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The D-Day rehearsal that cost 800 lives (2014) (bbc.com)
103 points by smacktoward 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

That is fascinating, especially how the people responsible managed to keep it hushed up for so long.

> The D-Day rehearsal, codenamed Exercise Tiger, was a disaster on a grand scale with the loss of life greater than the actual invasion of Normandy just months later

I am not sure how they did the maths on this. According to the WWII and DDay Foundation [0] 12,000 men died in the air operations in preparation for the landing, and 2,500 Allies troops died during the landing.

I can only thing they mean the proportion of death was higher (death/participants).

[0] https://www.wwiifoundation.org/students/wwii-facts-figures/

> The First U.S. Army, accounting for the first twenty-four hours in Normandy, tabulated 1,465 killed, 1,928 missing, and 6,603 wounded. The after-action report of U.S. VII Corps (ending 1 July) showed 22,119 casualties including 2,811 killed, 5,665 missing, 79 prisoners, and 13,564 wounded, including paratroopers.


So it was actually pretty close: ~800 US troops killed during the rehearsal vs 1465 during the actual landing.

Somehow, from "Saving Private Ryan", I had imagined that the death tole was much greater.

If this interests you, look at the number of casualties in the days after d-day. D-day itself gets commemorated not because it was the highest amount of casualties but because it signified both the resolve of the allied world and the strength of our non-commissioned and junior officers to take charge and lead despite complete chaos. D-day was a massive undertaking so large and risky that just training for it risked enormous casualties (as outlined by the article - the incident mentioned isn’t a secret it has been well documented for a long time). Therefore it was with tremendous risk to execute and the fact that the casualty count wasn’t catastrophic is a testimony to the men on the beach. Another great series is band of brothers which shows how these men self organized and led each other despite not having a predefined blueprint for every scenario. Something we could all learn from - how many of our teams run this way versus needing constant commanding from ‘generals’ and blueprints for every scenario?

You probably need to include most of the missing as part of the death toll. I think KIA are confirmed deaths and a lot of soldiers drowned and had their bodies carried off by the currents, never to be found.

That, and "including paratroopers" suggests a lot of people hit in the air, dropped over water, or killed after landing who might never have been recovered. Wikipedia suggests that the airborne missions in Normandy alone involved 1,000 dead and 4,500 missing, so listing a total death toll of 1,000 would have to be beaches-only.

Wikipedia's number is 4,414 deaths:

> Research under way by the National D-Day Memorial has confirmed 4,414 deaths, of which 2,499 were American and 1,915 were from other nations.


Yes, and the comparison here is just US deaths.

Most of the deaths were on Omaha beach, where US Bombers completely missed their targets. US Bombers hit the farmlands miles inland, instead of the bunkers. In effect: the Bombers of Omaha Beach forgot about momentum and dropped the bombs "over" Omaha Beach (instead of "over the sea", where momentum would carry the bombs to Omaha Beach). IIRC, there were also Paratroopers who were dropped around the bombings, to slow down any reinforcements.

The soldiers on Omaha beach were expecting:

1. Surprise Attack

2. Bomber support

3. Paratroopers preventing reinforcements

#1 and #3 were negated because the Nazis just happened to be holding practice drills at the time and were on the beach anyway. #2 was negated because the bombers missed.

Sometimes, it comes down to luck.

Do you happen to know why the Omaha bombers missed as a group? The failure to 'lead' the target makes sense, I'm wondering why it wasn't individual to planes but systematic for the beach.

My guess would be that the time to drop was called wrong by a flight commander or computed wrong beforehand, rather than assessed individually in each plane, but if you happen to know more I'd be curious.

Good question.

I looked it up, and it seems like the operation was way more complex than I thought (and it already sounded quite complex to me!)

1. The skys were overcast, so the bombers were dropping blind through the clouds.

2. The Omaha-beach bombers erred on the side of caution: they didn't want to release the bombs too early, because that would be "Friendly Fire", hitting the Allied Troops instead.

Its quite possible that the bomber squadron simply all missed because the clouds were just over Omaha beach (but not necessarily over the other beaches).

I'm mostly reading this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omaha_Beach#Pre-landing_bombar...


It sounds like there's widespread agreement that the Naval commanders didn't offer enough battleship bombardment support as well.


So the full set of events are:

1. Bombers missed (clouds blocked their view + worried about friendly fire)

2. Navy commanders made a strategic error, and failed to deploy enough battleship support.

3. Commando Paratroopers failed to stop reinforcements, because reinforcements were already at the Beach holding a training drill.

