Secret papers detail RAF raid on
A ‘friendly fire’ mistake that
left 117 sailors dead and 153 wounded has been cloaked in
official secrecy for 50 years until now…
ATTACK was meticulously executed. It came out of the sun with no
warning and hardly a rocket fired by the power‑diving aircraft
was wasted as Typhoon fighter‑bombers of the RAF's 263 and 266
Squadrons ripped into the flotilla of minesweepers at 1330 on
Sunday Aug 27 1944.
Less than 15‑minutes later, two
of the 230 ft ships were sliding to the bottom of the English
Channel. A third was drifting helplessly its stern torn off.
But it was the wrong target. The
16 Typhoons had, in fact, attacked the Navy's First
Minesweeping Flotilla, killing 117 sailors and wounding 153. It
was the worst wartime attack experienced Royal Navy at the
hands of its own forces.
Yet, for 50 years, the mistake
was cloaked by official secrecy and nobody knew who was
responsible for it. Now, The Daily Telegraph has had the first
access to secret documents on the incident, just released at the
Public Record Office in Kew.
The First Minesweeping Flotilla (FMF),
led by Cdr TGP "Tommy" Crick , DSC and bar, in Jason, had been
operating in the same area, just off the Cap d'Antifer, for 12
days up to Aug 25 but was then moved to another part of the
coast. In the morning of Aug 26, Capt Lord Teynham, the Captain
(Minesweeping) attached to the British Expeditionary Force in
Normandy with responsibility for
the removal of mines along the northern French coast, decided to
move the flotilla to another part of the Channel.
The overall minesweeping plan was
circulated to all the necessary authorities by signal. But later
that evening, Capt Lord Teynham's deputy, (Acting) Commander
Dennis Venables, decided to change the orders and to move the
flotilla back to its former grounds off Cap d'Antifer. The
change of orders was also sent by signal but, owing to an error,
it was not circulated to the area naval headquarters, known as
Flag Officer, British Assault Area (FOBAA).
So the flotilla found itself
cruising as usual, some 12 miles off the coast of
German‑occupied France, sweeping for mines in line abreast
formation. Allied ground radar also found it at about 1200 hours
on Aug 27th. The first sightings on radar identified the
flotilla as being three to six miles off the French coast. In
that position, it was almost certainly a German formation, the
radar operators thought. Radar contacted FOBAA where staff
officers shared the assessment and alerted their commander, Rear
Admiral James Rivett‑Carnac.
Told that there was no Navy
formation in the area, according to the signals held by FOBAA,
the admiral ordered a reconnaissance of the formation and
approved an air attack if necessary. At 1220, a, Polish officer,
Sqn Ldr Wojak Retinger, flew his Spitfire over the flotilla. He
reported its position ‑ wrongly ‑ as being six miles west of the
port of Etretat but said that it
appeared to be a minesweeping convoy and was probably friendly.
But FOBAA still had no record of
a Navy formation in the area. Attempts to contact Captain
(Minesweeping) in his command ship Ambitious off Arromanches,
failed because telephone lines were down.
FOBAA requested a Typhoon strike
and 263 and 266 Sqns were ordered the air, taking off at 1305
and 1306 respectively. They were led by Wg Cdr Johnny Baldwin of
266 Sqn, a much decorated pilot who claimed to be the man who
had shot up Rommel in his staff car. Baldwin approached the
flotilla and was immediately suspicious. Sqn Leader Robert
Rutter the CO of 263 Sqn who is now 75, says: “the orders to
Baldwin were quite positive but he still queried them. Even so,
we were told to attack. I remember that Baldwin thought the ships were in the wrong formation to be German. I think he
queried it on more than one occasion.”
According to recently opened RAF
records the Typhoons sought confirmation of the attack four
times, including once between the first and second attacks after
the ships fired recognition flares. “Ship recognition was
notoriously difficult. The alternative to attacking was to risk
court martial ourselves. Suppose those ships had been German and
had sailed on and attacked allied shipping? says Sqn Ldr
And so the attack went on. In his
report to the Admiralty, Cdr Crick, a top‑class rugby player who
had served in Jellicoe's Navy in the 1914‑18 war, said: "The
attack came almost immediately and literally out of the blue at
“The first that Jason knew about
it was the screaming noise of power‑dived planes overhead and
Britomart was hit. The attack came out of the sun, achieved
complete surprise and was naturally presumed to be hostile. As
the aircraft which had attacked Britomart gained height and
circled away, their markings were clearly seen and they were
recognised as Typhoons.” Jason sent the signal "Am being
attacked by enemy aircraft" within two minutes of the first
rocket‑strike. By the time it did so, Britomart, its bridge
wiped out, was listing heavily and Hussar was burning.
Another minesweeper, Salamander,
fired two coloured recognition flares but the RAF planes were
ordered to ignore them and returned for a second salvo at 1335.
This time Salamander and Colsay were hit. Jason was strafed and
Britomart was struck again.
The third attack came at 1340.
Jason fired recognition flares and the other vessels still able
to defend themselves used their anti‑aircraft weapons. A Union
flag and the largest White Ensign the horrified crew could find
were draped on the fo'c'sle but to no avail.
This time the Typhoons hit Hussar
again and she exploded. Salamander's stern was blown off and she
began to drift towards the Normandy coast and the Germans'
9.2‑inch coastal guns. As Jason began her rescue operation, the
battery opened up and she had to rely on her small boats to
attach a line to her stricken sister and tow her from danger.
When the survivors were counted,
117 officers and ratings had been killed and 153 wounded.
Hussar, the 10th Royal Navy ship to bear the name, was sunk 10
years to the day after she was commissioned. The minesweepers
were not flimsy vessels. Both Hussar and Britomart were 230 feet
long and 875 tons in weight. The RAF planes that sank them
recorded them in their logs as "destroyers".
Sqn Ldr Rutter says: "It was a
terrible business at the time. Afterwards, obviously, everybody
deeply regretted it but by then it was too late."