‘Friendly Fire’ disaster for Royal Navy off Le Havre


27 August 1944: Friendly fire disaster for Royal Navy off Le Havre

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.

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.

US bombers prepare the ground for Operation Cobra


24 July 1944: US heavy bombers prepare the ground for Operation Cobra

It was impossible to give help as long as the air raid lasted. Several companies of the 5th Para Division who tried to withdraw to the north in the direction of Marigny were entirely destroyed by Lightnings, pursuit planes and bombers. On that day my company lost one officer, and 34 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. The attack lasted approximately three hours.

RAF Molesworth (USAAF Station 107), Cambridgeshire, was the home of the 303rd BG from late 1942 until after VE Day in May 1945.
RAF Molesworth (USAAF Station 107), Cambridgeshire, was the home of the 303rd BG from late 1942 until after VE Day in May 1945.
B-17 Flying fortress heavy bombers in flight above the clouds.
B-17 Flying fortress heavy bombers in flight above the clouds.

After many delays, mainly caused by inclement weather which restricted flying, the Allies were now poised for a breakout in Normandy. The British in the east continued to engage the bulk of the Panzers, while the Germans were making every effort to transfer some across to face the Americans, where they anticipated new problems.

Now Omar Bradley decided that he needed the extra support of the heavy bombers to blast apart the German lines facing his sector. He flew to England to confer with the Allied Air commanders over their direct intervention on the battlefield. A plan was developed for 1,500 heavy bombers and 350 medium bombers, supported by 350 fighter bombers to pulverise 5 square miles of countryside.

However the weather continued to conspire against the Allies, when the attack was launched prematurely on the 24th.

This is the account of German medical sergeant Walter Klein:

On the morning of 24 July 1944, I just came back from the dressing station to the position when we were attacked by artillery. Our anti-aircraft platoon had two dead, three severely wounded.

My own company, the heavy company of Kampfgruppe Heintz, lost only one man. With the help of two stretcher-bearers and the medical unit of the neighbouring company, we went back to the dressing station, to bring the wounded there. We arrived there at about 0900 hours.

At 0915 hours there was such strong air activity over the combat line that we had to take the St Lo — Vire road to get back from the dressing station to the position. We had the prescribed insignia, and knew that the American aviators would not fire on us.

Over the sector held by my company were approximately 18 to 25 Lightnings, which were firing systematically on every hedge. Our position was situated in a wooded sector. We left the road to reach the position and took a sunken road. It was 1100 hours. According to orders I had to report back to the company command post, but on the sunken road I found five wounded parachute gunners of the 5th Para Division, injured by a splinter bomb.

What happened during the following hours was terrific. By our calculation, 1,000 to 1,200 bombers took part in the attack The effect was devastating; all our anti-aircraft guns and artillery were destroyed. Tanks that tried to get away were destroyed by pursuit planes.

When a wave of planes had passed, one could hear the crying of the wounded and shouting for help of medical personnel. I had just the time to carry one of my comrades, who had been wounded badly in the thigh, into the dugout when a second wave started bombing.

It was impossible to give help as long as the air raid lasted. Several companies of the 5th Para Division who tried to withdraw to the north in the direction of Marigny were entirely destroyed by Lightnings, pursuit planes and bombers. On that day my company lost one officer, and 34 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. The attack lasted approximately three hours.

At 1930 I brought the last wounded to the dressing station. The unit had moved to another position. The general opinion of my comrades and even the officers was that, if the enemy made another attack, it would be our end. Only one heavy weapon was left and it only had six rounds of ammunition. Of our heavy trench mortars only two were left.

The St Lo front had suffered very much from this attack. Worse than the loss of weapons was the effect that the attack had made on our morale.

On 25 July, the Americans started to make the breakthrough. At daybreak, as on the day before, innumerable pursuit planes and artillery-spotting planes were over the battleeld. Almost every rifle pit was shelled. At 1400 hours, when I accompanied some wounded to the dressing station, I found that American tanks were already driving along the St Lo — Vire road.

B-17 bombers encounter heavy flak over the target area during a mission to Germany.
B-17 bombers encounter heavy flak over the target area during a mission to Germany.

This account appears in Nigel Cawthorne: Reaping the Whirlwind

However if things were bad for the Germans they were also bad for the American 30th Division, who were on the receiving end of a good proportion of bombs that fell short. John Adams was one of the men in the trenches who narrowly escaped:

the attack was scheduled for July 24, 1944. However that morning dawned with overcast skies so the attack was postponed until July 25, 1944. Several squadrons of heavy bombers which had already left their bases in England did not get the word. We were expecting our planes to come in on a parallel course to the road and we had marked our front with reflective panel. Every allied vehicle had been repainted with a large white star which should be visible even at a high altitude. We were told the bombers would not bomb within 250 yards of the road. That’s not the way it happened!

