[Civil Affairs] Forgotten Fronts - Operation Dragoon '44

Civil Affairs, Historical Department

Forgotten Fronts – Operation Dragoon '44

In the summer of 1944 an Armada of Allied ships gathered off the coast of occupied France, conveying hundreds of thousands of American and Allied forces into an amphibious landing against entrenched German infantry and artillery with Panzer forces in reserve. Overhead fly an aerial armada conveying para and glider troops, bombing carefully reconnoitered defensive positions and strafing anything that moved. This was however not the 6th of June: the Normandy landings were hundreds of miles distant and some 2 months old, rather it was the little known 'Operation Dragoon', launched by American and Free French forces on August 15th 1944 against the French Mediterranean coast designed to support and complement both the more famous Overlord landings and the advances of Allied forces in Italy.

It's Genesis lay within the 1942 'Sledgehammer and Anvil plan' conceived by Allied planners, (notably Gen. George Marshall), as simultaneous landings on the Northern and Southern Coasts of France whereby German forces would be crushed between the two forces as though between a hammer and an anvil. However the logistical difficulties of equipping and supplying the necessary number of divisions in time for a landing in the summer of 1943, coupled with the horrendous failure of Operation Jubilee, (the raid on Dieppe), lead to Allied planners choosing easier targets (Operations Torch, Husky, Avalanche etc.) as a preparation for the eventual invasion of France, albeit much to the Soviet's chagrin. Instead the Sledgehammer part of the plan was incorporated eventually into Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, whilst planning for Operation Anvil was neglected and indefinitely postponed due to a lack of resources to simultaneously carry both sets of invasion forces.

After the landings in Normandy were successful in establishing a beachhead in France equipment and supplies (crucially Landing Craft and Transport Aircraft) were made available for a potential reactivation of Operation Anvil or for other amphibious operations in the Mediterranean. Amongst the Allied leadership disagreements raged as to the best target for the US 7th Army and the Free French Armée B which were preparing in Tunisia either to provide reinforcements in Italy or to join a new amphibious operation in the Mediterranean Theater. The US, (Championed by SHAEF Commander Gen. Eisenhower), favoured a reactivation of Operation Anvil in order to support the faltering attempts to breakout from the Normandy beachhead, the French also put their support behind further liberation of French soil, however the British and Canadians, (at Churchill's insistence), preferred an invasion of Greece or the Balkans in order to pre-empt Soviet Advances in the area. Eventually the US and French won their way as it was to be primarily their troops, (albeit supported primarily by Commonwealth Naval forces), making the attack and the Operation was officially sanctioned on July 14th 1944. Churchill was so bitter at the abandonment of his pet 'Balkans Project' he allegedly agreed only to release the Mediterranean Fleet to support the operation on the condition it was renamed 'Dragoon' as he felt he had been 'dragooned' into taken part.

!Churchill                    Eisenhower
Churchill and Eisenhower bitterly disagreed about Operation Dragoon

Whilst planning for Operation Anvil had been undertaken in 1942 many updates were required to Operation Dragoon in order to account for new strategic realities and knowledge gained through previous amphibious landings, notably at Anzio and Normandy where enemy forces occupying high ground above a beachhead had proved very dangerous to landing forces resulting in high casualties. Equally the need to rapidly capture intact port facilities was noted as was the need to interdict the flow of German reinforcements and supplies to the beachheads. As such new landing areas were chosen just to the east of the major port of Toulon centred around the town of St. Tropez where the ground inland would be flat and provide little cover for defending forces. Additionally the French Resistance, (FFI - French Forces of the Interior) were tasked as part of the operation with destroying communications links, attacking convoys and isolated German garrisons and pinning down German troops inland. 3 American Infantry divisions and 1 French Armoured Division would be landed on the first day supported by the division sized Anglo-American '1st Airborne Task Force' as well as US, French and Canadian commando forces to secure high importance targets shortly before D-Day. Naval Support would be provided by the Allied 'Western Naval Task Force' consisting of some 9 Light Aircraft Carriers, 4 Battleships and a swarm of Cruisers, Destroyers and light vessels for both gunfire support and troop/equipment transport and landing operations. Equally overhead were some 1300 Combat Aircraft in a variety of roles designed to suppress the defenders as well as hundreds more troop transport and glider aircraft carrying paratroopers to their drop zones. Finally just as with Overlord, deception operations took place to lead the German defenders to believe the intended target of the invasion fleet would in fact be Genoa and La Spezia in Northern Italy.

Meanwhile German forces in the area were spread drastically thin; only 11 understrength divisions remained under the command of Army Group G, with each division assigned a coastal sector of some 90Km to cover. Most divisions were classified 2nd or 3rd tier formations, meaning they received a very low priority for reinforcements in both quantity and quality, as well as suffering a paucity of equipment, (particularly transport), leading to 4 of the German divisions being designated as 'static' divisions incapable of useful operational movement and used essentially as garrison troops. The Luftwaffe had effectively withdrawn from Southern France whilst the Kriegsmarine operated just a few light coastal patrol vessels mostly inherited from the Italians or Vichy French. In fact, the only formation considered to be 'operationally viable' by German High Command was the 11th Panzer Division which was assigned to a reserve position inland from where it could counter-attack and attempt to push invading forces 'back into the sea'. Gen. Friedrich Wiese who lead the German 19th Army would be the effective field commander during the campaign but he was constrained in his actions by orders from German High Command (OKW) ordering him to delay the Allied forces for as long as possible and to hold as much ground as possible. Despite this, his Army Group commander Gen. Blaskowitz secretly asked him to prepare plans for a fighting withdraw in order to save as many men as possible to construct a new defensive line around Dijon to the North.

General Denvers               General Blaskowitz               General Wiese
Gens. Devers, Blaskowitz and Wiese would command the land forces during Operation Dragoon

Before any troops could be landed as part of the main assault the approaches to the beaches needed to be secured by neutralizing any Heavy Coastal guns which might overlook them and by blocking the passage of German reinforcements. As such the US-Canadian 1st Special Service brigade was tasked with the capture of gun batteries on the Hyères Islands which lay off the southern end of the invasion areas. Meanwhile Allied Paratroopers would land some 8 miles inland around the town of Le Muy and secure key crossings of the Naturby river to prevent movement by the 11th Panzer Division towards the beaches. The men of the 1st Special Service brigade landed just before midnight August 14th on the Hyères Islands of Levant and Port Cros and moved to capture key gun batteries which overlooked the Allied Invasion assembly areas. On Levant after hard fighting the commandos found that the gun positions were in fact dummies made of logs whilst on Port Cros no Gun positions were found. The German garrison retreated across the Island to an old Napoleonic era fort which only surrendered on the 17th August under threat of direct bombardment by the 15" guns of HMS Ramilles. The Paratroopers meanwhile were dropped into dense fog banks which left their pathfinders scattered and unable to mark drop-zones accurately. As such the main drop and glider landings were scattered and often hit anti-landing measures (such as minefields and 'Rommel's Asparagus' - stakes planted into open fields to destroy landing gliders). Nonetheless by dawn some 50% of troops had rejoined their units and all but one crossing over the river Naturby were taken whilst the town of Le Muy was surrounded and light artillery was positioned in the hills above it.

The Main landings were conducted against minor opposition and often without preliminary Naval bombardment as reconnaissance indicated many areas were simply without German defenders. Nonetheless aerial bombardment did go ahead and 1300 aircraft from across the Western Mediterranean attacked predetermined targets, laid smoke screens, strafed moving German troops or orbited as CAS. On approach to the beach LCIs fired special rockets designed to clear buried mines in the sand whilst 'crab' tanks equipped with Fales landed in the first wave in order to clear a quick safe path through the dunes for following transports. Only at the central 'Camel' beach was their any serious resistance where well concealed Artilleryand Flak positions were able to provide such resistance that one third of the beach (Camel Red) was closed to further landings and the positions there flanked and destroyed from the rear. Elsewhere German Ostruppen (mostly conscripted Czech and Polish) surrendered in droves and progress was swift: within a day the allied forces had linked up their beachheads and additionally advanced to Le Muy to join the 1st Airborne TF. Meanwhile FFI troops severed German lines of communications leaving junior commanders to act on their own initiative, forming Kampfgruppe and attacking towards St. Rapheal and St. Tropez on the coast or towards Le Muy where British and American Paratroopers were establishing defensive positions. 2 days of local counterattacks from German forces were beaten off mostly through the superior mobility of the Allied forces who were able to concentrate superior forces repeatedly against German infantry attacks.

Luckily for the Germans on the night of the 16th/17th August Hitler rescinded his 'Not One Step Back' order and arranged through OKW for Army Group G to attempt to disengage and retreat to eastern France to join Army Group B, (Engaged in Normandy around Falaise). Blaskowitz and Wiese initiated their previously secret withdrawal plans but the communications disruption meant that most commanders were forced to act independently turning the 'fighting retreat' into a panicked withdrawal under heavy pressure from Franco-US mobile forces. The commander of the German 157th Infantry Division decided to retreat his formations north on his own initiative in absence of clear orders when it had been Balskowitz's intention that they remain to guard the retreats eastern flank. As such Gen Wiese ordered 2 static divisions to remain in place in Toulon and Marseilles in order to tie down as many Allied forces as possible whilst the remainder of 19th Army retreated North. The allied assaults on Toulon and Marseille were assigned for 'political reasons' to the Free French forces of Armée B who encircled both cities on August 19th and 20th respectively. The German static divisions defended tenaciously in urban combat and the French forces suffered heavy casualties, eventually forcing the surrender of each city on the 27th August at a total cost of 4,500 casualties. Whilst 29,000 prisoners were taken in these assaults the port areas of each town were comprehensively demolished and mined by German engineers before the surrender making them useless in the short term as supply bases.

508th PIR resting near Le Muy          image
Men of the 508th PIR resting near Le Muy. Allied Newspapers were still dominated by news of the Falaise Pocket but Dragoon still made some headlines

During the French assaults on the Ports the Germans counter attacked with the only mobile forces they possessed. The 11th Panzer Division attacked in a number of small stalling attacks around Aix-en-Provence and Montelimar which halted the allied advance up the Rhone valley for 2 days whilst they assembled appropriate Armoured forces. In this time LXXV Infantry and IV Luftwaffe Field Corps were able to disengage and retreat North towards Lyon. The stalling attack by the 11th Panzer Division was notable for developing into a 4 day battle of maneuver in the hills of the central Rhone Valley. Retreating German troops were consistently able to hold open a corridor of withdrawal against increasing pressure from first 'Task Force Butler' (an adhoc Armoured brigade) then 2 full US Infantry divisions. Nonetheless the Germans did not possess the troops to adequately oppose the Allied advance everywhere and by the 22nd of August Grenoble had fallen to the Free French 2nd Corps who threatened to cut of the troops in the Rhone Valley at Montelimar. Sensing the danger Blaskowitz and Wiese ordered and full retreat through Lyon and then East towards Bourg-en-Bresse in the foothills of the Vosge Mountains, US troops were in hot pursuit, reaching Lyon just 6 hours after the last German troops had departed on the 3rd of September. However local counter attacks by the 11th Panzer Division repeated in the destruction of Allied reconnaissance forces searching for ways to outflank the German rearguards. By the beginning of September German forces were dug in in strong defensive positions in the Vosge mountains and lack of supplies and command restructuring brought an end to the Allied advance.

Whilst the allies had captured a vast swath of Southern France with relatively few casualties they had failed to destroy the German forces ahead of them. The positions in the Vosge mountains and the Upper Rhine taken up by the Germans at the conclusion of Operation Dragoon would in some cases hold until the last few weeks of the war. The aggressive usage of his few mobile troops by Wiese allowed the majority of Army Group G to retreat despite being heavily outnumbered by forces superior in firepower and mobility. In contrast the timidity of US Divisional commanders was noted throughout the battle as they often hesitated under contact with enemy forces. Nonetheless the lessons of Dragoon in advancing against a retreating enemy force were taken in by the Allied armies who employed them to good effect in their advances into Germany in the Ruhr area in March '45. In the end Dragoon cost the lives of some 8,000 Allied and 7,000 German troops with many thousands more wounded or captured, but it undoubtedly brought the wars end closer and deserves to be remembered alongside it's more glamourous cousin in Normandy.

Written by: Cpl. Lamb
Edited by: Sgt. Brewer
Approved by:Cpt. Walker

Reviewed by: PFC Chamine
Edited by: Sgt. Brewer
Approved by:Cpt. Walker


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