The Champagne Campaign | HistoryNet MENU

The Champagne Campaign

By Jeffrey J. Clarke
8/7/2018 • MHQ Magazine

The meticulously planned invasion of southern France and the unassuming commander who led it were largely overlooked in the wake of the Normandy landings.

Operation Anvil, the Allied invasion of southern France during the summer of 1944, may have been the most underrated amphibious campaign of World War II. Perhaps even less has been written about its commander, Major General Alexander M. Patch, who headed the U.S. Seventh Army during the landings. A quiet professional, Patch lacked the color and public charisma possessed by some of his better-known compatriots. But Patch and Anvil left a lasting mark on the course of the war.

First, the campaign underscored the transition of the Mediterranean Theater of Operations to a secondary war effort. Although British military historians still dispute the matter, the Italian campaign was going nowhere. There would be no Alpine “back door” to the Third Reich, and the existence of a “soft underbelly” of Europe would once again prove a myth.

Second, the landings confirmed the success of the Normandy lodgment in northern France, the centerpiece of the Allied war effort in the West. Henceforth, the Germans would be forced to fight a two-front campaign in France, stretching their dwindling resources still further.

Third, Anvil placed some of Europe’s largest ports at the Allies’ disposal at a time when most of the others, including Antwerp, were still controlled by German arms. The rapid seizure and rehabilitation of the French Mediterranean ports, as well as the road and rail system north up the Rhône River valley, would prove vital to fueling the Allied drive to the German border and beyond.

First proposed in early 1943, the Anvil invasion had a rocky course and might well have not been carried out at all. Allied leaders initially viewed it as a complement to Overlord, the Allied landings in Normandy. Once it became clear that the acute shortage of amphibious shipping in the European theater made simultaneous landings impossible, however, Anvil was tabled and then provisionally canceled. Efforts to resurrect it had to overcome British preference for landings at the head of the Adriatic or somewhere in the Balkans, as well as their extreme reluctance to see any combat resources diverted from the Italian Front, which they considered their own operational theater.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared it would be foolhardy to open yet another theater of operations at the expense of an existing one. But on June 24, 1944, Allied leaders reversed themselves on the matter and gave Anvil a green light. The assault on Anzio earlier that year had failed to destroy the German army in Italy, and the Italian campaign seemed once again stalled in the rugged mountainous terrain. Meanwhile, in Normandy the Allied armies under General Dwight D. Eisenhower were fighting for their lives. To break the logjam in Europe, a major amphibious assault against the weakened German defenses along the French Riviera seemed just what was needed. Churchill, however, remained dubious about the operation—renamed Dragoon only days before the troops set out—until the end, complaining bitterly that he had been “dragooned” into the affair and predicting that no good would come of it.

Planning for Anvil began in late 1943, with many of the national, functional, and service components that would be involved initially scattered throughout the Mediterranean. Eventually, most of the work devolved upon the staffs of the U.S. Seventh Army in Italy and Force 163, a logistical planning group in Algeria that steadily grew as naval, air, and French staff members were added. Then in March 1944, with the former commander of the Seventh Army, Lieutenant General George S. Patton, off to England and his scheduled replacement, Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, fully occupied leading the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy, General Patch took over the Seventh Army and all Anvil planning.

Born at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on November 23, 1889, Patch was the son of a cavalry officer and had graduated from West Point (with Patton) in 1913. He served along the Mexican border during the Pancho Villa affair, and then commanded a rifle battalion in the 1st Infantry Division during World War I. When he was appointed to oversee Anvil, he was best known for having assembled the Americal Division in the Pacific theater and subsequently leading U.S. Army XIV Corps efforts that pushed the Japanese off the island of Guadalcanal. Returning home to head the Desert Training Center in 1943, the fifty-four-year-old Patch was personally selected by General George C. Marshal, the army chief of staff, to command the Anvil operation, with the approval and support of Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers, the deputy Mediterranean theater commander.

Since its inception, Anvil had called for a multidivision American force, one experienced in amphibious operations, to make the initial assault, followed by a larger force of American-equipped French divisions under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Chosen for the landing was the veteran U.S. VI Corps under the able Major General Lucian Truscott, comprising the 3rd, 36th, and 45th Infantry divisions, led respectively by Major Generals John E. “Iron Mike” O’Daniel, John E. Dahlquist, and William W. Eagles. Except for Dahlquist, they and their staffs had worked together successfully for more than a year and constituted a cohesive team. (There was some question whether Dahlquist could bring around the “hardluck” 36th Division, survivor of the bitter San Pietro battles and the disastrous Rapido River crossing.) They were all well supplied. Each of the American divisions, with their motorized transport and attached tank, tank-destroyer, and self-propelled artillery battalions, had about as much armor and mobility as a German panzer division at that stage of the war.

Assisting was a division-sized Anglo-American airborne force under thirty-seven-year-old Major General Robert T. Frederick; the Canadian-American 1st Special Service Force, a regimental ranger-type unit that Frederick had previously commanded in Italy; and two small French commando teams. Since Truscott’s forces were already fully committed to the Italian campaign and would not begin withdrawing from combat until late June, almost all detailed planning was done by Patch’s staff and its maritime counterpart, the Western Naval Task Force commanded by Vice Admiral Henry K. “Ken” Hewitt.

Selecting the landing area was straightforward, determined by the Allied wish to move rapidly once ashore to seize the ports of Toulon and Marseille. Close proximity to supporting airfields in Corsica was also desired. Such considerations eliminated the excellent beaches west of the Rhône Delta and highlighted those to the east, especially the more lightly defended strands between Toulon and Cannes.

In the end, army and navy planners settled on a portion of the coast between Cape Cavalaire, about thirty miles east of Toulon, and Antheor Cove, some ten miles short of Cannes. The thirty-mile zone encompassed about fifty miles of irregular beaches, cliffs, bays, and inlets, backed up some ten miles inland by the Maures and Esterel massifs. Both the massifs and the Hyeres Islands of Levant and Port Cros just south of Cape Cavalaire would have to be rapidly secured if the lodgment was to succeed.

The planners also considered the German defenses. Under the general direction of Army Group G, the Nineteenth Army—led by General Friedrich Wiese, an experienced commander and an ardent Nazi—defended the coast of southern France. The forces at his disposal initially included three corps headquarters controlling seven infantry divisions along the Mediterranean coast, with four mobile divisions (three panzer and one panzer grenadier) in reserve. By mid-August, however, almost all of Wiese’s armor had been sent to Normandy, leaving only the 11th Panzer Division available for an immediate counterattack. Although it was formidable and commanded by the able Major General Wend von Wietersheim, the armored division was centered around Toulouse, well west of the Rhône River and more than two hundred miles from the proposed invasion site.

The projected landing area was covered only by one grenadier regiment from the 242nd Infantry Division and another from the 148th, both under the orders of Lieutenant General Ferdinand Neuling’s LXII Corps, located at Draguignan, just behind the Esterel massif. Although the Germans had many other military and paramilitary forces in the region, their combat value was limited. These ranged from naval and air coast defense units—mostly in prepared positions defending the ports—to numerous Ost battalions filled with Eastern European conscripts, and a welter of logistical, administrative, and police formations.

Over the course of the summer, the changing German order of battle had been closely monitored by Allied commanders, both through Ultra, the highly successful program of intercepting and decrypting German electronic message traffic, and by American Office of Strategic Services agents cooperating closely with the French Resistance.

As always, logistical considerations played a major role in both the landing and the operations that immediately followed. Thus far the Third Reich had bitterly contested every Allied landing in Europe, and Seventh Army planners expected that Anvil would be no different. As a result, the invasion fleet was heavily preloaded in favor of combat needs—especially artillery and munitions—rather than for mobility. The limited amount of available amphibious shipping allowed little flexibility in this regard, nor did the elaborate loading process itself, which took many weeks at dozens of Mediterranean ports before the whole invasion fleet could be assembled at sea.

As the Normandy battles began to drain away some of the better German units at the end of July and the beginning of August, however, the possibility of mounting and executing a more mobile campaign began to be discussed in the Allied camp. Such a prospect excited both Patch and Truscott, the latter still smarting over the escape of the German army south of Anzio. Although unable to make significant changes in the loading at the last minute, Patch did what he could. He moved up the landing schedule of one French armored brigade, Combat Command Sudre (under Brigadier General Aime M. Sudre), and placed it directly under Truscott to give the assault force a mobile strike capability.

Truscott, in turn, created a smaller mechanized task force under his deputy corps commander, Brigadier General Frederick B. Butler. Once assembled ashore, Task Force Butler would include one cavalry squadron, two medium tank companies, one battalion of motorized infantry, and supporting artillery, tank destroyer, and service forces. How they were used would depend on the developing situation.

Alerted by Luftwaffe air reconnaissance of Allied shipping concentrations and the withdrawal of the VI Corps from the Italian theater, Wiese and his staff expected an Allied amphibious assault somewhere in their area. Fairly confident in their seaward defenses at Marseille and Toulon, they increasingly viewed the area east of the ports as their most vulnerable sector. Thus in early August the Germans began planning to send some of their better infantry units to the threatened area, and then mobilized the 11th Panzer Division for movement east of the Rhône. But those final force adjustments never happened. They were forestalled by their own fuel and transportation shortages, by French Resistance fighters constantly interrupting their lines of communication, and by a massive Allied air campaign that started on August 5 and destroyed most of the local bridges.

On the other hand, a series of Allied ruses designed to convince the Germans that the assault would take place elsewhere failed to impress Wiese and his staff, although they included everything from dummy parachute drops to a mock invasion fleet moving past Genoa to Cannes, led by a U.S. Navy Reserve officer and film star, PT-boat commander Douglas E. Fairbanks Jr.

Once at sea, the Anvil assault force under Admiral Hewitt consisted of approximately 885 ships and landing vessels sailing under their own power and carrying another 1,355 smaller landing craft along with about 151,000 troops—forty thousand French and the rest American—and some 21,400 trucks, tanks, tank-destroyers, prime movers, bulldozers, tractors, and other vehicles. Because of time constraints, rehearsals had been minimal, and the preassault air and sea bombardments were brief on the morning of August 15. In fact, because of its late arrival, the VI Corps had no naval counterpart, had no initial control of the airborne, ranger, and commando forces that had gone in the previous night, and would not assume control of those forces or even the assault divisions until all parties were firmly ashore.

In general, the main amphibious landings went forward without incident, with the 3rd Division going ashore on the left, along Cavalaire Bay and the St. Tropez Peninsula; the 36th Division on the right, just above the small port of St. Raphael; and two regiments of the 45th hitting the beaches in between. This arrangement had been dictated by Truscott, who wanted his most experienced division, O’Daniel’s 3rd, on the beachhead’s southwestern flank, where the strongest German counter-response was expected and from where the drive to the critical ports of Toulon and Marseille would begin.

The airborne force, which consisted of a British parachute brigade and various independent American airborne and glider units, had been scattered throughout the greater assault area, some, for example, falling on the St. Tropez Peninsula and the surrounding waters. However, as at Normandy, the dispersed nighttime drops resulted in confusion on the German side. Enough airborne troops managed to land at or rally to their main objective area, the valley between the two massifs, to secure the main inland road leading to the assault beaches. Several days later, they would top off their success by capturing the hapless Neuling and many of his corps staff.

Elsewhere, the 1st Special Service Force secured the nearby Hyeres Islands, finding few coastal defenses there—although it took fire from HMS Ramilies’ 15-inch guns to convince the final German holdouts to surrender. The day ended with success in almost all areas. The 3rd and 45th divisions began pushing inland against only light resistance, and the 36th, after sidestepping one of its main landing beaches southwest of St. Raphael, soon followed, overcoming slightly more determined resistance. Early the next morning, the 36th easily dispersed a counterattacking force, the German 244th Division, sent from the area around Cannes.

For Patch and Truscott, the prospect of securing their planned lodgment area so rapidly was intoxicating. Taking possession of the territory within the so-called “Blue Line,” with a radius extending roughly 20 miles inland from the St. Tropez area, placed the landing beaches and adjacent supply depots beyond the range of German artillery fire. This allowed the U.S. generals to build up their logistical base undisturbed.

The ever-aggressive Truscott began weighing the possibility of immediately sending some of his mobile divisions north into the undefended Maritime Alps, toward Grenoble and then east at some point to cut off the Nineteenth Army’s narrow lines of communications in the Rhône River valley. For Patch, however, the real prize was Marseille, France’s largest port. Seizing Marseille would provide the logistical support for a general drive north. But the Seventh Army commander had his eye out for the 11th Panzer Division, whose precise whereabouts were still unknown. He also remained wary of German forces still east of Cannes—and units that Field Marshal Albert Kesselring might possibly bring into play from northern Italy.

In any case, the limited number of trucks and fuel stores ashore conditioned everyone’s objectives a bit. Patch thus decreed that the first French combat divisions would begin landing almost immediately, on D-day-plus-1, over 3rd Division beaches on the left, and that the French armored brigade Combat Command Sudre be returned to General de Lattre as soon as possible. He ordered the drive west, first toward Toulon and then Marseille, to commence immediately. De Lattre’s units would spearhead the advance along the coast, while Truscott’s 3rd and 45th divisions were to keep pace inland, covering the northern flank of the French forces. To the east, Dahlquist’s 36th Division command would first provide flank security, and then Frederick’s reassembled airborne force (with the 1st Special Service Force replacing the British parachute brigade, which was returned almost immediately to the Italian campaign, as promised). But Patch did approve Truscott’s proposal to send Task Force Butler north on August 17 to see what possibilities might present themselves, while to the south Admiral Hewitt and his naval staff desperately sought to accelerate the arrival of both supplies and units for the rapidly developing campaign.

The Germans were unable to stall any of these Allied movements. Wiese first sent a provisional force with elements of three infantry divisions under Major General Richard von Schwerin to the invasion area via the inland route. But Schwerin’s forces arrived at the battle area in bits and pieces, never developed any cohesion, and quickly ran afoul first of the airborne forces and then elements of the 45th and 36th divisions advancing inland. Similar German half-measures on August 17 met the same fate.

One day later the German high command ordered a general withdrawal from southern France, based on its failure to contain the Allied breakout from Normandy. The bulk of Wiese’s Nineteenth Army was to withdraw north up the Rhône River valley, while those units still west of the assault area would pull east into northern Italy. But the substantial garrisons at Marseille and Toulon, thirteen thousand and eighteen thousand troops respectively, were ordered to defend the ports to the last man, as the Germans would do along France’s Atlantic coast. Thanks to Ultra, Patch read the two withdrawal messages at about the same time as Wiese.

Wiese managed to ferry a few company-size armored teams from the 11th Panzers across the Rhône, an accomplishment that Ultra also relayed to Patch and Truscott in general terms several days later. This development temporarily convinced them to hold the 3rd and 45th divisions in place.

Following the withdrawal order, the German situation in the south continued to deteriorate. Along the coast, as the French forces began arriving in greater numbers, they drove relentlessly west. If anything, de Lattre and his long-dispossessed French commanders proved even more aggressive than their American counterparts, often throwing caution to the wind in their drive to reclaim French territory and French honor.

In the case of both ports, French forces ultimately bypassed German defenses along a narrow coastal road, moving inland around the two cities, and then striking into the heart of the urban areas from the north and even from the west. Attacking the two cities almost simultaneously, the French compelled the garrison at Toulon to surrender on August 26, and Marseille’s defenders capitulated one day later. Both ports fell into Allied hands nearly intact and many weeks earlier than planners had dared to hope. German battle casualties were light and the POW count was high, since the rapid campaign never gave the garrisons a chance to set their defenses, and they surrendered in droves.

Meanwhile, the final action of the campaign was being played out around the small city of Montélimar, on the Rhône River about 80 miles north of Marseille. Task Force Butler had arrived there on August 21, aided in its trek north and then west through narrow mountain roads by French Resistance fighters who made good use of captured German fuel supplies. By that time Truscott had already ordered Dahlquist’s 36th Division to follow in the task force’s wake. Had he known the whereabouts of the 11th Panzer Division, he might have sent the 45th Division northward as well, hoping to block the Nineteenth Army’s escape route.

But at that point the Allied decision to favor munitions over fuel and transport during the loading of the assault vessels began to have an impact. At the time, the American divisions alone required a hundred thousand gallons of fuel per day, but the three Allied beach dumps held only eleven thousand gallons of the precious liquid. With the bulk of Allied fuel powering the drive on the ports, pushing both supplies and reinforcements to the Montélimar area proved difficult.

Butler initially made his stand about three miles north of Mont- élimar, where a narrow north-south ridge compresses the main railway and highway along the east bank of the river. He halted almost all German traffic there with artillery fire. Truscott wanted Dahlquist’s units to reinforce Butler as quickly as possible. But the shortage of trucks and gasoline—with many troops moving north by foot—delayed their arrival to the battle area, and their progress was further impeded by intermittent radio communications in the mountains, in addition to the lack of any clear plan as to where the Rhône Valley interdiction would actually take place.

Truscott was so frustrated by the agonizingly slow arrival of the 36th Division in the Montélimar area that he nearly relieved Dahlquist of his command, but the Germans did not handle the situation much better. Completely surprised by the American maneuver and unaware of its exact strength, Wiese ordered Wietersheim to take the 11th Panzer Division to the threatened area and eliminate the roadblock as quickly as possible. With the bulk of Wietersheim’s fuel-starved division still on the wrong side of the Rhône and subject to incessant American and French air attacks, this proved easier said than done.

The panzers reached the Montélimar area in driblets, at about the same rate as units of the U.S. 36th Division. What ensued was a series of probes, feints, surprise attacks, maneuvers, counter-maneuvers, and brief but fierce firefights over the course of about a week. The results were indecisive on both sides. The Americans battled disparate and increasingly desperate elements of perhaps six German divisions while carefully rationing their artillery and mortar rounds.

