The allied invasion through Provence, August 1944 Adapted by Janice Lert.

To force the Germans out of occupied France, the Allies had imagined an invasion through Provence which had been on the drawing boards since August of 1943. The invasion was code-named “Anvil” and the principal argument in favour of it at first was the request by the Russians that the allies open up a new front in Western Europe to ease pressure on the Eastern front. At the time, the invasion through Normandy had been code-named “Sledgehammer”, and the metaphor of crushing the Germans between the sledgehammer and the anvil in France was appealing.

The action was planned initially for May, 1944, with three U.S. divisions and several other large units, particularly French units stationed in North Africa. The idea was to capture a large city (Marseille had been chosen initially, but an assault there was impractical, so it was changed to Toulon) providing port facilities to be able to move in equipment rapidly. But in war things rarely go as planned, and it soon became evident that there were not enough landing boats and escort ships to be able to invade through both Normandy and Provence simultaneously. And then there was the fact that the Americans were bogged down in Italy, where the Anzio campaign was taking longer than expected. And the British wanted 5 divisions for Overlord (the new name for “Sledgehammer”). If the divisions intended for Provence were sent to Normandy, it would effectively kill the whole “Anvil” program. Eisenhower, who was an astute diplomat, made an important decision by refusing to reduce the number of divisions for Anvil, for two reasons:

  • the promise that the Americans had given to the Russians;
  • the fact that an invasion through Provence would give the French a role to play in freeing their native soil.

A major offensive was planned in Italy for the spring of 1944: this meant that Anvil could not take place before July at the earliest. And it would have to take place after and not along with, Overlord in Normandy. During this period of waiting, the plan went through a series of modifications. The code- name was changed to “Dragoon”, and would involve American divisions from Naples and Sicily as well as North Africa. As it became clearer that the Germans would probably evacuate southern France, the role of the French forces became more specific: the interior forces (the Resistance) would be called upon to engage in sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

When the Americans entered Rome two days before Overlord, a date for Dragoon could finally be fixed: August 15, 1944. Cargo ships were requisitioned to transport 84,000 men and 12,000 vehicles on Day 1 with 35,500 men and 8,000 more vehicles following on Days 2-5. The Americans had learned harsh lessons with failed invasions (especially Dieppe):

  • the invasion should take place at night, behind a smoke screen, and result in a secured beach-head;
  • it should not take place at the most obvious spot;
  • the land troops would need permanent support from ships;
  • the assault must go according to plans: do not improvise!
  • a command ship is indispensable (the leader of the land forces must not set foot on land until communications networks have been installed).

Concerning the French forces, they were at first led by General Giraud, who had good relationships with the Americans. But he was ousted and replaced by General de Lattre de Tassigny, appointed by De Gaulle. Most of de Lattre’s soldiers came from the French colonies in Africa, and many did not even speak French. There was a lot of bickering between the French, English and Americans who each had their own ideas. But this did not keep the project from advancing: the command structures moved from North Africa to Naples and then to Bastia, Corsica. The target area was defined as 70 km of beaches east and west of Toulon to be occupied 30 km inland, then eventually movement toward the Rhône River valley on the west and the Alps on the east.

What opposition would they encounter in Provence? The Germans had invaded France on November 11, 1942, and replaced the Italians in the south on September 8, 1943. Before Overlord they had 3 divisions on the east side of the Rhône River but no particular strategy in case of attack. They used civilians on their construction projects, which increased risks of sabotage and inside knowledge of installations. As far as western Provence is concerned, the Germans in the area around Arles seemed to have had two main jobs: surveying the bauxite mines in Les Baux and guarding the passage of the Rhône River. After Overlord two of the three German divisions in the area moved north, and the anti-aircraft guns that had been protecting the bridges over the Rhône River left the region. The area between the Petit-Rhône to the west and Sausset-les-Pins to the east was controlled by the 338. ID from the German 19th army, with headquarters at the Barbegal château.

On June 17 th, the 7 French departments along the Mediterranean coast were declared “combat zone” by the Germans. Allied intelligence tended to overestimate the German threat (some positions were fakes, in some cases cannons were counted two or three times, etc.) The German 19th army (285,000-300,000 men) was composed of men of many different nationalities and was not very well organized. 85,000 men were stationed near the intended landing zone.

The Allies prepared diversionary tactics with a mock invasion through Narbonne moving north to Toulouse. Once the invasion started, they expected the 338th German division from Arles to be sent down to the coast, and the Panzer divisions on the west side of the Rhône to cross over. They counted on the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur – French resistance fighters) and the aviation to slow them down. Thus the bridges across the Rhône River were regularly bombed. It was during one of these bombings that Vincent Van Gogh’s yellow house in Arles was destroyed.

After the intense bombings at the beginning of August, the Germans realized the Allies were attempting to isolate the region east of the Rhône River, and sent their 9th armoured division to create a temporary railroad bridge south of Avignon. But they had few planes: on August 15, 1944 the Allied Air Forces undertook 4000 sorties for only 60 sorties for the Luftwaffe.

After the initial invasion through Toulon, the Luftwaffe forces retreated to Lyon and the Allied bombings were designed especially to prevent German reinforcements from arriving, and to slow the German retreat.

The French forces participating in the invasion were Special Forces sent to the maquis, then aviators and sailors who had escaped to England, also the French 9th colonial division from North Africa (Armée B).

Toulon was taken two days ahead of schedule and then the troops headed on to Marseille which was taken by the French colonial Algerian and Moroccan troops. 35,000 Germans were captured between August 15 and August 28. Once these main ports were taken, the Allies pursued the Germans who were retreating north through the Alps. The region around Arles and the Rhône River was only lightly defended and was at least partially neutralized by resistance fighters. Thus Arles claims to be one of the few towns in France which freed itself.

The push north in pursuit of the German 19th Army was the work of the US 7th Army, which reached Lyon on September 2, two months ahead of schedule.

On September 15th, the first Liberty Ship entered the port of Marseille. The oil refineries in Port-de-Bouc had been protected by the FFI, so fuel was rapidly available. The Allied armies coming from the north (Normandy) and the south (Provence) joined near Dijon on September 10-12. Overlord and Dragoon were a success.


Source: Gaujac, Paul: Dragoon, the other invasion of France, Histoire & Collections, Paris, 2004.