David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Learning from tragedy: Parshat Bamidbar

American troops landing on Slapton Sands in England during rehearsals for the invasion of Normandy. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
American troops landing on Slapton Sands in England during rehearsals for the invasion of Normandy. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed at Normandy, on the coast of France, in what became a turning point in World War II. Known as D-Day (which was a US military term referring to the first day of any large military operation – the D stands for “day”), it involved the largest invasion force in human history. More than 7,000 ships brought nearly 200,000 soldiers from eight countries to the battlefield.

The American forces landed on Normandy beaches codenamed Utah and Omaha, the British landed at Sword and Gold, and the Canadians at Juno.

US General Dwight Eisenhower sent a message to his troops stressing the importance of the operation:

The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed people of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Operation Overlord, which D-Day was part of, was a success. Just under a year after the troops landed in France, on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally. D-Day marked the beginning of the end of World War II.

Planning for the Normandy landings had begun over a year before D-Day with the Trident Conference in May 1943. In December 1943, the American General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed as Supreme Allied Commander for Europe.

Beginning in April 1944, the Air Force took over 3,200 photos of the coastline where the troops would land, to show the terrain, obstacles, and enemy bunkers. The BBC even appealed for people to send in their European vacation photos – and received over 10 million pictures – which were pored over to provide useful information.

For months before the invasion, the Allies conducted Operation Bodyguard, the goal of which was to cause the Germans to believe the Allies were going to attack at a different place on a different date.

And then there was the dress rehearsal for the landing at Normandy which went so horribly wrong it nearly delayed the actual invasion.

The Allies chose Slapton Sands, on the southwest coast of England, as the site of the dress rehearsal, codenamed Exercise Tiger. It was chosen because of its similarity to Utah Beach – a gravel beach with a strip of land and a lake beyond. The British government evacuated all 3,000 residents so the Americans could have their practice run. The fleet of 221 vessels assembled in Lyme Bay and planned to sail down the coast to Slapton Sands, to emulate crossing the channel to France.

Southeast of England with Slapton Sands circled. (Screen Capture Google Maps)

The day before the exercise was to begin, one of the British ships that was supposed to protect the convoy, HMS Scimitar, collided with a landing ship and had to go to Plymouth for repairs. The Royal Navy sent HMS Saladin as a replacement, but she did not arrive in time to protect the convoy.

Eisenhower wanted his troops to be exposed to the sounds and sights of live ordnance fire before they faced the German army, so the plan was for a US flotilla to fire at the beach at 6:30 am on April 27, an hour before the infantry would storm the English coastline in their dress rehearsal. However, several of the landing ships were delayed by bad weather and other reasons, so Admiral Don P. Moon decided to delay the entire exercise by an hour.

Unfortunately, not all ships got the message.

So, some of the boats landed on Slapton Sands at the originally scheduled time, just as the missiles and bombs started falling all around them. To this day the US government has not said how many were killed in this friendly fire incident, but it is thought to number in the hundreds.

After that disastrous beginning, things went from bad to worse. With HMS Scimitar away for repairs, the convoy had only one escort, HMS Azalea, a small corvette class ship. Unfortunately, because the British and US forces were using different radio frequencies, the Americans did not know the Scimitar had gone.

The German navy had fast attack boats called Schnellboot, which the Allies referred to as E-boats for some reason. These boats were armed with torpedoes, flak guns and machine guns. They were extremely dangerous and deadly.

The German Schnellboot (“E-boat”) S 204 flying a white flag of surrender at the coastal forces base HMS Beehive, Felixstowe, Suffolk (UK), on 13 May 1945. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In the middle of the night, British radar spotted some E-boats near the US convoy as did the crew of one of the boats. But they all assumed that these mystery vessels were part of the Allied convoy. British gunners on the coast sighted the German ships but were under orders to hold their fire for the duration of the exercise. They alerted the Azalea. The captain of the Azalea assumed that the US ships had also received the warning and would be prepared, not realizing that they were using a different radio frequency and had no idea of the approaching danger.

As the eight Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) of the US T-4 convoy set off, HMS Azalea led them in a straight line, rather than zigzagging, making the ships a much easier target. They headed due east, then turned around and continued west to participate in the buildup phase of Exercise Tiger. But then, the ships came under attack.

USS LST-983 (USS Middlesex County) with LST-601 (USS Clarke County) in the background. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

At 1:30 Lieutenant James Murdock on the bridge of LST-507 saw green tracers and heard approaching gunfire. Murdock sounded the alarm, but it was too late. Two E-boats opened fire on the ship, scoring a direct hit on the auxiliary engine room and starting a fire which soon engulfed the entire boat. Less than half an hour after the torpedo hit, it was time to abandon ship.

The men had not been trained in how to wear their life jackets. They could not fasten them over their combat gear, so many just tied them around their waists. Which meant that when they jumped overboard to escape the flames, their center of buoyancy was around their middle, and they drowned face down in the water. Hundreds were killed immediately or died of hypothermia as they clung to the wreckage in the frozen sea.

