In May 1944, the Allied armies finally broke the winter stalemate on the Gustav Line in Italy (See Anzio and Monte Cassino). Afterward, they moved rapidly northward to capture Rome on 4 June. Only two days later, Operation Overlord put Allied armies ashore in Normandy, France. Allied plans for Normandy had originally included Operation Anvil, an amphibious assault against southern France on the same day as the Normandy invasion, to tie down German troops that might be used to defend against the cross-channel assault. But until Rome was captured, Mediterranean Theater of Operations forces were not available to attack southern France.
DUKW carrying supplies of blood plasma ashore in Southern France during Operation Dragoon, August-September 1944. The blood was donated by troops in Naples, Italy and moved to France for use by Seventh U.S. Army.
In addition to other operational factors, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was against the Operation Dragoon plan. He saw the Italian Theater as a prelude to attacks into the Balkans and Central Europe, the "soft-underbelly" of Nazi Germany. But the Americans, including Gen. Eisenhower, President Roosevelt, and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff saw northern Italy only as a cul-de-sac. Once Rome was captured, British resistance was overcome and planning for the assault against southern France, renamed from Anvil to Dragoon, proceeded rapidly. Scheduled for 15 August 1944 its objectives were to draw at least some German forces from northern France and to seize Marseille, France's largest port.
The Assault on Southern France
The U.S. Army 45th Infantry Division goes ashore at Sainte-Maxime, Southern France, during Operation Dragoon. The formidable sea wall was built by the Germans to prevent a landing but Army engineers breached it.
Between mid-June and the end of July more than a division a week, and huge stocks of vehicles, equipment and supplies, were withdrawn from U.S. Fifth Army in Italy to train and stage for Operation Dragoon. Final approval for Dragoon came on 11 August 1944, and the landings took place 15 August, between Toulon and Cannes on the French Riviera, preceeded by a parachute drop inland, behind the German lines, and commando raids. Over 900 ships and 1,300 landing craft were utilized, covered by a huge air fleet of 1,300 American, British, and French bombers. Over ninety-four thousand troops went ashore on the 15th, composed of three U.S. divisions (3ID, 36ID, 45ID) supported by French and British units. Eleven thousand vehicles were also landed on the first day. They were followed several days later by U.S. VI Corps HQ, U.S. 7th Army HQ, French First Army, and French I and II Corps, all operating under the command of Lt. Gen. Alexander M. Patch's Seventh U.S. Army.
The operation was a phenomenal success. Within two weeks the Allies had captured 57,000 prisoners and opened the major ports of Toulon and Marseille at a cost of less than 7,000 casualties. Patch's Seventh Army Dragoon forces then advanced nearly 400 miles north up the Rhone River Valley toward Lyon and Dijon, capturing Lyon on 3 September. In less than one month, on 11 September, they linked up with Patton's Third Army west of Dijon, creating a solid wall of Allied forces stretching from Antwerp, Holland to the Swiss border. Four days later, Dragoon forces were reorganized into the 6th Army Group, under the command of Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers, reinforcing Eisenhower's force in Europe to three full army groups.
Aftermath and Analysis of Dragoon
Measured against its military objectives, Operation Dragoon was an outstanding success. Gen. Patch's Seventh U.S. Army annihilated Hitlerís 19th Army, captured over 100,000 German prisoners, liberated the southern two thirds of France and linked up with the Normandy invasion forces, all within thirty days. Until the port of Antwerp was opened in November 1944, the ports of southern France were the source of more than one-third of Allied supplies in Europe.
But Allied resources earmarked for Italian operations, already considered of secondary importance, steadily diminished after Dragoon. The 15 August operation stripped seven first-class divisions, three American and four French, from Italy, confirming that Italy was a holding action of little importance. Churchill always believed Operation Dragoon was a blunder that shifted the Allied focus away from the Mediterranean, thereby setting the stage for Soviet post-war domination of Eastern Europe.
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