Halcyon Class Minesweepers Halcyon Class Ships
Friendly Fire Attack
Report of 1st MSF
HMS Britomart
HMS Hussar
HMS Salamander
Daily Telegraph




(Based substantially on 'Out Sweeps' by Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam, Chapter 12, 'Savage Sunday')

Illustration of attack on HM Ships Britomart, Hussar & Salamander
Illustration from Daily Telegraph 29th Aug 1994

It was late August 1944, eleven weeks after the invasion of Normandy. The Allied armies had advanced well inland but the enemy still held Le Havre, on the left flank of the invasion beaches, and his heavy shore batteries continually menaced shipping. From the Le Havre area too came E-boats, midget submarines, explosive motorboats and human torpedoes to attack Allied shipping anchored at night around the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches. 

Daily off the beaches flotillas of minesweepers continued their important work of sweeping the seas clean for the supply ships, returning to Arromanches at night to anchor in the 'Trout Line', the defensive line of warships formed around the merchant shipping. 

One flotilla working from Arromanches at this time, the 1st MSF was a collection of Arctic veterans, the Halcyons HARRIER, BRITOMART, HUSSAR, SALAMANDER, GLEANER and JASON. The 1st Flotilla's main job since the beachhead was established at Arromanches had been to keep the swept channel between Portsmouth and Arromanches clear of mines laid by the enemy during the night, just where they could be of maximum menace to Allied military transports. But on 22 August new orders came for the flotilla, sending them to clear an enemy field of magnetic mines laid off the German‑held coast just beyond Le Havre. The clearance of this minefield would enable the battleship Warspite and monitors Erebus and Roberts to move in to bombard Le Havre, helping to soften it up for capture by the Canadian Army preparing to cross the Seine. 

So, for four days the ships of the 1st Flotilla detached from the 'Trout Line' at sunrise each day, re‑formed as a flotilla and sailed west to resume sweeping the minefield at the point where they had stopped work the previous evening. The minefield was about five miles off Fecamp and Cap d'Antifer on the enemy coast. The flotilla, using Double L and SA sweeps for magnetic and acoustic mines, swept back and forth roughly parallel to the coast, which was protected by the big gun batteries. 

On the fifth day ‑ 26 August, a Saturday ‑ the flotilla had twenty‑four hours rest '..for ships to carry out repairs to equipment and to allow ships' companies to clean up the decks...', staying at Arromanches. It was a depleted force now,  GLEANER, damaged by an acoustic mine, had been towed away for repairs, while the flotilla leader, HARRIER, had also gone off with engine trouble. So the flotilla's strength was down to BRITOMART, HUSSAR, SALAMANDER and JASON, now the flotilla leader. However after the day's rest they expected to return to work on the enemy minefield and it came as a surprise when, on the Saturday evening, a signal was received directing them to go back to their old job of sweeping the Arromanches/Portsmouth channel the following morning.


On board JASON Commander Trevor Crick, DSC, RN and the flotilla's navigating officer, Lieutenant H. G. S. Brownbill, talked over this new development. Lieutenant Brownbill:

'We knew full well that the clearance and search of the area off Le Havre had not been completed, and we also knew that clearance was urgently needed to permit a heavy force to use the area to bombard the Le Havre coastal region. Commander Crick and I discussed the position and on his orders I went on board the minesweeping headquarters ship Ambitious to query the orders with the staff of Captain Minesweepers. I was not received with any particular enthusiasm as all the staff officers were at supper. However I made my point and was promised that the orders would be amended to allow the 1st MSF to complete its unfinished search and clearance. Happy that all was in hand, I returned to JASON.'

The next step was for the headquarters ship to signal the amended orders to the 1st Flotilla, ensuring that copies of the signal were circulated to other Service commands. All Services had to be given advance notice of movements at sea by Allied ships, so that the smallest activity off the French coast could be accounted for. Then, any movement by enemy vessels could be detected and swiftly dealt with by RAF planes operating from landing strips inland. So Naval signals to ships involved were sent 'repeat FOBAA (Flag Officer British Assault Area), repeat C‑in‑C Portsmouth, repeat RAF,' and so on. The amended signal 'Cancelling our . . .' etc, and redirecting the 1st Flotilla back to the minefield off Cap d'Antifer was duly received by JASON and her small flock early on Sunday morning (27 August) not long before the ships were due to weigh anchor. They steamed west along the coast and resumed sweeping operations.

