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Where and when did American troops hit the beaches in France to free that nation from Nazi occupation? In Normandy in the dawn hours of June 6th, 1944, Right?
Well, yes, but only partly right. Actually, a similar assault was launched first by American and then by French and other Allied forces along the southeastern coast of France scarcely two months later on August 15th. Its goal, accomplished with a rapidity that even its military planners had not expected, was to eventually recapture France’s Mediterranean port city of Toulon and, simultaneously, move up through the Rhone valley toward Strasbourg. There it would divert and catch — in a pincer movement from the south — the German troops in eastern France still resisting the Allied advance from Normandy.
Although these landings haven’t remained as symbolic to the world at large as the ones in Normandy which were honored by President George W. Bush’s Memorial Day presence there and so dramatically portrayed in the film "Saving Private Ryan," the landings on France’s south coast still remain vivid in the memories of those in the area. They still serve there as a constant reminder of the sacrifices Americans made for France in her hour of need. As they do near the Normandy coast, Americans remain semi-heroes near the southern landing sites and the official evidences of France’s continuing gratitude abound.
Just west of Saint Tropez, in the town of Cavalaire, dominating a blue-water bay whose more than mile-long arc of white sand beach made it the ideal spearhead landing point for the first American onslaught, the panorama today is mostly of sunbathing families on vacation or yachts, speedboats and water skiers. But on August 15, 1944, more than 200 American soldiers lost their lives there, victims of German machine-gun fire or land mines strewn throughout the barbed wire-laden beaches. They were the first to debark from the more than 400 landing craft that streamed out from the task force of 16 troop transports and 16 American and British warships bombarding the German positions from a mile off shore.
Today, on the east end of the bay, almost lost amid a forest of sea-front cafes and restaurants; two small display cases—one with arrows pointing to the different landing points, the other with pictures of the first troops to touch French soil and the battered German gun emplacements that failed to stop them—continue to bear witness to the history of the site.
At the other end of the beach, on the edge of Cavalaire, in a more imposing and symbolically commemorative setting, the American flag still flies constantly, alongside those of France and of the European Union. It is the main landmark on the Esplanade of General de Lattre de Tassigny; named after the French general who commanded the French forces and followed the Americans into Cavalaire and eventually fought their way up to Alsace to join their Free-French comrades-in-arms advancing toward the German border At its base, a stone monument surrounded permanently by clusters of red poppies, recalls that: "On this beach the (American) soldiers of the 3d infantry division, together with French troops, landed to carry victory and liberty throughout our country."
That landing was worthy of a Private Ryan scenario. For days preceding the date itself, resistance fighters along the French Mediterranean coast had been tuned constantly to their covert radio receivers listening to the pom, pom, pom, pom identity signal and the coded radio messages being transmitted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (B.B.C.). Many, for example, "The potatoes are done" or "Grandmother’s legs are tired," were simply diversionary.
But on the night of August 14th those who knew what phrases to watch for heard the ones they had so long awaited — "Camille is going to lie down in the grass" and "Nancy has a stiff neck." To the resistance forces in the area that was the signal that Operation "Dragoon," the allied landings in southern France, would begin the next morning. Originally named operation "Anvil," but later renamed "Dragoon" the southern landings had, at the start, been scheduled to coincide day for day, hour for hour, with those in Normandy.
However, the pressing need for more boats and more firepower for the Normandy operation and the Allied command’s judgment that the attack in the south would meet less resistance, led to a diversion of forces from Dragoon to Normandy and the postponement of the southern landings for more than two months. Mercifully, German resistance on the beach itself was relatively light by Normandy standards. That was partly because the German command had decided to draw its battle lines essentially in the mountainous areas some kilometers back from the sea front. But it also was because intelligence information about the location of German gun emplacements and fortifications flashed by French resistance fighters to allied submarines in the days before the landings had allowed Allied warships to shell and demolish most of the German defenses. Cavalaire, of course, was not an isolated battle point.
Quickly after the first landing on August 15th, there were other Allied assaults along the 25 miles of coastline between Cavalaire and Saint-Raphael to the west and nearly 40 parachute drops at strategic points extending another 15 miles inland. From its Cavalaire beachhead, quickly transformed into a supply base for the region, Allied forces, American, British and French, then rapidly thrust their way south to capture Toulon and, eventually, Marseilles.
A visitor to the area these days can find memorials to many of the battles along the way virtually throughout the coastal region and the southern Alps. They are all quiet, contemplative reminders that in the south of France, as in much of Normandy and Alsace, America’s role in helping France regain her freedom from Nazi occupation will not soon be forgotten.
An accredited member of the foreign press corps, Minnesota native Robert (Bud) Korengold first came to Europe in 1955 after serving in the Korean war. A Chevalier in the order of Tastevin in Burgundy, the recipient of a Presidential Award for Sustained Superior Accomplishment in the conduct of foreign policy, and a member of the order of Palmes Academiques and the order of Arts et Lettres, he lives in Normandy doing a bit of gardening and a bit of writing and a lot of amused reflection about life in France and with the French.