4. 27 of the 29 amphibious tanks sank due to heavy waves. The landing infantry had to run up-hill in the beach sand into machine guns without any tank-support.

5. Bad waves meant a lot of infantry landed off-target of their initial plan. The amphibious vessels hit a sandbar, meaning many infantry started their journey not on the sands of the beach, but wading in the water 50-feet into the water still.

Pretty much every bad-luck event possible happened on Omaha beach.

You forgot about

4. Support from ambhibious tanks

negated by almost all the tanks at Omaha sinking before reaching shore due to bad wave conditions.

Of the six beaches (2 US, 3 UK and 1 Canadian) Omaha was, I believe, by far the most heaving defended.

Only the one Beach actually had very strong defences the other 5 beaches did not have many initial casualties.

IIRC the main difference was that the Allies failed to take out (with bombings and artillery fire) defenses on Omaha beach as they did on the other beaches.

I've read somewhere that some Allied pilots feared hitting the beaches and so released their bombs late; I don't know how true this is though.

I assume the 12,000 figure includes the paratroopers that were dropped just before the landing? Otherwise I can’t understand how 12,000 airman could die over Normandy German air defenses were strong but not nearly strong enough to inflict such damage considering the size of the allied air force deployed over the European theater at the time.

Tho I’m actually quite surprised by the low number for the actual amphibious landing, but this could not include the push past the initial fortification line.

If they're including the strategic bombing during the run up to D-Day, I could see 12k deaths in the air. They lost over 2000 aircraft during this period. The 8th Air Force alone had 26K casualties in Europe. Add in the losses incurred by the RAF and it doesn't seem unreasonable.

> hushed up for so long

War is the most heavily-propagandized government activity, since most of the population would not support the effort if they knew the whole truth. Just ask around for the average American's impressions of the World Wars, and you will see the lingering results of this propaganda effort via government education and state-approved history curricula.

Indeed, the truth is the first casualty of war.

> That is fascinating, especially how the people responsible managed to keep it hushed up for so long.

I wonder why was this not disclosed right after Germany and Japan capitulated. That seems to be the logical time to disclose such.

As the article says:

”News of what happened remained a secret for a matter of months - the Germans could not find out about it.

Following D-Day, Operation Tiger did appear in reports and the American Army magazine Stars and Stripes.

In terms of the dead, that was a loss of the men's lives, but a bad day in the office for the admirals - it was one tragedy among many.

There was never a cover-up but the story was lost from the public.”

Reading https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/ref/Casualties/Casualti..., ”a bad day” seems a correct description. 5e US had, on average, about 10,000 men killed each month in 1944, or 300 a day, with over 18,000 in December, over 550 a day. That doesn’t make 800 an extreme outlier.

Also, what do you put on the front page as a journalist in a country that has been at war for years: “a hundred soldiers were killed yesterday, but we made progress”, or “three months back, 800 soldiers were killed in an exercise, but we couldn’t tell because it would have endangered the D-day landings”? I don’t think that, after the initial necessary secrecy, the news needed suppression.

Almost all the war defaulted to secrecy. But the war wasn't really over when the Axis capitulated; even as they were surrendering it was clear the next conflict would be with the Soviet Union (and to a lesser extent China), and so the military remained mobilized to a lower degree. Along with the same secrecy mindset. That's why things like Enigma remained secret for so long, as well as a lot of the nastier bits of the war.

> I can only thing they mean the proportion of death was higher (death/participants).

Edited from "deadly" perhaps, which could mean both (absolute and relative).

Still surprised though that the absolutes are so close.

I thought this was going to refer to Operation Smash http://www.bbc.co.uk/dorset/content/articles/2009/05/18/dday... , but that was ten days earlier and not quite as deadly.

Or even https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dieppe_Raid two years previously, which demonstrated all the things that could go wrong with a cross-channel raid at the cost of thousands of lives.

(People would do well to remember that even the successes of WW2 were written in blood, especially when invoking them in a contemporary political context)

Windsor, Ontario, Canada has Dieppe Memorial Gardens, and it had a Lancaster bomber mounted on a pedestal in Jackson Park for decades:


The Lancaster was used to incinerate German cities, and the only clearly superior bomber was the B-29, used to incinerate all of the Japanese cities, save 5 for atomic bomb targets.


Of course, as a child, I had no idea of the solemn significance of any of that.

I always wonder what is keeping the world away from WW3. I guess that nuclear weapons make it too frightening to start any large conflict if it can involve mushroom clouds.

