Operation Dragoon was controversial in 1944 and remains so to this day. Critics argue that it diverted strength from Italy at the very moment when the deadlock had been broken, and ahead lay the enticing possibilities of separating Germany from its only oil supply, liberating the Balkans and sparing Eastern Europe from post-war Soviet domination. It remains a matter of hypothetical speculation as to whether any of this had a hope of becoming a reality, and there are good arguments against it. The German position in Italy was not in as much disarray as the Allies had believed, and the very geography of Northern Italy and the Balkans presented significant logistical difficulties and endless opportunities for a series of painful delaying actions.
Yet the larger part of the British and some small elements of the American hierarchy took the view that a great opportunity had been missed because of Dragoon. Years later, when the grim reality of post-war relations with the Soviet Union became all too apparent, even General Eisenhower conceded that it had been a mistake not to seize the opportunity to enter the Balkans and radically alter the political map. But this was hindsight. The reality of 1944 was that the United States was the driving force behind the policy of the Western Allies, and for all of Churchill's pessimism, it remained optimistic about future relations with Stalin.
The Americans had been consistently sceptical about the merits of the Mediterranean campaign, favouring a direct confrontation through France as the quickest and easiest means of bringing down Hitler. If nothing else, Dragoon made a significant contribution to that campaign by the simple addition of two new armies. It also had a considerable impact on easing the supply problem, which had become acute as too little was being landed in Normandy to fuel the advance of so many armies, and the strongly garrisoned Channel ports were unlikely to be swiftly secured. Operation Dragoon had quickly placed Marseilles and Toulon at the disposal of the Allies, and within a few months some 100,000 tons of supplies were passing through them each week, approximately a third of the total required.
It is nevertheless debatable what Operation Dragoon actually achieved in terms of destroying the German war machine. The Champagne Campaign was characterised by a remarkably rapid advance which succeeded in liberating the greater part of Southern France in just four weeks. Yet even if Dragoon had not taken place, Army Group G would still have been compelled to withdraw to avoid being cut-off by the Allied armies advancing out of the Normandy Beachhead. The 7th US and 1st French Armies inflicted considerable damage along the way, but the main body of 240,000 men were able to escape in good order to take their place in the new front line. Small wonder that some still question whether more could have been achieved by persevering in Italy.
Yet it is probably fair to conclude that the end was in sight for Germany, and so it does not seem unreasonable to have thrown every available resource at the one front which was making real headway, rather than embarking upon a fresh adventure in a peripheral region where the results were anything but certain.
The Airborne Operation
The airborne operation was a great tactical success as the 1st Airborne Task Force had achieved all of its primary objectives within a few hours. Despite the scattering of a very significant proportion of the parachute element, sufficient troops were immediately available on the drop zones to carry out their allotted tasks, certainly in comparison to the American drops in Normandy which had been very widely dispersed.
In the aftermath of Operation Dragoon, the American Troop Carrier Groups congratulated themselves on what they considered to be the most accurate drop of the war, believing that as much as 90% of the troops had been dropped on target. This was quite true of the follow-up parachute and glider lifts which were carried out during daylight, but it does not reflect the reality of the critical First Lift, where less than half of the Task Force landed on or close to their intended locations.
By and large the chief culprit was the fog, which obscured the landscape and resulted in the misdrop of the American pathfinders. In the scattering of the 5th Parachute Battalion, and the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, it is clear that there were failings in procedure, training and navigation. Yet there had also been outstanding successes in these areas, above all the near perfect landing of the 1st Independent Parachute Company, and the accurate drop of half of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion despite the complete absence of pathfinder support. In view of the conditions and the experience of previous airborne operations, it is remarkable that the Troop Carrier Groups managed to drop so many of their parachutists in the right place.
It is to be wondered how well the operation would have proceeded were it not for the absence of serious resistance. As would be the case in any airborne operation, the first hours were dominated by numerous brushes with enemy patrols as the paratroopers attempted to form-up and accomplish their objectives, while the Germans tried to determine their strength and positions. These probes did not, however, develop into more serious attacks as the day progressed, but even if they did, there is no reason to suppose that the 1st Airborne Task Force would have been prevented from capturing those critical areas of high ground which dominated the valley. Had large and more co-ordinated attacks come against them later in the day, and assuming that such heavy opposition would also have delayed the swift arrival of stragglers who had been dropped wide, it is likely that these positions would have been put under considerable stress. Yet going by the example of Normandy, where the airborne troops were similarly under strength for several days, there is no reason to suppose that the 1st Airborne Task Force would not have been able to comfortably hold out until the 7th Army relieved them.
The shortage of manpower goes some way towards explaining why this resistance never materialised, but the main reason was that the German commanders failed to appreciate the significance of Le Muy. In their experience, airborne troops were used to capture areas of strategic importance such as bridges and airfields, but Le Muy seemed to possess nothing so vital, and its importance as a bottleneck in the road network seems to have been entirely lost on them. Even General Neuling of LXII Korps, who had his headquarters at Draguignan and so was better placed than most to understand the situation, failed to grasp the purpose of the landings and was still deciding what to do when he was taken prisoner by the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion on the 16th August.
