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(W)Archives: Are WWII Stereotypes about the French Military Wrong?

August 15, 2014

Seventy years ago a Franco-American force (with a few British troops thrown in) landed in southern France, starting Operation DRAGOON. The American landings began on 15 August 1944 and the French landings the next day. A once-classified, never published official history of the U.S. Seventh Army tells the story of these landings and the operations that followed over the next two weeks. This companion to Operation OVERLORD in Normandy was critical to the liberation of France and the winning of World War II in the west. It was also an important example of successful—if not always harmonious—cooperation between the United States and France. Its conduct belies the pernicious caricatures of the French Army and, indeed, the French people as militarily incompetent cowards.

DRAGOON (previously known as ANVIL) had long been intended as a companion to the invasion of Normandy, but it was an on-again, off-again affair until mid-June 1944, when the final decision to proceed was made. General Dwight Eisenhower’s decision finally to support the landing may have been the deciding factor and his support became all the more firm over time. Once the Anglo-American forces got ashore in Normandy, he became intensely interested in the logistical demands of destroying the German forces in the west. Allied forces had captured only one substantial port in useable condition and he badly wanted Marseille and the route up the Rhône valley to accelerate the delivery of divisions and supplies. More than forty allied divisions were in the pipeline, but they could not all be brought to the front through the Normandy logistic bottleneck. The landings would also free Eisenhower’s forces advancing across northern France from having to worry about their right flank. Moreover, the U.S. Government had gone to considerable expense to train and equip French divisions in North Africa, and the only practical way to get them quickly into battle was through southern France. In short, DRAGOON was a very important undertaking and much depended on its success.

As the Seventh Army official history shows, the initial French invasion forces comprised the French II Corps, commanded by General Jean-Marie de Lattre de Tassigny, who has since become a French national hero. This French corps fell under the U.S. Seventh Army commanded by General Alexander “Sandy” Patch. (Later, the French forces would grow to army size and de Lattre would take command of the First French Army which, in turn, would be subordinated to the U.S. 6th Army Group commanded by General Jacob Devers.) The French units were a remarkable combination of ethnic French formations put together from former Vichy troops and French soldiers who had escaped France and joined the Free French, and colonial troops from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and even Polynesia.

While American forces advanced inland on the right, the French II Corps on the left had the task of capturing Toulon (France’s largest naval port) and Marseille (France’s largest commercial port). De Lattre’s forces set off with determination and within twelve days isolated the two cities and then captured them, destroying two German divisions in the process. The capture of the ports gave the Allies a solid logistical base for driving northward. This they did, with the French and American forces racing each other as they went. On 12 September, French units from the south met up with General George Patton’s Third Army, which had come through Normandy. Toulon and Marseille were soon providing supplies not only to the 6th Army Group but also to General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group, which included Patton’s Army. For its part, troops from de Lattre’s French First Army were the first Allied troops to reach the Rhine. The French stayed in the fight all the way until the end of the war and elements of the French Army celebrated VE Day in Austria.

In the American popular perception the French military has a reputation for having a disinclination to fight, an echo in the American mind of the 1940 debacle, when French forces collapsed quickly in the face of the German onslaught. The French also have a reputation for being difficult partners and not especially competent. In fact, while the behavior of the French First Army in 1944 and 1945 includes some instances that seem to conform to the former stereotype, it almost entirely contradicts the latter.

Many senior French officers, including de Lattre himself, were first-rate military leaders. Moreover, the French forces were eager to fight and included some pockets of true excellence, notably the Moroccan colonial troops, the guomiers.

It is true that de Lattre sometimes subverted the spirit or violated the letter of American-authored plans. However, these unilateral decisions were uniformly ones that gave the French more opportunities to fight rather than fewer. In addition, French officers from lieutenants to corps commanders were often overly enthusiastic and eager to get straight into combat even when it was unwise or contrary to orders. It may also be worth remembering—and it cannot have been lost on the French—that while the American army was drafted, a large proportion of the Frenchmen in de Lattre’s army had risked their lives escaping France just to have the chance to fight. De Lattre himself fit this description, having broken out of prison in Vichy France and rallied to the Free French cause.

Certainly there were frictions between the French and Americans. For instance, American General Lucian Truscott erroneously accused de Lattre of dawdling in attacking Marseille. For their part, the French resented the fact that many Americans obviously held them in contempt. Veteran French troops thought that American soldiers were spoiled with creature comforts and used firepower to compensate for a lack of courage. In addition, the French industrial base was unavailable to the French Army so it was forced to depend on American industry and American logisticians. Not surprisingly, the French resented this, especially because the price of accepting American weapons was to abandon many established French practices and accept many American ways of doing things.

Despite the occasional tactical shortcomings of the French Army, and despite its leadership’s sometimes strained relationship with their American counterparts, in 1944 and 1945 the French forces were, overall, quite effective. Both American and French contributions were necessary to the success of DRAGOON and DRAGOON, in turn, was an important part of the overall victory over the Nazis. This precedent of effective Franco-American cooperation should not be forgotten.

 

Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.

 

Photo credit: PhotoNormandie