September 10, 1939: “There is No Such Thing as Friendly Fire!”

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A Brief History

On September 10, 1939, with its torpedoing of the its own submarine, the HMS Oxley, the British Royal Navy proved quite early in World War II that there is such as thing as “friendly fire.” 

Digging Deeper

In the military they play around with the words and say that “there is no such thing as friendly fire,” meaning that no fire is friendly, however, the true definition of “friendly fire” is the unintentional harming of one’s own troops or allied troops, basically one’s “friends.”  Bullets, rockets, bombs and torpedoes will kill your own people just as fast as they will kill the enemy, and sometimes faster.  As William T. Sherman said, “War is hell.”  The great German war theoretician Carl von Clauswitz talked of the “Fog of War” which means both the literal smoke and debris that make it hard to see and the confusion that surrounds virtually every military operation.

At the start of World War II, the German Kriegsmarine was not the only navy that employed submarines.  The British Royal Navy had a formidable force of undersea craft of their own, which included the HMS Oxley, a 275-foot long Odin-class sub that weighed 1,370 tons when surfaced.  Armed with 8 torpedo tubes, a 4-inch deck gun and machine guns, she was a lethal sea creature.  Originally assigned to the Australian Navy, the Oxley was reassigned to the Royal Navy at the start of World War II. While dutifully patrolling off the Norwegian coast, the Oxley had the misfortune of meeting her sister sub, the HMS TritonTriton’s lookouts spotted an unidentified submarine and at first assumed the boat was the Oxley.  The Triton attempted to confirm the identity of the other sub by use of signal lamps, but when the other sub did not respond, Triton’s captain decided the other sub must be an enemy boat.  Triton’s crew performed as trained and shot 2 torpedoes at the “enemy” sub.  Both torpedoes struck the Oxley, sinking her quickly.  The effect of 2 massive explosions on a relatively small ship left little chance for survival, and of the crew of 54, only 2 submariners lived to tell the tale.  A British Board of Enquiry found the sinking to be accidental and that the Triton had been justified in firing the torpedoes.  Thus, the first British sub lost during World War II was actually sunk by the British Royal Navy, proving there is such a thing as “friendly fire.”

In keeping with this theme, it so happened that only 4 days earlier, on September 6, 1939, the Royal Air Force (RAF) suffered its first loss of a fighter plane its pilot under similar circumstances.  In what is known as the Battle of Barking Creek, Spitfires and Hurricanes scrambled to intercept a possible incursion by German airplanes over Britain.  The pilots were all without combat experience and had never encountered a German plane before.  They searched the skies for the enemy, and when 2 Spitfires spotted 2 “German” fighter planes, they attacked.  Unfortunately, the result was that 2 of their own Hurricanes got shot down, killing one of the pilots.  The details of the resulting court martial are still sealed from the public, however, both Spitfire pilots were exonerated.  Of course, the poor Hurricane pilot was still dead, proving again that “friendly fire” exists.  

Please do not think these accounts mean the British alone were particularly prone to such incidents.  This type of thing happened to all military forces of all countries during World War II and in every other war before and since then.  Americans killed Americans during the Grenada operation in 1983, and in 2004 Pat Tillman, former National Football League (NFL)  player turned U.S. Army soldier, was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan.  Even police have accidentally shot other police!  What other “friendly fire” incidents do you know about?

For another interesting event that happened on September 10, please see the History and Headlines article: “10 Female Assassination Victims.”

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.