Halcyon Class Minesweepers Halcyon Class Ships
Daily Telegraph 29th Aug 1994
Report of 1st MSF
HMS Britomart
HMS Hussar
HMS Salamander
Daily Telegraph


The following three articles all appeared on 29th Aug 1994 in a full page account in the Daily Telegraph of the events of 27th August 1944. The 100 year closure rule on the documents held by the National Archive at Kew had been waived and the full facts could, at last, be revealed.

(Thanks to Mark Morris Cross of HMS Seagull for supplying this information)

Daily Telegraph Monday August 29th 1994 – Ben Fenton

Secret papers detail RAF raid on Royal Navy 

A ‘friendly fire’ mistake that left 117 sailors dead and 153 wounded has been cloaked in official secrecy for 50 years until now… 

THE 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 Rutter. 

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 13.30." 

“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."


Daily Telegraph 29th August 1994

 We survived by taking floats off our dead mates

 EVEN after 50 years, memories of the Typhoon attack on Britomart are still strong enough in the mind of Bert Hughes to leave him in tears. 

"It was a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky and I think I was stripped off   to the waist," says the Rev Bert Hughes, now 71 and a  retired Church of England vicar. "I was on watch and sitting with my back to the winch.   We were doing a sweep for magnetic mines. I was helping another seaman make a wire splice and suddenly there was a tremendous  explosion and there was water everywhere. I assumed we had struck a mine ourselves.” 

"We knew at once they were our planes. We were told afterwards that they weren't ours, but they had the special striped D‑Day markings on and you couldn't mistake a Typhoon for anything else.” 

"I jumped to my feet and everything was confusion. When we looked towards the bridge (which had just been struck by a salvo of Typhoon rockets) it was in a terrible mess. The ship started to circle and to settle quite quickly. Eventually an order was given to abandon ship, not from an officer because they were all dead or dying. We all went into the water.” 

"I was with a mate called Booth we called him General and he couldn't  swim. We survived by picking the buoyancy aids off the bodies of our dead mates as they floated by. Then we saw a big cork raft and we tried to get on, but it was very full. I cursed the guys on it, but then I realised they were as badly hurt as the General and me. There was one chap there who was very still, but apparently unmarked. I gave him mouth‑to-mouth resuscitation, but he was already dead, hit in the base of the spine and killed at once.”

“I will never forget the thunder of that attack. There can't be anything like the noise and the shaking of it. By this time we were floating in range of the German 9.2in coastal guns and they opened up on us. We didn't have any bad feelings towards the RAF. We were more interested in survival.”

 After the war, Mr Hughes became a lay evangelist and was ordained in 1966. But he never forgot the attack, on the First Minesweeping Flotilla. "I always had sleeping problems and I never realised just how badly I was affected by this, but then, in the early 80s, I began to relive this particular action.” 

“Sometimes, especially after funerals, I would be completely finished. I would just start sobbing and I couldn’t do anything.” As he speaks, Mr Hughes’ voice begins to crack and he weeps helplessly. "I'm sorry,” he said between sobs. “I still can’t believe it.” 

His wife Kathleen, 62, says her husband still suffers from periodic flashbacks to that day. “It has affected the lives of all the boys on the boat throughout their whole lives. If they had been counselled about it, or allowed to get it off their chests, that would have been one thing, but far from it, they were forbidden from even discussing it. I think they have been treated very cruelly.”


Daily Telegraph 29th August 1994

Naval shame shrouded by cover-up command 

THE Royal Navy did its best to pretend that the awful events of Aug. 27th 1944, never happened. 

The survivors of Britomart and Hussar were separated and sent to different ships. They and all the other sailors of the First Minesweeping were ordered never to discuss the incident. 

Documents recording the repercussions of the slaughter were made subjects of a 100 year secrecy order. Only a few weeks ago, that order was lifted under the Government's "accelerated opening” policy and The Daily Telegraph read the file at the Public Record Office in Kew. 

