Dragoon’s naval support
The 8th Fleet was responsible for putting the Riviera assault force ashore and maintaining it there until such time as the French ports were secured. The Control Force was to look after supporting maritime operations while the Alpha, Delta and Camel attack forces were responsible for landing the 3rd, 45th and 36th US Infantry Divisions respectively. Vice-Admiral H. Kent Hewitt was to command the Western Task Force, consisting of some 505 US ships, 252 British, 19 French, 6 Greek and 263 merchantmen. The warships (5 battleships, 4 heavy cruisers, 18 light cruisers, 9 aircraft carriers and 85 destroyers) were to protect the 370 large landing ships and 1,267 small landing craft. They were allocated across the four attack forces, Task Force 84 Alpha, 85 Delta, 86 Sitka and 87 Camel.
The USS Biscayne was the flagship of Rear Admiral Bertram J. Rodgers USN, Delta Task Force Commander, while on Bayleaf was Rear Admiral Spencer S. Lewis in charge of Camel Force, supported by Rear Admiral Morton L. Deyo with responsibility for the bombardment warships. Rear Admiral Lyal A. Davidson on the USS Augusta was in overall command of Task Force Sitka.
The USS Duane served as the flagship for the commander of the 8th Amphibious Force. This had six flotillas of landing craft, each consisting of twelve craft divided into two squadrons, B and C, making a total of seventy-two tank landing craft. Each flotilla had a sick berth attendant (medic) attached and each squadron had a medical officer. In addition, the Americans proposed to employ the Sherman Duplex Drive (DD) amphibious tank that had been developed for Overlord. The 191st, 753rd and 756th Tank Battalions were trained in the Bay of Naples for their assault role.
Task Force 84 was overseen by a Coastguard cutter and a fighter control ship, while its assault group included two attack transports each capable of carrying almost 1,600 troops and a variety of landing craft, and three attack cargo ships. The landing ships, which had been wrangled over for so long, numbered 25 LSTs supported by almost 150 various types of smaller landing craft. Task Force 85 was directed by a destroyer and a fighter direction tender; its assault group included 6 troop transports, 24 LCT/LSIs and about 110 other landing craft. Task Force 87 had 6 transport/cargo ships plus 24 LSI/LSTs supported by about 90 landing craft. Lastly Task Force 86, which was to deliver the French special forces, was the smallest, with 5 destroyer/transports, 5 LSIs and 17 other vessels.
Hewitt was reliant on the aircraft carriers for his tactical air support. These were under the overall control of Rear Admiral Thomas Troubridge RN, with the American carriers commanded by Rear Admiral Calvin T. Durgin USN, who had commanded the USS Ranger in action during the North African landings. Troubridge’s escort carrier Task Force 88 (TF88) comprised two groups. The first, Task Group 88.1, was made up entirely of British carriers and consisted of HMS Attacker (879 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) equipped with Seafires), HMS Emperor (800 NAS equipped with F6F Hellcats), HMS Khedive (899 NAS equipped with Seafires), HMS Pursuer (881 NAS equipped with F4F Wildcats), and HMS Searcher (882 NAS equipped with F4F Wildcats). This task group was protected by the cruisers HMS Delhi and HMS Royalist (flagship), plus five British destroyers and a Greek destroyer.
Task Group 88.2 comprised HMS Hunter (807 NAS equipped with Seafires), HMS Stalker (809 NAS equipped with Seafires), and two American carriers, USS Tulagi (VOF-01 equipped with F6F Hellcats) and USS Kasaan Bay (VF-74 equipped with F6F Hellcats). They were defended by the light cruisers HMS Colombo and HMS Caledon and six US destroyers. All the British carriers were by courtesy of Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease and American shipyards, having mostly been handed over in 1943.
Brigadier-General Gordon P. Saville of the USAAF’s 12th Air Force was appointed Air Task Commander, with the XII Tactical Air Command. The medium bomber and fighter elements of Saville’s force were provided by Seafires from the seven British carriers and Grumman Hellcats from the USS Kasaan Bay and USS Tulagi. Hewitt, Saville, Patch and Truscott travelled together from Naples on the amphibious assault ship USS Catoctin. They were joined by Admiral André Lemonnier, Chief of Staff of the French Navy.
Employing over 880 ships, Dragoon was the largest amphibious operation ever conducted in the Mediterranean; in the Pacific only three operations were bigger, out of the forty amphibious assaults conducted there. During the Allied naval build-up the Luftwaffe kept General Wiese appraised of developments, though neither he nor Blaskowitz knew exactly where the blow would fall; in any case, they had insufficient forces to defend the entire coastline.
Allied operations in the Mediterranean did not go unhindered by the Luftwaffe. On 20 April 1944 bombers attacked the ships of Task Force 66, escorting the convoy UGS-38 bound for the Mediterranean, soon after the vessels cleared Gibraltar. The convoy’s flagship was the US Coastguard cutter USS Duane, which was shortly to play a role in Dragoon on her first assignment since being converted to a command and control vessel. Three ships from the convoy were lost, including the SS Paul Hamilton, which sank with 580 people aboard, and the destroyer USS Landsdale.
As the numbers of Allied escort vessels increased, and the threat from German U-boats decreased, the US Navy had decided that cutters like the Duane would better serve national security needs as command and control vessels for amphibious landings. The USS Duane had been assigned to the 8th Fleet in mid-1943 and had escorted convoys to the Mediterranean and back and also through the Caribbean before being converted to an amphibious force flagship by the Norfolk Navy Yard in early 1944. The conversion included the removal of most of the heavy armament, the addition of more anti-aircraft weaponry, and the construction of enclosed rooms for thirty-five radio receivers and twenty-five radio transmitters.
The air war hots up
Supporting the preparations for Dragoon were the 42nd Bomb Wing (Medium) and the 17th Bomb Group. The former first saw action during the invasion of Italy, where its units flew close support missions to stop the German counter-attack on the beachhead at Salerno. As the Allied forces progressed, the 42nd took a leading part in interdicting Axis road and rail transport, and later in the attacks against the monastery at Cassino.
The 17th Bomb Group, comprising the 34th, 37th, 432nd and 9th Squadrons, was involved in the reduction of Pantelleria and Lampedusa in June 1943, participated in the invasions of Sicily in July and of Italy in September, and took part in the drive towards Rome. Because of its renowned bombing accuracy, the group was selected to bomb targets in Florence, but with strict orders to avoid the art treasures there. The 17th also took part in the assault on Monte Cassino.
In 1943 a heavy bomb group had a total complement of 294 officers and 1,487 enlisted men to fly and support 48 heavy bombers, while a medium bomb group had 294 officers and 1,297 enlisted men for 63 medium bombers.
Air operations for Dragoon were to consist of four phases:
I – operations taking place before D-Day minus 5;
II – operations taking place between D-Day minus 5 and 0350 hours on D-Day (Operation Nutmeg);
III – operations between 0350 on D-Day and H-Hour at 0800 (Operation Yokum); and
IV – all subsequent operations (Operation Ducrot).
In Phase I, from 28 April to 10 August 1944, the Allied air forces unloaded 12,500 tons of bombs on the region. Nutmeg began on the 10th, and while concentrating on coastal defences and radar stations, encompassed the whole of the French coast in order to throw the Germans off the scent. On 7 August Army Group G reported that the ‘systematic, especially heavy air attacks on the transportation links over the Rhône and Var rivers … point to a landing between these two rivers’, and ‘statements from agents confirm this suspicion’.
The following day Wiese conducted a map exercise at the garrison headquarters at Draguignan for all his generals. It soon became clear that the army was on its own and could expect no help from the Luftwaffe or navy. Wiese’s reserves consisted of a single regiment from the 148th Division, and all he could do to strengthen his defences was to move an anti-tank gun battalion to San Raphael.
On the 11th, as the Dragoon assault force began to move from the Naples area towards the south of France, the USAAF 12th Air Force sent B-25 Mitchell and B-26 Marauder twin-engined bombers and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters to strike at German gun positions along the French and Italian coasts west of Genoa. The following day almost 550 fighter-escorted B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberator fourengined bombers attacked targets in France and Italy, the B-24s striking gun positions in the Genoa, Marseilles, Toulon and Sete areas, while the B-17s bombed gun positions in the Savona area in Italy. At the same time more than a hundred P-51s strafed radar installations and other coast-watching facilities along the southern French coast.
During the night of 12/13 August twin-engined A-20 Douglas Bostons attacked targets along the Monaco-Toulon road, and fighter-bombers hit guns and barracks in the area; fighters strafed airfields at Les Chanoines, Montreal, Avignon, La Jasse, Istres-Le-Tube, Valence and Bergamo. On 13 August the 17th Bomb Group attacked the Toulon harbour gun complex twice, both times encountering intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire, which damaged a number of the attacking B-26 Marauders. The heavy Allied bombing of Toulon and other targets in the days before the landing alerted Blaskowitz to the fact that something was likely to happen in this area. Indeed, suspecting an imminent attack in the Marseilles-Toulon region, by the 14th Blaskowitz had moved the 11th Panzer Division and two infantry divisions to new positions east of the Rhône, just in case.
