20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II

Larry Holzwarth - August 15, 2018

The Second World War, as in the case of most wars, was fraught with mistakes made by all sides and in all theaters of the war. Many of them, in the beginning, were the result of generals being ill-prepared to fight a modern war. Nearly all nations had developed long range bombers during the 1920s and 1930s, but their effectiveness as a weapon of war remained the subject of spirited debate among the military brass. So were the proper means of deploying the tank, with some believing that tanks should be deployed with the infantry, and others wanting them to operate separately.

Second guessing generals and admirals with the benefit of hindsight is a subjective exercise, with it impossible to guess at what would be the final outcome. There are enough clear cut mistakes and errors of judgment that such second guessing isn’t necessary. The pomposity of MacArthur, the arrogance of Montgomery, and the humility of Bradley were personality traits, not mistakes, regardless of one’s opinion of the military ability and leadership of the three men.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Neville Chamberlain’s policies of appeasement encouraged the rising Nazi power in Europe and lead to World War II. Imperial War Museum

Here is a list of mistakes committed by the Allied forces during the Second World War, and the impact of those mistakes on the conduct of the war and the world which followed.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines in flames on December 10, 1941. US Army

Clark Field, the Philippines, December 1941

General Douglas MacArthur had been in the Philippines since 1935, serving as a Field Marshal of the Philippine Army, and after July 1941 as commander of all US forces in the Philippines, including the federalized Philippines Army. Under his direct command were the US Army Air Force aircraft, which included more than 90 P-40 Warhawks and almost three dozen B-17 bombers, organized as the Far East Air Force, the largest such command outside of the United States. MacArthur had a full ten hours in which to disperse his aircraft following the debacle at Pearl Harbor, but he left them parked on the airfield in rows, awaiting the inevitable Japanese attack.

When the Japanese did attack Clark Field, as part of the overall launch of their invasion of the Philippines, MacArthur’s air forces were completely destroyed as a viable fighting force. Japan had complete control of the air over the Philippines, making the defeat of the American and Filipino forces inevitable. Without air cover the defense of the Philippines was virtually impossible, other than as a giant holding action to bleed the enemy as much as possible. MacArthur’s failure to disperse his air forces was a mistake which certainly was a major factor in what became one of the greatest humiliations in US military history.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Charles de Gaulle, one of the most controversial persons in French history, in Paris in August 1944. Wikimedia

Not listening to DeGaulle, France, 1939-40

Charles DeGaulle is not often considered to be a great military tactician, but in the decades between the World Wars, he and other generals argued for the deployment of tanks in columns separate from the infantry, to operate as horse-mounted cavalry had in earlier wars, cutting behind the flanks of the enemy. It was the same tactic the Germans used. Instead, French military doctrine was to use their tanks, some of which were more powerful than their German counterparts, as support for the infantry. The French planned a defensive war, anchored by the Maginot Line, and supported by the Ardennes, a region which they considered impenetrable.

In the event, German panzer columns sliced through the Ardennes, avoided the Maginot Line, and chopped the French formations to pieces. The French failed to launch counterattacks on the German columns because they lacked the formations with which to do so. Had DeGaulle, (and others, including American George Patton) adopted the use of tank divisions as fast offensive forces the result of the Battle of France in 1940 could have been very different. The failure to adopt DeGaulle’s thinking continued even after the Germans revealed the efficacy of their armored columns in Poland the preceding year.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
USS Wahoo departs Mare Island in July, 1943. The submarine was lost with all hands later that year. US Navy

The torpedo problem, Pacific Theatre, 1941-1943

American submarines went to war in the Pacific with well trained professional crews, and from the beginning inflicted damage on the Japanese Navy and merchant fleet. But they could have inflicted far greater if the US Navy bureaucracy had recognized sooner the severe problems encountered with the submarine’s primary offensive weapon, the torpedo. Submarine skippers repeatedly reported torpedoes which hit the target, or passed beneath it, when its magnetic exploder should have detected the proximity of the enemy vessel and detonated. The Navy bureaucracy blamed the failures on the skippers, claiming that the torpedoes worked perfectly.

