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France's Forgotten D-Day: Operation Dragoon and the Invasion of Southern France
By Bruce Malone

The United States Seventh Army’s invasion of the southern coast of France on 15 August 1944 is one of the least celebrated Allied combat operations of the Second World War. In the end, Operation Dragoon (originally named Operation Anvil) proved to be one of the most important Allied campaigns, yet it remains one of the most controversial Allied strategic decisions. The American decision to launch Operation Dragoon against strenuous British objections changed the Anglo-American Allied relationship for the duration of the war, as the United States, long the leader in materiel production and numbers of soldiers, assumed the role of strategic senior partner. From start to finish and long afterwards, Allied leaders hotly debated the merits of this campaign and its results. Supporters of the invasion, mostly American, point out its vital assistance to the campaign in northern France, while its detractors, mostly British, find fault for its negative influence on the difficult fight in Italy.[1] Often lost in these arguments are the actual results of this remarkable campaign. Despite contentious disagreements between American and British strategic planners and frustrations in joint planning and combined operations, Operation Anvil/Dragoon was a stunning success. Contrary to the predictions of many Allied leaders, especially British, this operation had no negative effect on the Italian Campaign, yet it increased Allied logistical capabilities and severely degraded the German Army Group G, altering the course of the fight for the Allies in northwestern Europe during the Second World War.

Debating Southern France

From its inception, Allied leaders hotly debated the merits of an amphibious attack through southern France and up the Rhône Valley. The Americans wanted to concentrate on building up forces for an invasion directly across the English Channel with the goal of a direct strike into the heart of Germany, while the British preferred to wear down Germany with attacks on the periphery before launching the cross-channel invasion. Since launching an invasion across the English Channel was logistically impossible until Spring 1944 at the earliest, the Allied strategic planners reached a series of compromises not entirely satisfactory to each side. Operation Anvil/Dragoon represented one of these Anglo-American compromises.[2]

At the Trident Conference in Washington D.C. in May 1943, the American planners presented their proposal to mount an amphibious landing on the southern coast of France. The Allies completed operations in North Africa (Operation Torch) by this time and were preparing to launch Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. In Washington, the American and British planners began looking for potential operational objectives for the future.[3] The Trident Conference established Operation Overlord, the invasion of northern France, as the primary invasion route into northwestern Europe. The Mediterranean would become a subsidiary theater to northern France.

Soon after the end of the Sicily operations in August 1943, Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff met in Quebec for the “Quadrant” Conference. At this conference, the Allied leaders disagreed over the planned future campaigns following the invasion of northern France across the English Channel. The British wanted all of the excess amphibious lift not needed for Overlord used in the Mediterranean, meaning Italy, with the hope of convincing the Americans to cross over to the Adriatic Sea. Plans in place called for a small landing in southern France designed as a diversionary attack to assist Operation Overlord by siphoning off or holding enemy strength in the center and south of France. At this preliminary stage, Operation Anvil was nothing more than a reinforced, one-division diversionary assault. At the Quadrant Conference, American planners proposed upgrading the southern landings to a larger assault, which would provide continued assistance to Operation Overlord, make immediate use of the reconstituted French Army in the Mediterranean, and conveniently for the Americans, discount any British proposals for operations in the Adriatic or Aegean Seas. General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, desired to apply the fullest possible weight of Allied power against the enemy, and the cancellation of Operation Anvil meant that five American and seven French divisions would remain idle in the Mediterranean. The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff put their full support behind Operation Anvil, tentatively scheduled before, during, or after Overlord. American staff planners believed that a successful southern France attack would most likely depend on Overlord to draw German strength from the south, and the advance up the Rhône Valley would force the German Army to defend all of the approaches to their country from Switzerland to the North Sea. Conversely, American planners reasoned that Anvil would have a similar effect on Overlord. An invasion through southern France, or even a threat of a strong assault in the south, forced the Germans to maintain as many as ten to twelve divisions away from Normandy, including the 9th and 11th Panzer Divisions.[4] At this time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff viewed Anvil and Overlord as similar operations in terms of the number of divisions and the ultimate objectives. The more optimistic American planners even considered the possibility that Allied forces might encircle the German Nineteenth Army and portions of Army Group G, which would probably have ended the European war much earlier than May 1945.[5]

The British Chiefs of Staff pointed out that the Allies would likely want to increase the size and scope of Operation Overlord, and that more amphibious capability was required. The British Chiefs tried their best to scuttle plans for Operation Anvil by insisting that, if the Americans were determined to launch a large-scale invasion of southern France, the operation must be no less than the three-division assault currently planned. They knew that the troops required for a three-division assault with airborne support were not available, and even if the planners could find the required amount of trained troops, the amphibious craft and airlift needed to transport them ashore did not exist. If the United States was unwilling to make the additional lift available from the Pacific Theater, the only other available lift, and not enough at that, must come from the Mediterranean Theater. British projections indicated that “by late spring of 1944 the Allies would have only a mixed collection of ships and landing craft left in the Mediterranean, capable at best of putting a single reinforced division ashore.”[6] Planners calculated a shortage of lift for 7,000 troops and over 3,200 vehicles.[7] Planning continued, but essentially, Anvil was impossible. To keep options for southern France open, the Americans offered to divert sixty-six landing craft, originally scheduled for Pacific operations, for use in the Mediterranean. The British were elated and assumed that this meant the craft were available for any Mediterranean operation, primarily Italy. The Americans insisted on using the craft specifically for Anvil. The Allied deadlock over Anvil continued, and the situation among the strategic planners concerning Italy remained very tense.[8]

On 19 December 1943, Seventh Army Headquarters in Palermo received a message to begin preliminary estimates and planning for a joint operation on the scale of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. This operation, code-named Anvil and launched in conjunction with Operation Overlord in May 1944, aimed to establish a Mediterranean bridgehead, open ports for Allied shipping, and extend Allied forces toward Lyon and Vichy. From the very beginning, stipulations, changing assumptions, and special conditions plagued Operation Anvil. The number and nationality of assault divisions available, the follow-on exploitation force, and its effect on the Italian campaign were important questions yet unanswered.[9]

In January 1944, the projected ground commanders for Operation Overlord arrived in London to begin reviewing the draft Overlord plans. Almost immediately, they pressed for major increases in the size of the Overlord assault, a move the preliminary planners had been urging on the Combined Chiefs of Staff for months. If landing craft were available, staff planners hoped to launch the channel attack with five divisions or with four divisions and a floating reserve in addition to the three airborne divisions already scheduled to participate. General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, ground commander for Overlord, and Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s incoming Chief of Staff, looked to the Mediterranean for the amphibious lift needed to increase Overlord. The only available resources were those designated for the Anvil landings, and the withdrawal of more resources from the Mediterranean would necessitate the cancellation of the Anvil assault on southern France. The Americans insisted that planning for Anvil/Dragoon continue, but no other operations were acceptable if they weakened Overlord. The British considered Anvil as a detriment to both Normandy and Italy, but General Eisenhower viewed a southern France campaign essential to the security and success of Overlord. U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, cabled Eisenhower “Overlord of course is paramount and it must be launched on a reasonably secure basis, of which you are the best judge.”[10] The ultimate decision rested with the Supreme Allied Commander, but the British continued their resistance.

The first reaction of the Overlord planners, especially General Montgomery, was to cancel Anvil altogether or at least keep it as a one-division threat simultaneously with Overlord. The British planners believed the southern France assault, as planned, was so remote from the Overlord area and from any military objectives vital to the Germans that the enemy would not find it worthwhile to divert more than two or three divisions from the main battle in the north in order to defend the southern coastline. For the British, a smaller threat by one division could achieve the same diversionary effect while requiring less amphibious lift. Planning moved forward for an expanded Overlord, the “Montgomery Plan,” with Anvil planning suspended. Churchill pushed the British position, which doubted the value of a diversionary landing in southern France, regardless of available resources. On 4 February 1944, the Prime Minister stated, “Anvil and Overlord were not strategically interwoven” because of the great distance of rugged country between them and the defensive capabilities of modern weapons.[11] Following Churchill’s lead, the British Chiefs of Staff expressed their doubts. As a result, tensions among the Anglo-American planners became almost unbearable. An American War Department representative in London reported the increasingly tense atmosphere among the joint planners regarding the Anvil-Overlord debate. He met the “customary attitude on the part of the British planners,” and found them “maintaining that Overlord was the only operation that will pay us dividends,” and that “Anvil might be an operation in the Marshalls for all the connection it had with Overlord.”[12] British hostility toward the southern France operation frustrated the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reaffirmed their uncompromising position that Anvil was necessary to make effective use of the American and French divisions in the Mediterranean, to hold the German divisions in central and southern France, and to draw German units away from the Overlord area. General Marshall wrote to Eisenhower “It is deplorable the British and U.S. disagree when time is pressing, and the British statements concerning Italy are not sound or in keeping with the early end of the war.”[13]

The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff point of view was that “Anvil and Overlord were parts of a single operation, and that it was unsound to cancel one part for the ostensible purpose of strengthening the other.”[14] General Eisenhower shared this same point of view. One of his last tasks before leaving the Mediterranean Theater in December 1943 to become the Supreme Commander for the Channel invasion was drafting the plan for a two- or three-division Anvil operation to coincide with Overlord. He was not interested in either cancelling or reducing the invasion, a product of his planning, to a one-division threat. The day he departed the Mediterranean for London, General Eisenhower cabled his new Chief of Staff that he expected to make no final decision regarding Anvil prior to his arrival, and he was “almost reluctant to consider giving up Anvil and still feel that through some expedient we can increase the Overlord lift.”[15]

General Eisenhower arrived in London two days later, and by this time he fully believed that only a full three-division operation plus airborne attachments would provide strong enough support for a simultaneous attack with Overlord, satisfy the Russians, and make the most effective use of the French Army. The genial Supreme Commander viewed the situation and the importance of the southern campaign in a way that the British leaders either could not or refused to see. To avoid a stalemate and maintain a position of power and mobility, he developed his “broad front” strategy to defeat Germany from the west with “priority on the left,” that is, on the northern end.[16] The priority on the northern end was the main drive into central Germany by the 21st Army Group and the American First and Ninth Armies, while the Third Army under General Patton pushed across Lorraine in the direction of the German industrial region of the Saarland. The Germans would be “sensitive about the safety of the Saar Basin, while our own forces would soon connect with the invasion planned to come up from the south through the Rhône Valley.”[17] The linking up of the northern and southern invasions had numerous advantages. It would liberate most of France and isolate tens of thousands of German soldiers remaining behind the point of junction, thus greatly reducing Germany’s available manpower. It would open up additional lines of communication via the southern ports, ensuring rapid arrival of troops from America and sufficient supplies to sustain them.[18] Eisenhower overruled the British, yet Winston Churchill continued to argue against the southern invasion by claiming that the ports were not necessary and “the troops then in the Mediterranean might be better used in the prosecution of the Italian campaign” with the eventual purpose of invading the Balkans.[19]

By mid-February 1944, the Italian campaign had bogged down once again, and the Anzio landings began to consume resources that planners had already earmarked for Operation Anvil. Soon it was obvious, even to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that denying resources to the Italian campaign for the sake of southern France was not justifiable. Perhaps sending the shipping required for Overlord, and the available French units, to England might be a better course to follow. The British Chiefs of Staff agreed and presented two propositions: if the campaign in Italy went poorly, then it would be necessary to commit the Anvil resources there; if the campaign in Italy went well, then Anvil was unnecessary.[20] It is interesting to note that neither of the British propositions listed southern France as a viable option. Once again, for the British, Anvil was impossible. Eisenhower was unhappy with the British proposal, but he focused his attention on strengthening Overlord. General Marshall stood firm on the U.S. Chiefs’ position that Anvil, in some form, was necessary but urged Eisenhower to use his own judgment as the overall commander in the theater. Marshall wrote, “Consider only Overlord and your own heavy burden of responsibility for its success. Everything else is of minor importance.”[21] The facts were that the Overlord planners needed more lift for the expanded Normandy operations, and there were not enough trained units in the Mediterranean to execute Anvil in sufficient strength. Ultimately, even Eisenhower began to waiver on Anvil. In late March, Eisenhower reluctantly proposed reducing and delaying Anvil and sending the available resources to Overlord. The Allies officially postponed Anvil on 21 March. Essentially, for the Allied planners, this meant the end of Anvil.

Ironically, a British officer, General Sir Henry Wilson, helped to restore Anvil to operational status. Wilson, Commanding Officer of the Allied forces in the Mediterranean Theater, informed the Combined Chiefs of Staff that he could begin releasing sufficient strength (i.e. the heavy infantry divisions) from Italy for a major operation if planners found enough amphibious lift. General Wilson’s view was contrary to that held by his immediate U.S. subordinate, General Mark Clark, Commander of the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy. General Clark wanted any available resources in the Mediterranean used for the Italian Campaign only and felt that Anvil was a mistake. Against Clark’s wishes, General Wilson breathed new life into the plans for southern France. For an operation that had so few consistent supporters, Anvil proved to have surprising staying power. The British Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, perhaps motivated by a desire to heal wounds left from the sometimes-acrimonious discussions in the earlier Anvil planning, began to look again at the possibilities in the Mediterranean. In June, they presented their options to the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Several courses seemed feasible: (1) A landing in the Toulon area followed by movement north up the Rhône Valley; (2) A landing west of Marseille and a push northwest toward Bordeaux; (3) An assault in the Bay of Biscay; (4) A landing at the head of the Adriatic Sea with a drive through the Ljubljana Gap; and (5) A strengthened advance in Italy north to the Po River followed by a move west into France or northeast into Hungary. The final decision became a matter of logistics; the Channel ports lacked the capacity to support all the forces that the Allies planned for France. At this late stage, only one of these five operational concepts had undergone even preliminary planning.[22] The Anvil campaign through southern France was the only viable option.

Difficulties with the French

Just as the Allies in London and Washington vehemently disagreed over Mediterranean strategy through the early months of 1944, the staff officers in Algiers charged with planning the southern France operation also faced challenges due to the changing strategic situation, as well as many unanswered questions relating to troop participation, shipping, and logistics. French participation in Anvil was a foregone conclusion, but for the first two months, no French officers participated in the planning staff, though General De Gaulle insisted that, with the invasion of France on, the liberation of their own country required the active participation of French units. De Gaulle contended, “It is inadmissible for French troops at this stage of the war to be used elsewhere than in France.”[23] French honor demanded that Frenchmen serve only under French command.[24] He further suggested that the French exercise overall command of the entire Anvil undertaking. To the Americans, the very thought of a French commander of the entire operation was unpalatable. Planning suffered due to the political tug-of-war between the Americans and their British Allies and between the Allies and the French. General Truscott wrote, “The French would be insufferable if given command of the U.S. Corps, and opinion at AFHQ (Allied Force Head Quarters) was unanimous that the French should not, in any case, be entrusted with the assault landing.”[25] Now that the French were included into the planning process, the already tense Anglo-American atmosphere became much more difficult. The first indication of trouble appeared in an AFHQ Operations staff memorandum on 11 February 1944, which noted “language difficulties.” More problems quickly developed when the French staff officers could not function under the usual American-British joint staff structure. They did not understand American staff organization and procedure, and there was no time to teach it to them. The French did not understand the U.S. supply and evacuation systems and methods.[26] To eliminate the problem of inefficient staff structure, the U.S. created a liaison section of specially selected staff officers to convey the orders of the American commander to the French units taking part in the invasion.[27] For the time being, this extra staff section resolved the problems. However, difficulties within the chain of command reappeared in April with the appointment of General Jean Joseph Marie de Lattre de Tassigny as commander of the French forces detailed for Anvil.

General de Lattre de Tassigny, a four-star officer, was senior to Lieutenant General Patch, a three-star General and commander of the U.S. Seventh Army, to whom the French commander reported. This Chain of Command created a tense situation because a French commander cannot possibly accept orders from a junior officer. In the opinion of the French, “this involved military and political prestige of the highest order, and therefore could not be dismissed lightly by those charged with planning Anvil.”[28] Simply including the French in the planning process caused many problems, but the question of command ended swiftly. Allied Force Headquarters notified the French that the U.S. would command the operation, and they were welcome to participate. If they did not appreciate this command relationship, they would not participate in the liberation of their mother country. To ensure their participation and to keep the joint planning moving forward, the French accepted the command arrangement with the understanding that later in the fall the French would activate the French First Army under the U.S. Sixth Army Group.

In the first week of May 1944, General de Lattre de Tassigny visited General Patch at his headquarters in Algiers and emphasized the importance of keeping Anvil moving forward and avoiding cancellation at all costs because it would be an opportunity for the French to make a significant contribution to the liberation of their country. He then presented Patch with the French Army’s plan for the invasion of southern France, over four months after the initial planning commenced. General de Lattre de Tassigny’s plan differed from the original conception of Anvil in several respects, and it was turned over to the operations staff. The French plan ignored the shortage of amphibious lift and initiated the assault with three infantry divisions and two armored combat commands. The French proposal also involved a landing to the east and west of Toulon, dividing the forces, which would, “as General Patch pointed out in a letter to General de Lattre de Tassigny, reduce in proportion air cover, naval fire support, and the capacity of beach groups to unload supplies and consolidate their dumps.”[29] Further, a landing force on the west side of Toulon exposed that force to flank attack from the German garrison defending Marseille. Once again, the Allies stepped on the honor of the French forces by denying the French a major role in planning the landings. To assuage the French, General Patch assigned to them the primary objective of the operation – the capture of the desperately needed southern ports plus the liberation of Toulon and France’s second-largest city Marseille. This compromise greatly pleased the French command and relieved the U.S. VI Corps from the responsibility of taking the ports, allowing a faster entrance into the Rhône Valley and subsequent push toward Lyon, Dijon, and the link-up with the U.S. Third Army. Additionally, the new weight and speed of the Allied push toward Marseille and the Rhône River would keep the German 19th Army off balance and on the defensive with no time for a counterattack.[30] The staff approved the plans and settled the problems with the command structure, but the language difficulties continued to plague the Seventh Army late into the actual operations.

Similar issues haunted the United States Sixth Army Group charged with overall command of the U.S. Seventh Army and the French First Army (formed from the French Armée B). The headquarters of Sixth Army Group, organized in great secrecy on the island of Corsica to hide Allied intentions from the German High Command, consisted of two separate armies speaking different languages, so the selection of staff members was difficult. The French Colonial soldiers from North Africa, for example, spoke six different languages and had six different sets of customs. According to General Jacob Devers, commander of the Sixth Army Group, “About the only things the armies had in common were American equipment and a burning desire to fight the Germans.”[31]

Inter-Allied Disagreement

The Anglo-American coalition was a difficult relationship with roots in the early summer of 1940 when Great Britain stood alone in Western Europe and faced almost certain defeat. Beginning with a program called “Lend-Lease,” President Roosevelt slowly increased American non-belligerent efforts, so that by the time the U.S. entered the war at the end of 1941 a solid collaborative relationship existed. In early 1942, the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee held strategic discussions, and the two states began combining their wartime activities at every level. Almost immediately, differing styles created friction, and the American officials found that the British planners were much better briefed and better suited for committee work. General Dykes, acting for the British Chiefs of Staff in Washington, “found his opposite numbers completely dumb and appallingly slow.”[32] The Americans found the British dismissive and patronizing. The British were definitely the more experienced, senior partner in the coalition. Early in the war, Roosevelt complained that he received twenty percent from any discussion while the British kept their eighty. Over the next couple of years, the Americans improved their negotiating skills, and by the time of the Teheran Conference in November 1943, American officials felt they were a match for the British.[33] For Operation Overlord, the United States provided an overwhelming amount of equipment and materiel, not to mention an inordinate number of troops. If the Normandy invasion displayed the level of accomplishment possible when the Allies cooperated, Operation Anvil/Dragoon highlighted the difficult working relationship and sometimes-bitter disagreement. By 1944 however, the balance in the alliance tilted more obviously towards the United States as its military power and political experience improved. The American insistence on launching the southern France invasion changed the roles of the two states.[34]

The successful launch of Operation Overlord reignited the British-American debate on the course to follow in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. While all of the plans aimed to provide additional port facilities to strengthen operations in Normandy, American leaders insisted on reviving the plans for the invasion through the south of France. The British maintained that the best alternative was to assault along the Atlantic coast in the Bay of Biscay. Churchill, almost alone among the strategic decision-makers, hoped to maintain the available forces and amphibious lift in support of the Italian campaign with the goal of launching an offensive operation across the Adriatic Sea to the Istrian Peninsula and through the Ljubljana Gap toward southern Hungary. Churchill also claimed that his approach was the better strategic, political decision, which made sense from a logistical viewpoint. U.S. Fifth Army commander, Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, agreed with Churchill at least as far as keeping the forces and available amphibious lift in Italy.[35] Why would General Clark disagree with Churchill, at least about the Allies keeping their assets engaged in the Italian campaign? The planned operations in northern and southern France rendered his efforts in Italy a mere diversionary operation to occupy the German forces then defending against the U.S. Fifth and British Eighth Armies. General Clark later claimed that Operation Anvil constituted “one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war.”[36] Clark could not be further from the truth. As we shall see, Operation Anvil/Dragoon was a surprisingly successful campaign that greatly benefitted the Allied cause in northern Europe and contributed to shortening the war. The Normandy campaign immediately removed the spotlight from the only other active Allied European effort, the struggle in Italy. Anvil, although an assault from the Mediterranean, was a northern European campaign with its ultimate objective of joining the northern armies. Operations Overlord and Anvil/Dragoon “transformed Italy, indeed the entire Mediterranean, into a strategic corpse, one into which the British tried to breathe life because this was where, in Churchill’s mind, London retained an illusory alliance seniority.” This campaign was the “first major decision of the war over which the Americans adamantly refused to bow to British pressure, and went their own way. It was an augury of other painful blows to British confidence and pride which lay ahead.”[38] This decision marked an important turning point in the Allied coalition. Operation Dragoon placed the U.S. into the senior position in the alliance and the driver of Allied strategy for the remainder of the war.

With all of the disagreements between the Americans and British concerning the appropriate use of available resources and the future of Mediterranean operations, the joint planning staffs managed to overcome their difficulties and slowly move ahead with preparations. The introduction of the French into the planning process amplified cultural differences, and language seemed to be the least of the problems. Charles De Gaulle had no interest in keeping his troops in Italy, and his primary goal was to reach France and establish his military and political authority.[39] The French, eager to land on their home soil, determined that the fight in Italy was not a French cause and refused to continue north of Siena.[40] Eisenhower pointed out in a letter to Churchill the importance of getting the French Army back into the fight in France and that “the American Government has gone to great expense to equip and supply a number of French divisions.”[41] Naturally, the French troops wanted to fight in the battle for the liberation of France. Eisenhower continued, “At no other point would they fight with the same ardor and devotion, and nowhere else could they obtain needed replacements for battle losses.”[42] The bulk of the available French forces were engaged in the fight in Italy or were waiting in North Africa, and the best way to get them quickly into the battle was through the invasion of southern France. The French were ready. General de Lattre de Tassigny wrote, “the heroism and enthusiasm of our men in Italy only showed their impatience for the hour when the liberation of France would begin.”[43] Churchill continued to protest and downplayed the importance of the French forces landing in France, for he felt that they “would have more effect in winning the war by driving forward in Italy and into the Balkans and threatening Germany from the south than they would by pursuing the original plan of action” and the invasion through Provence. [44] Eisenhower insisted, however, that the American and French units being rested and rehabilitated in Italy “should be re-equipped and trained for Anvil as required.”[45] Eisenhower and Marshall believed that this could be accomplished without interfering with the ongoing campaign in Italy. “Consideration should be given to the use of French units in the Anvil assault, some of which are now receiving amphibious training in North Africa.”[46]

The original Anvil planners assumed that the forces involved were to be both American and French, although what the proportion would be and what the total strength would amount to was uncertain. By late June, some British airborne units were included. The Americans would provide the three assault divisions plus the First Airborne Task Force and the First Special Service Force. The French would provide the larger amount of the overall number of troops for the operation. Excited to play a major role in the liberation of France, the French wholeheartedly supported Anvil with the French I Corps, composed of the 3rd French Algerian Division, 4th Moroccan Mountain Division, and 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division, the French II Corps, composed of the 1st and 5th French Armored Divisions, and the First March Infantry Division. The bulk of the French II Corps trained and waited anxiously in North Africa. An additional unit, the 9th Colonial French Infantry Division, stationed in Corsica, prepared for combat.[47]

With such a large and eager French Army removed from the slow campaign in Italy and allocated for the liberation of southern France, political maneuvering over Operation Anvil ground to a halt. President Roosevelt made it clear to Churchill that he would not commit U.S. forces to an advance toward the Ljubljana Gap while Allied forces appeared to stall in Normandy. The Americans were going in over the Riviera beaches. Cancelling the invasion of southern France would “invite justified rebellion among the French.”[48] The French officers and soldiers considered their participation in the invasion to be very important, and in fact, the French Armée B was assigned the primary objectives of the campaign, the capture of the ports of Toulon and Marseille. They took this responsibility very seriously. “Toulon! Marseille! The French army was asked to take the lion’s share!”[49] According to the French commander, General de Lattre de Tassigny, the Riviera campaign gave “extraordinary rapidity” to the struggle in France. In preventing the enemy from organizing and maneuvering his reserve formations, the French soldiers had not only affirmed their superiority and achieved considerable success, they “had literally hastened the hour of final victory.”[50]

The controversy over the importance of French forces in the liberation of their own country was not limited to the Allied political and military leaders of 1944. As late as 2004, British historian Max Hastings downplayed the French contributions to the U.S. Seventh Army’s advance up the Rhône Valley. In his book, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45, Hastings wrote that the role of the French Army “was small and almost entirely symbolic” and that their units “suffered chronic problems of discipline.”[51] Hastings based his comments on the actions of some French units, composed mainly of North African soldiers, in the Italian campaign. The victorious French Colonial formations were as much a danger to Italian civilians as they were to the Germans.[52] However, making judgments about French performance because of the vicious actions of some of the units ignores the results of the French effort. It is true that the French Armée B moved more slowly than Truscott’s VI Corps did, but the recently reorganized and equipped French were relatively new to modern combat. They used mostly American equipment and relied on an American system of supply and logistics. Furthermore, it is unfair to compare the speed of movement between de Lattre de Tassigny’s troops and the better-trained, more experienced Americans moving with the famous “Truscott Trot.” Assigning de Lattre de Tassigny the primary objectives of capturing the ports also freed up the VI Corps for movement across open ground and mostly rural landscape, while the French troops fought a difficult urban battle for Toulon and Marseille. Adolph Hitler designated these two ports as fortresses to be defended to the last man, but those same vicious North Africans quickly cleared the German garrisons out of both ports two weeks earlier than Allied planning. By capturing these objectives in such a short time, the French netted 37,000 German prisoners at a cost of 4,000 French casualties.[53] Included in the casualty figures for Toulon and Marseille were the commanding officers for each of the garrisons ordered to defend “to the last man.”[54]

While General de Lattre de Tassigny’s French forces began their attack on the port cities of Toulon and Marseille with the bulk of the VI Corps forces on their northern flank, General Patch began to consider his future course of action assuming that all went well with the French mission. With its rear area secure, the Seventh Army’s next objective was to move northward up the Rhône Valley as quickly as possible to link up with General Patton’s Third Army operating on the southern wing of the First Army forces sweeping eastward from Normandy. Linking the U.S. Third and Seventh Armies in early September eliminated any possibility for a flank attack on Eisenhower’s “broad front.” This junction of Operations Overlord and Dragoon would place great stress on the German forces remaining in France.

Logistical Needs

For General Eisenhower, the principal justification for Operation Dragoon was logistical: he needed the southern ports to support his main front and provide rapid deployment of additional divisions still waiting in the United States and North Africa. The French ports on the English Channel were too small, and too devastated, to supply and reinforce the huge Allied armies driving toward Germany. The Allies carefully planned and constructed artificial harbors to aid the discharge of men and supplies in Normandy while waiting for repairs to the damaged ports. These temporary pier-heads, called Mulberries, began receiving cargo on 16 June. Starting on 19 June and continuing for three days, high winds pounded the French coast, wrecking dozens of craft and smashing the artificial harbors. This devastating blow threatened to disrupt the entire invasion plan.[55] Eisenhower emphasized the need to mount the southern invasions and wrote to Marshall “usable ports and communications in the necessary quantity and quality do not, repeat not, exist at this moment.”[56] Eisenhower found the seizure of the Mediterranean ports of Toulon and Marseille too irresistible.[57] Furthermore, long range plans for the drive on Germany called for crossing the Rhine River with as many as sixty to seventy divisions. The most the northern ports could support was thirty-five, while the southern ports could support an additional thirty-five divisions.[58]

Toward the end of June, the advance in Normandy bogged down and the failure to capture any major, usable port forced Eisenhower to consider Anvil as the only option for the Allies. In a message to General Wilson and the Combined Chiefs of Staff, Eisenhower pressed his case for the southern campaign. “Our most important consideration is an additional port to be used in assisting the deployment of divisions from the US. I consider vital the possession of another gateway into France.”[59] General Marshall went on the offensive in support of Eisenhower in late June. Marshall held a series of meetings with the main Mediterranean commanders, including Mark Clark, in an effort to reason and browbeat them into accepting Anvil. He used the usual arguments regarding the use of the available French forces and tying down the German formations. However, to these arguments he added the need for the southern ports. By late June, the situation in Normandy proved that the Channel ports were insufficient. According to the Joint Chiefs “Anvil was necessary because only through southern French ports could he introduce quickly into France the thirty to forty divisions” being readied in the United States.[60] Following the war, Field Marshal Wilson described the result of these meetings with Marshall. “We argued our case and General Marshall, in his masterly manner, argued the U.S. case.”[61] Once Marshall finished “I knew that strategically Anvil was the only way. We had to clear our sails and get those ports going.”[62] On 2 July, the Combined Chiefs directed General Wilson to prepare to execute Anvil as currently planned on 15 August.[63]

Churchill’s Final Proposal

Churchill did not give up. Unhappy with the decision to mount the Anvil operation, he now suggested bypassing the ports of Marseille and Toulon in favor of landing on the Atlantic coast of Brittany. He believed the Brittany ports more directly supported the Normandy operations. Alternatively, Churchill further argued that the forces scheduled for Anvil were better suited for strengthening the effort in Italy and eventually, of course, through the Balkans.[64] The disagreement between the Prime Minister and Eisenhower regarding Anvil continued for ten days, disrupting planning for the breakout from Normandy. However, the Americans stood firm.

Clearly, Churchill did not fully appreciate the challenges associated with his proposals. The ports of embarkation for Anvil were 1,600 miles from the Brittany coast, and many of the assault craft could not handle the trip through the rough Atlantic tides. Additionally, a western France operation effectively eliminated any possibility for air support from squadrons based in Italy. In effect, the only available air cover drained resources from Overlord. The Prime Minister’s favorite and recurring proposal to abandon Anvil for operations in Italy and the Balkans left the southern flank in northern France unprotected. Finally, strengthening Italy and pushing toward the Balkans did nothing to ease the burden of logistics in France. Roosevelt, Marshall, and Eisenhower dismissed Churchill’s proposals completely.[65] Against the furious Prime Minister’s demands, the Americans removed three infantry divisions plus airborne and commando assets from the Italian campaign for the Anvil landing. The associated naval contingent required for the invasion also weakened the drive in Italy, according to Churchill. None of the Prime Minister’s arguments swayed the Americans. This blow to Great Britain and Churchill’s position within the Allied partnership was severe. The British stood alone against the Germans in Western Europe since June 1940, and now in the summer of 1944, the American decision to launch Anvil/Dragoon relegated the British to a secondary role. The British and Canadians would participate but only as a supplement to the American and French invasion.[66]

Campaign Overview

In early July, the heavy bombers of the United States’ Fifteenth Air Force began the preliminary air campaign with attacks against key bridges and rail lines throughout the southern coastal regions of France. After August 4 the heavy and medium bomber campaign intensified, and by August 15 rail connections to Lyon were all but impossible, five-sixths of the major Rhône bridges were out of use, and the German air force and naval units suffered significant losses. Closer to the actual landing date, the bombing campaign focused on the German coastal radar sites and coastal batteries.[67]

After six weeks of preliminary air bombardment, the infantry, armor, airborne, and commando forces of Major General Lucian Truscott’s U.S. VI Corps assaulted along a forty-five mile stretch of French Riviera beaches from just east of the small port of Saint Raphaël to the Cavalaire Beach west of the fishing village of Saint Tropez. Preceded by the commandos of the First Special Service Force and the paratroopers of the First Airborne Task Force, the assault battalions of the Third, Thirty-Sixth and Forty-Fifth Infantry Divisions waded through the smooth surf toward the rocky, French Riviera coast.

A particular concern for the invasion planners were the islands of Port Cros and Levant, situated just off the coast not far from the westernmost approach to the Alpha Beaches behind Saint Tropez. The heavy guns manned by the German garrisons on these islands posed a major threat to the landing craft as they made the final run to the beach. The Sitka Force, better known as the First Special Service Force were to assault these garrisons starting at 0130 hours on 15 August to neutralize all enemy defenses.[68] The 1st Regiment/FSSF landed on Port Cros and quickly seized the eastern end of the island, trapping the enemy inside an old fortress in which they held on until repeated shelling from HMS Ramillies forced their surrender on 17 August. The 2nd and 3rd Regiments/FSSF landed against no opposition on the southern shore of Levant and moved to attack the heavy artillery battery at Pointe du Titan. Once in control of the site, they quickly discovered that the feared guns did not exist. The German troops used the old French fortifications to resist, but were eventually forced to surrender by the end of the day with about 25 killed and over 100 taken prisoner.[69]

The Seventh Army had no organic airborne division, so the 2nd British Independent Parachute Brigade, U.S. 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, 1st Battalion, 551st Parachute Regiment, 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, 550th Glider Infantry Battalion, and supporting troops formed the Seventh Army Provisional Airborne Division, later renamed the First Airborne Task Force. To the main airborne operating units, the Seventh Army added the 460th and 463rd Field Artillery Battalions and the 602nd Glider Pack Howitzer Battalion. Among the supporting troops were two chemical mortar companies, two engineer companies, anti-tank, signal, and medical companies, plus an ordnance detachment. Total strength of the airborne units amounted to 9,732 men transported in 535 C-47's, C-53's, and 465 gliders.

