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“The Champagne Campaign”

Operation Dragoon

U.S. soldiers landing on the French Riviera in August 1944 (Photo: NARA)

On August 15, 1944 more than 100,000 Allied troops landed on the Mediterranean coast of France. The landings, codenamed Operation Dragoon, sought to liberate southern France and capture the ports of Marseilles, the second-largest city of France, and Toulon, so that after the impending collapse of the Falaise Pocket in Normandy Allied troops could start pushing towards Germany with their supply lines secured. It became even more important due to two events in June 1944. The two artificial Mulberry harbors in Normandy were damaged in mid-June by a huge storm and one of them, the American harbor at Omaha Beach, even had to be dismantled due to heavy damage. At the end of June, the Americans captured the port of Cherbourg (read our earlier article) but the Germans had so thoroughly demolished its harbor that it took a long time to put the port back into service.
 
The idea of the landing was adopted at the strategic Tehran Conference (codenamed Eureka) by the U.S., the UK and the Soviet Union in late 1943. Eisenhower and General George C. Marshall supported the proposal. Churchill was against the idea all along since he rather preferred advancing further from Italy and landing in the Balkans to prevent the Soviets from conquering Central and Eastern Europe and spreading Communism (which eventually happened, pushing the region in the hands of the Soviets for 44 years during the Cold War). As a consequence, only a limited number of British soldiers, mostly Commandos, took part in Operation Dragoon. Of course, Stalin supported the idea of the landings in southern France instead of the landings in the Balkans.

The Allied fleet gathering at Naples, Italy in early August 1944 (Photo: Wikipedia)
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The initial plans of the Allied invasion of Western Europe, Operations Sledgehammer and Anvil, called for simultaneous attacks from northern and southern France. Operation Sledgehammer became Operation Overlord and was launched on June 6, 1944, while Anvil was further delayed for lack of landing craft. The insistence of the Free French forces on liberating the south of France (they had several new divisions stationed in the Mediterranean mostly made up of colonial troops), as well as the need to capture its ports, the Combined Chiefs of Staff finally gave the green light on July 14, 1944 for Anvil, which was re-designated as Operation Dragoon on August 1. Some say that the re-designation came from Churchill, saying that he was “dragooned” into the operation.
 
The main strategy behind the operation was to land and then push quickly to the north along the Rhône river, take Lyon and Dijon and make contact with the Allied forces which landed in Normandy. After the successful initial landing, French units were to take the ports of Toulon and Marseille lying further west from the landing beaches. The Allied were already in a good strategic position thanks to the landings in Normandy and the huge offensive, Operation Bagration, launched by the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front two weeks later. On top of that, Hitler became even more distrustful of the German armed forces after the unsuccessful assassination attempt against him on July 20, 1944 (read our earlier article).

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The map of the Allied advance under Operation Dragoon (Photo: Wikipedia)

The operation bore close similarities with the Normandy landings in terms of preparations (bombing campaign, deception operations, parachute drops, commando raids, etc.). Weeks before the landing, it was preceded by a bombing campaign against German fortifications, strategic bridges and by diversionary tactics meant to tie down German troops away from the landing beaches (with dummy paratroopers, chaffs, fake landings, etc.). At the same time, the planners of Dragoon used the lessons learned from the amphibious landings in Italy and Normandy, and, for instance, tried to land at beaches where the landing forces could obtain the high ground in order to successfully resist subsequent German counterattacks. A new innovation, the Apex landing craft, a remote-controlled “Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel” (LCVP) loaded with explosives meant to destroy beach obstacles, was introduced here.
 
The main landing force, Lieutenant-General Alexander Patch’s U.S. 7th Army, was formed a few weeks prior to the invasion, mostly from experienced units transferred from the Italian front. Patch, a West Point graduate, was a WWI veteran and served in the Pacific before having been assigned to command the Seventh Army.

Major General Patch, commander of the U.S. 7th Army (Photo: Wikipedia)

The landings were supported by paratrooper drops and commando raids in key locations. Around 9,000 British and American paratroopers and glider troops of the 1st Airborne Task Force landed near Le Muy to secure the back of the center of the beaches. U.S. and Canadian troops of the 1st Special Service Force assaulted the 40 ft. high cliffs of the Hyeres Islands on Port-Cros and Levant to neutralize German batteries (Operation Sitka). French commandos carried out a similar mission on the German battery at Cap Nègre (Operation Romeo).
 
The main amphibious assault was launched on August 15 by VI Corps under the command of Major-General Lucian Truscott. It consisted of the U.S. 3rd, 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions. The so-called Task Force Butler, led by Brigadier-General Fred Butler, was supposed to be ready to rapidly exploit the situation with its mechanized units and push ahead in case the German defenses would collapse. VI Corps was followed the next day by the French Army B of 4 divisions led by General de Lattre de Tassigny. The naval element was led by Vice Admiral Henry Hewitt, the air forces by Lieutenant-General Ira Eaker. The landing force consisted of 843 ships and 1267 landing craft. Members of the French resistance (called the “Maquis” in this part of France) largely contributed to the success of the invasion by sabotaging German railway and telephone connections and supplying the Allies with vital information. They were much more active in actual combat compared to their counterparts in Normandy due to the terrain and other factors. They closely cooperated with the Allied special forces and intelligence agencies.

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The opposing German force was the 19th Army (“Armeeoberkommando 19” - AOK 19) under General Friedrich Wiese, belonging to General Johannes Blaskowitz’s Army Group B (“Heeresgruppe B”). Blaskowitz, a decorated Prussian WWI veteran, led troops in the campaign against Poland in 1939 and protested against the atrocities committed by the SS and was, as punishment, put in relatively smaller positions. He assumed command of Army Group B in May 1944. Its 11 divisions (including 5 reserve and 4 static divisions) were understrength, only one of them armored (the 11th Panzer Division) and some of them with no mobile capacity at all. Their equipment was outdated, many of the soldiers were overaged, wounded or Osttruppen conscripted form German-occupied Eastern Europe (for instance, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Turkmen). In 1944, several units were transferred to the Italian theatre, then to Normandy. These divisions were spread out along the coastline and had to cover an average of 56 miles / 90 km per division which was five times more than the recommended density in the German army.

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General Blaskowitz, commander of Army Group B (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The naval forces were led by Vizeadmiral Paul Wever, who had a heart attack on August 11 and had been replaced by Ernst Scheurlen only after the landings. The naval element had a separate command chain led from Paris which made coordination even more complicated. Coastal defenses, named Südwall (“Southern Wall”), consisted mainly of French medieval fortifications and other emplacements built in a hurry by the German paramilitary Todt Organization.
 
The Germans had a complicated command structure and communication was also difficult with the headquarters in Paris and Berlin. The Allied intelligence was mostly aware of the German plans since, due to the telephone lines damaged by the French Resistance, the Germans had to use the radio. This made the Allies’ job even easier because German radio communication was intercepted by the Allied Ultra codebreakers.
 
Blaskowitz had already realized that in case of an Allied invasion it would be impossible to defend the coast and his only option would be to retreat to the north and try to establish a defensive line near Dijon. Way before the landings, he asked for the Führer’s permission to do this but his proposals were turned down.
 
The operation began with an aerial bombardment shortly before 6.00 a.m. and lasted until 7.30 a.m. Then, the battleships opened fire on specific targets. Naval gunfire ceased as the landing craft swam ashore at 8.00 a.m., spearheaded by amphibious tanks. The troops had to take three landing beaches: Alpha, Delta and Camel.

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The map of the landings (Photo: warfarehistorynetwork.com)

Taking Alpha Beach, the westernmost beach on the left flank, was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division. Assaulting the central Delta Beach, was the task of the 45th Infantry Division, later the liberator of the Dachau concentration camp in 1945 (read our earlier article). The landing soldiers faced only weak German resistance on both beaches, with mines being the main threat. The easternmost and most heavily defended beach on the right flank, Camel Beach, was a harder nut to crack for the 36th Infantry Division. Here, the commanders decided to call off the assault of one of the three sectors, namely Camel Red, and divert forces to the easier sectors in order to avoid running into another Omaha Beach-situation. Eventually, all three beaches were taken with light casualties: 95 killed and 385 wounded. The air- and gliderborne forces lost around 380 American and 50 British soldiers, with almost half of the casualties owing to accidents.
 
On D-Day+1, the only weak German counterattack came from the hastily assembled Kampfgruppe Schwerin (“Battlegroup Schwerin”) at the center at Le Muy, but it was repelled quickly and the Germans had to retreat. The main goal of the landing forces was to expand the beachhead and to prepare for a stronger German counterattack.
 
Finally, Hitler made up his mind and ordered an all-out retreat further inland to the Rhône Valley on August 16 (including also the retreat of Army Group B from Normandy) but the complete order was received by Army Group G only on August 18 losing a lot of precious time. The two German divisions stationed in Marseille (244th Infantry Division) and Toulon (242nd Infantry Division) were sacrificed and ordered to stay behind and resist to buy time for the withdrawing forces. The 11th Panzer Division was ordered to cover the retreat. The rest of the fleeing forces desperately tried to establish defensive lines but were constantly harassed by the French Resistance and strafed by Allied fighter-bombers.

A pair of 340mm guns in a cruiser turret of a coastal battery near Toulon with a soldier in front of it. (Photo: Flickr)

Seeing that there was no chance of any major German counterattack, the Allied strategists reassessed the initial, less optimistic plans. Task Force Butler was activated by the Americans on August 18 and was assisted by the Resistance on its push forward. In contrast to the original plans, the two key objectives, the ports of Toulon and Marseilles, were attacked in parallel instead of one after the other and were liberated between August 26-28 by the French forces. Despite the German engineers’ demolition efforts and the scuttling of ships in the harbors, more than the quarter of the Allied supplies came from the ports of southern France later. The paratroopers and special forces were re-assigned to liberate the resort towns of the French Riviera and eventually stopped and dug in at the Maritime Alps on the French-Italian frontier. Sometimes, the main northward thrust became so quick that the U.S. forces chasing the retreating Germans had to stop because of fuel shortages. Some of the smaller vanguard units in pursuit were so fast that they were surrounded by the Germans and had to withdraw to prevent being swept away.
 
The main Allied thrust aimed at Grenoble and Montélimar with the latter lying on Route 7 leading to Lyon and finally Dijon. They pushed to the north, where they liberated Lyon on September 3 which was mostly already abandoned by Germans. Dijon surrendered on September 11 to the French forces. The official closure of Dragoon was marked by the link-up with General Patton’s 3rd Army on September 10-14. The leadership was handed over to the European command from the Mediterranean on September 14. A few days later the Allied advance came to a halt when it reached the Vosges Mountains as resources were diverted to Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands which was launched on September 17.

The staged photo in the Star and Stripes newspaper about the handshake of the Overlord and Dragoon forces in Autun. (Photo: NARA)

Operation Dragoon was an unexpectedly quick but not an easy success for the Allies in which they liberated more than half of France with around 450,000 soldiers, including 250,000 French fighters. Because of the beauty of the French Riviera and the success of the operation, it was called later the “Champagne Campaign”. German Army Group G lost most of its heavy equipment and suffered around 159,000 casualties (7,000 killed, 21,000 wounded, 131,000 POW). Still, the Germans were not beaten yet, they managed to retreat in an orderly manner to ideal defensive positions at the French-German border with a much better density of forces (they were joined by German units retreating from other parts of France), and their supply lines got much shorter, too. On the other hand, the supply routes of the Allies got overstretched and their command structures also had to be consolidated after the link-up of the armies coming from the north and the south of France. If you look at the calendar of 1944 in a history book, you will see that with Operation Market Garden, the battle of Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge coming up the Allied had a difficult autumn and winter ahead of them in the European Theater of Operations.

The photo of a U.S. soldier and a little girl giving him a bottle of wine, and the reunion of their daughters 75 years later. (Photo: The Beachhead / Stephanie Trdenic)

On September 16, 1944 a photo was taken of an American soldier of the 36th Infantry Division, Joe Trdenic, when a little French girl, Thérèse Grenier gave him a bottle of wine as a gift for the liberation of the town of Luxeuil. After the passing of Joe Trdenic in 1984, his family started looking for the little girl. Miraculously, the daughter of Joe and the daughter of Thérèse found each other and met in 2019 on the exact same place where the original photo was taken 75 years ago. Since the Rhone Valley is famous for wine production, a red wine named Operation Dragoon was put on the market a couple of years ago with this iconic photo on the bottle.

The red wine named after Operation Dragoon with the iconic photo on the bottle. (Photo: vivino.com)

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