'Operation Dragoon' was the codename for the Allied landings in the south of France on 15 August 1944, a massive naval and airborne assault that served as the counterpart to the Normandy landings a little over two months earlier. The assault was primarily a US operation, with most of the troops landed around Cavalaire Bay being from three US divisions, but many of the assault and supply ships and their escorts were British. Many British merchant and Royal Navy seamen who took part in Operation Dragoon qualified for the Italy Star, a campaign medal awarded to seamen for participation in seaborne assaults in the Mediterranean from the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 to the end of the war.
One of those seamen who took part in Operation Dragoon was my grandfather, Captain Lawrance Wilfred Gibbins, as Second Officer of the L.S.C. (Landing Ship Carrier) Empire Elaine, a specialised assault ship built in 1942 for the transport of landing craft. I wrote a few blogs back about the twenty month voyage she undertook from 1943-44 that encompassed not only Operation Dragoon but also Operation Husky (the Sicily landings in 1943) and the supply of landing craft for the Burma campaign in the Bay of Bengal. This blog is a more detailed presentation of the primary source material that traces my grandfather and Empire Elaine's involvement in Operation Dragoon. I felt that a summary of the type of documentation available might be useful for anyone else intent on discovering records of a merchant seaman's involvement in this operation .(For a detailed account of Empire Elaine in Operation Husky, see the next blog; for a general account of the ship and the epic voyage that took in both of these landings, see my previous blog here).
My first port of call was my grandfather's personal logbook. In the excerpt opposite you can see all of his voyages through the war, including two, numbers 30 and 31, as Second Officer of Empire Elaine, from 27 October 1942 until his transfer to Clan Campbell on 25 October 1944. On the page below you can see the full details of ports and distances for the second of those voyages, number 31, beginning at Glasgow on the Clyde - on 24 June 1943 - and ending in Bombay with his transfer to Clan Campbell. In the third column you can see all of the ship's movements associated with Operation Dragoon, from Port Said in Egypt to Augusta in Sicily, from August to Naples, from Naples to Cavalaire Bay and then from there to Ajaccio in Corsica and back to Naples, before the ship returned south and east across the Mediterranean to Port Said.
Three official documents confirm his presence on Empire Elaine during these voyages. The first is his Discharge Book, a book kept by all British merchant seamen throughout their careers and presented to the ship's Master for signing and stamping at the beginning and end of each voyage. The following except from my grandfather's Discharge Book - in our family's possession - shows his voyages on Empire Elaine:
Officially, as you can see above, the Discharge Book was a 'Certified Extract from the List of Crew and Official Log Book', and the crew list therefore provides the ultimate authority for a seaman's service. Not all crew lists and log books survive for British merchant ships of the Second World War, but fortunately those for Empire Elaine do and can be seen at the National Archives at Kew (in BT 381/2607 and 381/3583, searchable by the ship's official number, in this case 167744). In the excerpt below from the crew list showing the Captain and deck officers you can see my grandfather's name, third down, as Second Mate, along with his date of engagement, 19 March 1943, and the date of his departure from Empire Elaine in Bombay along with the other deck officers, 19 October 1944, a week before they joined Clan Campbell in Madras - after a train journey across India - for the voyage home:
In the absence of a seaman's Discharge Book or the ship's crew lists, a third document is the C.R.S. 10 record, also in the National Archives. C.R.S. stands for Central Registry of Seamen, and this record was established in 1941 to provide a summary record of every British seaman's employment during the war. It was created by a clerk from the crew lists, and is not always complete or accurate; my grandfather's record, shown below, records his presence on Empire Elaine but fails to include his discharge date for the third voyage, and erroneously lists his next ship but one as Clan McDonald when it was in fact Clan Macilwraith (as shown in his Discharge Book, in his personal log and in the crew lists).
