Bite-Size History #2 — The Most Famous Battle Of WW2 You’ve Never Heard Of

Jon & Caroline | Ink-Stained Hearts

Operation Dragoon — D-Day’s Little Brother and Its Role In Allied Victory
The Operation Dragoon invasion force disembarking on the southern coast of FrancePhoto byWikipedia

Whether you’re a historian, an enthused amateur, or someone who has ancestors that experienced the Second World War, if you asked about the key events of the conflict, you might expect some of the following to get a mention:

  • The Nazi invasion of Poland
  • The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor
  • The Battle of the Bulge
  • The fall of France and the Low Countries
  • The Battle of Britain
  • Operation Overlord (or D-Day)
  • The Battle of Stalingrad and the encircling of Paulus’ Sixth Army
  • The Battle of Midway
  • Montgomery vs. Rommel in North Africa
  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • Operation Market Garden

And plenty more.

I doubt, though, too many lists would feature Operation Dragoon — an incredibly vital part of the war — but, for reasons we’ll cover, often only gets a passing mention in the histories of this conflict.

Let’s correct this oversight by exploring what Operation Dragoon was, the contribution it made to the Allied victory, and the theories behind its relative obscurity. Why does it remain overshadowed by other notable campaigns?

What was Operation Dragoon?

Plans for Operation Dragoon — initially envisaged as a parallel Allied invasion of southern France alongside Operation Overlord (or D-Day) in northern France on the Normandy beaches, dated back to 1942.

General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, is credited with the idea, which received endorsement from the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin at the Tehran Conference in 1943 of the “Big Three”.
“The Big Three” — Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill — at the Tehran Conference in 1943Photo byWikipedia

A concurrent invasion of France was under consideration, although the original names of Anvil and Sledgehammer were eventually replaced by Operations Dragoon and Overlord.

Despite U.S. and Soviet support, British opinion was more cautious and favoured Allied focus in the Mediterranean on the Italian and Balkans before undertaking any southern invasion.

This view alongside (1) the lack of expected progress following the Anzio landings in Italy of 22 January, (2) a shortage of amphibious craft needed to maintain the Anzio beachhead, and (3) the logistical demands of Operation Overlord, all contributed to Operation Dragoon being pushed back and separated from the Normandy D-Day landings.

But, by July 1944 — a month after the launch of Operation Overlord — the importance of Dragoon came back into focus. It was clear alternative ports were needed as those in Normandy could not cope with the desired supply demands of the Allied armies in terms of equipment and personnel.

With the liberation of their country tantalisingly close, the High Command of the French Liberation Army were also keen on a separate operation that would bring their soldiers firmly into the heat of battle against the Nazi occupiers and Vichy ‘collaborators’.

Now on a new timescale from that discussed at Tehran and other meetings, the go-ahead was given for Operation Dragoon to be undertaken in August 1944.

The ground force invasion, which took place on 15 August, under the Allied command of Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch of the U.S. Seventh Army, had a 45-mile stretch of French coastline from St. Raphaël to St. Tropez in its sights. The aims were to secure a beachhead, liberate the port cities of Toulon and Marseille, and push north through France to join Eisenhower’s “Overlord” forces.
Map of the Allied landing plans and German positionsPhoto byWikipedia

From a military perspective, Dragoon was a highly successful operation. The bulk of southern France was liberated within a month, French Army B reclaimed Marseille and Toulon ahead of schedule on 28 August, and the port of Marseille became the Allies’ second largest, after Antwerp, significantly enhancing their supply capabilities.

Under Lieutenant General Patch the ensuing skirmishes led to the capture of large parts of the German 19th Army at Montélimar, and by 15 September, the forces involved in Dragoon had joined up with General George S. Patton’s Third Army, creating an unbroken Allied line from the Dutch coast to Switzerland.

Was Operation Dragoon really that important?

Absolutely! And here are some of the reasons why the southern invasion of France should be remembered alongside its northern counterpart.

Diversifying the Frontlines

One of the primary contributions of Operation Dragoon was its ability to diversify the Allied frontlines in Europe. Prior to the operation, the bulk of the Allied forces were heavily concentrated in Normandy, following the successful D-Day landings. By launching an assault on the southern coast of France, the Allies effectively extended their reach, stretching the German defenses thin and dividing their attention and resources.

With a foothold already in northern France, the Allies needed to exploit this advantage further by opening up additional fronts. Operation Dragoon provided the opportunity to seize vital ports and harbours along the Mediterranean coast, making it easier to receive supplies and reinforcements. Capturing southern France also allowed the northward advance, the potential for encircling the German forces in the region, and the linking with other Allied forces, as was achieved on 15 September 1944.
Medical staff on a landing beach — 26 August 1944Photo byWikipedia

The coming together of disparate Allied fronts also had a strong psychological effect, as it demonstrated their ability to conduct multiple large-scale operations simultaneously, putting further pressure on the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW or German High Command).

Paving the Way to Germany

The German forces now had to defend multiple fronts concurrently, in the West against the western Allied forces, and in the East facing the Soviet assault.

This diversion of resources weakened their defence along the Western Front, where the Allies were beginning the large-scale push towards Germany and the Siegfried Line or Westwall as well as exploring other operations such as (the unsuccessful) Operation Market Garden in September 1944.

Cutting off a full German Retreat

Operation Dragoon also had a significant impact on the German ability to retreat effectively. The operation succeeded in capturing vital ports and transportation hubs, including Marseille and Toulon, disrupting crucial German supply lines and enhancing the Allied capability.

The defence of southern France was under Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz, Head of Army Group G. Operation Dragoon took this smaller army group by surprise, as they’d expected the Allies to concentrate their efforts in Normandy. The lack of substantial German reinforcements allowed the Allies to secure the beachheads relatively quickly and begin their advance.
Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz inspecting German defences in France — June 1944Photo byWikipedia

With the rapid Allied advance northward, and following the capture of Marseille and Toulon, Blaskowitz sacrificed the 242nd Infantry Division in Toulon and the 244th Infantry Division in Marseille, to allow a reduced Army Group G to retreat.

Liberating Southern France

The liberation of southern France was a key objective of Operation Dragoon. The region had been under German occupation since 11 November 1942, and the operation quickly led to the freeing of large parts of the territory. This not only boosted the morale of the French people but also provided the Allies with additional resources, manpower, and local support to further their campaign.
Photo byWikipedia

Collaboration with the French Resistance

Operation Dragoon witnessed significant collaboration with the French Resistance forces. The French Maquis, partisans, and other resistance fighters actively supported the Allies during the operation, emerging from previous guerilla tactics to the more organised French Forces of the Interior (FFI).

With support from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), they sabotaged German supply lines, provided valuable intelligence, and engaged in parallel guerrilla warfare, further adding to the pressure on the German forces.

Allied Unity

Unlike the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan, following the entry of the U.S. into the war in 1941 the Allied forces, and particularly the “Big Three”, worked to unify their campaign against enemy forces. Although Soviet Russia was not formally part of combined operational planning, the Allies still coordinated their campaigns in a structured way that was absent within Axis planning. By the time of Operations Overlord and Dragoon a complex command structure was well-established between Great Britain and the U.S.

While those forming this central command did not agree on every detail, coordinated plans were largely achieved. Both General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, and Winston Churchill, initially had (different) reservations about Operation Dragoon.

However, unity through this command structure led to Dragoon’s planning and undertaking, and was another example of how a genuinely “allied” approach led to eventual victory over the Axis forces.
SHAEF — Omar Bradley, Bertram Ramsay, Arthur Tedder, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery, Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Walter Bedell SmithPhoto byWikipedia

The theories surrounding why Operation Dragoon is not better known?

A number of theories have emerged as to why this campaign is less well known than others from World War 2. Let’s explore some of these from both historians and those who were involved in their planning and execution.

1. Timing and Scale

One of the primary reasons for the relative obscurity of Operation Dragoon is the timing and scale of the operation itself. Launched on 15 August 1944, its timing coincided with other significant events, not least the Battle of Normandy following the D-Day landings on 6 June, and the concurrent Battle of the Falaise Pocket (12–21 August).

The scale of Operation Dragoon was also smaller in comparison to other campaigns, including Operation Overlord, making it easier to overlook. While it was strategically significant and played a crucial role in the liberation of France, the sheer magnitude of other battles often overshadowed it in the historical narratives.

