Sailors remember pre-D-Day tragedy

The sands at Slapton in Devon were imprinted with bootprints – 75 years to the day that a D-Day practice landing there turned into a bloodbath.

British and American sailors and troops stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the southwestern shore of Lyme Bay – just as they did in April 1944 – to remember men killed during Exercise Tiger – a tragedy covered up at the time and forgotten for the next 30 or so years.

Practising an assault on a Normandy beach, a force of slow-moving landing ships and craft, laden with troops and their kit, was intercepted by German torpedo boats which caused havoc – chaos compounded by a string of errors or failures on the Allied side (radio problems and the absence of an escorting RN destroyer due to repairs).

Two landing ships were sunk, one was set ablaze, a fourth was damaged by friendly fire.

We are gathered here to remember the legacy of courage that has brought our two great nations together.

Rear Admiral David Manero

Many American troops had not been briefed how to don lifejackets and plunged into the Channel, where they drowned or succumbed to hypothermia.

An estimated 749 men died – their sacrifice marked by an art installation of their bootprints on the sand created by artist Martin Barraud, the man behind the WW1 ‘silhouette Tommy’ statues placed around the country to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great War.

Senior US and UK military officers joined veterans’ groups, reservists from HMS Vivid in Plymouth, locals – whose efforts down the years were instrumental in bringing the tragedy to the public’s attention, including the installation of a Sherman tank as a memorial – and descendants of those who took part in the exercise for a service of commemoration.

Although there is a small number of veterans who took part in Exercise Tiger still with us, none was in good enough health to make the pilgrimage to South Devon.

Laurie Bolton, niece of 19-year-old Sergeant Louis Bolton, spoke on behalf of relatives visiting from America.

“My uncle was on the tank deck of LST 531 during Exercise Tiger when two torpedoes struck them,” she said.

“It feels very rewarding that those who died are being remembered, this was an important event leading up to D Day, and those who survived were told never to speak about this tragedy, even after the war was over.

“We greatly appreciate the Services being here today and showing their support.”

Brigadier Jock Fraser, Naval Regional Commander Wales and Western England, was the senior RN representative at the “poignant commemoration marking the sacrifice made by so many US servicemen 75 years ago.

“It was a particular honour to meet family members of those lost in this tragedy, especially those who have travelled from across the Atlantic to be at Slapton Sands.”

Rear Admiral David Manero, America’s senior defence attaché in the UK said the sands at Slapton were redolent with what happened in April 1944.

“I carry with me an enormous amount of pride in being here and remembering the bravery of the soldiers and sailors who took part in the rehearsal 75 years ago,” he said.

“They came here to these beaches where bravery abound and where this Sherman tank memorial recognises the importance of the role they played in one of the greatest invasions the world has ever seen.

“We are gathered here to remember the legacy of courage that has brought our two great nations together.”