Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II

Larry Holzwarth - June 17, 2018

Parachute drops in the predawn hours. Increased activity by the French Resistance, coordinated with British, American, and Canadian commandos. A great fleet pounded German positions on the shores of France, followed by landing craft crawling towards the hostile beaches. Waves of attack aircraft bombarded German reserves and artillery positions. This sounds like the description of the iconic invasion of Normandy, but this is actually a little known event. This invasion took place on August 15, 1944. The invasion was neither as large nor as well known as the other great French invasion of World War II, but it was an allied invasion of France, two months after Operation Overlord placed allied troops in Normandy. It was called Operation Dragoon, and the Allies landed in Southern France, in Provence. The British participated in it though they officially opposed the plan.

Churchill argued against the plan directly to Roosevelt, arguing that the troops and materiel involved would be put to better use in Normandy or Italy. He believed that an invasion in Southern Europe would be better placed in the Balkans, where it could disrupt German oil supplies (and provide stronger British influence in Eastern Europe after the war. Dragoon was originally called Anvil, scheduled to occur at the same time as Overlord, but logistics made that unfeasible. By August, the desirability of seizing the French Mediterranean ports of Marseille and Toulon made Dragoon a necessity, as the Northern ports were unable to provide enough support.

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II
Sunk at Pearl Harbor and raised and rebuilt, USS Nevada supported the landings at Normandy and in the South of France. US Navy

Here are ten facts about Operation Dragoon, the other invasion of France by the Allies during World War Two.

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II
Winston Churchill opposed Operation Dragoon to the point that he told Eisenhower he would resign as Prime Minister if the attack went forward. Ike called his bluff. Library of Congress

Preparing for the Invasion

Despite Churchill’s continuing protests, in which he was supported by Field Marshal Montgomery, American commander Dwight Eisenhower recognized the paralyzing effect the lack of northern ports was having on the Allied troops in northern France. The Americans captured Cherbourg in late June, but the port facilities were destroyed. German forces in the south of France were for the most part garrison troops, with some armor support, but Allied pressure on the Germans in Normandy and Italy, as well as the attacking Russians, prevented the German High Command from diverting much strength to the Mediterranean, though they expected another invasion there.

The casualties suffered by the Allies at Normandy and Anzio provided lessons learned and they were applied to Operation Dragoon. The beaches selected were not dominated by high ground, and paratroops were dropped in areas to secure the inland high ground, denying it to Germans retreating from the beaches, and to reinforcing troops. Bridges were bombed to prevent German reinforcements from arriving at critical points. Most of the German units in southern France weren’t German at all, but comprised of volunteers and conscripts from some of the Soviet Socialist Republics. The units had lost most of their heavy equipment to replenish fighting units on the Eastern and Western Fronts.

The German High Command was aware that the defense of southern France was virtually impossible against a determined attack, and plans were already being made to withdraw to a new defensive position when Operation Valkyrie was executed. The attempt to kill Hitler and the ensuing purge of Wehrmacht officers made proposing any form of retreat dangerous to the proposer. The coastline was protected by numerous heavy gun emplacements, with many of the guns stripped from French naval vessels after they were scuttled at Toulon. The Vichy government installed the guns and after the Germans occupied all of France they strengthened the emplacements.

To counter the shore batteries the Allied invasion fleet included five battleships (USS Nevada, Texas, Arkansas; HMS Ramillies, and the French battleship Lorraine) along with a force of twenty cruisers. A force of nine escort carriers and their destroyer escorts was also assigned to Dragoon, though the majority of the air support for the invasion came from the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. Strategic bombing of targets and French resistance operations coordinated by OSS and SOE members began in July, 1944. German reprisals against captured Resistance members were swift and harsh.

As more and more German units were removed and sent to the front in the north, German strength to defend against the impending invasion dropped to less than 300,000 men, in eleven divisions, and just one panzer division, which was itself under strength. Despite the known weakness of the German defenses Churchill and Montgomery continued to argue against an invasion of the south. Less than one week before the planned invasion date Churchill suggested transferring the entire operation to the coast of Brittany in northern France. Montgomery wanted the forces committed to Dragoon to be assigned to him as part of the planning for Operation Market Garden.

