It was three minutes past two in the morning: 28 April, 1944.
|Omaha Beach, 1944. Slapton Sands was nearly|
A flotilla of American ships was approaching Slapton Sands on the Devon coast, a crucial practice exercise in advance of the D-Day landings.
Exercise Tiger was a 300-vessel, 30,000 men dress rehearsal for the biggest amphibious landing in history. It would enable Allied commanders to fine-tune their Normandy battle plan.
Angelo Crapanzano one of those involved in the operation. He was in the engine room of his vessel, named LST 507, when it was unexpectedly rocked by a tremendous explosion.
|LST 289: a wreck, but she didn't sink|
‘I got this sensation of flying up, back, and when I came down I must have bumped my head someplace and must have been out for a few seconds, because I felt cold on my legs,’ he later recalled.
As he recovered consciousness, he realised the ship had been hit by a torpedo. A German naval squadron had encountered the fleet by chance and immediately opened fire.
‘The ship was burning,’ said Crapanzano. ‘[It] was split in half … fire went from the bow all the way back to the wheelhouse.’
The sea also was on fire, because the fuel tanks had ruptured and poured oil into the water.
|Slapton: just like Normandy|
LST 507 was not the only ship to be hit. Crapanzano witnessed another landing ship, LST 531, being attacked. She sank in ten minutes, killing almost everyone on board. A third vessel also burst into flames, another victim of the German ambush.
By about 2.20am, the captain of Crapanzano’s ship realised that she was fatally damaged. ‘The tank deck was burning fiercely…’ recalled Crapanzano, ‘It [was] just like a gas jet stove. And all the heat going up to the top deck.’
Crapanzano braced himself for the 40-foot jump into the sea, hitting the water at high speed and plunging beneath the surface. ‘It was frigid. It was like unbelievable, unbelievable cold.’
|On the day of the practice, they came under heavy fire|
But he didn’t think of the cold for long: he was too busy trying to escape the burning fuel on the water’s surface.
Of the 12 life rafts on the LST, only one had been lowered into the water. It was completely burned, but Crapanzano and 10 others managed to cling to it. They desperately kicked themselves away from the ship so as not to get sucked under when it sank.
Crapanzano witnessed scenes that would haunt him for years. ‘I saw bodies with arms off, heads off, heads split open, you wouldn’t believe what the hell goes on.’
As he flailed around in the water, he was struck by the scale of the catastrophe. Nine German E-boats had struck the Allied fleet as it headed for Slapton Sands. They had attacked hard and fast. Three LSTs were totally crippled and a fourth was badly damaged by friendly fire. The E-boats had got away before the Allies could return fire.
|Survivors from LST 507|
A staggering 638 servicemen were killed in the sudden attack. Yet the Allied landing operation was not abandoned. Instead, the surviving ships pressed on at full speed towards Slapton Sands, leaving the dead and dying in the water.
The beach landings were to prove the setting for the day’s second tragedy. The Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, had ordered that real ammunition be used, so that men would experience actual battlefield conditions. It was a disastrous decision, for the entire exercise was miss-timed. The British cruiser, HMS Hawkins, was shelling the beach as the soldiers stormed ashore, killing a further 308 men.
|Some were not so lucky|
While the practice landings were taking place amidst scenes of carnage, Crapanzano was still struggling to keep alive in the icy water. He was acutely aware of the dangers of hypothermia and tried to keep up the spirits of the 10 men clinging to the raft.
‘I kept saying to them, ‘Don’t fall asleep, whatever you do. If you fall asleep you’re dead.’
But one by one they slid into unconsciousness. Soon Crapanzano and one other man were the only two left.
|D Day: this time it's for real|
They’d been in the water for four-and-a-half hours when Crapanzano noticed a light.
‘I see this light, going up and down, and it seems to be getting bigger. I immediately assume that help is coming.’
Help was indeed at hand. The light came from LST 515, one of the ships that had belatedly returned to sea to search for survivors. The crew were scanning the water when they spotted Crapanzano’s head. At first they thought it was another corpse, but then one of the men saw it move. Crapanzano was still alive.
|At last, a memorial|
He was plucked from the sea, wrapped in blankets and eventually transferred to a Dorset hospital where he made a full recovery.
Only now did he learn the full extent of the Slapton Sands disaster: Exercise Tiger had cost the lives of 946 American servicemen.
All who had been involved in the disaster were sworn to secrecy. It was vital that the Germans knew nothing of the practice landing. The massive loss of life was also highly embarrassing for the Allied high command, who wanted to keep it under wraps.
And so it remained a forgotten episode of the war for many years.
Not until four decades later - in 1984 - was a memorial finally erected in memory of the men who lost their lives in the practice landings for D Day.
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'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail