Friendly Fire incidents, also called Blue on Blue attacks are a fairly common occurance in armed conflict. They occur on land, at sea and in the air. During WWII, B-17s and B-24 bombers flying in “box” formation to allow for mutual coverage of their .50 cal machine guns shot each other down as excited and target fixated gunners would rake one of their own bombers as they shot at a German fighter that passed near it.  In France an air force bombing strike landed on US troops instead of the Germans when clouds covered the target and their navigation was off.  At sea during the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, a close and confused fight in the dark with the Japanese Navy saw our Navy ships shooting at each other briefly resulting in the death of a US Admirals when the disabled light cruiser USS Atlanta drifted in front of the guns of the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco who mistook her for a Japanese warship.

There was a similar incident in the waters off France during WWII, when the German Luftwaffe and the German Kreigsmarine(navy) fought a furious battle with each other, not in the confusion of the night, but because of a series of bureaucratic snafu’s, organizational structure and faulty communications.

Germans’ Kriegsmarine

Within the vision Hitler had to rebuild the might of Germany was this: To build a Navy as badass as the Britain’s Royal Navy, but the treaty that ended WWII stood directly in the way. The Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germany from building submarines and they could only build a surface fleet of very limited size in terms of ships and their size. Germany decided to simply ignore it and embarked on a building program that saw the Kriegsmarine grow rapidly in through 1939 under a massive ship-building program called Plan Z. Under the plan, Germany would have a navy of 230 ships, including 13 battleships and battle cruisers, 4 aircraft carriers, 15 pocket battleships, 5 heavy cruisers, 13 light cruisers and 68 destroyers. Germany did not produce nearly enough oil to keep a fleet like this at sea so the plan itself made it obvious that Hitler and Germany would have to secure reliable sources of oil from somebody and that would probably involve conquest.

However, the program stopped when WWII broke out, and the Kriegsmarine was left out. If anything, Luftwaffe commander and Hitler’s second in command Hermann Göring was most to blame. He convinced Hitler that Germany could win the war with airpower and the Luftwaffe operating from shore would be enough to stop the Royal Navy. To make sure of this, he made sure that the Kreigsmarine would not have any aircraft to fly that it could call its own.  Every coastal aircraft squadron and group asssigned to the Kreigsmarine was under the direct control of Goring and the Luftwaffe, even float planes on battleships like Bismark and Tirpitz, they were all flown by Lufwaffe pilots. If the German navy put to sea it would have to ask the Luftwaffe to provide air cover for them. The arrangement seemed to work okay until somthing called Operation Wikinger occured.

The crew of a Heinkel He 111 on a bombing mission to London. Note the aircraft is flown by a single pilot and the bombardier lies prone or kneels at his station. (Luftwaffe photograph)

Operation Wikinger

It was February 1940 when the Kriegsmarine received reports of British fishing vessels’ activities around the Dogger Bank located in the North Sea about midway between the UK and Denmark. In the North Sea, the German navy engaged in extensive offensive mind laying operations to keep the Royal Navy from raiding the French coast.  The Germans suspected these British vessels were engaged in mine laying themselves or were clearing German mines from their defensive mine fields in these waters.  a recon aircraft also reported the appearance of a submarine suggesting the Brits were using the Dogger Bank to replenish their subs.  The Bank itself is just an area of shallow water concealing a very large sand bar.  It has no land you can walk on.

Kreigsmarine HQ decided they would interdict this intrusion upon their mine fields and dash 6 destroyers to the bank, destroy the fishing boats and then scoot back to their ports before the Royal Air Force could attack them. They sortied the destroyers Friedrich Eckoldt, Richard Beitzen, Erich Koellner, Theodor Riedel, Max Schulz, and Leberecht Maass. Along with those were two land-based Luftwaffe bomb fighters that the German Navy requested to provide air cover for the destroyers when the headed out to sea and then return the next day to escort them back into port again.  For whatever reason no Luftwaffe fighters showed up to protect them on the journey out.

The comms procedure would see the Destroyer Flotilla Commander sending a request for air cover up the chain of command to Kreigsmarine HQ, which would then make the request of Lufwaffe main HQ, which would then send the order down its own chain of command to a squadron of planes to go support the navy. If it had the planes and pilots to do so. The time taken to do all this would have been pretty long by modern standards making these operations difficult to coordinate on the fly. They were using telex machines which were like typewriters connected by radio-telephone signals.  A typed message would be prepared, proof read and signed off on and encoded. Then a Telex operator would carefully type the coded message out on a keyboard that punched holes in a paper tape,  The paper tape would then be inserted into a feed slot and the operator would dial the phone number of the recipient and when the connection was made the press of a button would send the tape back through the machine which would cause the typewriter on the recipient’s side of the connection to type the same message along with sending a received message back to the originator..  The message would then be logged by the recipient, decoded and copies made and delivered by hand to various persons in the HQ to read. Telex machines were loud and were located in one room insulated against the noise, sometimes in a different building.