Recalling the Other “Supreme” Allied Operation of 1944
In early June, world leaders converged on Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the landings that began the final liberation of Western Europe from Nazi rule. U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel all gathered to remember the sacrifice of tens of thousands of soldiers on those blonde beaches. A few hundred miles to the south however, there are similar beaches that served as the site for another important Allied landing. Operation Anvil (later Dragoon) occurred on August 15, 1944 in the French Riviera. Few Americans know Operation Anvil/Dragoon, one of the most successful, least costly, and most significant operations of the European theater of operations. Its 75th anniversary is coming up too, but I doubt you will find half of the coverage in English that the landings in Normandy received.
Anvil/Dragoon deserves more attention so that we can restore it to the level of importance the Allies designed it to have. I do so by giving a brief history of the debate about the operation and the operation itself. Next, I show how the discussion around Anvil/Dragoon and the invasion contributed to its minimization in the minds of the public, creating an inaccurate picture of the Allied campaigns of 1944. The highest British-American strategic planning body, the Combined Chief of Staffs, concluded after the Tehran Conference that Anvil and Overlord would be the “supreme operations of 1944. They must be carried out during May 1944. Nothing must be undertaken … which hazards the success of these two operations.”
A Brief History of Anvil/Dragoon from Conception to Execution
As early as mid-1943, after the Allied victory in North Africa, Allied planners looked for ways to exploit their success. Everyone knew that an eventual cross-channel attack in northwest France would occur, but there were still significant areas of planning and logistics needed to make it a reality. Most leaders recognized that an invasion of Sicily and then Italy was the logical next step, but what to do after that? Allied planners discussed a range of ideas, including an operation in southern France and one in the Adriatic Sea.
Operation Anvil solidified in November and December of 1943 when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin met in Tehran for the Eureka Conference. The western Allies presented a series of recommendations to Stalin, who believed that an invasion of southern France was most advantageous because it presented an opportunity to catch German forces in a vice in conjunction with Operation Overlord. At the conclusion of the conference, the Allies agreed to three major simultaneous offensives to occur in May or June 1944 under the codenames Overlord, Anvil, and Bagration, a gigantic Soviet offensive in Belorussia.
Problems surfaced immediately after the conclusion of the conference. Stalemate in Italy following the Allied invasions there (Operations Avalanche and Baytown) in September 1943 made Allied leaders anxious, and a hastily drawn up invasion of Anzio (Operation Shingle) behind German lines in January 1944 marooned the Allied landing force. The cost of maintaining the beachhead quickly eroded the supplies previously earmarked for Anvil, and in March the Allies canceled Anvil. There was simply no way to provide enough shipping and materials to Anvil without compromising both the beachhead at Anzio and the buildup occurring in England in preparation for Overlord.
Operation Anvil gained a second lease on life in June 1944 after the successful Allied landings in Normandy and the capture of Rome. The Allies now had enough landing craft and supplies to conduct another amphibious operation somewhere in Western Europe. While Churchill suggested a landing near St. Nazaire, American planners insisted on reviving Anvil. The American argument carried the day and Operation Dragoon (renamed from Anvil on Aug. 1) occurred on Aug. 15.
The operation’s original plan was to land in southern France, capture the port of Toulon by Sept. 4, Marseille 20 days later, and drive German forces out of southern France. Doing so would open the two ports and allowed dozens of additional Allied divisions and supplies to enter the country. Achieving this objective was critical because in August 1944 the Allies were still ferrying supplies from their beachheads in Normandy to the front. Detailed American planning for the invasion indicated that most of the units facing the Americans and French were static — that is they could only fight in place. German forces in France continually siphoned off forces from the 19th Army in southern France, further reducing their effectiveness. This left disadvantaged German forces to face the veteran American and French armies.
Operation Anvil/Dragoon was a total success. The U.S. 7th Army suffered 1,200 casualties over the first two days of the invasion, 900 of which were “non-battle” casualties. This was far less than the 1st or 29th Infantry Divisions that landed at Omaha and Utah Beach. French Army B captured Marseille and Toulon on August 28th, nearly a month ahead of schedule. The port of Marseille became the Allies’ second largest, after Antwerp. The American 7th Army under Gen. Alexander Patch was so successful they almost captured the entire German 19th Army at Montélimar, just two weeks after landing. Patch and his force were already more than 100 miles from the landing sites! Unfortunately, some dubious tactical decisions and a stretched supply chain allowed the Germans to break out from the trap. But their escape came at a cost. The Germans suffered over 10,000 casualties at Montélimar to the Americans’ 1,575. The near complete encirclement and mauling of the 19th Army mirrored Eisenhower’s attempts to capture German forces at Falaise around the same time. One month later, on Sept. 15, Anvil/Dragoon ended when the 7th Army linked with Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army, creating a continuous Allied line from the Dutch coast to Switzerland.
Why Is Anvil/Dragoon Forgotten?
At first glance, it is hard to understand why Anvil/Dragoon’s achievements are largely forgotten. I see three primary reasons in addition to some secondary ones. First, inter-Allied debates and wrangling over the operation made it a sore spot for many of the war’s key players long after the war had ended. Second, historians and survivors of the battle referred to the invasion as “the Champagne Campaign,” highlighting its perceived anti-climactic nature. Third, at the same time Anvil/Dragoon started, Allied forces had broken the deadlock in Normandy and were pursuing German forces across France.
Let us address the first reason. Nothing caused as much friction between American and British strategists as Operation Anvil. 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.”
From the Tehran Conference through the D-Day of Anvil/Dragoon, Churchill headed British opposition to the operation and complicated the Allied planning process. The prime minister favored additional operations in Italy where the British had most of their fighting power. His desire for these alternative operations led Churchill to make bombastic declarations about the perceived futility of Anvil. He confided in his staff that Allied forces in southern France would “three months hence … be found sprawling in the suburbs of Marseille.” Churchill once mentioned to his chief military advisor while discussing Anvil that the main American strategic planning body, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was composed of, “one of the stupidest strategic teams ever seen. They are good fellows and there is no need to tell them this.” Churchill managed to get most of the British planning contingent, the British Chiefs of Staff behind him, but it was of little use. The British by mid-1944 had little manpower left, and increasingly relied on American logistical prowess for supplies. Churchill’s behavior stemmed in part from the ever-increasing heft of America in the alliance and the world at Great Britain’s expense.
The U.S. insistence on preserving Anvil came from a belief that America, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had an agreement reached at Tehran that set the 1944 strategic and operational agenda. In the short planning process for the landings at Anzio, Roosevelt cautioned Churchill that he “cannot agree without Stalin’s approval to any use of forces or equipment elsewhere that might delay or hazard the success of ‘Overlord’ and ‘Anvil.’” That Churchill wanted to change the strategic agreement the Big Three had made just a month ago, in Roosevelt’s view, “would be very bad.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff thought it deplorable that Churchill continued to rail against the operation. Mentioning Anvil/Dragoon in the postwar literature lingered as a sore spot for many participants who wanted to highlight the complementary nature of Allied relations rather than its tribulations.
The commander of Allied armies in Western Europe, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, was a proponent of Anvil. From the time took over as commander for the Overlord forces, Eisenhower regarded Anvil as essential to the operational scheme. He consistently lobbied for it from its inception. He, Marshall, and Roosevelt worked in concert throughout the planning process to maintain their support for Anvil in the face of British opposition. Churchill directed most of his ire against Anvil towards Eisenhower, because he was in Europe directing the campaign. For instance, just six days before the Anvil/Dragoon landings, Churchill made one last impassioned plea to Eisenhower to cancel the operation. Eisenhower’s aide remarked that Churchill “unloose[d] on Ike all his art of persuasion…” When that failed and he was driven to tears, Churchill threatened to then “lay down the mantle of my high office.” After the meeting, Eisenhower mentioned how distressed he was at the prime minister’s insistence on canceling the operation. This remarkable interaction showcases both Churchill’s assuredness of his own persuasive powers and Eisenhower’s commitment to what he believed was the best military way to defeat Nazi Germany.
