|The Independent Traveler's Newsletter PAGE FOUR|
|"OPERATION DRAGOON" -
The Forgotten Campaign!
by Anita Rieu-Sicart
This summer will mark the 70th Anniversary of the Allied landings in the South of France, which liberated a vast swathe of this region in 1944. From this landing, the Allied troops then marched north joining others who were forcing their way through France to Germany.
The landings that took place here on the 15th of August at Le Muy, La Motte, and on the beaches of Cavalaire, St. Tropez and St. Raphael do not resound as much as those that happened in the North. Everyone has June 6, 1944 seared in their collective memory, and the landings on the Normandy Beaches of Juno, Omaha, Utah, Gold, and Sword, and the Operation Hammer later named Overlord, are imprinted, as they should be, but Operation Dragoon (originally Anvil), as it was code named, tends to get overlooked - the forgotten campaign.
Two months after 6 June, this equally important campaign was taking place in the south. The Allied high command had argued fiercely over where this second landing should happen. Winston Churchill was totally opposed, preferring to continue to concentrate forces in Italy, or the Balkans. General Eisenhower, perhaps swayed by the violent determination of De Gaulle who wanted at all costs to land in France, opted for the latter choice. Finally, the Operation Hammer/Overlord in the North was followed in the south by Operation Dragoon, so called some say because Churchill was Dragooned into it - and possibly the least well known combat operation - as an event in the hastening of that terrible war. It was important to capture the ports of Toulon and Marseille, freeing them as a supply route for the Allies' push up the Rhône to join the northern forces for the joint attack on into Germany.
A joint allied Western Task Naval force, under the command of Vice Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt, to carry the US 6th Army commanded by Lt. General Jacob, was formed in Corsica and consolidated with French and American forces for the invasion spearheaded by Maj. General Alexander Patch's 7th army. It was composed of 500 warships including the battleships USS Nevada, USS Texas, USS Arkansas, HMS Ramillies, and French battleship Lorraine with 20 cruisers for gunfire support, and naval aircraft support from 8 escort aircraft carriers. One hundred thousand American, British, Canadian, Free French and Algerian forces sailed from Corsica, according to German intelligence, headed for the Italian port of Genoa, but during the night of the 14th of August changed course and headed directly for the French Mediterranean coast.
British and US combined parachute battalions - the 1st Airborne Task Force numbering at least 5,000 men - loaded in gliders took off from Italy and headed to the French south coast. Early in the morning of August 15 at 4 AM, they descended onto the rendezvous area north of the coast (code named Rugby) just slightly to the north of the villages of Le Muy and les Arcs and to the south of La Motte - the majority of them landing on target at Les Mitan near a wine domaine which is now called Les Demoiselles and not far from the large wine domaine of Chateau Roseline in Les Arcs.
Down here in the south of France, the 15th of August is marked out as the Feast of Assumption and is a public holiday. Many villages hold their annual Soupe a Pistou celebration on this day (a local feast), but it is also known as the time when summer starts to draw to a close and it is very likely to herald the first rain of autumn. The parachute boys were not to know that, but gradually the early morning mists cleared. Their task was to capture and hold open the vital bridge and road leading to the sea coast out of le Muy for the sea borne forces landing on the coast.
Perhaps, one should talk about the topography of this unique region, very probably the reason why the High Command had chosen this area of the Var as the landing site. This particular area is cut off from the sea coast by a range of hills, small, but difficult to scale and penetrate – the Var is still one of the most heavily forested regions of France, hosting thousands of wild boar (sanglier) in its woods. Called the Massif des Maures, it is small hills compared to the high Alps, but scrub forested and impossible to farm. The hills stretch from east of Toulon to just West of Ste Maxime. Fréjus and St. Raphael, and they enclose the promontory region hosting the sea villages (now thriving towns) of St. Tropez, Ramatuelle, Le Rayol and Cavalaire. The only main access into the hinterland from the seacoast is via the river Argens valley, below Fréjus, up to Le Muy, or via narrow coast roads to the west leading to Toulon. There was then a narrow twisting mountain road full of hairpin bends that crossed on the high ridge of the Maures, at the village of La Garde Freinet, and another narrow chemin that ran along the mountain ridge called the Chemin des Cretes. Back then transport on these narrow mountain roads, threading through steep hillsides and valleys and gorges, cloaked in pines, prickly shrubs, and holm oak, was very likely by donkey. Few cars were available, and certainly no petrol!
The early morning of the 15th saw the first engagement as a small British party of paratroopers, numbering three or four, reconnoitered towards the vital Le Muy bridge, the key route for the sea borne forces. They saw several Germans with American prisoners. Shouting "Get down!", they shot the Germans and continued with the Americans onto the Bridge - just in time as it was ready to be blown up.
Meanwhile, early through the morning mist of the 15th, the main forces from the sea landed on the beaches of Cavalaire, Rayol, Ramatuelle, St. Tropez and St. Raphael (code named Romeo, Garbo, Alpha, Delta, Camel & Rosie) - the heaviest fighting taking place at St. Raphael (Camel), from where they began their march inland. They marched either along the narrow coast roads, or uphill through narrow heavily forested hills and valleys, through scrub, holm oak and umbrella pines to reach the main highways to Toulon, Marseille and eventually the Rhone valley.
In this region then, the only main highway was the N7, the historic route that ran from Paris via Marseille to the South, to Nice and beyond - beloved of the rich set, who had vacationed so long in the South. No such thing then as the highway - the Autoroute du Soleil, the A8 - just farm roads, tracks and chemins. But the N7 was a good road with its foundations based on the original Roman road leading from Rome to Paris (Lutèce) the Roman Via Aurelia.
It must have been a totally surreal experience for young American soldiers to spend all night in landing craft, huddled together not knowing the future, and then landing on some of the loveliest, most idyllic beaches of the Mediterranean. They stepped into brilliant turquoise waters and onto fine yellow sands, as they were being shot at, to start marching up promenades furled in pampas bushes, palmetto palms and with high lovely palm trees waving overhead. They saw rich holiday villas dotting the seacoast corniche and tucked into little bays. Spread before them were views loved and painted by the Impressionists - Renoir, Matisse, Dufy, Pissarro and many others. They marched on through farms and woodlands, scrambling through the forested hills, into the rolling vineyards and olive groves as they moved inland, making contact with the Resistance who guided them up and onwards.
They slogged their way inland, up the Argens valley, liberating towns and villages as they went, the seaside villages were already putting out the flags: Le Muy, St. Raphael and Ste Maxime - the 15 - then Les Arcs, where there was fierce resistance until the Germans fell back to regroup, then 16 Draguignan, where a US private (see photo) ‘liberated’ the Nazi flag that was flying over Hôtel Bertin, the German HQ next to the Prefecture, 17 Vidauban, 18 Brignoles, and so on.
There is a wonderful bronze relief map in the Rhône American Cemetery in Draguignan detailing the Battalions, the towns, the progress of the whole campaign.
There are lots of stories to be told of this invasion by American and British forces, of Free French and Algerians under French command who succeeded in capturing Toulon clambering up Mont Faron which overlooks the port of Toulon. It was the vital port where previously the French fleet had been sunk so as to avoid being seized by German forces.
forces closed in on Toulon August 19th, just 5 days after landing and heavy
fighting ensued. The Germans surrendered August 26th. The French
had 2700 casualties but captured 17,000 Germans. Marseille
fell August 28, 1944. There were many US, British and Canadian losses.
The Americans who died in this campaign, the majority only 22 and 23 years of age, with some as young as 18, are buried in the Rhône American Cemetery in Draguignan, a very beautifully maintained American War Cemetery, where every year wreaths are laid in their honor on the 8th of May - VE Day - and on US Memorial Sunday and later in August. A US General, who was riding in the co-pilot seat of a US B56 is buried here, together with most of its crew, a Marine - soldiers all. Visit www.abmc.gov
Each year in May on US Memorial Sunday a wonderful service is held at the Draguignan Rhône American Cemetery in memory of those fallen soldiers. Wreaths are laid on behalf of the US and French military by the local Municipalities and others. What is very touching is that every year a local French group Souvenir Franco-Americain pay for the relatives of one of those young Americans buried in the cemetery to make the trip to Draguignan. This year it will be two nieces, from Boston, of a soldier buried here.
And every ten years a similar service is held the 15th of August at this Cemetery. This year, the 70th Anniversary, will be the last of those, as so few Veterans of that campaign survive. This year's event will be particularly significant and will be attended by a number of International VIPs.
The Rhône Cemetery is visited often by US tourists and Veterans, where they are taken around by Superintendent of the Cemetery, Bruce Malone, US Army. Every year because of the program 'People to People, started by General Eisenhower, over a period of seven to eight weeks, coach tours of US teenagers from schools all over the US come to Draguignan and the Cemetery, to observe and learn of their history and the sacrifice made by so many. Superintendent Malone tells them the story of the campaign. US Navy tours arrive, from the Atlantic Fleet as well as the 6th Fleet. Just last week, the sister and niece of a dead serviceman visited to lay flowers.
of this campaign have continued to come back to this region all over the
years to maintain the friendships many of them started 70 years ago.
Some made friends with local French, despite not having a language between
them. What is wonderful to know and to remark all this time later
- the 70th Anniversary of those landings - that despite the
passage of time, the memory of that invasion - the Liberation – is still
treasured in all the villages of this region where the combined Allied
forces played such a huge part.
Superintendent Bruce Malone
continued on page five