An airborne operation to support the landings in Southern France was first proposed in April 1944, but due to a shortage of transport aircraft it was initially conceived on a small scale. At dusk on the eve of the invasion, just three parachute battalions were to be dropped to block the likely enemy counter-attack routes by occupying Le Muy, Le Luc (12 miles to the South-West), and Collobrieres (20 miles to the South-South-West). On the following day, another battalion would cut the coastal road to Toulon on the southern flank of the invasion area.
The number of aircraft available significantly increased in mid-July, following a Herculean effort to transfer the 413 C-47's of the 50th and 53rd Troop Carrier Wings from the UK to Italy. In anticipation of these, a new plan was proposed during June for a divisional operation with similar objectives; the 2nd Parachute Brigade was to capture Le Muy, the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment would occupy Le Luc, and the 509th and 551st Parachute Infantry Battalions would seize Carnoules, 20 miles to the South-West of Le Muy. By occupying these towns, the airborne troops would dominate the key points along the Frejus - Toulon road, and in so doing would not only severely impede the ability of the enemy to counter-attack the beaches, but would also enable a swift advance on Toulon and its vital port. Yet the operation risked disaster because, if the ground forces made slow progress in the face of determined resistance, the American troops in particular would be isolated for several days, and it was not inconceivable that they could be wiped out. It was ultimately decided to drop all of these forces at Le Muy, the most important of the three, where they could provide mutual support and be assured of an early relief by the ground forces.
Le Muy is situated at the confluence of the Nartuby and Argens rivers, with the latter flowing more or less parallel to the Frejus - Toulon road which passes directly through the town from East to West. To the North, the wooded country gently rises for 4 miles until it reaches a steep ridge, whilst immediately to the South is a considerable expanse of wooded high ground. Neither of these areas was traversed by more than a few minor roads, leaving the Frejus - Toulon road as the only route to the beaches capable of bearing heavy military traffic. The area around Le Muy therefore formed a natural bottleneck in the Argens Valley, and by occupying it the 1st Airborne Task Force would control the gateway between the beaches and the expanding road network beyond, preventing the enemy from launching an effective counter-attack whilst also enable the relieving troops to move swiftly inland.
The Outline Plan
The air plan to support the operation was impressive. Depending on their location in Italy, the 50th, 51st and 53rd Troop Carrier Wings had between 250 and 400 miles of airspace to cover, across which they would carry 9,000 men in four lifts, all of whom would arrive in Southern France within 15 hours of each other on the 15th August.
The first lift, codenamed Operation Albatross, would see the overwhelming majority of the parachute element dropped before dawn; as was necessary because the date of the invasion coincided with a New Moon. At 08:15, Operation Bluebird would deliver a small glider lift, principally carrying the 2nd Parachute Brigade's artillery and anti-tank guns. At 18:00, Operation Canary would deliver the balance of the parachute troops, with Operation Dove coming immediately behind it with the main glider force.
Three drop zones were assigned to the 1st Airborne Task Force, DZ's A, C and O, encircling Le Muy at an approximate distance of two miles. At 03:30 on the 15th August, pathfinder teams would land on each of these to set up lights and beacons to guide the main formation to their respective zones.
At 04:23, the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, with the 463rd Field Artillery Battalion and a platoon of the 596th Engineer Company under command, would drop on DZ-C to the South-East of Le Muy. Located in a steep, rocky and wooded valley, this was a far from ideal zone, but it presented the only means of quickly establishing a force on the high ground to the South of Le Muy. From here the 509th could overlook the road running East to Frejus, and so hinder enemy movement from that direction as well as along the minor roads across the hills to the South.
At 04:35, the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, accompanied by the 460th Field Artillery Battalion and the remainder of the 596th Engineer Company, would land on DZ-A, to the West of Le Muy and on the southern bank of the River Nartuby. Their task was to clear the village of La Motte and hold three areas of high ground to control the western approaches to Le Muy. The 1st Battalion would cut the road to Le Luc in the South-West, the 2nd Battalion would do likewise along the road to Draguignan in the North-West, while the 3rd Battalion would secure the hill between the two overlooking Les Arcs.
At 04:54, the 2nd Parachute Brigade would drop with 1st Airborne Task Force Headquarters on DZ-O, to the North of Le Muy and on the northern bank of the River Nartuby. Their broad task was to secure the centre ground between the two American zones, preventing access to Le Muy from the East, and guarding against any enemy incursions which might filter down from the Draguignan - Fayence road to the North.
The 2nd Parachute Brigade Plan in Detail
The 6th Parachute Battalion were to land first and occupy the high ground to the North-East of La Motte, from where they could support the attack of the 2nd Battalion, 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment into the village, taking it over once the Americans had moved on. In addition they were to capture a bridge to the South of La Motte, and hold the Clastron farm area to the East of it.
The 5th Battalion would drop next with orders to form a strong point around the buildings to the North of Le Mitan, and establish a force on the wooded high ground to the East of there to secure the bridge over the River Endre. The remainder of the Battalion was to protect both Brigade and Task Force Headquarters.
The 4th Battalion would be the last to arrive, and their objectives were the bridge to the North of Le Muy and the dominating high ground to the East of it.
Once all of these areas had been secured, the 5th Battalion would send patrols to the East whilst the 6th did likewise to the North, to encourage any enemy in those areas to keep their distance. The 5th were also to send a company to relieve the 4th Battalion on their high ground, thereby freeing them up to attack and capture Le Muy.
Reinforcements would arrive as the day progressed. At 08:15, the second lift, codenamed Operation Bluebird, would arrive with a mixed force of Horsa and Waco gliders, carrying the American 512th Airborne Signals Company, elements of Task Force Headquarters, and the British 64th Airlanding Light and the 300th Airlanding Anti-Tank Batteries.
At 18:00, Operation Canary would deliver the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, closely followed by Operation Dove and the main glider lift, amongst which would be the 550th Glider Infantry Battalion, 442nd Anti-Tank Company, 602nd Field Artillery Battalion, and "A" Company of the 2nd, and "D" Company of the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalions, the former of which was attached to the 2nd Parachute Brigade.
At 10:00 on the 16th August, Operation Eagle, the last planned airlift in support of the 1st Airborne Task Force, would drop supplies from 130 aircraft.
Should their services in France be required beyond the link-up with the 7th US Army, the 2nd Parachute Brigade had also prepared a Seaborne Element to follow in the wake of the invasion force. Consisting of some 500 men and 195 vehicles, carrying additional supplies and heavy equipment, it was expected to reach Le Muy 10 days after the invasion.
Enemy resistance was not expected to be severe, but it was anticipated that the Germans would quickly understand the importance of Le Muy as an obstacle to their counter-attack forces, and would do all they could to dislodge the 1st Airborne Task Force. In the first hours, it was expected that patrols would be sent out to determine the position and strength of the airborne troops, and these would be followed by larger and more organised attacks, principally from Le Puget, six miles to the East of Le Muy, and Draguignan, seven miles to the North-West.
The Le Puget garrison had the potential to challenge the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion with a comparable force of infantry supported by assault guns. The greatest threat though was posed by the two battalions of the officer training school at Draguignan, one of which was likely to attack the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment along the main road, but the other could attempt to enter the 2nd Parachute Brigade's area from the North.
By the end of the day, it was possible that the 517th may also have to contend with a battalion of tanks in the West, while the 509th and 2nd Parachute Brigade in the East would begin to encounter the first enemy troops withdrawing from the invasion area. If the 1st Airborne Task Force was able to stand firm against these, it was believed that the enemy would concede defeat in this area and instead divert their efforts towards containing the 7th Army.