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Memorial Day 2014: Remembering the Men of Slapton Sands

on Mon, 05/26/2014 - 20:08

On this Memorial Day, and with the pending 70 year anniversary of the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy, France, I want to highlight the often overlooked sacrifice of those U.S. servicemen killed while preparing for the most famous invasion in modern military history.

In the months leading up to the June 6th Allied invasion of Nazi occupied France the assault divisions went through an intensive training regimen. Needless to say there were many fatal mistakes. But in addition to those standard training accidents one could reasonably expect (including those involving parachute failures, motor vehicle accidents, prematurely exploding ordinance, friendly fire, etc...) one tragic incident in particular rises above all others; the tragedy at Slapton Sands along the coast of Devon, England.

Perhaps most astonishing is that this incident, which occurred amongst the US servicemen preparing to assault the Norman beach the Allies had code named Utah (one of the five D-Day invasion beaches - code named by the Allies as follows; Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword beach), would end up killing more U.S. servicemen than those who perished securing Utah beach on the fateful morning of June 6th.

The Slapton Sands incident (known by some as the Battle of Lyme Bay) occurred on April 28, 1944. On that morning Allied forces were practicing amphibious assaults as part of Exercise TIGER. At 2:00am a convoy of nine LST's were traveling through Lyme Bay approximately twelve miles offshore. The LST convoy was under the immediate guard of HMS Azalea; a corvette that was part of a small Royal Navy task force that also included two destroyers and three motor torpedo boats. Unfortunately one of the British destroyers had been damaged in a collision with one of the LST's and returned to the port of Plymouth for repairs; this left Azalea alone to shepherd along the packed LST's.

The LST (landing ship tank) is a flat bottomed shallow draft amphibious assault ship that can carry a wide range of cargo and actually deposit it directly on a beach (see first or top picture). The Allies (mostly the U.S.) built over one thousand during WWII. There were a number of classes of LST's, with the heaviest weighing in at 4,800 tons and reaching nearly 400 feet in length. Nevertheless, the LST 2 served as the most commonly built class of the war. A fully loaded LST 2 displaced nearly 4,000 tons, was 327 feet long, and had a broad 50 foot wide beam that much as did its peers featured two massive bow doors that opened vertically for disgorging its cargo. The ship could carry over 2,000 tons of tanks, trucks, artillery, munitions, or just about any other cargo (see second picture below) including troops. For defensive purposes the ship was protected with armor plate over one inch thick. In addition each LST mounted a number of weapons, ranging from .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, up to six apiece of 20mm and Bofors 40mm rapid fire cannon, plus one 76mm deck gun. Regardless it was very slow, and woefully vulnerable to torpedoes.

As a result when a force of nine fast, heavy hitting, German torpedo boats led by Korvettenkapitän Bernd Klug slipped across the English Channel the LST convoy faced a potent enemy. Though the German torpedo boats were detected by shadowing Allied ships a warning had not made it to any of the LST's. The German torpedo boats quickly spotted the convoy steaming unaware and in single file. German torpedoes found three LST's, sinking two. Defensive fire drove off the torpedo boats, who streaked away at 40 knots, but the damage had been done. All told nearly 700 U.S. servicemen lost their lives in the attack; including many who drowned in the Channel's frigid waters. For comparison purposes note that a relatively low 197 U.S. servicemen were killed on Utah beach during the actual June 6th invasion of France.

An embarrassed Allied command didn't release the final death toll until August of 1944; and these were lumped in with the actual D-Day casualties. So today I would like you to remember those U.S. service members that not only gave their lives on D-Day (or in World War II as well as those who died in our numerous other wars for that matter), but also those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the months leading up to D-Day.

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