Ultimately a frustrated Wietersheim led a midnight tank charge that swept aside the main American roadblock in the early hours of August 26, but he could do little more. Despite a stout American defense, significant elements of the German Nineteenth Army and associated units from Army Group G managed to move past Montélimar north to Lyons. They accomplished that move either by infiltrating through the battle area, especially at night, or by using the narrower roads on the Rhône’s western bank.

Throughout the ordeal, the German columns were hounded by Allied air forces along the entire valley. Unfortunately for Butler and Dahlquist, a lack of adequate ground-to-air communications and the primitive state of American tactical air doctrine did not allow for effective air support of ground combat units.

In the end, the Montélimar episode wrecked the Nineteenth Army as an effective fighting force. Its ablest unit, the 11th Panzer Division, was forced to lead the German retreat rather than cover the withdrawal. In contrast, the 36th Division and the rest of the pursuing American and French forces emerged intact, with relatively few losses in men and materiel. Montélimar also set the scene for the Seventh Army’s nearly unopposed final drive north, its seizure of the approaches to the Belfort Gap and the Vosges Mountains, and its linkup with Eisenhower’s forces (units from Patton’s Third Army) on September 11. The speed of the advance cut off even more German forces attempting to flee east from the interior of France.

Had more fuel and transport been available, it might have boosted the Allied score, as there was little standing between the Seventh Army and the German border. Of course, similar constraints conditioned the eastward progress of all Allied forces. Happily for those forces, their logistical problems partially abated at the end of September. Then the ports and rails of southern France began funneling huge amounts of supplies to the hungry Allied armies, providing over one-third of their supply needs until the end of the year, when Antwerp was finally opened.

The hallmark of the so-called Champagne Campaign was the extreme aggressiveness of the principal Allied commanders—always keeping the initiative and constantly adjusting their plans to meet the changing tactical and operational situation. On the other side, the German leadership was for once remarkably deficient. While some may argue that German units were worn out and less well equipped than their foes, every Allied soldier, shell, and piece of equipment had to be carried, dragged, or otherwise hauled to the battlefield by an extremely complex and time-consuming series of processes and procedures. Moreover, most of the French forces were green and entering combat for the first time, while Truscott’s divisions had been fighting in Italy for many hard months with little time for rest and recuperation, which seemingly should have made them more tired than their Riviera-rested opponents. In the end, the veteran Nineteenth Army failed to delay or even disturb the Allied advance in any meaningful way, repeatedly surrendered the initiative to its tormentors, watched its coastal garrisons surrender without much of a fight, and brought almost no effective forces out of the battle.

The statistics tell much of the story. Early reports at the beachhead on August 16 tallied ninety-five Americans killed and 385 wounded, with some twenty-three hundred German prisoners. As noted, the garrisons at Toulon and Marseille surrendered almost intact. At Montélimar initial reports put American casualties—mostly from the 36th Division—at 1,575, including 187 killed, 1,023 wounded, and 365 missing, while recording about fifty-eight hundred German prisoners, with obviously more in the dead and wounded columns.

Taking into account all its manpower in southern, central, and western France, German Army Group G lost some hundred and fifty thousand troops, about half its forces, during the campaign. The divisions of the Nineteenth Army, as well as can be reconstructed, each came out of the caldron with an average of only a few thousand soldiers, many of them conscripted “retreads” from lesser service and administration units.

For Patch, promoted to lieutenant general on August 18, 1944, his success was bittersweet. He had contracted malaria while in the Pacific, and his health remained a problem for the rest of the war. But the real heartbreak was the loss of his only son, Alexander III or “Mac,” in combat on October 22, 1944, while commanding an infantry company in the 79th Division east of Luneville. Although many felt that the Seventh Army commander did not show it, his staff believed that he struggled with grief long afterward. In fact, he did not long survive the end of the war. Named to head the Fourth Army in the Pacific, he subsequently entered Brook General Hospital in Texas on November 15, 1945, where he fought a losing battle with pneumonia, succumbing six days later.

Alexander M. Patch was an extremely modest general officer with high standards of conduct. His contemporaries considered him a superbly competent soldier. He avoided publicity and respected his officers and men, telling them they were the key to success in battle. His intimate friends called him “Sandy” because of his close-cropped reddish hair, and remembered his deadpan wit and love of the outdoors. In many ways his personality, character, and long, multifaceted service typified the generation of officers that led the U.S. Army during the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century. Their like would seldom be seen again.

 

Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

, , , ,



Sponsored Content: