75 Years Ago — 4ID in WWII — Issue #4 — England, Slapton Sands, April 1944 / by Matt King

(this was posted on Facebook on 20 April 2019)

Training continued in England in April 1944. All the 4th Infantry Division (4ID) troops knew that the invasion of France was not if they would do it, but when would they invade. With that understanding, training continued in all aspects of the invasion - naval landing operations, weapons, explosives, medical, communications, support, etc. This would be the largest military operation in history, and the 4ID would be the first division strength seaborne troops to land on French soil.

 

From Swede Henley's Diary, at the time company commander of Cannon Company, 22nd Infantry Regiment:

1-30 April 

Usual garrison duties except for amphibious operation "Tiger" at Slapton Sands. Another one of those screwed up amphibious operations where the Navy starts and the Army finishes it up. 

 

From COL Gerden Johnson's History of the 12th Infantry Regiment in WWII:

It was with great reluctance that Col. Henderson's state of health forced him to relinquish command of the 12th Infantry Regiment. He had contributed much to the regiment...

... the loss of the regimental commander came at a critical time. Into this breach, General Omar N. Bradley stepped in with a request for Col. Russell P. Reeder, Jr.... "Red" Reeder, a former football coach at West Point, brought to the 12th Infantry all the punch and drive that had enabled Army to bowl over its opponents on more peaceful fields and drive over the goal line for the prized touchdown. In a remarkably short space of time, Reeder had met and talked with every officer and enlisted man in the regiment. He instilled in them an unshakable faith in themselves and the 12th Infantry and an unsurmountable determination to overcome whatever obstacles might lie ahead...

Meanwhile, in London, a WAC (Women's Army Corps) PFC from South Dakota was busily working in a locked room, typing the orders for a Top Secret operation called Operation Overlord. She was part of a small contingent of WACs who went from the US to England aboard the USS Queen Mary, along with several thousand Army troops, they to prepare for the invasion, the WACs to join General Eisenhower's staff.

In her book, World War II WAC, which I wrote for her, and published at Deeds Publishing, Helen Kogel Denton describes her job:

"I was assigned to a small office, with a desk, chair, and a manual Royal typewriter. An armed guard stood outside my office and only admitted officers who could present the proper credentials and identification to him. Officers from the Canadian, British, Australian, and US Armies would come in every morning and give me dictation, with my afternoon being spent transcribing my dictation. Every page I typed had to be stamped TOP SECRET, so I knew I was handling extremely confidential material. The name of the project was OVERLORD. I was making three copies of this material and had to use carbon paper (today’s copying machines had not been invented yet). My main concern was not making a mistake, since erasing was very difficult. At times, the British officer would take me to the Admiralty, their headquarters, to pick up special material. All of it concerned the movement of troops and supplies which would be involved in the invasion of France.

"At the end of each day, the guard would come into my office, take the ribbon from my typewriter, all the carbon paper I had used that day, and burned it in the fireplace. One of the officers would pick up the pages I had finished and he was responsible for them after that. I had no idea who handled the pages and never saw them again until I saw them in the binder that was later given to General Eisenhower. My duty was to type it to the best of my ability. I was never asked to retype a page, or make changes, so I assume my work was satisfactory. After the ribbons and carbon paper was burned, and the pages taken away – then I could leave to return to my quarters in the hotel.

"Never did I discuss with my roommate or any of the other girls what I had been working on – nor did they discuss their jobs. It was understood among all of us that we were dealing with highly sensitive and highly classified material. None of us had a “need to know” what the others in our group were doing. We were well indoctrinated with the motto “Loose Lips Sink Ships!” Never would any of us divulge to anyone what our jobs were – and I never talked about it until just before the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day landing (that was 1994 before she talked about it).  All we knew and cared was that we were helping the war effort."   


From the 4ID Yearbook published in 1946:

Our first casualties from enemy action were sustained in the course of the final rehearsal when E-boats hit under cover of darkness. So, too, our first German prisoner was captured during the final preparation - an enemy airman who bailed out of a plane which was shot down over the assembly area.

Following is a story from my book War Stories: Utah Beach to Pleiku:

Thomas A. Welstead, Bal Harbor, FL - HQ, 4th Infantry Division


Tragedy at Sea

58420247_10157281182687915_6270391070903762944_n (1).jpg

Not all of you may know that Slapton Sands was the site of a major tragedy in the preparation for the D-Day invasion. Early on, it was determined by our military leaders that the best way to prepare for an invasion was to find a place that resembled the coast of France and use it for real live combat. The coast at Slapton Sands was almost an exact duplicate of what was to be called Utah Beach. Utah Beach would be assaulted by the 4ID. In order to make the practices realistic, the beach and inland for twenty-five miles had to be evacuated by every living person, including all their possessions. There were some eight small villages in the evacuation area - villages like Torcross, Sherford, and Chillington. Within six weeks, three thousand people had to leave.

