Operation Dragoon: Why the Allied Invasion of Southern France Succeeded

January 8, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIFranceAlliesOperation DragoonMilitary History

Operation Dragoon: Why the Allied Invasion of Southern France Succeeded

Operation Dragoon is often referred to as the Champagne Campaign due to its relative ease, but this is an oversimplification.

Here's What You Need to Know: The Allied landing on the southern coast of France in August 1944 was a controversial operation, but it led to the rapid liberation of the region.

U.S. Army Sergeant Vere Williams listened to his instincts as his landing craft approached the beach. It was August 15, 1944, and his unit, the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Division was part of the invasion force for Operation Dragoon, the landings along France’s Mediterranean coast. Williams, a farm boy from the tiny community of Snyder, Colorado, carried the nickname “Tarzan” due to his good looks and strong, broad chest. He joined the 157th in 1938 for the extra four dollars a month it provided his family. His regiment was on its fourth amphibious assault of the war, and most of the men he started with were either dead or wounded. Despite only being in his twenties, Tarzan Williams was an old-timer, for life as a combat infantryman quickly gave survivors a morbid seniority.

Opposition was light that day. All the subsequent histories would say so. Still, Williams’ nagging inner voice told him something was wrong. His Higgins boat was in the second wave so there were already many troops ashore. The ramp at the front of the landing craft dropped and the men inside quickly moved out. The young sergeant rushed to a nearby hillside to join his company. Mortar rounds began to land nearby and soon came closer. One landed 15 feet away, and Williams felt something hit his leg. He looked at it but saw nothing. He then noticed two other men near him were hit, one in the face and the other in the hand. He checked his leg again and found a hole in his pants and blood running down his knee.

A medic arrived to help them, but Williams’ inner voice told him they needed to move. His gut said the Germans were zeroing in on them. He told the others and they dashed behind a nearby boulder. Seconds later another mortar bomb landed exactly where they had been sitting. The medic finished his first aid and Williams was evacuated. He was one of only seven casualties in the 157th that day, but the distinction meant little. At least that nagging premonition had saved his life and those of the others. He soon wound up at a hospital in Naples for two weeks, while his parents got a telegram erroneously stating he was missing in action. By the time the Army corrected its mistake a month later, Williams was back in action in France.

By mid-1944 the war had turned decisively in the Allies’ favor, but it was far from over. The Third Reich still occupied most of France. In Normandy the Anglo-American forces were pushing out of the hedgerows and fields, but German opposition was still stiff and unrelenting. The supply situation was also difficult due to German sabotage of the port of Cherbourg and a storm that wrecked one of the artificial harbors painstakingly built at the Normandy landing beaches. More ports were needed and the Nazis needed to be further distracted.

A solution to both problems was quickly pulled from the Allied backburner. Operation Anvil was a plan to land troops on the coast of southern France that would threaten the occupying German Army from its rear. The idea was placed on hold due to both a shortage of landing craft and the drain on resources by the continuing stalemate at Anzio. By July 1944 the success at Normandy and the Anzio breakout relieved these problems. So the Americans revisited their plans for an invasion of southern France.

The plan offered several advantages. If successful it would bring the ports of Marseille and Toulon under Allied control. Additionally, the Germans would have to defend two fronts in France. While the Russians liked the idea as a supporting effort to Normandy, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill disliked it. He knew it would take attention away from the Italian campaign, a cherished project as it might lead to an advance into the Balkans, something Churchill was fixated on. Determined to stop the operation, Churchill made a plea to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to abandon it, but U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall advised proceeding and Roosevelt agreed. The plan was reactivated on July 14 with the new codename Dragoon. The name of the operation reportedly was offered by Churchill, who felt he had been dragooned into accepting the amphibious operation. 

The Free French Forces under General Charles de Gaulle also favored Dragoon as a way to get more of their troops fighting in France. By this point in the war the French were finally assembling a sizable army and did not want it wasted in the attritional struggle in Italy. Given the newly available transports and landing vessels, French divisions could quickly be transferred from Italy to the southern French coast. The stubborn and often difficult de Gaulle demanded his forces be redeployed as part of the Dragoon landings. The final plan combined French troops with an American landing force and an Anglo-American airborne contingent.

The American contribution included three veteran infantry divisions from the Italian campaign. They were organized as the VI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott, which was part of General Alexander Patch’s Seventh Army. The 3rd Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Rock of the Marne,” was a regular Army formation with experience in North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio. The 36th Infantry Division was a Texas National Guard unit sometimes called the Lone Star Division. It entered the war at Salerno the previous autumn and suffered heavy casualties during the fighting along the Rapido River in January 1944, but after rebuilding it went into action again at Anzio where it performed well during the advance to Rome. The 45th Infantry Division, nicknamed the Thunderbird Division, was composed of National Guard formations from Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. It saw action in a variety of settings, including Sicily, Salerno, along the Volturno River, and Anzio. Operation Dragoon would be its fourth amphibious assault of the war.

Each division had three infantry regiments formed into regimental combat teams, which included a dedicated artillery battalion and the added combat power of attached tank, engineer, and tank destroyer units. At this point in the war these combined units had generally worked with each other for some time and were smoothly functioning entities. All were well suited to the task at hand and formed the assault force for the amphibious attack.

There was no airborne division available in the Mediterranean region, but the Allies had used paratroopers successfully enough at Normandy to warrant their use in Dragoon. The 1st Airborne Task Force was an ad-hoc combination of the few available parachute-qualified troops and several regular units hastily given glider training. Essentially a small division, it was led by Brig. Gen. Robert Frederick, the famous leader of the Canadian-American 1st Special Service Force, known as the Devil’s Brigade. The remnants of that unit were available in theater and combined with the only large British ground force used in the operation, three battalions of the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade. A number of artillery and support units were trained in glider operations, including the Antitank Company of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American unit that fought with great distinction during the war.

Likewise, the Allies had no large American armored formations available for Dragoon either, so again they created one. The original plan was to use one combat command from a French armored division but that idea was soon dismissed. Still, a mobile force would be valuable to exploit any gaps or weaknesses in the German defense so the assistant commander of VI Corps, Brig. Gen. Fred Butler, was appointed to command the scratch force, which was built around the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized). This unit was reinforced with truck-borne infantry along with tank and tank destroyer units, an artillery battalion, and a company of engineers. Although it was a small force, it was quite powerful.

The French contingent included the II Army Corps commanded by General Edgard de Larminat, part of the French Army B under General Jean de Lattre. He had one armored and three infantry divisions. Two of the infantry units had good reputations from fighting in Italy. There were also a number of French Special Forces units and thousands of French Resistance fighters throughout the countryside.

To support the assault the Western Naval Task Force was reinforced with ships no longer needed at Normandy. American, British, and Free French vessels were combined into several task forces with five battleships, nine escort carriers, 22 cruisers, 85 destroyers and hundreds of smaller warships, transports, and cargo ships. Additionally, there were 1,267 landing craft of various types. One task force formed the command group while three others were assigned one to each landing beach. The carriers were grouped into their own task force while a sixth task force supported the special operations forces, which would secure various islands.