Thursday, March 5, 2020

The "How Not To" of Combined Operations

German destroyer Z1 Leberecht Maaß
The Dogger Bank -
is a large sandbank in a shallow area of the North Sea about 62 miles off the east coast of England. It has long been known by fishermen to be a productive fishing bank; it was named after the doggers, medieval Dutch fishing boats especially used for catching cod. (Source)
Twice in the 20th century British fishing fleets in that area were the cause of, shall we say, "unfortunate incidents."

The first such incident was in 1904 when a Russian fleet was on the way to the Far East to take part in the Russo-Japanese War. Seems that the Russians, while steaming through the area at night, took the British fishing fleet for an attacking swarm of Japanese torpedo boats!

The trawlers fired upon!
Not cool!
After navigating a non-existent minefield, the Russian fleet sailed into the North Sea. The disaster of 21 October began in the evening, when the captain of the supply ship Kamchatka, which was last in the Russian line, took a passing Swedish ship for a Japanese torpedo boat and radioed that he was being attacked. Later that night, during fog, the officers on duty sighted the British trawlers, interpreted their signals incorrectly and classified them as Japanese torpedo boats, despite being more than 20,000 miles from Japan. The Russian warships illuminated the trawlers with their searchlights and opened fire. The British trawler Crane was sunk, and its captain and first mate were killed. Four other trawlers were damaged, and six other fishermen were wounded, one of whom died a few months later. As the trawlers had their nets down, they were unable to flee and, in the general chaos, Russian ships shot at each other: the cruisers Aurora and Dmitrii Donskoi were taken for Japanese warships and bombarded by seven battleships sailing in formation, damaging both ships and killing a chaplain and at least one sailor and severely wounding another. During the pandemonium, several Russian ships signalled torpedoes had hit them, and on board the battleship Borodino rumours spread that the ship was being boarded by the Japanese, with some crews donning life vests and lying prone on the deck, and others drawing cutlasses. More serious losses to both sides were only avoided by the extremely low quality of Russian gunnery, with the battleship Oryol reportedly firing more than 500 shells without hitting anything. After twenty minutes' firing the fishermen saw a blue light signal on one of the warships, the order to cease firing. (Source)
Fast forward to February of 1940. again those pesky British fishing boats are causing consternation in a foreign navy, this time it is the "mighty" Deutsches Kriegsmarine 1. Seems that the Germans were rather suspicious of the activities of that fishing fleet out there on the Dogger Bank. Reports from reconnaissance flights of submarines in the area made the Germans sit up and take notice. The Germans sensed that the British were up to "no good." So it was decided to sortie a destroyer flotilla out of Wilhelmshaven to see what was what.

Around the same time as the 1. Zerstörer-Flottille 2 was getting underway, the Luftwaffe 3 was commencing a little anti-shipping sweep they had laid on, postponed, then laid on again, using two squadrons of Heinkel He-111 bombers. (Guess who didn't know about this? If you guessed the Kriegsmarine, you guessed right.)

Heinkel He-111 Bomber during the Norwegian Campaign, April 1940

These aircraft were under the control of the X. Fliegerkorps 4 which specialized in maritime operations. Unlike some nations, these aircraft were under Luftwaffe control, not Kriegsmarine control. To coordinate operations, either service would have had to go through multiple chains of command. In other words, on the 19th of February 1940, the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing.

The German destroyers were spotted, a couple of times, by German aircraft. Nothing untoward happened until an overeager gun crew on one of the destroyers opened fire on a passing German aircraft. (It's worth noting that the 1. Zerstörer-Flottille had requested air cover for this sortie in the form of fighter aircraft. Yup, they never showed up.)

