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Military Blunders!

Spr.Earl

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http://www.thehistorian.co.uk/books.html

This site is dedicated to Military Blunders.


An excerpt from SNAFU:Great American Disasters

Exercise Tiger, 1944

On June 6, 1944 American troops landed on the coast of France at Utah and Omaha beaches, in Normandy. It was the culmination of months of training for what was the most complex military operation in the history of the world. The millions of men-American, British and Commonwealth-who landed on D day, were merely the tip of an operation so vast that the mind struggles to encompass it. The maritime operation to put these men ashore in France involved a total of 1,200 warships, 4,000 landing craft and 1,600 merchant vessels, supported by 11,500 planes and 3,500 gliders. Not everything worked perfectly, of course, but enough worked well to ensure that the operation-Overlord-was a triumph for planners on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet some of the men who went ashore that day were carrying with them a dark secret, one few of them would find it easy to talk about for the rest of their lives.
In their preparations for the landings in Normandy, the U.S. VII Army Corps were stationed in the west of England. At a place named Slapton Sands, in the county of Devon, the Americans had found an area of coastline that closely resembled their destination-code-named Utah Beach-on the French coast north of Carentan. Slapton Sands could therefore be used to accustom the assault troops to the kind of terrain they would be encountering on D day. In the spring of 1944 a number of exercises were carried out, culminating in Exercise Tiger-a full-scale rehearsal for D‘ day itself-to be carried out in late April. But the exercise turned out to be a disaster, and the true horror of Tiger was not simply that four times as many American lives were lost in this exercise than were lost to enemy fire at Utah Beach on D‘ day itself, but that the American authorities chose to draw a veil over the events that occurred at Slapton Sands for over forty years. This disaster was the result of a series of shocking blunders by both American and British officers that could have shaken confidence in the Anglo-American alliance at this crucial moment of the war. To prevent this, a macabre cover-up was staged that prevented the truth of what happened at Slapton Sands on the night of April 27, 1944, from reaching the general public until just a few years ago.
The American troops stationed near Torbay in Devon included many very inexperienced soldiers. And during training exercises at Slapton one of General Dwight D. Eisenhower‘s aides, Harry C. Butcher, had noted about them:

I am concerned over the absence of toughness and alertness of young American officers whom I saw on this trip. They seem to regard the war as one grand maneuver in that they are having a happy time. Many seem as green as growing corn. How will they act in battle and how will they look in three month‘s time?
A good many of the full colonels also give me a pain. They are fat, grey and oldish. Most of them wear the Rainbow Ribbon of the last war and are still fighting it . . .
On the Navy‘s side, our crews are also green . . . I recall that in plain daylight, with a smooth sea with our LCI standing still, she nearly had her stern carried away by a landing craft fitted out as an anti-aircraft ship. We were missed only by inches-in clear daylight.

This was far from reassuring, and the decision was taken-by Eisenhower himself-that in order to make exercises more realistic and to toughen up the men, live ammunition should be used on future exercises, notably in Exercise Tiger, planned for the end of April. This was a severe-but not unusual-step in preparing men for war. Fired over their heads or in front of their feet, live ammunition would provide the "taste" if not the consequences of real enemy fire. Obviously there would be mistakes and some men would be wounded, even killed, on such exercises. But the fundamental mistake that was made at Slapton was not to tell men that their ammunition was live. This was plainly a murderous error on someone‘s part and the results were all too predictable. Troops-careless and relaxed at first on what they thought were just exercises-were horrified to find that men were dying around them and that when they fired their rifles they were sometimes killing other American soldiers. Because of a breakdown in radio communications between ship and shore neither side-defenders on shore nor attackers in the boats-were aware of the "live ammunition" ruling. It was against this background of tragedy and botched staff work that the early exercises-code-named Duck and Beaver-took place, and the date for the final exercise-Tiger-drew near.
The main purpose of Exercise Tiger is explained in this memorandum from SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) :

Exercise Tiger will involve the concentration, marshaling and embarkation of troops in the Torbay-Plymouth area, and a short movement by sea under control of the U.S. Navy, disembarkation with Naval and Air support at Slapton Sands, a beach assault using service ammunition, the securing of a beachhead and a rapid advance inland.

