|German destroyer Z1 Leberecht Maaß|
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!|
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...
And of course...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)
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)
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.