Operation Anvil, renamed at Churchill’s insistence Operation Dragoon, started on August 15th as planned. Unlike in Normandy where remnants of the Mulberry Harbour and the Atlantic Wall can still be seen, there is little to remind people on the south coast of France that Operation Dragoon ever took place. The beaches between Toulon and Cannes were chosen for the landings – a 35 miles strip of coastline.
The amphibious fleet was made up of 6 battleships, 4 aircraft carriers, 21 cruisers and 100 destroyers along with 500 transport ships. They had variously sailed from Oran, Corsica, Naples, Malta, Palermo and Taranto. Vice-Admiral H K Hewitt, United States Navy, commanded the naval force. The heavy guns of the battleships were not needed as initial reports indicated that few Germans were on the coastline or the immediate hinterland. As with Operation Overlord, Allied deception had worked. The Germans were expecting an attack at Genoa and had been fed this information – early captured German soldiers confirmed this. Hewitt had made a course ostensibly to Genoa before altering it at the last moment. Dummy parachutists were dropped that also gave the clear impression that the landing target was Genoa.
At 08.00 men from the US 6th Corps (commanded by General Lucien K Truscott) landed and faced minimal opposition. Landings were made at Cavalaire and Pampelonne Bays, Agay and St. Maxime. However, during the night French commandoes had landed at either end of the landing zone to direct in the waves of assault troops and to highlight any areas of German resistance. General Patch, commander of the US 7th Army tasked with the landings, was a veteran of Guadalcanal and he wanted to make a gesture to the French after all the political bickering that had taken place prior to the attack. He sent a message to the commander of the French commandoes, as they were about to depart:
“The (men) of the Allied Fleet salute Lieutenant-Colonel Bouvet and his men, who will have the honour of being the first to set foot on their native shores, and to liberate their land. May God guard and protect them.”
However, political bickering at Allied headquarters in Algiers, where Anvil/Dragoon was planned, still managed to anger de Gaulle and other senior French military commanders. Those who organised the landings placed the seven French divisions assigned to the landings under American control. De Gaulle had assumed that General de Lattre de Tassigny would command the French troops. It was pointed out to him that military command had become so complicated as World War Two had progressed that a spilt in leaders was untenable. However, a compromise was made. Patch was put in complete charge of all the French troops during the actual landings and for the immediate phases after but once the landing zone had been secured command of the seven French divisions would pass to General de Lattre de Tassigny.
The landing zone was relatively poorly defended. This is not to say that the south of France was an entity was poorly defended. In fact, the Germans had the 19th Army based at Avignon; sizeable German forces were based at Montpelier, the mouth of the River Rhône and along the Riviera. However, the quality of the men based there was questionable. Data captured during the advance through south France showed that 50% of the men stationed on the Riviera were there to recover from post-wound operations and that 66% of all men there were recovering from fighting on the Russian Front. Whether they were in the mood or had the morale to put up a sustained fight – especially as they would have known what had happened in Normandy – is open to debate.
While French commandoes guarded the extreme flanks of the landing zone, British and American paratroopers dropped 15 miles inland at Le Muy to ensure that the Germans could not bring up any reinforcements. In fact, the drop did not go to plan as an electrical failure meant that many men were dropped miles away from the drop zone and had to march back to where they were all meant to gather. However, the lack of any German resistance meant that this was a minor inconvenience. Those Germans who were encountered were quickly subdued and those taken prisoner used to carry Allied equipment back to Le Muy.
From the landing beaches, the Allies moved out to Nice to the east and Marseilles to the west. General Patch believed that politics dictated that the French should be allowed to liberate Toulon and Marseilles. Patch himself was concerned that this would be a long process and could tie down the Allies too near to the coast for his liking. De Lattre de Tassigny believed the opposite and told Patch that his plan was to attack Toulon and Marseilles at the same time and take both cities within days. Patch believed that this was a poor plan but refused to counter it. The German garrison at Toulon surrendered on August 27th after some severe street fighting, which cost the French 2,700 men killed and wounded. The Germans in Marseilles surrendered on the same day – the French suffered 4,000 casualties. Therefore, the two major target cities in the south were captured just 12 days after the landings for the cost of less than 7,000 French and Colonial troops killed and wounded. General de Lattre de Tassigny’s men had also heeded his call in their advance – “Don’t crush the vineyards”. It was de Lattre de Tassigny’s men who first made contact with Patton’s army from the north.
After the surrender of Toulon and Marseilles, the Allies swiftly moved north. The US 36th Division moved north to Grenoble, which was liberated on August 23rd. Lyons was liberated on September 3rd – 77 days ahead of schedule. The French 2nd Corps commanded by General de Lattre de Tassigny liberated Avignon and then moved north up the River Rhône to Dijon, which was liberated on September 11th. The French 2nd Armoured Division reached Châtillon-sur-Seine (30 miles to the northwest of Dijon) on September 12th. On September 13th, the French Navy steamed into Toulon harbour. While Marseilles Harbour was a mess in the immediate aftermath of the German surrender with 11 large wrecked ships blocking the entrance to La Joliette docks, a channel was quickly cleared and within months 14 US Divisions had been landed there. Once the docks were in working order, 17,000 tons of supplies were landed there each day.
In less than a month, men involved in Operation Dragoon had advanced 500 miles and liberated some major French cities. 3,000 Americans were killed with 4,500 wounded while the French suffered less than 10,000 casualties killed and wounded, including soldiers who fought for France from Morocco and Algeria – the Goums of Morocco, for example and men from the FFI (French Forces of the Interior). German casualties were far higher but any accurate records were not kept. However, 100,000 Germans were taken POW’s – about 33% of total German strength in south France. An American officer who took part in the landings said:
“There must be a hell of a row going on in Whitehall now. They’d never have sent us if they’d known it was going to be like this: the bastards would have come themselves.”