August 15 marks the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ amphibious invasion of Marseilles and southern France in 1944. Though it stands as a historical footnote to the acclaimed D-Day invasion of Normandy, it played a vital role in the liberation of France and the ultimate defeat of German forces. The operation, codenamed Dragoon, got off to a dreadful start with the suicide of one of the key Allied leaders shortly before the invasion launched.
Rear Admiral Don Moon, who had commanded the naval forces at Utah Beach in the Normandy invasion, and was tasked with commanding the right wing of the Dragoon landings, had begged Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, overall commander of the invasion, to postpone the attack, arguing that assault training had been deficient, and that German forces would decimate the invading Allied forces. (He had expressed similar apprehensions before D-Day.) He died in his stateroom just days before the attack from a self-inflicted wound to the head from his service .45. A carefully penned suicide note lay on the table in front of his dead body.
Operation Dragoon was controversial from the time it was first proposed. The American military leadership and their British counterparts disagreed on the operation. Churchill argued against it on the grounds that it diverted military resources that were better deployed in the on-going Allied operations in Italy; instead, he favored an invasion of the oil-producing regions of the Balkans. Churchill reasoned that by attacking the Balkans, the western Allies could deny Germany oil, forestall the advance of the Red Army of the Soviet Union, and achieve a superior negotiating position in postwar Europe, all at a single stroke.
The Americans argued that the major ports of Marseilles and Toulon would provide needed access for troop and supply ships when dozens of U.S. Army divisions were stuck at home for lack of dockage in Normandy and would discomfit the enemy with a thrust up the Rhone Valley while profitably employing several veteran French divisions then fighting in Italy.
The invasion of southern France was approved by Eisenhower over Churchill’s objections. And, after the successful execution of the Normandy landings, which freed up vital amphibious assets, the Dragoon invasion plan moved to the front burner. The Allies were struggling to resupply their growing forces in France, because the Germans had destroyed the port facilities at Cherbourg and a storm had damaged the artificial harbor at Omaha Beach. This made seizure and control of the French ports at Marseilles and Toulon increasingly important.
Despite its ominous start with the tragic suicide of a key Navy admiral, Operation Dragoon was an unqualified success. The invasion was initiated via a parachute drop by the 1st Airborne Task Force, followed by an amphibious assault by elements of the U.S. Seventh Army, followed a day later by a force made up primarily of the French First Army. Unlike in Normandy, where their defenses were formidable and where they had massed a huge force to counter the expected attack, the Germans found themselves spread too thin. What's more, their supply lines to southern France were long and difficult to maintain. As a result, they were poorly provisioned and reinforcements couldn’t be provided to counter the offensive.
The amphibious landing forced the German Army to abandon southern France and to retreat under constant Allied attacks to the Vosges Mountains. It was a master-stroke in the ultimate liberation of France and the continued retreat of German forces from occupied Europe.
Despite being a large and complex military operation with a well-executed amphibious and airborne component, Operation Dragoon is not well known and hasn’t received its due; it came in the later stages of the war and was overshadowed by the earlier and larger Operation Overlord, also known as the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
But, all the Allied troops who fought in the Operation Dragoon invasion (2,050 U.S. troops were killed, captured or missing, together with 10,000 French casualties) richly deserve our enduring thanks for their sacrifice in the liberation of Europe and their vital role in the ultimate end of the war.
June 6, 1944 wasn’t the only D-Day deserving of our admiration. August 15, 1944 deserves a special place of honor.