Operation Dragoon, 15th August 1944



French Senegalese soldiers coming ashore

Wounded German prisoners

Troops of the 45th Infantry Division in Southern France


Hampered by a shortage of manpower and the confusion which follows any invasion, Army Group G was unable to organise a counter-attack against the 7th US Army on the 15th August. They had been further debilitated by the 1st Airborne Task Force capturing the critical road network around Le Muy, and also by the French Resistance who had been cutting telephone lines and harassing German troops wherever they could find them. On the 16th August, four battalions of the 189th Division began a counter-attack in the direction of Draguignan and Le Muy, but it was too little too late and they were driven back by the combined efforts of the airborne troops and the leading elements of the 45th Infantry Division. In the East, the 148th Division attacked the 3rd Infantry Division at Saint Raphael but were similarly dismissed. As there was no possibility that the Americans would be driven back into the sea and little hope that they could be contained, Hitler for once relented and ordered Army Group G to fall back and establish a new front line alongside Army Group B, which at this time was desperately trying to escape encirclement in Normandy.


Toulon and Marseilles


On the 16th August 1944, the French 2éme Corps d'Armee arrived on the beaches and began its advance on Toulon and Marseilles. The intention had been to capture each in succession, but the 7th Army was advancing so rapidly that the French were confident that they could tackle both simultaneously. Toulon was cut-off on the 19th August and, after heavy fighting, it fell to the French on the 26th August, with Marseilles succumbing two days later. In capturing these ports, the primary objectives of Operation Dragoon, the French had suffered 4,500 casualties but took nearly 30,000 prisoners. The port facilities had been wrecked by the Germans, and during the previous months Allied bombers had devastated the rail network beyond, but both were restored with remarkable speed, and within a month the first supplies were being unloaded.


Montélimar and the Belfort Gap


The Americans, meanwhile, were making such swift progress that Army Group G had very little time to organise a defensive position along the River Rhône. On the 21st August, Taskforce Butler, the armoured spearhead of VI Corps, was approaching the eastern bank having advanced an incredible 120 miles from the beachhead, and they proceeded to occupy the hills overlooking Montélimar, situated directly upon the German line of retreat. With the 36th Infantry Division arriving in support and the veteran 11th Panzer Division in opposition, a fierce struggle ensued for control of the crossing which ultimately ended in a stalemate, with the Americans standing firm but unable to prevent the Germans from completing their withdrawal across the Rhône on the 29th August.


Thereafter the campaign developed into a pursuit, with Army Group G moving northwards as fast as they could while the 11th Panzer Division fought a desperate rearguard action to delay the Americans and French, who continually threatened to overtake the retreating columns. Consequently the Germans were prevented from establishing a solid position and their situation was perpetually precarious, yet although they lost 100,000 men during the campaign, a significant number of whom were garrison forces deliberately left behind to fortify ports, they nevertheless managed to prevent the Allies from breaking their line and bringing about a calamity. On the 10th September, the Dragoon forces linked-up with General Patton's 3rd Army which had advanced out of the Normandy beachhead, and together they attempted to close the Belfort Gap, a narrow corridor between the Vosges and Jura mountain ranges through which Army Group G had to pass. An unavoidable pause to rest and reorganise gave the Germans time to organise their defences, and these combined with bad weather finally stalled the Allied advance.


The 1st Airborne Task Force


The 1st Airborne Task Force remained in France after the departure of the 2nd Parachute Brigade, its loss being made good by the addition of the 1st Special Service Force. It did not take part in the main thrust of the campaign, but instead advanced North-East along the French coast, liberating Cannes and Nice before taking up a static defensive position in the Maritime Alps on the 7th September, guarding against possible enemy incursions from across the Italian border. The Task Force was withdrawn to Soissons in November 1944 to rest and refit, but at the end of the month its Headquarters was disbanded and the airborne components incorporated into the XVIII Airborne Corps.


All of these elements participated in the Battle of the Bulge from December 1944 to January 1945, during which they were involved in a number of successful and important actions but sustained extremely high casualties. The 509th and 551st Parachute Infantry Battalions were disbanded having been all but wiped out, with the handful of survivors joining the 82nd Airborne Division. The remnants of the 550th Glider Infantry Battalion were merged with those of the 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment to become the 3rd Battalion, 194th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 17th Airborne Division, and on the 24th March 1945 took part in the Rhine Crossing and advance into Germany. The 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment also suffered heavily, but went on to participate in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest in February 1945, before being withdrawn to refit as part of the 13th Airborne Division. Later transferred to the 17th Airborne Division, it was to have been involved in the invasion of the Japanese mainland, but the war ended before this could take place and the Regiment was disbanded.


None of the American infantry units of the 1st Airborne Task Force survived the war, but the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion was reformed in 1947 and endures to this day.