On August 6, 2011, a select entourage of the “Greatest Generation” will gather at the Memorial Amphitheatre at Arlington National Cemetery. American, British, Canadian, Free French, and French Resistance comrades will stand side by side to reflect on the 67th anniversary of Operation Dragoon, the Allied landings on southern France on August 15, 1944. American soldiers like Gene Frice who parachuted behind enemy lines with the 517th Parachute Combat Regimental Team and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Robert Maxwell, who made the amphibious assault on the beaches with the famed 3th Infantry Division. Nearby, is the gravesite of 1LT Audie L. Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism during the Operation Dragoon campaign.
As in past year’s gatherings, the French government will pay homage to those living veterans who freed them from Nazi Occupation. Receiving the French Legion of Honor Medal will be Lieutenant General (Ret) Richard Seitz (517th ABN), John Keller, 3rd I.D., John Carter, 1st Allied Airborne Task Force, and Roy Brumfield, 3rd I.D.
The Conception and Churchill’s Resistance
Operation Dragoon was conceived almost simultaneously with Operation Overlord, the June 6. 1944 Normandy Invasion but, was shelved until the allies were assured of Overlord’s success. From the onset, Winston Churchill was vehemently opposed to the campaign. Churchill favored increased prosecution of the Italian campaign and securing the Balkan oil producing regions. Denial of these regions to the Germans and to the Red Army reinforced Churchill’s distain and mistrust of the Soviets and saw this as an advantageous negotiating tool in a post-war Europe.
Overruled by the Allied Command Chiefs of Staff, Churchill begrudgingly acquiesced. The key to the campaign’s absolute success was securing the much needed ports of Toulon and Marseilles. The Allies having a northern and southern supply line in France would trap the Germans in a pincer movement and drive them back into the Rhineland.
Overall command was given to Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers of the U.S. 6th Army Group. Under Devers, the U.S. 7th Army, commanded by Gen. Alexander “Sandy” Patch, was comprised of the 3rd, 36th, 45th Infantry Divisions and the 1st Allied Airborne Task Force lead by Generals Lucien Truscott and Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.
Opposing the Allies was General Johannes Blaskowitz, commander of German Army Group G that included the 11 under-strength divisions consisting of aging and wounded veterans as well as Volksdeutsche from Poland and Czechoslovakia. The only battle hardened unit was the 11th Panzer Division who fought the Red Army at the greatest tank battle in history near Kursk, Russia. German intelligence was aware of a pending invasion, but the exact area was tactical guesswork. They concluded that the Allied battle plan would consist of airborne and glider operations further up in the Rhone River possibly near Avignon. Their conclusion left them defensively weak along the coastline.
Attack at Dawn
At 03:30 hours on the morning of August 15, 1944, elements of the 1st Allied Airborne Task Force began their drop. Though missing their drop zones, most units regrouped by 0800 hours in time for amphibious assault. The Order of Battle included B-24 airstrikes and naval gunfire from Naval Task Force 88’s five battleships, 20 cruisers, and 98 destroyers.
One of the assault patrol craft was commanded by famed movie star Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The Allies landed on three beaches designated Alpha, Delta, and Camel from Cavalaire-du-Mer to Saint-Raphaël, stretching nearly 45 miles from end to end. Blinded by cut communication lines, courtesy of the French Resistance, Blaskowitz and his Army Group G were caught by total surprise. His only recourse was to form an organized retreat leaving the German 189th Infantry Division to act as a rear guard. Over the next 10 days, the Allies would keep the Germans on their heels, driving them north to Montélimar. French units immediately pursued the outnumbered Germans towards the ports of Toulon and Marseille ultimately capturing them simultaneously on Aug. 27, 1944.
By September 10, units of Operation Dragoon linked up with Patton’s Third Army while the remainder of Army Group G escaped through the Vosges Mountains leaving 130,000 of their own surrounded by the Allies. Operation Dragoon was a tactical and strategic success. In four weeks, the Allied pincer movement was established and a southern supply route opened. Save the Ardennes Offensive in December 1944, the Germans were unceasingly driven back into the Rhineland. Thus, with Operation Dragoon, the fall of the Third Reich began in earnest.