Fatal Errors – The Worst Friendly Fire Incidents of World War Two

Some of the worst friendly fire incidents of World War Two involved British and American bombers dropping their payloads onto Allied troops.

“The fatal air battle at Nis is just one of many examples of allies killing allies that, all told, cost thousands of lives during the Second World War. Here are a few more examples.”

NOV. 7, 1944 — a formation of American P-38 Lightnings on a routine patrol over Kosovo spot an inviting ground target: a column of enemy infantry and armour rolling through the open country. The Allied fighters streak down towards the vehicles with guns blazing. Enemy troops scramble for cover as the planes finish their first pass and come around for another run. The commander on the ground radios for help. A formation of nine interceptors hears the distress call and speeds in to drive away the attacking aircraft. The fighters jump the the American planes — a fierce dogfight ensues. Both sides lose aircraft in the melee. After five minutes, the two sides with withdraw and the brief skirmish is over.

While a seemingly typical wartime encounter, there’s more to the story. Those ‘enemy’ ground units that the American planes fell upon weren’t Germans – it was a Red Army column. The Luftwaffe interceptors were actually Soviet Yak-3 fighters. Worse, the American planes weren’t flying anywhere near Nazi-occupied Kosovo. A navigation error put the U.S. formation more than 100 miles away near Nis, Serbia — an area that had already been liberated by the Russians weeks earlier. [1] The entire affair was chalked up to a case of  “friendly fire” and promptly swept under the rug by military censors. Yet sadly, the fatal air battle at Nis is just one of many examples of allies killing allies that, all told, cost thousands of lives during the Second World War. Here are a few more examples:

Operation Cobra – 136 Dead

US soldiers watch as Allied bombers approach St. Lo. (US Archives)

U.S. soldiers watch as Allied bombers approach St. Lo. (US Archives)

Bad weather and a breakdown of communication led to the nastiest blue-on-blue disaster of the entire 1944 Normandy campaign. The incident sprung from an epic 3,000-plane Allied bombing strike aimed at annihilating German defences near St. Lo, France went awry on July 25. The plan, codenamed Cobra, originally called for British and American planes to drop their payloads as they flew east to west along the length of the enemy lines. Instead, the aircraft came in from the north and unloaded on both the Americans and Germans simultaneously.[2] Low cloud cover prevented the pilots from spotting the friendly forces on the ground. Amazingly, the disaster was a repeat of a similar debacle that occurred only the day before in which 25 Americans were killed. Among the dead on the second day’s raid was Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair. He would turn out to be the highest ranking American officer killed in battle in the entire war (ironically a victim of friendly fire). Out of sheer rage, American troops knowingly opened fire on their own planes following the incident. [3]

Operation Bodenplatte – 237 Dead

One of the last major German air operations of World War Two was a disaster. (German Federal Archive)

One of the last major German air operations of World War Two was a disaster. (German Federal Archive)

The Luftwaffe’s last major air campaign of the war, which took place on New Years Day, 1945, was another friendly fire disaster. Planned to support the two-week old Ardennes Offensive (aka the Battle of the Bugle), the German high command scraped together what remaining fighters and bombers it could for one final aerial blitz aimed at reigniting the stalled Nazi push into Belgium. The operation called for 900 aircraft to strike at British and American airfields across the region. Unfortunately, the plan was kept so secret that not even Axis units operating in the area were aware that it was taking place. [4] Assuming the planes streaking overhead were British and American, German anti-aircraft batteries along the front opened fire. In all, 300 aircraft were destroyed and more than 200 pilots died. It was the largest loss ever suffered by the Luftwaffe in a single day. [5]

Incident at Mersa, Egypt – 359 Dead

RAF Wellingtons.

RAF Wellingtons.

Similar to the fiasco at St. Lo, a two-hour raid by RAF Wellingtons aimed at decimating the Afrika Korps in Egypt accidentally hit on elements of the British 7th Armoured Division and the 3rd Hussars, as well as some New Zealand troops. All told the error killed 359 and wounded 560. [6]

The Sinking of the Doggerbank – 364 Dead

On March 3, 1943, the skipper of the German U-boat 43 ordered torpedoes fired at what he thought was an Allied freighter. (German Federal Archive)

On March 3, 1943, the skipper of the German U-boat 43 ordered torpedoes fired at what he thought was an Allied freighter. (German Federal Archive)

Only one crewman of the German blockade runner Doggerbank survived that ship’s deadly March 3, 1943 encounter with the Nazi submarine U-43. The 5,000-ton former British-owned merchant vessel was back in the Atlantic after a long voyage from Japan and the Far East. On board were 7,000 tons of rubber and fish, along with the survivors of a German auxiliary cruiser and an oil tanker that both had been lost in the Pacific the previous year. [7] Somewhere in the South Atlantic, the Doggerbank was detected and followed by U-43. The crew of the sub, which knew the German ship might be in the area, wrongly identified the 400-foot-long vessel as a British cargo carrier. The sub fired a spread of torpedoes at the Doggerbank — three of the warheads struck home. In two minutes, the damaged ship was gone. A handful of crew members and passengers managed to board a lifeboat but darkness prevented the U-boat from rescuing any survivors. Over the coming days the small group would slowly perish from exposure, dehydration and even suicide, except one sailor by the name of Fritz Kurt. The lone survivor was eventually picked up by a Spanish ship and held as a prisoner until the war’s end. The U-43 would herself be destroyed in July of 1943 with the loss of all hands. [8]

The Allerona Train Disaster – 400 Dead

Allied POWs were the victims of one of the worst friendly fire incidents of the Second World War.

Allied POWs were the victims of one of the worst friendly fire incidents of the Second World War.

A railway bridge near the Italian town of Allerona was the site of one of the largest and most tragic friendly fire incidents of the entire war. A train pulling unmarked cattle cars containing 800 British, American and South African POWs had the misfortune of crossing a bridge north of Rome at the precise moment a squadron of American B-26s arrived to take out the strategic rail link. Amid the chaos of the bombing raid, the train’s driver stopped the engine in the middle of the bridge and fled on foot, leaving the prisoners locked in the cars. While some of the POWs managed to force their way out of confinement, more than 400 were unable to escape and were killed when the bridge took a direct hit. [9] None of the pilots had any idea that the boxcars were loaded with their own comrades.

The Cap Arcona Tragedy – 7,000 Dead

One of the last ad deadliest tragedies of the war in Europe involved the Allies accidentally attacking the Cap Arcona. (WikiCommons)

One of the last ad deadliest tragedies of the war in Europe involved the Allies accidentally attacking the Cap Arcona. (WikiCommons)

The Allerona train disaster pales in comparison with the Cap Arcona incident, which has been called history’s deadliest case of friendly fire. The tragedy, which took place in the war’s final days (May 3, 1945), involved three ships in the harbour of Lubeck, Germany: the Thielbek, the SS Deutschland and the former luxury cruise liner Cap Arcona. Loaded with Allied POWs as well as more than 4,000 inmates from Nazi concentration camps, the luckless vessels were targeted by a flight of nine RAF Typhoons on an anti-shipping strike. [10] Allied intelligence believed the ships were carrying fugitive Nazis bound for Scandinavia when in reality, the Germans had loaded the ships with the prisoners and inmates and were reportedly planning on scuttling all three of the vessels, passengers and all. [11] As the British planes struck, the SS guards on board abandoned ship, but not before firing into crowds of panicking prisoners. Tugs and trawlers in the harbor managed to take 400 of the guards off the burning ships, but left the captives, many of whom leapt into the frigid water to escape the conflagration. Those survivors who didn’t either perish aboard the holed and sinking vessels or succumb to hypothermia, were repeatedly strafed by the Typhoons as they swam for safety. The British pilots later reported swooping low over the hapless fugitives firing into clusters of them as they bobbed in the water. Other prisoners were mercilessly cut down by SS guards as they neared the shore. The bodies of the victims choked the harbor and continued to wash ashore for weeks after the tragedy; skeletal remains were still being recovered as late as the 1970s. [12] Subsequent investigations suggested that the Swedish government had passed along intelligence to the British indicating the ships were housing prisoners and death camp inmates, but that information was never communicated to mission planners. [13]

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SOURCES
1. http://www.militarydegreeprograms.org/10-most-epic-air-to-air-battles-in-military-history/
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Cobra
3. Ibid
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Bodenplatte
5. http://www.ww2aircraft.net/forum/aviation/65-years-operation-bodenplatte-22495.html
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendly_fire
7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doggerbank_(ship)
8. Ibid
10. http://cap-arcona.com/
11. Ibid
12. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cap_Arcona#Sinking
13. Ibid

Leave a Reply

  1. Does anyone have information about a friendly fire incident in Italy or North Africa during WWII where a forward observer called artillery fire on the wrong coordinates and caused 35 American soldiers to be killed?

    • Hi Terry: I don’t have any info on that, but perhaps one of the readers does. I’ll also put it out on Twitter right now. We’ll see what happens.

  2. Thanks for your help. I believe the incident would have been in North Africa, possibly Italy, and prior to June, 1944.

  3. I remember from playing one of the Medal of Honor games, there was a incident at the beginning of the Normandy Airborne landings where our C-47 Skytrain was being attacked early. One of the soldiers yelled “Why are we taking flak already?! We’re nowhere near the German defenses yet!” Another soldier who was looking out the door of the plane replied “That’s not German flak, It’s our own God d*** Navy!”. I don’t know if this incident was fictitious or related to a actual friendly fire incident that happened during the Normandy landings.