I remember it as clear as things I did yesterday. I heard the sounds of the planes coming and was out of my hole cheering them on. Two things were wrong – one, they were not the fighter bombers we were told would come first; second, they were coming in on a perpendicular course which meant they would fly right over us. Some one called for us to get in our holes that bombs were being released. 300 heavy bombers dropped seven hundred tons of explosives with one salvo falling in the area I was in. Its hard to describe the noise and how we felt. The first blast pitched me around in my hole. I blacked out with the next blast.

When I came to it was all over, a medic was wiping blood off my face. he said it was hard to tell whether the blood was just from my nose or a trickle from my eyes or ears. he was marking me for transportation to the Hospital but I told him the attack was called off and I needed to account for my men and I could go later. The was, as it ended up I was still there to take what was left of the 3rd platoon into the attack the next day.

The 120th Infantry – my regiment had had 25 men killed, 131 wounded and thousands of men shaken up. I was one of those badly shook up but still going. I can’t remember anything until the morning of July 25. My guess is that I was exhausted and went to sleep.

See DonChesnut for John Adams’ full account, written in a letter to his grandson.

The devastating bomb load is released.
The devastating bomb load is released.

Two G.C.’s after Soham Railway Disaster


2 June 1944:Two G.C.’s after Soham Railway Disaster

Gimbert and Nightall were fully aware of the contents of the wagon which was on fire and displayed outstanding courage and resource in endeavouring to isolate it. When they discovered that the wagon was on fire they could easily have left the train and sought shelter, but realising that if they did not remove the burning vehicle the whole of the train, which consisted of 51 wagons of explosives, would have blown up, they risked their lives in order to minimise the effect of the fire.

The railway engine blown apart by the explosion at Soham in the early hours of 2nd June 1944. Miraculously the engine driver, Benjamin Gimbert, survived being blown some 200 yards.
The railway engine blown apart by the explosion at Soham in the early hours of 2nd June 1944. Miraculously the engine driver, Benjamin Gimbert, survived being blown some 200 yards.

Given the huge quantities of explosives that were brought across the Atlantic and then transported around Britain, it seems remarkable that there were not more accidents during the war.

One exception is the trainload of USAAF bombs being sent from Immingham to the air bases in Cambridgeshire. There were around 400 tons of bombs on board plus more wagons full of detonators. As they approached the small market town of Soham:

… the driver, Benjamin Gimbert, noticed some steam issuing from the left-hand injector and looked out of his cab window. Although he could see but nine to twelve inches, into the left-hand rear corner of the first wagon above the rear of his tender Ben saw flames rising some eighteen inches from the bottom.

The flames were spreading rapidly as if taking hold, unaccountably, of inflammable material. He sounded his whistle to alert the guard and stopped the train gently, taking about three minutes, for any jolt could have proved disastrous.

Having stopped some ninety yards short of the station platform ramps he urged his fireman, James Nightall, to get down to uncouple the burning wagon from the rest, advising him to take a coal hammer in case the coupling was already too hot to handle.

Jim leapt to the task, released the coupling and climbed back on the footplate within a minute and Ben sped the engine and its fireball away, aiming to get it into the open country. 140 yards forward into the station, now illuminated by the burning wagon, he slowed down to shout to the signalman, Frank ‘Sailor’ Bridges: ‘Sailor – have you anything between here and Fordham! Where’s the mail!’

But Frank was ahead of him, having not received the mail train and having requested another engine to tow the detached wagons away. Ben had crossed to the fireman’s side to talk to Frank who was waiting on that offside platform with a full fire bucket hoping, forlornly, to douse the flames, putting his life at risk like the others to avert disaster.

He had no moment to answer or act. The earth shattered in one enormous blast, smashing him to the floor mortally wounded. Less than seven minutes had elapsed since Ben saw the fire. At approximately 1.43am. Forty-four general purpose bombs each weighing five hundred pounds, in total containing 5.14 tons of explosive content, went up as one, reducing the station to rubble, killing Jim Nightall outright, blasting Ben Gimbert some two hundred yards away.

The whole account in ‘But For Such Men As These’ by Anthony Day, used to be available at http://www.soham.org/index.php/history/soham-railway-disaster.It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

The destruction caused by the 5 tons of bombs that exploded was considerable, completely demolishing the railway station, and left everyone realising how narrowly they had escaped the blast from the full trainload of 400 tons. Nevertheless the line was vital to the war effort and men were drafted in, reopening the line by the evening of the same day.

The driver, Benjamin Gimbert, and the fireman James Nightall were awarded the George Cross:

As an ammunition train was pulling into a station in Cambridgeshire, the driver, Gimbert, discovered that the wagon next to the engine was on fire. He immediately drew Nightall’s attention to the fire and brought the train to a standstill. By the time the train had stopped the whole of the truck was enveloped in flames and, realising the danger, the driver instructed the fireman to try to uncouple the truck immediately behind the blazing vehicle. Without the slightest hesitation Nightall, although he knew that the truck contained explosives, uncoupled the vehicle and rejoined his driver on the footplate.

The blazing van was close to the station buildings and was obviously liable to endanger life in the village. The driver and fireman realised that it was essential to separate the truck from the remainder of the train and run it into the open. Driver Gimbert set the engine in motion and as he approached a signal box he warned the signalman to stop any trains which were likely to be involved and indicated what he intended to do. Almost immediately the vehicle blew up. Nightall was killed and Gimbert was very severely injured.

Gimbert and Nightall were fully aware of the contents of the wagon which was on fire and displayed outstanding courage and resource in endeavouring to isolate it. When they discovered that the wagon was on fire they could easily have left the train and sought shelter, but realising that if they did not remove the burning vehicle the whole of the train, which consisted of 51 wagons of explosives, would have blown up, they risked their lives in order to minimise the effect of the fire. There is no doubt that if the whole train had been involved, as it would have been but for the gallant action of the men concerned, there would have been serious loss of life and property.

The crater shows the scale of the devastation - which demolished the station building. Yet the line, vital for the supply of munitions, was repaired the same day.
The crater shows the scale of the devastation – which demolished the station building. Yet the line, vital for the supply of munitions, was repaired the same day.

George Cross following munitions factory explosion


22 February 1944: George Cross following munitions factory explosion

At 8.30 am that morning, one fuze exploded, immediately detonating the whole tray. The girl working on that tray was killed outright and her body disintegrated; two girls standing behind her were partly shielded from the blast by her body, but both were seriously injured, one fatally. The factory was badly damaged: the roof was blown off, electric fittings were dangling precariously; and one of the walls was swaying in the breeze.

Mrs D Cheatle from Sheffield operating a capstan lathe at a munitions factory in Yorkshire during 1942.
Mrs D Cheatle from Sheffield operating a capstan lathe at a munitions factory in Yorkshire during 1942.
The War Effort: In an underground munitions factory at Liverpool, the Pressing Bay Forewoman, Mrs M Porter, gives out shell caps for pressing.
The War Effort: In an underground munitions factory at Liverpool, the Pressing Bay Forewoman, Mrs M Porter, gives out shell caps for pressing.

The war produced a seemingly insatiable appetite for ammunition of every type. The Ordnance factories expanded dramatically and became major employers for women, just as they had in the First World War. Although dominated by women a few men remained.

Arthur Bywater had tried to join the RAF at the beginning of the war but had been refused because of his expertise with ordnance. He was to rise to the occasion when an explosion killed one female worker early on the 22nd February 1944.

The citation for his award was remarkably brief, for reasons of wartime security, when little could be said about munitions factories:

The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to: — Richard Arthur Samuel Bywater, Factory Development Officer, Ministry of Supply Factory.

For outstanding heroism and devotion to duty when an explosion occurred in a factory.

London Gazette 26th September 1944

The most complete account of this incident comes from his obituary:

On February 22 1944, in one of the buildings of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Kirby, in Lancashire, 19 operatives, most of them women, were at work on the last stage of filling anti-tank mine fuzes. Each operative was working on a tray of 25 fuzes, and in the building at the time there were some 12,000 stacked on portable tables, each holding 40 trays, or 1,000 fuzes.

At 8.30 am that morning, one fuze exploded, immediately detonating the whole tray. The girl working on that tray was killed outright and her body disintegrated; two girls standing behind her were partly shielded from the blast by her body, but both were seriously injured, one fatally. The factory was badly damaged: the roof was blown off, electric fittings were dangling precariously; and one of the walls was swaying in the breeze.

The superintendent arrived with Bywater, his factory development officer. It seemed quite likely that the damaged fuzes, and others which could be faulty, might cause an even larger explosion. The high wind at the time, or any vibration, could set off further detonations over an area of half a mile.

Bywater cleared the building so that the maintenance crew could shore up the walls. He then volunteered to take on the dangerous task of removing all the fuzes to a place of safety where they could be dealt with.

Having selected some volunteers, he started at once. Bywater and his colleagues worked for three days moving the fuzes to a position close to the exit and then transporting them to a site about a mile away, where they were destroyed. By the end they had removed 12,724 fuzes from the factory.

Bywater gave instructions that he was to be given any fuzes that looked defective, and 23 were passed to him. On each occasion, he made his colleagues take cover while he removed the fuze and put it into a tray well away from the others. He then placed the tray on a rubber-tyred flat trolley and, with one colleague carrying a red flag 50 yards ahead, and another 50 yards behind, he slowly pushed the trolley to the destroying grounds.

There he personally laid out the fuzes in specially prepared pits. He placed sandbags on each of the pits and connected the electrical detonator and gun cotton primer. Not until he was certain that the operation had been made as safe as possible did he delegate to his colleagues the task of destruction, which went on for seven days a week for a month.

One fuze, Bywater judged, was in such a sensitive condition that it was too dangerous to be carried to the destruction site. He knew of two instances in which men trying to handle such a fuze had been blown to pieces. But to destroy the fuze inside the factory would cause enormous damage.

Selecting a location a short distance from the building, Bywater had an iron safe placed there with plenty of sandbags around it. Then, having sent all his colleagues out of the danger area, he carefully picked up the fuze, tip-toed across the grass and gently placed it in the safe. The sandbags were piled on, everyone withdrew out of range and the fuze was detonated.

In the investigation that followed, it was discovered that the original explosion at the factory had been accidental, caused by a defective striker. A faulty design in the stamping machine which marked the fuze heads with the lot numbers and dates of filling had damaged the striker stems.

Read the full obituary at the Daily Telegraph which includes an account of how Bywater earnt a George Medal for his role in evacuating the factory following another explosion later in the year. Arthur Bryant became the only civilian to earn both the George Cross and the George Medal.

HM Queen Elizabeth is fitted with special shoes by a munitions worker before she can enter the 'danger' area of ROF Thorp Arch. The area of the factory where workers change from their outdoor clothes (the 'dirty' side) into their factory clothes and stepped across a low barrier onto the 'clean', factory, side is known as the 'shifting house'. Strict rules were in operation on the 'clean' side due to the highly dangerous nature of work in filling factories.
HM Queen Elizabeth is fitted with special shoes by a munitions worker before she can enter the ‘danger’ area of ROF Thorp Arch. The area of the factory where workers change from their outdoor clothes (the ‘dirty’ side) into their factory clothes and stepped across a low barrier onto the ‘clean’, factory, side is known as the ‘shifting house’. Strict rules were in operation on the ‘clean’ side due to the highly dangerous nature of work in filling factories.
HM King George VI talks to a munitions worker at her machine during a visit to ROF Thorp Arch.
HM King George VI talks to a munitions worker at her machine during a visit to ROF Thorp Arch.
A Royal visit to the Leyland Factory, England, UK, 1941
A Royal visit to the Leyland Factory, England, UK, 1941
A munitions worker shows off the largest and smallest of shells produced at this British shell factory.
A munitions worker shows off the largest and smallest of shells produced at this British shell factory.

General Mark Clark survives ‘friendly fire’


28 January 1944: General Mark Clark survives ‘friendly fire’

Until that moment I had managed to get out of the wind by sitting on a stool beside the skipper, where the bridge of the boat gave me some protection. However, just before the AM I20 challenged us I got up and moved slightly to one side. The captain of the minesweeper apparently misread our signal, or perhaps it was just that everybody along the coast that dark and windy morning was trigger-happy.

New Allied landings in Italy! Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, C/G Fifth Army, looks toward the shore from the P.T. boat enroute to the new beachhead established by Allied troops on West coast of Italy south of Rome, Italy. 25 January 1944
New Allied landings in Italy! Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, C/G Fifth Army, looks toward the shore from the P.T. boat enroute to the new beachhead established by Allied troops on West coast of Italy south of Rome, Italy. 25 January 1944

General Mark Clark, commanding the Allied 5th Army in Italy, now faced a difficult situation. It had been impossible for the Cassino front to break through to join up with the Anzio beachhead as had been hoped. There was now a developing stalemate at Cassino and the Anzio beachhead looked increasingly like it was going to come under threat itself, rather than threatening the Germans in the rear.

As he set out for Anzio in a fast PT boat for the short trip up the coast, he was not aware that the Allied fleet was becoming rather nervous about the activities of German E boats, their fast motor boat. No message had been broadcast to the ships in the area of his imminent arrival:

The next morning, January 28, I went down to the mouth of the Volturno before dawn to embark by P.T. boat for Anzio.

… the situation at Anzio was becoming critical. The enemy air-raids and shelling had caused heavy damage, and there were rumours that German torpedo-boats were roaming along the coast to attack our shipping.

Everything went all right, however, until we were about seven miles south of Anzio, still travelling in semi-darkness. There the AM 120, a U.S. minesweeper, challenged us. Lieutenant Patterson, commander of our P.T., ordered green and yellow flares to be fired, and we flashed the designated signal on the blinker to identify ourselves as friendly.

Until that moment I had managed to get out of the wind by sitting on a stool beside the skipper, where the bridge of the boat gave me some protection. However, just before the AM I20 challenged us I got up and moved slightly to one side. The captain of the minesweeper apparently misread our signal, or perhaps it was just that everybody along the coast that dark and windy morning was trigger-happy.

Anyhow, the minesweeper fired on us, cutting loose with 40-mm. and five-inch shells. Their marksmanship, unfortunately, was pretty good. A number of shells struck our P.T. boat, and the second one went right through the stool on which I had been sitting.

