Luftwaffe attack their own Destroyers on February 22nd. 1940

Field Marshal Herman Goering was always jealous of control of his beloved Luftwaffe, and resisted any attempt by the Kreigsmarine to have its own aircraft. Thus any Luftwaffe operation in conjunction with German Naval ships always involved a lengthy chain of command problem that needed to be negotiated.

On the occasion of Operation Wikinger, two Squadrons of Heinkel Bombers were staging an anti shipping operation at the same time as 6 Destroyers of the 1st. Destroyer Flotilla were at sea. Chaos was to become the Order of the Day.

British Fishing Fleet.
The British Fishing Fleet operated in the Dogger bank area, and the Kriegsmarine had asked the Luftwaffe to carry out an aircraft reconnaissance of the Dogger Bank as suspicious ships were operating west of the defensive West Wall minefield laid off the German Bight to protect against raids by the Royal Navy.

Reports had reached the Navy that several submarines were observed meeting up with these ships.

Operation Wikinger.
It was decided to mount Operation Wikinger, so, on February 22nd. 1940, the 1st. Destroyer Flotilla made up of 6 ships, Friedrich Echoldt, Richard Beitzen, Erich Koellner, Theodor Reider, Max Schulz, and Leberecht Maas put to sea.

Named after KK Max Schulz, commander of the VI torpedo boats flottilla in WW1 who died in a battle against superior British forces on 23.01.1917
Max Schulz
Named after KK Max Schulz, commander of the VI torpedo boats flottilla in WW1
who died in a battle against superior British forces on 23.01.1917
Drawing courtesy of Michael Emmerich

It was a moonlit night, practically no cloud, and a light wind blowing from the south west,as the Flotilla sailed for the North Sea. The expected Luftwaffe fighter escort did not turn up.

The Luftwaffe.
As it happened, also on February 22nd. 1940 two Squadrons of HE 111's had planned an operation against Allied Merchant shipping in an area bounded by the Orkney Islands in the North and the Thames Estuary in the South.

The HE 111 was a twin engined medium bomber, with a 5 man crew and carried a bomb load of 3,250 kilograms.

HE111 German Bomber, attacked its own ships on February 22nd 1940
HE111 German Bomber,
attacked its own ships on February 22nd 1940

Because of too much cloud, the morning sortie was called off, later that day the cloud had cleared, and a second attack was ordered to be prepared.

Back to the 6 destroyers.
By 1900 ( 7 PM ) the Flotilla had entered the 6 mile wide, mine free passage through the West Wall mine field, laid for protection of the German Bight. In line ahead, the 6 destroyers speeding at 25 knots on a course of 300 degrees were leaving behind them a very bright wake.

At 1913 ( 7. 13 PM ) lookouts in the lead ship, Friedrich Eckhold heard the sound of aircraft engines, a few minutes later this noise was identified as an unknown aircraft flying overhead at only 500/800 metres. After passing the formation, the aircraft reversed its course and flew back over the Destroyers to disappear into the night.

In but a few more minutes this aircraft reappeared, and the Flotilla speed was cut back to 17 knots to reduce the wake, thinking the aircraft was hostile as no recognition signal had been given, ships in the second and third place in the line, fired off their 20mm AA guns.

The aircraft now returned machine gun fire, seemingly assuring all the ships it was an enemy plane.

But Max Schulz reported this aircraft was in fact friendly, one of her lookouts had spotted a German Cross on a wing, but no one else wanted to accept that report, especially after that 1st. exchange of gunfire.

At 1943 ( 7. 43 PM ) Max Schulz spotted the aircraft again, this time approaching the destroyer formation rear out of a cloud in front of the moon, she fired off a signal:

" Aircraft detected in the black cloud in front of the moon."

This destroyer, the first to be built in Germany post WW1 had despatched her last signal.

Some two hours earlier, the 4th. Squadron of KG 26 had made ready its HE 111 bombers at Neumunster airfield, amongst them an HE 111 with markings 1H + 1M, commanded by Feldwebal Jager. After take off, this Heinkel headed North until reaching the Island of Sylt, then turning to port on a 241 degree course over the dark North Sea.

