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Lost To Friendly Fire: Air Force, Part 24



Some Allied aircraft were sometimes confused with enemy aircraft. The plane at the top of the page is a Westland Lysander. Below it is a German HS.126.

Recent events in Afghanistan have acquainted Canadians with the expression “friendly fire.” The term–denoting deadly fire from what should be a friendly source–may be relatively new, yet cases of mistaken identity are sprinkled throughout history.

Military uniforms were devised partly to help distinguish friend from foe. Nevertheless, many factors can negate such distinctions. A famous example is that of General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, fatally shot by a Confederate soldier in failing light while returning to his own lines.

Like uniforms, national markings evolved to differentiate aircraft. In 1914, British machines were painted with Union Jacks. When gunners confused these with German crosses, the Royal Flying Corps adopted roundels. Inevitably, combat aircraft became players in “friendly fire” incidents, with Canadians being both victims and unwitting aggressors.

Markings, however, were no guarantee of instant recognition. On July 10, 1943, Allied naval gunners shot down 23 Dakotas bringing reinforcements to Sicily. Air force personnel regarded naval crews as inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. Black and white stripes painted on Allied aircraft immediately prior to D-Day in 1944 were intended to impress upon the most nervous gunners that these aircraft were friendly.

Yet aircrews could also be dangerous. In Normandy, Canadian troops were hit by Royal Air Force heavy bombers attempting to destroy German defences. Some crews, flying at 12,000 feet, had confused smoke signals for target markers and released their bombs accordingly. More than one soldier would later recall cursing wildly and shouting, “Hey–we’re working for George, too!” The reference, of course, was to King George VI.

Some attacks were more intimate and, hence, more puzzling. On Aug. 19, 1944, the South Alberta Regiment was attacked by RAF Spitfires which seemed to wilfully ignore both vehicle markings and smoke signals. The unit’s chaplain, Honorary Captain Albert Silcox, ran through the fire of four strafing aircraft to retrieve a Union Jack, then stood on a truck waving it furiously. Four more Spits dived on the unit. Silcox must have questioned his own judgment, but this time the fighters buzzed the convoy without firing. In January 1945, the brave chaplain was awarded the MBE or Member of the British Empire.

Ships could also be at risk. On Aug. 27, 1944, the Royal Navy’s 1st Minesweeping Flotilla was clearing mines off Cape d’Antifer. Out of a clear sky, 16 rocket-firing Hawker Typhoons of Nos. 263 and 266 squadrons swept down and savaged the vessels. Two ships were sunk, a third heavily damaged, 117 men were killed and 153 wounded. A court of inquiry attributed the tragedy to “an error in communications” and blamed naval staff officers ashore who had failed to inform RAF formations of the vessels’ presence. An RCAF pilot who took part in the attack, Flying Officer Gordon Kemp, wrote in his logbook: “Went on a show after lunch–this time a shipping strike NW of Le Havre. 16 aircraft. No flak (mainly because they were our own). Navy takes full responsibility but that doesn’t help matters. 3 out of 6 sunk. Bad show.”

The most poignant incidents involved Allied aircraft shooting down other Allied aircraft. A well-known case was on Aug. 24, 1940. No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn., flying Hawker Hurricanes, newly declared operational, was about to enter the Battle of Britain. Only the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Ernest A. “Ernie” McNab, had seen combat a few days before, attached to a British unit.

The squadron scrambled 12 fighters, led by McNab, to patrol at 10,000 feet. Having observed one combat in progress, they spotted three twin-engined aircraft approaching below. McNab started to attack, then recognized the machines as Blenheims–a British type. He and his section broke away, but two following sections, each of three Hurricanes, pressed on, shooting down one Blenheim in flames and heavily damaging a second. Returning to base, the Canadians claimed to have destroyed one Junkers 88 and “probably destroyed” a second.

The Blenheims had taken off from Thorney Island to avoid being bombed by an approaching German raid. Surviving crewmen stated they had fired recognition signals; the Canadians apparently confused these with return fire. Yellow Section (Flt. Lt. Gordon R. McGregor, FO Jean-Paul Desloges, FO Arthur D. Nesbitt) carried out the most telling attack; only inexperience and bad shooting by other pilots prevented greater losses. Fighter Command investigated the incident but did not pull No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. from the line. The unit acquitted itself well in the next six weeks of fighting. Desloges died in an air crash in 1944. McGregor and Nesbitt both rose to group captain rank as distinguished fighter leaders.

Sergeant Marie-Guy Chase-Casgrain of the RCAF joined No. 242 Sqdn. on May 5, 1941. The unit had been formed late in 1939 as a squadron composed of Canadians who had enrolled in the RAF, but since the summer of 1940 replacement personnel had more often been British or European than Canadian. On Sept. 1, 1941, he was engaged in a strike on enemy shipping. A Spitfire of No. 54 Sqdn. swooped down and opened fire. Its pilot realized his error and broke away, but his two-second burst had killed Chase-Casgrain. The man making the mistake was FO Edward F.J. Charles, a Canadian who had enlisted in the RAF in May 1939. Charles went on to a distinguished career, earning the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, and United States Silver Star.

Pilots flying Hawker Typhoons were particularly at risk to be mistaken for Focke Wulf 190s, although comparison of the two types of aircraft compels one to ask how such errors could occur. The vulnerability of Typhoons to this confusion appeared early in their career. On June 1, 1942, No. 56 Sqdn. scrambled two aircraft to intercept a dawn raid near Dover; they were flown by Pilot Officer Robert H. Deugo of the RCAF and Sgt. Stuart Turner of the RAF. Meanwhile, two RCAF Spitfires of No. 401 Sqdn. were dispatched to deal with the same raid. Following a ground controller’s directions, they caught the Typhoons silhouetted against the rising sun, attacked, and shot down both in flames. Turner was killed outright, while Deugo bailed out of his burning fighter and was rescued from his dinghy two hours later. He was killed two years later when his Typhoon failed to pull out of a dive while strafing a train.

The pilots making the mistake were Sgt. Donald Morrison (later Flt. Lt. D. R. Morrison, DFC and Distinguished Flying Medal, prisoner of war and amputee) who died in 1994, and Flight Sergeant George B. Murray (later Flt. Lt. G.B. Murray, DFC). A subsequent investigation exonerated them and laid most of the blame on the controller who had directed the interception.

More galling were errors made when the attacking pilots–British and American–had ample opportunity to verify the identity of their intended targets. One example was an action on Dec. 21, 1943. No. 609 Sqdn. had been detailed to protect three boxes of Martin Marauder medium bombers. With only six fighters available, two Typhoons escorted each box. American Thunderbolts attacked and ruthlessly shot down two of No. 609 Sqdn.’s aircraft; a third regained base with heavy damage. The dead Typhoon pilots were Pilot Officer Charles W. Miller of the RCAF and Sqdn. Ldr. Patrick Thornton-Brown of the RAF, whose last communications were concern for his wingman (Miller) rather than himself. The Typhoon pilot who made it home–much shot about–was FO Arthur S. Ross, an American who had enlisted in the RCAF in 1940.

The confusion of Typhoons with enemy aircraft persisted throughout the war. On Dec. 24, 1944, two American Thunderbolts attacked No. 439 Sqdn. “Tiffies”, killing Flt. Sgt. William A. Wright. His wife had only recently given birth to a daughter, and the squadron diarist wrote bitterly: “We had barely finished congratulating him.” On March 14, 1945, FO Hugh Fraser of No. 439 Sqdn. wrote in his logbook, “Thunderbolts just as stupid as ever,” and on the 20th he noted, “T-bolts still annoying us. Some day we are going to blast them.” He was not alone in such thoughts.

One of the strangest cases of mistaken identity was an all-Canadian affair on June 17, 1943. No. 414 Sqdn. had detailed four Mustangs to escort four Mosquitos outbound to patrol the Bay of Biscay. After 55 minutes they turned for home. About 25 miles south of the Scilly Islands, they spotted two aircraft, apparently escorting a small ship. The Mustang leader, FO David A. Bernhardt, altered course towards them, intent on investigating.

Two Spitfires of No. 412 Sqdn., flown by flying officers Lloyd W. Powell, DFC, and Francis E. Monette, had been dispatched to escort a single ship. The vessel was considered very secret and very important; they were under orders that, if attacked, one was to stay with the vessel and the other was to return to base. Neither formation had been briefed as to the probable presence of the other, although controllers had expected there would be at least 15 minutes’ separation between them. This had not occurred, visibility was poor, and when viewed head on, a Mustang could be mistaken for a Messerschmitt 109.