Torpedoes also had a disturbing habit of running in a circle and returning to the point from which they were launched. At least two American submarines were sunk by their own torpedoes in this manner, confirmed by survivors among their crews who became prisoners of war. The US Navy did not fully address the issue of the faulty weapons until 1943, after which the US submarine fleet became the most lethal weapon in the US naval arsenal. American submarines sank more than 55% of the Japanese tonnage sent to the bottom in the Pacific War, though less than 2% of naval personnel served in submarines. Had it not been for bureaucratic obstinacy, that number would have been much higher.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
A German U-Boat under attack by aircraft from the escort carrier USS Bogue. The vessel was reported as sunk. Wikimedia

The Blackout failures and the Happy Time, US East Coast, 1942

When the United States entered the Second World War the cities and towns along the east coast of the United States resisted the imposition of a blackout. Their reasons ranged from the difficulty of workers commuting in the total darkness to the damage suffered by the tourism industry, already hurt by travel priorities and rationing. The result was that ships operating along the American coastline were clearly silhouetted by the glow emitted by American towns, making them ripe targets for the German U-boats prowling off the coast. The German U-boat fleet sank so many ships along the coast that they referred to early 1942 as The Second Happy Time (the first Happy Time had been against the British).

The US Government was forced to impose blackout restrictions along the coast, though many cities continued to resist. Propaganda posters and radio broadcasts appealed to American patriotism, and eventually most of the cities and towns complied, though the blackouts were never as stringently enforced in the United States as they were in Great Britain, and on the ships themselves. One reason was American security from air attack. The waters off Cape Hatteras saw so many ships sunk there, over 400, that it became known as Torpedo Alley. Over 5,000 American civilians and merchant mariners lost their lives in U-boat attacks along the Outer Banks alone.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Admiral Nimitz, left, with Admiral Halsey, secretly demanded intelligence sent to Washington also be provided to him. US Navy

Naval Intelligence chain, Pacific Fleet, 1941

In 1941, the commander in chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Husband Kimmel, received intelligence information on the growing Japanese threat directly from the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington. Incredibly, information gathered by Pacific listening posts and deciphered in Hawaii was transmitted to Washington, bypassing the commander of the Pacific Fleet, who received from his superiors in Washington that which they believed he needed to know. Husband Kimmel was denied access to classified information regarding the Japanese intentions within the realm of his command by officers in Washington.

This convoluted approach meant that while officers in Washington DC knew that the Japanese fleet was at sea in early December 1941, Kimmel did not, though he speculated that it was. The failure to provide raw intelligence to the fleet commander, if it was in fact a mistake, was corrected when Kimmel was made the scapegoat (along with army general Walter Short) for the United States being caught by surprise at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered the intelligence officers in Hawaii to provide him with any and all information which could possibly impact the Pacific Fleet and areas under his command, an order he made verbally and which violated official US Navy standard operating procedures. It was obeyed.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
HMS Prince of Wales departing Singapore on December 8, 1941, never to return. Imperial War Museum

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, Singapore, 1941

HMS Prince of Wales was a new British battleship, which during its brief career had fought the German battleship Bismarck, carried Winston Churchill to the Argentia conference, and fought Italian forces in the Mediterranean. Its consort, HMS Repulse, was a battlecruiser which had fought in the First World War, been modernized between the wars, and had seen extensive convoy duty in the Atlantic. In 1941, the ships were detached to the Far East to bolster British defense of Singapore against Japanese aggression. Both ships had had their anti-aircraft batteries strengthened before their deployment to the Far East, and both ships were crewed by veterans.

