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Silver Star — The hard way


Part 42: The D-Day invasion of Southern France

By Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek

With the famous D-Day invasion of Normandy well behind and Allied victories and breakthroughs in Northern France, it was time for yet another Allied D-Day invasion, this time on the Riviera Coast of Southern France. With the beachhead training of new troops completed via the Thunderbird Exercise at Salerno, General Patch and his Seventh Army were ready.

As I told you in the last episode, the 40 German Divisions which had defended Normandy had been shot and bombed to pieces as they tried to escape into France. Some 30,000 had been killed and 92,000 taken prisoner. The 50,000 or so that were left were in a nightmare situation. Like a sleeping giant, the Free French Infantry rose from every corner of France and soon had more troops in the war than Britain. Their new leader, Charles de Gaulle, inspired them to push the Germans out of France once and for all. Everywhere the Germans tried to move they were ambushed by the FFI, whose weapons were often old rifles and home-made bombs; their uniforms mere armbands with the letters “FFI,” the same letters they proudly painted on any vehicle they could find.

D-Day for the invasion of Southern France, called Operation Dragoon, was set for August 15, 1944, 10 weeks after the invasion of Normandy. As H-Hour (the hour of landing) approached, the Germans made ready their defenses. (It was impossible to keep this invasion a secret.) Before the landing, Navy guns and Allied bombers savagely attacked German positions.

Because of the tragic loss of life at Normandy, it was decided veteran troops would lead this invasion. As mentioned in the last episode, Dad’s Thunderbird Division took the center position, flanked by the 3rd and 36th Divisions.

As the shore came into view, the men began to get tense. The ones, like Dad, who had done this before knew what to expect and the newbies clung to them because they knew their lives depended on it.

Just as they had done in other D-Day landings, Dad and other soldiers climbed down the sides of the ships on the rope nets and onto the Higgins boats. Because of his experience, Dad was on the first wave, which, of course, was by far the most dangerous. I have a short, written account by Dad of what happened as his landing craft approached the shore:

“I was going to jump over the side of the assault boat, but when the water washed back beside the boat, it exposed a large German Teller mine. So, I waited my turn out in front. As in Sicily, I was loaded down with a 51-pound rubberized radio, but this time some nut had decided that the battalion radio chief would be the headquarters company anti-tank man. I had to turn in my light-weight carbine for a heavier M-1 (Garand) with an anti-tank projectile launcher and carried a half dozen projectiles dangling from my belt.”

Notice Dad did not want to go out the front ramp of the Higgins boat. He knew this was a prime target for German machine guns. There was a sea wall where Dad landed and he made three runs at it, trying to get over it while loaded down. He threw the radio over the wall, but left the rifle, the gas mask he had been issued, and other heavy, unnecessary equipment behind.

Other soldiers also shed heavy things and their gas masks as soon as they landed. Soon after, someone yelled, “Gas,” and a panic set in among the newbies. But the veterans assured them what they smelled was just burnt gunpowder, and the smell of battle.

In newsreels of the Normandy invasion, you see soldiers on the beach slowly trudging toward German positions. Here, with veteran leadership, everyone ran as fast as they could to take up positions and attack. The Germans were soon overwhelmed and moved inland from the beach.

There are two versions of what happened next – one by Al Bacon and one by Dad:

In Bacon’s version, he was with a Navy artillery observer and went to the top of a small hill and saw where the Germans had dug in. Of course, they wanted to direct the big Navy guns to this target, but were careful to get permission from the Colonel before doing so. If you remember, Dad got in trouble for directing Navy fire at Anzio without permission from an officer.

In the version of this story Dad told me, Dad simply stated “we” saw where the Germans had dug in and directed Navy fire, with no mention of a Navy spotter. It does seem rather odd that the Navy would send a spotter on shore when any member of Dad’s battle-hardened radio crew could have done so without any help. This seems especially odd to me since the sailors would tease the G.I.s about going ashore while they stayed on the ships.

In both versions of this story, the big Navy guns turned to this target and started firing. With thousands of Allied soldiers moving inland, the Navy could only fire where they were directed. As a result, they fired shell after shell at this new-found target. Bacon stated they could hear the big shells as they whizzed overhead. Soon, the German Army situated there was completely destroyed. Never in the history of war was the term “shot to pieces” more fitting than the devastation created by the heavy Navy shells, as the big guns continued to fire long after the target was destroyed.

When the Navy guns finally stopped firing and Dad’s men moved inland, they crossed the place where the Germans had dug in. Dad said, “Nothing was left whole. Everything was in pieces. There were pieces of equipment, pieces of horses, and pieces of men scattered everywhere.” Bacon’s version of this part is in complete agreement with Dad’s. For those of you who have read in history books, “resistance was light,” now you know why.

Many Germans did escape. They fled in terror, only to be harassed an ambushed repeatedly by the FFI. Veterans like Dad knew the Germans would stop somewhere and make a stand – they always did. But, with Allied planes now controlling the sky, and Allied armies moving against them from the west and the Russians closing in from the east, it was all but over for the Germans. Sure, there would be more battles, but the Germans really had only two choices left – surrender or die.

With 75th anniversary celebrations of the D-Day invasion at Normandy underway, it is somewhat disturbing to me what the press is saying. They repeat over and over that this was the beginning of the liberation of Europe. Not true! Italy, of course, is part of Europe. The liberation of Europe began with the invasion of Sicily. Over 300,000 Allied troops had lost their lives in Europe before the Normandy invasion. Dad’s 45th Division alone is credited with liberating well over 200 towns in Italy. How sad it is that all other D-Day invasions and the fierce battles in Italy seem forgotten. It’s like reporting a football game starting with the fourth quarter and the home team leading by six touchdowns. Just like in such a game, the Germans, like the losing team, kept fighting to the end with no hope of winning. As I stated in a prior episode, the Allied invasion of France was not the beginning of the liberation of Europe, it was the beginning of the end.