Those who lived in this rural farm area traveled very little. Some of the inhabitants had never left their village. When ordered to leave, many of them were lost, since in addition to their unfamiliarity with the area, the government had taken down all road and direction signs. No need to help the enemy if they invaded. These people withstood continuous enemy bombing, incendiary bombs, and bombs with land mines. Now they would have to leave everything - few would return.

The tragedy of Slapton Sands was an operation called "Tiger". The 4th Infantry Division, with its attached units, would assault Slapton Sands as though it was the shore of Normandy, France. Every detail centered on making it as realistic as one could imagine. The invasion would include air bombardment and naval gunfire. "Tiger" was the major pre-invasion exercise and was so realistic that many believed it was the actual invasion itself.

On April 27, 1944, eight LSTs left the Plymouth embarkation area - destination Slapton Sands. Three of these ships would not come back and a fourth struggled to stay afloat. On the morning of April 28, at 0130 hours, all hell broke loose. The convoy was under attack by German E-Boats using torpedoes and surface guns. E-Boats travel at speeds up to 40 knots; LSTs can get up to 8 knots. The confusion aboard those tightly packed ships was enormous. Men were in full battle gear, including gas masks and life preservers, climbing up the ladders and then back down as the captain tried to guess what kind of boats were firing at each other... E-Boats or U-Boats? The panic and helplessness were indescribable.

As dawn broke on the morning of April 28, the sea of bodies floating in the water (many upside down) was a sight made for no man to endure. Life preservers around the waist instead of under the arms turned many upside down. The freezing water was no help. Operation Tiger took the lives of 946 servicemen, 749 Army and 197 Navy.

How could such a fiasco happen? Only two vessels were assigned to accompany this convoy: a corvette, the HMS Azalea, and a World War I destroyer, the HMS Scimitar. The Scimitar suffered minor damage in a previous collision and its replacement came to the scene too late. Further, due to a typographical error in the orders, the American LSTs were on a radio frequency different from the corvette and the British naval headquarters ashore. In essence, eight LSTs with highly trained soldiers of the 4ID and its attached units, not to mention the naval personnel, were literally sitting ducks for the German E-Boats. For reasons deemed best by the Allied High Command, the disaster of Operation Tiger would remain a secret.        

Largely due to one man who was thirteen years old when Operation TIger took place, the secret was finally broken. Ken Small was born in the little town of Hull - a town that received regular bombing raids of every variety. His beach-combing activities and curiosity led him to conclude that something terrible had happened the night of April 27, and on the morning of April 28. After years of research and investigation, he wrote and published a book called The Forgotten Dead. Thus, the secret was uncovered. On May 31, 1994, Ken Small would participate in the dedication of a bronze relief plaque commemorating those who perished in the sea.

(The majority of those killed were supporting troops, not troops of the 4ID. But any casualty is a major loss).

 

Operation Tiger was kept secret until long after the war was over. Those 946 casualties were included in the June 1944 casualty reports the Army issued, after D-Day. Sadly, that level of security would not survive in this day and age. If you want to read more about the Slapton Sands disaster, you can order Ken Small's book, The Forgotten Dead, on Amazon - available in Kindle and used hard cover and paperback formats.

Stay tuned and in May we'll have our last monthly Issue before starting into weekly updates in June. D-Day and the start of the 4IDs fight across Fortress Europe are roughly a month and a half away. Training for 4ID in England continues at a high level... And as always, feel free to share this posting with your friends.

For those celebrating Easter this weekend, rather than a simple Happy Easter, how about saying HE IS RISEN! This is the most important event in our Christian beliefs.

*****

Editor’s note: All the pictures below are various scenes from the 4ID Slapton Sands training exercise in April 1944. The tank picture is a Sherman tank pulled from the ocean in the 1990s and now standing as a permanent monument to all the Soldiers and Sailors lost on that training exercise. Note the explosion picture; they were taking out barbed wire obstacles - getting ready for the real thing on D-Day, about six weeks from now.

 
57277809_10157281184277915_819666402175614976_n.jpg


Steadfast and Loyal,
Bob Babcock, 4IDA Historian and Past President