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/night-of-the-bloody-tiger-german-raid-on-a-d-day-exercise/
  5. Hull, Michael. 2018, June 8). Night of the Bloody Tiger: German Raid on a D-Day Exercise. Retrieved from https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/night-of-the-bloody-tiger-german-raid-on-a-d-day-exercise/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Exercise Tiger Memorial. (Accessed November 12, 2018). The Story of Exercise Tiger. Retrieved from http://www.exercisetigermemorial.co.uk/story-exercise-tiger
  • History on the Net. (Access November 12, 2018). D-Day Casualties: Total Axis and Allied Numbers. Retrieved from https://www.historyonthenet.com/d-day-casualties
  • Hull, Michael. 2018, June 8). Night of the Bloody Tiger: German Raid on a D-Day Exercise. Retrieved from https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/night-of-the-bloody-tiger-german-raid-on-a-d-day-exercise/
  • Jones, Claire. (2014, May 30). The D-Day rehearsal that cost 800 lives. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-devon-27185893

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