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Book Reviews

Blue On Blue: A History Of Friendly Fire

by Geoffrey Regan
New York: Avon Books. 258 pages, C$15.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Major the Rev. Arthur Gans

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Book CoverGeoffrey Regan has written a frightening and important work that should be read by every member of the military. Regan, a well-known British military historian, specializes in the area of military blunders. His most recent work has been nominated for a Wolfson Prize. Beginning with the Roman Empire, and going through the Crusades and early modern warfare, but concentrating on the warfare of the 20th century, this book catalogues extensively the history of what is varyingly called “blue on blue”, “friendly fire”, and “amicide” (the killing of friends). In this review, no time is spent on the pre-20th century materials. Rather, the concentration is on the period familiar to the reviewer.

When one reads about the First World War, one is often confronted with casualty lists that are almost unimaginable. But, until perusing this book, many readers may not have realized that “killed in action” was often used as a descriptor for those who had died as a result of their side’s own fire. And, in the First World War, there were tremendous numbers of these on both sides of the battle. Regan details multitudes of casualties on both sides as a direct result of the use of artillery on the trench war battlefield. Short shots, poor aiming, inaccurate maps, and faulty ammunition all contributed to the carnage that faced the infantry troops on a daily basis. Of course, the infantry also made a contribution – as in the confusion of charges against entrenched troops. Even the well-intentioned often did not realize that the targets at which they fired were their own or allied troops.

Of course, amicide was not limited to ground forces. The navies also had their share, though substantially smaller – particularly as a result of the new weapon, the submarine. The British Navy “K” series of submarines might well have been named “W for Widowmaker”, considering the number of fatal incidents in which they participated, both before and during the war.

One of the really upsetting factors is the number of troops executed by their own commanders on the allied side. In the next to last chapter, “Discipline and Friendly Fire”, one learns that the British Army sentenced a total of 3,080 men to death and carried out 312 executions between 4 August 1914 and 31 March 1920. The French were no better, particularly as a result of the frontline mutinies.

General Erich von Ludendorff spoke with some envy of the severity of British and French military discipline compared with that of the German Army: “The Entente no doubt achieved more than we did with their considerably more severe punishments. This historic fact is well established”. (p. 226)

Another greatly disturbing element of “friendly fire” is the fact that often the incidents were the direct result of orders given by senior commanders – who subsequently took no personal responsibility for their actions. Examples of this can be found in the First World War, but the most serious examples are those found in the Second World War. During Operation “Husky”, the invasion of Sicily, both British and American airborne forces suffered extensively from both naval and army friendly fire. Some of these incidents had been foreseen by the commanders concerned, but changes in the plans to avoid the opportunity were vetoed by higher headquarters. The result was many unnecessary casualties in both the 82nd Airborne and the British “Red Devils”. (pp. 149-155)

Later in the war, in Operation “Cobra” in Normandy, General Omar Bradley made some decisions that cost his own troops extensive, unnecessary casualties that, because of the tempo of operations at the time, could be effectively hidden. Despite being told by his air commanders that what he was asking of heavy bomber units was not within their capabilities, Bradley insisted, although allowing some modifications on his original plan. Weather, changes of plans, and human errors resulted in one-day casualties in the 30th Infantry Division of 61 killed, 374 wounded, 64 missing, and 164 total nervous collapses as a result of combat fatigue. Among the 111 killed in action that day was Lieutenant General Leslie McNair, the most senior Allied officer lost during the entire war. (p. 166)

The stories continue through Korea, Vietnam, and several of the small military actions of the Americans in the Caribbean. One thing stands out in all this. Aerial warfare has greatly complicated the modern battlefield and has contributed substantially to the level of friendly fire incidents. In the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Gulf War II, and “the war on terrorism”, a substantial number of friendly fire incidents have occurred – despite the fact that serious attempts have been made to develop identifying methods to prevent them. Although the book does not cover either Afghanistan or Gulf War II, Regan probably would not be at all surprised to see the more recent headlines. One of the differences is, perhaps, that today such incidents are not as easily covered up as they have been in the past.

Perhaps the book can be best summed up in Regan’s own words:

I contend that the message of two thousand years of friendly fire is that, in the final analysis, it is men who make mistakes, through the stress that war imposes, and that stress is fundamentally linked with fear on their part; fear of death and mutilation, and fear of failure and humiliation. When men are afraid, they will always shoot first rather than identify a target, or drop bombs too early rather than risk flak. Mistakes will be reduced when men have less to fear. But then that would not be war, and they would not be men. (p. 240)

This book should be read by any and all who aspire to command troops of whatever element. It is not a book of psychology, but of history, and as Santayana is quoted as having said: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.


Major the Rev. Arthur Gans is a retired Army chaplain who has a special interest in military ethics.