The second 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. They are wrong. The engagements that must be exalted are the ones planned and properly executed. Anvil/Dragoon is a model case of lessons learned from the past, proper training and preparation, knowledge of the enemy, and proper execution.
The third and final reason why Anvil/Dragoon gets left behind in our modern memory is the simultaneous Allied sprint across France. On July 27, U.S. forces launched Operation Cobra, with the U.S. Army Air Force carpet-bombing front line German positions around St. Lo. Designed to break the German lines and unhinge the German position in Normandy, Cobra was a complete success. German defenses disintegrated. Eisenhower, excited at the prospect of capturing a large portion of German forces, attempted an encirclement of German forces at Falaise. The Battle of Falaise Pocket occurred at the same time as the Anvil/Dragoon landings, taking the headlines. The most popular generals of the European theater, Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Montgomery, all took part in the Falaise action, and the failure to close the vice generated a great deal of heat and debate over who was at fault, overshadowing the ease of the Allied advance in southern France.
There are other reasons why we have forgotten Anvil/Dragoon. The operation’s two names cause confusion. The Allies changed it from Anvil to Dragoon on August 1 — two weeks before the start of the operation — because of “security” concerns. Because Anvil had been in use for so long for the operation’s planning process, people typically refer to Anvil when discussing Anvil/Dragoon. The overall commander of the Anvil/Dragoon operation, U.S. Gen. Jacob Devers of the 6th Army Group, did not have the same media presence as contemporaries like Gen. George S. Patton or Gen. Omar Bradley. There’s also the manner in which the operation unfolded. It was the only Allied operation that started in one theater (the Mediterranean) and ended in another (the European). The Supreme Allied Commander of the Mediterranean, Field Marshall Henry M. Wilson, had the responsibility to train, raise, and equip the forces for the Anvil/Dragoon invasion. When the Allies reached Lyon, command transferred to Eisenhower. Lastly, Churchill’s history of World War II painted Anvil/Dragoon in a poor light. He argued that because the operation happened, it deprived the Allies of the opportunity to put those forces in the Balkans where they could have blunted Stalin’s advance into Yugoslavia. In Churchill’s interpretation, the strategic problems that emerged from a postwar communist Yugoslavia outweighed the wartime operational benefits of Anvil/Dragoon. One could argue that this reading of events was anachronistic, but it served as the seminal interpretation of the operation for decades to come, and still permeates through the historiography today. Thus, it is difficult for people to fashion an easy narrative for Anvil in the same way that they can for the Normandy landings.
Anvil/Dragoon, then, was a victim of circumstance. First, Anzio took away Anvil/Dragoon’s supplies, forcing its delay and temporary cancellation. Then, Churchill led British misgivings about the operation, and his vocal disdain for it created fierce debate in the Anglo-American alliance. He also slammed the operation in his postwar history of World War II, arguing that the dispersion of Allied forces in southern France deprived the Allies of the opportunity to put them in the Balkans to the benefit of Stalin. Eisenhower fought a great battle in central France that overshadowed Anvil/Dragoon as it took place. Finally, Anvil/Dragoon’s success undermined the amount of attention it received. Once the 6th Army Group became subsumed under Eisenhower’s command, relegating Devers to a subordinate, Anvil/Dragoon disappeared altogether. The operation became relegated in memory to a sideshow.
While the Normandy invasion maintains a stranglehold on the fight for memory, we must realize that it was only one part of a grander plan. We need to view the whole. The broader public today can correct this imbalance the same by viewing Anvil/Dragoon as the Allies did in Tehran: “one of the two supreme operations of 1944.”
Cameron Zinsou is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Mississippi State University. His dissertation, “Occupied: The Civilian Experience in Montélimar, 1939-1945,” was a recipient of the Allan R. Millett Dissertation Fellowship Award from the Society for Military History and looks at civil-military relations in Montélimar during World War II. You can find him on Twitter at @cgzinsou.
Image: Department of Defense