France, African leaders mark southern 'D-Day'

20140813_OperationDragoon_Internet.jpg

France, African leaders mark southern 'D-Day'
Operation Dragoon, Southern France, 1944.

TOULON - President Francois Hollande will on Friday lead ceremonies to mark 70 years since the invasion of southern France by Allied troops which, two months after D-Day, pushed the exhausted Nazi army back towards Germany and hastened the end of World War II.

Joining Hollande will be a host of leaders from France's former African colonies to pay tribute to the tens of thousands from these countries who fought to liberate France from the scourge of Hitler's Nazis.

After the success of the Normandy beach landings, the Allies needed to open up a second front in France to squeeze the demoralised German army and retake the ports of Marseille and Toulon to resupply forces pouring into the hole smashed into the line on D-Day.

The result was "Operation Dragoon", launched on the beaches near Marseille on August 15, 1944, with a total force of 450,000 men.

In contrast to the Normandy landings, where there was only a token French army presence, more than half (250,000) of the invading force was French.

In turn, this French force had a large number of troops from France's then colonies, mainly from Algeria and Morocco, but also infantry from Senegal and soldiers from Pacific islands.

The invasion "succeeded much more quickly than expected", historian Jean-Marie Guillon told AFP.

Facing the Allies was the German 19th army with 250,000 badly equipped and shattered troops spread all along the coast, poorly defended with barbed wire, mines and heavy artillery.

The result of this mismatch was that the bloodshed seen on D-Day on June 6 was largely avoided as the Germans quickly realised they could not defend their position.

On the evening of August 15, of the 100,000 men that had successfully landed, around 1,000 had fallen, death on a much smaller scale than D-Day, where there were 10,000 casualties.

Hitler's 'saddest day'

The Germans retreated rapidly, chased into the mountains by the rampant Allies, who were able to establish a supply base for the later invasion of Germany itself.

Hitler described it as "the saddest day of his life" and it would eventually lead, within 10 days, to the joyful liberation of Paris.

Unlike ceremonies held in Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6 - attended by a phalanx of world leaders including US President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II - Friday's events promise to be more low key.

Organisers expect some 240 veterans to mark the occasion, including around 40 from the former colonies. Hollande has invited representatives from 28 countries - mainly African - to take part.

On Friday morning, Hollande will pay tribute in Toulon to the Allied forces, Free French troops, soldiers from the African army and resistant fighters that died to liberate France.

Later, the international dignitaries will join the French leader for a ceremony on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, stationed off the coast.

The international meeting on D-Day, which took place at the height of the Ukraine crisis, gave rise to a flurry of diplomacy and saw the first meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko.

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