One thing led to another and before you know it Germans were killing Germans, each side thinking that the other side was actually British...
The sortie began at 19:00 on 19 February 1940. The flotilla proceeded at high speed through a cleared channel between German defensive minefields, without the fighter air cover that had been requested. In the sea and weather conditions they were clearly visible, from their wakes, but they wished to clear the mined area quickly.
The flotilla was passed twice by a German bomber, which was uncertain of the ships' status. It made no recognition signals and, as a result, it was taken to be a British reconnaissance aircraft and fired upon by the ships. Fire was returned by the aircrew. Each side was now convinced of the other's hostility.
The German aircraft attacked. On the first bombing run, one of three bombs hit Leberecht Maaß. While the rest of the flotilla was ordered to continue in formation, Friedrich Eckoldt went alongside ready to help. The Heinkel made a second run and two bombs hit Leberecht Maaß, which was broken in two by large explosions. The bomber returned to its base, unaware, until then, of the other ships in the flotilla.
Immediately after the explosions, the remainder of the flotilla attempted to rescue the crew. Just after 20:00, Max Schultz exploded and sank, probably striking a mine. What followed was confusion. There were many erroneous reports of air attack, submarines detected and torpedoes; ships dashed back and forth. Theodor Riedel dropped depth charges on a supposed submarine and the explosions temporarily jammed its rudder.
After 30 minutes of action, the flotilla commander ordered the surviving four ships to return home. There were no survivors from Max Schultz and only 60 from Leberecht Maaß: in all, 578 German sailors died. (Source)
And of course...
The initial view of the naval command in Wilhelmshaven — Marinegruppe West 5— was that the flotilla had run into a German minefield. The presence of enemy submarines was discounted. At 23:00, naval command received a report from X. Fliegerkorps that a ship had been engaged and destroyed in the general area of the sinkings, at the same time. Subsequent reports appeared to confirm the "friendly fire" attack.
Neither the destroyers nor the Luftwaffe squadrons had been told of the other's presence, although information had been passed to the relevant commands. By the time the risks became apparent, it was too late to advise aircrews.
The official German investigation showed that there had been inadequate communication between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine. None of the responsible officers were called to account. (Source)

Friendly fire...

It ain't.

Suggested reading:

1 - German Navy, "mighty" is in quotes because compared to the Royal Navy, or even it's own World War I predecessor, the German Navy in World War II wasn't that mighty. Though they had some good ships, Bismarck and Tirpitz for instance, and a fine underwater arm, they were pretty much too few in number and rather poorly led to be a serious threat to the Royal Navy.
2 - 1st Destroyer Flotilla
3 - German Air Force
4 - 10th Air Corps of the Luftwaffe
5 - Navy Group West
6 - Operation Vikings
Language Note - The German character "ß" (Eszett or "sharp" S) is pronounced as a double "s." That character, last I heard, was being removed from modern German. I'm old school, so I use it.


  1. That 1904 Russian mess reminds me of work. Our Russian fleet is our information security department. We had some unfortunately timed trouble, and now they are running amok, blowing fishing boats out of the water. Fishing boats that supply the money that runs information security. It's insane. Very difficult to navigate their convoluted rules of whats proper. They add hours if not days to the workload.

    Add in a management that thinks we are just a few letters on the NYSE and the top doesn't make decisions that help us do our purpose. It's insane. We are walking down the same path that Boeing did. Blindfolded by "make the investors happy", not "this is what we do, so do it better than every one else".

    Thanks for the history lesson. I learned something new today.

    1. Unbelievable just how many companies are exactly like you describe. "Make the investors happy!" Seriously? If you do your work, are the best in the business, trust me, the investors will be happy. Get bogged down in rules and process, no profit, investors very unhappy. Geez.

      Nice comparison of the 1904 Russian fleet to an information security department. Been there, done that, no amount of reasoning, logic, or evidence could sway them from their demented course. Nope, not talking about the Russian fleet.

    2. Signs that your company is going Tango Uniform.

      MBAs control Everything.

      Accountants have more power than Engineers.

      Sign of imminent death - the company builds a showcase headquarters located conveniently not anywhere near actual company facilities.

      So... Using Boeing as an example...

      MBAs rule an Engineering Firm.

      Accountants control the process - witness Boeing doing 'Block' testing of their Starliner Capsule. Block testing being running a bunch of tests of critical stuff all at the same time. So much stuff at the same time that one can't tell readily why a failure occurred. (How to do it right? SpaceX. Need to check welds on tanks. Pressure to 200%, oops, welds failed, yeah, we suspected, here's the fix, next test scheduled next week, and so on and so on and so on.

      Super Headquarters for a defense and aviation company with plants in Seattle, WA and Marietta, GA. So they put brand new super headquarters in.... Chicago. And then one exec compared the beauty of the new HQ to the Taj Mahal. Compared the new HQ to a friggin MAUSOLEUM.

      Brilliant! Absofrickinlutely Brilliant!

      Top Men. TOP MEN!

    3. Meanwhile, a little over a decade ago, the holding company who'd purchased the firm I worked for called the building we occupied "the Taj Mahal" because engineers had private or semi-private offices with doors that could be shut. Fast forward 18 months and we were in an open floor-plan building with floors that bounced up and down as people walked by. To say people were pissed and productivity fell would be an understatement. Then came the stats-driven management that anyone with any sense knew would be gamed as soon as people figured out how they could be gamed... Bah!

    4. Ah, stats-driven management. A recipe for disaster.

  2. I don't know what the German version of Murphy's Law is, but I'm sure it exists.

    If you wait to identify the possible threat beyond any shadow of doubt, you might die.

    Fog of War indeed.

    Very good post.

  3. Much the same with the "Channel Dash" . The Brits did not have unified command and thus the ships slipped through.

  4. That's amusing (to me) -- the rumor mill on a warship creating bogeymen and terror. I've seen patently insane rumors spread like wildfire on the boat. Sailors can think up some freaky stuff!

    It's interesting (again, to me) to think about how collective societal assumptions impact the performance of ape-lizards gathered in combat arms organizations. America really is different on a very fundamental level. It's the difference between being owned by the government and not being owned by any human or human entity. None of that means no blue-on-blue for Americans, but it does make it less likely that Americans will behave as automatons and be unable to independently think and operate, on and off the battlefield.

    Guess I'm off on a philosophical tangent today.

    Another great post!

    1. Thanks Shaun. We Americans are different, too bad the Dem-Socialist ee-jits want to make us just like everyone else.

      When independent thought dies, so does this country. IMHO

    2. No, we shouldn't want to be like everyone else.
      Detailed instructions is the death of initiative.

      Imagine a political commissar on a sub giving the okay to attack a train :)

    3. I always thought the introduction of the Borg into the Star Trek universe was meant to be a warning. Apparently people think being a Borg is a good thing. Too many people. They are borging. Being borged. He borgs. He borged. He has borged. He will have borged.

      Verb conjugation in English is so much simpler, in most cases, than most any other language.

      Don't be a Borg.

    4. Resistance is not futile.

      Or as Worf said, "Assimilate THIS!"

    5. General Patton is quoted as saying, "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."

      Not a mindset in today's military.

    6. Depends on what level you're talking about and which parts of which services.

      But yeah, I agree with the general statement.

  5. The egos of those in high command, carving out their little fiefs of power, in Germany, spelled doom for far too many of their own people.

    Something we need to remember.

    Though the opposite is also just as deadly. A combined General Headquarters like the British had. Admirals being able to weigh in on inland land operations, a prop-head general having control over subs, letting Montgomery anywhere near a camera or microphone or actual control over any combat operation.

    There's a happy medium somewhere in between. Like what the US did during WWII, for the most part. Army did army stuff. Navy did navy stuff. Army Air Force did air forcy things. Marines did mariny things. Coast Guard did coasty things. But all communicated with each other, and at various times we had Admirals controlling everything in an area, or Generals controlling, but all the time info was mostly shared around up and down the chain of command.