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II
Major General Lucian Truscott commanded the assault troops of VI Corps for Operation Dragoon. Library of Congress

Allied forces for the invasion.

Following the Allied invasion of Normandy the forces of the French Resistance were more formally organized by OSS and SOE agents into the French Forces of the Interior, or FFI. FFI operations were coordinated with Allied tactical plans at the front to cause maximum disruption of German defenses and counterattacks. In the pre-invasion phase of Operation Dragoon, FFI units were instructed to destroy German communications and command and control centers. When the invasion began FFI units were directed to rendezvous with paratroopers and the commandos which landed to guard the flanks of the main invasion force.

The main force was the US Seventh Army, under the command of Guadalcanal veteran Major General Alexander Patch. The Seventh Army was assembled from combat veteran units from the Italian campaign, including VI Corps under Major General Lucian Truscott. VI Corps was involved in long and heavy combat in Italy, and was assigned the role of being the main assault force on the beaches for Operation Dragoon. Seventh Army also contained the French Expeditionary Corps (CEF) which consisted of French, Algerian, and Moroccan troops, veterans of the Italian campaign. Following the assault, French First Army, commanded by Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, was assigned to take the ports of Toulon and Marseille.

The First Special Service Force was assigned to seize the coastal islands of Levant and Port-Cros in the Hyeres Islands. First Special Service Force was a United States – Canadian unit of three regiments, trained in mountain fighting and amphibious assault. Recruiting for the force was aimed at men who had been lumberjacks, hunters, woodsmen, explorers, game wardens, and other outdoorsmen. It was called the Devil’s Brigade, and its men were veterans of fighting the Japanese in the Aleutians and the Germans in Italy. Their mission was to occupy the islands and eliminate the German big guns.

French commandos conducted Operation Romeo the evening before the invasion by the assault forces. The French landed at Cap Negre, west of the invasion beaches, to destroy the German gun emplacements there. A force of less than 100 commandos landed, climbed a 350 foot cliff, and in less than half an hour destroyed the guns. After this success the rest of the commandos landed and a force of 700 established a blocking position across the road to Toulon, preventing a flanking attack on the assault force when it hit the beach. The Germans lost 300 killed and 700 taken prisoner during Operation Romeo.

Operation Dragoon included a deception campaign called Operation Span. Both before the landings and following the assault Operation Span helped keep German units in position by creating the illusion that additional landings were being prepared. Small ships and landing craft approached the French coast in several areas, or cruised just out of range of coastal guns. As in Normandy, fake paratroop drops behind German lines forced the Germans to retain units in their positions rather than use them for counterattacks against the landings. The combination of the commando raids, actions by the Devil’s Brigade, and the deceptions all supported the success of the landings.

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II
World War One veteran USS Arkansas fired its twelve inch guns in support of the assault for Operation Dragoon as it had at Normandy. US Navy

The Invasion

In the early morning hours of August 15, the Allied fleet with its five battleships began a bombardment of German positions on and behind the beaches of Var, in southeastern France. All five battleships were obsolete in terms of taking a place in a battle line, but for the purpose of shore bombardment they were more than adequate. The German positions were pounded for several hours, supported by air attacks launched from Corsica and Sardinia. Cruisers joined in the naval shelling, positioning themselves closer inshore to cover the landings. Though the invasion fleet was not as large in number of ships as that of D-Day in Normandy, it possessed similar firepower.

At 8 AM the landing craft approached the beaches, carrying three divisions of the VI Corps. On each flank, commandos from Canada, the United States, and France established blocking positions to prevent German reinforcement of the assault area. The western zone of the assault area was at Cavalaire-sur-Mer and was designated Alpha. The easternmost assault area was designated Camel beach, near Saint-Raphael. In the center, at St. Tropez, the beach was named Delta. At both Alpha and Delta the resistance by the Germans was desultory, and the assault was quickly ahead of schedule. At Camel beach the resistance was stiffer.

German heavy weapons, including the feared 88mm guns, inflicted damage on the American assault craft. Camel beach was divided into three sectors, Red, Blue, and Green. The German guns on Camel Red drove back the assault landing craft. Both naval gunfire support and Army Air Force bombing were called in on the German guns. Neither was successful. The Americans were unable to land on the Red sector and after several attempts to approach the beach were driven back by heavy fire they abandoned the attempt, landing the troops on the other sectors. German air attacks were sporadic, as the Allies enjoyed almost total air superiority.

Simultaneously to the sea launched attack, paratroopers and glider borne troops landed behind the assault beaches to cut off German lines of retreat and to prevent German counterattacks on the beachhead. These landings were uniformly successful. The airborne troops suffered 104 killed during the assault, with 40% of the deaths attributable to accidents. On the beaches, 95 were killed in the initial landing, with less than 400 wounded. There were pockets of isolated German resistance, but they were quickly overrun. German reaction to the assault was uncoordinated, largely due to the efforts of the French Forces of the Interior, which destroyed communications.

Nonetheless German unit commanders, unable to communicate with headquarters, initiated counterattacks, which were hampered and then stopped by FFI units, reinforced by the airborne troops and commandos. The Germans quickly realized that their lines of retreat were close to being completely cut off, and that the beachhead was too well established to repel. German strategy became one of retreating with as much of their forces intact as possible. The German forces in the area, known as Army Group G, launched an assault on the beachhead on August 16, only to find that the Allies position was too strong. The only options for the Germans were retreat or surrender.

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II
Turkmen troops serving in the German Army in France in 1944. Wikimedia

Advancing to the north

As the Allies fought their way inland in the south of France, the Falaise pocket in the north threatened to cut off thousands of German troops. Hitler agreed to allow his generals to withdraw to better defensive positions in France on both fronts. By then the armored and mobile components of Operation Dragoon were well established ashore and as the Germans tried to withdraw they were disconcerted to learn that the Allies advanced faster than their own troops could retreat. Germans withdrawing to a defensive position north of the landing sites found it already occupied by Allied units, supported by mobile artillery and armored vehicles.

The Germans left garrisons in the ports of Toulon and Marseille, with orders to deny them to the Allies for as long as possible, and to destroy the valuable port facilities before they were taken. German units consolidated as they withdrew to the north, with the overall plan being the creation of a defensive line near the city of Dijon. The German 11 Panzer division was ordered to cover the German retreat along the Rhone River. The Allied advance became a three pronged drive to the north, with VI Corps advancing to Grenoble and Lyon, while the French struck west at Marseilles and Toulon. In many areas the fighting was intense. House to house combat was common in the villages.

The Allies were able to monitor German communications through Ultra intercepts. This provided them with knowledge of the German plans to establish a defense line from Dijon to the Swiss frontier. Truscott sent his fast mobile units, known as Taskforce Butler, to cut off the German withdrawal at the town of Montelimar. Taskforce Butler was supported by the 36th Infantry Division. The two units were ordered to both block the German withdrawal at the town and continue to send units north to Grenoble. Taskforce Butler established positions north of Montelimar on August 21, though the speed of its advance meant it was by then low on fuel.

On August 22 the first units of the 36th Infantry arrived, and strong support from the FFI helped Taskforce Butler harass the retreating Germans, but the lack of fuel and other supplies rendered the Allies too weak to launch a full assault on the enemy. The German 11th Panzer division reached the area in strength on August 24 and heavy fighting around Montelimar continued. The Allies dealt with German counterattacks, withdrew, counterattacked themselves, and retook lost ground. As the battle around Montelimar raged more German units withdrew through the town to the north, pursued by the rest of VI Corps.

The battle at Montelimar became a stalemate, with the Allies unable to block the German withdrawal and the Germans unable to dislodge the Allies from their positions. By August 28 the remaining Germans, a rear guard unit in the town, surrendered and the Allies occupied Montelimar the next day. More than 57,000 German troops had been taken prisoner by that point of Operation Dragoon. The Germans had suffered 2,100 casualties at Montelimar, including 8,000 taken prisoners, while the Americans of Taskforce Butler and the 36th Infantry division had lost just under 1,600 men. The German retreat toward Dijon continued.

The Battle of Toulon

As the Americans drove north from the Dragoon beachhead, the French First Army, comprised of mostly colonial troops, was tasked with seizing the ports of Toulon and Marseille, the main objectives of Operation Dragoon. Toulon was the main base of the French Navy, and had seen the scuttling of most of the French fleet in November 1942. Nearly impregnable from seaborne assault, Toulon was to be attacked following the Dragoon landings from land. Prior to the invasion numerous air raids were launched against the port’s defenses, which had little effect on the big guns defending the port. German troops established a defensive perimeter outside the city.

As the French colonial troops, accompanied by the 1st Free French Division, advanced towards Toulon from the Dragoon beaches beginning August 16, more air attacks were launched against the defenses. Eventually 28 bombing missions were launched against the defensive positions and the submarine pens in the port, which did little damage. The big guns defending the port made a supporting attack from the sea impossible. The Allied fleet could do little but blockade the port. The French colonial troops were facing defenses which had been strengthened earlier in the war by the Vichy government, and further strengthened by the Germans after occupying the port.

General Alexander Patch assigned the taking of the French ports of Toulon and Marseilles to French General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. The attack on the two ports was to be simultaneous. The goal of the Allies was to acquire the badly needed port facilities as intact as possible, rather than have them reduced by a long siege. Tassigny originally planned to launch the attacks on August 24, after being reinforced by more troops through the Dragoon beachhead. On August 18, with Operation Dragoon well ahead of schedule to the north, he decided to attack with the troops available, rather than give the Germans more time to destroy the port.

The German garrison in Toulon was about 18,000 men, and fighting around and in the city was heavy. By August 22 the Germans were encircled in the city, their perimeter shrinking, and their supplies and ammunition running low. The Germans allowed the civilian population of Toulon to evacuate the city prior to withdrawing into it, which reduced the possibility of attacks within their defenses by the Resistance. Gradually those defenses were overrun and on August 26 the remaining German defenders surrendered. The French suffered 2,700 casualties taking the city and port, the Germans lost their entire garrison of 18,000 troops.

Marseilles was declared taken two days later, when the remaining 11,000 Germans there surrendered to the French, who suffered about 1,800 casualties during that operation. German engineers destroyed the port facilities in both cities prior to their surrender and Allied engineers and construction battalions were put to work to restore them as quickly as possible. Within two weeks ships were unloading at the quay in Marseilles, Toulon followed soon after. Allied planners had expected the capture of the two ports to take 40 days following the invasion, with another month needed before the ports could be of use.

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II
Resistance fighters and SOE members participated in the fighting in the Rhone Valley throughout Operation Dragoon. Wikimedia

Advancing to the north

The Germans continued to withdraw to the north along the Rhone Valley through St. Etienne and Lyon towards Dijon, and along the Swiss border toward the Vosges Mountains. They were pursued by VI Corps, supported by the French II Corps. As the Germans retreated they destroyed the bridges behind them though in some cases the Americans had crossed ahead of the Germans, beating them to their objectives. FFI and Maquis fighters fought both German units and members of the Vichy militia, known as the milice. The Rhone Valley was liberally littered with destroyed German military equipment and dead horses.

The United States 45th Division swept past the Germans and arrived first at the town of Meximieux on the first of September. The position of the town and its outskirts placed them in a position to harass the retreating Germans and once reinforced offered the possibility of cutting off the German retreat. The Germans attacked using the depleted 11th Panzer division, causing the Americans to evacuate the town after taking heavy casualties. The German units continued to withdraw towards Lyon, which was reached by the Americans on September 2, 1944. Another 2,000 German prisoners were taken at Lyon.

The remaining Germans had already evacuated the town, which the Americans found already involved in reprisals against those of its population which had collaborated with the Germans. The Americans began an assault on the village of Bourg-en-Bresse in another attempt to close the German line of retreat to the remaining German units south of Lyon. This assault by the 45th division was repelled by strong German defense lines. At the same time units of Taskforce Butler bypassed the town and secured positions to its north. The position was one which effectively blocked the German escape route.

The position was too far north for reinforcements to reach it before the Germans arrived, once again in the form of units of the 11th Panzer Division. The Germans surrounded the town occupied by the American 117th Cavalry, and during the ensuing assault the American unit was destroyed. Once again, the escape route to the north was open for the remaining German troops, which continued their fighting withdrawal to the prepared defensive lines from Dijon to the Swiss border. The heavy losses of men and equipment forced the Germans to yet again alter their plans as they escaped the American and French pursuit, retreating further to the north.

The many towns of southern and central France which were garrisoned by German troops were also evacuated as the Germans retreated. These garrisons avoided the fighting by moving from the south to the Loire River and then east towards the main German lines. About 60,000 German troops evacuated southern France in this manner, leaving behind about 20,000 deserters. German garrison troops evacuating often did so in stolen French vehicles, having none of their own, and were hampered by FFI and Resistance fighters as they withdrew. They were also subject to Allied air attacks as they pushed to the east.

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II
Once the link with Patton’s Third Army was established Operation Dragoon was halted, despite Truscott’s protests. US Army

Link-up with Third Army

By September 10, 1944 Operation Dragoon had achieved all of its objectives except the destruction of the German Army Group G opposing it, though it had been driven back more than 300 miles in just over three weeks. Twenty-five days of almost constant fighting had depleted the American supplies and the speed of the advance increased the strain on logistics capabilities. Continued contact with the enemy prevented the Germans from stabilizing their defenses, and General Truscott considered a further attack on the Germans through a gap between the Vosges and Jura Mountains.

On the tenth of September contact was made by the northernmost units of VI Corps and the US Third Army under the command of General George Patton. Patton by then was having logistics difficulties of his own, having outrun his supply lines. At the time the priority for resupply had been directed towards Field Marshal Montgomery in preparation for his ill-fated Operation Market Garden, which began on September 17, 1944. When Truscott informed headquarters via General Patch that he intended to attack through the Belfort Gap before the Germans could establish a defense line, he was told to stand down.

The attack from the south was called off because of the need to prioritize supplies and to reorganize the command structure, as the American and French Forces in the south were now linked with the British, Canadian, and American forces in the north. Moreover the most effective units of the German Army which opposed Operation Dragoon remained in a combat ready state, and now occupied strong defensive positions and resupply lines. Prior to Operation Dragoon the German Army in southern France had been widely scattered, now it was consolidated in defensive formation, on terrain suitable for defense.

The ports on the Mediterranean were open but the rail system of France was badly disrupted by the destruction wrought by the combined Allied actions during the summer and early fall of 1944. Supplies landed by ships in the ports had to be delivered to the front in trucks until the rail system was restored. The slow manner of delivery hampered further operations by mid-September. Restoring the rail network took a higher priority as supplies needed at the front for further action sat in the ports. By October Marseilles and Toulon were offloading more than half of a million tons of supplies for Third Army and the forces of Operation Dragoon.

Operation Dragoon was declared complete by General Eisenhower on September 14, 1944, less than one month after it was initiated. During the thrust into southern France the Germans forcibly removed the officers of the Vichy government, declaring it a government in exile. They were eventually relocated to Germany. FFI leaders established a government in France using the institutions which had existed prior to the war, and with most of France free of German occupation the former collaborators with the Germans were subject to reprisals, some on formal charges from the new government, and some from private means, which the government generally ignored.

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II
USS Somers sank two ships of the German Navy and provided gunfire support during the landings in Southern France. US Navy

The Battle of Port Cros

On August 15, 1944 the Devil’s Brigade was landed on the island of Port Cros to secure it from the Germans in advance of the main landings of Operation Dragoon. The island held five fortifications which housed guns heavy enough to bombard the invasion beaches, and the Devil’s Brigade seized them all in a day’s fighting, three of the forts by assaulting them. The other two surrendered without resistance. The action by the Devil’s Brigade was conducted simultaneously with attacks on other islands of the Hyeres, and were instrumental to the success of the landings on the beaches.

Earlier that same day USS Somers was patrolling the waters of the Hyeres off of Port Cros when it encountered two enemy warships. One was a former corvette of the Italian Navy, built as primarily an anti-submarine platform, though equipped with guns for a surface action against smaller ships. It was being operated by the German Kriegsmarine. The other was a French aviso, also operated by the Kriegsmarine, and armed for a surface engagement. Somers, an American destroyer, was part of the support fleet for Operation Dragoon, which was scheduled to begin with the commando actions about four hours following contact.

USS Somers attacked the former Italian ship with a spread of torpedoes, one of which struck the enemy vessel. The Germans were unfamiliar with much of the damage control procedures of the Italian built ship, and the vessel began to founder quickly. The formerly French vessel attempted to come to its rescue when it was taken under fire by Somers’ deck guns. The Germans returned fire, but their vessel was hit several times, and it too began to sink. Somers patrolled the area for a few more hours against the possibility of German e-boat intervention against the Devil’s Brigade action, before returning to the main body of the invasion fleet.

The action between USS Somers and the two German patrol vessels was one of the very few surface actions fought by the US Navy in the European Theater during the Second World War. After the action Somers provided gunfire support for the troops landing on the beaches during the initial assault of Operation Dragoon. The action prompted the US Army to occupy the nearby Isle of Levant, as a coast watching station for further potential German naval activity. Two days later USS Endicott and a flotilla of motor torpedo boats sank two additional German patrol boats during a ruse operation to draw German forces away from the landing beaches.

The American feint coincided with the dropping of dummy paratroops, which distracted German units in the area and caused them to remain in place when they saw the approaching American flotilla, believing it to be a preliminary to another landing. The Allied ships, which included British gunboats, were bombarding the French town of La Ciotat when two German operated gunboats attempted to intervene. Together the German vessels outgunned Endicott, which engaged both and sank them. One hundred and sixty-nine German sailors were rescued from the water and became prisoners of war following the naval actions during Operation Dragoon. One American was wounded.

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II
At the 1943 Tehran Stalin supported an invasion of southern France, while Churchill was vehemently opposed, preferring to invade the Balkans. US Army

Political ramifications of Operation Dragoon

Winston Churchill argued fiercely against Operation Dragoon throughout its planning stages, believing the forces involved could be better used elsewhere. Churchill favored a southern invasion of Europe, directed towards the Balkans, which he long believed to be within the British sphere of influence. He believed that Allied occupation of the oil fields and the Balkan territories would stop the Soviet influence in the area in post-war Europe, and the American lack of interest in the area would increase the influence of the British Empire following the war, as it would in the Middle East in his mind. After the success of Operation Dragoon his opinion of it as futile did not falter.

Montgomery agreed with his Prime Minister and argued against the use of British Empire troops in the operation, beyond that of the commandos. The Royal Navy provided support for two reasons; it had long considered the Mediterranean to be its main concern, linking Gibraltar to Suez and the Empire. The Royal Navy was not ready to cede control of the Mediterranean to the United States, neither during the remainder of the war or in its view of the post-war world. Montgomery also believed that the troops involved in Operation Dragoon should have been assigned to him in support of Market Garden, and blamed Dragoon in part as the cause of his operation’s failure.

The French were eager to implement Operation Dragoon, with de Gaulle arguing relentlessly for its execution and extensive French involvement, which in the event occurred. The operations to capture and re-establish the ports of Toulon and Marseille were French controlled, executed with largely French colonial troops, and Free French forces secured VI Corps’ flank during the advance to Dijon. De Gaulle used these actions to trumpet the achievements of the French Army in liberating their homeland, despite many of the troops in French uniforms being thousands of miles from their homelands.

Josef Stalin strongly supported the landings in southern France, both for the increased pressure it put upon the Germans and because it left the Balkans for the Soviet Army to overrun. Stalin first argued for an invasion of southern France supported by bases in North Africa as early as 1943 as part of his demands for the Allies to open a second front in Europe. He preferred the Allies attack the Germans in France rather than the Germans and Italians in Sicily and Italy, for geopolitical and strategic reasons. By 1944 Stalin and the surging Soviet Army were fighting a war of conquest in Eastern Europe, and a second front was desirable, as long as it was far away from the Russian front.

During Operation Dragoon Patton’s Third Army was advancing with increasing speed, to the delight of the war correspondents traveling with the flamboyant general. Patton was always good for a headline and the correspondents filed reports which their newspapers printed under banner headlines. The advance of Operation Dragoon, accomplished with almost startling speed, was reported in a far less conspicuous fashion after the first few days. Patton made good copy, Lucian Truscott did not, and the French contribution was of little interest to American readers. Despite its tremendous success, Operation Dragoon was treated in the press as little more than a sideshow.

Operation Dragoon: 10 Things About the Other Invasion of France in World War II
French and American troops during the reduction of the German defenses in the Vosges following Operation Dragoon. US Army

The Aftermath

By the end of autumn 1944 more than a third of the supplies arriving on the European continent were being shipped to the French ports of Toulon and Marseilles, greatly easing the logistics crunch on the continent. Food, ammunition, clothing, fresh troops, and most importantly to the Allied spearheads, gasoline were replenished through the French Mediterranean ports, easing the strain on the smaller northern ports. This badly needed materiel helped the Americans contain the German Ardennes offensive that December, and push it back in January. Operation Dragoon also helped ensure that there were sufficient men in position on the continent for the Allies to react to the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.

The French Army emerged as a potent fighting force, despite the nearly insufferable de Gaulle, who claimed the victory as a triumph of French arms, ignoring the contributions of VI Corps and the other Allied units which took part. “As we had intended it to be the Allied battle for France was also the battle of Frenchmen for France,” de Gaulle wrote. The French had proven they had recovered from the debacle of 1940 and that their men and arms were a match for the enemy troops they encountered, and the fierce door to door fighting in the cities demonstrated that their colonial troops were well trained and determined combatants.

Lucian Truscott was promoted to head the newly formed Fifteenth Army in October of 1944. Truscott had misgivings about halting Operation Dragoon early, concerned that so many of the battle hardened German troops had managed to extricate themselves from his attack. In December Truscott was transferred to the command of Fifth Army in Italy, where he remained for the clearing of German troops in Italy in 1945. Despite Operation Dragoon capturing over 100,000 prisoners, Truscott considered the failure to trap the Germans in France and annihilate them via attrition to be a failure of Operation Dragoon.

Histories of the Second World War often ignore Operation Dragoon, or give it a paragraph or two, focusing on the operations in Northern Europe and the Eastern Front. Because of the speed with which it was completed many assume it was an easy operation against unprepared troops. In fact, the fighting up the rugged terrain of the Rhone Valley was as fierce as in any of the theatres of the war. The Germans executed a textbook fighting retreat against the Americans and French troops, consolidated most of their forces, and withdrew to strong defensive positions by the time the operation was ordered to a halt. It was a German defeat, but it was not a crushing Allied victory. More hard fighting lay ahead.

Operation Dragoon was the last of the seaborne invasions executed in the European theatre, and it clearly benefited from the lessons learned at others such as Salerno, Anzio, and Normandy. There were still casualties suffered as a result of accidents with gliders, collisions between ships, and communication breakdowns in the field. But compared to the earlier invasions they were minimal. The execution of the battle plan went like clockwork, its biggest problem became the success it achieved placing it too far ahead of schedule for the logistics to keep up. General Jacob Devers assumed command of Sixth Army Group (including the troops of Dragoon) following the operation and wrote that it would “…go down as a classic for surprise, exploitation, and results.”


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Operation Dragoon: The Allied Invasion of Southern France”, by William Breuer, 1996

“Crusade in Europe”, by Dwight David Eisenhower, 1948

“Riviera to the Rhine” by Jeffrey J. Clarke and Robert Ross Smith, US Army Center of Military History, 1993

“The History of the French First Army”, by Jean De Lattre de Tassigney, 1952

“Dogface Soldier: The Life of General Lucian K. Truscott Jr.”, by Wilson A. Heefner, 2010

“The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation”, by Richard Vinen, 2007

“U. S. Warships of World War II”, by Paul H. Silverstone, 1965

“The Second World War Volume 4: The Hinge of Fate”, by Winston Churchill, 1950

“Summit at Tehran”, by Keith Eubank, 1985

“Southern France”, by Jeffrey J. Clarke, US Army Center of Military History, October 2003