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Times Colonist (Victoria) July 28, 2002

Friendly-fire a common widowmaker

As long as there is war, there will be many accidental deaths at the hands of allies. On one fateful night, 410 Americans died from a bombing blunder in the Second World War.

By Jim Hume

On the ground in the dark of an August night the ground troops took comfort from the deep rumble of aircraft rolling unseen across a summer sky. It was 11 p.m. Artillery marker shells illuminated targets and the first high-explosives of what was to be a 3,462-ton drop from 1,020 Royal Air Force bombers began to fall on enemy lines.

At 11:30 p.m. the armoured sections of the ground forces started to move across their "start line." Fifteen minutes later, at 11:45 p.m., the first shells from supporting artillery rattled and rolled overhead, first salvoes of a creeping barrage of high explosives "covering an area 5,050 yards wide and 6,000 deep astride the highway and moving at a rate of 100 yards per minute in lifts of 200 yards" just ahead of the armour. The name of the operation: "Totalize." It was designed to clear the way for tanks and infantry to sweep south of Caen and capture Falaise.

The date was Aug. 7, 1944.

From the memory and pen of Capt. Alex Campbell (retired) comes "I was there" detail in a recollection sent recently to an old comrade in arms, Victoria's Dudley Thompson, and forwarded to me by that longtime reader. Capt. Campbell writes from his own memory and the official record of Totalize written by Col. C.P. Stacey for The Official History of the Canadian Army in World War Two.

Together, the colonel and the captain provide the detail and the dust. And the deaths by friendly fire.

Some 360 guns fired the first barrage at an "abnormally rapid rate of advance occasioned by the entire assault force moving in tracked vehicles." Those same tracked vehicles had created great concern through the daylight hours of Aug. 7 as they formed into columns of attack "under great clouds of dust which observers feared would warn the Germans of the blow to fall."

As evening approached on Aug. 7, troops occupying forward positions in the villages of Verrieres and St.Andre-sur-Orne were withdrawn "and the battalions of the 6th Brigade (3rd Canadian Infantry Division) formed up behind the start-line, the lateral road running from Hubert-Folie to St.Andre. ...

"Then came the thunder of the bombs as the Halifaxes and Lancasters began to unload ... on the villages on the flanks of the attack." Almost as a footnote are the comments: "The cost to Bomber Command was 10 aircraft" (each with a crew of seven). And, underlined in admiration in Capt. Campbell's notes: "No bomb fell among our troops."

But then it was early in the battle and Phase 2, destined to advance the attack in the first light of Aug. 8, was yet to begin -- and end in tragedy.

Phase 2 was to be a rerun of Phase 1: a heavy aerial attack, artillery barrage, mechanized advance. As on the night operation the "targets" would be "marked" by the artillery. The mechanized assault advance would be by the Polish Armoured Division assembled at nearby Cormelles with the 3rd Canadian Infantry coming up behind in double-quick time. There would be one major change in the order of battle. The United States Eighth Air Force would be responsible for the daylight air attack.

The record: "The American bombers made their runs through intense and accurate flak (anti-aircraft) fire which destroyed nine (aircraft, with 10-man crews). Good concentrations (of bombs) were obtained on three of the four main areas attacked; the fourth, Gouvix could not be properly identified and was bombed by only one (Flying) Fortress.

"Of 678 bombers, 492 actually attacked dropping 1,487.8 tons (of bombs). That the bombing was valuable to the operation there is no doubt, but it was marred by what U.S. Air Force historians term 'gross errors on the part of two 12-plane groups.'

"In one case, faulty identification of target by the lead bombardier led him to drop near Caen, although fortunately some other bombardiers of the formation cautiously refrained from dropping with him. In the second instance, a badly hit lead bomber salvoed short and the rest of the formation followed in regular routine."

Capt. Campbell recalls that immediately below that "second instance" and "far behind the fighting line" was an area "packed with Allied troops moving up or waiting to be moved up with many (soldiers) sitting in their vehicles and of course expecting no danger."

The "second instance" cost the Polish Armoured Division 65 dead and 250 wounded. I can find no totals for the number of Canadians killed and injured but Capt. Campbell writes, "The Canadian unit hardest hit was probably the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, which was bombed as its convoy was moving through Faubourg de Vaucelles. It lost about 100 officers and men ... both the 2nd Canadian and the 9th British Army Group, Royal Artillery, (also) suffered as did the tactical headquarters of the 3rd Canadian Infantry. ..."

The events of that fateful day pale when compared with the great mistake of a year earlier when U.S. forces in Sicily shot down transport aircraft carrying paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne.

Some 410 American soldiers died that night, victims of their countrymen's conviction the transports were enemy bombers. It has been calculated that 21 per cent of U.S. casualties in the Second World War were from friendly fire. In Korea it was 18 per cent, in Vietnam 39 and in the Gulf War a whopping 49 per cent.

As the bombs and shells get "smarter" the "friendly" casualties increase, a fact which leads to wonderful reasoning from one John Pike of the U.S. defence think-tank Global Security. He says: "Our forces are getting so good in combat that the bad guys are just not able to kill many of them. It's not so much that the rate of fratricide is going up as it is that the rate of deaths from hostile fire is going down."

One of the earliest recorded victims of American friendly fire was Gen. Thomason Jonathan (Stonewall) Jackson. He was shot by his own Confederate Army soldiers as he returned to his command after reconnoitering Union Army Gen. Joseph Hooker's positions during the Battle of Chancellorsville. The two volleys that wounded him were immediately classified as a mistake made by quick-trigger soldiers who mistook him for the enemy.

As Capt. Campbell writes, remembrances of other friendly-fire deaths -- and there are hundreds of them over the years -- "will be of little solace to the bereaved families and comrades of the (four) soldiers of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (killed by 'friendly fire' in Afghanistan earlier this year), but (it may help them to know) their grief is shared by the families of the soldiers ... who served in Normandy and who (also) lost their live as a result of friendly fire."

We should grieve for four young men killed in a faraway land, and for their families here at home. But it should be a grief without hysteria, without a reactive urge to seek blame and demands for revenge. Just grief, with a sad acknowledgment that friendly fire will kill and continue to kill, again and again, for as long as men making war make mistakes.

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