20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History

Larry Holzwarth - November 13, 2020

Friendly fire, the inadvertent attack on members of one’s own military during combat, has been a documented fact of warfare for centuries. Not to be confused with deliberate firing on one’s own troops, friendly fire incidents are accidents, with often deadly results. History is replete with such incidents, as well as with military and political leaders attempting to hide them from the public. They have changed history, as in the War of the Roses, when Lancastrian troops fired upon each other, causing disarray and eventually defeat at the Battle of Burnet in 1471. Nor have ships and aircraft been immune. One of the largest air battles of the Second World War occurred between American and Soviet aircraft, though they were Allies at the time.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
His own men severely wounded Confederate General James Longstreet during the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. Wikimedia

During the American Civil War, three Confederate generals were struck by bullets fired by Confederate troops. Two died from their wounds while the third, James Longstreet, remained out of action during the critical months of the summer of 1864. At sea, in the opening days of the Second World War, a British submarine, HMS Triton, torpedoed and sank another British submarine, HMS Oxley, with 52 sailors killed. The loss of Oxley, the first submarine sunk in World War II, was covered up by the British government, first as an accidental explosion, then as an accidental collision. The British government kept the truth from the public, and the families of the men lost, until well into the 1950s. Here are 20 incidents of friendly fire from history.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
Panicked troops fired indiscriminately during the Battle of the Monongahela. Wikimedia

1. The 1755 Battle of the Monongahela saw several incidents of friendly fire

On July 9, 1755, a French, Canadian, and Native American force ambushed a joint British-American expedition dispatched to capture Fort Duquesne at what became Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The British attempted to deploy in the woods while remaining in formation, while flanking parties, many of them Americans, also moved in the heavily timbered area. When the British commander, General Edward Braddock, fell to enemy fire, Virginia militia Colonel George Washington assumed command, trying in vain to rally his troops. After he positioned the militia behind trees and other natural barriers, the Americans found themselves under fire from both the enemy and the British infantry, who mistook them for French or Canadian troops.

Among the survivors of the battle, in addition to Washington, were Daniel Boone and his cousin Daniel Morgan, both serving the army as waggoners. Both later commented bitterly on the British firing on the American militia. Morgan described Washington coming under the fire of British regulars as he attempted to lead an orderly retreat. Washington had two horses shot out from under him and at least two bullets passed through his coat, and another his hat, but he suffered no wounds. Most of the casualties to the Virginia militia occurred as they covered the army as a rear guard, enduring the fire of the enemy to the front and sides, and the British to the rear. Of the 1,300-man Braddock Expedition, over 900 were casualties, how many to friendly fire is unknown. The French and Indians lost fewer than 100 men.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
Confusion dominated the Battle of Germantown, and led to a disastrous friendly fire incident. Wikimedia

2. Friendly fire knocked two American brigades out of the Battle of Germantown in 1777

The Battle of Germantown was the result of a counterattack by the Continental Army on the British-Hessian Army of William Howe, after the British occupation of Philadelphia. Washington devised an ambitious and complicated plan in which four separate columns were to converge on the British camp at Germantown. Launching his plan in heavy fog on October 4, 1777, the Continentals quickly fell into confusion. Schedules fell apart, and troops were diverted by field officers, rather than adhering to Washington’s original orders. An American unit under Anthony Wayne took part in the early fighting, routing the British units before them. Low on ammunition, they withdrew to reorganize and reform.

As they fell back, an American division under Adam Stephen arrived to replace them in the American line. They were far behind schedule. Their commander, later found to have been drunk at the time, mistook Wayne’s men as Hessians and ordered several volleys fired at the Continentals (to be fair, many of Wayne’s men wore Hessian coats captured at Trenton). In the smoke and confusion, Wayne’s troops returned fire. After several exchanges both units retreated, having sustained heavy casualties. The incident, one of many which caused Washington’s plan to unravel, left a hole in his flank and forced overall commander Nathaniel Greene to withdraw. After the battle, Stephen was court-martialed, found guilty of dereliction of duty and cashiered.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
The 1788 Austro-Turkish War included a friendly fire incident incited by a quarrel over alcohol. Wikimedia

3. Friendly fire routed an entire Austrian Army in 1788

During the Austro-Turkish War, an Austrian Army which included troops from Serbia, Croatia, Lombardy, and other nations encamped around the town of Karansebes (now Caransebes) in Romania. The army, about 100,000 men, dispatched cavalry to scout Ottoman positions and strength. The cavalry found no Ottomans, but they did find Romani people willing to sell them schnapps. When they returned to camp, nearby infantrymen demanded a share of the schnapps, which consisted of several barrels. The cavalrymen refused, and erected barriers protecting their barrels of schnapps from any intruders. By then most of the cavalrymen had liberally imbibed of the schnapps, and drunken arguments developed among themselves, as well as with the thirsty infantrymen. At some point, someone fired a shot.

An open battle developed between the cavalrymen and infantrymen. As the scattered encampments heard the noise of battle they joined in. Panicked men firing indiscriminately, believing the Ottomans were attacking in the dark of night. Calls from officers to cease, in German, were misunderstood by those of the army who spoke only their native language. In the panic, they heard Halt! as Allah. Reports of casualties from the battle, which continued until most of the army fled in different directions in terror, vary widely. At least 1,200 wounded were documented in Austrian military records. One discredited account of the incident claimed 10,000 dead, though most consider that number unlikely. During the confusion and aftermath, the army’s payroll disappeared, likely into Ottoman coffers.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
British Vice-Admiral James Saumarez witnessed a friendly fire incident which destroyed three Spanish ships. Wikimedia

4. Two Spanish ships destroyed each other during the Second Battle of Algeciras Bay

In 1801, French First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte ordered elements of the French and Spanish fleets to unite, under French control, at the Spanish port of Cadiz. French and Spanish ships from Mediterranean ports attempted to elude British fleets, leading to a series of naval battles in the Algeciras Campaign. During the night of July 12, a combined French and Spanish squadron sailed from Algeciras, encountering British ships under the overall command of James Saumarez. Several ship-to-ship actions occurred in the darkness, with flames of burning vessels lighting the scene and adding to the confusion. HMS Superb, the fastest of the British ships on the scene, attacked the rear ship of the escaping squadron, the Spanish Real Carlos, setting it afire. Superb then set off in pursuit of the next ship.

Real Carlos drifted in the direction of the Spanish San Hermenegildo, which mistook it for a British ship and fired into it. Real Carlos returned the fire. San Hermenegildo and Real Carlos collided in the confusion, their rigging became entangled, and fire soon spread across both ships. While the British pursued the rest of the squadron, the two Spanish ships fought the blaze which threatened to destroy them both. Shortly after midnight on the morning of July 13, both ships exploded as the fire reached one of their magazines. More than 1,700 Spanish sailors died as a result of their commanders’ mutual failure to recognize ships of their own navy. In addition, another Spanish ship, the frigate Perla, was damaged in the crossfire between the two larger ships before they became entangled, sinking the next day with heavy loss of life.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
Highlanders battle French heavy cavalry at the Battle of Quatre Bras during the Waterloo Campaign. Wikimedia

5. The Waterloo Campaign included notable incidents of friendly fire

During the Waterloo Campaign of 1815, the army commanded by the Duke of Wellington did not consist solely of British troops. Less than a third of the army consisted of men from Great Britain. The remainder came from Hanover, Brunswick, Nassau, and the Netherlands. The result was a hodgepodge of uniforms, regimental flags, and languages. Many of Wellington’s units resembled French troops more than they did the British, creating a situation on the battlefields admirably suited for errors of judgment. On June 16, advance units of Wellington’s army confronted the French at Quatre Bras, (Four Arms) in Belgium. Simultaneously a larger portion of the French Army, under Napoleon himself, attacked the Prussians at Ligny. At Quatre Bras, the French troops were commanded by Marshal Michel Ney.

Wellington was absent from the field at Quatre Bras when the battle began, having met with Blucher at Ligny. During his absence and after his arrival troops of the allied armies arrived at the field and were thrown into battle. The Dutch 3rd Light Cavalry Brigade, uniformed in a manner similar to their French counterparts, charged the French lines in mid-afternoon in an attempt to allow Wellington’s battered infantry to reform, stabilizing his lines. Upon completion of their mission, they returned to their lines, only to meet heavy fire from Scottish Highlander troops, confused by their uniforms and their calls to each other in Dutch. The Brigade suffered heavy casualties inflicted by both French and Scottish troops, rendering then relatively ineffective for the rest of the Waterloo Campaign.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
Albert Sidney Johnston fell to friendly fire on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh. Wikimedia

6. Albert Sidney Johnston fell to friendly fire at the Battle of Shiloh

Albert Sidney Johnston graduated 8th in his class of 41 cadets, and served in the United States Army, the Army of Texas, and in 1861, the Confederate States Army. For many southerners, the Mexican War veteran was the best general the Confederates had, Jefferson Davis among them. Davis assigned Johnston to command the Western Department, essentially all of the land between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River. As Johnston slowly raised troops throughout the vast area, relying on the state governors to recruit them, he kept Union forces in Kentucky on edge with a series of small raids. In 1862 Johnston concentrated his forces at Corinth, and moved on the Union positions at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.

On the first day of the fighting in what became known as the Battle of Shiloh, for a small church on the battlefield, Johnson’s troops drove the Union back in heavy fighting. In the early afternoon, Johnston took a bullet in the back of his knee, which tore an artery. He bled to death in just a few minutes, without medical attention. There had been no Union troops to his rear when he was hit. A surgeon later discovered a tourniquet in Johnston’s pocket, which could have saved his life had it been applied. The surgeon also removed the fatal bullet, discovering it to be from an 1853 Enfield rifle. Union troops did not carry the Enfield, though some Confederates did. Although some historians and Civil War buffs dispute it, Johnston likely fell to friendly fire, a fate which cost the Confederacy one of its most able commanders.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
A fanciful depiction of Stonewall Jackson’s fatal wounding at the Battle of Jacksonville, 1863. Wikimedia

7. Stonewall Jackson also fell to friendly fire

During 1862 through May, 1863, Stonewall Jackson rose from command of a brigade to senior corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia. Instrumental in several of Lee’s notable victories, Jackson became the Confederacy’s most feared field commander. His Valley Campaign in 1862 defeated three separate Union Armies, helping to relieve the pressure on Lee before Richmond. That campaign remains one studied closely by students of military tactics. He stressed speed of movement, and the use of terrain to screen troops from the enemy. Though never beloved by his men, he earned their respect and prompt obedience. At Chancellorsville, widely regarded as Lee’s tactical masterpiece, Jackson proposed and executed the flanking maneuver which drove back the Union right and disheartened their commander, Joseph Hooker.

Following the attack on May 2, 1863, Jackson and his retinue of aides reconnoitered the Union position, planning a follow-up attack the next day. Confederate troops, hearing his party in the dark but not identifying it, opened fire. Jackson, hit three times, had his left arm amputated. Eight days later he died of complications including pneumonia. Following Jackson’s death, Lee’s army embarked on its ill-fated invasion of Pennsylvania which culminated in defeat at Gettysburg. Although Lee won additional victories in 1864, he never again demonstrated the tactical brilliance on the battlefield his army had displayed when Jackson served as a corps commander. The friendly fire which killed Jackson changed the manner in which the army fought for the rest of the war.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
No fewer than 11 documented friendly fire incidents added to the heavy casualties at the Battle of Antietam. Wikimedia

8. There were several other friendly fire incidents in the American Civil War

The American Civil War featured numerous examples of friendly fire. James Longstreet, who had advised against the frontal attack at Gettysburg known as Pickett’s Charge, suffered a severe wound inflicted by his own men at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864. He was absent from Lee’s army during the bloody drive down the Peninsula. When he rejoined the army in October, he found it already trapped in the trenches around Richmond and Petersburg. One of over 100 documented instances of friendly fire inflicting casualties during the course of the war, Longstreet survived. Friendly fire incidents occurred aboard ships of the Union blockade. Blockade runners, using the inlets along the South’s Atlantic coast, frequently found themselves under fire from Confederate troops and artillery.