It was intended that the men would be embarked from the same ports and in the same ships that they would use on D day itself and that everything would be as close as possible to the real thing. The one part of the "real thing" that they were not allowing for was the presence of an active enemy.
German E-boats-fast motor-torpedo boats-were a regular threat to Allied shipping in the English Channel and it was routine for the Royal Navy to keep a watch on the French port of Cherbourg, from where they were known to operate. The E-boats were fast and immensely maneuverable vessels, capable of a top speed of over forty knots and able to outrun any destroyer or corvette sent to intercept them. Each carried up to four torpedoes, as well as one 40-mm and three 20-mm guns. So potent a threat did these fast boats pose to troopship convoys that protection against them should have been a top priority in any exercise along the south coast of England. The level of protection that was provided for Exercise Tiger was so feeble that it defies comprehension.
Exercise Tiger began on the evening of April 26 when troops embarked on their LSTs and head out to sea across Lyme Bay. It was known that E-boats were operating in that area and so the Royal Navy had placed an extra patrol of two destroyers and three MTBs across the bay, with another MTB watching Cherbourg for any sign that the E-boats were putting to sea. The first landings-by the 101st Airborne Division-began the next morning and passed without major incident. But the second invasion group-from the U.S. 4th Division-was not to be so fortunate. This second convoy suffered from just about every mishap that could have occurred to it. The Royal Navy had assigned as escorts for the convoy just two vessels, the corvette H.M.S. Azalea and the old destroyer H.M.S. Scimitar, a survivor from the First World War. Against the speed of modern E-boats these two ships would have had their work cut out in any case, but as fate would have it the Scimitar suffered some slight damage in a collision with an American LST and was given permission to go into dock for repairs without being immediately replaced. This blunder was to cost the lives of nearly one thousand American servicemen. The damage to the Scimitar was so slight that had it occurred in combat it would scarcely have been considered worthy of mention. Yet, although the ship was responsible for protecting a convoy of landing craft crowded with troops, it was still considered acceptable to undertake little more than routine repairs. This was a dreadful decision-and a black day for the Royal Navy, that between 1914 and 1918 had supervised the shipment of many millions of British and American servicemen from England to France without the loss of a single life to enemy action. Standards had slipped disastrously, and it was the American GIs who were going to pay.
The errors proliferated. Because of a typing error the American LSTs were operating on a different radio frequency from H.M.S. Azalea, as well as British navy headquarters on shore. Consequently, when German E-boats were spotted after midnight on April 28 only the Azalea got the message, and its commander-assuming that the LSTs had picked up the same message-made no effort to inform the American ships. This was an incredible oversight on his part and was to contribute in no small way to the disaster that was to follow.
But nobody was thinking about disaster as the troops boarded their landing ships at Plymouth at 9:45 A.M. on April 27. It was an exercise, after all, and however realistic they might try to make it there was one element they were not going to introduce and that was a real-life enemy. Commander B.J.Skahill was in charge of the LST group of convoy ‘T-4‘ traveling in LST 515, and would lead the rest of the LSTs in a single column, that would stretch across three miles of sea. It was a large area for a single corvette to protect. Skahill‘s group consisted of his LST, 515, followed by 496, 531 and 58, and off the coast at Brixham they would join up with three others: LSTs 499, 289 and 507. They would proceed at a speed of about four knots, at a distance between ships of about four hundred meters. Near the Eddystone Rocks, south of Plymouth, they were joined by their escort-alarmingly reduced to the single corvette H.M.S. Azalea.
The first sign of trouble was an outbreak of firing at about 1:30 A.M. on April 28 and the American naval crews went to action stations. In fact, they were about to be attacked by a flotilla of nine German E-boats based at Cherbourg, under the command of Lieutenant Günther Rabe, which had broken through the British patrols and now had the American troopships at its mercy. Rabe had left Cherbourg with his flotilla at 10:00 P.M. on April 27 and had headed toward Lyme Bay, encountering no British covering ships, much to his surprise. To his astonishment he found his flotilla in visual contact with the American LSTs, strung out in an inviting way and without adequate protection. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for Rabe and his men.
What happened next is immensely confusing, pieced together as it has had to be from the reports of hundreds of men under fire at sea and in pitched darkness. When the firing began most of the soldiers thought it was just another element in the toughening-up process that had been a feature of the build-up to D day. The colorful tracers in the sky and the explosions were all part of the exercise. One officer told a soldier, "I guess they‘re trying to make it as real as possible." And then the torpedoes began to strike and as men were pitched into the cold and oily sea it soon became only too obvious that this was the real thing. The temperature of the water that night-less than forty five degrees Fahrenheit-rendered many men unconscious from shock when they hit the water or numbed them so much that in minutes they had succumbed to exposure.
In the space of a few minutes after 2.00 A.M. explosions rent the night as LSTs 507, 289 and 531 were hit by torpedoes. At the head of the column, Skahill could only look back at the confused horror behind him. The LSTs were firing back, but at what? Submarines or MTBs? So fast were the German vessels that no precise sighting could be made and LST 496 strafed the decks of LST 511 by mistake, killing and wounding some of the men aboard. It was like a scene from Dante‘s Inferno, with the night illuminated by lines of yellow, blue and white tracer, and explosions erupting all around, with red flames lapping across the sea, now thoroughly covered in oil. To make matters worse some men were already in the water, screaming thinly amidst all the noise and soon slipping beneath the cold surface of Lyme Bay. Inadequate training added a new horror to this dreadful night: the life belts actually drowned the men as they tried to use them. Each soldier in the convoy had been equipped with an inflatable life belt that would be inflated if either of two carbon dioxide capsules was punctured. But the men had not been shown how to wear them correctly. To compound the problem the soldiers were heavily laden for the exercise and carried backpacks. As a result they often wore the life belts around their waist instead of under their armpits. The result was that when they were in the water the lifebelt made them top-heavy and forced their heads back under water. Many bodies were later found, having been drowned in this way-a criminal waste of life. Furthermore, most soldiers later admitted that they had been given no "abandon ship" instructions or procedures to follow. When disaster struck it was every man for himself. Lifeboats could not be launched in many cases because their metal bolts were rusted and they could not be lowered into the sea. In at least one case soldiers shot the bolts away with their rifles.
And the LSTs seemed to be entirely on their own, like sheep bunching together against the attacks of predators. Where was their escort? During this confused phase in the fighting the LSTs received no message from H.M.S. Azalea at all, and the commanders did not know whether to stay together or scatter and try to make their way back to port. LST 499 radioed a distress message to the effect that the convoy had been attacked by submarines, but, although the message was received and acted upon, there was no chance that help could reach the LSTs in time. The Germans, in the meantime, returned to Cherbourg in triumph, having suffered no losses themselves but having completely wrecked their target convoy, sinking two LSTs and killing in the vicinity of a thousand American soldiers.
By the time the convoy leader, LST 515 with Skahill in command, was able to return to the scene of action at the rear of the convoy, there was little to do but lower boats and attempt to rescue survivors. But where was the Azalea? The commander of LST 289 later rightly complained:

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.

Another American officer was very critical of the way the convoy was organized. He felt that the speed adopted-four knots-was far too slow and that the convoy commanders should have been told that tracer fire and explosions were not a part of the exercise, as many suspected, b-ut were in fact enemy fire. And why was such an inadequate escort provided for such an important exercise where the lives of thousands of troops were at risk? This officer summed up his complaints by saying that he frankly had no idea what to do in the event of an attack and felt that there had been a catastrophic breakdown in communications between those organizing the exercise and those taking part. Should anything like this occur on D day itself then very heavy casualties could be expected.
Exercise Tiger had been both a fiasco and a tragedy. But who was responsible for what had gone wrong? The hunt now began for culprits or, if necessary, scapegoats. On the British side there was quite a case to answer. The Royal Navy had been responsible for escorting Convoy T-4 with both the Azalea and the Scimitar-quite a thin cover in the first place-but to have allowed the latter to go into Plymouth dockyard for repairs was surely a terrible mistake. It was admitted by" the Admiralty that Scimitar was perfectly seaworthy for calm sea conditions-which prevailed during the night of April 27-and therefore she should not have been allowed to forgo her duty. In any case, why was a replacement not made available? Apparently news of Scimitar‘s docking did not reach naval headquarters at Plymouth until 11: P.M. on April 27. There, work-overloads and shortage of staff-the perennial cries of the incompetent organization-were used to explain why no alternative vessel was sent to escort the convoy. There were a number of British destroyers in the vicinity that night, including H.M.S. Onslow and H.M.S. Saladin, but neither was close enough to cover the convoy in the event of a German attack. In any case, the corvette Azalea had instructions that in the event of an attack she was not to engage the enemy but to "close the coast," curious instructions in the context of what happened. Nevertheless, she was acting under the orders of American Rea‘r Admiral D. P. Moon, who was the operational commander for Tiger, and he chose not to change her orders in spite of having already received warnings of E-boat action that night. When the German attack took place the convoy was some fifteen miles to the west of Portland Bill and Azalea confined her activity to escorting the six undamaged LSTs toward the shore, before returning to escort the damaged LST, 289, along the coast to Dartmouth. By this time there was nothing that she could have done to help LSTs 507 and 531, that had both gone down.
What is inexplicable is how the operation was allowed to take place in the full knowledge that there was a potent E-boat threat in the area and that the Germans were actually at sea on the night of the April 27. Rear Admiral Moon interviewed the commander of H.M.S. Azalea, Lieutenant Commander Geddes, the day after the disaster. Moon asked Geddes what were his reactions to seeing his fellow escort, Scimitar, leaving station a-nd going into Plymouth for repairs. Geddes replied that he assumed that everything was in order and that some arrangement had been made by Scimitar‘s commander for a replacement. Assumptions of this kind form an important part in the explanation of why Exercise Tiger came to grief. Geddes continued by saying that he took station at the head of the convoy off Brixham. The American ships were in an extraordinarily long single column, stretching across three miles of sea, with Azalea an additional mile ahead. In the event of an attack there was very little that the corvette could have done from her position to intercept the intruders. What is even more difficult to understand than the length of the convoy, the slow speed adopted and the position of the escort, is the fact that throughout the operation there was no radio communication between Azalea and the LSTs because they were operating on different wavelengths. For some reason Geddes chose not to bring his own radio wavelength into conformity with the American vessels. Once the attack had started, Geddes told Moon, he could not decide from which side the E-boats were operating. Had he chosen to go down the wrong side of the convoy-three miles at least in length-he would have been far too late to be effective.
Admiral Moon‘s frustration with Geddes can be seen in the following account of their exchange from Ken Small‘s book, The Forgotten Dead:

Admiral Moon asked him [Geddes] if he thought it was a little strange that he escorted the convoy with only one ship. He replied that he did. So the admiral asked whether he had made any protest against proceeding? "No, sir," replied the British officer . . .
"Did you arrange for radio communication circuits with the commanding officer or the convoy commander?"
"No, sir."
"Did the convoy commander make any arrangements with you before departing port as to radio communications?"
"No, sir, I joined the convoy in position ¡after the convoy came out."
"Would it have been possible for you to have gotten together before and made arrangements?"
"Yes, sir, I think we could have made contact at the conference."

Moon also interviewed Lieutenant Commander Shee, the officer commanding the Scimitar. He asked him about the extent of the damage to his vessel and was told that the Scimitar had suffered a hole "about two feet wide and two feet long . . . about twelve feet above the water line." According to Shee this would not have even reduced his top speed in good weather. Moon asked Shee why he had not sent him a dispatch about the damage and was told, "I didn‘t consider it serious enough to warrant and as I was returning to Plymouth I made the signal as a routine signal to inform them of the damage." So Shee did not consider it important enough to inform Moon that his ship would not be available to carry out its escort duties!
Yet there was no villain-or villainy-in accounting for the disaster that struck exercise Tiger. It was human frailty-the small errors of many people-that combined to make simple mistakes appalling in their consequences. Moon reported his findings to Admiral Leatham at Plymouth and these were passed on to the naval commander of the Western Task Force, Admiral Kirk. But there was no remedy for the fact that 946 American lives had been lost in an unnecessary disaster.
While one group of military men was trying to uncover the reasons for the Tiger fiasco another group was charged with precisely the opposite task: to cover up as far as humanly possible this botched example of Anglo-American cooperation. It was difficult for anyone to look positively on the events of that night, and so poor had combined operations been between the British and the Americans that if the news had broken that nearly 1000 American soldiers had been drowned in a fiasco, Anglo-American relations could have been harmed on the brink of the most important Allied operation of the war. Details of Tiger had to be kept hidden-the dead buried secretly, the wounded whisked away to Wales beyond any possibility of their talking to their fellow GIs. But most worrying of all for the planners at SHAEF was just how much the Germans had learned about allied plans for D day? Included in Exercise Tiger had been about twenty American officers-known as BIGOTs-who were privy to the most detailed information about the timing of D day and the beaches chosen for the landings. This information would have proved so useful to the Germans that SHAEF seriously considered postponing Operation Overlord or choosing new sites for the invasion. However, SHAEF‘s fears were unnecessary because by a quirk of fate all of the bodies of the BIGOT officers were found and the Germans appear never to have seriously considered taking prisoners from the many men bobbing about in the water.
So much had gone wrong with Exercise Tiger that it hardly seemed worthwhile to look for lessons. Surely it could never happen again. Even after the presence of E-boats in the vicinity of the convoy had been confirmed, no warning was given to the escort or to the LST commanders-a curious omission. Radar proved just as useless, only confirming the presence of the E-boats when they were already ten miles within radar range. And for all the sightings by shore plotters indicating that E-boats were operating in the east of Lyme Bay, convoy T-4 was still allowed to sail straight into the path of the E-boats. And when they encountered the German vessels they presented such a sight as the Germans must have dreamed of, strung out across the sea like a series of targets on a rifle range and with just one escort vessel a mile ahead of them. Had there been an escort vessel on both seaward bow and beam the E-boats would have found their task very much harder. Eventually Admiral Leatham accepted responsibility for the inadequate escort cover and admitted that a second naval vessel might have averted the disaster altogether.
 

Michael Dorosh

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The German point of view is well illustrated in some of the official Army reports - the postwar ones include analysis of German documents. Fish around here:

http://www.dnd.ca/hr/dhh/history_archives/engraph/ahq_e.asp?cat=1

Not much to tell from the German standpoint; Brian Loring-Villa does make some interesting comments on his hypothesis that news of the Raid was leaked - and that the German commander may very well have not informed his garrison a raid was coming, in order to test their combat effectiveness.
 
M

MG34

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With ref to EX Tiger,I can see how a convoy could be attacked while on exercise,but the fact that the soldiers on the ground did not realize they had all been issued live ammunition is beyond me,there is no way that it could happen,blank and live are not easily confused both by sight and feel,not too mention the addition of a blank firing attachment on the rifle itself!!!
 

Spr.Earl

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"With ref to EX Tiger,I can see how a convoy could be attacked while on exercise,but the fact that the soldiers on the ground did not realize they had all been issued live ammunition is beyond me,there is no way that it could happen,blank and live are not easily confused both by sight and feel,not too mention the addition of a blank firing attachment on the rifle itself!!!"

These thought‘s also crossed my mined but did they have B.F.A.‘s then?
How much time in did the troop‘s have?
What was the extent of thier training?
Many Troop‘s who arrived in England then only had Basic Training and recieved the more intense training in the U.K.
 
M

MG34

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All semi auto /full auto MGs &rifles require a BFA to operate when using blanks,another method back then was the use of a wooden tipped round and a muzzle device that caught and shredded the wooden bullet before it left the barrel.
Even a soldier who has not had any training other than basic is able to tell live from blank.
In all the other reference for EX Tiger there is no mention at all of friendly fire on the shore,all casaulaties were on 3 LSTs that were sunk and on a british Destroyer that was rammed during the night.In no less than 10 references to the EX I have found there is no mention of any casaulties due to friendly fire on the beach.
 
M

MG34

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The book "THE FORGOTTEN DEAD" by KEN SMALL is acknowledged to be the best researched and accurate account of the events that happened on that night.
 
M

mattoigta

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How the **** could soldier not realise they have been issued live rounds and that they are loading and firing them in their rifles? That makes absolutely no sense.
 

Spr.Earl

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Pte. Scarlino,in my 27yrs in I have seen a many cock up‘s with in the Engineer‘s when it come‘s to ammo issue!Especialy at night and with demolition‘s,it‘s easy to make a mistake.
What were the condition‘s then? etc.

As to Ex Tiger was the cock up in munition‘s issue?Cock up in order‘s?Who know‘s.

I believe there is more to this than has been let on.In the U.K. depending on the military situation secret‘s are held for over a 100yrs.
We are only begining to see what happened over 60yrs ago as the British Government release‘s info as they see fit.
 
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jrhume

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I know next to nothing about Tiger, but it hardly qualifies as a ‘blunder‘. More like the sort of thing that happens to partly trained troops in adverse conditions.

For a true military blunder, try something like the fall of Singapore or the invasion of Pelileu.

I agree with a couple of the posters above -- there‘s no way to actually fire real ammo when you intend to fire blanks without knowing it. A round or two will convince anyone that real bullets are going downrange -- assuming a gun barrel explosion didn‘t announce that fact first. All the blank adapters I‘ve used -- M14 and M60 -- were inserted into the barrel and would have resulted in disaster with live ammo.

Any gas operated automatic weapon that I‘m aware of requires some sort of restriction in the barrel in order to work with blank ammo. Straight blowback types might not require such things, but I can‘t think of anything the US Army might have been using at the time that worked that way -- except the Thompson.

Sounds unlikely.

:)
Jim
 

Spr.Earl

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Yes Jim,it‘s a cunumdrum as to what realy happened back then.
Even to day we don‘t realy know all about Dieppe never mind our part in WW1,only those who come after us in about 100yrs will learn the whole truth.
 
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Bomberman

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Don‘t forget the bolt-actions battle rifles of the time! None of those would have required any type of BFA to fire blanks! If I remember correctly, the old M3 "Grease Gun" SMG operated by blow-back.
 

Spr.Earl

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Bomberman,the U.S. Infantry Soldier at the time was issued with the Gerand Rifle(invented by a Canadian) which was gas operated.
 
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