Operation Brassard - The Invasion of Elba
17 June, 1944
Operation Brassard, the Invasion of Elba, gives an account of the role of the Royal Naval Beach
Commandos in the invasion of Elba. They suffered heavy
losses during the initial landings in the bay of Golfo di Campo but the main
French invading force successfully captured the island. Written by William McGrann in 2004.
The circumstances leading to the death of my
brother George McGrann, 60 years ago, while serving with the Royal Navy, have always been
something of a mystery to my family. Secrecy was such a fundamental necessity
during WW2 that my mother received only the barest details of his death. It
wasn't until 1983 that some facts came to light with the publication of a book
by Cecil Hampshire entitled 'Beachhead Commandos'.
[Photo; George McGrann.]
I had never heard of Naval
Commandos, so, a few years ago, I decided to find out more. I believe that
the following is a true account of the action, the circumstances surrounding my brother's death and the deaths of most of his
comrades in that little known action. Their heroic feat was overshadowed by the
main invasion of Normandy, which had taken place just 10 days previously and I
feel that Operation Brassard deserves far greater recognition than it ever received at the time
George McGrann was born in Birkenhead on 20th
March, 1926. He falsified his birth certificate and in January 1943, age just 16
and very much against his mother's wishes, he volunteered for the Royal Navy. He
was accepted and after a month's initial training at HMS Ganges, he
volunteered for hazardous duty and was sent to HMS Armadillo, a Royal
Naval training establishment on the banks of Loch Long at Ardentinny in
Scotland. Here officers and men underwent arduous specialist training to become
Royal Naval Commandos. Their motto of 'Imprimo Exulto' (first in, last out)
aptly described their exploits on invasion beaches the world over. His training
at 'Armadillo' coincided with that of 'O' commando but on completion, he became
part of 'A' Commando to bring that unit back up to strength.
Officers and men of the RN Commandos trained
together, which, at the time, was a novel concept among military units. It helped
turn them into an elite corps in the best traditions of the original British
Commando. Besides their own exacting drills, they were expected to pass the
Combined Operations Commando course at Achnacarry in Inverness-shire, before being
presented with the coveted Green Beret and FS commando dagger. The legendary
Colonel Vaughan, affectionately known as 'Rommel of the North' by his trainees, ruled supreme
here. Such was his strict discipline that the RN classes, which passed through his hands, wryly assumed that he had
a grievance against the Royal Navy in general and RN Commandos in particular! However, it was perfect groundwork for the testing
times to come.
My brother was then
posted to Royal Naval Beach Commando (RNBC), Dartmouth, for a few weeks. Dartmouth had been taken over in 1943
by Combined Operations for training in small boat and landing craft handling.
On completion of his training, he was sent to
India, where he joined 'A' commando which, with 'O' Commando, were preparing for an
assignment in the Far East against Japanese forces. For reasons unknown this operation was cancelled.
The whole of 'A' and 'O' Commandos were later
to the Mediterranean to take part in Operation ‘Shingle’, the allied invasion of Anzio
in January 1944. This was exactly the type of operation for which the RN Commandos had been
trained. They landed on the beaches with the first wave of assault troops,
maintaining order as wave upon wave of troops and supplies landed.
[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]
this by clearing away obstacles, including mines and organising
exits from the beaches to local roads and tracks inland. They kept massive amounts of men and materials flowing off the
beaches to where they were most needed. After Anzio, 'A' and 'O' Commando found
themselves in Corsica, training for an operation to invade and capture a German
stronghold on a small island off the west coast of Italy - Elba.
So began the preparations for the invasion of
Elba. Planners had decided that this would be undertaken by the French 'B' army
under the command of General de Latre de Tassigny. His forces consisted of the
9th Colonial Infantry Division, a battalion of French commandos and a battalion
of Moroccan Goums. The French decided that 'surprise' was to be the order of the
day and so there was no major air assault and no major bombardment.
Unfortunately, most likely because of woeful security, surprise played no part in the
operation at all.
