About This Book
Originally Published in:
Volume 14 Issue 3, April 2007
Roger Litwiller, Author -Copyright
FRIENDLY FIRE is a part of war and has been for centuries. As long as countries have waged war we have mistakenly fired on our own forces and those of our allies. Most recently, there have been two such incidents involving our soldiers in Afghanistan, both with tragic loss of life.
Although most incidents have involved ground forces firing on each other or air forces bombing or strafing troops mistaken for the enemy, friendly fire incidents are not limited to those branches. Fortunately for the Royal Canadian Navy, the last incident occurred more than 60 years ago and involved Canadian, British and American ships. This story demonstrates how in war long periods of tedium can be instantly replaced by confusion, followed by chaos, resulting in friendly fire.
This particular incident took place just after D-Day, when an American destroyer accidentally attacked a Canadian corvette and the British ship she was escorting. It was kept secret at the time and was not reported in the media until several years after the war. As part of the PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) program, the mission and the ships involved were highly classified.
The mission began very simply. HMCS TRENTONIAN, an increased endurance corvette, was to escort two cable-laying ships and a cable barge across the English Channel. The purpose was to lay a communication cable from England directly to the invasion beaches in Normandy, thereby allowing direct communications between command in England and the front lines in France.
Just after 0300 hrs on the morning of June 12, 1944, TRENTONIAN rendezvoused with the cable ships HMTS Monarch and HMTS St. Margaret and the cable barge Norman off Needles in the English Channel and proceeded to escort them towards the coast of Normandy as St. Margaret laid cable first. The cable ships had to travel at a slow speed in order to carry out their work. TRENTONIAN escorted them closely in a circular pattern at about 500 to 700 yards distance.
One of TRENTONIAN’s crew wrote in his journal, that it was a “dull and tedious job, spinning circles around this small collection of ships.” While other ratings remarked this was not a job for a fighting ship, especially with all the action around them. The invasion was in full swing, important troop and cargo convoys were everywhere, and the other escorts were right in the thick of it.
The bellyaching and griping of the crew passed by TRENTONIAN’s skipper; in fact, he welcomed it. Just before D-Day Lieutenant Bill Harrison, RCNR sent a thank you letter to the city in eastern Ontario that gave the ship her name; he was very pleased the crew had built quite a respectable reputation for themselves and the ship. He went on to state, “They have lots to grumble about so are perfectly happy. A good old growl is a great pastime and gives them something in common.”
Harrison had earned the respect of his crew and his word was followed without question. While conducting interviews for this article, all of the crew expressed a common pride, respect and loyalty to the “Old Man.” He had always kept the men first and foremost in running his ship; they described him using the words, tough, fair, honest and compassionate. He had helped many of them in difficult times and, most importantly, he had kept them safe. Harrison had been in command of TRENTONIAN since her commissioning and he had never lost a ship or a man under his charge.
Over the next 10 hours St. Margaret and Norman laid out the communications cable onto the floor of the channel. When their cable had been extended, the task of joining the cable to Monarch began. This took an additional seven hours. With the two ships and barge holding position, TRENTONIAN continued to circle the motionless ships.
The tedium was broken at 1340 hrs when word quickly passed through the ship that three aircraft had been spotted less than a mile away, circling a nearby convoy of passing Landing Ship Tank (LST) en route to Normandy. The crew filtered on deck to watch, when bombs started to drop around the LSTs, sending up great geysers of water as they missed their targets. The Luftwaffe had been pretty scarce over the channel in the past few days, and only when they attacked were they identified as German. A dozen Spitfires then appeared and immediately dealt with the three German planes.
At 1600 hrs St. Margaret and Norman were sent back to Portsmouth under the escort of the British corvette HMS DIANTHUS. This left TRENTONIAN with Monarch for the final phase of cable laying, with Monarch remaining motionless while her crew joined the cable.
At 1645 hrs, TRENTONIAN’s crew was called to action stations. A hydrophone effect was heard sounding like a torpedo and a strong asdic (sonar) contact was made. She increased speed to 16 knots and patrolled a line between Monarch and the contact. TRENTONIAN dropped three depth charges set shallow with no positive effect. The asdic contact slowly decreased and was finally lost.
Monarch finally began to move again at 2000 hrs, slowly making her way towards the beaches, laying out the cable. The sky was now dark, and heavy anti-aircraft fire, tracer fire and star shell bursts could be seen in all directions at varying distances.
At midnight, as the day changed to June 13th, TRENTONIAN reported: “Picked up contact on starboard side, probably E-Boat. This contact was immediately engaged by four escort vessels that were passing, bound north, and was not heard again. Carrying out circular screen around Monarch, distant 500-700 yards, speed 11 knots. Star shell and tracer being fired all around the horizon.”
Tensions were growing in TRENTONIAN. In the 21 hours since the escort job had started the crew had come in contact with the enemy in the air, on and below the water’s surface. The only contact not yet made was with shore batteries, and that possibility grew as the ships approached the occupied coast of France. Harrison ordered that extra lookouts be posted around the ship.
The two ships were alone in the darkness, but hundreds of Allied ships surrounded them. Nearby an American destroyer group was on patrol. At 0100 hrs USS PLUNKETT, the closest destroyer to TRENTONIAN, noted in her log: “At this time a good deal of activity is apparent to the northward and many star shells were observed in this area throughout the earlier part of the night. At about this time two targets were picked up bearing about north. Conversation on the TBS and TBL intercepted prior to this had led me to expect the appearance of our own forces in this sector and these targets were assumed to be friendly.”
An hour later PLUNKETT heard a query by USS DAVIS, the destroyer next in line to her, raising some questions about the two radar contacts they had assumed to be friendly. A reply was given to the question but the message itself was not heard in PLUNKETT. This raised doubts by her commanding officer and with the range between the two groups at 9,000 yards, time for answers was shrinking.
Thirty minutes later, at 0230 hrs, tedium was turning into confusion. PLUNKETT ordered star shells to be fired over the two radar contacts now only 4,500 yards distant. She reported the star shell failed to work properly due to the close range. At the same time TRENTONIAN noted that star shells illuminated the sky above her and the cable ship and reported that several destroyers were visible on either bow approaching from some distance.
Two minutes later, PLUNKETT again fired star shell, but this time the shells struck the water before illuminating. With the range between the ships rapidly closing, PLUNKETT made another attempt to contact the two ships, this time flashing the minor warship challenge at the nearest ship, Monarch.
At this point confusion gave way to chaos. It is not known if Monarch received the signal, but it is known that she did not reply. Monarch was under the command of Captain Eric Troops, a retired Royal Navy officer who had served on cable ships for many years. Unknown to the American destroyer, Monarch‘s orders were to follow a lighted signal from shore and not respond to it. PLUNKETT was now in the same location as the expected signal from shore. The signal was repeated three times, 10 seconds apart and after one minute with no response from the ship being challenged, Plunkett opened fire at 3,000 yards.
At 0235 hrs, TRENTONIAN’s Lt. Harrison noted: “Firing commenced on a bearing of 160 degrees. No gun flashes were seen. Shells were heard, apparently close, afterwards passing between the two ships, then coming directly towards TRENTONIAN. All shots fired at or near TRENTONIAN were high, except two or three which struck the water ahead and one which passed between the funnel and the pom-pom platform.”
Fortunately for TRENTONIAN and her crew all the incoming rounds missed the ship. Harrison ordered the recognition lights to be flashed on and off. Aboard TRENTONIAN it seemed as if the fire was then redirected solely at Monarch. The sounds were overwhelming when the shells smashed into the cable ship. The barrage balloon above her came crashing down on her decks; the whine of the shells overpowered by the piercing shrill of Monarch‘s steam whistle.
Harrison ordered TRENTONIAN to turn broadside to the attacking ship in hopes of a friendly identification being made and the incoming fire to stop. The incoming fire on Monarch appeared to switch back to Trentonian.
Harrison ordered every light in the ship turned on and moved TRENTONIAN between the two ships. Members of the bridge crew reported that Harrison then leaned out over the bridge rail, shaking his fist and yelled, “Damn poor gunnery for such close range!” The distance had now closed to 600 yards.
As soon as the recognition lights were observed, PLUNKETT ceased fire. The total time of the attack was less than five minutes and it is estimated that 80 rounds of five-inch ammunition was expended by PLUNKETT. Monarch bore the brunt of the attack; TRENTONIAN was undamaged.
The three ships were joined by a second American destroyer, USS DAVIS. All four ships came to anchor around the damaged Monarch. PLUNKETT and DAVIS immediately sent doctors over to the cable ship to render aid. TRENTONIAN sent over a damage control party and picked up some of the crew who had been thrown into the water by the explosions. They were taken into TRENTONIAN and given medical care by Sick Berth attendant, Arthur Singleton, RCNVR.
PLUNKETT sent a boat with a junior officer to TRENTONIAN. He came aboard and apologized for his commanding officer and explained they had mistaken the two ships for German torpedo boats. The bridge crew reported, Harrison did not say a word, instead he let his Executive officer (XO) speak to the young ensign, the ‘Old Man’ could only glare at him. TRENTONIAN’s crew members said, after the Americans left; Harrison was fit to be tied, demanding a court martial. This was the second time they ever remember Harrison losing his temper.
As the sun rose the damage to Monarch became evident: her superstructure was badly damaged and her bridge was blown away, her compass was smashed, and steering gear was beyond repair. The communications cable, so vital to the war effort, was gone, severed and laying somewhere at the bottom of the English Channel. The chief officer and a seaman, both on the bridge, had been killed. Her skipper, Captain Troops, had a severe head injury and was critical. Four others were critically wounded, and many more were injured.
The most severe of the wounded, after receiving care from the American doctors, were transferred into TRENTONIAN. Captain Troops was not expected to live. The two American destroyers then resumed their patrol. TRENTONIAN began leading Monarch, which had no compass and was being steered by hand, back to England. She eventually made England where she was taken in tow by tugboats; TRENTONIAN arrived in Portsmouth where ambulances were waiting on the jetty. As expected, Captain Troops, who had been moved to Harrison’s cabin, died of his wounds before reaching harbour.
It would take many weeks for the lost communication cable to be recovered and finally laid to the destination. The three ships involved would not cross paths again. HMTS Monarch was repaired and re-entered service as a cable layer, but she was lost to a mine off Offord Ness in April 1945, with the loss of three of her crew. The commanding officer of USS PLUNKETT, described by his men as a “shoot-first kind of guy,” received the Navy Cross for action a few weeks later around Cherbourg. This attitude may have served him well in action with the enemy, but failed on that fretful night in June. Lt. Harrison of TRENTONIAN was promoted to lieutenant commander and transferred to command the frigate HMCS JOLIETTE in January 1945. His crew had been genuinely sorry to see him leave TRENTONIAN. Harrison later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his service during hostilities. HMCS TRENTONIAN and her crew earned three Battle Honours during the war. TRENTONIAN was lost to a torpedo fired by U-1004 on February 22, 1945 while escorting a convoy near Falmouth, with the loss of six lives. She was the last corvette sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic.
This friendly fire incident has since been documented on several occasions but most retelling’s have included some errors. First, some reports state TRENTONIAN was holed by an un-exploded shell in the engine room casing, her crew has no recollection of being hit and the official incident reports by her commanding officer do not state any damage to his ship; furthermore no repairs of this nature were recorded. Second, the cable ship has often been misreported as St. Margaret, although the official records from TRENTONIAN, PLUNKETT and the Porthcurno Cable and Communications Museum in England all report Monarch as the cable ship involved. The family of Captain Eric Troops have also confirmed he was in command of the Monarch when he was killed. Of special interest, official channels never informed Captain Troops’ family of the circumstances of his death.
This article is not intended to lay blame or point fingers at any individual or ship. Most friendly fire incidents can be broken down to a loss of communication and an inability to correctly process information regardless of cause. If we can learn from the past, then maybe we can decrease or prevent some of the incidents in the future.
Discover more of this story in White Ensign Flying, The Story of HMCS TRENTONIAN, written by Roger Litwiller and published by Dundurn Publishing in 2014.