Winston Churchill and the British were bitterly opposed to an American plan to land an army on the French Riviera for the liberation of Provence; they considered Operation Dragoon unnecessary and unlikely to yield worthwhile results.
The British believed an attack on Provence would sap vital resources from Italy. Men and equipment would both need diverting, putting an end to Churchill’s aspirations to invade Germany from the south. Moreover, if Dragoon succeeded, US troops would dominate the western European theatre of war. Invading Germany via Italy or the Balkans, Churchill argued, would disrupt German oil supplies and help to limit Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. As World War II drew to a conclusion, Churchill saw that military decisions like this would impact British, American and Soviet spheres of influence in postwar Europe.
The US commanders already held the balance of power, however, and Dragoon went ahead. Eisenhower was insistent that the Allies needed another port. Cherbourg had been captured but its harbour facilities needed rebuilding; Antwerp was so far unavailable; Marseilles, therefore, was the obvious place for Liberty ships to unload supplies for the American armies in eastern France and Germany.
The landings in Provence had initially been planned to coincide with Operation Overlord in Normandy, in order to stretch the Germans across two French fronts. The demands of launching two major invasions simultaneously were unmeetable, however, and Dragoon was rescheduled for 15 August 1944. The selected beaches – located between Hyères and Cannes – afforded many advantages to the Allies. Their ground troops were supported in the air and by members of the French Resistance, who, emboldened by the Normandy landings, carried out daring sabotage missions directed against General Johannes Blaskowitz and the German Army Group G, charged with the defence of Provence.
The thrust of the invasion was assigned to three divisions of the US VI Corps under Major General Lucian Truscott (part of the US Seventh Army, under Patch) supported by French Army B, led by General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny (usually referred to as de Lattre).
The landings met none of the problems encountered at Salerno or Normandy – only on the right flank was there any serious opposition – and 66,000 men were landed at the cost of less than one hundred fatalities. The French took the task of liberating Toulon and Marseille, which fell to the Allies on 26 and 28 August respectively.
With the whole of southern France now liberated, the Franco–US forces pushed northwards. They proceeded quickly up the Rhone valley in pursuit of the retreating Germans, stopped briefly and bloodily at Montélimar. This was the only pause in an advance that covered 650km of France in under six weeks. On the way, Lyon was liberated on 3 September and Besançon on the 7th. Three days later, patrols from the US Seventh Army coming from Provence met patrols from the US Third Army advancing from Normandy. The progress of Operation Dragoon was only checked by the Vosges mountains of Alsace, where all Allied advancement towards Germany ground to a halt in the autumn of 1944.
The official memorial to the landing in Provence was inaugurated in 1964 by General de Gaulle during his presidency. It pays tribute to the soldiers of the French and American armies who participated in the landings and subsequent Allied attacks. The story of the events of August 1944 as they unfolded is told through a range of audiovisual presentations, archives, models and other exhibits. The role played by troops recruited in France’s African colonies is particularly emphasized.
Located southwest of Aix, this imposing building in the grounds of Camp des Milles serves as both a museum and a memorial. It was built in 1939, initially to intern Germans and Austrians living in France. The Germans later used it as a transit camp for Jews. The memorial adopts an educational approach with a view to reinforcing the vigilance and responsibility of citizens to combat racism, anti-Semitism and all forms of fanaticism.
This national cemetery contains the graves of 464 combatants – of various nationalities and denominations – belonging to the First French Army who were killed during the landings in Provence.
This site near Draguignan was chosen to bury the men who were killed on the route of the US Seventh Army’s drive up the Rhône Valley. The cemetery contains the graves of 858 American soldiers who fell during the course of Operation Dragoon.
The Luynes necropolis, which lies a few kilometres south of Aix-en-Provence near Les Milles, was completed in 1969. Buried here are 11,424 soldiers who fell during both world wars, including 3077 who died in the wake of the landing on the French Riviera in 1944.
Top image: Provence Landing Museum © Liberation Route Europe