County soldier’s fate shrouded in mystery
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In terms of lives lost, Operation Tiger was the costliest training exercise in all of World War II. Of those 749 who perished shortly after midnight on April 28, 1944, one left behind a wife and 13-month-old daughter here in Ringgold County.
Army Private Ivan J. Brown of Redding died in the icy waters off the coast of England that night. However, it wasn’t until August after the D-Day invasion in June, his widow Iris and daughter Cathy, whom he had seen only once before his deployment, learned their husband and father had been killed in action. Amazingly, however, it wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that they were made aware of the details of his fate in Operation Tiger.
According to records compiled by the US Army Quartermaster Museum and the Exercise Tiger National Association, one convoy of the operation consisted of eight LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) en route to the landing area at Slapton Sands, England. The location had been chosen because the beach looked similar to those at Normandy code-named Utah and Omaha.
The LSTs carried support personnel for the infantry, airborne, and field artillery units already ashore. Included in that group was Brown’s 3206th Quartermaster Company, whose planned mission on D-Day was to come ashore to bury the dead. Other units included combat support trucks and personnel from the Army’s engineer, signal, medical, and chemical corps.
Attracted by heavier than normal Allied radio chatter, a group of four German torpedo boats patrolling the English Channel encountered the three-mile long convoy. Equipped with multiple torpedoes as well as 20 mm and 40 mm guns, the sleek, fast 35-meter-long German vessels open fire about 1:30 a.m. on the severely outgunned LSTs.
Ironically, LSTs were considered immune to torpedo attacks by submarines because of their shallow drafts. The same was not true from surface-launched torpedoes.
At 2:17 a.m., LST 531 is torpedoed and sinks within six minutes. Of the 496 soldiers and sailors aboard, 424 died, including Brown and 201 others from the 3206th Quartermaster Company.
Besides torpedo attacks, the Germans continued to strafe the decks of the LSTs with machine guns and fired upon men who had jumped into the water.
Two LSTs radio for help, but the calls initially went unanswered because radio stations along the coast were unaware of the top-secret operation underway a short distance offshore. Finally, one operator recognized the word “T-4”, the staging number for the LST convoy, and Navy vessels scrambled to answer the call.
By 2:40 a.m. two LSTs had been sunk and a third crippled. Of the 4,000-man force, nearly one-fourth were missing or killed with another 300 either injured or suffering from severe exposure. The deaths of 551 US Army personnel and 198 from the U.S. Navy were eventually confirmed, making Operation Tiger the costliest battle to US forces at that point in the war after Pearl Harbor. In fact, the loss of life was greater than that later suffered by the assault troops during the initial D-Day attack on Utah Beach.
Because they feared the Germans might learn of the Operation Tiger disaster and go on high alert for an impending invasion, Allied commanders ordered an immediate communication blackout. Surviving soldiers and sailors were ordered not to speak about the incident.
The first official US government acknowledgment of the Operation Tiger disaster came in November 1987 when a plaque was placed in Norcross, England listing the names of all who perished in the incident.
In June 1988, Iris and Cathy received a letter inviting their family to a gathering in Perry, Kansas hosted by Evelyn Brannock, whose brother had been killed in the operation. Over 100 people attended the event, including a US military officer who provided details of the operation and its fate.
Also attending was Englishman Ken Small, who ran a guesthouse less than a mile from the Slapton Sands location. In his 1988 book, The Forgotten Dead, Small chronicles his first knowledge of the operation and his subsequent crusade to honor the fallen and shed light on the incident.
As beachcombing was Small’s main hobby, he said after a strong storm had passed, he began to find cartridge cases, live shells, shrapnel, military buttons and other military artifacts along the beach near his home. He also knew the American government had erected a plaque in 1954 in a nearby town thanking the villagers in the area for having evacuated their homes to make way for a practice landing exercise. These combined facts spurred Small to further research Operation Tiger.
During his research in the early 1970s, Small found a local fisherman who told him about a large object about three quarters of a mile offshore in 60 feet of water upon which trawlers had been snagging their nets for many years.
Small contracted divers who discovered an intact Sherman tank, and after years of wrangling with the US government and wading through miles of red tape, Small purchased the tank for $50. In 1984 – the 40th anniversary of D-Day – he raised the tank to the surface and, parking it at a crossroads near Slapton Sands, established a lasting memorial to those lost in Operation Tiger.
In 2005 Cathy Ward visited the memorial as well as the Cambridge American Cemetery, which is one of 14 permanent military cemetery memorials established on foreign soil by the American Battle Monuments Commission to honor the dead and missing in action of World War II.
Her father’s name is enshrined on a plaque honoring American lives lost during the war, including those from Operation Tiger.
This past May, Cathy Ward completed her second visit to the Cambridge American Cemetery, On this trip she participated in a special Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery where she presented a floral arrangement in honor of the father she had never known – Pvt. Ivan J. Brown.