Under the command of Brigadier General Robert Frederick, former commander of the First Special Service Force, the First Airborne Task Force formed the Rugby Force and planned to land on the high ground north and east of the village of Le Muy and on the high ground north of the coastal town of Grimaud. Their primary mission was to prevent the reinforcement of enemy forces into the assault area from the west and northwest. By the end of operations on 15 August, Le Muy was to be cleared of German forces to allow the landing of follow-on glider units. Similar to the role of airborne units in Operation Overlord, Rugby Force would assault enemy positions from the rear and provide assistance to seaborne forces arriving from the landing beaches to the south. Additionally, bridges in their area of operations were to be prepared for demolition and blown on the order of the Task Force Commander.[70]

In the very early morning hours of 15 August the pathfinder units, which were to mark the main landing zones using Hallophane lights and luminous ground panels, began the second phase of the invasion. However, the American pathfinders were dropped so far off course that they were unable to guide in the first wave of airborne troopers. The C-47 transports carrying the 509th PIB struggled through the clouds to deliver half of the battalion on its drop zone, but unloaded "the rest twenty-five miles away near St. Tropez, including an entire stick that jumped to its death in the sea."[71] The 517th Parachute Infantry RCT landed in an area covering some 250 square miles with some elements as far as twenty-five miles away. One battery of the 460th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion landed in Fréjus, near the beach some 10 miles away from the drop zone.

The first elements of the main airborne drop started at 0430 hours with the 509th PIB. The 517th RCT dropped at 0435 hours, and the British 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade jumped at 0510 hours. The troop carrier units encountered no air opposition, and the troopers floated down through the fog to the rocky ground. In all areas, they contacted the enemy immediately, but resistance was light, primarily small arms fire. Defensive lines were established in all landing zones, and all German forces driven out, except in the village of Le Muy.

The British 4th Battalion had the critical D-Day mission of taking Le Muy, an important conjunction of roads providing access to all of the landing beaches. After the morning drop on 15 August, it could muster only 40% of its men, but they seized the high ground northeast of the village by 0730 hours. They captured the hamlet of Las Serres and a key bridge over the Narturby River, but lacked sufficient strength to take the main objective, Le Muy.

Alpha Beach

General Truscott assigned the 3rd Infantry Division to land on the westernmost beaches, code-named Alpha, just to the southwest of St. Tropez. Here the planners expected to face the toughest German counterattacks, and Truscott entrusted this portion of the invasion to his favorite division under the command of Major General John “Iron Mike” O’Daniel. Landing in this area also placed the 3rd ID close to the primary objectives of Marseille and Toulon and in position to protect the flank of the French II Corps. At 0800, H-Hour, the 7th Infantry Regimental Combat Team assaulted Alpha Red in Cavalaire Bay preceded by four Duplex Drive (DD) M4A1 amphibious tanks of the 756th Tank Battalion. After consolidating the beachhead, the 7th Infantry fanned out for the push inland.[72] The Alpha Red Beach was secured so quickly that the 30th Infantry Regiment, waiting in reserve, began landing across the same beach only eighty minutes after the 7th. Approaching the beach of Pampelonne a little further to the east at H-Hour, four amphibious tanks from the 756th led the 15th Infantry Regimental Combat Team to Alpha Yellow Beach. Using the same technique as the 7th Infantry, the 15th sent special battle patrols to quickly fan out over the St. Tropez peninsula toward its D-Day objectives. By 1200 hours on D-Day the assault units of the 3rd Infantry Division had reached their initial beachhead line and were advancing toward objectives on the “Blue Line,” about 20 miles inland.[73]

With all of its assault units landed, the 3rd Division pushed further inland against stiffening enemy resistance. The 7th INF Regimental Combat Team moved in two directions, north and west, as they secured the left flank of the invasion and began turning toward Toulon. The 15th INF Regimental Combat Team cleared the village of Saint Tropez and the Saint Tropez peninsula. By the end of the day, German resistance on the peninsula ceased, and the 15th INF established contact with the 45th Division on its right flank, and then started to the west to join the other two 3rd Division regiments.[74]

Early on 16 August, the 3rd Division continued its assault to the west, encountering sporadic small arms fire and several heavily-defended road blocks. Rugged terrain and defensive fire delayed progress throughout the day, but during the night, 3rd Division units, guided by members of the French Resistance, maneuvered around the tougher obstacles, approaching the Blue Line on the 17th. By dusk, the 7th, 15th, and 30th Regiments had broken through a heavily wooded, easily defensible section of the Maures, a craggy, steep, mountainous region just behind their landing beaches. Division elements reached the southwestern section of the Toulon-Saint Raphael corridor ahead of schedule. Here they paused briefly and waited for orders for the breakout to the west toward Aix-en-Provence.

Camel Beach

The landing beaches on the right flank of the Dragoon assault area, code-named Camel, were the target of Major General John Dahlquist and the veteran 36th Infantry Division. The division’s zone of responsibility stretched from the east bank of the Argens River, including the important road junction and town of Fréjus, Puget-sur-Argens, and Le Muy to the mountainous region of the Esterel Forest some eight miles away to the east. This coastal area included the open, sandy, but heavily fortified Camel Red Beach at the mouth of the Argens River, just to the west of Frejus. Camel Green Beach lay to the east of St. Raphaël near Cap Drammont. The 36th Division planners considered Camel Green large enough only for initial operations, but too small for sizable follow-on forces. On the extreme eastern flank of the invasion coast, Camel Blue Beach, at Antheor Cove, was rather small and not well suited for major landing operations.

Allied planners considered the Camel Beach assault area strategically important to the overall Sixth Corps invasion scheme because it presented a suitable entrance into the Argens River Valley, but there were certain obstacles. Camel Red Beach was too strongly defended on D-Day for an amphibious assault and ultimately was not used. Camel Green and Camel Blue consisted of narrow strips of rocky shale leading to steep embankments and could hardly be called beaches in the technical sense of the word.[75]

The 141st Infantry Regiment assaulted Camel Green with its 2nd and 3rd battalions abreast at H-Hour on D-Day, while the 1/141 INF landed on Camel Blue. Four M4A1 Duplex Drive amphibious tanks of the 753rd Tank Battalion accompanied each landing force. The infantry encountered some small arms fire, but the main threat was the abundant German artillery fire, although it was not especially accurate due to a lack of enemy forward observers. The initial mission of the 141st was to secure the beachhead and roads paralleling the coast between Drammont and the eastern side of Antheor Cove, then push to the north and northeast toward Theoule-sur-Mer and the N-7 highway.

The 143rd Infantry Regiment landed over the beaches cleared by the 141st INF with the initial objectives of clearing the coast roads to the west and capturing the town of St. Raphaël. The regiment landed over Camel Green Beach in a column of battalions: 1st Battalion at 0945 hours, 2nd Battalion at 1005 hours, and 3rd Battalion at 1035 hours. The 1st Battalion seized the high ground north of the beach, and then moved west to attack St. Raphaël once the 3rd Battalion came ashore and moved into their positions on the high ground. The 2nd Battalion moved along the coast to attack the town from the east.

The 142nd Infantry Regiment planned to make a delayed assault at 1400 hours over Camel Red Beach. This was, quite possibly, the most difficult of all the Dragoon landings as this area southwest of Fréjus was quite heavily defended, and the Germans had clear lanes of fire over Fréjus Gulf and could easily target the approaching landing craft. At 1100 hours, minesweepers moved forward to sweep the Camel Red approach lanes, but as they neared the beach, heavy shelling forced them to retire. After a flight of 93 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers dropped 187 tons of bombs on the enemy defenders, the minesweepers started back in toward the beach. Again, under a heavy artillery barrage, they managed to clear the lanes to within 500 yards of the beach. Under the cover of fire from naval gunfire support ships, two demolitions teams with scout boats and 12 explosive drone boats were sent in. These also met with heavy enemy fire and withdrew.

While efforts to clear the beach continued, the 142nd INF, in more than 100 assault craft, waited for the signal to land. In the event that Camel Red proved too difficult to approach, planners prepared an alternative assault for the 142nd INF. The Commander of Naval Task Force 87, Rear Admiral Spencer S. Lewis, ordered that the alternate plan of landing the 142nd INF over Camel Green Beach behind the 143rd INF be put into effect immediately. The fleet turned to the east, and the entire regiment landed over Camel Green without loss.

The primary objective of the 142nd was capturing the town of Fréjus from the southeast by nightfall on D-Day. Obviously, the change in landing beach forced some operational changes as well. Landing over Camel Green and proceeding inland over the high ground, the 142nd attacked Fréjus from the northeast and captured the town at 1355 hours, 16 August.

St. Raphaël fell to the 143rd INF on the morning of 16 August, and the 141st INF captured Theoule-sur-Mer late in the afternoon on the same day. The 142nd INF continued west toward Puget, the 143rd moved north into the high ground toward the N-7, and the 141st INF consolidated its positions from the N-7 from the flank of the 143rd east to Theoule-sur-Mer. By the morning of 17 August, the “Texas” Division reached the Blue Line. The division then prepared for movement toward the northwest.[76]

Delta Beach

Between the 3rd Infantry Division on the left and the 36th “Texas” Infantry Division on the right lay the Delta Beaches, objective of the 45th Infantry Division under the command of Major General William W. Eagles. Sixth Corps planners assigned to the 45th Division the mission of clearing all of their assault beaches of enemy resistance and then to advance inland rapidly to make contact with the parachute units around Le Muy. Additionally, the division was to establish contact with the 3rd and 36th Divisions on its flanks.

The initial planning for the Delta Beach landings designated five beaches around the northern edge of the Gulf of Saint Tropez for the soldiers of the “Thunderbird” division. This sector of the coast included beaches designated 262, 263, 263-A, 263-B, and 263-C. Beach 262 at the extreme head of the gulf, though topographically desirable, was too heavily fortified along its flanks and possible approach lanes. Beach 263 at the town of Sainte Maxime had similar problems. Less than one mile to the east of the town lay the three smaller beaches selected for the 45th Infantry Division along a curving bay to the north of Cap Sardineau. On the left, Beach 263-A was broken into two separate zones, Delta Red and Delta Green. In the center, Beach 263-B became Delta Yellow, while the eastern beach, 263-C, became Delta Blue. The initial area of operations extended 15 to 20 miles inland to the “Blue Line” from Le Luc to Le Muy.[77]

Precisely on time at 0800 hours, the division landed under almost ideal conditions with four battalions abreast. The 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, landed on Delta Red; the 1/157th INF on Delta Green; the 2nd Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment, on Delta Yellow; and the 1/180th INF on Delta Blue. The remaining two battalions of the 157th and 180th regiments followed on as an ad hoc regimental reserve.

Quickly clearing the beach area, 3/157th INF attacked toward Ste. Maxime, its first objective. Small arms and machine gun fire made the fighting difficult, but by 1525 hours, Ste. Maxime was in U.S. control. The 3rd Battalion then continued along the coast road toward Beach 262, and at 2100 hours, it made contact with a battle patrol from the 15th INF, 3rd Division advancing from St. Tropez. The coast between Alpha and Delta beaches was clear of enemy forces. The 3/157th INF moved north toward Plan de la Tour to join the 1/157th INF. The 180th Infantry Regiment assaulted across Delta Yellow and Delta Blue beaches and moved to clear the high ground to the east and northeast, and to assist the 36th Division in clearing Camel Red Beach at the base of the Argens River Valley. From there the regiment moved rapidly north to the “Blue Line” to make contact with the paratroopers around Le Muy. By dawn of 17 August, 1/180th INF cleared the coast to the east for five miles and made contact with the 36th Division. That same morning found the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry more than eight miles inland near Roquebrune-sur-Argens and in contact with the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

The remaining battalions of the 157th and 180th landed across the Delta Beaches and started a drive north toward Vidauban, Le Luc, and Les Arcs. By the morning of 17 August, Le Luc and Vidauban were in American hands. The division’s reserve regiment, the 179th INF, landed across Delta Green Beach and assembled in the beach area and entered into combat on D+1, 16 August. The total casualties for the entire 45th Infantry Division, including attached units, were two officers and 107 enlisted men. Of these, twelve were killed in action.