In the years since Operation Dragoon, there have been a small number of authors who have been highly critical of the 2nd Parachute Brigade's failure to capture Le Muy. Their claims, which might have carried more weight if they had taken the trouble to describe the Brigade's part in the operation or reference a single British source, should be wholly disregarded because the facts, as reported by other authors and based on official records, simply do not support their argument.
The primary objective of the 2nd Parachute Brigade, overriding all others, was to secure the approaches to Le Muy and DZ-O from the North and East. Accordingly the 6th Battalion were ordered to hold the area around La Motte to guard against a possible counter-attack from the area of Draguignan, the 5th Battalion were to form a strong point to the North of DZ-O to screen it from any incursions which might appear from off the Draguignan - Fayence road, whilst the 4th Battalion were to hold the high ground to the East of Le Muy to prevent any movement in and out of the town. All of these positions had to be held at all times. The capture of Le Muy was of secondary importance, and to accomplish it the 4th Battalion were to be relieved on the high ground by the 5th Battalion's reserve company, who would provide fire support, alongside the guns of the 64th Airlanding Light Battery, as the 4th Battalion made its attack.
In the event, the three-battalion strong 2nd Parachute Brigade was effectively reduced to two as most of the 5th Battalion had gone astray with just "B" Company present to secure the northern flank of DZ-O, whilst the 4th Battalion were missing their "A" Company. Consequently it was impossible for the 5th Battalion to relieve them on the high ground, but even if an ad hoc force had been improvised from whatever the 6th Battalion and Brigade Headquarters could spare, the prospects for a successful attack were slim. Only "B" and "C" Companies of the 4th Battalion were present, and a portion of the latter would be required to hold Les Serres and the bridge over the River Nartuby. At best, the attack would be made by just five platoons, moving over open ground against an entrenched enemy approximately 500-strong, and as the guns of the 64th Airlanding Light Battery had not arrived with the Operation Bluebird lift, and the majority of the Battalion's machine-guns and mortars were missing, they would have to do it with limited fire support.
Clearly the 2nd Parachute Brigade did not have the strength to attack Le Muy without weakening its primary positions, and if this attack resulted in heavy casualties, as seemed entirely likely, they would be extremely vulnerable if the expected counter-attack materialised. As the Le Muy garrison was surrounded and not going anywhere, it seems entirely logical that Brigadier-General Frederick decided to relieve the British of the responsibility in favour of the 550th Glider Infantry Battalion, who were, after all, his reserve force which was intended to deal with just such an eventuality.
Operation Rugby was certainly a success, and although it has been accused of a lack of ambition it ought to be considered as one of the better airborne plans to emerge from the Second World War. The particular requirements of such operations were often misjudged and there was a consistent tendency to attempt to do too much. There is no finer example of this than Operation Market Garden, where the 1st Airborne Division were dropped too far from Arnhem bridge over a three day period and suffered very heavy casualties as they tried to reach it, while to their South the 82nd Airborne Division were assigned a plethora of objectives over a wide area, and as a consequence could only spare a small force to capture the critically important Nijmegen bridge which remained in enemy hands for three days. In other operations, the 1st Airlanding Brigade in Sicily were similarly encumbered with a variety of secondary tasks which, even if the landing had not gone awry, would have imperilled their ability to properly defend the primary objective, and even the excellent plan for the 6th Airborne Division on D-Day contained its erroneous elements, with the 6th Airlanding Brigade suffering heavily in a partially successful attempt to enlarge the bridgehead against a fully alerted enemy, 30 hours after the first troops had landed and at a time when the divisional area was anything but secure.
The main weapon of the airborne soldier is surprise; to be able to land without warning, seize objectives and be in complete control of them before the enemy is able to effectively react. Arnhem made it entirely clear that they are extremely vulnerable if they have not reached their objectives once surprise has been lost, as they are, by the nature of their deployment, lightly armed and lacking in all the heavy support weaponry and abundance of ammunition which is freely available to their ground-based opponents.
The plan for Southern France clearly understood this as the entirety of the 1st Airborne Task Force were on the ground within 15 hours and very close to their primary objectives, all of which were quickly taken as the enemy had little if any time to stop them. There were no elements to distract them from the single purpose of dominating all of the key terrain around Le Muy, with all of the battalions in close proximity to their neighbours and well-placed to lend support. The force committed to the first lift was entirely sufficient to accomplish these tasks, and those which arrived later in the day were used to consolidate these gains, rather than attempting to acquire further objectives in the face of an enemy now entirely aware of their presence. It was only on the second day, when the 7th Army was close at hand and the primary concern was to maintain the momentum of their advance, that the airborne troops moved beyond these positions to harass and destabilise the enemy in the wider area, and to capture places of secondary importance, such as Les Arcs and Draguignan.
In summary, it was a robust plan which remained completely focused on its primary purpose and left very little to chance. Consequently it was able to achieve success even though two of the seven battalions of the first lift and a not insignificant proportion of the remainder were dropped wide.