Operation Brassard


'Brassard' was the Free French capture of the island of Elba off the western coast of Italy (17/19 June 1944).

This Italian island had been seized from the Italians by the Germans in 'Achse' (ii) after the signature of Italy’s September 1943 armistice with the Allies. The initial French proposal, at a time later in 1943, to take the island had been rejected by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces in the Mediterranean theatre, who considered such an undertaking would be an unwarranted dispersal of resources while the planning of the 'Shingle' landing at Anzio was under way. After the departure of Eisenhower to assume overall command of the Allied forces earmarked for the 'Overlord' assault on Normandy, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson had taken over command of the Mediterranean theatre, and later approved the undertaking.

The Allies wished to gain possession of Elba as this would make it possible for them to dominate German shipping in the Piombino Channel and vehicles on the coastal road of the Italian peninsula, both of these being communication arteries vital to the supply of the German forces in western Italy.

The operation was carried out by Free French forces supported by British and US ships and warplanes, and came as a complete surprise to Generalleutnant Franz Gall’s German garrison despite the fact that it had recently been reinforced against just this eventuality. The defenders maintained their resistance for two days before being given permission to withdraw to the mainland.

Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army of General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s Allied Armies in Italy command took Rome on 4 June 1944 and forced General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army and Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army to pull back toward northern Italy. The Allies' next strategic objective in the Mediterranean theatre was the 'Dragoon' (i) invasion of southern France, and the Allied Armies in Italy had to provide most of the strength for this undertaking, which was to be the task of Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army. The diversion of forces reduced the US 5th Army to a mere five divisions, and the entire Allied Armies in Italy to just 18 divisions. This meant the effective end to Alexander’s plans to push forward to the 'Gotisch-Linie' defences by August 1944.

The one operation which was still an Allied possibility, because of its limited size, was the Free French seizure of Elba, which had initially been scheduled for 25 May, at the same time as 'Diadem' advance toward Rome. The landings had then been postponed for lack of adequate tactical air power and to provide the inexperienced Free French troops with more time for training.

The objectives of the invasion were to prevent the Germans using the island as a forward outpost and to provide the Allies with an artillery platform from which to interdict coastal traffic in the Piombino Channel separating Piombino on the mainland from the Capo della Vita on the north-eastern end of Elba, and also to shell any land movements along the coast of the mainland. Adolf Hitler placed great importance on the retention of Elba for as long a time as possible, and on 12 June Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Südwest' and commander-in-chief of Heeresgruppe 'C' in Italy, was ordered to hold the Inselfestung 'Elba' to the last man. Two days later German reinforcements started to arrive on Elba from Pianosa, a smaller island farther to the south-west in the Tuscan island archipelago, raising the strength of Gall’s garrison to two infantry battalions. Elba also possessed a significant coast-defence capability in the form of 60 medium- and large-calibre guns. The reinforcement of Elba was not known to the Allies, who believed that the naval activity they had detected between the island and the mainland was in fact an evacuation, but in fact by this time the Germans had strongly fortified Elba, which is characterised by rugged terrain, a fact which in itself made an attack difficult.

The naval commander for 'Brassard' was a British officer, Rear Admiral T. H. Troubridge, who led Force 'N' responsible for the landing of the Free French assault force. Under the overall supervision of Général d’Armée Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny, the commander designate of the French 1st Army and more directly of Général de Corps d’Armée Henry Jules Jean Martin’s French I Corps, this latter was Général de Division Raoul Albin Louis Salan’s 9th Division d’Infanterie Coloniale, comprising the 4th and 13th Régiments de Tirailleurs Sénégalais, the Bataillon de Choc and Commando d’Afrique commando units, the 2nd Groupe de Tabors Marocains, one battalion and a supplementary battery of the Régiment d’Artillerie Marocain, and 200 mules. There were also 48 men of the Royal Navy’s 'A' and 'O' Commandos for the 'Cut-out' sub-operation. The only naval gunfire support would be provided by so-called 'Hedgehog' landing craft (each armed with 24 spigot mortars) for the clearance of landing areas, and the British river (and therefore shallow-draught) gunboats Aphis and Cockchafer.

Because of the shallowness of the waters round Elba, large naval and transport ships could not be used. The naval force was divided into three groups. Group 1 comprised 37 US PT-boats, and was intended to create initial diversions and then to land the French commandos on the northern side of the island to take the artillery batteries located there. Group 2 comprised five infantry landing craft and eight motor launches each towing an assault landing craft, and was to land troops on the south coast. Group 3 comprised nine infantry landing craft, four tank landing ships and three motor launches towing medium support landing craft, and was to land the main force on the Kodak Amber and Kodak Green beaches at 04.00. At 04.30 further troops were to be landed by another 28 infantry landing craft, and after the break of day heavier weapons and equipment were to be landed from 40 tank landing craft.

In the briefing immediately before the start of 'Brassard', Troubridge said he expected the shore batteries to have been destroyed from the air and by commando assault. Troubridge added that the German garrison was provided by only about 800 men, most of them of Polish or other non-German origin and therefore unlikely to offer any determined resistance, whereas in fact it totalled some 2,400 men.

On 16 June, the day before the invasion, German reconnaissance aircraft spotted two flotillas of invasion vessels, but the Germans concluded that these were merely the normal naval convoys operating between Naples and Bastia.

To preserve the element of operational and tactical surprise, there was no pre-invasion bombing until the night of 16/17 June, when 26 Vickers Wellington twin-engined medium bombers attacked Portoferraio and Porto Longone, the island’s two main towns. The 270 ships of the invasion force, which also included six US destroyers, one US destroyer escort, five minesweepers, 15 motor minesweepers and 16 submarine chasers, arrived off Elba just after 24.00 on the night of 16/17 June, when PT-boats of Group 1 offloaded 87 men of the Bataillon de Choc into rubber dinghies 0.5 mile (0.8 km) off Capo Enfola. The naval group then started to lay a smokescreen as a diversion. At 03.15 three other boats began to lay smoke to the north of Portoferraio. As the German artillery engaged one of the PT boats as it pulled back, four craft headed toward Portoferraio to simulate the approach of landing craft, firing salvoes of rockets and dropping dummies overboard to give the impression of troops wading ashore.

In the south, the main invasion force was approaching the island when, at 03.38, German artillery opened fire on the landing craft. The Royal Navy commandos of the A1 and O3 teams, the A2 team in reserve, reached their start line at 03.50 and moved on their objective, which was the heavily armed German Flak ship Köln berthed at Marina di Campo and possessing a commanding view of both beaches. This made the ship’s capture or destruction vital to the success of the landings. The A1 team had the task of capturing the ship while the O3 team defended the jetty against the arrival of German reinforcements. The British commandos' two landing craft entered the bay of Marina di Campo and headed for the Flak ship. The craft came under heavy fire, and one of them was hit and ran aground, but the other managed to get alongside the Flak ship before also being hit by gunfire. The men of 'A' Commando quickly captured Köln while those of 'O' Commando secured the jetty. Both commandos now waited for the French to secure the village.

The vehicle/personnel landing craft carrying the assault wave of the French division hit the beach in the Golfo di Campo right on time to be met by heavy fire from 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role guns and machine guns. By 07.00 the fire of the German guns in the hills above Kodak Amber beach had become so threatening that the incoming landing craft had to lay smoke and pull back. The heavy defensive fire forced the following waves of landing craft to divert to Kodak Green beach near Nercio, a fact which caused a considerable measure of congestion on the beach-head. Delays and German gunfire kept some landing craft from disgorging their loads until 14.00.

Unaware of the diversion to the other beach, the Royal Navy commandos had perforce to wait some hours before the French cleared the village and reached them. It was during this time that the Royal Navy commandos suffered their greatest losses. The commandos were under continuous artillery and small arms fire, which is believed to have set off two demolition charges on the jetty, blowing a 30-ft (9.1-m) hole in the concrete structure and killing almost all the commandos and their prisoners. The explosion also set fire to Köln and caused the ammunition stowed on board to detonate.

Within two hours of their landings, the French commandos had reached the crest of the 1,300 ft (400 m) Monte Tambone, a ridge overlooking the landing areas. The French took Portoferraio on 18 June , and the island had been largely secured by the following day. The fighting in the hills between the Germans and the Senegalese colonial infantry was vicious, with the Senegalese employing flamethrowers to clear entrenched German troops.

On 19 June Gall asked for Hitler’s permission to evacuate what was left of his men, and by the evening of 20 June the Germans had evacuated their last 400 men to the mainland in an effort that cost them four Fährprahme ferry barges to PT-boat attacks.

With hindsight it is clear that the invasion of Elba was of doubtful value, for the advance of the US 5th Army to the north-west past Grosseto on the western side of the mainland had made the continued German presence on the island unfeasible. In the fighting for the island, in which the French were supported by the tactical warplanes of the US 57th Bombardment Wing and 87th Fighter Wing, the Germans lost 500 dead, with another 1,995 taken prisoner. French losses were 252 killed or missing, and 635 wounded, while the British lost 38 killed and nine wounded.

The one real benefit of 'Brassard' to the Allied cause was the fear it installed in the German leadership of further amphibious assaults, such as 'Avalanche' and 'Shingle' at Salerno and Anzio, behind the retreating German forces' right flank on the western coast of the Italian mainland.