It was a beautiful summer's day, sunny and warm, with scarcely a cloud in the blue sky and the sea as calm as a duckpond. Ideal conditions for sweeping. Round about noon an RAF reconnaissance plane flew over low. They waved, and the pilot waved back. 

1.15 p.m. The flotilla had swept two laps in formation, but HUSSAR's magnetic minesweeping gear had broken down so she now took up the rear. She was due to go to Harwich for boiler cleaning the next day, so in addition to the fine weather and the ship's inability to take an active part in the sweep her company were all feeling particularly relaxed   Men off watch came up on deck to sunbathe, as some also did in the other sweepers, and in the two dan laying trawlers which accompanied the flotilla. 

Les Williams on BRITOMART:

'It was a perfect day. Most of BRITOMART's crew were sunbathing on the upper deck. Even the duty watch were stripped off at their guns.' 

In dazzling sunshine the flotilla began its third lap, steaming along at nine knots. JASON was guide in the centre with BRITOMART on her starboard wing and SALAMANDER on the port wing nearest the shore, with HUSSAR as follow up ship. The trawler COLSAY began to lay a new line of dan buoys 600 yards on the beam inshore of SALAMANDER, while the other trawler, LORD ASHFIELD, took up the previous line of dans. 

In BRITOMART they were all feeling especially happy because her captain, Lieutenant‑Commander A. J. Galvin, DSC, a senior and very popular RNR officer, had just before sailing received a personal signal from the Admiralty conferring his 'brass hat'. The happy atmosphere was noted by a newcomer to the flotilla, Lieutenant Commander Harold Johnson, RNR:

'I was due to leave soon for Canada to commission an Algerine sweeper, and was sailing in BRITOMART to gain experience of the acoustic part of Double L sweeping. This I found was in its clumsy infancy as far as BRITOMART was concerned ‑ a truly medieval set‑up!' 

1.30 p.m. JASON had just made the first dan of the new lap when suddenly a flock of planes came screeching down out of the dazzling sun and attacked BRITOMART.


263 Squadron Typhoon 1B Hawker Typhoon 1B in 263 Squadron markings

266 Squadron Typhoon 1B A Hawker Typhoon 1B in 266 Squadron markings


Les Williams on BRITOMART: 

'When the lookout shouted, “Aircraft on the port side”, everybody got up, but we couldn't see anything because the sun was shining straight in our eyes. Then the lookout called, “They're friendly aircraft”. I saw the planes diving towards us. The black and white stripes which allied aircraft had in those days were quite plain, so we thought they were just making a practice attack. Then suddenly I saw flashes coming from their wings. I yelled “Duck!” and flung myself down the nearest hatch, about six feet away.' 

JASON immediately opened rapid fire with her Oerlikons, but as the planes which had swooped on BRITOMART gained height and circled away their markings were clearly seen and they were recognized as rocket‑firing Typhoons. 

It couldn't be. Impossible. Yet there was no mistaking the markings.




Thomas Jackson on HMS JASON:

'We set sail at dawn for the coastal area, a glorious Sunday sunny day sea calm. I had the forenoon watch on the bridge. At noon Ted relieved me, I went below for my lunch. Suddenly there were explosions and action stations sounded. My action station was the flag deck below the bridge. When I came on deck, I saw one ship listing badly, the crew abandoning ship. As I approached the ladder to the bridge, I saw two spitfires heading for the ship at sea level. The first one opened fire on the ship. I dived behind a locker.’

1.32 p.m. JASON sent the W/T signal, 'Am being attacked by friendly aircraft'. 

1.34 p.m. The signal was repeated. Commander Crick, looking quickly round the formation from JASON saw that BRITOMART was on fire and listing badly to port, HUSSAR had also been hit and was burning.

1.35 p.m. The Typhoons swooped again. JASON fired recognition signals. The order to slip the Double L sweep had been given and was quickly executed to give the ship greater freedom to manoeuvre, she increased speed to full and began to zig‑zag. But SALAMANDER was hit aft by rockets and was immediately on fire, while COLSAY disappeared from sight under huge waterspouts. At the same time, although all her guns were in action, severe cannon‑fire raked JASON from the bridge to the after end of the boat deck, killing two ratings and wounding five others, putting the starboard after Oerlikon out of action. The hail of shells also cut a steam pipe to the siren and the shrieking of the escaping steam made it almost impossible to be heard on the bridge. Then it was realized that BRITOMART had been hit again. Another quick look round when the aircraft flew off showed that BRITOMART was still burning and under way with a worse list to port, SALAMANDER was heavily on fire and stopped, while HUSSAR was still steaming but fiercely on fire and enveloped in smoke. COLSAY had miraculously reappeared from under the giant waterspouts but was stopped and did not answer to the Aldis lamp.

HMS Salamander after attack  HMS COLSAY – Dan laying trawler

1.37p.m. JASON signalled, 'Three ships hit and in danger of sinking'.

1.40 p.m. The aircraft attacked again. JASON flashed another recognition signal but was menaced by a cannon firing Typhoon diving low. A hail of fire from the remaining Oerlikons caused it to swerve away at the last moment and little further damage was done. 

Now all the planes flew off. It was over, eleven minutes of terrifying assault had resulted in an appalling scene of destruction. Two reeling, burning, sinking ships, another heavily damaged and ablaze, the sea strewn with debris and men struggling for their lives. 

This is how death struck at each ship (CLICK on name)


HMS Britomart           HMS Hussar         HMS Salamander


1.42 p.m. As SALAMANDER drifted helplessly, Commander Crick steamed JASON to the help of his stricken flotilla. HUSSAR had just sunk up to her bows. BRITOMART, a mile away, was circling slowly with a big list, badly on fire, and survivors could be seen abandoning ship. JASON closed at full speed signalling the trawlers to 'Save life'. But there was no answering signal from COLSAY. Unknown to Crick, the trawler's signalling equipment had been shot away ‑ neither trawler had escaped being sprayed with cannon shells by the Typhoons. JASON stopped when less than half a mile from BRITOMART fearing she might blow up, and lowered both whalers to pick up survivors. There were many rafts about and men in the water were hanging on to the sinking sweeper's Double L tail. JASON wirelessed for help ‑ 'Send tugs at once'.

Thomas Jackson on HMS JASON: 

'I had volunteered for the ship's whaler which was being lowered on the port side. Now I'm in the whaler, rowed by a team of 8 men with me as the signalman, and my ship is sailing away. Then for the first time I witnessed the scene, vast areas of the sea on fire, bodies floating, cries for help. Then the leading seaman of the whaler told us to get overboard and swim out to the Carly Floats, which had been released from the ships. We pulled them in and tied them up to the whaler, pulled them around the area so men could clamber on board, then myself and the other lads on the whaler went overboard to anyone shouting for help to bring them to the floats.'

'Eventually we could do no more as we ourselves were full of the oil, the smell was overpowering. Eventually as we sat there it was quiet except for the cries of those burnt.'

'Suddenly on the horizon a high speed launch was heading for us. Cheers went up. But then I remembered a signal about the area being open to German E Boats. As the launch got nearer we got over the side of the whaler and hung on to the side. The boys on the Carly Floats played dead. Then there were cheers as we spotted on its bows, the bulls-eye insignia of the RAF. It was an RAF rescue launch. The launch then took us on tow. Then an hour later one of our new frigates "HMS Calypso" came on the scene. Once on board the frigate I got a shower, a double rum and change of clothes.'

Leaving her boats to do their rescue work JASON steamed on to the battered SALAMANDER. She now had her fire under control but with her stern blown off she was totally unable to steer and the tide was taking her slowly towards the enemy shore. Cmdr. Crick decided she could be left for a short time while he investigated the silent COLSAY. As he closed the trawler he looked back and saw BRITOMART, still burning, capsize. By now an RAF rescue launch had arrived and begun to pick up survivors.

COLSAY was stopped close to HUSSAR, whose bows were still above water, but she appeared to be abandoned. There were boats, rafts and men in the water. JASON put down her scrambling nets and got thirteen survivors on board ... then the German shore batteries opened fire. At first the enemy shots dropped short and JASON continued to help pick up survivors, but then the shells began to fall uncomfortably close. COLSAY was now within hailing distance and answered that all was well with her 'except for a few casualties'; in fact the trawler's commander had been wounded in the back and another officer and three members of the crew had also been wounded, but the rest of her company were in boats and rafts trying to pick up men from HUSSAR. Then a shell landed less than 100 yards from JASON ‑ it was time to go. COLSAY was ordered to get out of range at full speed and send back a boat to help the survivors, while JASON, shouting to the men in the water that she had to leave them but that ships' boats would be sent, put on emergency full speed and steamed towards SALAMANDER, making smoke by all possible means to confuse the enemy gunners as she went. 

In the water, as the fire from the shore batteries continued, HUSSAR's wounded and helpless Commander Nash had the terrible experience of seeing surviving members of his crew suffer the ordeal of the German guns.   

'All my men in the water had drifted away a little, closer to the shore, when the German shells started exploding all around. Shrapnel from the shells, which burst on impact with the water, killed many men, including the first lieutenant, by hitting them in the head. This was the most dreadful part, a harrowing scene. Then the gunfire lessened. I was eventually, after an hour or so, hauled into a Carley float by two of my crew, a previous cork raft near me had been too full of men to take any more. Finally a boat from a rescuing minesweeper of another flotilla picked us up.' 

Lieutenant‑Commander Harold Johnson of BRITOMART, whose ankle had swollen enormously from a split ankle bone, was eventually picked up out of the sea by a ship's whaler. 

'We were transferred to the RAF launch, on board which there were some pretty terrifying cases, but all displaying amazing courage. There was a petty officer from HUSSAR with not only his right arm and shoulder missing, but a good part of his rib cage too. He was half lying, half sitting, chain smoking, with this dreadful mess exposed to a glaring sun. I dropped a wet handkerchief over it, but he just grinned and said, "It doesn't matter ‑ I can't feel it anyway".'

The petty officer was one of a total of thirty‑nine wounded survivors from HUSSAR, including four officers. Three officers and fifty ratings were lost.

Units of the 6th MSF including HMS Gozo were in close proximity to the scene of the incident, having been ordered to join with the 1st MSF. A/B Trevor Davies describes what happened: 

'As we approached Le Havre we could see a minesweeping flotilla already at work. As we got nearer we saw a number of aircraft – somebody said they were ‘Ours’ – Typhoons and Spitfires – but as they looked as though they were going to attack, our skipper ordered us to put a Union Flag on the quarterdeck and an ensign on the masthead – which we did in much haste. We saw the aircraft attack the minesweepers and that they had scored hits. Some of the minesweepers were on fire. On board Gozo, heading towards the ships that had been hit, we got ready to pick up survivors. As we got up to them, we edged in very slowly – there were lots of men in the water, some dead, others trying to escape from the oil that surrounded them. We threw lines to men in the water and to others in a whaler and helped to get them on board. All were covered in oil, coughing and choking. Everyone on Gozo were doing our best, although we ourselves were all devastated and heartbroken. The Coxswain, CPO Payne, was a tower of strength and encouraged us, particularly many of us young lads, only aged 18 and 19. Later that day we transferred the wounded to a hospital ship. Next day the captain again addressed the ship’s company and thanked everyone for the way we had reacted the previous day. I remember he said that – Yes, the Typhoons and Spitfires were British but these had been captured and flown by the Germans. Somehow that statement made us feel better and on the messdecks afterwards we all agreed that it was the bastard Germans and just increased our hate for them.' 

While the rescue. work went on, with two other minesweepers coming to help, JASON steamed fast to save SALAMANDER, drifting ever closer into the sights of the enemy guns. JASON laid a two‑mile long smoke screen between the crippled sweeper and the shore, then dropped smoke floats under her lee to give cover while JASON took her in tow.

It was now 3 p.m. All this time the trawler LORD ASHFIELD, who had suffered six casualties of her own in raids by the cannon firing Typhoons, had done excellent work picking up BRITOMART survivors, a large number of whom were seriously wounded.

Now a destroyer, HMS Pytchley, arrived and lowered her boats to help in the recovery operation. She carried a doctor, so badly wounded survivors were transferred to her from the other rescue ships. She was then instructed to sink BRITOMART and HUSSAR, both of whom had sunk by the stern but still floated with their bows in the air.

Leading‑Seaman Roy Henwood on HMS Pytchley:  

'The two vessels were bobbing around like corks. We had to fire several rounds from our twin four‑inch turrets and even fire Oerlikon tracer bullets in our efforts to send them to the bottom and remove the hazard to surface craft. By the time we had finished it was after 8 p.m. and we laid marker buoys before leaving the scene.' 

Meanwhile JASON had towed the crippled SALAMANDER back to Arromanches, stopping to bury her own dead at sea on the way. 

Leading‑Stoker Booth from HUSSAR was among the survivors picked up by COLSAY, who after finishing her rescue work steamed back to Arromanches. 

'All the survivors on board the trawler were in a state of shock and shivering in spite of it being a very hot day, and many were wounded. I tried to pull a sock off an officer's foot of which the sole had been shot away. There were many pitiful sights and COLSAY's crew did all they could for them. When we arrived at Arromanches the wounded were taken to a hospital ship and the rest of our shivering party put ashore and taken to an Army camp.' 

'Two days later we were shipped back to Portsmouth. There we were interrogated by a senior officer and given strict orders to keep our mouths shut about the whole business.'

Don Rogers from Hussar:

We were landed on Mulberry harbour at Arromanches and taken to a Royal Marine camp in an army truck. While passing through the village we had abuse shouted at us by the locals. They thought we were German survivors.


HMS Salamander after attack HMS SALAMANDER after the attack 

Seventy‑eight officers and ratings were killed and 149 wounded many grievously, off Cap d'Antifer on that savage Sunday. Why did it happen? What went wrong? 

As in most cases when ill‑starred events are deliberately ‘covered up', rumour and counter‑rumour took over. Among those closely involved, survivors and rescuers, the immediate anger was directed at the RAF but afterwards the unsettling feeling grew that the blame did not lie in that quarter but with the Navy itself. There was no official report, nor did any word of the disaster get into the newspapers; some officers involved were told simply that the tragic blunder was due to 'an error in communications'. 

John Price of BRITOMART in Portsmouth some days later was told: 

'... that a group of German ships had left Le Havre the previous night, i.e. Saturday night, and that they had been attacked. Moving up the coast as we were and not seeing us turn at the river mouth it was assumed that we had just left Le Havre, therefore we must be German and the attack was ordered'. 

In fact a Court of Enquiry was held at Arromanches two days after the tragedy. It was attended by Commander Crick and Lieutenant Commander King of SALAMANDER, the flotilla's only unwounded C.O.'s.  Also present was Wing Commander Johnny Baldwin , DSO, DFC, AFC, who had led the sixteen Typhoons (eight each from 263 and 266 (Rhodesia) Squadrons which took off from an airfield in France) into the attack accompanied by a Polish squadron of twelve Spitfires. Baldwin was an extremely experienced Typhoon pilot, who (it is claimed) had been responsible for the attack on the staff car carrying Field Marshall Irwin Rommel in which Rommel had been badly injured.


Source: AIR 27/1557: Operations Records Book 266 & 263 Squadrons (Extracts) 

Operations Record Book 266 Squadron RAF 

27th August 1944                      Up 13.05 Down 14.00 

W/Cmdr Baldwin
F/S Luhnenschloss
F/O D C Borland
P/O D L Hughes
S/Ldr J D Wright
F/S D Morgan
F/L D McGibbon
F/S E Donne 

Five ships attacked off Etretat, six ships located sailing south west, 4 probable destroyers, 2 m/v’s. Owing to doubt as to identity controller was asked four times whether to attack and told that ships fired colours. Controller said that no friendly ship in area and ordered attack. 263 Sqdn claim R/P salvos on 2 ships, 266 on three ships. Also straffed. Ships were our own.


 Extract from daily summary for the month: 

27/8/44 The Squadron had a very successful shipping strike, destroying two destroyers and one minesweeper, damaging one other, unfortunately Royal Navy shipping ordered by the mistake of the Admiralty to be attacked and destroyed. Admiralty took full responsibility.


Operations Record Book 263 Squadron RAF 

27th August 1944 

Typhoon 1B                                             Up 13.09 Down 14.05 

S/L R D Rutter
F/L L Unwin
      D F Evan
F/O W G Kemp
      A Barr
      A R S Proctor
F/S LeGear
P/O J Thould  

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.     



It was established that the air strike that day had been carried out at the express request of the Navy ‑ even though about an hour and a half earlier a reconnaissance plane which had flown over the flotilla had reported the ships to be friendly. Further, while in the air leading the Typhoons, Wing Commander Baldwin had repeatedly questioned his orders to attack what he believed to be friendly ships. 

Lieutenant‑Commander King:  

'He was very cut up. He was told quite firmly to attack after twice reporting that we were friendly, and had then called up a second Typhoon squadron to finish us off. Luckily for us, this squadron was away shooting up a train for the Army.'

The truth of the hushed‑up affair was that the strike was ordered by the Naval headquarters staff ashore because they had no knowledge of the change of plan of the 1st Minesweeping Flotilla. The Flag Officer British Assault Area (Rear‑Admiral J. W. Rivett‑Carnac) had not been informed that the flotilla were returning to finish their work on the minefield off Cap d'Antifer. Therefore it was thought they were enemy ships trying to enter or leave Le Havre. 

Why had the admiral and his staff not been informed? 


Three senior Naval officers were court‑martialled.  

(Source:  ADM 156/212 Attacks on HM Minesweepers by friendly aircraft: Court Martial. Case Number 00373)

1. Lt Cdr R D Franks DSO OBE RN FOBAA's Staff Officer, Operations. CASE NOT PROVED

On Sunday 27th August 1944, Franks was the Flag Officer British Assault Area. When the ships were first sighted sweeping close in to the shore by allied reconnaissance aircraft he was asked to confirm if there were any allied ships in the area. He knew that minesweepers had been clearing a channel in that area on previous days but when he consulted the 'Daily State' produced the day before it showed that there were no allied ships within 20 miles. He attempted to contact the 1st Minesweeping Flotilla to confirm that this was the case but the telephone was out of order. 

2. Act Capt The Lord Tyneham DSC RN Ret'd     CASE NOT PROVED

Lord Tyneham the Captain Minesweepers in executive command of all FOBAA's minesweepers had overall responsibility for the issue of all orders/signals. However with some 200 a day crossing his desk it was considered that he could not be held responsible for this omission. Also he was away on duty at the time, leaving his deputy (Venables) in charge on board Ambitious.

3. Act Cdr D N Venables DSC RN (Ret'd) Commander Minesweepers 


Charged that he: Negligently performed the duty imposed on him when acting as Commander Minesweepers in the British Assault Area in that he did not approve the issue of a signal, dated time group 261926/B, August, amending the minesweeping programme for Sunday 27th August 1944 without ensuring the Flag Officer British Assault Area was included in the address of the said signal, thereby contributing to the cause of an air attack by friendly aircraft upon ships of His Majesty's 1st Minesweeping Flotilla. 

Venables was responsible for organising the day to day operations of the minesweepers in this area. On Saturday 26th August 1944 orders were prepared for the minesweepers to move from the area they had previously been sweeping and go to a different area on the Sunday. At about 1900 on Saturday, over dinner, Venables sitting at the head of the table asked Lt E T Lawrence Shaw to prepare an order for the ships to finish clearing the channel off Cap d'Antifer as it only needed one more day's work to finish their task. This final stage of the sweeping would take the ships close to shore. 

Shaw, on his second day in post, prepared a draft order telling the ships to complete their previous work and to stop if they came under fire from German shore batteries. He showed the draft to Venables and it was then typed up. Venables checked the order, commenting 'That seems clear enough' and it was sent. What no one had noticed was that at some stage the order had omitted to include the Flag Officer British Assault Area as an addressee.  


On such a simple error ‑ or inexcusable negligence ‑ was the tragic fate of the 1st Minesweeping Flotilla sealed. 

There was another sad factor, as SALAMANDER's commander reveals.

'FOBAA had a radar station at his headquarters which was designed to cover the whole of Seine Bay. On the morning of the attack it was out of order and not repaired until about 1 p.m., when it picked up our flotilla. Had it been working in the morning the operators would have seen our ships forming up and leaving the defence line for the minefield. There was a minesweeping liaison officer at headquarters but as he explained bitterly to me, "No one thought of asking me." '

With haunting understatement, the final paragraph of Commander Trevor Crick's detailed secret report to the Admiralty on the events of 27 August 1944, written on board JASON at the end of that day, read: 'It is felt that the fury and ferocity of concerted attacks by a number of Typhoon aircraft armed with rockets and cannons is an ordeal that has to be endured to be truly appreciated.' Crick received an OBE for his “coolness, courage and devotion to duty” but as he said in a newspaper interview in 1962, “It certainly was a queer way to get a gong”. 

The last floating evidence of that ordeal, the severely damaged SALAMANDER, was towed across the Channel by a tug to Portsmouth, but it was a journey with a miserable ending; she could not be found a berth, the port was too busy with supplies for Normandy. So the tug, ironically named Destiny, pulled SALAMANDER on up the east coast to West Hartlepool. There she was officially 'placed in Reserve'. But she was damaged far beyond economical repair. One day in the spring of 1947 SALAMANDER was taken in tow again, on a short and final journey to the scrapyard.

So embarrassed was the Navy's hierarchy by the attack that the Honours and Awards committee at Admiralty House recommended that the bravery of Cdr Crick and his officers in rescuing so many men should not be recognised. But that finding outraged the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Sir Algernon Willis, who said: This was the severest attack any ships in Operation Neptune [the naval element of the Normandy invasion] had to sustain, and so far as the ships were concerned, the aircraft were 'enemy' because they behaved as such." Cdr Crick was granted the military OBE and four other Officers were made MBEs for their part in the rescue effort.


HMS Harrier

3rd September 1944



The attached recommendations for immediate decorations and awards to Officers and men of ships of the First Minesweeping Flotilla and attached trawlers have been received from the Commanding Officer, HMS JASON, who was Senior Officer present on Sunday 27th August 1944 when the Flotilla was subjected to powerful air attack. They are submitted for your favourable consideration.

On hearing what had happened I myself crossed to Normandy, later embarking on HMS JASON for passage to Portsmouth and taking the opportunity to visit ships on their arrival. I was most impressed by the high morale shown by all Officers and men after what must have been a most trying ordeal. This I attribute principally to the undaunted courage, coolness and devotion to duty shown by Acting Commander T C P Crick DSC RN, the Commanding Officer of HMS JASON. Commander Crick handled a most difficult situation with the greatest calmness, not only at the time of the actual attack but also later in the administrative work in connection with the listing of survivors and wounded. A form of recommendation for Commander Crick is attached herewith.

I would like to draw your attention in particular to the conduct of Temporary Acting Lieutenant Commander H C King, RNVR, commanding officer of HMS Salamander, Lieutenant JHL Sulman DSC RNVR HMS COLSAY, and Lieutenant J B Morpeth RNR HMS LORD ASHFIELD. The Commanding Officer of HMS JASON refers particularly in his report to the calmness and order in HMS SALAMANDER after her stern had been blown off and states that she was taken in tow in ten minutes. Other witnesses tell me that it was nearer five minutes. The good work of Lieutenants Sulman and Morpeth in picking up survivors after themselves being attacked and while under fire from enemy shore batteries undoubtedly saved many lives. Lieutenant Sulman was himself wounded in the back but refused all medical attention until he had brought his ship back to harbour.

