That morning, convoy T45 had left Plymouth for Lyme Bay as a preliminary to Operation Tiger, a US exercise intended to be a rehearsal for the forthcoming D-Day landings on Utah Beach. The exercise was to be conducted on Slapton Sands, near Dartmouth. As part of the exercise programme, the convoy’s primary purpose was to carry US tanks and men for Red Beach. It was led by the escort corvette HMS Azalea, followed by LST 515 and, at 700-yard intervals, LSTs 496, 511, 531 and 58 (towing two pontoon causeways).
The WW1 Destroyer HMS Scimitar should have been on station as the main escort but had been holed above the waterline in a minor collision the day before and had been kept in Plymouth for repairs. The Naval HQ in Plymouth had not been informed of this and, as a consequence, no replacement vessel was provided. This breakdown in communication did not become clear until the early evening when the Captain of Scimitar realised what had happened and alerted the staff at Flag Officer Plymouth, whereupon HMS Saladin was immediately detailed as relief escort. Unfortunately, she did not get under way for Start Bay until well after midnight. Nevertheless, interference from S-Boote had been anticipated. Units were positioned between Start Point and Portland Bill to screen the operation in Lyme Bay and three MTBs were positioned off Cherbourg.
Having been alerted by the earlier Lufwaffe report, however, all this activity had also attracted the attention of German shore-based surveillance systems and, as soon as it was completely dark (at about 2100 hours GMT) the 5th and 9th Schnellboot Flotillas, comprising six and three boats respectively, slipped out of Cherbourg. They evaded the small covering force of MTBs without difficulty and then, steaming at 36 knots under radio silence, soon covered the 90-odd nautical miles to the Northwest to break through the outer defensive screen across Lyme Bay.
Meanwhile, the slow-moving convoy had been joined by a column from Brixham comprising LSTs 499, 289 and 507 (508 had failed to make the rendezvous). By this time, the convoy was west of Tor Bay and steering NNW before executing a complicated manoeuvre for the final approach to Slapton Sands.
From his HQ on the French mainland, Kapitan zur See Petersen radioed the bearing of a possible target at 2317 hours and the E-boats of the 5th Flotilla split up into pairs to stalk their prey. Positive identification of targets was difficult, if not impossible and they moved slowly and quietly at first in order to retain surprise. After some time, at about 1.30 am, S-136 and S-138 spotted two "destroyers" at a range of 2000 metres and closed at speed. S-138 fired a double torpedo salvo at the stern of the right-hand ship and S-136 fired single torpedoes at the other. After a short interval, S-138 saw an explosion and, one minute later, S-136 noted simultaneous explosions on the second target.
Typical S-boot Torpedo Attack Profile
S-140 and S-142 had also identified targets at about the same time and opened fire with double shots at 1400 metres but, when no explosions were heard, Oberleutnant zur See Götschke correctly concluded that the ships were shallow-draft landing craft. Meanwhile, S-100 and S-143, alerted to the action by red tracer to their north, closed at high speed and noted that a "tanker" was already well ablaze. Both boats fired two torpedoes at a target of around 1500 tons, achieving a solid hit with one of them.
The 9th Flotilla, comprising S-130, S-145 and S-150, were now attracted by red tracer from the 5th Flotilla (although at the time they thought they were from allied ships, since they understood that yellow tracer was to be used by their own force). Closing at speed, S-150 and S-130 turned straight in to a joint torpedo attack against a single ship while S-145 broke off to attack "small armed escorts" nearby (most likely more, lowered landing craft).
Gunfire directed at convoy. Probably AA to draw return fire.
General quarters sounded. No target visible. Order to open fire withheld to protect position of convoy.
Convoy changed direction to 203 degrees. Explosion heard astern and LST 507, the last landing craft in the convoy, seen to be on fire.
LST 531 opened fire but no target visible from LST 58.
LST 531 hit and exploded.
Decision to break formation and to proceed independently.
Order given on LST 531 to abandon ship.
E-boat sighted at 1500 metres. Four 40mm guns and six 20mm guns on LST 58 fired off 68 and 323 rounds respectively. The E-boat turned away and at "cease fire" was about 2000 metres distant when it disappeared from view.
LST 289 was hit.
LST 289 opened fire but target not seen from LST 58.
Surface torpedo reported off bow of LST 58.
0238 to 0400
Bright magnesium flares sighted in all directions with the intention of discouraging the scattered convoy making for shore. E-boat engine noises heard on many occasions.
Order given on LST 507 to abandon ship.
LST 515 lowered boats and picked up survivors from LST 507.
In the confusion of the action and darkness, it was impossible to be certain what was happening. The British Fighter Direction Tender, FDT 217, had sailed out of Portland to provide radar and communications cover (she was one of three FDTs that would provide stalwart service off Normandy two months later) but, on this particular night, she received a signal: "Make port all haste" which she duly did. Elsewhere the scale of the debacle was becoming only too apparent.
LSTs 507 and 531 had been sunk with the loss of 202 and 424 lives respectively - a total of 626 out of a total US Army and US Navy complement of 943. LST 289 was damaged with the loss of 13 men and LST 511 was hit by fire from LST 496 resulting in 18 wounded. In the end, the total of 639 American killed and missing was 4 times the actual losses on Utah beach on D-Day, for which this exercise had been intended as a rehearsal.
A Twist in the Fortunes of War On 12 May 1944, S-130 bore witness to one of the War’s many, tragic, little footnotes. S-130 was taking part in a patrol of some 10 S-Boote to the south of the Isle of Wight. The Royal Navy soon discovered them and destroyers were dispatched in pursuit. During the ensuing engagement, The Free French ship La Combattante succeeded in sinking S-141, onboard which was Oberleutnant zur See Klaus Dönitz, the son of Grossadmiral Dönitz, Chief of the German Naval Staff. He was training to qualify for command of an S-Boot and was among the 18 crew from S-141 who died.
D-Day – The Turn of the Tide and the Long Retreat
On the morning of 6 June 1944, D-Day, S-130 was one of the 31 battle-ready S-Boote sent to attack the Allied fleet. Several successes were claimed but, against such an assault force (4126 landing vessels and transports, 1213 warships and total air supremacy over the landing area and approaches), the Kriegsmarine could do little to hinder the massed landings. The 9th Flotilla sank a number of landing craft but records do not indicate whether any were attributed to S-130. Since two of her ship’s company were killed, however, it may reasonably be deduced that she was in the thick of the action. Thereafter, it was a question of retreating east along the Channel and North Sea coasts as the Allied armies advanced towards the Rhine and Germany, trying always to harry and disrupt their sea lines of communication. Little specific record remains of the many engagements that were played out in the darkness of the winter of 1944/45 although it is clear the 9th Flotilla and S-130 were seldom away from the action. By the spring of 1945, German Naval operations in the southern North Sea had all but been suspended and the cessation of hostilities in May found S-130 in Rotterdam. She had survived to fight again.