The skipper was wounded in both legs and fell to the deck. I heard a shell explode below-decks. There was confusion throughout the boat, and several men were knocked from their feet, two of them fatally wounded.

I picked up a Very pistol which some one had dropped, and again fired the correct signal to identify ourselves as friendly, but the firing from the minesweeper continued. I fired it again, with no result. By that time I had had a chance to look round. I saw that all three naval officers on the boat and two naval ratings were casualties. There was no one at the wheel, but Ensign Benson got to his feet, despite leg-wounds, and swung the boat round.

I knelt down by the skipper, who couldn’t get up from the deck, and said, “What do we do?” “I don’t know,” he answered. “Well, let’s run for it,” I said. Then I held him up so that he could see what was happening and direct the movements of the boat. We ran for it, with shells still spattering around. So did the other P.T. boat accompanying us, although it escaped damage.

By the time we were clear our deck seemed to be littered with casualties and running with blood. One of the figures that had been knocked to the deck turned out to be Gervasi [Frank Gervasi, a war correspondent], who was groggy and soaked with blood down the front of his uniform. I began helping him get his jacket unbuttoned; we had to dig clear down to his bare skin before either one of us realized that he wasn’t wounded, but merely covered with somebody else’s blood.

See General Mark W. Clark: Calculated Risk

DUKW amphibious vehicles loaded with troops and equipment come ashore at Anzio.
DUKW amphibious vehicles loaded with troops and equipment come ashore at Anzio.
An "attrezzeria" is a tool shop, which may be the building the plane crashed into. Near Anzio, Italy. 30 January 1944
An “attrezzeria” is a tool shop, which may be the building the plane crashed into. Near Anzio, Italy. 30 January 1944

Malfunction leads to the tragic loss of Spitfire pilot


5 January 1944: Small malfunction leads to the tragic loss of Spitfire pilot

No. 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron RAF were a very experienced unit, having been flying Spitfires since they were on the front line of the Battle of Britain. They had then seen service in North Africa and Sicily. In December 1943 they transferred to India where they would soon be taking an active role in the campaign in Burma.

A Supermarine Spitfire Mark VB carrying two 250-lb GP bombs on underwing shackles, prepares to take off from an airfield in North Africa. No. 152 Squadron RAF began the first use of the Spitfire as a fighter bomber in North Africa, flying "Rhubarb" sorties from Souk el Khemis, Tunisia, in March 1943.
A Supermarine Spitfire Mark VB carrying two 250-lb GP bombs on underwing shackles, prepares to take off from an airfield in North Africa. No. 152 Squadron RAF began the first use of the Spitfire as a fighter bomber in North Africa, flying “Rhubarb” sorties from Souk el Khemis, Tunisia, in March 1943.
Supermarine Spitfire Mark VCs of No. 152 Squadron RAF being refuelled between sorties at Lentini East, Sicily, as another Spitfire flies over them.
Supermarine Spitfire Mark VCs of No. 152 Squadron RAF being refuelled between sorties at Lentini East, Sicily, as another Spitfire flies over them.

No. 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron RAF were a very experienced unit, having been flying Spitfires since they were on the front line of the Battle of Britain. They had then seen service in North Africa and Sicily. In December 1943 they transferred to India where they would soon be taking an active role in the campaign in Burma.

The 5th January 1944 would have seen just another routine training flight for 152 Squadron. Unfortunately it is remembered for a single tragic mistake or malfunction. The following letter is self explanatory:

5th january 1944 CT Cole

Courtesy of the online museum of No. 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron, where

‘ COLE, Flight Sergeant, CHARLES THOMAS, 1316347. 152 Sqdn. Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. 5th January 1944. Age 21. Son of Amy Cole; husband of Marjorie A. Cole, of Longlevens, Gloucestershire.’

is remembered in the the Roll of Honour (worth making sure your speakers are turned up before following this link).

A pilot of No. 152 Squadron RAF climbs into the cockpit of Supermarine Spitfire Mark VC, JG871 ‘L-E’, shortly after the unit re-equipped with the type, at Souk-el-Khemis ("Paddington"), Tunisia.
A pilot of No. 152 Squadron RAF climbs into the cockpit of Supermarine Spitfire Mark VC, JG871 ‘L-E’, shortly after the unit re-equipped with the type, at Souk-el-Khemis (“Paddington”), Tunisia.
Warrant Officer R E Partidge of Brisbane, Australia, (left) and Sergeant Cyril Potter of Northampton, two pilots of No. 152 Squadron RAF at Sinthe, Burma, examine the damage caused to the elevator of Potter's Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII during a dogfight with Japanese 'Oscars'.
Warrant Officer R E Partidge of Brisbane, Australia, (left) and Sergeant Cyril Potter of Northampton, two pilots of No. 152 Squadron RAF at Sinthe, Burma, examine the damage caused to the elevator of Potter’s Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII during a dogfight with Japanese ‘Oscars’.

Disaster at Bethnal Green Underground station

3rd March 1943: Disaster at Bethnal Green Underground station

There were nearly 2000 in the shelter, including several hundred who had arrived after the Alert, when a middle-aged woman, burdened with a bundle and a baby, tripped near the foot of a flight of 19 steps which leads down from the street. This flight of steps terminates on a landing. Her fall tripped an elderly man behind her and he fell similarly. Their bodies again tripped up those behind them, and within a few seconds a large number were lying on the lower steps and the landing, completely blocking the stairway.

Home Guard soldiers load an anti-aircraft rocket at a 'Z' Battery on Merseyside, 6 July 1942.
Home Guard soldiers load an anti-aircraft rocket at a ‘Z’ Battery on Merseyside, 6 July 1942.
Anti-aircraft rocket or 'Z' Battery manned by the Home Guard on Merseyside, 6 July 1942.
Anti-aircraft rocket or ‘Z’ Battery manned by the Home Guard on Merseyside, 6 July 1942.

Although the worst days of the blitz had long since passed the threat of intermittent bombing remained in Britain and regularly caused death and destruction across the south and east of Britain. Anti-aircraft gun emplacements were concentrated in all centres of population, often with women working alongside on the aircraft detector equipment. London remained a primary target and the threat of air raids was very real. People were still using the Underground railway stations as safe places to sleep every night.

The news that the RAF had bombed Berlin on the night of the 1st March had heightened the sense that there might be a retaliatory raid. In the East End of London, in Victoria Park, the anti-aircraft gunners were about to test a new system of anti aircraft rockets. These circumstances led to a tragic chain of events when the air raid sirens went off on the evening of the 3rd February and the searchlights went on when enemy aircraft apparently flew overhead.

Alf Morris was a boy at the time:

Children used to line up outside the Tube entrance from about 4.30pm until 6.30pm when it opened. Then we would go down the escalators to the platform and put a blanket on the place where we were going to sleep that night.

On the day disaster struck the radio went off at about 8pm. My mother and father told my aunt, who was living with us in Old Ford Road, to go to the shelter. My aunt and I were walking along Old Ford Road when the searchlight came on, it went on to an aircraft and that is when anti-aircraft guns started firing. The rocket guns in Victoria Park also fired.

I was being carried down the staircase and the noise of the new rocket guns could be heard. Someone shouted “there is a bomb coming” and people started to push forward. I was about the third stair from the bottom but could not move as my legs were trapped. An air raid warden called Mrs. Chumley pulled me out of the crush by my hair and then put her arms under mine and pulled me out.

My aunt had to leave her coat and shoes in the crush to get out. She was bruised black and blue. We were then told to go to the bottom of the stairs and taken to the duty warden and told to say nothing.

Bethnal Green Underground station entrance in 1943. The station had been built just before the war and building work had not been completed, there were no handrails on the stairs. copyright: Tower Hamlets Local History Archive
Bethnal Green Underground station entrance in 1943. The station had been built just before the war and building work had not been completed, there were no handrails on the stairs.
Copyright: Tower Hamlets Local History Archive

Read the whole of Alf Morris’s account at Stairway to Heaven Memorial

He had had a very lucky escape, the scale of the tragedy that unfolded was difficult to comprehend. In amongst the hundreds of people trying to cram into the Underground station, many would be crushed to death:

The Ministry Of Home Security made the following statement:

According to accounts so far received, shortly after the air-raid Alert sounded, substantial numbers of people were making their way as usual towards the shelter entrance.

There were nearly 2000 in the shelter, including several hundred who had arrived after the Alert, when a middle-aged woman, burdened with a bundle and a baby, tripped near the foot of a flight of 19 steps which leads down from the street. This flight of steps terminates on a landing. Her fall tripped an elderly man behind her and he fell similarly. Their bodies again tripped up those behind them, and within a few seconds a large number were lying on the lower steps and the landing, completely blocking the stairway.

Those coming in from the street could not see what had taken place and continued to press down the steps, so that within a minute there were about 300 people crushed together and lying on top of one another covering the landing and the lower steps.

By the time it was possible to extricate the bodies it was found that a total at present estimated at 178 had died and that a further 60 were in need of hospital treatment. Statements from a large number of eye-witnesses and members of the police and Civil Defence services make it clear that there was no sign of panic before the accident on the stairs.

No bombs fell anywhere in this district during the evening. Preliminary reports received by the Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security indicate that police, wardens, soldiers, W.V.S. and civilians worked hard and well to rescue the victims. Mr. Morrison has instituted the fullest inquiries to establish in greater detail what took place and to see whether any structural or administrative weaknesses have been brought to light

Guard manning an anti-aircraft rocket weapon (known as a ''Z' Battery) at Bootle, Liverpool, January 1942.
Guard manning an anti-aircraft rocket weapon (known as a ”Z’ Battery) at Bootle, Liverpool, January 1942.

