Operation Tiger: D-Day's Disastrous Rehearsal Before there could be D-Day, there had to be a rehearsal. On April 28, 1944, 30,000 American troops stormed the beaches of Slapton Sands in south England — and it was a complete fiasco.

Operation Tiger: D-Day's Disastrous Rehearsal

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

RAZ: Sixty-eight years ago today, the Allies launched a massive dress rehearsal for the invasion of Normandy, the famous D-Day landings that would happen five weeks later. But that rehearsal turned into one of the war's biggest fiascos. And it took place on Slapton Sands, a beach in southwestern England.

GILES MILTON: And the beaches there are long and they're wide, so it gave the soldiers plenty of opportunity to really experience what it was going to be like, because the beaches in the west of England are almost identical to the beaches in Normandy.

RAZ: That's British historian Giles Milton. He wrote about what was called Operation Tiger on his blog last week. The idea was to get landing boats into the English Channel and then have them simulate a water landing on the beaches of Devon. The man in charge: the great allied commander Dwight Eisenhower.

MILTON: So he wanted to put them out in the rough waters of the channel, have them shaken around, you know, seasickness, everything else that soldiers are prone to. And then the idea was for these ships and tank landing craft involved in this operation, to bring them up toward Slapton Sands where there was going to be shellfire and gunfire so the men were going to land in real battlefield conditions.

RAZ: But to make sure the men would be safe and that the mission would be effective, Allied command had to keep the operation a secret, even from their own men.

PAUL GEROLSTEIN: They told us nothing. They told us absolutely nothing. We didn't know anything.

RAZ: That's 91-year-old Paul Gerolstein. He was a gunner's mate on one of those landing ships, LST 515. Three hundred Allied ships were sent into the English Channel. And around midnight, April 28, 1944, they started to approach the British shores.

MILTON: A German patrol fleet is out in the English Channel. And quite by chance, it picks up on its radar this enormous flotilla of vessels, and dramatically and suddenly launches attacks on some of the easy pickings of this flotilla.

GEROLSTEIN: A flare broke over our head over our ship. I said, oh, my God, we're going to get it. And apparently we didn't. It must have gone under us, see, because LST was a flat-bottom boat. I looked to the stern and I saw LST 531 or 532 get torpedoed.

MILTON: The torpedoes tear into these vessels and literally blow them apart. They all catch fire, and there's complete carnage, pandemonium. Men on fire, tanks on fire, the ship's on fire. And, of course, the ship's starting to sink.

RAZ: The Allied commanders, monitoring from London, ordered all the boats to scatter immediately. They hoped to avoid any more direct hits from the Germans. But that order left hundreds of men floating in the icy sea. Paul Gerolstein's commanding officer refused the order, and he turned his boat back to help rescue the men still in the water.

GEROLSTEIN: And we put cargo nets over the side. I went down the cargo net to the last hole. I put my leg through one and my arm through another one. And as they came by, we'd grab them and pull them onto the net, and they could work their way up.

RAZ: All told, Paul and the rest of the crew managed to save 70 or 80 lives.

GEROLSTEIN: When we got back and then the light broke, you could walk across the dead bodies in the water. There was over 700 of them killed.

RAZ: But that wasn't the end. Many of the ships continued on to the beach at Slapton Sands. Eisenhower had ordered live fire to be used in the rehearsal because he wanted to simulate real-world conditions.

MILTON: Now, the idea was that the shelling would stop very, very shortly before the American soldiers came onshore so that the wreckage of war would still be around. The smells of the war, the sounds, the shell-blasted beach would be there. But there was a terrible mix-up of timings, which meant that as the American soldiers came onto the shore, the British were still shelling the beach, which meant that the Americans came under devastating friendly fire from the British.

RAZ: Within a few minutes, 300 more American troops were dead. Paul Gerolstein helped ferry some of those wounded to a hospital.

GEROLSTEIN: The orders were, in the hospital, you will not ask these men anything. You will not ask them anything. You will just take care of them.

RAZ: By the time it was over, close to 1,000 American troops were killed.

MILTON: It's a staggering figure. And all the more staggering when you realize that more people were killed in the rehearsal for the landing at Utah Beach than were killed in the actual landing at Utah Beach.

RAZ: For nearly 40 years, Operation Tiger remained a secret.

MILTON: Allied Command did not want the bulk of the troops about to risk their lives going over to Normandy knowing that this disaster had unfolded in the west country of England.

RAZ: And Giles Milton says the disaster prompted Allied commanders to order better life preservers, but most importantly to fix their broken system of communication.

MILTON: All radio frequencies between all the different command structures and all the different ships involved in the D-Day landings, all these radio frequencies were standardized so that this miscommunication could never happen on the big day itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's historian Giles Milton. He's the author of "The Boy Who Went to War." Today, on that beach at Slapton Sands, there is a small memorial to the 946 men who lost their lives that day, April 28, 1944, 68 years ago today.

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