On December 8, 1941, Japanese aircraft raided Singapore and other points on the Malay Peninsula, and the Admiral in command of the British flotilla, Tom Phillips, ordered the ships to sea that evening. Phillips may have believed that the Royal Air Force was able to provide air cover for the ships, but the Japanese, as they had at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, had destroyed the Allied air forces effectiveness. The two ships were attacked in several waves of torpedo planes and bombers, and both were sunk with heavy loss of life, including Admiral Phillips. Ordering surface ships into possible attack by ground based aircraft was a mistake which made Prince of Wales and Repulse the first capital ships sunk solely by aircraft on the open sea.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
The French battleship Richelieu took part in defending Dakar from Free French and British forces led by De Gaulle. US Navy

Dakar, West Africa, 1940

After the fall of France, Charles De Gaulle, self-appointed head of the Free French forces opposing the Vichy government and the Germans, convinced Winston Churchill that the French troops and colonial forces in French West Africa could be persuaded to join the British. A joint British and Free French task force was dispatched to Dakar, de Gaulle with them commanding French troops, to convince the garrison there to join the fight against the Germans. De Gaulle, who believed his presence would suffice to persuade the French to join him found himself fired upon by the French defenders of Dakar, which also held the gold reserves of the Bank of France and the Polish government in exile.

The Vichy forces, including several ships and submarines of the French Navy, defended the colony against the British and Free French for several days, refusing to surrender or change sides. De Gaulle attempted to land troops, failed, and then decided that French fighting against French was an exercise in futility and called off the attack. The British battlecruiser Resolution was heavily damaged, and had to be taken under tow to Cape Town for repairs. The British and French forces finally withdrew when they were unable to take the port, leaving de Gaulle humiliated and West Africa in the hands of the Vichy government.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
The loss of HMS Courageous caused the British to assign their fleet carriers away from anti-submarine duties. Imperial War Museum

Early Anti-submarine patrols, Royal Navy, 1939

In the early days of the Second World War, a period sometimes referred to as the “phoney war”, there were significant actions at sea involving the Royal Navy and Germany’s Kriegsmarine. The German U-boats wreaked havoc on the British and French merchant fleets, and the British responded by creating anti-submarine task groups centered around their fleet aircraft carriers, most of which were relatively slow, having been converted from World War One battlecruisers. These carriers were escorted with four or five destroyers or corvettes. The idea was a combined action of carrier aircraft forcing U-boats to submerge, when they would be depth-charged by the destroyers.

On September 17, 1939, with the war but two weeks old, the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous sent two of its escorting destroyers to the assistance of a merchant vessel which reported itself under attack. Unknown to Courageous, it had been stalked for several hours by a submerged U-boat, and when the carrier turned into the wind to launch aircraft it was struck by two torpedoes fired by the German. Courageous sank in minutes, more than 500 of its crew were killed, and the U-boat escaped unscathed. The British Admiralty immediately revised its antisubmarine warfare tactics, withdrawing the fleet carriers from that duty, out of concern for the lethality of the German U-boats.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Plotting convoys required the coordination of several services and hundreds of ships as the war dragged on. Imperial War Museum

Unescorted and poorly escorted convoys, Atlantic, 1940

Ships which sailed in convoy were of necessity limited in their speed to that of the slowest vessel in their midst. There was also a shortage of vessels to escort the convoys which were capable of antisubmarine operations should they be attacked. The decision was made to assemble the large convoys and sail them unescorted, or under-escorted, because Great Britain lacked the means of feeding itself or providing enough fuel for its needs. One example of the regrettable effects of the decision can be found in Convoy SC-7 (SC refers to Slow Convoy) which sailed from the port of Sydney, Newfoundland, bound for Liverpool, in October 1940 comprised of 35 ships.

SC-7 was limited to less than eight knots in speed, and escorted by a single sloop. The slow rate of steaming irked many captains of faster vessels, and the convoy became strung out during the crossing. As it reached the Western Approaches near Ireland additional escorts became available, but the convoy was so separated that defending it was nearly impractical. Of the 35 ships which departed Sydney, twenty never reached their planned destination, instead succumbing to the German U-boats. Nearly 80,000 tons of shipping were lost, along with their crews and cargoes. The decision to risk running the U-boats in slow, unescorted convoys nearly brought England to lose the war due to attrition, and forced the intervention of the Americans in order to protect the ships and their valuable cargoes.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
American troops examine one of the fortresses of the Maginot Line in late 1944. National Archives

The Maginot Line, France, 1930-1940

What made the Maginot Line a mistake was simply that it was not long enough. French military planning during the 1920s and 1930s assumed that another war with Germany would be of long duration, and largely static, and the French assumed a defensive posture. They also assumed, rightly as it turned out, that the Germans would attack in the north through the Low Countries, as they had in 1914. Defensive preparations and plans of operation there were also part of the French defensive planning. Finally they assumed that an attack through the Ardennes would be slow, if one came at all, and they would have sufficient time to muster reinforcements to that area. Had they instead extended to Maginot Line to the north they would have precluded attack there.

The Maginot Line was virtually impervious to attack by artillery or aerial bombardment, and would have no doubt been successful in stopping any German attacks. Simply bypassing it left its garrisons out of the Battle of France, and allowed the Germans to flank the British and French troops to the north. When the British Expeditionary Forces arrived in France in 1939, the error of not lengthening the Maginot Line became apparent, and British and French engineers hurriedly extended the fortifications as much as possible, but they were unsuccessful in preparing adequate defenses. The Line was used by Allied troops resisting Germany’s Operation Nordwind in 1945, and proved to be an excellent defensive fortification.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Canadian prisoners of war led through Dieppe after being captured during the failed raid. Wikimedia

Dieppe Raid, France, 1942

It might be a mistake to call the Dieppe Raid a mistake. Fiasco seems a more appropriate term. The Royal Navy refused to commit capital ships with their heavy guns to provide gunfire support, mindful of German air superiority over the area of the raid. The Germans were aware of the coming attack, having been informed by French and British agents and spies. The troops committed were inadequate to the purpose of their mission, which was to seize a German port intact and hold it for a period of time determined by the tide tables, in order to discover if an invasion of France through a port was feasible at the time.

The landing force of just over 6,000 men, 5,000 of them Canadian (another 4,000 troops never made it ashore) lost over 3,600, a casualty rate of 60%. The Royal Navy lost a destroyer and 33 badly needed landing craft. The Royal Air Force lost over 100 aircraft, compared to under 50 losses by the opposing Luftwaffe. The landing troops were able to remain ashore for only about ten hours before the Royal Navy withdrew those they could, leaving the rest to be killed or become prisoners of war. Besides giving the Germans a tremendous propaganda opportunity, the Dieppe raid proved that the Allies were a long way from being ready to sustain an invasion of Europe, despite the continuing prodding of the Soviets that it was only a matter of resolve.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
The German invasion of Poland presented the French and British with an opportunity to invade Germany in the west, which they declined. Wikimedia

Sitzkrieg, France, 1939

Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and two days later both England and France were technically at war with Germany. England began preparations to send the British Expeditionary Force to France, and the French mobilized their army, but as the bulk of the German war machine swept into Poland, leaving 46 divisions on the Western Front of which only 11 were combat ready, the British and French sat on their hands. In contrast, France was capable of fielding 100 divisions, supported by 4 from the British, and the Royal Air Force, despite the long-standing myth inspired by Churchill’s oratory, was near parity with the German Luftwaffe. Combined with the French, Allied air power exceeded that of the Germans.

The French did plan to mount an offensive in the Saarland, moving 30 divisions and 40 tank battalions to the border. The movement was planned after French probing operations in September revealed the relative weakness of the German defenses. They occupied some German territory, but plans for a full scale invasion of Germany were deferred when the speed of the Polish collapse was revealed to the French commanders. The slowness of the British deployment to Europe was another factor which caused the French to stop short, though an all-out aerial attack of the sort being conducted in Poland by the Germans would have met little resistance, since 90% of Luftwaffe strength was engaged there. By October, the French had withdrawn behind their fortifications.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Instead of striking at the Germans, British and French troops mostly idled in France as these British troops visit a no man’s land from the First World War. Wikimedia

Phoney war, Britain and France, 1939

The Phoney War (spelled Phony in the United States) was the derisive term for the French and British failure to launch offensive operations while Poland was still resisting. It was the single greatest mistake made by the Allies throughout the Second World War. It was a failure which, had it been avoided, none of the other mistakes by the Allies would have been made, at least against Germany. This argument was presented at the time by several French generals, including Henri Giraud, and supported by Winston Churchill, who though not yet Prime Minister was nonetheless influential in the government as First Lord of the Admiralty. French commander Maurice Gamelin refused to consider offensive operations.