About 1900 ( 7. P M ) the crew noticed a ship's wake below with a shadow in front of it, denoting a ship steaming which they took to be a freighter, they went round again to try to identify it. ( Now in WW2, airmen on both sides of the conflict had the greatest difficulty in accurately identifying ships they sighted from the air. eg, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, HMAS Australia leading an Allied Task Force was bombed by US B -17 aircraft, they fortunately missed their target, the B 17's rushed off home to their Townsville base to claim a Japanese ship sunk, on printing out the photos of the attack, they needed to eat humble pie when it was revealed it was Allied ships that they attacked. )

HMAS Australia under attack Coral Sea May 7th. 1942. Painting by Frank Norton
HMAS Australia under attack Coral Sea May 7th. 1942. Painting by Frank Norton

AA fire from the Flotilla greeted the Heinkel, this simply confirmed to its aircrew that it was an enemy ship below.

The HE 111 climbed to make her bombing run, at a height of 1,500 metres the aircraft approached the dark shadow below with the black cloud in front of the moon behind it.

In the Destroyer Flotilla, two minutes after the last radio message, two bombs exploded just astern of Leberecht Maas, the whole Flotilla let fly with their AA guns. Now a third bomb hit the destroyer between the superstructure and the foremost funnel, the ship slowed and pulled out of the line to starboard, signalling she had been hit and needed help.

At 1956 ( 7.56 PM ) with Fredrich Eckolt closing the stricken ship, the aft AA guns in Leberecht Maas, erupted, then two explosions occured, one astern of Leberecht Maas, the 2nd. in the area of her second funnel. A large fire ball leapt into the night sky, followed by a smoke cloud blotting out the ship from view.

When the smoke cleared, the destroyer was broken in two, both her bow and stern raised out of the water, and her crew of 330 faced with sinking into the 40 metres depth of the cold cold North Sea.

Chaos Reigns.
After the second hit, the rest of the Flotilla turned to the task of rescuing the survivors from Leberecht Maas, three of the destroyers all with their boats in the water close by when at 2004 ( 8. 04 PM ) a second huge explosion lit the night sky, lookouts in Richard Beitzen, reported another destroyer from the Flotilla hit by yet another attack from the air.

Theodor Reider only a 1,000 metres from this explosion reported a submarine to starboard, causing utter chaos and confusion in the group of ships. Theodor Reider dashed off after the submarine contact to let fly with four depth charges, they exploded too close to the destroyer, jamming her rudder, she was steaming around in circles until at last, manual control was able to be implemented.

The Flotilla Commander ordered all rescue attempts to pick up survivors stopped, to hunt for the submarine now the top priority.

Max Schulz could not be raised by signal, no response from her at all, and no ship had any idea of her whereabouts or health. She was GONE. Most likely she had run into a mine, and not been attacked from the air as reported.

At 2036 ( 8.36 PM ) the remaining four destroyers were ordered to withdraw, course 170 degrees, speed 17 knots. Off the ships went to recover their boats left behind when the submarine contact became top priority. I cannot imagine why the Flotilla Commander would not have left one of his destroyers behind to pick up survivors, in the intervening 25 minutes most of the survivors had been claimed by the icy waters of the North Sea.

On their way home, the awful cost in lives was revealed, only 60 from the crew of 330 in Leberecht Maas had been saved, another 308 sailors in Max Schulz had perished.

It appears doubtful that an enemy submarine was in the area, most likely the Flotilla destroyer had run into its own defensive minefield.

It became obvious that the aircraft that attacked the German destroyers was one of their own HE 111's, neither the Luftwaffe bombers nor the Kreigsmarine Destroyers had been informed that other German forces were operating in the same area, so keep a vigilant lookout. Once again Friendly Fire had been at its deadly work.

I believe the Flotilla Commander panicked when he received the Submarine report, and was responsible for so many of those survivors dying in the icy waters, he was fortunate to escape any sanction.

578 crewmen died, the end result of very poor interservice communications exercise.


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