Perhaps nervous about the ship, and finding four unidentified aircraft approaching head on, Powell opened fire. FO Bernhardt replied, saw strikes, but almost immediately realized the other aircraft were Spitfires and broke away. Meanwhile, the second Spitfire pilot, FO Monette, concluding they were under fire, shot at the first airplane that crossed his sights at extreme range–400 to 500 yards. He saw no strikes, but his target pulled up, fell sideways and plunged into the sea. Monette had shot down FO Frederick L. Vaupel, the No. 2 in the Mustang formation. His leader’s Spitfire was streaming smoke and minutes later Powell bailed out over the water, never to be seen again. He and Vaupel would have no graves but the sea.

Such tragedies were followed swiftly by investigations. The court of inquiry heard from the surviving pilots, the relevant air controller, and Flt. Lt. Hart Massey, No. 412 Sqdn.’s intelligence officer who had instructed the unit’s pilots in aircraft recognition. While some criticism was expressed about units not being briefed about other formations, the fact was that some 50 different types of aircraft frequented the area and all pilots knew it. Primary responsibility was attributed to Powell who had paid for his mistake with his life.

Night combat entailed other opportunities for mistaken identity. Ground controllers directing aircraft were not always certain as to what was registering on their radars, especially when the aircraft were very distant. Although controllers could generally bring a fighter into close proximity of a target, the aircrews themselves normally made the final contact, relying on “Eyeball Mark I” to spot, verify and aim. Even so, as one court of inquiry stated, it had to be accepted that “recognition by visual means at night cannot be regarded as infallible.”

At 9:50 p.m. on the night of Aug. 4, 1944, Flt. Lt. Walter G. Dinsdale, the pilot, and FO John E. Dunn, the navigator/ radar operator, took off from Colerne in their Mosquito of No. 410 Sqdn. They were an experienced crew, having already destroyed two enemy aircraft–three if one counted a Junkers 88/Bf.109 composite aircraft as two machines.

A forward radar controller directed the Mosquito to a target, cancelled the vector, then renewed the order to look for a contact. Dinsdale and Dunn spotted an aircraft and pursued it. Dinsdale’s combat report described the action: “I closed in very rapidly expecting normal chase and overshot immediately. A flashing visual obtained on observation type aircraft clearly outlined by the moon. I orbited and regained contact at 6,000 feet range to starboard. I approached this time very cautiously and flaps down, Air Speed Indicator 130 mph. I had great difficulty in identifying aircraft, which was carrying a long-range tank between undercarriage. I followed aircraft for approximately 25 miles on a vector of 140 degrees. Finally identified as HS.126. No national markings could be seen. Opened fire at 400 feet with two short bursts, strikes seen on fuselage, and aircraft exploded and went down in flames and seen to hit the ground still burning. Position approximately south of Tours (France). I claim one HS.126 destroyed.”

The action took place shortly after midnight and Dinsdale fired 60 rounds of 20-mm ammunition. The Henschel 126 was a high-wing monoplane with a radial engine, long obsolete in its designed role of army cooperation work, but still used by the Germans for communications work. Unhappily, there was another high-wing, radial-engined monoplane still in service–the Westland Lysander. It, too, had been rendered obsolete as an army cooperation airplane, but it had found new roles as a trainer, target-tug, search aircraft–and furtive transport, flying secret agents in and out of occupied Europe under cover of darkness. Dinsdale and Dunn had destroyed a Lysander belonging to No. 161 Sqdn., killing the RAF pilot–Flt. Lt. John P. Alcock–and his agent passenger, Lucien Germereau. Night fighter crews could not have been well briefed on Special Operations Executive spy flights, for otherwise the “long-range tank between undercarriage” would have rung alarm bells.

These were the fortunes of war. Dinsdale and Dunn continued on operations, destroyed another German aircraft in December 1944, and were awarded DFCs in May 1945. Dinsdale–who died in 1982–became a member of Parliament and a cabinet minister. If any man paid his dues by public service, it was he.

If there was a common thread that ran through WW II “friendly fire” incidents, it was the earnestness of authorities to find the reasons, but not make scapegoats of the principals. The “fog of war” was recognized as inherent to battle, and efforts were directed to preventing similar tragedies–not creating fresh victims.

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