As part of the build up to D Day itself training exercises were held under the overall name of Exercise Fabius.
Exercise Fabius was a formal exercise for Operation Neptune – D Day. (The other was Exercise Tiger, which had occurred a week earlier.)The exercise was planned to start on 2 May 1944, but bad weather delayed it to the next day. It consisted of six separate exercises:
Fabius 1 – elements of the 1st Infantry Division and 29th Infantry Division (United States) practised amphibious landing at Slapton Sands
Fabius 2 – elements of the 50th Infantry Division practised landings at Hayling Island.
Fabius 3 – elements of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division practised landings at Bracklesham Bay.
Fabius 4 – elements of the 3rd Infantry Division and associated units practised landing at Littlehampton.
Fabius 5 and 6 – practice for American and British forces working on build up of forces and supplies on Allied beaches.
They formed the largest amphibious training exercise of the war. As the final exercise before Operation Neptune, it resembled closely the final operation and no major changes could be made to Operation Neptune.
Fabius 1 took place between May 3rd and 8th at Slapton Sands a bare few days after the disastrous previous D Day rehearsal, Operation Tiger (see end of this post) It was the rehearsal for Force O the 1st Division units that were to assault OMAHA Beach. Approximately 25,000 troops participated in this D Day rehearsal, including three regimental combat teams and various attached service troops. The most important result of the exercise was a change in the landing schedules; elements of the military police company, the brigade headquarters, and the signal company were to land considerably earlier than originally planned. After Fabiuswas over, most of the units that had participated went directly to their marshalling areas.
Fabius 2 was staged on the then sandy Hayling Island beaches, a few miles east of Southsea Common. When ‘G’ Force, the unit which was eventually destined for Gold Beach in Normandy, landed at Beachlands (Hayling Island Funfair) the Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Allied Supreme Commander General Eisenhower, are said to have watched the 50 ships participating, from the roof of the Royal Hotel (now flats). The vast number of ships, men and aircraft involved meant that there was considerable risk that the enemy would detect the activities and deduce that an invasion was imminent. The entire Channel was therefore sealed off by extensive naval and air patrols to ensure no German observation would be possible. In addition a whole campaign of deception (a whole series of posts in itself) was waged to help convince the Axis that an invasion – which they knew was likely – would be in the Pas de Calais area.
More of Hayling Island at War here
Fabius 3 I’ve not found much information on the Bracklesham Bay D Day rehearsal apart from this snippet from an article on HMS PINCHER (J 294) – an Algerine-class Fleet Minesweeper that won battle honours shortly after off the Normandy Coast:
Deployed with Flotilla for exercises including night sweeping and major exercise FABIUS III in Bracklesham Bay. (Note: During FABIUS III Flotilla came under E-Boat attack.) . Returned to Solent on completion to prepare for NEPTUNE.
If anyone can furnish me with more details I would be grateful, the lack of information indicates, however, that the consequences of the E-Boat attack were far les serious than the tragedy of Operation TIGER (see below)
Fabius 4 involved troops landing at Littlehampton – on the West Beach (Climping Beach.) The troops in this operation were known as Force Sword because they were training to land on Sword Beach in Normandy. The Force Sword men came from the British 3rd Infantry Division which, in 1944, was commanded by
Major General Tom Rennie. The Division was a collection of brigades which had been combined for the Normandy campaign. There was a total of 25,000 men.
This document from Littlehampton Fort provides a very good description and pictures of the exercise.
An earlier exercise at Slapton Sands ended in tragedy both through a friendly fire incident (live rounds were used in training) on April 27th 1944 and a notorious E Boat attack early on the morning of the 28th:
Excerpt from Joe Hagen’s book “Memories of World War II”
Since arriving in England in February 1944, we were continually engaged in exercises. These did not seem very important because we knew that we were primarily waiting for the invasion of France which we guessed would be in the spring. We looked at operation FABIUS as just another exercise. We picked up jeeps and light trucks and used our elevator to load them on our main deck. The heavy stuff was loaded on the tank deck. We provide bunks and meals for a couple of hundred of troops. (Morison reports that these were the same units that we were to carry to Normandy but I have no personal recollection of what troops were on board.)
Our exercise was to put to sea and then approach an isolated beach, Slapton Sands, in southern England and make a landing under simulated enemy opposition. Our part of the operation was fairly routine. However some non-routine firing was observed from our topside but we did not have a clue of what was happening at the time. Our ships of the line were scheduled to bombard the beach before our landing craft went in but some of the fire power was not directed in that direction. We maintained radio silence and did not receive word of what was happening until much later.
Nine German E-boats stationed at Cherbourg were apparently aware of the operation and dashed in between the patrol ships to attack our convoy. They selected a group of eight LSTs as targets and successfully launched torpedoes against three of them. LST-507 and LST-531 were sunk. LST-289 while firing at an E-boat was hit by a torpedo and despite suffering a number of casualties, managed to beach successfully. This saved the remaining troops and crew as well the military equipment but the LST was too damaged to be available for the Normandy invasion. The remaining LSTs fired vigorously at the E-boats without success. At this time the LSTs were only equipped with 20 and 40 mm anti-aircraft weapons. The single 3 inch cannon which was part of the original ordinance had been removed and replaced with a dual 40 mm Bofors battery.
In this exercise 197 Naval and 441 Army personnel lost their lives. It turned out that this was greater than the actual losses on D-day at Utah beach. It was reported that many lives were lost because both soldiers and sailors were reluctant to abandon ship. When we returned to our berth in the Salcombe estuary we received orders to have an abandon ship drill. The water was 56 degrees fahrenheit and this order was not appreciated by officers and crew alike. However an LCVP was lowered to pick up the men from the water and we all donned life jackets and jumped from the main deck (about 14 feet above the waterline). The Captain (LT. Sullivan, USNR) made a little speech and said it was tradition for the Captain to be the last one to leave the ship but he had some pressing work to take care of and set an example by being the first one to jump overboard. I followed later remembering to grab the collar of the life jacket with my right hand to keep it from being forced up over my face by the impact of hitting the water. The left hand was used to cover my crotch for obvious reasons. All went well but as I recall one doctor and the chief pharmacist mate disappeared until the exercise was over. The 56 degree water still sticks in my mind and remains the standard as being too dammed cold.
A few lessons were learned from the tragedy – radio frequencies were standardised; the British escort vessels were late and out of position due to radio problems, and a signal of the E-boats’ presence was not picked up by the LSTs. Better life jacket training for landing troops was instituted and new plans we enacted.for small craft to pick up floating survivors on D-Day
The casualty statistics from Tiger were not released until August 1944 along with the casualties of the actual D-Day landings themselves. There is little documentation in official histories about this tragedy. Some commentators have called it a cover-up but the initial critical secrecy about Tiger may have merely resulted in longer-term quietness. In his book The Forgotten Dead – Why 946 American Servicemen Died Off The Coast Of Devon In 1944 – And The Man Who Discovered Their True Story, published in 1988, Ken Small declares that the event “was never covered up; it was ‘conveniently forgotten'”