‘Second D-Day’ in the south of France was actually a futile exercise that paved the way for Stalin

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It is the lesser known allied invasion of southern France – dubbed the ‘second D-Day’ – that saw 580,000 troops pour on to beaches and swiftly beat back the Nazi forces.

The attack, just five weeks after the hard-fought invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord, was quickly hailed a success with most of southern France liberated in just a month.

However, military historian Anthony Tucker-Jones has now claimed Operation Dragoon was a futile exercise that later allowed Stalin to take over Eastern Europe.

He said that during the operation, the invasion force got held up at the Belfort Gap, northeast France.

Charles de Gaulle was left in control of most of France and ‘the Allies never did break free from Italy before the war ended, leaving Stalin a free hand in eastern Europe and the Balkans’.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to limit the progress of the Soviets’ Red Army and so opposed this opening of a Second Front that would divide Europe.

But both Eisenhower and Joseph Stalin backed Operation Dragoon, which came just five weeks after the crucial Normandy Landings.

The initial stages of the battle saw the elite US-Canadian 1st Special Service Force land at the Îles d’Hyères islands on August 14 and overwhelm the garrisons on Port-Cros and Levant.

Forces arrived to join them as they ploughed northward towards the French coastline.

When they arrived at the beach for the main invasion, they were helped by French Resistance forces which had caused a nuisance by sabotaging German phone lines and roads.

Hundreds of thousands of troops flooded ashore on the morning of August 15 and the few Nazis they encountered quickly surrendered.

The only difficulty were the landings on Camel Beach, where there was severe fighting on Camel Red near Saint-Raphaël. The offensive was later moved away from that area.

But by August 18, allied forces had already made it 83 miles inland to the area of Digne and just three days later the Germans abandoned Grenoble – the next major settlement.

It exposed a gap on the German’s left flank and the US troops continued to march northwards as the French took the coastline areas of Toulon and Marseilles by August 27.

German commander Johannes Blaskowitz noticed the hole on the left flank and launched a large-scale assault with a Panzer division.

But it failed to stop the Americans and they pushed further north, liberating Montélimar and Lyon on September 3.

The Royal Navy, RAF and British commandos played a small but significant role throughout the offensive.

But after the war, Dragoon was dogged by controversy.

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery branded the mission ‘one of the great strategic mistakes of the war’ as the divisive military action left the door wide open for the Soviets to dominate eastern Europe and kickstart the Cold War.

Mr Tucker-Jones, a former defence intelligence officer and military expert, agreed, saying: ‘However you look at it, in strategic terms Dragoon was a nugatory exercise.

‘It was not conducted in parallel with [Operation] Overlord owing to shortages of amphibious transport, thereby losing its diversionary impact.

‘In addition, the success of Overlord meant Army Group G would have been forced to withdraw from southern France anyway to avoid being cut off, regardless of an invasion in the south.

‘The timing of Dragoon meant it did not take any pressure off the Allies fighting in Normandy, since the Nazi’s better units, especially their panzer divisions, had already been drawn north by 15 August.’

Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower supported the operation but Churchill bitterly opposed it.

Churchill saw it as a waste of time and favoured renewing the offensive in Italy or landing in the Balkans.

Looking ahead to a post-war Europe, Churchill wished to conduct offensives that would slow the progress of the Soviet Red Army while also hurting the German war effort.

For that reason, and because a second front would relieve some of the pressure on his own army, Stalin endorsed the plan.

Eisenhower and Churchill had blazing rows over the operation and at one point the British prime minister threatened to resign.

Mr Tucker-Jones admitted the operation itself was seamless, but stood by Churchill in questioning it.

He said: ‘Despite de Gaulle’s and his generals’ demands for French pre-eminence, experience dictated that American forces should conduct the initial assault in the south of France with the French Army following up in the second wave.

‘In the event, the invasion was conducted in an exemplary fashion in the face of minimal resistance; the liberation of the major cities of Marseilles and Toulon was achieved way ahead of schedule; and Hitler’s Army Group G was put to rapid flight. The situation seemed highly promising.

‘However, subsequently there were bitter battles with the tough German rearguard as it sought to hold France’s southern cities and cover the withdrawal.

‘Pushing past the mountains that border south-eastern France, the invasion force found itself held up at the strategically crucial Belfort Gap, the gateway to Germany, until the end of the year.

‘In the meantime de Gaulle was left in control of Paris and much of France, and the Allies never did break free from Italy before the war ended, leaving Stalin a free hand in eastern Europe and the Balkans.

‘Churchill had been right all along, although Eisenhower, great statesman that he was, ultimately had the good grace to admit that he had been wrong. This, though, never made up for the fact that Dragoon should never have taken place.’

The battles were less bloody than Normandy as most of the German troops – fully aware of what had happened on Frances’ north coast – were more willing to retreat or surrender. 

But it was still a costly campaign. Operation Dragoon saw around 17,000 men lost or wounded while killing around 7,000 Germans and capturing a further 130,000.

Mr Tucker-Jones said: ‘To some people, Operation Dragoon – the Allied landings in the south of France – was just a sideshow that needlessly supported the crucial D-Day landings in Normandy, which opened the long-awaited Second Front.

‘In addition, the resulting diversion of men and equipment hampered the struggling war effort in Italy and Burma, thereby distorting the Allies’ wider strategic effort.

‘In reality this other D-Day was of considerable significance, which went far beyond its military contribution to the liberation of France, for the political ramifications were to be far-reaching and helped put at centre stage the leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle.’

Despite his criticisms, Mr Tucker-Jones does concede there were positive aspects to Dragoon as well.

‘To the Americans’ credit, General Patch’s US 7th Army and de Lattre’s French 1st Army cleared south and central France in half the time expected, taking some 100,000 prisoners at the cost of about 13,000 casualties as of mid-September,’ he added.

‘Likewise, from the supporting logistical supply standpoint Dragoon was a triumph.

‘Despite German efforts to wreck the facilities at Marseilles and Toulon, both ports were open for business by 20 September 1944.

‘By the end of the month over 300,000 Allied troops, 69,000 vehicles and nearly 18,000 badly needed tonnes of gasoline had poured into France via the Dragoon bridgehead.

‘Ultimately some good had come of it. Churchill, though, always felt that a much bigger opportunity had been lost and the world became a much worse place for it.’

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