Rear-Admiral Troutbridge commanded the naval units
involved and the C. in C. Mediterranean, Admiral Cunningham, was in overall
command. Two sub units of the Royal Naval Beach Commandos were to be used for a
specialist task on the main invasion beach. This task fell to Able 1 and Oboe 3
Commando with Able 2 in reserve. The whole operation was given the code
word 'Brassard’ while the British Commandos part in the assault was code-named
‘Cut-out’. On the eve of the invasion, the senior petty officer of O3
Commando decided that the operation was likely to be exceptionally hazardous and
ordered his two youngest Commandos (both 18) to remain behind on Corsica.
experts felt that it was unnecessary to invade Elba, as the main thrust of the
allied advance into Italy would eventually isolate the island. This would force
a German evacuation or surrender without the need of a confrontation. Elba was
heavily fortified and the guns sited on top of the mountains threatened the
sea-lanes surrounding the island. For whatever reason, the invasion was
authorized and preparations and training took place on Corsica.
[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]
There is a report that the C in C Mediterranean cancelled the original invasion
date, because the French forces were not sufficiently prepared for the task.
After further training, the operation was given the go-ahead. French Commandos
were to undertake diversionary landings on other parts of the island and small
naval units would be used to draw the attention of the defenders away
from the main landing area.
Douglas Fairbanks Junior, the film star, was the
commander of an American P.T. boat. He took part in this action and the French
awarded him the Croix de Guerre, with Palm, for his contribution to the
The bay of Golfo di Campo, on the south coast of
Elba, forms a natural harbour. From the seaward side, the right coastline was
heavily wooded and dropped steeply to the sea. A promontory split the left
shoreline and acted as a natural breakwater, forming a perfect inner harbour for
the old fishing village of Marina di Campo. It stretched past
the promontory for about 400 yards. A quay ran the length of the village and
roughly half way along the waterfront was a substantial 'L' shaped concrete jetty
(or mole), the seaward side of which was bounded by a small reef of rocks.
[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]
Further into the harbour, the shoreline flattened out and became gently sloping
sandy beaches, sweeping right around the bay. This was the area chosen to land
the bulk of the invading forces. The beaches were designated Red and Amber and
were judged to be ideal to take the various types of landing craft. It
was thought that the troops would be able to step ashore directly onto dry land
only a few yards from the islands road system giving further rapid access to the
remainder of the island.
It was known that a heavily armed German Flak
ship (gun-boat), the 'Koln', would be berthed on the leeward side of the jetty.
This gave it a commanding view of Red and Amber beaches and its early capture or
neutralisation was vital, since it posed a serious threat to the invading French
troops. A1 Commando were assigned the task, while O3's job was to seal off and
defend the jetty from any German counter-attack. Once captured and after all fighting had ceased, the 'Koln' was to be moved from the jetty to allow
supply ships to discharge their cargoes.
The main assault was timed for 04.00 (H hour).
At about 03.45, as the invasion fleet was nearing the bay, the Germans
challenged the leading craft by light and receiving no reply, opened fire with
guns, which were situated high on the cliffs either side of Golfo di Campo. As
the landing craft entered the bay, the enemy increased the barrage from sites
within the bay and from the guns on the 'Koln'. The guns from the invasion fleet
and hundreds of rockets from the LCT(R)s answered, firing at the cliff top sites
and into the bay and for some minutes forcing the Germans to keep their heads
[Photo; LCT Mark 3 craft going
inshore during the attack on Elba, off the Italian coast. In the early hours of
17 June 1944, a detachment of the French B Army under the command of General de
Lattre de Tassigny, was landed from an Allied invasion fleet. British, American
and French aircraft and ships supported the operation. © IWM (A 24381).]
At H hour minus 10 minutes (0350), the two landing craft of the
RN Commandos (LCA 576.6 with 24 members of 'Able' Commando led by Lieutenant
Hodgson RNVR and LCA 576.1 carrying 'Oboe' Commando uner Lieutenant Harland RNVR)
entered the bay of Marina di Campo and made for the jetty and the flak ship.
