HMS BRITOMART AND HMS HUSSAR BY FRIENDLY FIRE
(Based substantially on
Sweeps' by Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam, Chapter 12, 'Savage Sunday')
Illustration from Daily Telegraph 29th
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
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.
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.
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.
the fifth day ‑ 26 August, a Saturday ‑ the flotilla had twenty‑four
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.
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.'
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.
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.
Williams on BRITOMART:
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.'
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.
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
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
Hawker Typhoon 1B in 263 Squadron markings
A Hawker Typhoon 1B in 266 Squadron markings
Williams on BRITOMART:
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.'
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
couldn't be. Impossible. Yet there was no mistaking the markings.
Thomas Jackson on HMS JASON:
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.
COLSAY – Dan laying trawler
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.
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.
is how death struck at each ship (CLICK on name)
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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".'
petty officer was one of a total of thirty‑nine wounded survivors from
HUSSAR, including four officers. Three officers and fifty ratings were
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:
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.'
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.
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
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:
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.
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.'
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.'
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.
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?
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
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'.
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
1944 Up 13.05 Down 14.00
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
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:
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
27th August 1944
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 R S Proctor
P/O J Thould
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.
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.
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.'
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.
had the admiral and his staff not been informed?
senior Naval officers were court‑martialled.
(Source: ADM 156/212
Attacks on HM Minesweepers by friendly aircraft: Court Martial. Case
Cdr R D Franks DSO OBE RN FOBAA's Staff Officer, Operations. CASE NOT
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.
Act Cdr D N Venables DSC RN (Ret'd) Commander Minesweepers
CASE PROVED: SEVERE REPRIMAND
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.
such a simple error ‑ or inexcusable negligence ‑ was the tragic fate of
the 1st Minesweeping Flotilla sealed.
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." '
haunting understatement, the final paragraph of Commander Trevor Crick's
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”.
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
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.
3rd September 1944
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMMEDIATE
DECORATIONS AND AWARDS
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
the events 50 years later, John Price of HMS BRITOMART wrote:
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?’
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
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
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
[Navy News 1984]
Answers to Parliamentary Questions
Fire Incident (Normandy)
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
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
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.
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.
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
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