70th Anniversary of the Allied Landings in the South of France , The Forgotten Campaign
As the world remembers the great sacrifices of those who perished in two appalling World Wars, Anita Rieu-Sicart draws attention to an overlooked commemoration, that of Operation Dragoon- the Allied landings in the South of France.
“OPERATION DRAGOON” – The Forgotten Campaign! by Anita Rieu-Sicart, Editor, VAR VILLAGE VOICE
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 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. Allied high command had argued fiercely over where this second landing should happen. British war time Prime Minister Winston Churchill was totally opposed, preferring to continue to concentrate forces in Italy, or the Balkans. The US war time President General Eisenhower, perhaps swayed by the violent determination of the leader of the Free Franch Gen Charles De Gaulle who wanted at all costs to land in France, opted for the latter choice.
Finally, Operation Hammer/Overlord in the North was followed in the south by Operation Dragoon – possibly the least well known combat operation – and so called some say because Churchill was Dragooned into it, 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 the 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 0400, they descended onto the rendezvous area north of the coast (code named Rugby) 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.
Most of them were on target, but not all. Despite it being high summer in the south, on the night of the 14th there was mist – not an unusual weather event for mid-August – and some 20 percent of them drifted to the east, landing near the hill villages of Seillans and Fayence, from where they had to slog overland, fighting German resistance, to rejoin the main force.
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 long vacationed 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 then Les Arcs, where there was fierce resistance until the Germans fell back to regroup, then Draguignan, where a US private ‘liberated’ the Nazi flag that was flying over Hôtel Bertin, the German HQ next to the Prefecture, Vidauban, 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.
The naval bombardment continued to shell the islands just off Toulon, Hyères, Port-Cros and Levant, neutralizing the shore batteries. The First Special Service Force, a Joint US-Canadian unit trained in amphibious assault and mountaineering, took the islands. The joint French-Algerian force circled west to strike out for Toulon.
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. French-Algerian forces closed in on Toulon August 19th, just 5 days after landing and heavy fighting ensued.
The Germans surrendered on August 26th. The French took 2700 casualties but took 17,000 Germans prisoner. Marseille fell on 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 honour 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. For more details visit this website.
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 especially 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 on August 15th 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.
US Veterans 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.
There are Commemoration Ceremonies in many of the coastal landing sites, where every year French Military and local Municipal officials lay wreaths in memory of the Allied forces. Memorial stones are to be found at these sites. The principal villages that featured in the campaign, as well as laying wreaths, put on events to celebrate.
The memory of that day this region was liberated, is very much kept alive. Le Muy, a small village, but the first to be liberated – in particular really lets it all out. They host a troupe of re-enacters who get together every year and parade.
The picture gallery below shows scenes from recent re-enactments:
Two local enthusiasts Eric, Renoux and Jean-Michel Soldi, have for years collected memorabilia and, just a few years ago with the help of the Le Muy town hall who loaned them premises, put together a small museum full of artifacts from that war and that time – uniforms, berets, battalion and regimental insignias, jeeps, flags you name it: the Musée de la Libération.
Sadly on June 15th 2011, this region had a terrible flash flood. There was huge loss of life, people washed away in their cars, houses flooded and washed away, livestock drowned, small holdings and vineyards destroyed – the Argens valley was one huge washout. And, most sadly, the small Museum in Le Muy, was also totally carriedd away under 3 metres of water. However, undismayed, these two enthusiasts who had so lovingly put together this memorial to the landing have continued their efforts and have succeeded in retrieving many of their artifacts, restoring them, cleaning them, and rebuilding, so as to keep the memory of that Liberation alive.
There are Memorials in St. Tropez, Cavalaire, St. Raphael at Boulouris, Ste. Maxime, Rayol-Canadel and Hyères and also at le Muy/La Motte – at the ferme du Mitan, and this summer come August 15th, wreaths will be laid and the people and Municipalities will pay hommage and host any Veterans who come to visit. Sadly there are few left.
One US Vet a couple of years ago, fondly remembers landing in Cavalaire, he said “I barely got my feet wet!” Lt. Peter Matthews, together with comrades of the British Airborne Division that landed in Le Muy, and who captured and held the vital Le Muy Bridge, used to come back regularly to renew contacts with his French friends in the town. Sadly he passed away just a year or so ago, but the town has honoured his memory with the plaque. Also installed on the bridge –is another plaque in memory of the British parachute regiments Pont du 4eme Battalion Parachutistes Britanniques.
A museum worth visiting is that of the tiny Toulon Musée de Débarquement, Mont Faron, dedicated to telling the story of the landings. It is run on a shoestring by French War Veterans. This is no multi-million euro museum like the new ones built for MP13 in Marseille this past year. It’s a bit faded, but as a memorial, it has a touching soul, and it is packed with interesting exhibits which will fascinate visitors. It starts with a few rooms dedicated to the main actors: i.e. the different national militaries involved with lists of battalions etc., then a room showing the preparations for the landings, followed by the drama of the landings themselves, recorded in photographs, with many weapons and maps, and finishing with a well-put-together film.
Mont Faron is hard to climb, as the landing troops found, but fortunately now for visitors there is a funiculaire to get one up there. But, the cable cars can’t operate in a mistral!
There is also a British War Graves Cemetery at Mazargues, just 6 kms from Marseille, where many dead from World War I are buried, and 267 from this campaign. It is very beautiful and well maintained, and is usually open to visitors Monday to Friday 8.30 to 17.00 except public holiday.
Story: Anita Rieu-Sicart
(This article was initially published on the American website France on Your Own. The author will also run it in an upcoming issue of her newspaper the VAR VILLAGE VOICE which circulates to expats throughout the Var and region).
Reprinted here by kind permission of Anita Rieu-Sicart Editor VAR VILLAGE VOICE 1142 Route des Miquelets, 83510 Lorgues.
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