We Brits invented ‘friendly fire’

Today's cheap critiques of the US military for its ‘friendly fire’ blunders in Iraq overlook Britain’s own disastrous history of killing its own.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics World

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Whenever British troops are accidentally killed by ‘friendly fire’, there comes the routine complaint that this happens because US soldiers and fighter-pilots are incompetent and gung-ho, this itself stemming from the perception that Americans in general are stupid and inherently aggressive.

‘It’s not surprising that many British, Australian and Canadian soldiers have the brains to not want to fight with the Americans; it is to difficult to differentiate whether you fighting with or against them’, said one commenter on the website of The Times (London) in the wake of the deaths of three British servicemen in Afghanistan by US bombers last week. ‘Let the Taliban retire and wait till the US kills everybody, including themselves. My father said in WW2 Aussies “were more worried about the Yanks than the Nips”’, said another.

Indeed the observation that Americans are helplessly prone to killing their own allies has become so ingrained in British culture that it is the source of a much-parroted joke. For instance, in October last year Dara O Briain on BBC2’s Mock the Week said that British soldiers in Iraq were being ‘shot at on a daily basis, although obviously it’ll get much safer when the Americans leave and it’s only the Iraqis firing at them’. More recently, BBC Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson said he was safe during a simulated ‘duel’ between a Lotus Exige and a Westland WAH-64 Apache helicopter because the pilots, ‘being British, not American, don’t shoot their allies’.

These quips rest upon the twin assumptions that ‘friendly fire’ is a relatively new phenomenon and that only the Americans are guilty of it. Both preconceptions are untrue. What is more, Britain, an historically warfaring nation, has in the past been one of the worst offenders of killing its own in ‘friendly fire’ incidents.

Even before the British state came into existence, the English in particular were making deadly gaffes. In 1471, during the War of the Roses, the Lancastrian division under the command of the Earl of Warwick – out of position in the poor light and mist of early dawn in Barnet, Hertfordshire – fired at a division led by the Earl of Somerset, a division that was similarly on the Red Rose side, inflicting severe casualties. During the Napoleonic wars, as a consequence of the Prince Regent having changed the British Light Dragoons’ headdress to a broad-topped model that resembled the French light cavalry shako, the Light Dragoons were fired upon by their own side at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo.

Much worse was to come in the Second World War. Indeed, the very first planes to be shot down by Spitfires in that conflict were two Hawker Hurricanes, mistaken for Messerschmitt 109s. In 1939 the submarine HMS Triton sank fellow Royal Navy submarine HMS Oxley, mistaking it for a U-boat. In 1941, HMS Sheffield, misidentified as the Bismarck, was torpedoed by Fleet Air Arm. The following year, the Polish submarine ORP Jastrzab was sunk by HMS St Albans and HMS Seagull. In 1944 a British flotilla was attacked by RAF Hawker Typhoons near Le Havre, and one, HMS Salamander, incurred such damage that it had to be scuppered.

Let us also not forget the most ghastly incident of friendly fire of the Second World War, when on 3 May 1945, only a day before the German army capitulated, the RAF bombed three ships moored in Lübeck Harbour, which contained 7,000 French Jews and Russian and Polish PoWs. Many of those lucky enough to escape to dry land were murdered by the SS, and only 350 victims of RAF incompetence made it home alive.

In contrast to today’s risk-averse, where-there’s-a-blame-there’s-a-claim society, one that believes – as witnessed in Vietnam in the 1960s and Yugoslavia in 1999 – that you defeat an enemy principally by bombing from the air without incurring any casualties, there was previously the sensible appreciation that if you give men lethal weapons and machinery, accidents will happen. This is because human beings are imperfect. As the columnist Bernard Dineen wrote in the Yorkshire Post of a specific friendly fire incident in Iraq in February: ‘Many years ago, I was on the receiving end of RAF friendly fire. The natural reaction of soldiers was “Bloody RAF”, but none of us really blamed the pilots. We recognised that such things happen in modern war. If anyone had suggested that the pilots should be court-martialled let alone brought before a civilian court, he would have been ridiculed.’ Of today’s howls of outrage, Dineen concluded: ‘Has the screening of the cockpit video brought any comfort to [the] widow? On the contrary, it can only have added to her anguish. Wanting to “know the facts” achieves nothing but heartache. The only essential fact was that the attack had been carried out by Americans: they admitted it from the start and expressed deep regret.’ (1)

