Operation Anvil was the original name given to the Allied invasion of occupied Southern France. Operation Anvil, ultimately named Operation Dragoon, started in August 1944 and was not concluded until September 1944. To some the decision to initiate Operation Anvil was a highly controversial decisions as it meant that the weight of Allied power in Italy would move west as opposed to going straight into the heart of Europe. To some this was a signal that a decision had already been taken to leave central Europe – Czechoslovakia and central Germany – and the Balkans to the advancing Red Army.
In its original form, Operation Anvil was meant to have coincided with D-Day so that German forces were split in two with neither being able to reinforce the other because of the two simultaneous invasions. However, ‘Anvil’ started one month after D-Day and Allied forces in Normandy faced the real danger of Hitler ordering large troop movements from the south to the north during this time.
The planning for Operation Anvil quickly showed a split between the approaches of American Chiefs-of-Staff and their British equivalent. The same was true between F D Roosevelt and Churchill. For Roosevelt, Operation Anvil was part of what he called the “grand strategy” as was discussed at the 1943 Tehran Conference. Roosevelt believed that a ten division invasion of southern France combined with the attacks at Normandy would spilt in two the Germany Army in the west of Europe. Churchill and British Chiefs-of-Staff expressed their concern that such a concentration of effort and resources would leave Stalin’s Red Army with the spoils of central Europe. Roosevelt did not agree and said to his son Elliott while at the Tehran Conference:
“I see no reason for putting the lives of American soldiers in jeopardy in order to protest real or fancied British interests on the European continent. We are at war and our job is to won it as fast as possible, and without adventures.”
Stalin gave Roosevelt his full backing regarding this. However British General Brooke, who attended the conference, wrote:
“I am certain he (Stalin) did not approve such operations for their strategic value, but because they fitted in with his future political plans. He was too good a strategist not to see the weakness of the American plan. His (Stalin’s) political and military requirements could now be best met by the greatest squandering of British and American lives in the French theatre.”
However, a combined landing in south and north France never occurred. The issue was not political but more logistical. Dwight Eisenhower knew that he needed a specific number of landing craft for D-Day and that these would need to be supported by a specific number of naval craft. He was not prepared to jeopardise D-Day in Normandy by compromising on the number of vessels required or transferring some to southern France. Therefore the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe decided that Normandy took priority and that Anvil would have to wait until the Allies had pushed inland.
Allied Combined Chiefs continued to argue about a landing in south France even after D-Day. Arguments were put forward for a landing in the Balkans or the Bay of Biscay as alternate choices. Eisenhower himself originally favoured a landing at Bordeaux but recognised that any of the large ports in south France represented a good choice. Neither he nor General Marshall (of Marshall Aid fame) favoured a landing in the Balkans and Marshall publicly questioned why the British would want to land there in particular. Eisenhower needed a deep-water port to land supplies and men. He believed that the ports in liberated north France simply could not cope with the logistical problems this would throw up. However, Marseilles and Toulon looked promising – Eisenhower had 40 to 50 divisions waiting in America, along with their equipment, to bring over to Europe. He knew that Cherbourg could not cope with such numbers but that Marseilles and Toulon combined with Cherbourg could.
Charles de Gaulle was keen for an invasion of south France to supplement the landings at D-Day. He insisted that he play a greater part in the planning for Operation Anvil than he had for the Normandy landing. De Gaulle later claimed both the Americans and British had frequently bypassed him in the planning for D-Day despite the fact that many in France saw de Gaulle as the most senior Frenchman. He put four French divisions in Italy on standby for an invasion of south France despite the opposition of General Juin, the commander of France forces in Italy.
Churchill continued to argue for the Allies to continue their push up Italy and then into France. This avoided any need for an amphibious landing. If successful, it would also have destroyed German military power in Italy. Churchill called the plan for Operation Anvil “bleak and sterile”. Churchill appealed directly to Roosevelt:
“Let us resolve not to wreck one great campaign (Italy) for the sake of another. Both can be won.”
Roosevelt replied that he would not depart from the “grand strategy” discussed at Tehran. He also reminded Churchill that November 1944 was election year in America and that he also had political considerations. A successful Operation Anvil combined with the success in Normandy would stand him in very good stead politically. The only concession Roosevelt made to Churchill was to rename the campaign ‘Operation Dragoon’. Churchill bowed to what Roosevelt wanted but with no enthusiasm. He informed Roosevelt that the British would do all they could to ensure success but that he hoped that Operation Dragoon would not ruin any other “greater project”.
Even after this decision, Churchill tried to get Roosevelt to change his mind. Once the breakout of Normandy and the liberation of Brittany had been cemented, Churchill put forward the port of St. Nazaire as the perfect port to land American troops and equipment. That way Operation Dragoon could be put on the shelf. Eisenhower believed that Churchill felt so strongly about this that he might tender his resignation to the King. When they met in Portsmouth after August 15th had been decided, Eisenhower found Churchill to be “stirred, upset and even despondent”. Churchill accused the Americans of being “a big, strong and dominating partner.” Churchill later claimed that Eisenhower agreed with him regarding St. Nazaire but the future president’s ADC, Captain Harry Butcher, present at the meeting, claimed that this was not so:
“Ike said ‘No’, continued to say ‘No’ all afternoon, and ended saying ‘No’ in every form of the English language at his command.”
After World War Two ended, the US commander in Italy, General Clark, supported Churchill and called Operation Dragoon “the outstanding political mistake of the war”. Clark believed that the Allied armies in Italy could have pushed past the Apennines, spared some troops for the liberation of south France, but with the bulk pushing north into Austria and southern Germany. Clark even envisaged the war ending in 1944 and with the Soviet expansion west being held at bay. However, it was not to be.
The attack was planned for August 15th – 5 weeks after the landings in Normandy.