I don't think leaders would really retaliate a nuclear attack, since it always is preferable to de-escalate a nuclear conflict than to escalate it. Mutual assured destruction is something nobody is interested in.

Cold war doctrine was the other way around; it was assumed that once the other side's missiles launched, you were already dead, and the only way to prevent that launch was as strong a commitment to retaliation as possible. Hence the UK deploying its nuclear deterrent at sea, since the UK is small enough that Soviet ICBMs had enough coverage to destroy all military installations on the island several times over. Along with most of the population.

Mutual assured destruction may be the only thing limiting the Kashmir conflict, for example.

The definitive film on this is of course Dr Strangelove.

GP stated:

> I don't think leaders would really retaliate a nuclear attack

This is actually a fairly reasonable assumption, and is a major headache for deterrence - credible threats are hard to make. Cold War policy was designed around discrediting the assumption, but only because it is such a reasonable one. Once the missiles are flying, there is no rational reason to retaliate; and states have an incentive to exaggerate their willingness to retaliate. This is the whole motivation of a branch of deterrence theory called "signaling", whose main study is the way that actors can commit themselves to escalation in a way that is costly to back down from, in order to make an opponent think you're not bluffing. See also madman theory.

This was one reason for the switch from the "massive response" of the Eisenhower years to the "flexible response" of the Kennedy years; it strained credulity that anyone would actually go through with massive response in reaction to minor conflicts. In related policy, the USAF may crack down on nuclear missile crews who are unwilling to fire in the case of a nuclear war, but they're even more paranoid about crews publicly saying they wouldn't pull the trigger.

>Once the missiles are flying, there is no rational reason to retaliate

I've seen this written a lot, but I find it confusing. There certainly seem to be a number of rational reasons to retaliate, even if one wishes to engage in a bit of definition play and claim that simple revenge isn't rational (though in game theory successful strategies must include some degree of retaliation alongside forgiveness).

But on a purely practical basis, one issue is that in reality it appears the most likely outcome of nuclear war isn't "the total extinction of humanity" as so many stories go. Yes many people will die, but there will be lots and lots of survivors as well. They will then have to continue on and rebuild, and hopefully (at least to members of the previous culture in power) that rebuilding will involve some level of the better parts of the old culture. Ie., after nuking a lot of Americans might hope that while a New America would undoubtedly be quite different in some respects and make some new choices that would be better, it'd still have liberty and much of the bill of rights and such remain as ideals.

But however unlikely that is, it would be even harder/impossible if a hostile nuclear power remained completely undamaged, as the last unattacked nation left standing would de facto become the world superpower or even fully conquer everything left. If every hostile is reduced down equivalently in contrast than at least the survivors are on a more even starting point, it won't be whatever can be scrounged together facing a fully operational military industrial complex.

In summary: anyone who'd choose to fire a ton of nukes at you in a first strike (*differing from first use) isn't someone you want to trust to take care of you afterwards. It's rationally arguable that making sure they're left in a recovery state too increases your survivors' chances.

>> It's rationally arguable that making sure they're left in a recovery state too increases your survivors' chances.

But if you are in position to launch the counterattack(say sitting in a missile silo with your hand on the launch button), then once the missiles are on their way to you, you are dead. It might take them 30-60 minutes to actually get there, but you are dead anyway. Absolutely nothing you can do at that point will change that. Retaliating will not improve your current situation. And yes, it might improve the chances of the survivors, but at the same time, you know that if you press that button millions of people will die. I think I'd just leave it at that point.

>But if you are in position to launch the counterattack(say sitting in a missile silo with your hand on the launch button), then once the missiles are on their way to you, you are dead.

Can you explain why you think this is relevant? Military/security personnel accepting their own deaths as part of winning is hardly some alien concept. If you're sitting in a missile silo ready to launch then you will have gone through a lot of training (and/or indoctrination), mental prep, and practice for the event that is hoped to never come and knowing that if it does your life will be one of many gone. In fact, even for civilians if you're guaranteed to be dead anyway but have a few minutes left to make a difference, that could just as easily trigger a "well, might as well spend whatever I've got left trying to take the enemy with me and ensure my side still has a chance" mindset.

Also, thinking out the implications of your argument the moral position appears dubious in other ways. For example, it suggests that it'd be preferable to initiate a first strike, and wipe out all those millions, if you knew that would save your own hide and side vs a second strike after already being attacked in the hope of helping others beyond yourself. And if not that then it ends up "well I wouldn't push it no matter what", in which case you wouldn't be there right? And what if it's not "millions" in for your launch? You need to define how many it's ok to kill, like if your particular silo is aimed at military targets, other silos out in the middle of nowhere. Or does your argument boil down to total pacifism?