    One of the biggest failures in US history was the severing of information passage between the various intelligence agencies during the Clinton Administration. Billy Jeff and Al Gore put hard walls between the intel agencies, where info on Mutt-1 developed by the NSA could not be passed to the CIA or FBI, while intel on Mutt-2 developed by the CIA couldn't be shared around, nor intel on Mutt-3 by the FBI be shared around. So we ended up with a whole bunch of intel from all our intel agencies identifying 15-20 individual Mutts who all were the same person. (Insert individual Mutt for group Mutt.)

    And from what I've seen in the last 20 years, the wedge between the services has widened, again, thanks to Billy Jeff and the Obungler.


    What's that line about the book '1984'? Oh, yeah, it's supposed to be a cautionary tale, not an instruction manual.

    Same goes with the cases OAFS noted above. Learn not to be these people. Don't learn to be them.

    Unfortunately, our Navy seems to have reached 'Russian Levels' of stupidity a few years ago. A CIC not talking to the Bridge and vise-versa because persons-in-charge of each area are in a snit over snitty things not related to operating a warship. Untrained people in charge of non-working equipment. Everyone not paying attention to the well-lit floating skyscraper getting closer...

    The AF continually wanting to kill Tactical Air while not allowing Tactical Air in any other service.

    Big Navy building a gun not able to use conventional ammo. (I will never ever ever ever ever stop harping on that one. I mean, yeah, neato, invent additional ammo that is gee-wizz super-duper, but make it fire regular crap, too! Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, and.... stupid.)

    Army jumping off the 5.56mm M-16/M-4 platform for gee-wizz wunder caliber and magic 'expanding cartridge' (where the bullet is seated deep into the powder, so instead of infantry ammo costing 10-30 cents, each round now costs 10-30 dollars... which is stupid, stupid and, survey says... stupid.)

    Marines actually finally get their heads straight and start concentrating on being Marines and Fleet Marines and doing marine things, except... Decide to suddenly ban all mention of anything 'Confederate' in the service, thus pissing off 2/3rds of the Marine force because they are Southerners and proud of it. (And then Big Army decides to shoot themselves in the foot and do the same damned thing.)

    Guys, the military is supposedly designed to break stuff and kill people. PC bullscat needs to stop. We got rid of that administration 3 years ago.

    1. Now that was an epic Beansian comment, a post within a post.

      Well said Brother Beans! Preach it!

      And the choir sings, Amen!

    2. And don't forget who is supposed to be the responsible grownups in the room. Of course it's true that no single American can walk into the wind tunnel and straighten things out. Every single adult American does however have a responsibility to have a working understanding of how things are supposed to work, and to compare/contrast what federal agencies and elected representative say to what's actually going on. And then exercise responsibility in voting. To all those howling "get out and vote," I say if you can't do it responsibly just sleep in. Those who are there to get a sticker and pat themselves on the back and who can't tell you anything about the candidates except what the teevee news said, well, don't they have better things to do? /rant

    3. The Army jumping off 7.62x51mm for 5.56x45mm was the original mistake, just a decade after shoving 7.62mm down our allies' throats instead of looking at the intermediate calibers they liked (such as .280 British). From too big to too small. Now (finally) to "just right", but not the simple way (adopting 6.5 Grendel or 6.8 SPC so only new barrels, bolts, and magazines needed). But noooo, we need something completely new and untried like nothing anyone's ever fielded before. Spit!

    4. Grrr...

      You think they'd learn.

  6. The Russians firing on British trawlers brought about a bit of a war scare, with Jackie Fisher and even the usually calm Lord Balfour wanting to hunt the Russian Baltic Fleet down and destroy it. The Royal Navy was concentrating in their home waters, Gibraltar, and Malta and preparing to move if need be. And when the Russians first learned of the British trawlers when they put in to 4efuel at Vigo, Spain, Admiral Rozhestvensky denied it, saying in effect that if British trawlers were present, they were only there to act as a screen for the Japanese torpedo boats! To say the British public was outraged would be an understatement, but eventually it was papered over and the Russians paid compensation. What a fustercluck!


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Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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