Almost immediately, the defenders resumed their heavy barrage and it was a
miracle that the LCAs managed to get close to their objective. With a few yards
to go, LCA 576.6 was hit by enemy gunfire and one Commando was killed and three
wounded. The LCA started to take in water and foundered on the rocks. LCA 576.1 managed to get
alongside but was also hit by gunfire; three men were wounded.
remainder of 'A' Commando stormed ashore closely, followed by 'O' Commando using LCA 576.1 as a bridge. Once on the jetty, 'A' Commando boarded the Koln, forced a
surrender from its crew and successfully carried out their part of the
operation. 'O3' quickly consolidated their position on the jetty. They sited
their Bren guns to cover any incursion from the village and shepherded the
captured Germans onto the seaward end of the mole and, as previously agreed,
waited for the French forces to overrun and occupy the village of Marina de
Campo. Unbeknown to the Commandos, the landings at Marino di Campo were aborted,
because of the formidable German defences. It was many hours before the French cleared the
village and relieved the pressure on the
A small number of A2 Commando landed on the
beaches and split into two groups. S/Lt. Godwin landed on Amber beach with his
bodyguard and S/Lt Lock landed on Red beach. Once in place, they attempted to carry out
their normal tasks of securing the landing beaches and guiding in the invading
forces. S/Lt. Lock managed to guide in the vanguard of the first wave but, as LCI
132 beached, she was hit by gunfire. She tried to withdraw but caught fire and
sank close inshore. LCI (L) 272 also received accurate enemy fire along
with another landing craft, so he ceased guiding in and took cover with
his men away from the shoreline.
[Photo; Enemy mobile field gun
overlooking the jetty with
landing craft in Golfo di Campo Bay.]
LCI (H) was fiercely engaging enemy gun positions
off Red beach but was hopelessly outgunned. Another LCI, about to beach, was hit
in quick succession by four mortar shells, killing the First Lieutenant and most
of the ship's company. The troops, who were grouped forward, preparing to land were
either killed or badly burned. The Commanding Officer left the bridge to direct
the fight against the fire but was almost immediately mortally wounded in the
head. LCI 272 received a direct hit on the port side of the well deck, then a
further two shells landed amidships. LCI 132 was, by now, well alight, having been
hit repeatedly. Native troops were pushed over the side or chose to jump into
the water to escape the flames.
At 04.35, a signal was received from LCI (L)
274 that Amber beach was under intense mortar fire and LCI (L) 303, leader of
the second flight, reported "Second flight thwarted". After consultation with
Colonel Chretian of the French forces, it was decided to withdraw from Marina de
Campo. Had it not been for LCS (M) doing sterling work in making smoke, all five
LCIs of the first wave would probably have been lost. Only 13 of the 18
LCAs, carrying troops to Amber beach, were counted as they departed. One LCA was
seen blazing on Amber beach and one LCS (M) had run aground on rocks to the east
of Amber. LCA 573 picked up survivors from her but, because of heavy enemy fire,
had to withdraw, making smoke as she did so. The other LCAs could not be found.
Meanwhile, back on the jetty with the 'Cut-out'
party, the Commandos were joining the fight, engaging the enemy with small arms
and the main armaments of the recently captured flak ship. During this phase of
the landing, while under continuous artillery and sniper fire, the Commandos
found insulated wires leading from the shore to the Mole. Suspecting that the
jetty had been set with demolition charges, the wires were cut through.
[Photo; Koln after
this pre-emptive action, two massive demolition charges on the short leg of the
mole exploded with devastating effect - it blew a 30 foot hole in the solid
concrete structure. Such was the power of the explosion, that virtually
everybody, Commando and prisoners of war alike, were killed. The
blast forced the flak ship away from the jetty, where it caught fire and the
onboard ammunition started to explode, adding to the general confusion.
What caused the explosion will never be known
with any degree of certainty. It is possible, that in the
darkness some of the wires were missed or one of the main gun batteries in the
hills, which found the range, made a direct hit. Whether by remote control or
direct fire, the explosion was catastrophic for all those in the area at the
Miles out to sea, the initial explosion was seen and heard by the
follow-up French forces. It lit up the whole of the
bay and the blast flattened everything in the vicinity of the quay and ripped
the superstructure from the 'Koln'. Amongst the carnage on the upper deck of the
flak-ship the bodies of two British naval ratings were found, still manning the
75mm gun. So great was the force of the explosion, that a number of ratings who
were below deck, were also killed by the blast.