Surviving an aircraft crash in the desert

15th November 1942: Surviving an aircraft crash in the desert

I was out of there very quickly. We all got out alive, but some of the passengers were injured. The ones who weren’t hurt soon had some tea brewed, by puncturing one of the wing tanks to get petrol, and brewing with usual half tins. The skipper ordered me to get back in the aircraft and send out an SOS on the radio. This was a bit dicey because there was petrol everywhere, and the generators for the radio gave off sparks.

A Hawker Hurricane Mark IID of No. 6 Squadron RAF gives a demonstration of the firepower of its Vickers 40mm Type S anti-tank guns against derelict German tanks in the North African desert.
A Stuart tank being refuelled from an RAF fuel bowser outside Sidi Barrani, 15 November 1942.

In the Western Desert the pursuit of the Afrika Korps continued. For RAF units the race was on to establish new airfields in the forward area so that Allied aircraft had the range to stay with the ground forces.

Fred Oldfield was a RAF Air Gunner with 221 Squadron based at Shallufa, near Suez, Egypt. He led a charmed existence because this was the third of four occasions when he survived an aircraft crash:

On November 15th 1942 we were called upon to ferry barrels of oil and petrol to Gambut, which was quite well up towards Tobruk. This was required for the fighter aircraft which had followed hard on the heels of the Eighth Army, and we loaded the aircraft and flew the several hundred miles to Gambut. The place was like a beehive, people all over the place, but we got a mug of tea and a bite to eat from a mobile caravan. By this time we had got a new Sqdn C.O. – Wing Commander Jock Hutton – and he was at Gambut. He was a smashing bloke and he stood in the queue with the rest of us, with a mess tin in his hand.

We took on five passengers – ground crew chaps – and this skipper of ours, had to show off by flying a few feet from the ground the whole way back. Whenever he saw some kind of a camp he would beat it up, blowing down tents, then going out over the sea where you could see great big troughs where the slip stream hit the water.

We were so low we were practically touching the water and he was laughing, this being just his kind of thing. It was obvious to me that something would go wrong, and I prepared myself in the usual position, under the astrodome. Then it happened – he flew the aircraft into the ground. There was a slight rise and he flew the aircraft into it. The engines screamed, the propellors bent and buckled and the belly of the aircraft was ripped out. We even went under some telegraph wires before plunging into the ground again, eventually coming to rest.

I was out of there very quickly. We all got out alive, but some of the passengers were injured. The ones who weren’t hurt soon had some tea brewed, by puncturing one of the wing tanks to get petrol, and brewing with usual half tins. The skipper ordered me to get back in the aircraft and send out an SOS on the radio. This was a bit dicey because there was petrol everywhere, and the generators for the radio gave off sparks. I climbed in and gingerly operated the switch, ready to dive for the hatch, but nothing happened and the SOS I sent, was in fact received in Malta and relayed back to our Squadron.

The skipper set out across the desert to look for help and we settled down around a small fire that our ground crew had got going, brewed some more tea and cooked the emergency rations of tinned sausages and tinned tomatoes, served up with hard tack biscuits. The skipper returned eventually with some blankets and we got down for the night around the fire. We were woken after a while by a sound, and it turned out to be a couple of Bedouin Arabs, looking for their sheep, which they said had been scattered by the Germans. They were very pleasant and even gave us some cigarettes.

The next morning we made our way to the road, stopped a few lorries and cadged some cigarettes. After a while we found a German stores which had been abandoned in such haste they were almost intact. We got all sorts of souvenirs; boots, haversack, ground sheet, shirt and shorts, a helmet and caps, and a jacket with the German eagle badge on it…. didn’t do us much good because we lost the lot later.

We had a high old time throwing mortar bombs around and were lucky we didn’t blow ourselves up. We quite enjoyed ransacking this German store.

One of our aircraft came up to rescue us. It was piloted by the Flight Commander, Harding – He couldn’t land, so he went back and arranged for a lorry to come and take us to LG013. I think they were South Africans at this landing ground and we were given a tent and slept on the ground.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War.