On the 14th nearly 500 B-17s and B-24s of the 15th Air Force bombed gun positions around Genoa, Toulon and Sete, and struck the bridges at Pont-St-Esprit, Avignon, Orange and Crest in France. In addition, thirty-one P-38 Lightnings dive-bombed Montélimar airfield, while other fighters flew over 180 sorties in support of the bombers. Also on the same day medium bombers blasted coastal defence guns in the Marseilles area. The Toulon-Nice area also came under attack, with American medium bombers hitting coastal defences and fighter-bombers pounding various gun positions, tracks, enemy headquarters and targets of opportunity; fighters also strafed radar installations and targets of opportunity along the southern coast as the Dragoon assault forces approached.
The final build-up
On the night of 10 August Churchill flew via Algiers to Italy to see General Alexander to discuss the on-going operations and his loss of resources. In Algiers Churchill saw his son Randolph, who was recovering from injuries received in a plane crash that happened while he was visiting partisan-held Yugoslavia. Almost inevitably, de Gaulle came up in their conversation and Randolph pressed his father to change his mind about his recent decision not to see the French leader. ‘After all,’ said Randolph, ‘he is a frustrated man representing a defeated country.
You, as the unchallenged leader of England and the main architect of victory, can afford to be magnanimous without fear of being misunderstood.’
Churchill arrived in Naples on the 12th and stayed with General Wilson at the Villa Rivalta. While there he received a plea from the Polish Home Army, which was struggling desperately for survival in Warsaw; it urgently needed weapons to fight the Germans. Stalin, however, considered the rising in the Polish capital an irrelevance and refused to lend it his support, apparently believing that the Red Army and its Polish allies had done all they could to reach the city. So the RAF had to make a 2,250 km round trip from southern Italy to Warsaw to drop supplies and weapons although the Red Air Force was less than 80 km away.
After a visit from the partisan leader Tito, Churchill went by barge to bathe in the hot springs at a nearby beach. On the way he passed two convoys massing for Dragoon, and the troops recognised him and cheered. In return, he sent them a note wishing them good luck. Later he wrote, ‘They did not know that if I had had my way they would have been sailing in a different direction.’
That night Roosevelt, perhaps trying to placate the British Prime Minister and with an eye to the future, sent him an invitation for a meeting in September in Quebec without Stalin. Churchill agreed. The following day he went to Capri and swam in the sea, guarded by American military police. On the 14th he went for a swim beyond Cumae, and after lunch in Naples flew to Corsica. In Ajaccio harbour he went aboard the Royal Scotsman, an old merchantman bearing six assault craft ready for Dragoon.
On 12 August, due south of Ajaccio, the Luftwaffe picked up two large convoys, each of about 75 to 100 merchant vessels and warships, including two aircraft carriers, heading north-east towards the harbour; already present in the harbour were another 20 vessels. As if to confirm that an invasion build-up was taking place, on the airfield were sighted 8 gliders and 5 multi-engine aircraft. Luftflotte 3 immediately ordered that reconnaissance efforts over these convoys be stepped up day and night.
Two days later an Fw 190 fighter of 2/NAG 13 and four Bf 109s were on convoy patrol in the area to the south of Marseilles-Toulon-Golfe du Lion, but no sightings were made. Subsequently, at 1915 hours, pilots of 2/NAG 13 reported numbers of landing craft stretching some 80 km west from Ajaccio Roads and at 2035 two convoys were sighted 160 km south of Menton, numbering over 100 landing craft as well as surface and air escorts.
In the meantime twelve P-38s of the 94th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group dive-bombed the headquarters of Jagdfliegerführer Süd at La Nerthe. At 1900 hours the base reported that its command post had been destroyed and that three personnel had been killed, three badly wounded and three slightly injured. The phone lines were down, rendering the base inoperable as a headquarters, and the base commander decided to set up an aircraft reporting centre in Courthezon (10 km south-east of Orange) the following day.
At noon on 13 August the main invasion convoy sailed from Naples through the Sardinia-Corsica Straits and deployed off the Riviera beaches at dawn on the 15th. The destroyer USS Rodman, assigned to protect part of the invasion convoy, sailed from Taranto on 11 August. Two days later French warships joined them, and the force arrived off the Delta assault area in the Baie de Bougnon also on the 15th. The naval guns and bombers bombarded the coastline as the landing craft were lowered and the first waves of troops were ferried towards the assault beaches. In Italy on the 13th Alexander’s troops entered Florence, though their offensive strength was now exhausted and the Germans had been given time to entrench themselves more firmly in the Gothic Line. Indeed, the Allies were still stuck south of the Gothic Line ten days after the launch of Dragoon.