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U3A Writing: Operation Dragoon

George Brierly tells how he came to be arrested by Americans while taking part in Operation Dragoon during World War Two.

This was the largest operation of its kind in the European War. The Allied seaborne and airborne assault of Nazi occupied Southern France involved 1000 ships, 3000 aircraft and 1,000,000 troops.
The invasion should have taken place to coincide with the Normandy landings on 6th June, 1944, but was cancelled at the last moment due to differences of opinion between Churchill and Roosevelt and their commanders.

Churchill was opposed to it, stating that a push up through Italy into Austria and Hungary was the best method of reaching Germany and Berlin before the Russians got there, thus preventing communism reaching Central Europe. He was eventually proved right.

Churchill was overruled but would not allow British troops to take part. He did, however, allow the British Navy to take part because there was a shortage of landing craft, (which was another reason why the Normandy landings and the South of France landings could not be co-ordinated in June).

The invasion fleet began to assemble in Naples Bay where I was stationed at the time, (enjoying weekly visits to the San Carlo Opera House).

There were six flotillas of landing craft. Each consisting of 12 craft, divided into two squadrons, B and C, making a total of 72 tank landing craft. Each flotilla had a sick berth attendant (medic) attached and each squadron had a medical officer attached. My flotilla was part of C Squadron and the C squadron medical officer and myself went on board a landing craft to act as a floating sick bay to anchor off one of the landing beaches.

On August 4th we were ready to set sail. Earl Mountbatten, (who was Commander in Chief, Combined Operations), came to give us his usual pep talk. He had previously done this before the invasions of Sicily and Italy.

The evening of the 14th August, 1944, we were anchored about ten miles off the beaches of Southern France, just east of Toulon. Dawn broke warm and sunny, The Battleships moved in and began their bombardment of the beaches, together with hundreds of planes bombing the hinterland behind the beaches.

By 8 am the landing craft moved in with the troops and tanks etc. Our beach was Camel Beach, opposite San Raphael, a holiday resort frequented by the rich French people. Winston Churchill turned up to watch the invasion from the destroyer Kimberley.

That day and night the Luftwaffe continually bombed the invasion fleet. A landing craft near us was sunk and at night the German E boats toured in and out of the invasion fleet doing quite a lot of damage.

After two days, the invasion forces had moved a good many miles inland and German prisoners were being brought down to the beaches and taken away into captivity. They seemed to be mostly young boys and older men.

Our landing craft continued to ferry equipment from the cargo boats to the beach, but were restricted to petrol and ammunition, as the Americans thought we were helping ourselves to Army rations which were superior to our corned beef and ship's biscuits. The Americans did allow us to have some fresh bread, but the new bread made us ill. The Americans also had a daily issue of chewing gum and Coca Cola!

After about a month we had nothing to do - no casualties and all the men were fit and healthy in the Riviera sunshine. We managed to obtain quite a lot of fresh fruit from the orchards ashore, (peaches, apricots and grapes).

My medical officer (C Squadron) decided to go back to Corsica where he was based. The doctor from B Squadron decided to go back to Naples, so came to collect me as well. The doctor, his sick berth attendant and myself, went ashore at St Raphael.

Unfortunately the American beach master on Camel Beach was very suspicious of us. He didn't know of any British Naval people in the area, except the crews of the landing craft. The doctor explained our position, but as we had no medical equipment with us, he became very suspicious of us indeed.

He spoke to the doctor in German and the doctor (winking at us) spoke back to him in German. We took up the joke and the other SBA, a Gaelic-speaking Scot, broke out into a torrent of Gaelic. The American, whose sense of humour was a bit thin, asked what German dialect that was and looking at me, said, “and he is definitely a German!” (My hair was bleached nearly white with the long hot sunny days).

The American felt he had to take us into custody, as he was convinced we were Germans trying to escape, particularly as we were in khaki and not Naval whites. He agreed to check up with Naval Headquarters in Naples next day. We were, literally captured by the Yanks and kept overnight in cells in the Town Hall.

Next morning the American contacted Naples and our identity was confirmed. We were given a good breakfast and put aboard a tramp steamer bound for Naples. We hadn't shaved or had a decent wash for a week and our khaki uniforms were filthy, but a least we were ‘back home'.

Finally we had the indignity of being stopped by a Naval Police patrol and pushed into the back of a truck to carry us back to our landing craft base, because it was thought we would disgrace the 'proper Navy' if we were seen in such a scruffy condition. Back 'home' we had a long hot bath, gallons of tea, fresh bread and butter and the inevitable 'fig jam'.

Of the six sick berth attendants attached to the tank landing craft in the Mediterranean sea, two were decorated with the Distinguished Service Medal, two were killed and two, including myself, were badly wounded.

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