The boats were spaced out over several kilometers, so didn’t see the attack. But some saw LST-507 burning and radioed to find out what was happening. Since the ships had been told to maintain strict radio silence except in case of emergency, when they received no reply, they assumed everything was fine.

Then, at 2:17, LST-531 suddenly burst into flame as it was hit by two torpedoes. She sank in less than 10 minutes, taking 496 sailors with her.

In the ensuing chaos, the US ships began firing machine guns and canons into the darkness. It seems that they missed all the German boats. But LST-511 was damaged by friendly fire from LST-496, killing 18 men.

The US boat LST-289 was hit by a torpedo which smashed its rudder. It eventually managed to make it back to shore. The other US ships managed to escape the carnage. Senior officers ordered the remaining ships to continue towards Dartmouth.

Captain John Doyle, commanding officer of the lead ship, LST-515 disobeyed the order. He turned around and reached the survivors some two hours later. The crew found hundreds of bodies floating in the water, with a few living men among them suffering from hypothermia.

US Army records are not complete, but at least 749 sailors were killed that night and a further 300 injured. It was one of the most disastrous and fatal incidents for the US military in World War II.

The entire incident was both an embarrassment to the US military and also a potential risk to the entire Normandy operation. All survivors were sworn to secrecy.

Among those who were initially missing were 10 officers with full knowledge of the D-Day plans for the landings at Utah and Omaha. The entire operation was nearly postponed until the bodies of all 10 were found, out of fear they may have been captured by the Germans and given up the secret plans. It is possible that Hitler sent reinforcements to Normandy because he saw the similarity between Slapton Sands and the French coast.

Slapton Sands, Devon at the WWII memorial for Allied Soldiers killed during Exercise Tiger. The tank was raised from the sea bed in 1984. It is a M4A1 Sherman tank. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

However, many lessons were learned from this tragic dress rehearsal and implemented before the D-Day landings.

Realizing the huge damage the E-boats could cause, Vice Admiral Alan Kirk argued for heavy aerial bombing ahead of the invasion to drive out the German attack vessels.

The convoys didn’t travel in a straight line, in order to make them less vulnerable to attack.

The US and British standardized their radio frequencies to avoid any future miscommunications.

The sailors received proper training about how to use their life jackets and were drilled on the importance of wearing them properly.

Improvements were made in how the lifeboats were launched and the navy made plans for small craft to pick up any men in the water before they died of hypothermia.

The general alarm was sounded aboard the LSTs but was not properly understood. The men were fully briefed on what to do in case of an emergency alarm.

Exercise Tiger was hushed up ahead of the Normandy landings, and then overshadowed by the victories of the end-stage of the war, so the story has rarely been told. But the catastrophes of the dress rehearsal caused improvement that led to a successful invasion on D-Day. Without the disasters of the training, the Allies may have failed in their French landing.

U.S. soldiers landing on Utah Beach, 1944. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, known in English as Numbers, and read the first portion of that book, Bamidbar (literally “wilderness” though often translated as desert).

In his introduction to the book, Nahmanides (Ramban) writes that the entire book contains only laws that were relevant to the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness.

This book contains no commandments that apply for future generations except for a few related to sacrifices which the Torah began discussing in Leviticus and did not complete there.

If so, what is the purpose of Bamidbar? Why must we read about events that happened long ago and which contain no relevant laws for us today?

I think the answer is that Bamidbar was a dress rehearsal for when the Israelites would eventually enter Israel and settle there. The 40 years spent in the wilderness prepared the nation of former slaves on how to live together, how to relate to God, the other tribes and themselves.

There are many tragedies described in the book of Numbers. The spies returned with their evil report about Israel, Korach rebelled against Moses’s leadership, the people questioned Aharon’s role as High Priest, they faced the curses of Bilaam and were seduced by Midianite women. The Israelites had to learn to fight, to withstand the temptations of idolatry, and how to live together as a nation.

The book describes how thousands of Israelites were killed in battle, as a result of sin, or by plague. All men over the age of 20 were sentenced to die in the wilderness after listening to the spies and losing their faith in God.

But it was all a dress rehearsal for the real thing – living a holy, Jewish life in the land of Israel. Without the tragedies and failings of Bamidbar, the people would perhaps not have succeeded in the conquest of Israel and would not have learned the lessons that allowed them to remain living there.

The book begins (Numbers 1:1):

God spoke to Moses in the Sinai wilderness, in the Tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month in the second year after they left the land of Egypt.

It ends, 39 years later, at the border of Israel (Numbers 36:13):

These are the commandments and the laws that God commanded through the hand of Moses to the Children of Israel, in the plains of Moab, at the Jordan by Jericho.

Tragedy and loss can be overwhelming. Disaster sometimes seems like the end. But it can also be the dress rehearsal for greater and better things. If we learn the lessons when things go wrong, we can do better in the future and make sure things go right.

The entire book of Numbers teaches us the importance of learning from our mistakes, and ensuring we do not repeat them.

The next class in my series on WebYeshiva will begin on May 23rd and is entitled “The Inner Meaning of Sefirat HaOmer.” You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.