Côte d’Azur on the French Mediterranean August 15, 1944

The Allied assault on German-occupied Southern France orig­i­nally was to have kicked off simul­ta­ne­ously with the Allies’ June 6, 1944, inva­sion of North­western France (Oper­a­tion Over­lord)—the intent being that the Germans would think twice before sending rein­force­ments from Southern France to the Normandy beach­heads and that, with any luck, the enemy would be trapped between two invading Allied armies in a classic pincer move­ment. How­ever, a world­wide shortage of suffi­cient landing craft, together with Over­lord planners upping the number of parti­ci­pating divi­sions in the Normandy inva­sion from three to five, forced Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Allied Com­mander, to extend the start date for Operation Anvil, renamed Operation Dragoon, by six weeks.

On this date, August 15, 1944, the Allied invasion of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s Vichy France began with a para­chute jump of 9,000 U.S. and British infan­try­men. (Late the night before and into the next day com­mandos of First Special Service Force neu­tralized German coastal defense bat­teries oppo­site the Allied landing areas and sea lanes.) The jump by the 1st Air­borne Task Force, which secured the area north­west of the landing beaches, was quickly followed by an aerial bom­bard­ment by the first set of 1,300 Allied bombers, a naval bom­bard­ment, glider landings, and an amph­ibious assault by a mixed force of Amer­icans and French­men. Within hours of the landings, the inva­sion force (troops, vehicles, and tanks) was twice the size in men alone of the opposing German Army Group G, which was poorly equipped, stretched too thin, and woe­fully under­strength. (There was only one army, the 19th, in Army Group G!) Many of the German defenders were either older Wehr­macht (armed forces) replace­ments or Central and Eastern European Volks­deutsche (ethnic Germans) and Ost­legionen (foreign legion-types). With few excep­tions German resis­tance to the Allied inva­sion was negli­gible. Many defenders, especially non-German servicemen, quickly surrendered.

After nightfall on August 16/17 Army Group G head­quarters realized the impos­si­bility of its land (83,000–100,000 in the assault zone), naval (45 small ships), and air (200 aircraft) forces ever expelling the Allies from their Medi­ter­ra­nean lodge­ment. By then Allied units had pene­trated 20 miles inland in some sectors. The defenders there­fore decided to sacri­fice the port cities and their garri­sons at Toulon (liber­ated by a mixed force of U.S. and French sol­diers on August 27 with a loss of 17,000 German POWs) and Mar­seille (mostly liber­ated by August 27 with a loss of 11,000 POWs) to buy time for a fighting with­drawal up the Rhône River valley. How­ever, in both Toulon and Marseille German demo­li­tion engi­neers succeeded in rendering the port facilities momentarily useless.

Pursuing the enemy continued as one Rhône town and city after another fell (Lyon, Dijon), and in a time­span of 40 days most of France had been liber­ated. On Septem­ber 10 Dragoon units were able to estab­lish con­tact with units from Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army. Slowing almost to a crawl due to over­stretched Allied supply lines from the coast of Southern France, the pursuit of the enemy ended later in the month when Army Group G—reduced by half now—reached the sanc­tuary of the Vosges Moun­tains near the French fron­tier, leaving more than 130,000 German troops trapped behind Allied lines, 7,000 dead on the battle­field, and 20,000 wounded. Even­tually, the southern route opened by Opera­tion Dragoon became a signifi­cant source of supplies for the Allied advance into Germany, providing between 30 and 40 percent of the total Allied requirement.

Operation Dragoon: The Allied Liberation of Southern France, August–September 1944

Operation Dragoon, Allied invasion of Southern France, August–September 1944

Above: Over the course of the monthlong southern offen­sive (August 15 to Septem­ber 14, 1944), the Allies drove 400 miles north­ward into France, liber­ating 10,000 square miles of terri­tory while inflicting 143,250 German casual­ties. Launched with reluc­tant British parti­ci­pa­tion, Opera­tion Dragoon provided crucial support to the main Allied thrust into Nazi Germany across the Rhine. Dragoon remains one of the most success­ful air-land-sea opera­tions of the war, although it has been over­shadowed by the larger operation in the north of France, Oper­ation Over­lord, the Allied invasion of Normandy two months earlier.

45th Infantry Division lands at Sainte Maxime during Operation Dragoon3rd Infantry Division practices landing exercises in Italy, July 1944

Left: Men of the 45th Infantry Division land at Sainte Maxime, sit­u­ated in the middle of Opera­tion Dragoon’s five inva­sion beaches, August 15, 1944. The 45th Infantry Divi­sion was one of three assault divi­sions (the other two were the 3rd and 36th) to land on the French Riviera (Côte d’Azur). The three divisions were part of VI Corps coming under Gen. Alexander (“Sandy”) Patch’s U.S. Seventh Army.

Right: Members of the 30th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division board ten LCIs (Landing Ships, Infantry) and one LST (Landing Ship, Tank), July 24, 1944, near Naples, Italy, for a practice landing in anticipation of the upcoming invasion of Southern France.

Operation Dragoon: 3rd Infantry Division disembarking at Cavalaire-sur-Mer, August 15, 1944Operation Dragoon: 36th Infantry Division at Saint-Raphaël, August 15, 1944

Left: 3rd Infantry Division disembarking from LCI 188 at Cavalaire-sur-Mer, between Toulon and Italy, August 15, 1944. The 3rd Infantry Divi­sion was one of the few U.S. Army divi­sions that fought on all Euro­pean fronts, seeing combat in North Africa, Sicily, Italy (Salerno, Cassino, and Anzio), France (Rhône Valley, Vosges Moun­tains, and Stras­bourg), Germany (Nurem­berg, Augsburg, and Munich), and Austria for 531 consecutive days.

Right: Capable of carrying 150 tons, the LCT (Landing Craft, Tank) in this photo is shown unloading tanks and tank destroyers for the 36th Infan­try Divi­sion at Saint-Raphaël, the eastern­most inva­sion beach, August 15, 1944. The divi­sion encoun­tered only light oppo­si­tion in their landing sector. The 36th’s rapid advance opened up the Rhône River Valley.

Operation Dragoon: Allied Invasion of Southern France

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