That Gamelin made the mistake of his career was confirmed following the war in testimony which was presented during the Nuremberg Trials, by German officers who were involved in the fighting in Poland and later in France. Alfred Jodl testified that Germany would have collapsed had the French invaded in 1939, and that they did not was “due only to the fact that during the Polish campaign the approximately 110 French and British divisions in the west were held completely inactive against the 23 German divisions”. Another German general, Siegfried Westphal, stated that had France attacked while the Germans were fighting in Poland, Germany would not have been able to defend itself for more than two weeks.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Roosevelt and Churchill at Casablanca at the beginning of 1943. Imperial War Museum

FDRs demand for unconditional surrender by Germany

During the 1943 conference of Allied leaders in Casablanca, Winston Churchill was stunned when his friend and compatriot Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued his demand for unconditional surrender by the Germans, and the Allies unwillingness to accept anything else. FDR removed the possibility of any form of negotiated peace from the table. In doing so Roosevelt handed another propaganda coup to the Germans, and German Minister Joseph Goebbels used the president’s statement to urge the Germans to fight on, since the alternative was defeat and enslavement by the British, Americans, and Soviets.

Allen Foster Dulles initially supported Roosevelt’s demand, but he quickly came to oppose it when he saw the advantage it had handed Goebbels, and through him Hitler, as they opposed the factions in Germany which had quietly backed the idea of a negotiated peace, at least with the western Allies. The American president had in fact consulted Churchill, at least according to Churchill’s memoirs, but Churchill had been left with the belief that the issue was still under discussion. The fanatical resistance of the Germans as their cities were destroyed by Allied bombing before being overrun by allied troops was in large measure fortified by the belief that the German nation would become a vassal state of the Allies if defeated in the war.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Part of the Allied invasion fleet for the 1944 return to the Philippines. US Navy

Invasion of the Philippines, 1944

The invasion of the Philippines, giving MacArthur an opportunity to announce the he had returned, was conducted for reasons which were primarily political, and lengthened the war in the Pacific rather than shortening it. The US Navy wanted the resources which were of necessity diverted to the Philippines to be used in its island hopping campaign, seizing the critical islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, with their bases which could be used to support the bombing of Japan’s cities and bases. Isolating the Philippines archipelago would disable the Japanese troops stationed there, and force the remains of the Japanese fleet to try to relieve or evacuate them.

Not even MacArthur argued over the strategic necessity of retaking the islands he had lost in 1942. He based his arguments on what he called national honor, and warned Franklin Roosevelt that a failure to support the invasion would have a negative impact on American morale which could lead to his defeat in the election of 1944, which may have been a thinly veiled threat. MacArthur tried similar tactics with President Truman during the Korean War regarding the Chinese threat. In the end MacArthur got what he wanted, and the battle for the Philippines led to the greatest naval battle in history at Leyte Gulf, and delayed the thrust towards Japan by at least six months, at the cost of over 79,000 American casualties. Fighting continued in the Philippines until the Japanese surrender in 1945.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Elements of the Anzio invasion force under German aerial attack on January 22, 1944. US Navy

Anzio hesitation, Italy 1944

When the United States launched a flanking attack on the Germans defending Italy by a seaborne invasion at Anzio, the intention was a quick liberation of Rome. The commander of the attacking troops which went ashore at Anzio in a highly successful amphibious landing didn’t appreciate the need to move inland off the beaches as quickly as possible. Instead, Major General John Lucas decided to consolidate the beachhead and entrench his reinforced units against expected German counterattacks. This gave the German army sufficient time to occupy positions on high ground from which German artillery could pummel the American troops ashore.