By the evening of 17 August, all of the initial assault forces were ashore and rapidly moving inland. The American forces crushed the German defenses and forward elements of all units reached the “Blue Line.” The Sixth Corps began its exploitation of a weak and confused enemy.[78]

Expanding the Beachhead

After the first two days of combat, the beachhead was secure and the American units were well established inland. This permitted an expansion of the beachhead on both flanks as the French II Corps began its landing and build-up operations near the Alpha Beaches. Late on the 16th, the VI Corps set forth the general objectives and lines of advance for the next phase of the campaign for the three American infantry divisions. The 3rd Division was to push west along the highway N-7 toward the lower Rhône River, while the 45th Division, after assembling at Le Luc, was to advance to the northwest. The 36th Division planned to advance eastward in the general direction of Cannes, and then thrust northward along highway N-85 (Route Napoleon). The VI Corps field order laid out the direction of the advance without specifying objectives, indicating the anticipated rapidity of the advance inland and the expected lack of a determined enemy resistance.[79]

Over the next three days, the fighting was at times scattered, at times heavy. Overall, however, the Germans were in no position to stop the Allied assault. On the left flank, the 3rd Division met strong pockets of resistance along the coast and at the town of Brignoles, which was captured on August 19th. Soon afterwards, the division and some units of the 1st French Combat Command began streaming west along Highway N-7 in the direction of the major road and rail center of Aix-en-Provence.

The 45th Division objective was to reach and cross the Durance River, which flows west out of the Provence Alps finally emptying into the Rhone at Avignon. The division moved quickly, meeting slight resistance, until it reached the town of Barjols at the headwaters of the Argens River some fifty miles inland from the landing beaches. At Barjols, 300 German soldiers held out against portions of the 179th INF. After some fierce fighting, the Germans retreated and the American infantry swarmed into the town late in the morning. By 1120 hours on August 19, Barjols was in American control. While the 179th INF battled for control of Barjols, the rest of the 45th Division moved west and arrived at their objective, the Durance River, fourteen miles northeast of Aix-en-Provence on August 20.

On the eastern flank, the 1st Airborne Task Force moved to relieve the 36th Division, which then prepared to move north toward the Grenoble Corridor. The only significant combat occurred on the 19th when a small unit relieved an isolated group of paratroopers east of Fayence.[80]

To complete his plan for the VI Corps exploitation of the collapsing German formations, General Truscott activated a provisional group known as Task Force Butler, which began assembling at Le Muy. Conceived before the embarkation of assault troops in Italy, this Provisional Armored Group, as originally designated by VI Corps, was commanded by the Corps Deputy Commander, Brigadier General Frederick B. Butler. This newly formed task force consisted of various units cobbled together around the 753rd Tank Battalion (minus one Medium and one Light Tank Company) and the 2nd Battalion, 143 Infantry, 36th Division. Other units included a Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, an armored field artillery battalion, and tank destroyer, engineer, medical, and quartermaster truck companies, plus a detachment of the 87th Ordnance Heavy Maintenance Company.[81] Task Force Butler’s orders included an advance north up the Route Napoleon toward Grenoble with the likely possibility of moving west toward Montélimar to block the roads leading out of the Rhône Valley to the north and east.[82] Truscott’s audacious plan for Task Force Butler demonstrated his penchant for aggressive generalship. His ultimate objective was to cut-off the retreating German Nineteenth Army north and east of Montélimar. Butler’s force essentially equaled the combat power of an armored division combat command, but it did not have the resources of the armored division in support. Task Force Butler would advance on its own, hoping that the 36th Division could match the speed of the armored advance if they were to apply enough pressure to stop the enemy’s escape.

Toulon and Marseille

General de Lattre de Tassigny’s pre-invasion planning for the capture of Toulon and Marseille plotted successive attacks first on Toulon and then Marseille, but the accelerated French landings and speed of the American advance allowed him to envision almost concurrent actions against both ports. The VI Corps’ rapid penetration along Route N-7 and the increasingly apparent chaos in the German command would allow the French to divide their forces and assault both ports from the north, while the US 3rd Division protected their northern flank. Changing the French plans, on 19 August de Lattre de Tassigny sent the 1st DMI (Division de Marche d’Infanterie) with armor support along the coast to attack Toulon directly from the east and the 9th DIC (Division d’Infanterie Coloniale) to their right flank to attack from the northeast. At the same time, he ordered the 3rd DIA (Division d’Infanterie Algérienne) to swing around the north of the city to cut off the Germans and prevent the possibility of reinforcement from Marseille. The 3rd DIA, under the command of Géneral de division Joseph de Goislard de Monsbert, divided into three tactical groups. One group attacked south into the high ground surrounding Toulon. The second group completed the encircling of Toulon by driving south toward the coast, and the third group sent probes west toward Marseille. By 21 August, the French forces completely surrounded the city, breached its outer defenses, and held key hilltop fortresses.[83] Between 21 and 23 August, the French slowly squeezed the enemy back into the inner city in a series of almost continuous street battles. The German defenses lost cohesiveness as isolated groups began to surrender, and the last organized resistance ended on 26 August. The formal German surrender occurred at 0600 hours on the 28th. In the week of combat for Toulon, 2,700 Frenchmen were killed or wounded. The German defenders suffered thousands dead and 17,000 taken prisoner. The French claimed their first major victory in the liberation of France and were about to achieve their second.[84]

While the French squeezed the German defenders back into Toulon, the 3rd DIA began its attack on Marseille, striking from the northeastern and northern approaches on 22 August and coming within five to eight miles of the city’s center. Early in the morning of 23 August, the French infantry attacked into the heart of Marseille battling from street to street and house to house. The attack gained momentum as newly arriving French forces and units no longer fighting for Toulon provided needed reinforcement. By the evening of 27 August, the German commander, Generalmajor Schaefer, agreed to arrange terms for surrender, which became effective on 28 August, the same day as the surrender of Toulon. In the battle for Marseille, the French suffered over 1,800 casualties and captured roughly 11,000 prisoners. That day de Lattre de Tassigny sent a letter to Charles de Gaulle, “On D+13, after seven days of operations, there no longer remains in the Army B sector a German who is not dead or captive.”[85] De Lattre was satisfied, but the port facilities suffered heavily as a result of German demolition efforts. There were 75 ships blocking the channels, the port was heavily mined, and the Germans sabotaged 257 cranes. Allied engineers set to work immediately, and their effort allowed the first Liberty ship to unload alongside a quay in Marseille just three weeks after the battle ended.[86]

At 1100 hours on 29 August, the band of the 3rd DIA played as the victorious French troops passed in review before the Commanding General of Armée B, and the Marseillaise once again rang through the streets of France’s second largest city. The main body of French troops continued north and west to cross the Rhone and follow up the VI Corps penetration and pursuit.[87]

Breakout and Pursuit

As the French forces reduced the garrisons at Toulon and Marseille, Truscott continued pushing his infantry and armor north and west. On the evening of 20 August, he ordered Task Force Butler west toward Montelimar to set up blocking positions astride the German Army’s only possible evacuation route and await the arrival of the 36th Division. When Truscott issued this order, Butler’s forces and the leading units of the 36th Division were stretched between Aspres and Gap all the way back through Draguignan to Le Muy, a distance of eighty miles. The shift in direction from north to west proved problematical. Task Force Butler, plagued by communications problems in the deep valleys of the rugged Maritime Alps, suffered from the general Allied shortage of gasoline and vehicles. Captured German fuel dumps at Digne, Draguignan, and Le Muy helped Butler reach Montelimar late on the 22nd, but most of the infantry had to move forward in a complex and time-consuming series of truck shuttles and forced marches.[88]

The 3rd Division, preceded by the 3rd Reconnaissance Troop, continued its rapid advance westward along the route of Highway 7 toward Aix-en-Provence where the Germans appeared to be preparing to make a defensive stand. Throughout the night, division elements closest to the town received periodic attacks. An all-out division assault on Aix was ordered for 0600 hours on 21 August with requested air support from Seventh Army. Division planners expected a fierce battle to eject the defenders. As the attack began, the troops moved methodically through the town encountering scattered enemy gun positions, strong points, tank obstacles, and sniper fire. Apparently, the main body of the enemy withdrew during the night and left behind only small groups to harass the Americans and delay their advance. For the Rock of the Marne troops, the route to Avignon and the Rhone Valley was open.[89]

In the center of the VI Corps attack, the 45th Division encountered stiff resistance at the important road junction of Barjols, but by the afternoon of 19 August cleared the town, and the three regiments of the division quickly moved toward the Durance River. The German Nineteenth Army was on its heels, and Truscott was determined to drive it toward the Rhône Valley and Montelimar along a one hundred mile front from Marseille in the south to Gap and the Grenoble Corridor in the north. Truscott’s hope was to trap the bulk of the retreating German forces at Montelimar using Task Force Butler and the 36th Division.

The 3rd Division continued its drive to the Rhône, pushing westward any German formations in its path, while Butler moved to block the valley north of Montelimar, and the 36th Division attacked the town from the east. The ensuing struggle for Montelimar pitted the “Texas” Division against German panzer units operating in the area and, as they arrived on their retreat northward, the surviving infantry divisions of the Nineteenth Army. The battle lasted for about nine days from 21 to 29 August and saw both sides commit increasingly larger forces against the other with indecisive results. The German and American commanders launched successive attacks and counter-attacks trying to outflank each other, the Germans attempting to continue their northerly retreat, and the Americans trying to keep them bottled up. The retreating German units ultimately forced their way north to Lyon, but suffered horrendous casualties in the process. On 29 August, units of the 3rd and 36th Divisions converged on Montelimar, taking approximately 500 prisoners. Over the next few days, a thorough sweep of the “Battle Square of Montelimar” netted another 2,500.[90]

The American units involved in the Battle of Montelimar suffered 1,575 casualties, including 187 killed, 1,023 wounded, and 365 missing. These losses represent less than five per cent of the American strength committed and hardly seem heavy considering the size of the American forces engaged. German losses, however, were considerably higher with some 5,800 captured between 21 and 31 August. Additionally, the withdrawal up the Rhone from Avignon to Montelimar cost the German Army approximately 600 killed, 1,500 wounded, and several thousand others missing in the same period.[91] These were severe losses for an army with virtually no pool of replacements.

As the battle at Montelimar reached its climax on 25 August, Seventh Army issued orders for future operations. Truscott’s VI Corps would drive northward, first to Lyon, 75 miles from Montelimar, then to Dijon, another 110 miles further north. From Dijon, the VI Corps would strike northeast to Strasbourg and the Rhine River, another 160 miles. The French Armée B would screen the western bank of the Rhône to Dijon, and then pass to the right flank of the U.S. units, moving into Alsace and the upper Rhine valley, and push through the Belfort Gap, about 90 miles east of Dijon. In addition to completing the battle for Montelimar, the VI Corps would continue its push east, northeast, and north to a line extending southeast from Lyon through Grenoble to the Larche Pass. The First Airborne Task Force, with the added strength of the First Special Service Force, would secure the Seventh Army’s eastern flank from the Larche Pass south through the Alps about 60 miles to the mouth of the Var River near Nice.[92]

Champagne Campaign

Although badly scattered in the early morning hours of D-Day, the troopers of the First Airborne Task Force accomplished their initial mission of securing the road network immediately behind the beachhead and taking the villages located at strategic intersections and along the rail lines. Once the heavy infantry and armor of VI Corps and Armée B moved north and west, the airborne forces received orders to relieve the 36th Division on the right flank of the Seventh Army by 20 August and establish a north-south defensive line from La Napoule to Fayence. The strategic role of this flank protection was primarily defensive, but circumstances dictated that German forces on the eastern flank, essentially the 148th Division and assorted smaller units, be pushed back to the Italian border. For the French, an early liberation of Cannes and Nice became an important objective. The reasons were more psychological than military, although Nice had a small port that might be of use.