Even before the last body had been pulled from the English Channel, Rear Admiral James Rivett‑Carnac, the Flag Officer, British Assault Area, had ordered that a board of inquiry be held under Rear Admiral Douglas Fisher. The report of the inquiry was passed onto Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, naval commander of Operation Overlord, with the recommendation that no disciplinary action be taken. But Sir Bertram overruled the board and advised the Admiralty to court‑martial three officers. The results of those courts‑martial are revealed, here for the first time. 

The board of inquiry found that the principal reason for the disaster was the failure of officers in charge of minesweeping off the Normandy coast to tell the naval headquarters (Flag Officer, British Assault Area or FOBAA) of changes in the daily minesweeping plan. 

Then, when shore‑based radar indicated ships steaming off the Cap d'Antifer and a Spitfire sent up to look at them reported that they looked like minesweepers, FOBAA failed to contact the office of Captain (Minesweeping) on board HMS Ambitious to ask if any of his vessels were in the area.  

The officer filling the post of Captain (Minesweeping) at the time was Captain Lord Teynham. On Aug 26 he was away from Ambitious and his duties were fulfilled by his deputy (Acting )Commander Dennis Venables, DSC. 

It was Commander Venables who decided to reroute the flotilla and ordered a junior officer, Lt Edward Shaw, to draft a signal to inform the relevant military bodies. Unfortunately, in making the draft, Lt Shaw omitted the initials “FOBAA”. So the signal was not copied to the headquarters which did not know where the minesweepers were. At his court martial in Rouen, Cdr Venables was found guilty of  “negligent performance of his duty because he failed to spot Shaw’s error". He received a severe reprimand but his career was not significantly affected. He was already on the Navy’s retired list and in early 1945 he won a bar to his DSC, ironically, for minesweeping off Le Havre.

Captain Lord Teynham was court-martialled because he had acquiesced in the change in the minesweeping programme, but did not check that it had properly been carried out. He was acquitted. Capt Lord Teynham died in 1972. 

The third man to face a court-martial was Lt Cdr Robert Franks DSO, OBE who was the Staff Operations Officer at FOBAA who tried, in light of the Spitfire reconnaissance report, to confirm that there were no allied ships in the area. 

He tried to contact Captain (Minesweeping) by telephone, but the undersea line to Ambitious was not working. Lt Cdr Franks was accused of making insufficient efforts to find another way of asking the minesweeping office if any of its ships were in the area. He was acquitted and  five months later, while working as a liaison officer with the Canadian army, he was awarded a DSC for guiding an amphibious landing against German fortifications in Belgium

Now 82 and living in Dartmouth, Mr Franks, who retired as a captain, said he had been "horrified" when he learnt what had happened. 

"It certainly haunted me very badly at the time and I have thought of it very often since with great sorrow," he said. In the circumstances, obviously I could have done more, but in war chances are fleeting and I thought I had absolutely established there were no friendly forces there." 

He said that he was satisfied that he had never been told that the ships could be British and he had discussed the radar plot with his superior officers, including Rear Admiral Rivett‑Carnac. 

" We had been told to stop German ships breaking out of Le Havre and this was exactly the kind of thing we were looking for. Almost nightly we had been attacked by explosive motor boat coming out of that area."  He said that he could only agree with the courts‑martial verdicts that the deaths were the fault of Cdr Venables. 

The RAF, both staff and aircrew, were exonerated by the board of inquiry. But the feelings of regret for the inadvertent attack ring through the operational logs of 263 and 265 Squadrons. 

 Sqn Ldr Robert Rutter wrote in his log, now also, stored at Kew: "The squadron records would have been greatly enhanced by this day's work but for the fact that somebody not connected with the squadron, the wing or in fact with the RAF, gravely blundered with the result that a convoy of ships belonging to the Royal Navy was attacked.” He recorded that "owing to doubt as to identity, Control­ler was asked four times whether to attack ... Controller said no friendly ships in the area and ordered attack.” The same phrasing is used in the log of 266 Sqn, but in a dry lament at the end of the entry, Wing Cdr Baldwin adds simply: “Ships were our own.” 

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, now 94 and living in a nursing home near Bridgwater, Somerset, was granted the military OBE and four other Officers were made MBEs for their part in the rescue effort. 


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