      • Not Normandy invasion, but a year earlier .. Sicily. Overcast skies over the US/UK invasion fleet led AA gunners to open fire the NIGHT before D-day on HEARING the aircraft above the cloud levels. Many C-47s full of Allied paratroops were downed w/high casualties.

        • Mr. Snell is correct. My next door neighbor, Cpl. Gus Karozas, a member of the HHB, 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion (376th PFAB) of the 82nd Airborne Division was the 1st man out of the 2nd plane over the Sicily Airborne Assault near Gela, Sicily on the night of 11 July 1943. Mr. Karozas, who is now 95 years old and living in Southport, Indiana (Southside of Indianapolis) has described many times to me the fratricide that occurred that night when he made the jump. As a matter of information, he was jumping first because he was carrying the breech block assembly for the 75mm Field Artillery Gun that was used by US Airborne forces during WWII. And because of that dubious honor, he was the only paratrooper in his unit to jump with a WHITE colored parachute that NIGHT (all the rest jumped with the standard T-10 Olive Green parachute. Only a few men made it out of his plane before it was damaged or destroyed by shipborne AAA fire. I doubt that any of the riggers told him in advance he would be jumping with a White parachute on a dark night…..just incredible…..Very interesting that the fratricide that occurred over Sicily from Allied Ships firing at Army C-47 aircraft loaded with paratroopers was not listed as a pre-eminent fratricide moment from WWII. Well over 340 soldiers were killed during this mission including the Assistant Division Commander.

      • In the “Reich Intruders” by Martin Bowman I have just read about the “safe channel” across to Normandy in which a Mosquito of 21 Squadron suffered severe flak from an allied vessel at the centre of the “safe” area and saw the four engine aircraft preceeding him shot down. The pilot decided to exit the supposed safe channel and risk the wrath of the RAF. I would be most interested to hear if anyone can shed light on the identity of the rogue vessel.

        Gordon Rogers http://www.gordonrogers.co.uk

  4. The C-47 were replacements ordered by Patton. With the landing being hit by the German Airforce constantly, it was only natural when they saw the C-47 coming into view and coming into range. They lost quite a few planes, Eisenhower held Patton responsible and Patton had to promise that he would put in measures so that this would never happen again.

  5. Pingback: The Heinkel He 162 (III) | Aviation and Military History Blog | Chris Chant's Blog

  6. Beause it was buried in the official secrets for 50 years there is little mention of the SS Skillen, sunk by a British submarine of the coast of Tunisia. Because of poor weather conditions at sea preventing departure, the “converted” steamer was slowly filled with Prisoners of war by the retreating Italians and Germans, to the point where instead of 200 men in the hold there were at least 800. The controvesy comes from the fact that because the Allies had Enigma, and reports from North Africa, the British knew the ship was full of prisoners, but to message the submarine would reveal that Enigma was broken. Churchill made the decision to sink SS Skillen……
    For facts and figures please seek verification, however I have read of John Ledgerton’s account in “The Poetry and Art of Retirement”, and a BBC History WW2 Stories – http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/categories/c1204/

  7. The Cap Arcona Tragedy – 7,000 Dead
    The Allerona train disaster pales in comparison with the Cap Arcona incident, which has been called history’s deadliest case of friendly fire. The disaster, which took place in the war’s final days (May 3, 1945), involved three ships in the harbour of Lubeck, Germany: the Thielbek, the SS Deutschland and the former luxury cruise liner Cap Arcona. Loaded with Allied POWs as well as more than 4,000 inmates from Nazi concentration camps, the luckless vessels were targeted by a flight of nine RAF Typhoons on an anti-shipping strike. [10] Allied intelligence believed the ships were carrying fugitive Nazis bound for Scandinavia when in reality, the Germans had loaded the ships with the prisoners and inmates and were reportedly planning on scuttling all three of the vessels, passengers and all. [11] As the British planes struck , the SS guards on board abandoned ship, but not before firing into crowds of panicking prisoners. Tugs and trawlers in the harbor managed to take 400 of the guards off the burning ships, but left the captives, many of whom leapt into the frigid water to escape the conflagration. Those survivors who didn’t either perish aboard the holed and sinking vessels or succumb to hypothermia, were repeatedly strafed by the Typhoons as they swam for safety. The British pilots later reported swooping low over the hapless fugitives firing into clusters of them as they bobbed in the water. Other prisoners were mercilessly cut down by SS guards as they neared the shore. The bodies of the victims choked the harbor and continued to wash ashore for weeks after the tragedy; skeletal remains were still being recovered as late as the 1970s. [12] Subsequent investigations suggested that the Swedish government had passed along intelligence to the British indicating the ships were housing prisoners and death camp inmates, but that information was never communicated to mission planners

  8. How many Allied troops were casualties in the Battle of the Bulge due to friendly fire? I know one soldier who said about half of his battalion died that way within a few minutes.