Three major subordinate units operated in separate but mutually supporting zones in accordance with the tactical objectives. The 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team operated in the northern sector with orders to seize St. Vallier, north of Grasse, and await further instructions for a possible drive to the Italian border. On the right of the 517th, the First Special Service Force would occupy positions around Grasse, an important road junction astride Highway 85 (Route Napoleon). The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion received the coastal zone and orders to advance to the western approaches of Cannes. Other task force units received defensive or supporting missions.[93]

Early in the morning of 21 August, the 509th began its attack west of Cannes with support from the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion in the northern suburbs. Against sporadic enemy delaying actions, the 509th attacked eastward, but their entry into Cannes was delayed until a suitable crossing could be constructed across the Siagne River. By the afternoon of 24 August, the 509th entered Cannes to find the streets devoid of the enemy and lined with wildly-cheering civilians. Some were crying openly, while others threw flowers at the passing American columns. The 509th moved straight through Cannes and pushed eastward to Antibes, edging closer to Nice. On 30 August, the 509th Combat Team crossed the Var River and occupied the city of Nice. One column moved north immediately to establish contact with the First Special Service Force while the other continued to clear the city and moved east toward the Italian border.

While the 509th moved along the coast taking Cannes, Antibes, and Nice, the First Special Service Force completed its efforts in clearing Grasse and proceeded east to force a crossing of the Var River. On 30 August, the 1st and 3rd Regiments forded the Var River at Colomars, and sent out patrols to the east. The advance continued until 2 September when contact was made with the enemy. Patrols probed northeast along the Sospel Valley, just a couple miles from the Italian border. The enemy began to consolidate his positions northeast of Nice in the rugged mountains directly in front of the rather lightly armed airborne forces.

On 29 August, the main body of the 517th crossed the Var River and continued east over difficult terrain. By 3 September, the 517th RCT had driven the enemy into the mountains at Peira Cava. On this date, the First Special Service Force received orders to take over the southern sector from the 509th, which moved north to cover the 40 miles of difficult terrain between the 517th and the Larche Pass. Moving the Forcemen south caused a change in boundaries and objectives for the 517th.

The 517th RCT moved to the left flank of the FSSF to establish a line of defense on the heights east of Sospel to control the Menton-Breil-Turin highway. All three battalions were on the line by 11 September, and the 2nd Battalion began an attack against enemy strong points on the approaches to Sospel. Enemy artillery and mortar fire from the mountains around the village made any large-scale infantry movement extremely difficult. Making good use of the forts around Sospel as well as the rugged terrain, the Germans withstood any American attempts to move on the town. The besieged population and the German defenders withstood daily American artillery barrages, and as the “siege of Sospel” continued, the situation deteriorated. The defenders finally withdrew late on 27 October after blowing the bridges and firing a few last rounds of artillery. As the 517th cleared the roads and entered the town, they met no cheering crowds, wine, or flowers. The townspeople had little reason to celebrate. In the fifty-five days of the siege, more than a hundred civilians were wounded and forty-four killed by mortar and artillery fire.

The paratroopers made slow progress along the Italian frontier throughout most of September as they pushed the enemy back in the face of determined German resistance. As they withdrew into the rugged Italian mountains to the east, the Germans continued to shell all the important roads available to the FATF. By 26 September, the threat to the Seventh Army’s eastern flank in the southern sector had passed. The Allied fear of a German thrust against their over-extended supply lines was now reduced to a minimum. The First Airborne Task Force passed from control of Seventh Army to Sixth Army Group.[94]

German Reaction

The German high command focused their attention against the massive Soviet armies on the Eastern Front until the waning months of 1943, and only in November did they begin to regard an Allied invasion of Western Europe as an equal, if not greater, threat than an invasion from the east. The most obvious location for an assault on the continent was across the English Channel, so most of the German defensive efforts went to the channel coast, while some defenses were constructed along the Atlantic and southern coasts. “The fortifying of the southern coast was severely restricted in favor of the Channel and Atlantic fronts.”[95] Clearly, the Germans expected the main assault across the channel and placed minimal resources in building defenses along the Riviera beaches. However, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers remained to defend the southern coastline and the Atlantic coast fortifications, and this is an important benefit of Operation Dragoon. The threat of invasion kept a German army group out of the Normandy defense.

Initial German estimates in the spring of 1944 predicted the Allies would invade at Genoa, Italy, the southern French Riviera beaches east of Toulon, or the southwestern French coast between Montpellier and the Spanish frontier centered on Narbonne.[96] There were additional concerns about a landing on the Atlantic coast, but as air activity on the island of Corsica increased as summer approached, these fears dissipated. By the time of the actual landings, the German high command gave the probability of landing at Genoa as forty percent, Provence as fifty percent, and south of Montpellier as ten percent. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, German Commander in Chief, South, concluded that the Allies would strike a massive blow about the size of the invasion of Sicily behind German lines near Genoa or along the southern coast of France. Kesselring’s staff spent the early part of summer trying to solve the puzzle of veteran American infantry and airborne units disappearing from the Fifth Army line in Italy. The reasons the Allied high command pulled these units from the line was not too difficult to understand. In addition to Anglo-American bickering, frustrations with the French, and potentially severe logistical shortcomings, Operation Dragoon, despite its element of surprise, was probably one of the worst kept Allied secrets of the war. The Germans knew that the 3rd, 36th, and 45th Divisions were practicing amphibious assaults at various Italian beaches, and in early August, “high flying Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes reported a massive collection of shipping, including scores of warships, at harbors in Italy, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta, and as far away as North Africa.”[97] Just knowing that the Allies were planning a major operation and deducing the most likely areas for the assault were not enough. The German commanders in southern France did not have the adequate numbers of trained units to defend such a large length of coastline.

The original German defense plan called for the infantry divisions posted along the coast to hold the assaulting formations at the beach while the 9th and 11th Panzer Divisions counterattacked soon after the Allies landed. However, the 9th Panzer Division was diverted to Normandy leaving the 11th Panzer as the only armored mobile force available to the German Army Group commander.

Because of the Allied invasion of Normandy, the strength of Army Group G gradually weakened as unit after unit received orders to support the defense in northern France. However, many units remained in central France and the Valley of the Loire to wait for the expected Allied move to the north and east. These units were in a perfect position to strike at the exposed flank of the U.S. Third Army at the right end of the Allied advance, but Army Group G had too much territory to defend. Following the St. Lo breakout in Normandy on 25 July 1944, the most worrisome development for Army Group G was Patton’s Third Army drive down the Loire Valley. Yet, the threat of a southern invasion kept the Germans occupied, and by early August, many of the units of Army Group G oriented themselves for possible movement to a new front in the south, reducing the threat against General Patton’s flank.

The commander of Army Group G, General Johannes Blaskowitz, faced a serious problem. He could not defend against Third Army’s steady advance down the Loire River Valley while maintaining adequate defenses on the western and southern coasts. The steady transfer of some of his best units to Normandy and the deterioration of the German situation in northern France convinced Blaskowitz that any attempt to resist a major landing against the Mediterranean was futile. Army Group G began discussions with Berlin for abandoning the southern coastal defenses and forming a new defensive line around Dijon at the northern end of the Rhône Valley. Establishing this new defensive line by 20 August would allow Army Group G to make a firm stand against the Allied advance east from Normandy, while watching developments in the expected southern landing. General Blaskowitz’s thinly spread troop deployment along the invasion beaches and inability to get reserve formations, if available, to the coast due to transportation shortages placed him in an untenable position. He had inadequate armor, artillery, and air support and his coastal commanders were isolated from his headquarters. To Blaskowitz, a withdrawal from southern France made sound strategic sense, but to the German High Command, it was out of the question.[98]

At the time of the southern invasion, German commanders in central and southern France were in the process of revising their defensive plans as a result of the prolonged battle for Normandy. In the months leading up to the southern landings the following German units were relieved and moved north to strengthen German defenses in Normandy: 271st, 272nd, 277th Infantry Divisions, as well as the 9th Panzer Division and motorized artillery, antitank weapons, and antiaircraft artillery units. The 11th Panzer Division moved to the Toulouse area as an available rapid reaction force. At the time of the Dragoon landings, the German Army maintained eight combat-ready divisions between Perpignan near the Spanish frontier and the Italian border with the additional 11th Panzer Division on the west side of the Rhône River as the sole mobile reserve. These units defended a very lightly fortified coast against the desires of the German commanders charged with stopping any Allied invasion at the coast. The fortification of the southern French coast was severely restricted in favor of massive defensive construction projects on the English Channel and Atlantic coasts, even though the Germans expected an Allied attack in the south. The Germans erected no heavy installations except for reinforcing the existing French works along the coast and the fortresses around Toulon and Marseille. Along the possible landing beaches, typical defenses were water obstacles, concrete antitank walls blocking the exits from the beaches, and mining of the deeper water approaches to the most likely possible landing areas. The defenses themselves, little better than field fortifications, did not compare to the defenses built along the channel coast. Many of the commanders in the southern regions preferred to forego building defensive positions along the coast and found it “essential to fortify well in the interior of the defense zone,” especially at the entrances to the mountain ranges and the Rhône Valley.[99] The decision of the German high command to fortify and defend along the coast discounted the local commanders’ assessments of the situation and the terrain left the Germans thinly spread out with only their one mobile reserve, the 11thPanzer Division, available to counter-attack. When the assault started, this mobile reserve was more than two hours to the west of the landings and moving eastward for the Rhône. The steady diversion of forces to Normandy and the German High Command’s decision to defend at the coast cost the German Army dearly when Truscott’s men hit the thinly defended beaches. By 17 August, two days after the landings, the situation worsened to the point that the German High Command changed the course of their defense of central and southern France.

The landings in southern France threatened to cut off the German First Army in the west and the Nineteenth Army in the south unless they began a withdrawal quickly. The German High Command presented Hitler with two options on 16 August: withdraw Army Groups B and G immediately or risk the destruction of both. Hitler made the decision to withdraw all forces except the garrisons defending the ports of Toulon and Marseille and the units of Nineteenth Army already engaged in combat. On 17 August, the German High Command issued orders to evacuate the Atlantic coast between the Loire River and the border with Spain, as well as the speedy withdrawal of units from the Mediterranean front in the general direction of Dijon.[100] This withdrawal started on 19 August. In effect, the Germans were evacuating two-thirds of France to save their forces from annihilation and to prepare for the defense of Germany. The decision to remain in the coastal defensive positions even for a few days meant disaster for the German Nineteenth Army and ruled out any possibility for Army Group G to mount its planned attack into the Third Army’s southern flank. General Blaskowitz now had to manage the hasty withdrawal from the south using the few available roads through the mountains while defending against possible attacks from the Third Army. Military historians pay scant attention to the results of the German High Command’s decision to defend the coastline. An earlier withdrawal through the Rhône Valley, as requested by the local commanders, may have saved Army Group G, certainly the Nineteenth Army, for the determined defense of the Fatherland.