The Americans remained where they were, engaged in daily heavy fighting, for a month before Lucas was removed from command, replaced by Major General Lucian Truscott. After the Americans finally broke out of the Anzio beachhead, Truscott was ordered to liberate Rome, rather than pursue the retreating Germans to prevent them from reaching prepared defensive positions to the north. Rome was liberated by the Americans on June 4, 1944, as the Germans regrouped to the north, ensuring further heavy fighting to come on the Italian peninsula throughout the summer as the German troops made a fighting withdrawal up the Italian boot.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
FDR approved the invasion of the Philippines, which according to MacArthur necessitated capturing Peleliu, at a conference attended by MacArthur and Admirals Leahy and Nimitz. US Navy

Invasion of Peleliu, Pacific, 1944

The invasion of Peleliu was important to the competing strategies in the Pacific, but critical to Douglas MacArthur’s intentions to retake the Philippines (according to the general), as securing the island would allow an airfield to be built to protect Macarthur’s flank during his invasion. The battle for Peleliu was one of the bloodiest of the Pacific War, with more than 2,300 Americans killed, another 8,500 wounded, and of the Japanese garrison on the island of 10,900 men, only 202 survived, mostly foreign laborers in the Japanese service. Nineteen Japanese soldiers were the only survivors from their combat troops. As the battle for the island raged it was already the source of controversy in the United States.

The airfield on Peleliu was too distant from the Philippines to have been able to have interfered with operations in the archipelago, and the base was not used to support MacArthur’s operations there. Nor was the island used to support further naval operations in the island hopping campaign, the island of Yap and the Ulithi Atoll assumed the role of advance bases for the remaining operations in the Pacific. Although it was proven in hindsight to have been strategically unnecessary, the invasion of Peleliu and the high rate of casualties are widely considered a mistake mostly because of the leadership of Major General William Rupertus, who confidently predicted he would secure the island in three or four days. It took more than two months.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Montgomery (right) with Churchill and British general Alan Brooke, went forward with Market Garden which both failed and delayed the use of Antwerp as a port by the Allies. Imperial War Museum

Operation Market Garden

By the late summer of 1944 the most critical factor facing the allied troops in Europe was supply, and when Belgian resistance fighters seized the port of Antwerp intact, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was directed to provide troops under his command to help clear the Scheldt Estuary to allow the port to be used to resupply the front line troops. Montgomery refused to provide the requested assistance until after his completion of Operation Market Garden, an ambitious and complicated airborne and ground attack to seize bridges which would provide his troops a pathway into Germany and end the war in Europe by Christmas of 1944.

Operation Market Garden was a mistake on at least two levels. Its execution delayed the clearing of the Scheldt of German troops, exacerbating the logistics problems and contributing to difficulties later encountered by poorly supplied troops in the Ardennes. It also failed as a tactical operation, leading to heavy casualties among the airborne troops, heavy loss of equipment, and encouraged Hitler in his decision to launch the winter offensive against the allies in December 1944. Its target objective was the retaking of Antwerp. The mostly Canadian troops who eventually cleared the Scheldt did so with heavy casualties, many of which could have been alleviated if Montgomery had not been obsessed with going a bridge too far.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
George S. Patton in March, 1943, two years before dispatching the rescue mission which earned him a reprimand from Eisenhower. Wikimedia

Task Force Baum, Germany 1945

In March 1945, General George S. Patton and Captain Abraham Baum secretly created a group named Task Force Baum for the purpose of raiding deep behind the steadily deteriorating German lines for the purpose of liberating prisoners of war held in German camps. German camp OFLAG (a portmanteau of Offizier Lager, meaning Officer Camp) XIII-B was located near Hammelburg, Germany and whether Patton ordered the raid because he had learned of the possibility of his son-in-law being held there has long been debated among historians and scholars. A letter sent to his wife includes a reference to sending a raid to where “John and some 900 prisoners are said to be”. At any rate, he did order the raid, which was entirely unsuccessful.

