Winfred Polzin and the last known German motor torpedo boat whose torpedo almost killed him 70 years ago are proof of a top-secret training gone wrong in the weeks leading up to the Normandy landings on D-Day.
Polzin, who before the war worked as 23-year-old farmhand in Rush City, was on the American convoy’s last Landing Ship-Tank during that training, called Exercise Tiger, a dress rehearsal for his landing on Utah Beach with the 478th Amphibian Truck Company of the First Engineer Special Brigade.
At 95, this World War II veteran, of Cambridge, reflected back on those experiences recently as the country has been memorializing the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Joining him was his son-in-law Paul Dorow, of Pine City, who contributed from his own research of Polzin’s time in the war.
Under the cover of darkness April 27, 1944, American forces secretly set out for the southern coast of England to engage in the first complete dress rehearsal for the big invasion. The Slapton Sands and Torcross areas on the south coast of Devon were considered a perfect spot for practice landings, since they closely resembled Utah Beach.
Exercise Tiger was underway, with 300 ships and 30,000 men exposed to the elements of the sea and live ammunition to benefit from a true-to-life warfare experience.
“They moved all these people (local residents) out of there because they (Allied forces involved in the training) fired live ammunition in there and everything; they made it as real as they could,” Polzin said. “Well, I thought it was only our brigade, but a long time afterward I found that 375 ships and 30,000 men were involved in it.”
Across the channel in Cherbourg, however, a group of nine German Schnellboots, or S-boats, were dispatched in response to a sizeable increase in radio traffic that resulted from the American convoy. Ultimately, and without a clue of what was actually taking place, the Germans pursued it and discovered the tail end of Tiger around 2 a.m. April 28 before the American ships safely arrived ashore. The Germans also did not initially identify the ships as Landing Ships-Tank, a naval vessel used in the war to support amphibious operations.
The German commander “had no idea that he was attacking LSTs; he figured they were destroyers,” Dorow said. “He couldn’t understand why the torpedoes weren’t hitting them because they only have a 4-foot draft in the water, and all the torpedoes were going underneath until one finally hit.”
As for Polzin, Dorow added, “He was at the end of the convoy in the LST 507, which was the first one to be struck by torpedo. One thing he said to me that I always thought was funny: ‘I was always the last in line for anything but always the first for something to happen to.’”
The convoy included eight LSTs, all loaded with troops and vehicles from the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the First Amphibian Engineer Brigade. After Polzin’s LST was hit, LST 531 was hit and sank in about five minutes. Also severely damaged by torpedo was LST 289, but it managed to make port.
In the end, an S-boat called the S130 sank Polzin’s 507, while more than 700 American soldiers died or went missing in the cold waters. In all, there were about 1,000 casualties that day.
Later in life, Polzin learned the same German S-boat that almost took his life during Exercise Tiger had been salvaged and is even being restored.
“Basically Schnellboot S130 is the sole survivor World War II S-boat,” Dorow said. “It’s ironic to think that that’s the last S-boat that’s in existence, but it’s the one that actually torpedoed (Polzin).”
Said Polzin of the German motor torpedo boat that nearly sealed his fate, “I’d like to see it.”
Throughout the years, too, Polzin was approached by an author who was seeking information for a book on Exercise Tiger. Dorow recalled the conversation.
“He evidently contacted you and said anybody that was in the tank deck didn’t survive; you said you were in the tank deck,” he said to Polzin.
“Yeah, way up front,” Polzin noted. “There were guys that didn’t get out.”
“Were you the last guy out?” Dorow asked.
“Me and the platoon sergeant; nobody else got out,” Polzin replied. “I can’t remember anybody else coming out after us.”
“Because they closed the water tight doors,” Dorow continued.
“Yeah,” Polzin affirmed. “Before the torpedo hit, a guy had a pipe … and tightened all the doors down. After the torpedo hit, I jumped over the DUKW and went to the door. … I grabbed him and opened the door. … I opened it with my hands. I didn’t have a pipe or nothing. When you’re in a situation (like I was) in, you can get a lot of strength, I guess.”
After the torpedo hit, Polzin continued: “We had orders to abandon ship. There were dead in the ship, and a lot had already abandoned ship. So I walked over the rail and inflated my lifebelt, crawled down a cargo net that was hanging over the side.
“As I was inflating my lifebelt, someone grabbed me around the head and down we went. We had guys that went to combat swimming school in London. We learned how to get rid of a guy in the water, and it come to me just like that. You double up, stick your feet in his stomach, reach back here, get under his chin and push. I come up and tried to get him his lifebelt, but he was screaming and hollering, splashing, couldn’t swim and must have went under. I think about him every once in a while,” he added.
When asked if Exercise Tiger helped him and his outfit on D-Day, Polzin said: “I suppose it did. We lost 28 men and had to get replacements right away. We had to train them right away because six weeks later was the invasion. We didn’t dare talk about it because it would mean a court-martial.”
Polzin was rescued in the water, he noted, thanks to a boat that came back for survivors and an empathetic commander who wanted to save as many men as possible.
“Two guys were holding rope and grabbed me,” he said remembering his clothing was replaced with a blanket. “Hypothermia took a lot of men. We went to shore and a military hospital. The staff were told, ‘It’s none of your business what happened to them. If you ask, you’ll be court-martialed.”
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