by Austin Bay
August 20, 2014
Winston Churchill disparaged Operation Anvil-Dragoon, the Aug. 15, 1944 Allied "second D-Day" invasion of Southern France. Churchill joked that he was "dragooned" into an unnecessary invasion. D-Day, June 6th, had breached Fortress Europe. A French Riviera "pincer" was folly.
However, the Allied senior commanders who dragooned the Prime Minister obeyed an old military axiom: Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals study logistics.
The Germans destroyed Normandy's Port Cherbourg and blocked Antwerp. Supplies over beaches barely met daily needs. The George Patton-led U.S. 3rd Army's August 1944 armored dash stretched supply capacities. Patton's high tempo strike at the Reich required more gas and ammo.
Anvil-Dragoon targeted Toulon and Marseilles' seaports. By May 1945, around a third of the total supplies for Allied forces in Western Europe came through Southern French ports.
The plan was sound. U.S. VI Corps, commanded by Major Gen. Lucian Truscott, would land with a minimal armor and vehicle transport. Corps' divisions (3rd Infantry Division, the 45th ID and the 36th ID, the Texas Division) would assault Riviera beaches. French Army units, under U.S. 7th Army command, would follow the initial assault. The French had sealift priority on tanks and trucks. Mobile French soldiers would roll west and seize the ports with their facilities intact. Third ID would support the French along the Rhone River.
A veteran Wehrmacht division worried Allied planners: 11th Panzer. Commanded by the able MG Wend von Wietersheim, the Ghost Division was an Eastern Front legend. Though understrength, Panther tanks bolstered its battle groups. Panther frontal armor deflected U.S. 75 mm rounds; most U.S. Shermans in August 1944 carried 75 mms. The 76 mms on U.S. M-10 tank destroyers penetrated panther side armor. However, tank destroyers had thin armor.
Aug. 15 VI Corps landed. Third ID took St. Tropez. The 36th had a stiff fight at Frejus Gulf. The 45th defeated two grenadier regiments. Truscott ordered the corps inland.
August 17: Allied intelligence intercepted an ULTRA radio message ordering Germans in Southern France to retreat. Time for a horse race to cut off a German corps? Truscott had few horses. He ordered the 36th ID to scrape together armor and trucks and form a task force. Commanded by assistant corps commander, Brigadier Gen. Frederick Butler, TF Butler would conduct a high-risk foray, racing north-west then turning to the Rhone to cut the German retreat. 3rd ID would push north on the Rhone's east bank. On August 19 Butler's lead units reached Digne-Sistero on the road to Grenoble. Time to head west to the Rhone?
Aug. 20: French units approached both seaports, thoroughly disrupting German defenders. The ports officially surrendered Aug. 28. But the French took them relatively intact, accomplishing Anvil-Dragoon's key objective.
Aug. 21- 22: The Rhone race is on. Shuttling trucks and GI boots brought north to Montelimar --piecemeal -- elements of two 36th ID battalions. Montelimar, on the Rhone's east bank, was an ideal blocking position. However, 11th PZ , ordered to protect the retreat and then serve as rearguard in a fighting withdrawal, approached the town from the south,
Aug. 22: German light armor recon units attacked the Texan defense and then sped east and north. If Texans can flank, 11th PZ will return the favor. The German horse race ended abruptly: A handful of U.S. tanks arrived to blunt the German bid to surround the American infantrymen.
Aug. 23-24: Thirty-sixth ID commander, MG John Dahlquist, took charge at Montelimar. His Texans and 11th PZ traded indecisive attacks.
Aug. 25: Another race up river. Thirty-sixth ID tanks and infantry slipped German defenders and blocked the Rhone highway at La Concorde. Von Wietersheim personally commanded his soldiers in the attack that broke the Texans' block.
Montelimar's move-and-shoot battle ended Aug. 29. As the 3rd ID linked up with the 36th, the depleted 11th PZ escaped. However, U.S. forces captured over 3,000 prisoners in the area. German equipment losses were huge. Allied forces captured another 31,000 elsewhere in Southern France.
Over the next 16 days, Truscott's over-extended corps pursued fleeing Germans north. French 1st Armored Division seized Lyon Sept. 8. That bagged 12,000 prisoners. On Sept. 11, French units north of Dijon linked up with Patton's 3rd Army.
Sept. 14: An exhausted VI Corps approached the Belfort Gap. Sitting in the Gap: 11th PZ. The horse race and Anvil-Dragoon, was over.