Of the 300 men who penetrated behind the German lines on the secret mission, 32 were killed in combat, and only 35 managed to escape German territory and return to the American lines. The rest became prisoners. All of the group’s heavy equipment, including 57 vehicles, were lost to the Germans. When Eisenhower learned of the unauthorized action he furiously reprimanded Patton, who privately remained unrepentant, blaming the mission’s failure instead on the fact that the task force should have been larger. “I know of no error I made except that of failing to send a combat command to take Hammelburg,” was Patton’s assessment of his performance during the campaign across France and Germany.

20 Major Mistakes the Allies Made During World War II
Crewmen on USS Enterprise working to salvage a Navy TBF which crash landed after being damaged in a friendly fire incident with a Navy Hellcat fighter. US Navy

Friendly fire incidents, all theaters of operation

The first British warship to be lost in the Second World War was the submarine HMS Oxley, which was sunk by another British submarine, HMS Triton, on September 10, 1939, one week after Britain declared war on Germany. Fifty-two of Oxley’s crew were killed, two survived, and the incident remained classified by the Royal Navy for more than a decade. It was the first of what would become hundreds, if not thousands, of mistakes which led to the allies killing members of their own units, and other allied units, known as friendly fire, an oxymoron of tragic consequences. How many actually occurred can never be known with certainty.

Anti-aircraft gunners fired on planes of their own and allied services. Tanks engaged each other before discovering they were allies. Artillery shells fell short of their intended targets, striking positions held by allied troops. Aircraft strafed positions held by friendly forces. During the second battle of El Alamein, elements of the British army endured a four hour long aerial bombardment which was conducted by British aircraft. At the Battle of Guadalcanal, USS San Francisco, a heavy cruiser, targeted and hit USS Atlanta, a light cruiser which sustained heavy damage and casualties. Throughout the war and for years afterwards, the allied forces kept the incidents of friendly fire classified so as to not have them adversely affect recruiting and morale.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Japan Strikes: 1941”, by William H. Honan, American Heritage Magazine, December 1970

“The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939”, by R. A. Doughty, 2014

“Culpable Negligence”, by Edward L. Beach, American Heritage Magazine, December 1980

“Guarding the United States and its Outposts”, by Stetson Conn, United States Army Center for Military History, 1964, 2000, online

“The Biggest Theater”, by Edward L. Beach, American Heritage Magazine, December 1991

“Vulnerable: HMS Prince of Wales in 1941”, by David Hein, Journal of Military History, July 2013

“Debacle at Dakar”, by David H. Lippman, WWII History, July 2011

“Carrier Operations in World War II”, by J. D. Brown, 2009

“The Night of the U-Boats”, by Harry Ludlam and Paul Lund, 1973

“The Maginot Line”, by Rudolph Chelminski, Smithsonian Magazine, 1997

“The Dieppe Raid”, by Julian Thompson, BBC: World Wars in Depth, June 6, 2010

“Hitler’s Blitzkrieg Campaigns: The Invasion and Defense of Western Europe, 1939-40”, by J. E. Kaufmann and H. W. Kaufmann, 2002

“Berlin Diary”, William Shirer, 1941

“The New Dealer’s War”, by Thomas Fleming, 2002

“Rethinking Douglas MacArthur”, by Mark Perry, POLITICO Magazine, May 25, 2014

“Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome”, by Carlo d’Este, 1991

“Bloody Peleliu: Unavoidable but Unnecessary”, by Jeremy Gypton, Military History Online, 2004

“A Magnificent Disaster”, by David Bennett, 2008

“Raid: The Untold Story of Patton’s Secret Mission”, by Richard Baron, Abe Baum, and Richard Goldhurst, 1981

“Friendly Fire’s Deadliest Day”, by Robert F. Dorr, America in World War II Magazine, online