France’s Second D-Day: Operation Dragoon and the Invasion of Southern France

Often overshadowed by the Normandy Landings, the U.S. Seventh Army’s amphibious invasion of southern France on August 15, 1944 and the ensuing operations were nonetheless critical to the Allied victory in the European theater of World War II. Following six weeks of aerial bombardment, the infantry, armor, airborne, and commando forces of Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott’s VI Corps assaulted German positions along a 45-mile stretch of French coastline from St. Raphaël to St. Tropez. Preceded by the commandos of the 1st Special Service Force and the paratroopers of the 1st Airborne Task Force, the assault battalions of the 3rd, 36th and 45th infantry divisions landed on the French Riviera. The American forces secured the beachhead and pushed inland, dislodging the defenders of the German 19th Army. Within 48 hours, American units penetrated 20 miles in some sectors. The VI Corps then turned west toward the Rhône River valley. Meanwhile, the French Armée B came ashore over the landing beaches. The Free French forces, under the command of Gen. Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, had the primary objective of the campaign – to capture the ports of Toulon and Marseille. Together, these French and American units formed the Seventh Army under the command of Lt. Gen. Alexander M. Patch.

The combined Franco-American force continued its assault toward Marseille and the Rhône River, forcing the German Nineteenth Army into a fighting withdrawal. As the French prepared their attack on Marseille, the Americans turned north up the Rhône Valley. One hundred miles north of Marseille, the town of Montélimar presented a major obstacle; the Germans prepared their defense as a bottleneck to slow down the rapid Allied advance. After a fierce struggle, the 36th Division forced the German units to withdraw, Montélimar fell, and the rout was on. The campaign became a race northward up the Rhône valley.

By September 7, a combat patrol made contact with the French 2nd Armored Division operating west of Dijon. The French, in collaboration with Lt. Gen. George Patton’s U.S. Third Army, were advancing east toward the border with Germany. With the full link up of Allied armies completed by September 10, the Seventh Army turned northeast toward Strasbourg. The drive to the German frontier began, and Operation Dragoon ended. Over the course of the offensive, the Allies drove 400 miles into France in three weeks and liberated 10,000 square miles of French territory while inflicting 143,250 German casualties. Although launched with reluctant British participation, the campaign through southern France provided crucial support to the main Allied thrust against Germany, and remains one of the most successful–and often overlooked–operations of World War II.

Rhône American Cemetery and Memorial is located in Draguignan, along the path of the U.S. Seventh Army’s advance up the Rhône River.  Most of the 860 burials in this cemetery, along with the 294 names inscribed upon the Walls of the Missing, are members of the military who lost their lives during Operation Dragoon and the Allied drive up the Rhone valley.