‘A’ Commando lost 20 Officers and men
Commando lost 18. The few survivors were either unconscious or injured. Lieutenant Lukin, in the undamaged LCA, was about 400 yards away picking up survivors from an
LCT that had been hit. He bravely took his landing craft to the jetty and
rescued as many of the injured as was physically possible. This included the crew of LCA
576.6, who had scrambled ashore and sheltered amongst the rocks when she
sank. He managed to ferry them out of the Bay to a hospital ship.
[Photo; courtesy of William McGrann; Allied casualties being evacuated from Marino di
Recollections & Reports
My father in law,
Alfred Joseph Jeynes (Joe), C/JX
351290 (Northampton), was a member of the crew of an LCA that took part in
the operation to liberate Elba. Joe is now 88 (Aug 2012) and still has a clear
memory of that night in June 1944. This is his account as documented by his son
in law, Brian Hartgrove.
“In June 1944, I was aged 20 and
coxswain of an LCA attached to HMS Royal Scotsman, anchored off Corsica.
We were part of the Mediterranean fleet and had been involved in
Operation Torch at Arzeu, Operation
Husky in Sicily, “Avalanche” in Salerno and at Anzio.
preparations for the liberation of Elba, the Flotilla Officer, Lt. Harland,
asked for volunteers from crews of LCAs to man 2 LCAs to take British Commandos
to Elba. I volunteered, as did a number of my colleagues, including Peter Collier, Nobby Barnet and my best mate, Ken Beecher. Our task was to deliver the
Commandos to a jetty in the harbour, where the Commandos were to neutralize a
German flak ship moored on the leeward side of the jetty.
LCAs were towed across from Corsica until we got close to the harbour. We then
powered up and made our run in to the jetty. I lay on the floor in the front of
the boat with a grappling hook and line, ready to throw it onto the jetty to
pull the LCA along side. However, before we arrived at the jetty, the Germans
opened fire from the surrounding hills and from the Flak ship. Our LCA was hit
and started to take in water and eventually we went aground on rocks some yards
from the jetty. I dropped the ramp and opened the doors and the Commandos went
into the water, climbed the jetty and stormed the Flak ship.
Germans opened fire to repel the advancing troops, one of the Commandos,
possibly an officer, who was close by me, was hit in the face by a hand grenade
and I received shrapnel wounds. I pulled him into the water and headed for cover
behind rocks alongside the jetty accompanied by Nobby Barnett. Despite my best efforts,
the officer succumbed to his injuries. Around us the battle continued and I
heard an almighty explosion as the Germans detonated mines on the jetty. The flak ship
caught fire and further explosions were heard as its ammunition went up.
With the Commandos disembarked,
our job was done. We should then have left the harbour to make way for the LTIs
(Landing Tank Infantry) carrying the main force of troops. However, both LCAs
were out of action, so I remained in the relative safety of the rocks until,
about 3 hours later, I was picked up (possibly) by an LCI (Landing Craft
Infantry) and, together with injured Commandos, transferred to a hospital ship
and then transported back to Bastia on Corsica.
number of my mates, including Pete Collier and Ken Beecher, who were on the
other LCA, didn’t make it back from Elba. It is a night I shall never forget.”
Joe was mentioned in dispatches for his actions that night - London Gazette
November 7th 1944, Page 5089.
Hartgrove further writes;
"Having read all the
accounts myself, I am not sure which of the 2 LCAs Joe was on board, 576.1 or
576.6, also referred to as “Y” and “Z” in some accounts. In David Lee's book
there is reference to a Sub Lieutenant Griffiths being killed by a grenade, as
the assault craft were under the mole, which agrees with Joe's
recollections but I can
find no other references to Sub Lieutenant Griffiths. If anyone has information
about this or the LCAs, I'd be grateful, if they would get in touch.
One crew member
of a landing craft described his
feelings during the approach: -
"We had no inkling that this task would be
anything but easy but, as it unfolded, it turned into the worst landing I ever
took part in. We passed through a small opening into the harbour, which was
overlooked on both sides by high ground. A death trap if ever I saw one. I was
terrified of the whole layout. As we entered the harbour, they commenced firing
at us with everything they had. They poured phosphorous shells into the troop
ships. The panic amongst the troops, especially the poor Senegalese, was total.
They jumped or were pushed overboard to try to escape this frightening and
diabolical weapon. The shore batteries continued to blast them with 88mm
artillery. They hit them with every conceivable weapon, from every vantage point.
