Able Seaman George McGrann, June 1944.
- Contributed by
- Bill McGrann
- People in story:
- Able Seaman George McGrann
- Location of story:
- Island of ELBA, West Coast of Italy
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 August 2004
OPERATION BRASSARD, THE INVASION OF ELBA.
I believe that the following is a true account of the death of my brother and most of his comrades in a little known action during the early hours of 17th June 1944 on the Italian island of Elba. Their heroic feat was overshadowed by the main invasion of Normandy, which had taken place just 10 days previously, but I feel that it deserves far greater recognition than it ever received at the time or since.
George McGrann was born in Birkenhead on 20th March 1926. He falsified his birth certificate and in January 1943, age just 16, very much against his mothers wishes, he volunteered for the Royal Navy. After initial training at HMS Ganges, he volunteered for hazardous duty and was sent to HMS Armadillo, a Royal Naval training establishment 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 but it helped turn those units into an elite corps of the original British Commando. Besides their own exacting drills, they were then expected to pass the Combined Operations Commando course at Achnacarry, Invernesshire before being presented with the coveted Green Beret and FS commando dagger. The legendary Colonel Vaughan, (called 'Rommel of the North' by his trainees!) ruled supreme here and the RN classes who passed through his hands wryly assumed that he had a grievance against the Royal Navy in general and RN commandos in particular so strict was his discipline! However it was perfect groundwork for the testing times to come. On completion of his training he was sent to India where he joined 'A' commando who were preparing (with 'O' Commando) for an assignment in the Far East against Japanese forces. For some reason this operation was cancelled.
The whole of 'A' and 'O' commando were then sent to the Mediterranean to take part in Operation ‘Shingle’ the allied invasion of Anzio. This was the sort of operation for which the RN Commandos had been trained. They landed with the first wave of assault troops, bringing order out of chaos as they cleared the beaches of obstacles, including mines, organised exits inland and kept the 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 neutralise a German stronghold on an island off the west coast of Italy.
So began the invasion of Elba .It had been agreed 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.
Rear-Admiral Troubridge 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 to be given the code word 'BRASSARD’, with the British commandos part in the assault code-named ‘CUT-OUT’.
Some experts felt that it was unnecessary to invade Elba, as the main thrust of the allied advance of Italy would eventually isolate the island and force a German evacuation or surrender without the need of a confrontation. Elba was though, heavily fortified and the guns sited on top of the mountains threatened the sea-lanes surrounding Elba. For whatever reason the invasion was authorized. Preparation and training took place on Corsica. French commandos would undertake diversionary landings on other parts of the island; also small naval units would be used to try to draw the attention of the defenders away from the main landing area.
Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. the film star and commander of an American P.T. boat took part in this action. The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre, with Palm, for his contribution to the operation.
The bay of Golfo di Campo on the south coast of Elba forms a natural harbour. From the seaward side, the right coastline is heavily wooded and drops steeply to the sea. A promontory splits the left shoreline and acts as a natural breakwater forming a perfect inner harbour for the old fishing village of Marina di Campo, which stretches from a little way past the promontory for about 400 yards. A quay runs the length of the village; roughly half way along the waterfront is a substantial 'L' shaped concrete jetty (or mole), the seaward side of which is bounded by a small reef of rocks. Further into the harbour the shoreline flattens and becomes 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. The troops would be able to step ashore directly onto dry land and only a few yards from the islands road system and further rapid access to the remainder of the island
It was known that a heavily armed German Flak ship (or gun-boat) the 'Koln' would be berthed on the leeward side of the jetty, with a commanding view of Red and Amber beaches, so because of the threat it would pose to the invading French troops with its quite formidable firepower, it was decided that A1 commando would attack and capture the German gun boat while O3's job was to seal off and defend the jetty from any German counter-attack. The 'Koln' had to be neutralized and kept out of German hands at any cost.
The main assault had been timed for 0400(H hour) and at about 0345 as the invasion fleet was nearing the bay, the Germans challenged the leading craft by light and receiving no reply, opened fire with their big 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's answered, firing at the cliff top sites and into the bay and for some minutes forcing the Germans to keep their heads down.
At H hour —10 (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 with 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 one commando was killed and three wounded, she started to sink and founded on the rocks. LCA 576.1 managed to get alongside but was also hit by gunfire; three men were wounded. However the remainder of 'A' commando stormed ashore closely followed by 'O' commando using LCA576.1 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 over run and occupy the village of Marina de Campo. Unfortunately, because of the formidable German defences and unbeknown to the Commandos, the landings at Marino di Campo had to be aborted and it was many hours before the French could clear the Village and relieve the pressure on the British forces.
A small number of A2 Commando had 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 where they attempted to carry out their normal task 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 was also receiving accurate enemy fire along with another landing craft so he ceased guiding in any more, and took cover with his men away from the shoreline.
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 ships 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 being pushed over the side or chose to jump into the water to escape the flames. At 0435 a signal was received from LOCI (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 LCI's of the first
wave would probably have been lost. Only 13 of the 18 LCA's carrying troops to Amber beach were counted leaving the beach. One LCA was seen blazing on Amber beach and one LCS (M) had run aground on rocks to the east of Amber. LCA573 picked up survivors from her but because of heavy enemy fire had to withdraw, making smoke as she did so. The other LCA's 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 had found insulated wires leading from the shore to the Mole. These had been cut through but in the darkness perhaps some were missed, also one of the main gun batteries in the hills found the range and began firing on the Jetty.
Whatever the cause, be it shell-fire or remote-control, two massive demolition charges previously set by the Germans on the short leg of the mole, exploded with devastating effect and blew a 30 foot hole in the solid concrete structure of the jetty. Such was the power of the explosion; that virtually everybody, Commando and prisoners of war alike, was killed. It forced the flak ship away from the jetty, the ship caught fire and the onboard ammunition started exploding adding to the general confusion.
The initial explosion 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 that were below deck were killed by the blast.
‘A’ Commando lost 20 Officers and men; ‘O’ Commando lost 18. The few survivors were 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 he could find, including the crew of LCA 576.6, who had scrambled ashore and took shelter amongst the rocks when she sank. He managed to ferry them out of the Bay to a hospital ship.
One crewmember of a landing craft described his feeling during the approach: -
We had no inkling that this task would be anything but easy, but as if 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 where 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, percentage wise, 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 Troubridge 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, extremely formidable. 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 mortars
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 German/Italian front.
They had seen the activity at Bastia (On Corsica) from Mount Rambone and knew we were coming to Elba 24 hours before we arrived.
They were able to lay the Land Mines on the Jetty with cables going to one of the houses from where they could be detonated.
They had evacuated the civilians from the Village.
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 the Germans on the jetty as the two LCAs were approaching, shouted that the British were expected.
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 the action."
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 month old. The telegram, post marked 29 June 1944, states
"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 and 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".
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