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This Day in History: WWII’s Operation Dragoon is a smashing success

On this day in 1944, Operation Dragoon begins. That campaign through southern France has been called “one of the most successful—and often overlooked—operations of World War II.”

It has also been called France’s “other D-Day.”

Indeed, that operation nearly occurred concurrently with Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings that you are used to hearing about. Operation Overlord was focused on Normandy, in northern France. But a southern arm was also considered.

Had it been launched, that invasion would have been known as Operation Anvil.

The invasion fleet for Operation Dragoon

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wasn’t the biggest fan of Anvil. He preferred to send those Allied resources to Italy. On the other hand, General Dwight D. Eisenhower really wanted the southern invasion—or at least the threat of one. But he could see the shortage of amphibious vessels, and he wanted as many resources as he could get for Operation Overlord, too.

Allied leaders went round and round: What should they do about Anvil? The operation seemed dead for a time at the end of the spring. Late in June 1944, the idea gained a new life.

Allied efforts in northern France were going well, but those liberated northern ports threatened to reach maximum capacity. An invasion in southern France might help to secure more French ports in the South. That, in turn, would give Allied forces and supplies more points of entry.

Anvil’s code name was changed to Dragoon for security purposes, and the invasion was scheduled for August 15. Churchill remained skeptical of the decision, but Americans promised that Dragoon would have no impact on the resources available for Italy.

The invasion was planned for a 45-mile stretch of French coastline from St. Raphaël to St. Tropez. Lt. Gen. Alexander M. Patch of the U.S. Seventh Army would lead the Allied force. His objectives were to establish a beachhead, liberate the port cities of Toulon and Marseille, then drive north to join Eisenhower’s forces.

A general air offensive in southern France had been ongoing throughout the summer, but now it intensified. Allied leaders varied their targets, hoping not to give away their real landing spot. Germans knew something was coming, but they didn’t have the resources to defend the whole coast.

On the night before Dragoon was scheduled to commence, Allied leaders doubled down on their efforts to confuse the Germans. Dummy paratrooper drops were conducted. Small patrol fleets were sent to fake landing sites. Finally, about an hour before the scheduled 8 a.m. landing, one last heavy naval bombardment began.

The invasion that followed was organized and successful. “Dragoon was soundly conceived,” one military historian writes, “based on hard lessons learned in previous amphibious operations. . . . [It obtained] a surprisingly rapid battlefield success that achieved all of its tactical and strategic objectives in a minimum amount of time.”

By the night of August 17, German forces were in full retreat, heading up the Rhone River valley. Meanwhile, some of the free French forces were headed toward Toulon. The Germans put up more resistance there, but that city had been liberated by August 26. Marseille soon followed on August 29.

Within a matter of weeks, the Allies had driven 400 miles into France, liberating 10,000 squares miles of French territory. On September 14, the offensive was brought to a formal end. Forces from northern and southern France had linked up, and it was time to reorganize the command structure.

Operation Dragoon had been a smashing success.

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