They also occurred among larger units, including whole regiments. During the Battle of Antietam the Union’s 9th New York Regiment, believing they were attacking a Confederate unit, engaged the 5th Massachusetts Regiment. The two Union regiments exchanged several volleys of fire, both suffering heavy casualties. At Antietam alone, eleven separate friendly fire incidents occurred in the Union Army, accounting for over 1,000 casualties in dead and wounded. Whenever troops engaged in wooded areas, and sometimes even in open fields, friendly fire incidents were apt to occur. During the Civil War, the high rate of fire produced clouds of thick smoke, which obscured the field of battle and led to the misidentification of opposing units through much of the war.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
Serving as a medic during the Boer War, Arthur Conan Doyle observed and reported friendly fire incidents. Wikimedia

9. Arthur Conan Doyle witnessed and reported friendly fire casualties during the Boer War

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, served as a medic during the Boer War. While there he witnessed numerous instances of British and Australian troops firing upon each other, sometimes at the direction of their officers. They occurred with such alarming frequency that he recommended officers be equipped with better telescopes and binoculars. The Boer War was one of the earliest in which infantry advanced while machine guns to their rear supported them. Both machine guns and more rapidly fire artillery cut down British troops as they moved forward, and communications of error proved wholly inadequate to the circumstances. Doyle, as well as Rudyard Kipling and Baden Powell, lamented the incidents and called for the means to avoid them in future conflict.

All three demanded the army address the problem, as well as provide better training for non-commissioned officers in the field. The British Army denied the problem existed on the scale claimed by Doyle. Winston Churchill covered the war as a correspondent, and agreed with the army. Doyle also pointed out the high rate of civilian casualties, on both sides, as a result of indiscriminate fire. He claimed the officer corps presented an attitude of firing upon perceived targets when they were sighted, rather than when they were clearly identified. Doyle also pointed out that German advisers and equipment, used against the British, gave them extensive information on how to engage the British Army in future conflicts. World War One proved him correct.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
An artist’s impression of a gas attack on an unspecified battlefield of World War I. Wikimedia

10. Poison gas attacks caused casualties among friendlies during the First World War

The first use of poison gas on the battlefield is usually reported as being in April, 1915, when the Germans fired gas shells at British positions on the Western Front. In fact, the Germans used poison gas against the Russians in January of that year, four months before it appeared in the west. Inexperience with the weapon created problems for the Germans. A failure to consider the shifting winds led to the gas blowing back on German positions, causing problems in several areas of the German lines. The gas used, a form of tear gas called xylyl bromide, froze quickly, rendering it more or less inert, and relatively few casualties suffered on either side. In April, the German Army deployed far more lethal chlorine gas against the British, causing far heavy casualties, and changing modern warfare.

In September 1915, the British responded with poisonous gas attacks of their own. During the opening bombardment preceding infantry assaults at the Battle of Loos, the British released approximately 140 tons of chlorine gas on German positions. British engineers had argued against its use, due to prevailing winds, but the senior officers overruled their recommendations. Deadly chlorine gas blew back over the British troops in the trenches, who suffered a higher rate of casualties from the attack than the Germans. The ineffectiveness of the gas attack also led to higher British casualties once the assault on the entrenched Germans began. Afterward, the British commander who had ordered the gas attack blamed his senior meteorologist for its failure. Other junior officers defended the meteorologist, claiming that he toohad argued against the use of gas, only to be overruled.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
HMS Pasley acted quickly to sink a British submarine which mistook the destroyer for a German U-Boat. Wikimedia

11. A British destroyer sank a British submarine in World War I

HMS Pasley entered service with the Royal Navy during the summer of 1916. Its duties included anti-submarine patrols and acting as escort for convoys to Norway and ports in France. In September, 1916, Pasley escorted a convoy out of Aspo Fjord, north of Bergen, Norway, in foul weather, with visibility severely restricted. The ships were bound for the Shetland Islands. Pasley’s lookouts suddenly reported two torpedo wakes, heading directly for the destroyer. One struck the ship’s side as it turned in the direction from whence the torpedoes came. It failed to explode, the other missed, and Pasley, by running down the wakes, located the submarine which had launched them. Calling on all its speed, the destroyer rammed the submarine, slicing it in two, which halves sank instantly.

Pasley conducted a search for survivors, of which they found only one man. After he was brought aboard Pasley’s captain, Charles Gordon Ramsey, was disconcerted to learn the submarine was the British G-9. The submarine had, indescribably, mistaken the profile of the British destroyer for a German U-Boat. A Court of Inquiry over the affair led to Ramsey’s total acquittal. He eventually rose to the position of Naval Aide to King George VI. The commander of the submarine, Lieutenant-Commander Byron Cary, received a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) posthumously. The 29 crewmen of G-9 lost in the incident were officially listed as being killed in an accidental collision. G-9 was one of at least six British submarines lost to friendly fire during the First World War.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
Portuguese Expeditionary Troops with a Stokes Mortar near Neuve Chapel, France. Wikimedia

12. British mortar fire killed and wounded scores of their own troops during the Battle of the Somme

During the First World War, the staggering casualties suffered on the Western Front badly affected training of replacements. More men were needed urgently, and entered combat with insufficient training on many of the weapons developed and issued to conduct trench warfare. One such weapon was the Stokes Mortar, named for its designer, Sir Wilfred Stokes. The weapon launched grenade-size bombs up to a maximum of 800 yards, with its range dependent on launch angle and the amount of propellant used. The propellant came in the form of four rings, and the user subtracted one or more rings to lessen the range. The mortar’s design allowed it to be fired from inside the trenches, towards the enemy, to suppress weapons firing on advancing infantry.

At the First Battle of the Somme in 1916, British infantry advanced toward the German trenches near the village of Thiepval, France. There they paused, waiting for Stokes Mortars to open fire on the German positions in advance of their final assault. Instead, they came under heavy mortar fire themselves, with the men handling the mortars to the rear miscalculating the range. One company sustained heavy casualties when a mortar shell hit their own supply of grenades, detonating them. The mortar bombardment continued as the British infantry launched its assault. Friendly fire throughout the Battle of the Somme occurred frequently among the British troops, though official recognition of the problem by British senior officers did not.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
C. S. Lewis suffered a severe wound from a friendly fire incident in 1918. Wikimedia

13. The writer C. S. Lewis was a victim of friendly fire during World War I

Clive Staples Lewis, who gained enduring fame as a writer using the byline C. S. Lewis, accepted a commission with the British Army in 1917. After initial training in Britain, he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, arriving in France in November, 1917. He arrived at the front lines near the Somme on his 19th birthday. For the next five months, he endured the miseries of winter in the trenches. Along with the weather-related discomforts, shelling by the Germans, sniper fire, and the always present threat of gas attacks defined each day. German aircraft increased their strafing of the trenches in the late winter, preparatory to the Spring Offensive they launched in March, 1918.

To break up the masses of German troops and equipment, British and French artillery increased their bombardments that spring. On April 15, a British shell fell well short of its intended target, its explosion severely wounding Lewis and killing two of his men. Shell fragments wounded Lewis to the chest, which included a broken rib, his left wrist, and his left leg. Over one month later Lewis was deemed strong enough for evacuation to Britain, where he remained hospitalized until December, at which time he was demobilized from the army. When Lewis wrote to the War Office inquiring about the status of his pension, due to him as a man wounded in combat, the official reply said he was ineligible. They offered no explanation as to why he was not due a pension for the wounds received in battle.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
Q Ships included sailing vessels, such as this barqentine-rigged vessel. Wikimedia

14. A British Q Ship sank a British submarine less than a month before the end of the war

Q Ships were disguised merchantmen, used to lure in German U-boats, before sinking them with heavy guns. The Germans viewed Q Ships as violations of the Cruiser Rules, and the British strategy in deploying them led the Germans to counter with unrestricted submarine warfare. In October, 1918, the Q Ship Cymric, a converted sailing schooner, spotted on the surface a submarine with the marking U-6 on its conning tower. Cymric’s captain ordered the crew to open fire on the submarine. The undersea vessel attempted to escape and successfully eluded the Q Ship temporarily, though damage prevented it from submerging. Cymric relocated the submarine and in a fusillade of firing sank the vessel. Fifteen submariners died, and from the survivors in the water Cymric’s captain learned they were not Germans.

The Q Ship’s captain had thought he saw U-6 on the submarine’s conning tower. What he had seen was J-6. It had been a British submarine. The misidentification became worse when his initial fire killed the signalman sent to the submarine’s bridge to communicate with the Q-Ship. A hastily convened Court of Inquiry took no action against either commanding officer, and ordered the entire story classified under the Official Secrets Act. The loss of the J-6 was officially described as an accident in British records, any of the crew discussing its loss were subject to prosecution. Not until 1969, over fifty years later, did the British Government released the true story of the friendly fire incident.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
World famous aviators Wiley Post (left) and Italo Balbo, circa 1920. Wikimedia

15. The Italians shot down their own Commander in Chief in North Africa

Internationally renowned aviation pioneer Italo Balbo served as an important member of Italy’s Fascist Party in the 1920s and 1930s. In Rome, Balbo rose to such prominence that Mussolini appointed him Governor-General of Libya, in order to get his potential rival out of the capital. Balbo opposed the Nazi-German “Pact of Steel” and argued against Mussolini’s vocal support of Germany following the invasion of Poland. He prepared Italian military positions across North Africa, secretly moving troops along the Egyptian border even as the Anglo-Italian Agreement of 1938 eased diplomatic tensions between the two countries. He also moved to modernize the Italian Air Force, though restricted budgets and Mussolini’s preference for the Regia Marina thwarted his plans.

On June 10, 1940, Italy entered World War II by declaring war on France. Balbo became Commander-in-Chief of Italian North Africa. Balbo planned to launch the Italian invasion of Egypt in mid-July. In late June he embarked on a tour of forward bases, flying to Tobruk, then held by the Italians. Earlier the same day, British aircraft bombed and strafed the airfield. Italian gunners remained at their anti-aircraft positions. Among them was the Italian navy cruiser, San Giorgio. As Balbo’s aircraft, in which he rode as a passenger, approached the airfield, the Italians opened up, mistaking it for another British attack. The aircraft crashed in flames, all aboard died in the incident. Later, conspiracy theories arose that claimed Mussolini ordered Balbo’s assassination, though those have been thoroughly discarded as false.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
HMS Oxley at sea during the interwar period, probably in the mid-1930s. Royal Navy

16. The first British submarine lost in World War II was sunk by a British submarine

Originally built for the Royal Australian Navy, and thus in a slightly different configuration than its Royal Navy counterparts, HMS Oxley returned to the latter in 1931. By the time World War II began, Oxley had accumulated 13 years of service in two navies. Oxley deployed to the Norwegian coast in September 1939, as most Royal Navy submarines went to sea in anticipation of hostilities with Germany. On the evening of September 10, 1939, another British submarine, HMS Triton, ran on the surface while charging its batteries. A lookout spotted another submarine on the surface, and signaled it with a lamp, with no reply returned. Triton than signaled by launching green recognition flares. The other submarine offered no response. Triton then launched a spread of torpedoes, with at least one hit.

Two survivors were rescued, including Lieutenant Commander H. G. Bowerman, commanding officer of HMS Oxley. Bowerman and the other survivor, a lookout, had been on Oxley’s bridge when the torpedo struck. At least one other survivor was seen in the water but never recovered. The Royal Navy immediately moved to cover up the incident. Authorities blamed Oxley’s loss on an explosion during the war. After the war, it changed its official position, and announced Oxley had been lost following an accidental collision with Triton. Not until the mid-1950s did Oxley’s demise to friendly fire become public knowledge in the United Kingdom. Triton, assigned to the Mediterranean in 1940, sank while on patrol that year, with the loss of all hands.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
RMS Laconia as a Cunard Liner at the beginning of the 1920s. Wikimedia

17. Thousands of prisoners of war were killed by friendly fire during World War II

In 1942 RMS Laconia, transporting nearly 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, fell victim to a German U-Boat. The U-Boat took on as many survivors as it could, towed others in rafts, and notified the British of its situation and position. It also displayed red crosses on its decks. Nonetheless, American bombers attacked it, forcing it to abandon the survivors and crash-dive. Over 1,400 Italian prisoners died before the entire event resolved itself, which included three distinct friendly fire incidents. Similar events occurred in the Pacific. American submarines sank Japanese transports laden with prisoners of war being sent to slave labor camps. Their losses and facts of their deaths remained suppressed for many years after the war.

Operation Chastise, the RAF bombing raids which destroyed dams on the Eder, Mohne, and Sohr Rivers in Germany generated catastrophic flooding, destroying whole villages and towns. The floods destroyed railroad and traffic bridges, filled mines, disrupted communications. The loss of the dams also disrupted hydroelectric power distribution, essential to Germany’s industry. Accounts of casualties vary. Roughly 1,600 died in the floods and their immediate aftermath. Somewhere between 1,100 and 1,500 prisoners of war, mostly Soviets and Poles held in slave labor camps were killed as well. Late in the war, several trains relocating American and Allied prisoners of war were bombed by Allied aircraft, unaware of their contents.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
US Army Air Force P-38G Lightning fighter-bomber, which from a distance resembled a German aircraft. Wikimedia

18. A friendly fire incident led to an all-out air battle between Americans and Soviets in 1944

In early November 1944, Soviet forces had advanced deeply into Serbia. On November 7, 1944, a flight of American P-38 Lightning fighter-bombers spotted a long column of military vehicles leaving the town of Nis in the direction of Belgrade. Believing the vehicles to be a German column retreating from the Soviets, the Americans attacked, strafing and bombing. The vehicles were Soviets advancing, not Germans in retreat. They suffered heavy casualties, among them Soviet Corps Commander Lieutenant General Grigory Kotov. Believing the attacking Americans were Germans flying Focke-Wulfe FW-189s, like the Lightning, a twin-tailed aircraft, the Soviets called for air support.

Yak-3 fighters responded, later supported by Yak-9s, and an air battle swirled over the town of Nis, gradually drifting westward, between the Americans and Soviets. A Serbian partisan who observed the dogfight wrote that he saw 7 Lightnings and 3 Yaks shot down in the battle. American sources claim conflicting totals, in part because the USAAF immediately took steps to keep the incident secret. A furious Stalin received a personal apology from Franklin Roosevelt, delivered to the Soviet Premier by Averill Harriman. George Marshall, Chief of Staff for the United States, also apologized. Officially the Soviets acknowledged 68 casualties and the loss of three aircraft. American casualties remain disputed.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
Allied buildup of supplies and men at Inchon, during the Korean War, which saw several friendly fire incidents. US Navy

19. Several friendly fire incidents occurred during the Korean War

Early in the Korean War American intelligence informed their counterparts in the Royal Australian Air Force that the North Koreans controlled the region surrounding Suwon. Accordingly, when RAAF fighters spotted a troop train in the region they attacked. The train carried American and South Korean troops, and sustained over 700 casualties. In September, 1950, a British unit captured an elevated position and requested air support to help them hold off North Korean counterattacks. The responding American aircraft bombed the British position, using napalm. Their bombs expended, they continued to conduct strafing runs, forcing the British to withdraw, after sustaining heavy casualties. Communications were hampered by defective radios on the ground.

In several incidents over the course of the war, retreating South Korean troops were attacked by rear units, in the belief they were North Korean or Chinese. At the Battle of Wawon, in November, 1950, Turkish troops encountered South Korean units withdrawing and engaged them. The South Koreans fought back, and an extended firefight between the allies led to numerous casualties on both sides. The Turkish troops had been positioned to fight a delaying action against Chinese troops, and unable to understand the language, nor discern the difference between Korean and Chinese, they chose to shoot first, and confirm later. The Chinese scored a major tactical victory at the Battle of Wawon, and the long Allied retreat which followed Chinese intervention in Korea continued.

20 Blue on Blue Incidents from History
US Air Force aircraft fired missiles on the heavy cruiser USS Boston in one Vietnam War friendly fire incident. US Navy

20. Friendly fire incidents marked the War in Vietnam in the air, at sea, and on land

Friendly fire incidents in Vietnam claimed lives throughout America’s long involvement in Southeast Asia. As early as 1966, the United States Coast Guard suffered friendly fire casualties when US Air Force planes attacked the cutter, Point Welcome. Two Coast Guardsmen died in the attack. The official investigation recommended no disciplinary action against the Air Force personnel involved, and as in other incidents, attempted to keep it from the press and public. In 1968, US Navy ships and Swift Boats were attacked by USAF aircraft. One of the ships, USS Boston, was a heavy cruiser, unlike anything available to the North Vietnamese. It was hit by an Air Force missile, as were several other destroyers, with the US Navy sustaining several personnel casualties.

It too remained classified by the services. In Vietnam American aircraft, from all services, bombed positions occupied by American and South Vietnamese troops, usually as a result of misdirected or mistimed ground support missions. The North Vietnamese also made mistakes, several instances of North Vietnamese anti-aircraft batteries opening fire on Soviet-supplied MiG aircraft occurred during the war. In the many conflicts around the globe since, friendly fire incidents continued to haunt the world’s militaries and the families of the victims. In the Falklands War, the Gulf War, Desert Shield, the Kosovo War, and the Global War on Terror, friendly fire claimed the lives of service personnel of all branches. Nearly all governments continue to attempt to limit public awareness of its frequency.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Crucible of War: The Seven Year’s War and the Fate of Empire in British North America”. Fred Anderson. 2000

“Battle of Germantown”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Punch Drunk at Karansebes”. Claudia Mendes, War History Online. February 19, 2019

“The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History”. Alexander Mikaberidze. 2020

“Friendly Fire in the Civil War: More than 100 True Stories of Comrade Killing Comrade”. Webb Garrison. 2008

“We Brits Invented ‘Friendly Fire'”. Patrick West, Spiked. August 29, 2007. Online

“A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918”. Gerald Meyer. 2006

“Fighting the Great War. A Global History”. Michael S. Neiberg. 2005

“C. S. Lewis on War and Peace”. David C. Downing, C. S. Lewis Institute. Online

“Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life”. Claudio G. Segre. 1990

“The Loss of HMS Oxley 1939”. Peter Smith, Naval Historical Review. March, 2003

“American PoWs on Japanese Ships Take a Voyage into Hell”. Lee A. Gladwin, Prologue Magazine. Winter, 2003

“Forgotten Fifteenth: The Daring Airmen Who Crippled Hitler’s War Machine”. Barrett Tillman. 2014

“Amicide: The Problem of Friendly Fire in Modern War”. LTCOL Charles R. Schrader, US Army. Combat Studies Institute. December, 1982. Online

“Generals’ Apathy: The Pentagon’s appalling record on ‘friendly fire'”. Scott Shuger, Slate. April 4, 2002