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.

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 nearby formation of nine interceptors hears the distress call and speeds in to drive away the attacking aircraft. Spotting nine incoming bandits, the P-38s break off their strafing run. A fierce dogfight rages; both sides lose aircraft. After five minutes, the two factions with withdraw and the brief skirmish is over.

While a seemingly typical wartime encounter, the Nov. 7 air battle stands out today. That’s because the entire incident was a horrible mistake. Those ‘enemy’ ground troops that the American planes fell upon weren’t Germans at all – they were part of the Red Army. And it wasn’t Luftwaffe interceptors that flew to the rescue, but rather Soviet Yak-3 fighters. Most surprising of all, the American formation wasn’t even flying over German-controlled Kosovo. Due to a navigation error, the P-38s were 200 km away near Nis, Serbia — an area that had already been liberated by the Russians. [1]  The whole incident was a case of mistaken identity — just another instance of what is known officially (and ironically) as “friendly fire”. Yet sadly, the fatal air battle at Nis was 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
Bad weather and a breakdown of communication led to one of the nastiest incidents of friendly fire of the 1944 Normandy campaign. An epic 3,000-plane Allied bombing mission aimed at annihilating German defences near St. Lo, France went awry on July 25, leading to the accidental slaughter of more than 130 American troops. The plan, codenamed Cobra, originally called for British and American planes to drop their bombs as they flew east to west along the length of the German 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. Amazingly, the incident was a repeat of a similar debacle that occurred only the day before that saw 25 Americans 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 to be killed in battle in the entire war (and 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
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 the last remaining fighters and bombers for one final aerial blitz aimed at reigniting the stalled push into Belgium. The operation called for 900 aircraft to strike at British and American airfields in 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 suddenly overhead were British and American, German anti-aircraft batteries along the front opened fire on the  planes. 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
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
Only one crewmember of the German blockade runner The Doggerbank survived that ship’s deadly March 3, 1943 encounter with the Nazi submarine U-43. The formerly British-owned 5,000-ton 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 crewmembers 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 prisoner until war’s end. The U-43 would herself be destroyed in July of 1943 and all of her crew would perish. [8]

The Allerona Train Disaster – 400 Dead
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 was loaded with their own comrades.

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. [13]


Did you like this story? Please rate it below and let us know what you think. Comments are always welcome too. 
If you’d like to receive alerts about the latest articles and posts, click on the link in the upper right margin marked “FOLLOW THIS BLOG”. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter — @militaryhistorynow

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

20 comments for “Fatal Errors – The Worst Friendly Fire Incidents of World War Two

  1. 3 April, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Is there anyone out there who might possibly remember a New Zealand friendly fire incident where a US Army Cpl named Saul M Shocket, was shot and killed by a US sentry. This occured on Jan 5, 1943. saulselitetrng@aol.com

  2. 8 June, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    An update:
    Still searching for a surviving member of the Army 192 Field Artillery, New Caledonia, 1943

  3. 17 August, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    If you recall a Cpl Saul Shocket (23 y/o), who was killed by friendly-fire on 5 Jan, 1943 in New Caledonia. He had arrived on the TRYON from NZ just 1 week before his death.
    Please contact Saul Shocket (nephew) @ saulselitetrng@aol.com with any info.

    • 17 August, 2013 at 9:47 pm

      Perhaps someone who knows this person will get in touch.

  4. 3 September, 2013 at 7:46 am

    You might wish to add to your list of friendly fire casualties the 83+ killed in Bari, Italy, on 2 December 1943 – when German aircraft sank the US merchantman John Harvey, releasing its cargo of mustard gas in what was not only a “friendly fire” incident, but also the largest chemical warfare attack of the Second World War: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_raid_on_Bari

    • 3 September, 2013 at 8:26 am

      Good addition. I actually covered that in a story from 2012 about gas attacks since ww1.

  5. Bob Gimley
    3 September, 2013 at 10:50 am

    I thank you for the work you put into providing these articles. I am a frequent reader of your blog and always find something new and interesting. As a result of this article, I was looking for further information on the Cap Arcona and stumbled upon this book, which may be of interest to others. You can check it out here — http://www.nizkor.org/features/dentist/chapter-17.html

    • 3 September, 2013 at 11:35 am

      Thanks Bob. I appreciate that link (as do the other readers). And thanks for the kind words!

  6. Terry Adams
    14 January, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    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?

    • admin
      14 January, 2014 at 2:59 pm

      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.

  7. Terry Adams
    14 January, 2014 at 4:04 pm

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

  8. Animefan162a
    25 February, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    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.

    • admin
      26 February, 2014 at 1:50 am

      Good question. Anyone?

      • 26 March, 2015 at 12:11 am

        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.

  9. 26 May, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    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.

    • 26 March, 2015 at 12:15 am

      Gen. Patton wasn’t @ Normandy on D-Day. He came over a month or two later.

  10. Ian Ledgerton
    24 October, 2014 at 5:07 am

    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/

    • admin
      24 October, 2014 at 9:11 am

      Great addition. Thanks.

  11. 19 November, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    Red Army offensive in Karelian Isthmus, 10th of June 1944. Heavy artillery and mortal fire causing killed or wounded about one thousand own soldiers during that day.

Leave a Reply