The loss of two good ships and serious damage to a third with the loss of so many gallant comrades under such tragic circumstances are heavy personal blows but I am consoled in the knowledge that the conduct of all concerned was in the highest traditions of the Royal Navy and I am very proud of them.

Signed M N H Nicholls, Commander Royal Navy

Friendly fire losses


When describing the events 50 years later, John Price of HMS BRITOMART wrote: 

'The initial feeling when the attack starts is one of anger. I am sure that there were a good many ratings that day who were raging in their hearts at "those stupid bastards" who couldn't distinguish a White Ensign from a German flag. Going out on deck would, I fear, have been tempting fate. This rage does stay with you for a long time.' 

'On reflection, much later, you realise that with no wind and an ensign hanging down like a dirty duster, they couldn't recognise it anyway. Strangely enough in later life, whenever I've thought about what happened that day, it's not bitterness I've experienced but sadness that so much young life was ruined, and in many cases ended because of an accident that probably could have been avoided if someone had taken the trouble to check movements.'

'I was lucky, it taught me to value life. Those who were disabled or crippled for life after it, probably feel bitter about it, and who can blame them?’


Ensign’s tragic


WANDERING along the beach of the French port of Villiers-Sur-Mer, a small boy picked up a large tattered White Ensign that had been washed ashore and kept it as a souvenir.

Over forty years later he handed it in to the British Ministry of Defence, and steps were taken to discover its origins, through the letters column of Navy News.

Now it appears that the full tragic story has been finally pieced together and the ensign is from HMS Salamander, a minesweeper operating off the French coast in 1944 and mistakenly attacked and sunk by British aircraft.

Operating with two sister ships, Britomart and Hussar, Salamander had hoisted two extra ensigns in a vain bid to identify the group’s nationality, but the attack claimed 86 lives and a further 124 were wounded, leaving Salamander with her stern blown off, and the other two ships sunk.

The six foot by three foot ensign has now found a final resting place in the Hampshire village of Wickham, a village twinned with Villiers-Sur-Mer. Presented to the local branch of the Royal British Legion it now occupies a special place in the Community Centre’s special twinning display.

[Navy News 1984]


Written Answers to Parliamentary Questions

Tuesday 21 February 1995

Friendly Fire Incident (Normandy)

Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will ensure that a memorial service is held for the men killed on HMS HUSSAR, HMS BRITOMART, HMS SALAMANDER and HMS COLSAY in the friendly fire incident off Normandy on 27 August 1944; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Soames: It is for veterans' associations to organise the commemoration of individual actions if they so wish. Official events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the D-day campaign as a whole were held last year. This year will see the commemoration of victory in 1945.

Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if his Department will give all reasonable assistance to those wishing to organise a reunion for those sailors who survived the friendly fire incident of Normandy on 27 August 1944 involving HMS HUSSAR, HMS BRITOMART, HMS SALAMANDER, and HMS COLSAY.

Mr. Soames: The editor of "Navy News", the official newspaper of the Royal Navy, will be pleased to publish a request for survivors of this incident to contact the organisers of any reunion.

Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will lift the embargo on the names of those who died in the friendly fire incident off Normandy on 27 August 1944, involving HMS HUSSAR, HMS BRITOMART, HMS SALAMANDER and HMS COLSAY, and publish the names of those who survived prior to their dispersal to other units of the Royal Navy.

Mr. Soames: There has never been an embargo on the list of casualties from this incident. Indeed, details of those from the BRITOMART and the HUSSAR, the two vessels sunk, were published in The Times in October and November 1944. Any casualty details from the other vessels involved may well have been included in more general casualty lists frequently published in the press at the time, but these could now be checked only at disproportionate cost. The names of those who survived would be scattered among any number of contemporary records, and these also could now be checked only at disproportionate cost.


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