To demonstrate:

Overlord in numbers:

  • 129,400 Allied infantry troops landed in Normandy
  • Number of vehicles used approximated at: 3,000 landing craft, 2,500 other ships, 500 naval vessels, 20,000 land vehicles, and 13,000 aircraft
  • Number of Allied casualties (killed, wounded, missing, prisoners) on 6 June estimated at 10,500

Dragoon in numbers:

  • 94,000 Allies troops landed in southern France
  • Number of ships, vessels and landing craft approximated at: 2,250, with 3,470 planes
  • The number of Allied casualties (killed, wounded, missing, prisoners) on 15 August totalled 395

2. Media Coverage and Public Attention

During the war, media coverage played a vital role in shaping public perception and awareness of military operations. The intense focus on events like D-Day and the Battle of Stalingrad captured the imagination of the public and media alike. Operation Dragoon, being a simultaneous operation alongside other major battles, received less media attention in comparison, resulting in a lack of awareness among the general public.
Ernie Pyle — reporting from the frontlinesPhoto byWikipedia

As today with “influencers”, media coverage during the war also owed much to high-profile journalists, such as Ernie Pyle, Martha Gellhorn, or William L. Shirer, reporting on or from the various theatres. With the larger scale operation in northern France, many journalists had to decide which battles and armies to follow.

3. Allied Unity and National Narratives

Another theory suggested by Russell F. Weigley in his 1981 book, Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaigns of France and Germany, 1944–1945, suggests the unity among Allied nations played a role in downplaying Operation Dragoon’s significance.

The joint cooperation of American, British, and French forces in the campaign showcased the cohesion among the Allies. As the war neared its end, national narratives became more pronounced, with each nation emphasising its own contributions to victory.

Operation Dragoon, being a cooperative effort, did not align as neatly with national narratives as battles led predominantly by a single nation. As such, its historical prominence might have been subsumed by other campaigns that allowed nations to highlight their individual achievements.

4. Allied Friction

The counterpoint to the “Allied Unity and National Narratives” theory is that despite the eventual undertaking of Operation Dragoon, the endless arguments relating to its merits were a factor in those involved consigning it to the bin of history.

Cameron Zinsou, in his assessment of the operation, notes:

Nothing caused as much friction between American and British strategists as Operation Anvil [original name of Operation Dragoon]. Americans viewed the operation as vital to the strategic and operational interests of the Allies. The British saw it as but one option dependent on current and evolving military circumstances in Europe. The chief source of antagonism from the British came from the belief that Americans were inflexible in their strategic thinking. Britain’s Minister of Production once quipped, “Many of our difficulties with the Americans had arisen from their tendency to treat agreements on strategy as lawyers’ contracts, and therefore regarded them as binding, irrespective of changing circumstance.”

As noted, despite the “agreement” by the “Big Three” following the Tehran Conference in 1943, Churchill remained an opponent all the way through to mid-1944.

In Captain Harry C. Butcher’s book, My Three Years With Eisenhower 1942–1945, he records the following, just a week before the operation:

Ike has been increasingly concerned about the PM’s attitude regarding ANVIL and, above all, the feeling that the questioning and apparent dissension might cause a rift in the unity of the Allies at a time when success is almost in our grasp. The PM is upset over Ike’s insistence for the landings in southern France, still set for August 15. Mr. Churchill knows that the American chiefs — Marshall, King, and Arnold — defer all questions in the European Theater to General Ike. Consequently, the Prime Minister unlooses on Ike his art of persuasion. The other day he went so far as to say, with considerable emotion, that he might have to go to the Monarch and “lay down the mantle of my high office.”

5. The “Nothing to See Here” Theory

Cameron Zinsou further speculates that historians have shied away from giving Dragoon its deserved place in the history books because it lacked the excitement and jeopardy of other battles.

[the] reason why Anvil/Dragoon is forgotten is that it was too successful. Add in the Battle of Montélimar and you have an operation that went about as well as the Allies could have hoped. This is a detriment to the memory of the operation because historians wrongly perceive that without the drama of a close-run result or a particularly savage battle like Omaha Beach or Iwo Jima, there is nothing to write about.

If you subscribe to this theory, I’m sure all those who participated, and for those who lost their lives, would urge historians to think again about their selectiveness.
Allied troops memorial on the beach of St Tropez in FrancePhoto byWikipedia

Remembering Operation Dragoon

For those who were part of this significant “second D-Day”, some or all of the theories here may be why it is a case of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” and why Operation Dragoon is not in the same league of consciousness as the “original D-Day”.

This is a shame, as it overlooks the many significant factors the operation played in the liberation of France and eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. Despite the Allied tensions over its planning, purpose and timing, Operation Dragoon was a vital and successful military campaign.

Acknowledging and remembering this campaign is essential to understanding the broader scope of the war and the collaborative efforts that brought about the downfall of Nazi Germany.

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Why not also check out our previous Bite-Size History - Did the Battle of Dunkirk stop the Axis winning World War 2?
Dunkirk evacuation 1940Photo byWikipedia

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