British soldiers have been shooting each other in my lifetime, too. In the 1982 Falklands War, HMS Cardiff shot down AAC Gazelle, while in the brief conflict the 3rd Battalion of the Paras exchanged gunfire and artillery fire with Army Companies A and C in one night-time episode, leading to eight casualties. Elsewhere, a UK Special Boat Service Commando was killed in firefight with UK Special Air Service Commandos.

Admittedly, in the long term of things, ‘friendly fire’ is by numbers a relatively new phenomenon, only really emerging in the twentieth century. This owes to several factors. Before the advent of long-range rifles, machine guns, submarine and airborne warfare, fighting largely took place face-to-face and warships on the surface could recognise enemy colours and were more recently informed of the approach or location of enemy flotillas via Morse Code. This is why there existed in the past the seemingly ludicrous custom of military costume being in bright hues – English soldiers wore red and the French blue because it was vital to know you weren’t shooting at your own men. Camouflage, dating in this country from the Boer War, was introduced only when one’s enemy became a speck on the horizon, and in close combat helmet design became the sole signifier of a foe: the soup-plate helmet for the British and the Picklehauber (the one with the spike) and later the coal-scuttle helmet for the Germans. The particular silhouette created by these helmets became crucial in full, night-time combat – itself, thanks to heat-detecting camera technology, an invention of the twentieth century.

What is more, before the advent of the popular press in the 1880s, any incidents of friendly fire would have gone unreported. Only since the popularisation of television in the 1950s (a key factor in subsequently making the public turn against the Vietnam War) and the internet and digital age of the 1990s, which has democratised information, have the horrors of war become made so abundantly clear to us.

But the shift is not merely technological, nor cultural, mirroring our risk-averse society. It is also nakedly political. The fact that both Dara O Briain and Jeremy Clarkson, two television personalities from opposite sides of the political spectrum, make morbid jokes about ‘American soldiers shooting our Tommies’ tells us a great deal. One thing that unites the traditional left and non-neocon right in this country is its hatred and resentment of the US and Americans. The left hates them because they see them as imperialist bullies and morons (‘Ha ha! Look at George W Bush! He can’t speak properly!’), while the old-fashioned right has always resented Britain being usurped by the US in its role as the most powerful country in the world, and by a people they also regard as philistines (‘Look here my old colonial friend, I think you’ll find “colour” is spelt with a “u”’ – ignoring the fact, incidentally, that were it not for reforms made in British English in the eighteenth century, we would now be writing about the ‘war on terrour’, or lamenting that the Iraqi invasion was an ‘errour’).

I recognise that the ‘war on terror’ has been a ghastly mistake, that we should never have gone to Afghanistan or Iraq, and that the White House seriously needs a rethink on its foreign policy. But otherwise, I like Americans. Carping at a nation that put the first man on the moon, invented the internet, gave us Hemingway, Copland, Woody Allen and the Simpsons, for being ‘stupid’, merely makes us appear petty and ignorant. And the fact that we Brits have an unenviable record of killing our own allies makes us look even the more stupid.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. His TV column appears later this week.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill explained why death by friendly fire became a big issue in Iraq, and told the truth about British casualties. He said America’s and Britain’s phantom occupation of Iraq was turned into a ‘gesture invasion’. Alan Miller attended war talks in New York and Josie Appleton revisited Baudrillard. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.

(1) See the Yorkshire Post article here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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