The landings and battle of Provence
Operation Anvil, renamed Dragoon, was intended to fix the enemy in place and secure deepwater ports, before protecting the right flank of the American army coming from Normandy. The presence of shallow waters and the arrangement of the enemy batteries determined the choice of landing beaches.
D-Day was set for 15 August 1944.
The supreme commander of the Mediterranean theatre of operations at the time was Britain’s General Wilson. The Seventh United States Army, under General Patch, would constitute the expeditionary corps. It was comprised of the VI Corps (General Truscott) and one airborne division (General Frederick). It also comprised French Army B, in the command of General de Lattre de Tassigny, whose fame as a man of drive and panache preceded him. In the events that followed, de Lattre also had an advantage: he was conscious of the role the maquisards (rural Resistance fighters) might play.
A compromise was reached regarding the position of the French troops: General Patch would command them during the first phase of the operation, and General de Lattre would take over their tactical command once engagement commenced. Army B grouped together five infantry divisions, two armoured divisions (the 1st and 5th), two groups of Moroccan Tabors and various reservists not attached to a specific division. Here were combatants from the French Expeditionary Corps, which had covered itself in glory in Italy, alongside soldiers freshly embarked in North Africa: native-born French, Muslims from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, soldiers from French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa, etc.
This land force would arrive on 600 transport ships and 1 270 landing craft, protected by 250 warships (14 of them French) constituting Admiral Hewitt’s Western Naval Task Force, supported by 2 000 aircraft of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces under General Eaker.
On the German side, the eight divisions of the 19th Army, commanded by General Wiese, whose HQ was in Avignon, had been in a state of alert since the second week of August. Assembled off the coast of Corsica, the Allied fleet - comprised of vessels which, for strategic reasons, had arrived in ten convoys from ports as far apart as Oran, Naples and Taranto - first set sail for Genoa, to deceive the enemy. But on the evening of the 14th, it set its course for the Provençal coast.
That same evening, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) received three messages from London, the last of which - “The chief is starving” - was the signal for the launch of operations.
On 15 August, shortly after midnight, the 1st Special Service Force, led by Colonel Walker, neutralised the batteries on the Hyères Islands, while the African commandos (Colonel Bouvet) put ashore near Cap Nègre, which they subsequently took.
The Naval Assault Group (Commander Seriot), reaching Pointe de l’Esquillon, ran into a minefield at Le Trayas. Around 4 am, 400 aircraft dropped more then 5 000 Allied paratroopers over the Argens valley, while reinforcements and equipment arrived in gliders (a total of 10 000 paratroopers would be in action on the ground by the end of the day).
With the aid of local Resistance fighters, they secured access routes to the landing zones. At dawn, a terrible aerial and naval bombardment fell on the coast, destroying the German positions held by Lieutenant General Bäßler’s 242nd Infantry Division.
At 8 am, the assault waves of the US 3rd Infantry Division (Major General O’Daniel), 36th Infantry Division (MG Dahlquist) and 45th Infantry Division (MG Eagles) came ashore from their landing craft between Cavalaire and Saint-Raphaël, on the beaches codenamed Alpha, Camel and Delta, respectively.
Among them were the French soldiers of General Sudre’s Combat Command 1 (CC1). By the evening of 15 August, two bridgeheads had been established, on either side of Fréjus. Of the nearly 100 000 Allied troops who landed, about a thousand were killed or went missing. The following day, most of Army B landed: the 1st Free French Division at Cavalaire, the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division at La Foux. On 17 August, de Lattre set up his command post at Cogolin.
The strategy was decided: the American troops were to advance through Haute Provence towards the Isère and the Rhone valley. The French would take the ports of Toulon and Marseille.
On 17 August, according to plan, Hitler ordered the German 19th Army to move north; only the divisions stationed at the two major ports must resist at any cost. The 11th Panzer Division, which had left the Toulouse area on 13 August with the original aim of blocking the invading troops, was harried by the maquisards of the Hérault and the Gard, attacked by the US Air Force and, under great pressure, retreated north without having accomplished its mission.
By 18 August, the area occupied by the Allies had reached 20 miles inland. The previous day, 130 B26s had bombed the coastal defences once more. The US 3rd Infantry Division entered Cuers and Castellane. The Americans would then proceed towards Durance. Part of the 1st Special Service Force,alongside the FFI, drove other German units back towards the Alps, liberating the towns of the French Riviera. De Lattre wanted to move quickly, outflanking the enemy before they had a chance to secure their positions. But logistics also had to be taken into account: along the coast, the rate at which the ships brought in more men and equipment was slow. He decided to assemble his troops ahead, sending units towards the combat zone as and when they arrived.
The 1st Free French Division (1st DFL), led by General Brosset, which was to take Hyères, advanced along the coast, while the 9th Colonial Infantry Division (9th DIC), under General Magnan, manoeuvred through the mountains. The 3rd Algerian Infantry Division (3rd DIA), led by General de Monsabert, took Toulon from behind, then advanced towards Marseille. The operations were supported by naval artillery.
At Toulon, the German garrison was reinforced by the 242nd Division, which had retreated to the port: a total of nearly 25 000 men under the command of Admiral Ruhfus, commander of the Kriegsmarine in Provence. On the Allied side, at that time, de Lattre had no more than about 16 000 men. By 19 August, the 3rd Algerian Tirailleurs Regiment (3rd RTA), led by Colonel de Linarès, had reached the outskirts of the city. The 9th DIC was progressively engaged as it advanced from Pierrefeu to Toulon, supported by members of the 1st Armoured Division (1st DB), under General du Vigier.
That same day, after storming the Maurannes battery, the African commandos seized Le Coudon; over the following days, it was the turn of the commandos of the Bataillon de Choc, led by Colonel Gambiez, to take Le Faron, thereby seizing the two forts that dominated Toulon harbour. On 22 and 23 August, the 9th DIC and 1st DFL fought in the city: marine infantrymen, Algerians, Senegalese and Free French vied with each other in courage as they advanced.
The German garrison took refuge on the Saint-Mandrier peninsula, which was defended by a battery of 304mm guns: it resisted there until 28 August, despite a jubilant victory parade the day before.