Wrecks of US vessels from D-day rehearsal given protected status

At least 749 US servicemen died when landing craft were torpedoed off south coast of England

The chassis and wheels of a truck that sank with one of the landing craft. Photograph: Supplied

Two large US landing craft that were torpedoed and sank with huge loss of life during a secret rehearsal for D-day have been given scheduled protection by the British government.

At least 749 US servicemen died when the vessels, known as LSTs, were attacked by German forces and sank off the south coast of England during a training drill known as Exercise Tiger.

The top-secret exercise in late April 1944 was intended to prepare the troops for the planned nighttime crossing and amphibious assault on the Normandy beaches six weeks later. But the flat-bottomed landing craft, each around 100 metres in length and carrying military vehicles and ammunition as well as hundreds of army and navy personnel, were intercepted by chance by enemy ships.

Almost exactly 76 years after they sank 12 miles from the coast in Lyme Bay, Dorset, the two vessels have been given legal scheduled status, the same designation given to monuments including Stonehenge, at the recommendation of Historic England.

A sonar image of one of the vessels. Photograph: Supplied

Mark Dunkley, a maritime archaeologist at Historic England, said the decision to protect the wrecks had been taken after consultation with the US navy – still their legal owner – and the Ministry of Defence. He said it was an important step “in order to ensure that they are safe from criminal damage, unauthorised interference, but also to keep the memory of those that had lost their lives alive.”

Despite being maritime military graves, the wrecks were previously protected only by a US law that applied to its nationals alone, Dunkley said. As scheduled sites 50 metres deep, they could be monitored by satellite and radar to reduce the risk of large-scale metal theft, he said, but they are still accessible to divers so long as they respect them.

“Despite exploding and sitting on the seabed for 76 years, they are in remarkable condition, archaeology best  and we can see the remains of all of its armaments, the guns that it used to defend itself, its life craft, as well as the remains of its cargo of military vehicles and ammunition.”

Exercise Tiger was part of a series of large-scale D-day rehearsals. American troops trained secretly for the coming landings at Slapton Sands, south Devon, while British and Canadian forces prepared elsewhere. But the interception of the US training flotilla by German E-boats was devastating.

LST-507, carrying nearly 500 US army personnel, trucks and 22 amphibious vehicles as well as live ammunition, was struck in the engine room by a torpedo, which knocked out the ship’s electricity meaning its lifeboats could not be lowered while petrol tanks and ammunition exploded on the stricken vessel.

The other landing-craft, LST-531, was hit twice and burst into a fireball, forcing many onboard to jump into the freezing sea amid burning fuel, while others were trapped below decks as the ship rolled over and sank. Two other vessels were severely damaged in the attack, leading to further loss of life.

The losses were compounded by a friendly-fire incident in which many more died on the beach. The devastating scale of the losses meant details of the incidents remained classified for decades.

“One of the big challenges that the relatives have is knowing exactly which personnel lie within those two landing craft, and I don’t think that’s something we will ever know,” said Dunkley. “But I just hope that having the protection given today on both LSTs provides some comfort to the family that the memory of their ancestors will be memorialised in some way.”

Despite the huge scale of the tragedy, he said, “without the losses of Slapton Sands, D-day would never have been the success it was. Mistakes were made in Exercise Tiger, but in understanding and identifying those mistakes, changes to operational orders were made that allowed D-day to be the success it was.

“So the underlying reason to remember Tiger and other exercises is that those who gave their lives did so to enable D-day to be successful.”

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