Remarkable Successes

In contrast with Operation Overlord in Normandy, Operation Dragoon became a fast-moving campaign almost immediately. Once ashore, the American soldiers quickly secured the beachhead and pushed inland, dislodging the defenders of the German Nineteenth Army. By the afternoon of D+2, 17 August, the American front line troops penetrated 20 miles in some sectors. The infantry and armor units of the VI Corps then turned west and northwest toward the Rhône River Valley. Meanwhile, the first echelons of the French Armée B came ashore over the same landing beaches. Together, the French and American units formed the fast-moving Seventh Army under the command of Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch.

The combined American and French forces of Patch’s Seventh Army continued their relentless assault toward Marseille, forcing the German Nineteenth Army into a fighting withdrawal from southern France. As the French Armée B prepared its assault on Marseille, the VI Corps turned north up the Valley of the Rhône. Montelimar presented the last major obstacle ahead of the Americans. Once cleared of German soldiers, Montelimar fell, and the rout was on. The campaign became a race northward up the valley, a development which changed the operational plans of the German Army Group G headquartered at Toulouse.[101]

The Allies found themselves two hundred fifty miles deep into France just two weeks after the initial landings, and “another ten thousand square miles of France had been liberated.”[102] By 7 September, a combat patrol from the French Second Corps made contact with soldiers of General Jacques Leclerc’s French 2nd Armored Division, operating with the U.S. Third Army.[103] With the full link up of Allied armies completed by 10 September, the Seventh Army turned northeast attacking through the Vosges Mountains toward Strasbourg. The drive to the German frontier began, and thus ended Operation Dragoon.

To the end, this campaign met with heavy British opposition. Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt of the dangers of a “bleak and sterile invasion” through Provence, followed by “very great hazards, difficulties, and delays” in the struggle up the Rhône Valley.[104] Yet, even with reluctant British participation, the campaign through southern France became quite possibly the most successful Allied amphibious campaign of the war.

Within two weeks of the Dragoon landings, the Allies seized their two main objectives in less than half the time planners had projected. At the cost of some four thousand young French soldiers killed or wounded, the French Armée B accomplished the primary objectives of the campaign. Defending the port of Toulon and Marseille cost the German 19th Army dearly in terms of dead, wounded, and prisoners of war, including 700 officers. “Two of his divisions had been completely destroyed.”[105] With the ports of Toulon and Marseille captured, the Allies had available in the Mediterranean a huge base of supply, which doubled that of the Normandy ports and would contribute to the supply of all U.S. and French troops in the European Theater of Operations. Through the ports, which the “French army had just conquered the troops of the coalition would never stop receiving arms and supplies.”[106] The Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General of the Army Marshall, recognized the importance of the Mediterranean ports to the Allied success in northern France. In his report to the United States Congress, he wrote, “the Mediterranean ports assured, in eight months, the transit of fourteen divisions and the average daily discharge of 18,000 tons of supplies.”[107]

Gaining the port of Marseille promised to make up for some of the losses resulting from the slow clearance of the English Channel and North Sea ports. By September, the ports of Le Havre and Rouen in Normandy had finally come into operation, while work continued to repair the port facility at Cherbourg. Meanwhile, the Supreme Headquarters hoped that the port of Marseille might develop capacity in excess of the Sixth Army Group’s needs and help the U.S. Third Army.[108] By the end of August, two weeks after the southern invasion, the southern ports of Toulon and (mostly) Marseille produced 174,500 tons of shipping, and by November were handling more than one-third of the total Allied war shipping for the effort against Germany in northwestern France, far exceeding the output of the ports of Normandy.[109] In addition to the output at the southern ports, 306,127 men, 69,312 vehicles, and 17,848 tons of gasoline had gone over the Dragoon beaches by the time they closed down six weeks after the landings.[110]

Allied naval supremacy in the Mediterranean put great strain on German defensive planning as the Allies could land nearly anywhere from the southwest coast of France to Greece. By the end of July 1944, German naval power was almost non-existent in the Mediterranean Sea. Enemy naval strength was reduced to approximately ten U-Boats, a few torpedo and escort boats, and a single destroyer formed into the 6th Security Flotilla. To protect their resources, the German Navy moved several of their Atlantic U-Boats away from the heavily patrolled Normandy shipping lanes to the Mediterranean where they hoped to make repairs and augment their fleet using the construction and repair facilities at Toulon and Marseille. The German Navy planned to send most of these U-Boats back into the English Channel to harass Allied shipping. However, Allied air attacks, in preparation for Anvil, not only crippled repair activities but also destroyed those U-Boats that were waiting in their pens.[111] By the time Anvil commenced, the German naval presence in the Mediterranean ceased to exist, and the naval threat to operations in Normandy greatly reduced.

Often overlooked in this campaign is its vital importance to the success of Allied forces in northeastern France in the winter of 1944 – 1945. Operation Dragoon placed two additional armies, totaling ten divisions with their own supply lines, through the Mediterranean onto the Western Front. The Atlantic and Channel ports could not sustain the several hundred thousand soldiers of an additional Allied army group. Without the Sixth Army Group, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley’s U.S. Twelfth Army Group faced a front of 600 kilometers (373 miles) reaching as far south as the Swiss border. Devers’ presence on the southern end of the line greatly reduced Bradley’s responsibility to a front from the Netherlands through Belgium and Luxembourg, deep into eastern France using the First, Third, and Ninth Armies. The Sixth Army Group completed the southernmost segment of the Allied line, covering some 200 kilometers (124 miles) that included the strategically important city of Strasbourg, the Belfort Gap, and the closest approaches to the Rhine River, considered Germany’s most important natural line of defense. General Eisenhower’s “broad front” stretched from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland. With the Sixth Army Group in the line, the American First and Third Armies maintained a denser front line defense against any possible counterattack by the German Army. General Eisenhower outlined the role of the Sixth Army Group on the southern flank of the Third Army in a letter to General Devers. Devers’ forces, supported over their “own Mediterranean line of communications, would act to protect the south flank of the 12th Army Group and deploy its strength across the Rhine.”[112] Once Third Army crossed the Rhine, the Sixth Army Group could anticipate its own drive across Germany toward Bavaria.

The added strength of German units retreating unscathed from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastal regions would pose a much more serious threat to the Allied push, especially the U.S. Third Army’s exposed southern flank. If the German 19th Army, indeed the entire German Army Group G, had been able to retreat relatively casualty-free from central, south, and southwest France, Eisenhower would have found it difficult to maintain his broad front strategy against a much stronger German defense. “Hitler’s December 1944 Ardennes Offensive might have enjoyed greater success had Eisenhower not been able to draw on the reserves of Devers’ Sixth Army Group.”[113] The Ardennes Offensive, or “Battle of the Bulge” as it is commonly known, was a great setback for the Allied forces, especially the U.S. First Army, yet Patton’s Third Army transferred four divisions north to relieve the threat to the First Army and the southern shoulder of the “bulge” thanks to the presence of Devers’ Sixth Army Group, which shifted its boundary northward to free some of Patton’s divisions and transferred several divisions to cover the Third Army’s axis of advance.[114] The Sixth Army Group also claimed another 22,000 German dead and missing, and 20,000 captured by early February 1945 after the collapse of the Colmar Pocket. According to historian Douglas Porch, “probably no more than 10,000 German troops escaped across the Rhine.”[115] These soldiers were the remnants of German Army Group G, another casualty of Operation Dragoon.

Though highly controversial, Operation Dragoon proved to be one of the most important Allied strategic decisions of the European War. In the context of its accomplishments, the importance of Operation Dragoon to the success of first the Normandy and Northern France Campaigns and later the Lorraine Campaign is obvious. From late summer to early autumn of 1944, the U.S. Seventh Army, composed of the U.S. VI Corps and the French Armée B, liberated nearly two-thirds of France, stranding some 25,000 German soldiers left behind in the Atlantic Festung ports. Although German casualties are difficult to estimate, by 14 September, the German Herresgruppe G had suffered 143,250 casualties of which roughly 7,000 killed, some 20,000 wounded, and more than 105,000 captured. Counted among the numbers of prisoners were Major General Ludwig Bieringer, military commander of the Var Department and Lieutenant General Ferdinand Neuling, commander of the LXII Corps. General Bieringer fell into the hands of American paratroopers in the town of Draguignan on the second day of the campaign thanks to the brave fighters of the French Forces of the Interior, or Resistance. General Robert Frederick, commander of the First Airborne Task Force, brought Bieringer to General Patch’s command post in St. Tropez on 17 August. Lieutenant General Neuling managed to escape from Draguignan to the northwest with his LXII Corps staff. On 18 August, Colonel Hodge of the 117th Reconnaissance Squadron routed Neuling and his staff from a cave. He, too, went to see General Patch in Saint Tropez. Without its commanding officer and most of its staff, the “German LXII Corps ceased to exist, leaving its two components on their own: the 242nd Division to defend Toulon and the 148th to protect Cannes and Nice.”[116]

Within weeks, Germany’s combat units south of the Loire River were emaciated and most of its infantry divisions reduced to 3,000 men or less. Without the southern landings, Army Group G would have remained in place, and the Allied operations north of the Loire River subjected to flank attack through the autumn of 1944.[117] These cold numbers of casualties translate into almost three German corps no longer available to defend against Eisenhower’s “broad front” approaching Germany’s “West Wall.”

Additionally, the capture of the military port of Toulon and the deep-water port of Marseille, primary reasons for the campaign, opened up major Allied logistical gateways for the armies of General Eisenhower’s strategy for defeating Germany from northwestern Europe. Toulon was primarily a naval base like the port of Cherbourg in the north, and it had an estimated capacity to handle 10,000 tons of shipping per day, mostly freight. However, Toulon lacked sufficient clearance facilities, so logistical planners concluded the port could serve as an interim port, in addition to the landing beaches, and could manage the maintenance and build-up resources needed for the consolidation of the beachhead and drive on Marseille. They hoped for an early capture of the port and immediate capacity of 2,000 tons per day. The Allies intended to use the port of Marseille as the main gateway through which to sustain the Seventh Army and later the Sixth Army Group, but the port provided much needed support for the American Twelfth Army Group as well. Marseille was the second largest city in France and the foremost French port in the Mediterranean. The port could handle “all types of shipping, and possessed ample facilities for the transfer of all types of cargo between ships, barge-lines, trucks, rail cars, sheds, and warehouses.”[118] In contrast to Toulon, the clearance facilities at Marseille were substantial, with hard-surfaced roads and standard gauge railways linking the port with major cities in France. The Marseille-Rhône Canal extended fifty-seven miles northwest to important petroleum storage facilities on the Rhône River. Once fully operational, Marseille could easily meet the estimated daily requirement of 15,000 tons for the Dragoon forces.[119] By September 1944, the southern ports accounted for over one-fourth of the Allied supplies arriving in France and over one-third during October and November; these numbers held until surpassed by Antwerp in March 1945.[120]

French Resistance

An analysis of the role of the French Resistance in the success of Operation Dragoon is indispensible, and Operation Dragoon played an enormous role in the success of the Normandy and Northern France Campaigns. We know that VI Corps moved swiftly from the invasion beaches toward its junction with Patton’s Third Army in little more than three weeks. When considering the effects of the southern landings on the northern operations, one must ask a simple question. How helpful were the Maquis (Resistance fighters)? That is, how did the fighters of the French Resistance aid the Allies in the successful prosecution of the campaign? The Supreme Commander, while not sure what the exact role of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) should be, made it clear in March 1944 that the Resistance played a major part in operations throughout France before and after the Allies invaded. Eisenhower reflected the standard policies of the British Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services, organizations responsible for organizing and supplying the FFI throughout France. These Resistance policies recognized that the Maquis specialized in sabotage, in blocking roads and communications, and hit-and-run ambushes over a widespread area.[121] For all of the well-known efforts of the FFI in the Normandy region, the southern Maquis were more formidable against the Germans. Before and during the Dragoon landings, the Maquis harassed the German supply and communication lines, scoured the hills, patrolled at night, and brought in prisoners. All of the major units engaged in the fight lauded the help of the FFI in their operations reports. The VI Corps commander, General Truscott, echoed the sentiments of his subordinate units: “Their knowledge of the country, of enemy dispositions and movements, was invaluable, and their fighting ability was extraordinary.”[122] The Germans, too, had strong feelings for the FFI. Since the landing in Normandy, the Maquis increased their attacks against German formations, especially in the Central Plateau and the region between the Rhône River and the Alps. In a post-war interview, Lieutenant General W. Richter, a division commander in the Nineteenth Army, stated, “As the retreat of our troops accelerated, they were more and more often attacked, and the destruction of bridges, streets, railroads and canals became more and more difficult.” [123]

Additionally, once Seventh Army and Third Army linked up, the thousands of German soldiers trapped in southwestern France found themselves not with regular troops, but prisoners of the FFI. These captured soldiers no longer fought for Germany.[124] Finally, the Sixth Army Group approached the German border heavily reinforced by tens of thousands of FFI now fighting as members of the French First Army. The strengthening of the French forces permitted General Devers to shift Seventh Army further north into the zone originally allocated for Patton’s Third Army. This enabled General Bradley’s U.S. Twelfth Army Group to increase its density of defense along the extended front as previously mentioned. As de Lattre de Tassigny’s forces moved north and east, more Maquis joined as regular soldiers. “On the 20th September 40,000 had joined, at the 15th October more than 60,000, and before the end of November 75,000.”[125] In total, more than 137,000 Maquis joined the ranks of the French First Army.