I am convinced they knew exactly when and where the landings were to take place
and, with typical German thoroughness, had prepared for it. After the initial
landing, we picked up a few wounded commandos from the jetty and thankfully
cleared the harbour and took them back to Corsica. That night saw a thousand and
one acts of bravery which, I hope one day, will be told. For myself, I will
never forget that so called 'easy landing."
The bravery awards for this action, in percentage
terms, was the highest for any British naval action of the entire war. Sadly, the
majority were posthumous.
In his post-operational report (W.O. 204/1473.
PRO) to the C.in.C. Admiral Troutbridge wrote: -
"The garrison of the island, we had been told,
was under 800 Germans and reports spoke of their being preponderantly Poles and
Czechs of low morale and all set for evacuation. In fact the ration strength was
2,600 Germans, who fought extremely well. The defences of Campo Bay were somewhat
stronger than intelligence reports had led us to believe and, were in fact,
They had excavated caves in the granite cliffs
flanking the beaches and installed 155 mm, 88mm and machine guns in them. Behind
the beaches, exactly ranged on the likely places of disembarkation, were heavy
Petty Officer Holwill of A2 commando, who was
afterwards billeted in the village, wrote:-
"After the island was captured, the French
constructed a P.O.W. camp on the hill above Marino di Campo and, as we did not
like the brutal treatment the French meted out, we asked for six Germans
(English speaking) as a working party every morning. We learnt that they:
were crack Herman Goering Panzer
Grenadiers, who had been sent from the Russian Front to strengthen the
had seen the activity at Bastia (On Corsica)
from Mount Rambone and knew we were coming to Elba 24 hours before we arrived,
able to lay the Land Mines on the Jetty with cables going to one of the houses.
From there the land mines could be detonated,
had evacuated the civilians from the
Official sources claim that the land mines on the
jetty were exploded by German artillery from across the bay. We found a six
barrelled rocket launcher (Nebelwerfer) on the hill above the village. It was
aimed directly at the jetty and some barrels had been fired.
Speaking to Cyril Woodhall, Ken Hatton and Jack
Ball (all of O3 Commando) at a reunion years later, I was told that, as the two LCAs were approaching,
the Germans on the jetty shouted that the British were
The post operation report of the action, (DEFE2/111, PRO) states;
"In conclusion, it is to be appreciated, that it
is difficult to give an accurate and cohesive report of such an action as this,
fought in total darkness, relieved only by the light of gunfire and the flash of
explosions. Eyewitness accounts are hard to obtain, as 47 out of the 48
commandos taking part, became casualties. Lastly, it is impossible to give an
accurate chronological summary of events as time went unheeded in the heat of
Perhaps because of Operation Overlord (the
invasion of France), it was twelve days later before my mother received a
telegram informing her of her son's death. He was just 18 years and 3 months old.
The telegram, post marked 29 June 1944, stated;
"DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT
YOUR SON G MCGRANN C/JX407081 HAS BEEN KILLED ON WAR SERVICE ABROAD LETTER
FOLLOWS SHORTLY = COMMODORE ROYAL NAVAL BARRACKS, CHATHAM."
Along with his comrades, he was buried in the
foreground of the small village graveyard in Marina di Campo. A memorial
occupies the spot now. In 1947, the bodies of the Naval casualties were exhumed
and taken to the Commonwealth War Cemetery amongst the vineyards overlooking
Lake Bolsena in Italy. In the far right hand corner of the cemetery are two rows
of headstones, all bearing the Naval anchor. These graves contain the remains of
those young men who gave their lives so bravely on Elba early on Saturday
morning, June 17th, 1944. At the end of the final row are six gravestones marked
simply: KNOWN UNTO GOD.
Able Seaman James Herbert Scott
My beloved dad served on HDML 1301 during Operation Brassard. He was
severely injured but survived after life-saving treatment at an
American MASH unit in Selerno, Italy. We have no photos of him and
would love to hear from the families of any veterans with whom he
Cemetery, Lake Bolsena.
I have just returned from visiting the
lake Bolsena War memorial Site.
As I live on the island of Elba, I had long hoped to be able to go the
Memorial Site as every time I pass through Marina di Campo and admire the
beautiful bay there, I always think of all the young people who lost their
lives there during 'Operation Brassard'.
I would like to share my experience with those interested as I am so happy
to be able to say, that the Memorial Site, situated
along side the picturesque lake of Bolsena, nestled amongst rolling hills,
glorious vineyards, rich woodlands and majestic oaks, sees many visitors of
all nationalities and appears to have very recently, undergone some
important restoration work.
I became completely
overwhelmed on coming across, the very young, George McGrann's headstone as
indeed I did, upon reading every single headstone there....So young all of
them, so far away from home, all of them.
Chatting later to a
local resident, I learned that schools make regular visits there and with
this in mind, my heart was warmed as I began my journey, back to the Island
Able Seaman Parsons C/JX.374660.
I'm writing in regards to the correspondence
(below) about Desmond G
O'Connor. My Uncle, Able
Seaman Parsons C/JX.374660, is the person
referred to in the Mentioned in Dispatches citation.
As a young lad, my uncle Vic told me that his unit had boarded the German ship
(Köln) which had been booby trapped by the Germans and next thing he knew was
being blown up and recovering in hospital having been recovered from the
water. His brother, Ken Parsons, (still alive aged 96) told me some years ago
that Vic had been in the Mediterranean sea for some hours before being
rescued. Vic's son is a best selling author and in his book 'Man and Boy
(fiction), the main character's father is portrayed as a commando.
I've been constructing my family history, including the Parsons line as Vic
was my mother's brother. I hope to obtain a full copy of his service record
which this account of Operation Brassard has prompted me to do sooner rather
than later. I've learned a lot from the detailed account of what happened on
that day, including some first hand recollections, which tally much more with
what I was told many years ago.
David Bridge (Nov 2018)
Desmond G O'Connor, RN Beach Commando, P/JX
This information was received from Diarmuid
O'Connor, nephew of Desmond O'Connor.
"My uncle was killed on Operation Brassard. He was
mentioned in dispatches in a record dated 19th August 1944 issued from H.M.S
Royal Scotsman by Captain Allen for Rear Admiral commanding FORCE 'N'. It
referred to Desmond G. O'Connor as an A.2. R.N. Beach Commando. He had earlier
transferred from the Indian Army in Ceylon where he had been an officer. The citation was forwarded to, and approved by the
Admiral, Commander in Chief, Mediterranean. The citation reads;
On June 17th 1944
showed great gallantry and devotion to duty by pressing home the attack on the
German "F" Lighter and later fiercely engaging enemy snipers at close range in
an exposed position. When a heap of sacking at the end of the Mole caught fire,
O'Connor and Able Seaman Parsons trampled it out despite being fully illuminated
only fifty yards or so from enemy snipers. Killed in action.
"Desmond was my father's only sibling and his loss was deeply felt. Although my
father knew Desmond died at Elba, and was buried there, he never knew the full
story. He knew he had been mentioned in dispatches but not why. He had always
hoped someone from Desmond's past might be able to let him know, alas time is
We recently located his Mentioned in Dispatches citation in the National
Archive at Kew but it was only when I rediscovered an old letter to dad from
the Naval Manning Agency, that I noticed the name 'Operation Brassard.' It was
while researching this essential title that led us to your Combined Operations
I cannot overstate the importance of these discoveries to my father and my
family. Please pass on our thanks to William McGrann. Personally I have
only recently learned of the bravery and significance of the commando units
and I had no idea my uncle was one of them! I would
be delighted to hear from anyone who remembers him personally or better still
has any photos."
[Diarmuid and Bill McGrann, the
author of this page, are now in touch with each other. They would welcome any
contact from readers who have any family connection with Operations Brassard.
Use the 'contact us' link at the bottom of the page.]
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On this Website
- Royal Naval Commandos
and HDML 1301.
Beachhead Assault by David Lee. The Story of the Royal Naval
Commandos in WW2. Foreword by Tony Parsons. Published By Greenhill Books
in October 2004.
The Beachhead Commandos by a Cecil Hampshire.
Published by William Kimber & Co Ltd in 1983.
If you have any information or book
recommendations about Operation Brassard please
Operation Brassard, the Invasion of Elba, was written by
whose brother George was killed in the action.