Flying Officer L C Wade of No. 33 Squadron RAF, photographed at Gambut, Libya, after being awarded the DFC for his successes in the Western Desert fighting.
Lance Wade, a Texan, joined the RAF in Canada in 1940 after being turned down by the USAAC. After pilot training in the United Kingdom, he joined No. 33 Squadron in Egypt and claimed his first victories on 18 November 1941 when he shot down two Italian Fiat CR42s. He took part in the heaviest fighting in the Western Desert before completing his first tour of operations in September 1942. He then toured training establishments and test-flew aircraft in the USA before returning to operations in North Africa as a flight commander with No. 145 Squadron RAF in January 1943. He was made Commanding Officer the following month and added to his victory claims over Tunisia, Sicily and Italy, before ending his second tour as the top-scoring Allied fighter pilot in the Mediterranean area in November 1943. Wade was promoted to Wing Commander and joined the staff at Desert Air Force Headquarters, only to be killed during a routine flight when his Auster spun and crashed at Foggia on 12 January 1944. He remains the highest-scoring American pilot to serve solely in the RAF, with 25 victories.
Flight Lieutenant J L Waddy of No. 260 Squadron RAF, sitting in the cockpit of the Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark I (named “Ve” after his wife) which he flew while a member of No. 250 Squadron RAF, at LG 91, Egypt. Waddy, an Australian, joined the RAAF in September 1940 and was posted to 250 Squadron RAF in Egyptin in November, following his pilot training. After claiming eight and one shared victories, he moved to 260 Squadron RAF at the end of May 1942. He enjoyed further success before being granted leave in June and joining No. 4 Squadron SAAF the following month. Waddy’s final operational posting in North Africa was to No. 92 Squadron RAF in October 1942, with whom he scored the last of his 16 victories. He then returned to Australia where, after a period as a flying instructor, he was given the command of No. 80 Squadron RAAF whom he led until June 1945.

Tragedy over Dorset

The pilot stalked the returning German raider for several minutes unseen before opening fire and watching the bomber spin out of control to crash near the market town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Four crew members were able to escape by parachute, but the rear gunner was later found dead in the wreckage.

The Whitley bomber was outdated at the start of the war but with no alternatives available was kept on offensive operations until 1942.

In the early hours of 4th April [but see comments below] a black painted Hurricane night fighter from No. 87 Squadron flying from RAF Charmy Down, Somerset was patrolling in the dark watching for the frequent German raiders targeting the ports of South Wales and Bristol. With no technical aids and reliant only on his eyes, the pilot of the Hurricane found a twin engine bomber heading south at 10,000 feet. It was headed in the direction of German bombers returning to bases in France.

The pilot stalked the returning German raider for several minutes unseen before opening fire and watching the bomber spin out of control to crash near the market town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Four crew members were able to escape by parachute, but the rear gunner was later found dead in the wreckage.

The tragedy was that the rear gunner was Sgt William Brindley of the RAF. The Hurricane night fighter had shot down a Whitley bomber from No. 51 Squadron, on course for the the Nazi battle cruisers at Brest. Sergeant Brindley now lies in the cemetery near RAF Dishforth, his home base.

This was but one incident of ‘friendly-fire’. How common such events were is hard to assess, as no publicity was given to them at the time and RAF records remain opaque.

A Royal Air Force Hawker Hurricane Mark IIC (s/n BE500, ‘LK-A’, “United Provinces Cawnpore”) being flown by Squadron Leader Dennis Smallwood, the Commanding Officer of No. 87 Squadron RAF based at RAF Charmy Down, Somerset (UK). No. 87 Squadron was one of the first RAF night fighter squadrons. Sqn Ldr Smallwood led the squadron in 1941-42, when most intercepts were made entirely without on-board radar. The aircraft is painted in an overall black scheme known in the RAF as “Special Night”. BE500 subsequently served with No. 533 Squadron RAF and finally in the Far East.

Italo Balbo shot down over Tobruk

Italo Balbo’s plane was shot down by Italian guns as he into land at Tobruk in North Africa just moments after a British air raid on the Italian base. Subsequent conspiracy theories have suggested that he had argued with Mussolini over the North African strategy and was assassinated as a consequence.

Italo Balbo, the Commander in Chief of Italian Forces in North Africa, was killed when his plane was shot down, while attempting to land at Tobruk.

Italo Balbo was a charismatic Fascist, a re-knowned aviator in his own right. He had led two transatlantic expeditions of Italian flying boats that were magnificent advertisements for Italian air industry and the new ‘modern’ Italian state.

Italo Balbo’s plane was shot down by Italian guns as he came in to land at Tobruk in North Africa just moments after a British air raid on the Italian base. Balbo was known to have reservations about the alliance with Germany, to have opposed the anti-semitic policies that followed as a consequence and to have a realistic appreciation of the capabilities of the Italian armed forces that was at odds with the usual Fascist rhetoric.

Subsequent conspiracy theories have suggested that he had argued with Mussolini over the North African strategy and was assassinated as a consequence. There is no evidence to suggest that these arguments were leading to any exceptional rift between the ‘Il Duce’ and his commander in chief in the field. There is evidence to show that Balbo was planning to start the invasion of Egypt in July, plans that were now delayed. Furthermore it would have been extraordinarily difficult to engineer a ‘friendly fire’ assassination taking place co-incidental with a surprise British bombing raid.

Contemporary Italian newsreel of Italo Balbo personally leading a bombing mission: