Why Anvil Gets No Respect

Last time out, I wrote about a forgotten campaign: the Allied landing in the south of France in August 1944. The planners first called it Operation Anvil, then renamed it Dragoon just days before it took place. By any accounting, it should be a major part of the narrative of World War II. It put ashore two allied armies—the 7th U.S. and "French Army B" (later redesignated 1st French Army), and they eventually comprised the 6th U.S. Army Group under General Jacob L. Devers. It seized a good-sized port (Toulon) followed by a truly massive one (Marseille). It resulted in far more pressure being put on the Germans than could have been applied by the Overlord landing alone. And yet, you have to look pretty hard to find it in the history books. It usually gets a paragraph in a standard history of the war, and often that lone paragraph contains some pretty disparaging language about the senselessness of it all.

But why? Why has Anvil fallen in to the memory hole for American readers? I think we can identify three reasons:

1. It happened in the Mediterranean. Let’s face it, Mediterranean operations have never grabbed the attention of the American people the way that the battles in Normandy and Western Europe have.

2. The French were involved. I teach World War II for a living, and the notion that the French were fighting alongside the Americans and British often evinces a certain amount of surprise from the student body, along with a hefty amount of disinterest. I’m not saying that’s a good thing. But it exists.

3. There was no real fight. By the time the Allies landed along the Riviera, the Germans were in trouble—deep trouble—in Normandy. Their front had been ruptured as a result of the U.S. Army’s success in Operation Cobra, the cream of the Wehrmacht in the West was desperately trying to escape annihilation near Falaise, and there were many in the Allied high command who felt that Germany might be finished in a month or so. Thus, there wasn’t a lot a spare force lying around for the Germans to contest Anvil, and the results showed it. The Allies got ashore without much of a fight. There was no equivalent of Omaha Beach. No fighting in the last ditch. No need for General Norm Cota-style heroics.

I could go on. But instead, let me offer a response to each of these issues.

1. Yes, it happened in the Mediterranean, but it impacted the ETO. It put an army group on the German border within months. This was a far different campaign from the tough fighting in Italy, which after June 1944 truly was a fight to nowhere, and which still remains controversial for students of the war.

2. You don’t care about the French army in 1944? Get over it. There were precisely seven armies in the Allied order of battle in Western Europe. Certainly U.S. manpower dominated—providing four of the seven. But America’s allies did their part—one British army, one Canadian army, and one French army. Take away any of these three and you have less Allied fighting strength, less forward momentum, and more Germans troops in the reserve to plug holes. It’s a different war, and from the Allied perspective, a worse one.

3. Funny, I always thought an uncontested and relatively bloodless landing should be considered a success! Certainly, it’s hard to imagine the Dragoon landing being the subject of a movie like Saving Private Ryan. I get that.

In the end, I know that fewer people want to read about a battle that was more about logistics than heroism. But an absence of blood doesn’t mean it was any less important. Last time out, I mentioned an amazing statistic, the one about the port of Marseille accounting for 25% of all Allied tonnage shipped into the European theater. It’s just one number in a campaign of many numbers, and perhaps for that reason it is easy to underplay. But it is also a number that represents a logistical triumph of the first magnitude, in a war where supply was the principal limiting factor on Allied operations. I never met General Eisenhower, but if he were alive today, I am fairly certain that he would have some choice words for those who downplay the importance of Marseille. Ike was a smart guy, and if he understood one thing about modern war, it was the enormous logistical requirements that supported it.

They say that amateurs talk battle, while professionals talk logistics. I agree. And for this reason alone, maybe we should talk about Anvil-Dragoon a lot more than we do.
 

6 Responses

  1. Stewart Peterson

    You would think Devers himself would get more respect, too, having written the US Army’s armored division TO&E, IIRC – basically what Guderian did in Germany. Getting the Armored Force organized and equipped was a significant feat of technical project management, before the term came into use (making it arguably more significant – they had no existing process to replicate). Yet there doesn’t seem to be much literature on how Devers and co. did it, at least that I can find (I don’t have library privileges at a research university). Are you (or anyone else here) aware of any?

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  2. Bomber

    Jacob Devers was an interesting individual. After Frank Andrews’ death he took command of ETOUSA and coordinated the Combined Bomber Offensive along with Ira Eaker in 1943. At times, Devers served as the swing vote in debates over the allocation of airplanes between the Mediterranean Theater and 8th Air Force. I think there is only one biography on him that came out in 1998.

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  3. Tony Robertson

    I am reading two very good books right now on the subject: First to the Rhine, and Decision at Strasbourg. The former covers the whole campaign, a good operational history, from Provence to southern Germany. The latter focuses on the 6th Army Group’s approach to the Rhine at Strasbourg, and its planning for a crossing toward the end of November ’44. The author praises Devers and criticizes Ike.

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  4. Matthew Trudgen

    One other important factor is that the Brits, for a number of reasons, did not like Anvil/Dragoon, so they have tended to downplay its effectiveness and impact in the scholarly literature.

    Also, its great success plays a role too. No drama, no real story. Similar to why Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk get so much coverage but the massively successful Soviet offensives in 1943 and 1944 generally do not.

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  5. Stewart Peterson

    Bomber,

    I’ve read the biography you refer to, and that’s the problem: it devotes a grand total of seven pages to Devers’ time commanding the Armored Force, with one citation (to an unpublished personal interview), and doesn’t talk about his management system. It seems like there ought to be more public discussion about that vital phase of mobilization for WWII, but, then again, staff work isn’t exciting. In addition, both books Tony Robertson mentions are operational histories of Devers’ campaign in Europe, for which the mobilization phase from years before is understandably out-of-scope.

    But, thanks very much to both of you. I’ll keep on digging.

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  6. Ralph Hitchens

    Funny story about Devers– waaay back in the summer of 1963 I worked as a lifeguard in Palm Beach, Florida before going to college. Got to talking one day to a friendly, middle-aged vacationer who had served in the war; this interested me as I had grown up in a history-minded household, son of a USAF officer with a history Ph.D. who was on the faculty at the Air Force Academy. So this guy told a humorous story about when he was called up in 1942. He’d been working in a tank production facility in Michigan, applying protective waterproof covering to newly-produced Grant and Sherman tanks about to be shipped overseas. Somehow a critical letter of the alphabet got transposed during his Army in-processing interview. So halfway through basic training he was dragged out of formation & found himself in front of Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers, who demanded to know, “What the hell is a ‘tank master’?” [masker, of course]

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