Operation Dragoon, the Liberation of the French Riviera in 1944

The Champagne Campaign. The liberation that took place out your back door, now in hardcover.

On June 6th, 2014, the sacrifices of those who participated in D-Day, seventy years ago, were memorialized. On August 15th, however, an equally important military operation was launched in our very backyards – Operation Dragoon. For some reason, Operation Dragoon doesn’t get the same notoriety as its big, brawny brother, Operation Overlord. I think it gets the historical short shrift because the scope and scale of Operation Overlord turned other WWII battles into second acts, and there is little proof today that a major battle under Operation Dragoon even took place: Normandy still has abandoned German bunkers and cemeteries for the soldiers who lost their lives but there is little evidence of the war here.

Liberation of MarseilleJean de Lattre de Tassigny walking through a liberated Marseille

That is until Jean-Loup Gassend released Operation Dragoon: Autopsy of a Battle – The Allied Liberation of the French Riviera August-September 1944 (USA: Schiffer; $60). Gassend has spent the last decade researching the subject, and the 560 pages with 874 photos will appeal to both history buffs and residents in the region (a French edition is also available).

Gassend, 31, tells me, “As a teenager in France, I started collecting WWII objects and soon realized that the stories told by the people giving them away were more interesting than the items themselves. And as most of these local historic accounts were completely undocumented, I decided to find out everything possible about the Alpes-Maritimes during August and September 1944. I left no stone unturned, sending out hundreds of letters, spending money, researching archives, digging, etc, to uncover this ‘Champagne Campaign’, the nickname often given to the liberation in the Cannes and Nice areas.”

Gassend’s book is fascinating. Initial plans for the Operation Dragoon were conceived at the Tehran Conference in December 1943. Fresh off a major Soviet victory at the Battle of Kursk, Stalin was granted a second front that he had been demanding from Britain and France, but where this second front would be established was up in the air. American military leaders pressed for an invasion of France as early as possible but Churchill wanted to keep pushing up into Italy and chase the Germans through the Balkans. From the beginning, Churchill was opposed to a new front in France but still hoped that the Italian campaign would receive sufficient support.

When plans for Operation Dragoon (originally called Operation Anvil) were passed, Churchill sent a letter to Roosevelt to express his concerns of splitting up forces in the Mediterranean. He wrote: “The splitting up of the campaign in the Mediterranean into two operations, neither of which can do anything decisive, is, in my humble and respectful opinion, the first major strategic and political error, for which we two have to be responsible.”

Churchill’s reluctance towards Dragoon wasn’t just strategic but political. He had hoped that a successful invasion of Italy could keep Eastern Europe out of Soviet control. Despite these farsighted Cold War concerns, Operation Dragoon was given Allied approval.

Dragoon is also notable for the significant help that the French Resistance provided in the operation.

German 88mm GunGerman 88mm gun on the coast in Southern France.
Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-258-1324-18 / Micheljack / CC-BY-SA
To say that joining the French Resistance was dangerous is ridiculously reductive. Those who did could look forward to living in the bush in hidden camps under difficult conditions. In fact, the name given to the French Resistance in the Var and the Alpes-Maritimes is the Maquis, which means shrub land. Since the Maquis were not viewed by the Germans as regular army but as terrorists, the rules of warfare did not apply to them. This meant that if caught, they could be shipped off to concentration camps, tortured or shot in the street. It also meant friends and family could suffer the same fate.

Before Operation Dragoon, the Germans controlled the coastal cities but the same could not be said for small inland villages like St Jeannet, 20km northwest of Nice, where the Maquis organized sabotage operations such as blowing up electrical lines or bridges, or setting fire to factories that supported the German war effort. Maquis support during Operation Dragoon was so effective that a 1985 Army Report about the operation concluded that “guerrilla assistance was exploited more than ever before and proved to be an invaluable asset”.

Another significant part of Operation Dragoon was that it was the first time Free French troops were led by a French commander (Jean de Lattre de Tassigny) once the Allied forces were on French soil.

The battle started at 0430 hours August 15th, 1944 when paratroopers and then later glider troops were dropped in the area of Le Muy (15km northwest of Fréjus). Due to bad weather some of the paratroopers landed near St Tropez and Fayence but, since resistance was light, they were able to capture the Draguignan and Le Muy regions by August 17th.

One of the reasons for this rapid advancement was because when the Germans occupied a territory they used reserve units, often composed of untrained soldiers – and at the end of the war, this included very young, very old, wounded or very foreign German military. Reserve Division 148 was no exception to this rule. Most of the men of Reserve Division 148 came from the German province of Silesia which has a divided ethnicity. Some Silesians considered themselves German at the time, while others considered themselves Polish and could not even speak German. One former German commander of the Division complained after the war that he “was very disgusted that he had commanded such poorly trained and disciplined troops”.

Before the main invasion took place, a joint US-Canadian Special Forces unit took the Hyérès islands on August 14th, neutralizing German guns that could threaten the American naval forces.

3rd Infantry Division in Cavalaire3rd Infantry Division disembarking in Cavalaire on August 15,1944Once the Hyérès islands were secured, three American divisions reinforced by the French First Armoured Division landed on Alpha Beach (Cavalaire-sur-Mer), Della Beach (St-Tropez) and Camel Beach (St-Raphaël). The beaches were selected because of lessons learned from D-Day and Italy; lack of surrounding high ground, fortified by German bunkers hopefully meant an easy landing. With the exception of some problems with mines, this proved to be true. The heaviest fighting was at St-Raphaël where one of the planned beach landings had to be aborted due to heavy German resistance. Once on shore, the troops fanned out east towards Cannes and Nice, and west to capture the important ports of Toulon and Marseille.

The saddest chapters of the Operation were the executions of men and women that occurred as the Gestapo fled just before Allied forces arrived in various towns. The Villa Montfleury Massacre in Cannes, and the execution of more than 24 Resistance members in Nice in the Ariane district, are particularly tragic. As published in Reporter 140 (see The Story of Hélène Vagliano on our website), Maureen Emerson wrote of the latter:

“On the 15 August, Hélène and twenty-three other prisoners were collected together and driven in the direction of the Ariane quarter behind Nice ... On a piece of land in front of a sheer rock face and bordered by a small river, the group was lined up to face the water. Watched with horror from behind closed shutters by a local farmer and his daughter, the Germans set up their machine guns across the river from the prisoners. All twenty-four died that day. On Hélène’s right fell a priest who had been arrested for burying two Resistants shot by the Gestapo. On her left, a young blonde girl who had acted as nurse to the Maquis.”

On August 21st, Tassigny was able to capture both Marseille and Toulon, almost simultaneously. The official surrender happened five days later, opening up two important ports for the war effort. Rail lines were quickly repaired and Southern France provided nearly a third of the supplies necessary for the Allied war effort by October 1944.


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