>And yes, it might improve the chances of the survivors, but at the same time, you know that if you press that button millions of people will die.

Millions of people will die anyway. Millions of your people. Whereas the millions (or hundreds/dozens, see above, many missiles aren't aimed at cities) you kill by pushing the button will be the millions who were on the side that killed your millions and may well be reasonably expected to then come and finish the job for your millions of survivors [1]. Remember, the argument here is whether there is a rational position in favor of launching. Many debates have multiple fully rational but conflicting positions, nothing wrong with that! But that doesn't mean they aren't all rational in and of themselves.

You can certainly hold the moral position that every life is valuable and that leaving the enemy, no matter how horrid, to profit from mass nuclear attack and take over the world is the right thing to do anyway. I'm just saying that such a position is not the only rational one at all.

>I think I'd just leave it at that point.

I think you wouldn't pass screening to be put into that position in the first place, even assuming you volunteered for it which it doesn't sound like you would. I can't say I'd want to be in that position either, though at the same time I want to be cognizant of my shared responsibility for it as a citizen.


1: At least for America, most of the population is urban, but with a total of over 320 million that still leaves a lot of people in rural areas. Specifically (based on the last census numbers I found) about 97% of the land area of 3.8 million mi^2 is classified as "rural", and it contains about 19% of the population (so about 60 million people). Even in the case of all urban centers being destroyed that's still a lot of people left in absolute terms. It is for example more people than the total national population for the first century of the country's existence (up until around 1890).

>Military/security personnel accepting their own deaths as part of winning is hardly some alien concept.

Sure - on paper. The guy in the field sure as hell doesn't accept his own death. _I Don't Want To Die_ is one of the strongest urges in the human psyche, we, collectively, lionize people who put the needs of others before their own. The armed forces, who as you say spends a lot of time getting people to accept their mortality, and denigrates the individual in favour of the collective's goals, gives out medals to people who do this _because it's really rare_.

>If you're sitting in a missile silo ready to launch then you will have gone through a lot of training (and/or indoctrination), mental prep, and practice for the event that is hoped to never come and knowing that if it does your life will be one of many gone.

At least in the US, the men and women manning the the silos have some of the worst morale in the entire armed forces. Rolling Stone did a bit on this[1]. How happy would you be, stuck in the middle of North Dakota, working shifts in a subterranean hell hole from the 1950s, knowing that your job is to _literally end the world_ and that you are sitting on a bullseye? As you said, these are the people who volunteered, who were screened, who are getting the propaganda shoved down their throats and they're literally killing themselves because of the stress.

[1] https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/are-we-o...

I recall it was mostly because of the installation of the code systems. Originally their morale was among the highest in the military. But when they were turned into drones typing codes, instead of trusted citizen/soldiers with a mission, morale tanked?

Regarding your note on people in rural areas:

Many of our ground-based missile silos are "in rural areas" - a good portion of the midwest would be reduced to a no-go zone for a long time.

>Once the missiles are flying, there is no rational reason to retaliate

Why is that? It appears to me that most humans value getting revenge on an enemy who has harmed them.

Like it was discussed, if you're already dead, why kill your enemy? It's vain and childish, because in this case killing doesn't serve any purpose. Revenge comes from an emotion, that's why I'm saying it's not really rational.

Nuclear weapons are weird, because it's not really designed to kill soldiers, and even if it does, you can't hide from it.

It's an honorless weapon. And remember why it was designed.

>because in this case killing doesn't serve any purpose. Revenge comes from an emotion, that's why I'm saying it's not really rational.

Rationality is a means of achieving a goal. Rationality says nothing about what the ultimate goal should be. If one's system of ethics places value on punishing those who misbehave, then it would be perfectly rational to launch a revenge counterattack. And I think it is quite plausible that humans evolved to behave in accordance with a system of ethics that places value on retributive justice. Viewed from the perspective of game theory, being able to credibly pre-commit to punishing defectors even at one's own expense can be quite helpful in the long run.

Perhaps you think that launching a revenge counterattack is wrong. But I contend that that is a question of ethics, not a question of rationality.

you're being pedantic

I don't think there's value to retributive justice

How does a fail-deadly deterrent factor in?


Supposedly this is real - and likely still in operation.

As long as it's publicly known, it's the perfect deterrent - the equivalent of a famous game theory idea about playing chicken. You and an opponent are driving towards each other, and the first to turn aside loses; a quick way to win is to publicly and conspicuously rip out your steering wheel and throw it out the window.

Making something like that and keeping it secret, though, defeats the point. Note that the Wikipedia article mentions it also for its domestic political purposes - reassuring those who are really committed to the revenge theory of nuclear weapons.

This is one of the reasons the "letter of last resort" the British submarines carry must remain secret. It’s the not knowing which helps keep the balance of peace.


I can't find a source for it, but I'm fairly sure at least two prime ministers have, in their later years, gone on record saying that their instructions were to paraphrase 'don't retaliate'. Edit: Also, Britains nuclear deterrent is quite often out of service for maintenance.

I was under the impression we have a continuous patrol policy and there is always at least one submarine out on patrol.

> Mutual assured destruction may be the only thing limiting the Kashmir conflict, for example.

On the contrary, Kashmir militancy project was started by Pakistan in the late eighties after a botched attempt by the central government in India to rig an election in the state. This was well after the first Indian nuclear tests in 1974. Subsequently, India did another round of nuclear testing 1998 and that too resulted in an attempted stealth invasion of Kargil. So if anything, nuclear weapons have escalated the conflict not the other way around.

Just to be clear, there were always separatist elements in Kashmir, just like there used to be some in Punjab and there still are in Balochistan. But with development and intra-country migration, it becomes hard to sustain a separatist movement and that's why all the other movements in India have all but petered out. It is likely this would've happened in Indian-controlled Kashmir too, given that the valley was largely peaceful after 1948 and until the 1990s.

But a concatenation of unfortunate circumstances -- first the rigged election, then Pakistani arming of the separatists, the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets winding up which meant the ISI and their jihadi cousins-in-arms were looking for a new project, the Indian Army's human rights violations and introduction of AFSPA in the valley, harassment of and violence against Kashmiri Hindus which caused a mass exodus of pro-India elements from the valley, and the western policy of ignoring jihadi violence in Kashmir until 9/11/2001 because they were historically aligned with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia rather than India which was assumed to be in the Russian sphere of influence --- resulted in the conflict blowing up to where it is now.

You'll notice that many of these contributing factors have disappeared and the situation is likely to get better in the next couple of decades.

But it would have happened. The Sovjet Union had developed an automated retaliatory system, named 'Perimeter'. In the case of an alarm, it would have given the government executive the option to flip a switch and activate the system. Or, if there was no signal from the executive anymore and nuclear explosions are detected, the system activates by itself. If the system detects actual nuclear explosions on its territory, the retaliatory strike would be executed.

All this was mediated by command & control ICBMs (i.e. rockets without warheads but with detectors and comms) that the system would launch on warning and by switching the system on, the actual silos would respond to automated commands from these rockets. A system very hard to disable from outside.

The craziest thing about this: The Sovjets didn't even advertise this system existed but it did.

Perimeter is rumored to still be in operation, since Vladimir Putin likes to drop comments from time to time along the lines of 'we will never launch preemptively but retaliation will be swift and certain'.

Edit: typo

Edit2: So this system was created to automatically ensure retaliation even if the Sovjet union was effectively wiped out or if nobody wanted to make the decision to conduct a retaliatory strike while missiles are incoming but haven't hit yet.

It is ironic that Dr. Strangelove predicted it along with even the "pointlessness of having a doomsday device as a deterrent and then not telling anyone".

One of the purposes for Perimeter was to keep the hotheaded generals in check. That is, if the detection system has a glitch, they don’t rush to launch everything, but instead just turn on Perimeter.

I also think it was a large enough system that Western intelligence probably knew about it, but couldn’t publicly acknowledge it, as it might expose the source of their knowledge.

It would absolutely in the Soviet's interest to make sure people know that the weapon exists -- it helps keep them alive! To paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, what's the point of the doomsday device if they don't know you have the doomsday device?

I agree with your assessment that NATO intel probably knew of it, but kept quiet to avoid political drama and keep sources secret.

There's some debate about whether Perimeter was ever deployed, or rejected after some design phases. Also, its reliance on siloed ICBMs to launch communications warheads causes a problem; you have to intermix them with normal missile silos (or they get preferential targeting). And those normal missile silos are also the classic first strike targets.

Also known as "Dead Hand":


> I guess that nuclear weapons make it too frightening to start any large conflict if it can involve mushroom clouds.

You don't need nuclear weapons to want to avoid war.

The cock-up of the destroyer being absent and radio error reminds me of the channel dash https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channel_Dash

This event was also a plot line in an episode of Foyle's War (Series 5 "All Clear").

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