File:Anvildragoon.pngSeventy years ago at this time an important battle took place in the south of France which enabled French Resistance and Allied forces to move inland up to the Vosges Mountains in the northeast and liberate a large swathe of the country.

This battle was initially called Operation Anvil — sometimes still referred to as such — and later Operation Dragoon. Operation Dragoon began on August 15, 1944 and ended one month later on September 14.

Forgotten, yet major, operation

Although monuments exist and commemorations are held in the liberated cities and towns,  military history has largely neglected this battle, overshadowed by Operation Overlord, the Normandy Landings. Those who took part in Dragoon call it ‘the forgotten D-Day’. American and Free French forces received military support from Canada and Great Britain. Whilst the Resistance officers were French, their troops mostly came from African colonies.

It is unlikely that we will ever see military maritime landings such as this ever again. Military historian Thomas Vaisset told Nice-Matin on August 11, 2014:

There are so many men and so much equipment involved. Today, if you add in the sailors, pilots and ground troops, together, they would have only been the size of Army B [the French force involved under General De Lattre’s command]. We’re talking about a scale that has no comparison with current internationational capabilities.

Vaisset added that military landings by sea have been fraught with risk throughout history:

Since the time of Caesar, landing by sea to penetrate further inland has always been complicated. Statistically, such an operation has a greater chance of ending in disaster than in a huge victory.

The paper cites two examples of failures: the Dardanelles in the Great War and Dieppe during the Second World War in 1942.

Although Western countries often joke about French weakness in battle, Vaisset had this to say about Operation Dragoon:

France paid the price in blood. She has her place at the victors’ table because she actively participated in the liberation.

Controversial

Operation Anvil — as it was called during the planning stages — was hotly contested and debated. Churchill favoured concentrating on Italy and securing oil in the Balkans, which would have deprived Germany of fuel. He also wanted to forestall the Red Army’s advance. A successful attack on the Balkans would result in a stronger position in negotiating post-war settlements. In addition, Anzio had gone badly, so the Provence landing was seen as being too risky and was temporarily shelved.

It is said that Churchill felt ‘dragooned’ into accepting Anvil. Other historians claim that the later name of Dragoon was taken from the city of Draguignan, one of the liberation targets. Whatever the truth might be, the landing went ahead after the success of the Normandy landings.

A booklet about Dragoon, Southern France — The US Army Campaigns of World War II, is a detailed and fascinating account of what happened during that month. It says:

the campaign might well not have taken place at all without the efforts of General Devers to continue preparations for ANVIL after its abrupt cancellation in April. 

Fortunately, as Dragoon unfolded:

de Lattre’s rapid conquest of Toulon and Marseille, which together would soon be providing for over one-third of the Allied supply needs in northern France, allowed the ports to become operational significantly before the stormy mistral season began. Indeed, by 14 September, D plus 30, the Seventh Army had achieved objectives that ANVIL planners had not expected it to attain until about D plus 120.

Also:

The Allied commanders were clearly assisted by the ULTRA intercept program, which revealed the details of the German withdrawal, a rare intelligence coup.

The major players in Operation Dragoon were Generals Jacob L Devers, Henry Kent Hewitt, Alexander Patch, Lucian Truscott and Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.

Considerations for success

File:Advance S France.jpgConsiderations for this sensitive operation were as follows:

Confuse the enemy: To confuse the Germans as to the primary liberation targets, the Allies attacked random areas along the coastline and inland ten days before Dragoon began. Fake attacks involving dummy paratrooper drops and small fleets of patrol craft also took place. Interesting fact: Actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr led one of the dummy attacks. (p. 11 of the brochure)

Choose the first landing carefully: French historian Thomas Vaisset says that the Allies needed a succession of beaches relatively close together, hence the multiple line of attack. They really needed a proper port, but the German defenses in Marseille and Toulon were too strong.

Manage fuel supplies: Fuel was an important consideration because it was in short supply from the start. Once the Allies liberated Provence, each advance inland put them further away from their fuel depots along the coast. Sometimes they had only one day’s fuel supply before the next could arrive. (pp. 28, 30)

Act quickly: Truscott was anxious not to repeat mistakes which had been made at Anzio by other officers. He knew of one commander who delayed moving inland, which proved to be disastrous. Truscott persuaded Patch that there were to be no delays with Dragoon. De Lattre was of the same opinion. This sense of immediacy brought immense success to the operation. (p. 14)

Using intercepts: The aforementioned ULTRA intercept programme worked brilliantly. At the start of Dragoon, the Americans were able to intercept a message intended for one of the German commanders, who, because of disrupted communication lines, didn’t receive it until two days later on August 17. By then, the Allies knew where the Germans would maintain strongholds and where they were ordered to withdraw. This enabled Dragoon to progress even quicker than anticipated. (pp. 15-16)

The booklet concludes:

All were willing to take risks to shorten the campaign, and each was confident that his troops and commanders could carry out even the most difficult maneuvers. It was in this respect that the campaign for southern France, one which resulted in the presence on Eisenhower’s southern flank of a strong Allied army group rather than a hostile German one, differed markedly from many other Allied efforts and deserves more study and attention than it has yet received.

The story of Operation Dragoon is a great one, the last of its kind in Europe. For this, we should be grateful but also mindful of the price paid for freedom. The French suffered 10,000 casualties; 2,050 Americans were killed, captured or missing and 7,750 more endured other casualties.