Historians cannot accurately judge the success of Allied combat operations in northern Europe without acknowledging the important contributions of Operation Dragoon, especially with respect to the degradation of the German military resources and German plans. As noted, the capture of two major southern ports, plus the addition of another Allied Army Group greatly increased the weight of the Allied push against the German forces.

Among the many books providing a comprehensive history of the Second World War is John Keegan’s classic survey titled “The Second World War.” Hidden in the more than 600 pages of his work is approximately one page covering Operation Anvil/Dragoon. Keegan presents the typical British approach that the campaign was militarily valueless and notes, “by 14 September about half of the Nineteenth Army had found refuge in southern Alsace, where it stood ready to defend the approaches to Germany’s West Wall.”[126] This is an accurate statement regarding the fleeing remnants of the Nineteenth Army. However, the author intentionally fails to mention that the other half of the Nineteenth Army was a casualty of Dragoon and not in position to strike at the flank of General Patton’s U.S. Third Army swinging eastward toward Lorraine. Additionally, he ignores the degradation to Army Group G caused by the landings in Provence, not an assault through the Llubljana Gap favored by the British. Keegan assumes a very naïve position that German commanders would leave the Nineteenth Army in Provence to wither away while the rest of Army Group G formed a strong defensive stand along the Rhine River. The Nineteenth Army, indeed, the entire Army Group G would not sit in the south of France while the huge Allied juggernaut pushed on the Fatherland as Keegan suggests. When it became apparent that the only Allied advance in France was in the northern sector, Army Group G, including the 19th Army would have withdrawn behind the Rhine River. The broad front strategy may have easily become the World War One style of trench warfare stalemate that Eisenhower so dearly wished to avoid. In July 1944, the German forces in central and southern France posed a danger to the Allied armies. The destruction of the German Nineteenth Army and the degradation of Army Group G by the Seventh Army relieved a major threat to the Overlord forces wheeling eastward toward Germany. As late as 1989, Keegan contradicted himself when he actually identified Operation Dragoon’s real value as a diversionary attack, which forced the Germans to retain divisions in Provence far away from the defense in Normandy. Yet, he cannot accept this fact as one of the stated objectives for the campaign.

The landings in Provence and the rapid advance up the Rhône Valley were a remarkable accomplishment. General Lucian Truscott wrote, “less than a month hence, this American Corps and its French comrades had destroyed a German Army, taken more than 100,000 prisoners, liberated all of southern and eastern France, and had joined hands with the Normandy invasion more than 450 miles from its landing beaches.”[127] General Jacob Devers, in an address delivered before a meeting of the American Military Institute in 1946, declared the invasion of southern France “one of the most important operations of World War II.”[128] Yet, the controversy lingered. General Mark Clark, the Commanding General of the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy claimed, “Anvil constituted one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war.”[129] Clark was furious that the VI Corps and French Expeditionary Corps left Italy for the Anvil operation. Ironically, Clark’s mismanagement of the prolonged Italian Campaign combined with the surprising speed in which Rome fell helped bring Anvil back to life. Marshall wrote to Eisenhower that, in Italy, “eight or nine less divisions will be heavily engaged with the enemy, divisions which will be available in the Mediterranean.”[130] Although Rome was in Allied hands, Marshall did not have confidence in the Italian campaign to get through the mountains north of Rome in a timely fashion. He believed that the quickest route to the defeat of Germany went through France. Eisenhower agreed with Marshall that, even north of Rome, there is not enough room across the Italian boot to fit additional Allied combat divisions. He believed that the Allies “must strive in every way to promote a battle there that engages efficiently all combat forces we can make available.”[131] Fresh units from the United States replaced the three divisions removed from Italy with VI Corps. The problem for Clark’s Italian Campaign was not a lack of forces. The effort in Italy was a series of short bursts across flatlands that ultimately met heavy resistance where the rugged terrain favored the defense. The craggy mountains of central and northern Italy allowed a comparatively small number of German divisions to throttle and stall the allied advance for over a year.[132] Operation Dragoon made no significant negative impact on operations in Italy, and actually experienced some impediments because of Clark’s poor campaign management. Truscott’s rapid advance suffered a lack of appropriate air support because the demands of the Italian campaign reduced the availability of aircraft for southern France.[133]


Following the war, General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower stated, “There was no development of that period which added more decisively to our advantage or aided us more in accomplishing the final and complete defeat of German forces than did this attack coming up the Rhône Valley from the Riviera.”[134] By 8 May 1945, 905,512 Allied troops and 4,123,794 tons of cargo passed through the ports of Marseille and Toulon. Additionally, 306,127 men, 69,312 vehicles, and 17,848 tons of gasoline had gone over the Dragoon beaches in the first six weeks after the landings.[135] According to General Jacob Devers, “No operation in our history had up to then produced more decisive, dramatic, swift, and far-reaching results at so little cost.”[136] The operation in the south of France “will probably go down as a classic for surprise, exploitation, and results.” [137] Devers had good reason to feel proud of these accomplishments. In one month’s time, Seventh Army accelerated the German departure from France, opened new ports and airfields, made possible the rehabilitation of French commerce and industry, and destroyed huge German formations by killing, wounding, capturing, or stranding almost 160,000 German soldiers in one important month of operations.[138]

Although Operation Anvil/Dragoon was extremely successful, many British and even some American writers continue to argue that it was unnecessary, and the units involved in it could have strengthened the Italian Campaign. Professor Alan Wilt argues that whether the operation was necessary or not is not even the point. For him, Dragoon added “another element to the Anglo-American strategy,” and actually strengthened the overall Allied strategy because “the French Riviera campaign assured that the Western Allies would approach Germany from a westerly and not a southerly direction.”[139] This position agrees with the views held by Eisenhower and the U.S Joint Chiefs that France was the decisive theater.

Once launched, this controversial on-again, off-again operation achieved unmistakable success. The debate among historians still rages about whether or not the execution of Operation Dragoon was justified. This essay approaches the argument by asking if the southern France invasion actually accomplished its objectives. Did it cause the German Army to maintain significant numbers of soldiers away from the Normandy and northern France campaigns? Did it further weaken Germany’s ability to defend the homeland? Did it make the best use of available French forces? Did the liberation of the ports of Toulon and Marseille contribute to the reinforcement and resupply of the Allied armies?

The answer to the first question is no and yes. Insofar as the original intent was for a simultaneous landing with Overlord, Anvil/Dragoon did not stop the enemy from reinforcing the defenses in Normandy. In fact, numerous German divisions located in central and southern France deployed to Normandy, including the 9th Panzer Division. However, the continued threat of invasion and the actual landings ten weeks later engaged several hundred thousand German troops otherwise available to interfere with the drive across northern France. The second question is not too difficult to answer considering the estimated German casualties in numbers of killed, wounded, captured, and stranded approaching 160,000.That number is almost equivalent to half a German Army Group removed from the war. Eisenhower’s “broad front” strategy proved difficult enough without an additional German Army defending against the Rhine River. The loss of these German forces from the southern invasion seriously hampered the German commanders charged with defending the western approaches to the Fatherland.

The southern campaign obviously did make the most effective use of French forces. The French Expeditionary Corps fought well in Italy, but French leaders, especially De Gaulle, wanted their units engaged in combat on French soil. To this end, they pressed the Americans and British to make sure that this became a reality. The British notion that these same French units could enter through Brittany, Bordeaux, or even from England into Normandy is patently absurd and very far removed from reality. The Germans prepared to defend the available ports on the Atlantic coast more heavily than the southern ports, and the Channel ports barely supported the existing British and American forces. Soldiers of the French Armée B captured the southern ports for the Allied cause. Finally, once the southern invasion moved inland, French forces benefitted from tens of thousands of local recruits, many former members of the Resistance, joining their organized formations. Thousands of young French men flocked to the French First Army, confirming Eisenhower’s contention that only in France would the French Army find suitable replacements for its battle losses. The U.S. Army official history estimates that the “French contribution saved the United States alone from having to send eight to ten divisions into combat in Europe. These soldiers could be put to good use in the Pacific and elsewhere.”[140]

The importance of the capture of the southern ports is already obvious. They easily fulfilled their roles and fully justified their joint assignment as the primary objectives of the entire campaign. The amount of men and materiel that came through the ports relates directly to the historian’s final question regarding Dragoon. Broadly speaking, how did the invasion change Allied strategy and alter the Anglo-American relationship within the alliance? Against the wishes of the British leaders, the southern France landing committed the Allies to a western strategy. More than just a diversion, it was a reinforced three-division invasion, backed by large air and naval forces, demonstrating the American and French commitment to France as the primary route to the defeat of Germany.[141] By the summer of 1944, the U.S. Army came of age, and the American strategic leaders, in their decision to launch Dragoon, assumed the role of senior partner in the alliance.

An additional army group of several hundred thousand Allied soldiers added its weight to the Allied line, and large-sized French formations fought for French liberation. The German Nineteenth Army was demolished. German Army Group G, stripped by half of its effective combat units, retreated behind the Rhine River leaving thousands of German soldiers isolated in southwestern France. Meanwhile, major port facilities in southern France provided vital logistical support to all of the U.S. and French forces fighting in France. With the decision to execute the amphibious landing and follow-on campaign in southern France, the United States assumed the dominant position in the Anglo-American alliance, relegating the British to a subordinate role. There really can be no doubt that, contrary to the predictions of many Allied leaders, especially British, Operation Dragoon had no negative effect on the Italian Campaign, increased Allied logistical capabilities, and severely degraded the German Army Group G, altering the course of the war for the Allies in northwestern Europe during the Second World War.

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Show Notes

© 2024 Bruce Malone

Written by Bruce Malone

About the author:
Bruce Malone works for the American Battle Monuments Commission and is currently Superintendent at Brittany American Cemetery in Normandy, France. He retired after 24 years in the US Army and has a BA in History from the University of Maryland and a Masters in Military History from Norwich University. His main historical interests are the American Civil War, World Wars I & II, The Hundred Years War, and the French Revolution and French Revolutionary Wars. He and his wife reside in Montjoie-Saint-Martin, France.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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