Operation Tiger was a man-killer – Manasota Key man participated in mock invasion that killed 749 American GIs

Operation Tiger was supposed to be a dry run, a dress rehearsal for the D-Day Invasion during World War II a few weeks away. What it turned out to be was a disaster for the Allied troops that has been covered up for almost 60 years.

In the middle of it all was former Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Art Nicholas of Manasota Key, Fla.. He was serving aboard LST-52, converted to a hospital ship for the imminent invasion of Normandy.

The Germans got wind of the dry run the Allies were planning along the southern coast of England at Slapton Sands. Some 30,000 troops and 300 ships took part in the exercise. A squadron of E-Boats — German torpedo boats — was dispatched at night to play havoc with the mock invasion.

When daylight came, 749 GIs were dead and 2,000 wounded. The dead and injured were mostly from the 4th Infantry Division, 279th Combat Engineers and the 70th Tank Battalion. Hundreds of telegrams were sent by the War Department to loved ones all around the United States saying their sons had been “killed in action in the English Channel.” No further details were ever provided, according to The Independent, an English newspaper.

The enemy’s fast torpedo boats sunk three ships with hundreds of soldiers aboard that were taking part in the war games. Possibly more damaging during the night’s confusing beach landing was the decision to let the troops use live ammunition. When the shooting started, American soldiers ended up shooting each other in the confusion.

Scores more drowned by jumping off ships into deep water wearing full field packs.

“The sad thing was the soldiers weren’t prepared for any of this,” recalled Nicholas, 79. “They had their helmets strapped under their chins and their packs on their backs. When they jumped over the side, they broke their necks.”

Witnessing the debacle were Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower, 1st Army Commander Gen. Omar Bradley and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, according to The Independent’s story. They covered it up, the paper said.

The soldiers who survived Operation Tiger were sworn to secrecy about the flawed landing operation for the rest of their lives. They were threatened with prison if they opened their mouths on the subject.

“It was the best-kept secret during World War II,” Nicholas said.

The break

It wasn’t until the late 1980s when Ken Small, a retired police officer and guest-house owner in Devon, heard stories about commercial fishermen getting their nets tangled on an American tank from World War II a mile or so offshore that the story surfaced piece by piece when he started investigating.

What he discovered in the U.S. archives through the Freedom of Information Act was a disaster that had been covered up for decades.

Before he was finished probing, Small purchased the old, rusty Sherman tank from the U.S. government for $50. He spent 16,000 pounds bring it to the surface and used it as a centerpiece for a memorial to the dead who participated in Operation Tiger.

The UDT

Nicholas was a “frogman” before there were frogmen. He attended amphibious forces training at Little Creek, Va. The sailor became a “scout and raider,” the forerunners of the underwater demolition teams and today’s Navy Seals.

He took part in the invasion of North Africa in November 1942 as a member of the amphibious forces that hit the beach in advance of the main landing.

“We identified the landing beaches in North Africa and checked ’em out,” Nicholas said. “The Germans sank a couple of our ships off the coast, but the shooting didn’t last very long.”

Nicholas and his two buddies flanking him were sent to the Florida Keys in 1943 to test an amphibious landing craft called a Dukw. Photo provided

Nicholas and his two buddies flanking him were sent to the Florida Keys in 1943 to test an amphibious landing craft called a DUKW. Photo provided

Frogman school

He returned to the States after the North African invasion and was assigned to what would eventually become the Fort Pierce Amphibious Training Station for the UDT.

“In January 1943 I went to Fort Pierce where we established the frogman school on Hutchinson Island. It was nothing but jungle. It was our job to clean that whole place out and establish the school,” Nicholas recalled. “We weren’t very sophisticated. We didn’t have fins and we swam in blue Navy jumpsuits with inflation belts around our waists. If you squeezed the CO2 tubes in the belts they would help keep you buoyant. They did issue us a sheath knife.”

It was during this period Nicholas and two buddies got a special assignment to take three new troop-moving amphibious vehicles called “Dukws” to the Florida Keys. They were ungainly contraptions that looked like boats on wheels. They could roll off a landing craft into the sea, motor into the beach like a boat with a propeller, climb onto land on big, soft, spongy wheels and drive off.

“We took the three Dukws to the Atlantic side of one of the keys and did our best to destroy them. They also wanted to see how well the tires will hold up on coral,” Nicholas recalled. “At the end of three weeks we had done everything we could think of to break them, but we hadn’t done much to the Dukws. They were good vehicles.”

He returned to Fort Pierce and continued working as an instructor at the UDT school until September 1943, when he told his boss he wanted to do something new and asked for a transfer. He ended up aboard a football field-length LST headed for England. These were transport ships that formed the backbone of the Army’s transportation chain in the war area. They carted everything imaginable to the front.

Nicholas was serving as boatswain’s mate 1st class aboard LST-52 when it was involved in the Slapton Sands mock landing in April 1944. After that debacle, he and his ship took part in the real thing.

Gold Beach

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, LST-52, now converted to a hospital ship, was involved in the landing of Canadian troops on Gold Beach along the coast of Normandy.

“We went into the invasion beach with 25 six-by-sixes (Army trucks), ammunition, gasoline, 12 Sherman tanks and 23 howitzers,” Nicholas said. “We left Gold Beach with upward of 200 stretcher cases headed for hospitals in England.

“Gold Beach was a much easier landing, as far as enemy resistance was concerned, than Omaha or Utah beaches where the American troops landed. My last two trips to Normandy were to Omaha, where we brought equipment and supplies into the beach and took out boatloads of wounded once more,” he said.

The collision

On Nicholas’ third trip back to England, LST-52 collided with another ship at night in the middle of the English Channel.

“Everyone was running to get to general quarters after the collision. I kicked a 40 mm anti-aircraft shell that was rolling around on the deck. It exploded, and shrapnel from the explosion hit me in the face,” Nicholas said.

He spent the next three weeks in a hospital in England recovering from his wounds. He was transferred to a new post as chief master at arms at the naval supply depot at Weymouth, England.

It was there he met his future wife, Hazel. Her folks owned a pub and hotel in the historic old seaport.

The end

One of Nicholas’ last official duties at the close of World War II was to take part in the formal surrender of a German submarine, U-249, in England’s Weymouth Harbor a couple of days after VE-Day.

“I was part of the boarding party that went aboard the U-boat to accept the surrender of the crew,” he said. “The crew was composed mostly of sickly looking teen-agers. There was no food aboard, and they were scared to death.”

Hazel Nicholas shows her husband, Art, a poster she is making to commemorate his life. It's for his 80th birthday which is Feb. 15. He was a "frogman" and boatswain's mate in the Navy in World War II. Sun photo by Don Moore

Hazel Nicholas shows her husband, Art, a poster she is making to commemorate his life. It’s for his 80th birthday which is Feb. 15. He was a “frogman” and boatswain’s mate in the Navy in World War II. Sun photo by Don Moore

His commendations

Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Art Nicholas received the Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal, European Theater of Operations Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2003 and is republished with permission.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

Read about Nicholas’ 2009 visit to Normandy by clicking here.

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