In the madness and chaos that is war, there have been many, many times when soldiers have shot at their own comrades, mistaking them for the enemy. With his head down in a foxhole at night, it’s hard to know for sure if the guy approaching is on the same side. Maybe a fellow Marine is out of position and his buddies open fire. A fighter pilot may accidentally drop his bombs a little short of the target, spraying death among his own. A tank may look, from a distance, like one belonging to the enemy.
We call these “friendly fire” incidents, and they drive commanders, politicians, and the general population crazy.
Back on September 6, 1939, the British called it The Battle of Barking Creek.
Having declared war on Germany for their invasion of Poland, the British war was now just three days old. And since the war was being fought in Poland, British pilots hadn’t really seen the enemy, they hadn’t seen an enemy plane, they weren’t familiar with their own planes in combat, and they weren’t really used to air combat at all.
So when the air raid sirens sounded, the Spitfires scrambled, looking for an enemy that, as it turns out, didn’t exist. It was a false alarm. But unbeknownst to the inexperienced pilots, some Pilot Officers flying Hawker Hurricanes were also sent up and followed from a distance.
And while you’d think the Spitfire guys would know what other planes in their own arsenal looked like, you’d be wrong in the thick of the first “air attack” of the war. The guys flying the Hurricanes got mistaken for Germans flying Messerschmitts and were summarily attacked. Both were shot down and one of the pilots was killed…the first British pilot to be killed in “combat” in World War II.
But as is the case with many of these tragic occurances, much was learned. The British learned that some of their pilots were woefully inept at aircraft identification, and they learned that their radar systems weren’t nearly as good at identifying enemy aircraft formations as originally thought. These lessons, brought about by unfortunate death, better prepared them for the time when enemy formations were really coming in anger…during the Battle of Britain.