Having found ample official documentation for his presence on the ship, my next step was to look at the Ship Movement Cards. These cards, now digitised and downloadable here for a fee from the National Archives, were instituted at the outbreak of war to provide a basic record of ship movements at a time when ship's masters were prohibited from keeping their normal peacetime logs, for reasons of national security. The cards often don't include all of a ship's ports of call in a voyage and in the case of ships involved in assault convoys they don't include the destination, as that was top secret - so I knew that the Ship Movement Cards would contain less detail related to Operation Dragoon than my grandfather's personal log
The image below is the Ship Movement Card for Empire Elaine from 1944 covering the dates of her involvement in Operation Dragoon (her name is altered on the card to John Lyras, her new name after being sold in 1947). You can see a sequence of ports that matches my grandfather's log: departure from Port Said on 3 August, and then arrival at Augusta in Sicily on 8 August, at Ajaccio in Corsica on 16 August, at Naples on 28 August, and at Naples again on 29 August. What is missing - and what should never be on a Ship Movement Card - is any detail of her voyage between 8 and 16 August, when I know from my grandfather's log that she sailed to Cavalaire Bay as part of Operation Dragoon. Even without his log it would be a near certainty that a specialised assault ship, designed for carrying landing craft, arriving the day after the invasion at Ajaccio - a staging port for ships returning from the invasion zone - would have been part of the Operation Dragoon assault convoys.
The website convoyweb, based largely on the research of Lt-Cdr Arnold Hague, RNR, contains a huge database of ships and convoys during the war, including a searchable ship index that shows Empire Elaine to have been part of assault convoy SM 1C from Naples to Operation Dragoon. However, it is a secondary source with no citation of primary documentation and can therefore only only be used as a guide. I was intent on discovering primary sources - official war diaries and operation reports, in particular - that would provide authoritative documentation of Empire Elaine's involvement in that convoy, and if possible provide more detail to flesh out her activities on those days.
The best documentation has come from recently declassified material from the US National Archives related to Operation Dragoon. A large number of these declassified Second World War documents can now be seen online at fold3. The four documents reproduced below provide precisely the primary documentation that I was after. The first is in the Report of the Naval Commander, Western Task Force, Commander 8th Fleet, entitled The Invasion of Southern France, filed on 15 November 1944 (File A 16-3, Serial 01568). It details the composition of Alpha Attack Force, listing Empire Elaine (the only LSC):
The second is from the Report of Amphibious Operations conducted against the enemy by units of Alpha Red Assault Group, in southern France, during the period 9 August 1944 - 25 August 1944, filed on 1 October 1944. The page contains the report from 21 August of USS LST 265, and includes a complete list of the vessels in Convoy SM 1B, including Empire Elaine (referred to by the Americans as 'HMS'), their arrival time at the landing zone and their mission:
The third from the War Diary of USS SC-695, describing her duty from 12-15 August escorting the convoy from Naples to Cavalaire Bay to the final assault hour, listing Empire Elaine:
The fourth, from the Report of Operations, Task Group 80.6, of 17 August 1944, includes Empire Elaine in the list of ships comprising Convoy CRM-3 escorted from the landing zone to Ajaccio in Corsica following the landings:
These documents corroborate everything in my grandfather's log and allow the partial picture in the Ship Movement Card to be fully understood. Following her departure from Augusta in Sicily on 8 August 1944, Empire Elaine sailed to Naples and there joined Convoy SM 1B, part of 'Alpha Attack Force' under Rear Admiral Lowry, USN. The convoy included numerous L.S.T.s as well as other British and American assault and supply ships, with Empire Elaine being the only LSC. The convoy arrived in the assault area at 0400 on 15 August, with the final assault phase underway by 0455. The assault sector for this convoy was Cavalaire Bay, including 'Red Beach'. After offloading her landing craft, Empire Elaine joined convoy CRM-3 to Ajaccio in Corsica, having successfully completed her second assault landing in the Mediterranean theatre, her first having been Operation Husky off Sicily thirteen months earlier. In between the two operations she had delivering landing craft in the Bay of Bengal at Chittagong close the Burmese border, for use in assaults along the Arakan coast against the Japanese.
See my next blog for an account of Empire Elaine and Operation Husky.