Friday, August 13, 2004

'The Forgotten D-Day' of 1944

The AP's Jocelyn Gecker has a story on the Allied landings in the South of France during World War II.
Historians call the Provence landings the Forgotten D-Day.

But John Shirley and a handful of aging veterans vividly recall that day, Aug. 15, 1944, when they stepped onto the French Riviera and delivered an uppercut to Hitler's diminishing army. "We didn't hit any mines, but we did run into German machine guns and rifles," said Shirley, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army who lost 5 of his 12 men storming ashore near Saint-Tropez. "Maybe it was a sideline to the big fights up north, but it was a very important invasion."

Code-named Operation Dragoon, the Provence landings came 70 days after the larger Operation Overlord landings in Normandy …

"The Normandy landings were a spectacular operation that everyone knows about, and we commemorate it with enormous fanfare," said André Kaspi, director of the North American History Center at the Sorbonne in Paris. "Then, there are the Provence landings that are more or less forgotten, but nonetheless essential." In all, an estimated 300,000 Allied soldiers, half of them French, stormed the Mediterranean shores from Toulon to Cannes, part of an Allied strategy for a two-front offensive. Winston Churchill had resisted Operation Dragoon to the last, preferring to focus Allied strength in the north. The Americans prevailed, arguing that a pincer movement would overwhelm Hitler's defenses. Charles de Gaulle also pushed for Operation Dragoon, eager for French troops to play a major role in liberating Toulon and Marseille after having been all but absent from the Normandy invasion.

"The landing was not only important from a strategic point of view, but also from the French point of view," Kaspi said.

As part of 60th-anniversary celebrations that started in June, and to let veterans know that they are no mere historical footnote, France is paying official thanks to the southern invasion with a weekend of ceremonies. President Jacques Chirac caps the tributes on Sunday aboard an aircraft carrier with 16 leaders from participating African nations and a few hundred veterans.

France relied heavily on its African colonies for its part of the invasion force. The 16 leaders joining Chirac for the ceremony Sunday are from France's former colonial empire, including Algeria, Morocco, Senegal and Madagascar.…

Operation Dragoon was to have coincided with the Normandy assault on June 6, 1944, but there were no landing craft to spare. When it finally happened, paratroopers bore much of the brunt.

Thousands of paratroopers, mostly American and British, preceded the amphibious operation, in drops north of the coast. Under heavy fog the night of Aug. 14, 1944, many fell miles off target into the sea and drowned.

Unlike the rain, fog and choppy waters that complicated the Normandy invasion, the weather down south that August morning was perfect. The sea was calm and the sky bright blue as U.S. rockets thundered overhead and Burks's landing craft delivered him to dry land on a beach near Saint-Tropez.

The invasion's success was measured in concrete terms: Hitler ordered German forces to retreat from the south on Aug. 17, two days after Operation Dragoon started.

"The Germans started resisting in the Vosges Mountains," recalled Shirley, whose 3rd Infantry Division fought at Anzio in Italy and helped liberate Rome. "It was very intense fighting."

Burks has similar memories. "For the first month, it was amazing how fast we moved, but then we got into October and the rains," he said, pausing. "I can still walk out onto my back porch when it rains, and I can smell the Vosges. It all comes back."

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