‘Friendly Fire’ disaster for Royal Navy off Le Havre

An armourer attaching the electrical plugs which fire the 3-inch rocket projectiles on the rocket-rails of a Hawker Typhoon Mark IB of No. 121 Wing at B5/Le Fresne Camilly, Normandy.

An armourer attaching the electrical plugs which fire the 3-inch rocket projectiles on the rocket-rails of a Hawker Typhoon Mark IB of No. 121 Wing at B5/Le Fresne Camilly, Normandy.

The minesweepers had led the way for the D-Day invasion in June, when senior Naval commanders anticipated heavy losses from German shore batteries. Losses, not just to minesweepers but to all Naval vessels, had proved to be much lighter than expected throughout the whole campaign. The minesweepers continued to play a vital role in keeping the sea lanes clear for the heavy cross Channel traffic that supported the Allied invasion force.

Signalman Lawrence Fitton describes the work of the minesweepers off France in the summer of 1944:

As you know all things went well although jerry tried his hardest to delay us. Then our day consisted of minesweeping and at night keeping a good lookout for bombers laying more mines around us, but all nights didn’t pass easily and jerry found himself being forced back he brought all sorts of foul inventions into play.

Mines disguised as buoys and motor boats pilotless and full of high explosives. This occurred so often with night raids and E. Boat raids that the nights became nights of terror and when day came we could sleep in peace.

This continued until it was decided to storm Le Havre by sea. So it came about that we were detailed to sweep the entrance to the harbour. At first we were met with heavy gunfire but, towards the end of the week we had the upper hand and we started to get a little bolder and go closer inshore.

Tragically the largest single naval loss during the Overlord campaign came not as a result of German action.

Lieutenant‑Commander Johnson was on HMS Britomart on Sunday 27th August:

The second lunch had been cleared away and the wardroom table was covered with signals awaiting their turn. All officers not on the bridge ‑ and this included the warrant engineer and even the sweep deck officer ‑ were in the wardroom deciphering the mounds of signals that kept pouring in.

We had our heads down to this task when two great explosions shocked the entire ship by their power and violence, smashing, shattering, shuddering. My immediate thought was that we had been mined for’ard, but three seconds later, before we had time to collect ourselves, two more explosions sounded under the quarterdeck on the port side, muffled as though underwater.

The ship lurched over to starboard and rolled back to settle with a ten degree list to port, the officers’ cabins and alleyways having flooded instantly. Luckily in the wardroom we were all sitting either on the bulkhead settees or in low armchairs, not at the table, for at this moment cannon fire raked the wardroom just above table level, smashing right through the ship.

We bundled out on deck only to fall flat on our faces when greeted by a second bout of fire from an aircraft streaking past to starboard ‑ we were horrified to see that it was an RAF Typhoon. It wheeled round some distance astern and flew past us again ‑ our gunner on the after Oerlikon let fly until. No. 1 yelled to him to stop. We also recognized two other planes in the distance by the easily discernible white bands on their wings.

The realization that we had been attacked by friendly aircraft came as a great shock. A double shock, for any attack at all had seemed most unlikely with us steaming in the middle of a minefield, where no U‑boat could venture, and with the air completely dominated by Allied planes.

The Halcyon Class minesweeper HMS Hussar.

The Halcyon Class minesweeper HMS Hussar.

The account of Signalman Lawrence Fitton continues:

Then came the grand finale over the horizon came six allied planes and we being close inshore it was quite natural for them to mistake us for enemy vessels. Therefore after a few mistakes in positioning friendly shipping they attacked. I had only just come off watch and drunken my tot of rum, when a terrific explosion lifted us off the floor, or as we say deck, and flung me and my pals from one side of the ship to the other. We had been hit with a salvo of rockets from a typhoon.

In the space of a few seconds I was on my feet and running for top deck. On reaching it I saw several of my mates, chaps like myself who only a short time ago had been sunbathing, lying scattered about in huddled heaps. As the order to abandon ship was given I looked up and saw several of our own planes diving down. Too late I dropped down and when I stood up I was surprised to find I was covered all over in blood and having as yet felt no pain whatsoever.

Next I found myself in a motor boat leaving the ship. This means of transport was apparently too good for me, for when the planes had attacked they had riddled the motor boat, and we soon found ourselves sinking. Still not despaired I kicked off my shoes and commenced swimming, but I soon found myself without lifebelt and I realised it must have been punctured anyhow.

To add to this jerry started firing 9.2 heavy calibre shells at clusters of boats and also we were in an unswept part of the minefield, but after about 90 minutes of clinging to wreckage and attempting to swim, because by now the salt was in my wounds, I was eventually picked up and rushed by high speed launch to a hospital ship, from there to England, hospital and home.

But often I think of my pals who not so fortunate as me were either crippled or dead. That is why I find myself in no position to grumble at being away from home as throughout it all I managed to come up smiling and thank God for allowing me to live when better men died.

HMS Britomart and HMS Hussar were sunk, HMS Salamander was so badly damaged she would be scrapped and there were casualties on other ships that had suffered strafing. In total 117 sailors were dead and 153 injured.

It was all the result of poor communication. Naval officers had circulated the orders for the close inshore work by the minesweepers but the routine copy to Flag Officer British Assault Area was not sent, the officer responsible was new in post and his supervising officer did not notice the error. To compound matters the Royal Navy shore based radar was out of action on the morning of the 27th August – so the ships were not immediately spotted moving into the area and no questions were raised.

HMS Britomart was a Halcyon-class minesweeper of the Royal Navy.

HMS Britomart was a Halcyon-class minesweeper of the Royal Navy.

It was so improbable that German ships would be operating in broad daylight in this area that even the RAF officers who sent on the raid questioned their orders:

Operations Record Book No 263 squadron

The target of this operation was 5 ships off Etretat. 6 ships were located at the given pinpoint sailing S.W. 4 were probably destroyers and 2 motor vessels. Owing to doubt as to identity, controller was asked 4 times whether to attack and was told that the ships fired coloured lights, Controller said no friendly ships in area and ordered attack. The squadron claims salvo on one destroyer and on a second ship. There was some light flak.

With its rocket rails empty, a No 175 Squadron Typhoon taxies between the trees at Le Fresne-Camilly (B-5) after returning from a close-support sortie, 1 August 1944. By this date communications with the ground forces had been improved, and standing patrols of Typhoons ('cab ranks') could be called down when needed by forward controllers meanning mobile 'visual control posts' in the front line.

With its rocket rails empty, a No 175 Squadron Typhoon taxies between the trees at Le Fresne-Camilly (B-5) after returning from a close-support sortie, 1 August 1944. By this date communications with the ground forces had been improved, and standing patrols of Typhoons (‘cab ranks’) could be called down when needed by forward controllers meanning mobile ‘visual control posts’ in the front line.

These accounts are from a much wider selection of official reports and personal stories at Halcyon Class, which examines the incident in more detail.

The Hawker Typhoon's devastating rocket armament was effective against tanks, gun emplacements, buildings and railways. Coastal shipping was another target, including this unfortunate tug caught in the Scheldt estuary in September 1944. In this case the shell splashes from the aircraft's four 20mm cannon assist the pilot in correcting his aim before unleashing a salvo of RPs.

The Hawker Typhoon’s devastating rocket armament was effective against tanks, gun emplacements, buildings and railways. Coastal shipping was another target, including this unfortunate tug caught in the Scheldt estuary in September 1944. In this case the shell splashes from the aircraft’s four 20mm cannon assist the pilot in correcting his aim before unleashing a salvo of RPs.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: