The Avenue of Stenches

THE immediate objective of DRAGOON were the ports of Toulon and Marseille, respectively code-named ASTORIA and CYRIL. Seventh Army had little capacity for unloading supplies over the beach, so trucks, gasoline, ammunition, and other matériel needed to sustain Truscott’s lunge to the north could come only through the twin anchorages, the capture of which was assigned to the French. On Wednesday evening, August 16, four divisions from the French II Corps began landing in the Gulf of St.-Tropez, a day ahead of schedule owing to feeble German resistance. They eventually would be joined by three more divisions in I Corps, giving France a quarter-million men under arms in the south.

Known for now as Army B, it was a vivid soldiery, as picturesque as Leclerc’s division then capering toward Paris. Nearly half were from North Africa or the sub-Sahara, complemented by Somalis, New Caledonians, Tahitians, Indochines, Syrians, Lebanese, and Legionnaires. Africans composed almost three-quarters of the infantry regiments, including six thousand ferocious Berber goumiers wearing sandals and striped djellabas, with boots tied around their necks as they led their mules across the beaches. With little capacity for modern military logistics, the French relied on the U.S. Army for everything from pork-free rations for Muslim soldiers to French-English dictionaries. This summer alone the Americans had provided 1,100 tanks, 215,000 rifles, 17,000 tons of corned and frozen beef, 20 million Atabrine antimalaria tablets, 7 million packets of pipe tobacco, and 7,000 extra canteens. (Senegalese soldiers were said to require four liters of water each day, double the normal ration.) Extra tanker trucks also were needed because of French reluctance to convert cherished wine transports into gasoline carriers.

The gimlet-eyed commander of this force stepped ashore at six P.M. Wednesday after a voyage from Taranto aboard the former Polish cruise ship S.S. Batory: General Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny, whose impeccable ensemble included kepi, yellow gloves, and a swagger stick tucked beneath his left arm. Described by French colleagues as “an animal of action” and “jupiterien,” De Lattre impressed Hewitt as “very pleasant, very volatile,” while Truscott saw “thin hair graying around the temples, a square open face with cold eyes, medium height, trim, neat, and very soldierly.” Given to abrupt dead-of-night appearances in the ranks, roaring, “What have you done for France?,” De Lattre would be acclaimed by one biographer as “the greatest soldier to serve France since the age of Napoleon I.”

De Lattre sprang from minor gentry in the Vendée on the Atlantic coast and graduated near the bottom of his St.-Cyr class in 1909. During the Great War, he twice gathered intelligence by slipping through the lines disguised as a factory worker to dine in a Metz restaurant packed with German officers. In a skirmish in 1914, he killed two enemy soldiers with a sword his grandfather had carried in the Napoleonic Wars, but was impaled by a German lance; a sergeant had to stand on his chest to yank it out. He was to suffer three more wounds before the Armistice and be mentioned in dispatches eight times. A fervent Catholic—in peacetime he routinely helped, barefoot, to carry the sick at Lourdes—he had insisted that chaplains accompany his assault troops in order to give quick absolution to the dying. His personal motto, adopted in the 1930s, was Ne Pas Subir: Do not give up.

Loyal to Vichy for more than two years after the German invasion, he had finally refused to countenance Hitler’s occupation of southern France following the Allied seizure of North Africa in November 1942. Charged by a Vichy court-martial with abandoning his post, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. His son Bernard, then fifteen, aided his escape by smuggling tools and a rope into his father’s cell. In September 1943, De Lattre loosened a window frame, shinnied down to a courtyard, scaled an outer wall, and fled to Algiers by way of London. There De Gaulle gave him command of the French army in exile. Known as le Roi Jean for his imperial airs, De Lattre stationed an imposing sénégalais outside his office door to sound a clarion on a trumpet whenever the double doors flew open and the general stepped out. He “lived on stage,” the historian Douglas Porch later wrote, “as gracious to dignitaries, whom he received with Bourbon éclat, as he was severe with subordinates, whom he slaved to exhaustion.” Often dining at midnight, he worked until five A.M., then signed orders in bed at dawn; visitors to his headquarters might sit for days on the outer stairs, awaiting an audience. “The General,” an aide explained, “is a nocturnal.”

The DRAGOON landing plan for Army B had been redrafted seventeen times at De Lattre’s insistence. While conceding that “we Frenchmen are not the masters” and that subordination “is the price we must pay to be able to participate in the liberation of France,” he resented being under American command and beholden to American supply. Storming into a U.S. Army headquarters, aflame with grievances, De Lattre would let loose a torrent of French as an interpreter struggled to keep pace, then stalk out, always saluting smartly before slamming the door. He was “ardent to the point of effervescence,” said De Gaulle, who believed that De Lattre’s faults derived from “the excesses of his virtues.” Now accompanied by Bernard, the youngest soldier in the French army, he collared a subordinate in St.-Tropez and with eyes bright told him, “Toulon awaits you.”

The Germans waited, too. Here and in Marseille, thirty miles farther west, 35,000 defenders had been ordered by Hitler to stand “to the last man.” General Blaskowitz reported that his fortifications at Toulon were 75 percent complete, with Marseille a bit more advanced; water and ammunition had been stockpiled, and both garrisons reinforced. Port demolitions began soon after the first Americans crossed the beaches to the east.

Toulon was the greatest naval base in France and the tougher nut. Three craggy fortresses dominated the landward approaches, and nearby mountainsides were rigged with dynamite to trigger rockslides. Seventy or more guns ranged the roadstead, among them “Big Willie,” a turret with two 340mm barrels plucked from the scuttled French battleship Provence and installed in armor plate and thick concrete at St.-Mandrier, commanding the harbor mouth; with a range of twenty-two miles, the guns were more than a match for any weapon in the Allied fleet. Even so, Admiral Hewitt ordered the hornet’s nest poked. On Saturday, August 19, after the fortifications had been pummeled from the air, Nevada, Augusta, Quincy, and the French battleship Lorraine paraded along the horizon, lobbing two hundred shells like so many playground taunts. Not until Sunday did Big Willie reply, chasing the interlopers back into their smoke banks at flank speed with a splashy fall of shot that quickly closed from a two-mile miss to a thirty-yard miss. Big Willie was “too much for us,” an officer aboard Quincy confessed; Allied shells striking the turret’s concrete casements “just bounced off like us spitting against the wall.” The naval brawl would last more than a week, but Toulon—like Cherbourg—clearly would not fall from the sea.

De Lattre had assumed as much and so cleaved his army into five battle groups, with orders to outflank and encircle both Toulon and Marseille. This scheme began badly when German gunners demolished the lead French tank in a convoy on Highway 57, then cut down trees behind the rear tank to trap the column and pick off eight more. In Hyères, ten miles east of Toulon, defenders who included stranded submariners made a fortress of the Golf Hotel and adjacent links; three French artillery battalions fired a thousand rounds point-blank, augmented by two hundred naval shells. A sunset bayonet charge by Tahitian troops through the dining room and cellars ended resistance, with 140 Germans captured and many more slain.

By last light on Monday, August 21, Toulon was surrounded. Monks from a local monastery guided French detachments across the stony, pathless terrain to the north. A battalion commander led his men through the night by marking the trail with toilet paper provided, as De Lattre acknowledged, by U.S. Army quartermasters. A company commander scouted the city in a borrowed policeman’s uniform while gunners shouldered a dozen battalions of artillery onto the frowning heights. One by one the battered strongpoints fell: defenders were flushed from their lairs with white phosphorus and flamethrowers, “like rabbits driven out by a terrier,” in De Lattre’s phrase. To diehards in the Arsenal Maritime, a French colonel on August 25 warned that at seven P.M. “my Senegalese will receive the order to massacre you all”; the last defenders blew up their remaining ammunition, roused themselves with a shout of “Heil Hitler!,” and marched into captivity. Not until dawn on August 28 did the last two thousand sailors manning Big Willie and other guns on St.-Mandrier capitulate; Hewitt’s ships had fired more than a thousand shells from as near as five miles. When the captured garrison commander declined to provide a map of German minefields, De Lattre vowed to shoot him. “Three hours later,” he reported, “I had the plans.”

Marseille fell almost at the same moment. Founded as a Greek trading post in the sixth century B.C., the storied port had become France’s second largest city, with half a million citizens and the most vital anchorage in the Mediterranean, comprising thirteen miles of quays. On August 21, as De Lattre’s columns approached from the east, northeast, and north, the Marseillais had rebelled, building barricades with paving stones and shooting up isolated German patrols. Oily smoke from burning refineries in the suburbs drifted over the city as goumiers, described by one Frenchman as “figures from another world,” scrambled over goat paths and through olive groves to cut escape routes leading north. In the early hours of August 23, Algerian infantrymen accompanied by Sherman tanks hurried through the streets to the old port, cheered on by civilians in nightclothes who threw open their shutters to bray with delight. Although the German garrison bristled with at least two hundred guns in a double defensive line, the city soon grew indefensible. While Nevada and other warships pounded away, De Lattre spread his maps in a nearby hotel courtyard where vacationing guests, including pretty girls in sundresses, continued to sip iced apéritifs under umbrellas on the terrace.

When a tricolor rose over the captured redoubt at Fort St.-Nicolas, the garrison commander, General Hans Schaeffer, composed a message: “It would be purposeless to continue a battle which could lead only to the total annihilation of my remaining troops.” French soldiers found him at dawn on August 28 in an underground burrow with two telephones and a plate of Gruyère cheese; he emerged pale and haggard to sign the surrender with a borrowed pen. Church bells rang in jubilation. Marseille had fallen nearly a month ahead of the DRAGOON timetable.

Thirty-seven thousand prisoners would be taken in the two port cities, at a cost of four thousand French casualties, including eight hundred dead. Toulon had been so thoroughly dismembered by German demolitions that the Allies forsook it as a major port. Marseille was devastated even beyond Allied fears, “the German masterpiece” of ruination, according to American port officials who had rebuilt Naples. Of 121 piers, not one could be used; dynamite and two thousand large mines had transformed every quay and warehouse into “a chaos of steel, concrete, and cables.” Eleven large ships, including transatlantic liners, had been wrecked to block the harbor entrance, and 257 cranes had been pitched into the water. Scores of other sunken vessels blocked each berth with scuttling techniques “not previously encountered.” As in Cherbourg, booby traps seeded the ruins, and more than five thousand mines of seventeen different types would be lifted from the water with the help of blimps used to spot them.

Yet the Allies had their port. Almost miraculously, the first Liberty ship would berth in Marseille on September 15, and Hewitt reported that ten days later the docks could handle 12,500 tons of cargo each day. For now, French regiments hurried west, to the mouth of the Rhône. De Lattre cabled De Gaulle, newly installed in Paris: “In Army B’s sector there is no German not dead or captive.”

*   *   *

Following his abdication and removal to Elba in 1814, Napoléon threw himself into a life of exile while waiting for the restored Bourbon regime to make itself intolerable. Joined by his mother, his sister, and his Polish mistress with their illegitimate son, he built roads and bridges, organized balls, banquets, and theatricals, and played countless hands of cards, at which he cheated without scruple. Bored to tears after nine months, and burning with what the historian Norwood Young would call “the Corsican spirit of vendetta,” he surreptitiously had the brig Inconstant painted, recoppered, and provisioned with biscuit, rice, brandy, and salt meat. Accompanied by a flotilla of six other vessels and determined to again become “the man of Austerlitz,” Napoléon in February 1815 gave a British man-of-war the slip and beat for the French coast with twelve hundred retainers and old imperial guardsmen. “I was so unhappy that I was not risking much,” the once and future emperor later explained, “only my life.” He stepped ashore near Antibes to begin the fateful Hundred Days; in making for Paris, he avoided the royalist Rhône valley and chose a route along the western flank of the Alps, through Digne, Sisteron, and Grenoble.

The Route Napoléon led, indirectly, to Waterloo three months later, but that failed to discourage American planners: they had chosen this very path for a possible quick lunge toward Lyon, two hundred miles northwest of St.-Tropez. Since De Gaulle had demanded that the Americans immediately return to De Lattre’s command a French armored brigade after just three days’ employment in the initial DRAGOON landings, Truscott was forced to cobble together an all-American mechanized exploitation force. To command this scratch assemblage he appointed his deputy, Brigadier General Frederic Bates Butler, a West Point engineer from California who had once managed Herbert Hoover’s White House for the War Department and more recently had seen much combat in Tunisia and Italy. Two days after the U.S. landings, as Army B began to pivot west toward Toulon, the most exhilarating Ultra messages ever intercepted in the Mediterranean galvanized Task Force Butler into an avenging instrument of pursuit.

An order radioed from the German high command at 9:40 A.M. on August 17 and deciphered by British cryptologists less than five hours later—even before General Blaskowitz received it—revealed that Hitler had directed Army Group G to retreat from southern and southwestern France, except for forces consigned to defend the ports. Other intercepts confirmed that the Germans intended to flee rather than fight. Blaskowitz would try to merge his forces with Army Group B, which had begun retreating eastward from Normandy. Now the U.S. Seventh Army could speed north without fear of counterattack from the east by enemy units in the Maritime Alps; airborne troops would screen that right flank, aided by the French maquis and commando teams code-named CHLOROFORM,NOVOCAINE, and EPHEDRINE. Unloading priorities on the beaches were immediately revised to emphasize vehicles and fuel, and Task Force Butler would be reinforced eventually by the 36th Infantry Division—formed from the Texas National Guard—with orders to intercept and destroy the fleeing Germans.

Truscott put the spurs to Butler, who galloped north from Le Muy before dawn on Friday, August 18. “No-man’s land,” he declared, “is our land.” The force had traveled less than seven miles, choosing to avoid the easily barricaded Route Napoléon in this sector, when the column was stopped cold in Draguignan by a stupendous roadblock built by unwitting 36th Division engineers. While this barrow of boulders, mines, and cables was muscled aside, cavalry scouts captured a German corps commander who was found sitting on a park bench with pistol and brandy at hand, “having a nice quiet dignified weep,” as Butler reported, while his orderly stood near holding the general’s suitcase and eyeing a vengeful French mob.

And then they were off. Task Force Butler covered forty-five miles on Friday and the same on Saturday and Sunday, using Michelin maps and a Cub plane overhead to spot downed bridges, most of which had been blown by the maquis. In Quinson, when jeeps mired in a creek bed, civilians formed a fire brigade to pass flagstones and build a ford. A thousand prisoners were taken in Digne-les-Bains, many of them just arrived from Grenoble with vague, useless orders to block the Route Napoléon. Sisteron fell without a fight on August 19.

Across folded limestone hills they sped, through stands of chestnut and Aleppo pine, slowed only by nagging gasoline shortages and by road signs that locals had jumbled to confuse the Boche. Frenchmen in threadbare Great War uniforms held their salutes on the roadsides, and mildewed tricolors were retrieved from cellar hiding holes. Eric Sevareid described the chase

through civilized, settled Provence, through the sun fields of Van Gogh and the green-and-purple patchwork of Cézanne.… The sun was warm and the air like crystal. The fruits were ripening, and the girls were lovely.… This was war as it ought to be, the war of pageantry and story.

In Gap, nearly a hundred miles from the sea, a cavalry troop of 130 men and ten armored cars fired a few dozen rounds from their assault guns, toppling a radio tower. An Army captain warned the German garrison that sixty B-17s were prepared to flatten the town; the bluff worked, or perhaps it was fear of maquis reprisals that caused another eleven hundred enemy soldiers to appear in the town plaza, wearing full packs and ready for the cages. They were frog-marched to the rear by captured Poles deputized as prison guards.

At four A.M. on Monday, August 21, an envoy appeared in Butler’s command post at Aspres with a message from Truscott: “You will move at first light 21 August with all possible speed to Montélimar. Block all routes of withdrawal up the Rhône valley.” Ultra and air reconnaissance had shown four retreating German divisions concentrated along the Rhône, with a rear guard provided by the 11th Panzer Division. The U.S. 3rd Division, Truscott’s former command, would act as a hammer in striking from the south, while Task Force Butler and the 36th Division provided the anvil across the Rhône gorge at Montélimar, a town long celebrated for its nougat. Leaving a small blocking force at Gap to protect his rear, Butler and his wayworn column made a sharp turn to the west and at daybreak began a sixty-mile dash toward the river.

By now supply shortages threatened to undermine Truscott’s master plan. Thousands of tons of ammunition had been loaded on top of other cargo in ships on the presumption that it would be required for fighting through the beachhead. Now stevedores stacked mountains of ammunition above the waterline so they could burrow deeper into the holds for desperately needed gasoline and food. The audacious sprint north—some scouts were almost to Grenoble—required supply trucks to make a three-hundred-mile round-trip, but the Seventh Army motor pool on August 21 comprised just sixty-two vehicles. Three U.S. infantry divisions together were burning 100,000 gallons of gasoline every day, but beach depots on this Monday held only 11,000 gallons. In the haste to turn ships around, thousands of artillery rounds had been inadvertently sent back to the United States, and a thousand mortar shells somehow ended up in Sardinia. French supply units proved particularly feeble, with severe shortages of even simple items such as tire patches. Artillery firing at night was reduced to conserve ammunition, and GIs in the battle zone were placed on two-thirds rations.

Even so, by late Monday afternoon the vanguard of Task Force Butler reached the wooded high ground north of Montélimar with armored cars, tank destroyers, and Stuart light tanks. An artillery battery unlimbered, and soon the crash of guns echoed across the riverbanks. German convoys nosing north on Highway 7 along the Rhône’s eastern shore swerved in panic as exploding shells heaved up geysers of dirt and smoke. A cavalry troop pushed down the Drôme, a narrow, west-flowing tributary of the Rhône; they blew a road bridge and ripped up a truck convoy. Fifty Wehrmacht vehicles soon burned like pitch.

VI Corps had severed the enemy escape route, and they had done it with just a few platoons overlooking the river and gunners reduced to twenty-five rounds per howitzer. From his new command post in Marsanne, eight miles northeast of Montélimar, Butler advised Truscott in a message shortly before midnight that with reinforcement, resupply, and more artillery he would launch a full-throated attack the next day.

“Everything has gone better than we dared hope,” Truscott told Sarah in a note scribbled on Monday night, subsequently adding, “Georgie P. is not the only one who can cover ground.” He was cheerful enough to tell her about camp life, of eating Gruyère, “which of course delights my soul,” and swapping a pound and a half of coffee for three bottles of vermouth. Although he had seen few wildflowers, “this country is too beautiful to fight over, or should be at any rate.” He asked her to send him soda crackers, witch hazel, four bottles of hot sauce to spice his rations, and a dozen Benzedrine inhalers.

“I am having my troubles and think I need a lot of things I do not have,” he told her. “But think of how my opponent must feel.”

*   *   *

His opponent felt dreadful. Blaskowitz, trying to hustle two corps from the Nineteenth Army up the Rhône after receiving Hitler’s withdrawal order, was so unsure of battlefield dispositions that he described himself as commanding in “pre-technical days.” A sharp debate had unfolded within Army Group G over whether the 11th Panzer Division—the most mobile and lethal unit in southern France—should save itself by fleeing, or be sacrificed to help other divisions escape. For now, as ferries finished lugging panzers to the river’s eastern shore near Avignon, the division feinted toward the beachhead, then fell in behind her retreating sisters as a rear guard, bounding north between successive positions eleven kilometers apart to remain beyond American 105mm howitzer range. Trucks and troop carriers dangled ropes to tow bicycle troops, and engineers blew holes in the Rhône cliffsides as shelters against Allied strafing attacks.

Truscott took the German feint. The 3rd Division had traveled more than thirty easy miles from the beachhead before encountering modest resistance and blown bridges on August 20 at Aix-en-Provence; the next morning, Truscott got wind of a battlefield rumor suggesting that 150 panzers had sortied southeast from Avignon. The division commander, Major General John W. “Iron Mike” O’Daniel, was ever eager to do battle. (De Lattre once said that his face “might have been carved out with an axe.”) But at noon on August 21, Truscott phoned his command post. “Tell General O’Daniel that I want him to halt the bulk of his command,” Truscott told a staff officer. “The 11th Panzer is out in front of you and there is a possibility you might get a counterattack.” For two days, the 3rd Division inched along before creeping into Arles at midday on August 24 and into Avignon a day later, tormented by mines, felled trees, and dropped bridges, but by few Germans. Most enemy troops were scurrying north up the Rhône.

At Montélimar, Task Force Butler struggled to hold sway over a 250-square-mile sector east of the river, across terrain ranging from flat farmland to looming hills almost two thousand feet high. Now confronted by two German corps frantic to escape, Butler’s little command included thirty Shermans, a dozen tank destroyers, an infantry battalion, and twelve self-propelled guns. Few American fighter-bombers appeared overhead; the first airstrip in southern France had been completed only late on the twentieth, and the Army’s swift advance had outrun P-47s flying from Corsica, which often forsook bomb payloads in order to carry extra fuel in wing tanks. Reinforcements from the 36th Division were nowhere to be seen, except for a single infantry battalion and two VI Corps artillery battalions that arrived on August 22.

This pleased Truscott not at all. At eleven that morning he flew by Piper Cub to the 36th Division command post in Aspres to find an infantry regiment and various gunners still in bivouac. The division commander, Major General John E. Dahlquist, was out in the field, so Truscott wheeled on the staff, his carbolic growl restored:

Don’t you understand? This is the opportunity of a lifetime. We can trap the entire German corps and 11th Panzer Division with a few men and guns. Every minute is precious. Now get moving.

For Dahlquist, he left a scorching note, describing himself as “considerably upset” that artillery and other corps units attached to the 36th were meandering toward Grenoble rather than besieging Montélimar. “Apparently I failed to make your mission clear to you,” Truscott wrote. “Make no mistake about it—I expect you to command … and will hold you responsible.”

In truth, Dahlquist was out of his depth. A large, fleshy Minnesotan who had worked as a haberdasher and college thespian in Swedish-language dramas before enlisting in 1917, he was humorless, blunt, and given to brooding. The campaign would quickly wear him down. “I must admit I get winded going up the hills,” he wrote his wife. “Too many cigarettes.” After receiving his commander’s note, Dahlquist called Truscott to explain that his division was scattered from St.-Tropez to Grenoble. Half his transport had yet to be unloaded from the ships; his men had even commandeered a Spanish consul’s car, and a small truck towing an antitank gun had been seen carrying three dozen men, including one astride the tube. “There is absolutely no gas available at the beaches,” Dahlquist added. “I have less than five thousand gallons.” Truscott waved away the excuses. “Your primary mission is to block the Rhône valley and I expect you to do it,” he said. “And when you run out of gas, you park your trucks and move on foot.”

Tough talk would not win the day. A battalion from the 141st Infantry cut Highway 7 before dawn on Thursday, August 24, but by early afternoon enemy forces had breached both flanks. A grim unit history later described Panthers “so close you could feel the heat from the motor.” The battalion withdrew “at night from a hill covered with burning, exploding tanks, knocked out guns, and dead men.”

The German capture of a 36th Division battle plan that same day revealed a weak seam in the American line, along a segment held by a single engineer company at Bonlieu, several miles east of the Rhône. Six German battle groups attacked there and at other points on Friday, in fighting so intense that a U.S. battalion commander called artillery onto his own post to avoid being overrun. A chaotic midnight cavalry charge led personally by the 11th Panzer commander bowled aside another roadblock on Highway 7—“Come on, you bastards, give up,” the Germans demanded in English—and enemy convoys continued leaking through to the north.

Truscott again flew to Dahlquist’s command post, now south of Crest on the Drôme. “John, I have come here with the full intention of relieving you from command,” the corps commander said. “You have failed to carry out my orders. You have just five minutes in which to convince me you are not at fault.” Dahlquist used the time well; Truscott left persuaded the division had finally come to fight.

Surely the artillery had. More than eight battalions—some one hundred guns—ranged the highway, the town, and the narrow river gorge known as the Gate of Montélimar. Shellfire grew so furious that the road asphalt caught fire, and gunners aiming at nearby rail lines smashed several German trains trying to force the gate on the Rhône’s east bank. A single infantry company fired 2,500 mortar rounds on Sunday, August 27, in beating off successive counterattacks. The weather gods also helped, with heavy downpours that put the Drôme in spate, inundating the fords German engineers had built of railroad sleepers laid on crushed stone; for several hours, until the water subsided, the fleeing columns were stalled on the south bank under scorching artillery. By midday Sunday, three German infantry divisions had splashed across the Drôme, herded by the 11th Panzer, while a fourth division struggled up Highway 7. Blaskowitz urged speed in messages carried through the screaming shellfire by couriers with dispatch cases.

In a confused mêlée after midnight on Monday, August 28, two columns from the German 198th Division collided northeast of Montélimar with Dahlquist’s 143rd Infantry; enemy corpses carpeted the roadbed, and most of those not killed were captured. Savage gunfights raged through the orchards and scrub woods along the Drôme, where the 132nd Field Artillery Battalion opened fire at eight thousand yards on German columns stacked bumper to bumper and three abreast at river fords. Horse-drawn wagons unable to scale the muddy embankment slid back into the water, animals and men shrieking in terror as the singing shell fragments chopped them to pieces.

Task Force Butler, reduced to hardly more than a battalion, soon pushed into Loriol on Highway 7 just below the Drôme; GIs severed the road for a final time. At Livron, on the north bank, they counted five hundred dead horses and one hundred vehicles destroyed within a hundred-yard radius. Truckloads of cognac and cigarettes were abandoned by Germans pelting north toward Lyon, and riflemen pulled looted Bank of France notes by the fistful from the wreckage.

The 3rd Division’s 15th Infantry pushed into Montélimar from the south at 2:30 P.M. on Monday, clearing the town of snipers and booby traps through the night and the next morning. Audie Murphy was among those creeping from house to house. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, behind one creaking door he glimpsed what he later described as “a terrible looking creature with a tommy gun. His face is black; his eyes are red and glaring.” Murphy saw a muzzle flash just as he fired; then came the sound of shattering glass. He had shot his own reflection in a mirror, prompting one comrade to observe, “That’s the first time I ever saw a Texan beat himself to the draw.”

The battle of Montélimar was over, but once again a chance to annihilate a fleeing enemy had gone begging. “Although the concept was daring,” a VI Corps colonel concluded, “the execution left much to be desired.” Task Force Butler had been too weak, the 36th Division too slow, the 3rd Division too cautious, the Army Air Forces too late to the game. Some sixty thousand U.S. artillery shells had scourged but not obliterated the enemy. “I fumbled it badly,” Dahlquist wrote his wife on August 29, “and should have done a great deal better.” In exchange for sixteen hundred American casualties, Blaskowitz’s losses exceeded ten thousand, including six thousand captured, but half were laborers, railway workers, and other noncombatants. About 80 percent of those fleeing up the Rhône’s east bank would reach Lyon, although Blaskowitz reported that the 338th Division mustered barely one thousand men. The 11th Panzer lost half its armor and a quarter of its artillery, but stolen French vehicles kept the division mobile. A German commander considered the escape “almost a miracle.”

Truscott was disappointed—perhaps not least in his own generalship. Even the best battle captain may be outmaneuvered by war’s caprice and a wily, desperate opponent. But a view of the battlefield from a Cub cockpit soon lifted his spirits: an aide described the scene as “carnage compounded.” For fifteen miles along the river, the detritus of eight days’ fighting stretched like a black mourning ribbon: two thousand charred vehicles; at least a thousand dead horses, many still harnessed to caissons and gun carriages; and “fire-blackened” Germans said to be such “an affront to the nose” that this grisly segment of highway became known as the Avenue of Stenches. As at Falaise, bulldozer operators wore gas masks.

All in all, Truscott allowed himself what he described as “some degree of satisfaction.” In two weeks, another ten thousand square miles of France had been liberated, while VI Corps had captured 23,000 Germans to complement the even larger throng bagged by the French. The DRAGOON death struggle was over, and a race to the German frontier had begun.

*   *   *

Two field-gray torrents streamed toward the Fatherland from southern France. The German First Army—half of Blaskowitz’s Army Group G—beat its slow way, mostly on foot, from the nether reaches of the southwest and the Atlantic coast. Though they were 88,000 strong, only a fraction were combat troops, and few of those were armed with more than rifles. Hitler had ordered them to “carry away or destroy during the retreat everything of economic or military value,” including bridges, locomotives, and power stations; to this list the high command added horses, cattle, timber, coal, furniture, and even underwear, all of which was plundered or put to the torch. Frenchmen of military age were to be kidnapped whenever possible. Civilians were murdered for petty offenses, such as “improper remarks” about the shrinking Reich.

Allied air strikes and FFI marauders punished this retreating horde, and only sixty thousand or so would reach Germany. “Foot March Group South,” one of three columns within First Army, found itself isolated and cut off near Beaugency, southwest of Orléans, despite giving 8 million francs to local officials to buy goodwill and to pay for scorched-earth inconveniences. After making bonfires of their weapons, twenty thousand Germans in Foot March Group South would surrender to one of Patton’s divisions along the Loire.

The other retreating gaggle in what Berlin now called “the trekking Wehrmacht” included the 138,000 men of Nineteenth Army tramping up the Rhône with horses so heavily camouflaged that “from above they look like moving bushes,” a VI Corps intelligence officer wrote. It was this force that drew most of Seventh Army’s attention. Field Order No. 4, issued on August 28, demanded that every effort be exerted to overtake and destroy the Germans, if not in the eighty-four miles between Montélimar and Lyon, then in the two hundred miles between Lyon and the Rhine. Stalin the previous November had declared the Swiss to be “swine” and urged the Allies to disregard Switzerland’s neutrality if necessary; that suggestion found no favor in Washington or London, and American and French pursuers were told to swing wide of Geneva and the adjacent cantons. The anxious Swiss mobilized their militia anyway as fighting drew near, and bitterly objected to repeated American violations of Swiss airspace. On a single September day thirty intrusions would be logged, including some by errant P-47s that shot up a train chuffing from Zurich to Basel, mistaking it for German.

By early September, almost 200,000 Allied soldiers had come ashore in Provence. Up the Rhône and along the Route Napoléon, a GI described scenes “of liberation, libation, osculation, gesticulation, and celebration.” A BBC reporter found his jeep “festooned with humanity” as he tried to drive north; a British liaison officer accompanying VI Corps admitted that his job was “to get into towns we liberate with the first troops and hand out British flags to be put up, although we have no British fighting units with us.” French farm wives filled the helmets of passing soldiers with eggs, or handed out cakes of butter rolled in clean wet leaves.

“Sometimes the sheets on the hotel beds don’t get changed between German and American occupation,” wrote J. Glenn Gray, a Seventh Army counterintelligence officer. A French officer pointed to a dead German lying on the roadside with his hands folded across his chest and said, auf Deutsch, “So möchte ich sie alle sehen”—I’d like to see them all like this. A dignified American woman with close-cropped gray hair, whose living room in Culoz was dominated by a large portrait of her painted by Picasso, sent a note to Seventh Army headquarters along with a fruitcake baked by her companion, Alice B. Toklas. “We have waited for you all so long and here you are,” wrote Gertrude Stein. “I cannot tell you enough what it means to see you to hear you to have you here with us.” (Of Stein’s prose, an American officer wrote: “I understand that she puts together a lot of repetitions which have significance only to those whose minds are in a higher sphere than mine.”)

In Grenoble, the fleeing Germans set fire to 37 Rue Maréchal Pétain, said to be the Gestapo headquarters. As victims’ bodies turned up here and there, a notice posted at the prefecture advised, “Bring your documents on atrocities to the third floor.” A separate room was set aside to record denunciations of collaborators. One drizzly afternoon, several thousand citizens with umbrellas or newspapers folded into rain hats gathered in a factory yard where six French fascists were tied to execution stakes. Eric Sevareid described the “metallic noise of rifle bolts and then the sharp report” of a firing squad; a French officer administered the coup de grâce with a pistol shot in the ear of each slumped figure as a “terrible, savage cry” rose from the howling crowd. “Mothers with babies rushed forward to look on the bodies at close range,” Sevareid wrote, “and small boys ran from one to the other spitting upon the bodies.”

A 36th Division patrol entered Lyon on Saturday morning, September 2, followed a day later by the French 1st Division hurrying up the west bank of the Rhône. To reach France’s third largest city had taken less than three weeks rather than the three months predicted by Churchill. The Americans were accorded the thin satisfaction of knowing, as the historian Trumbull Higgins later wrote, that “the British opposed to the end the only fully successful military operation in the Mediterranean between the fall of Tunis and the final collapse of Germany.”

“In the shops one could buy anything,” a 45th Division soldier in Lyon told his journal. “Evening gowns, furs, electric fixtures, furniture, antiques, everything except food”—a sad irony in a city celebrated for gastronomy. Lyon during the German occupation had been considered “the capital of repression” in southern France, with 14,000 arrests in the city and surrounding district, as well as 4,300 murders and 300 rapes. The Resistance now cashed its blood chits. “Too much gunfire on the streets here from the FFI,” an American colonel wrote. “It seems they are completely out of control. I’m reminded of a revolution.”

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Tracers fired into a city hospital that supposedly housed German snipers set the building on fire. Nurses scurried out carrying patients on stretchers, whom they “laid under the plane trees along the parkway by the river near a stack of fresh coffins,” Sevareid wrote. Of two dozen bridges in the city, the Germans had demolished all but two. Hundreds of French farmers pushing produce carts aggravated monumental traffic jams, and military convoys often waited three to six hours to cross makeshift spans over the Rhône before swinging northeast toward the Rhine.

*   *   *

Precisely where those convoys should go now confounded the Seventh Army and its commander, Lieutenant General Alexander McCarrell Patch, Jr. DRAGOON’s success had put Patch on the cover of Time magazine, giving the public another hero to lionize and another battle front to cheer on. “This temporary notoriety will soon die out,” the general wrote his wife, Julia. “God protect me from being spoiled by it.”

That seemed unlikely. Sandy Patch was tall, gangly, and so taciturn that Truscott believed he had “some difficulty in expressing himself.” De Lattre more charitably detected a “mystic turn of mind” in a man with “ascetic features.” Possessed of “a temper like the devil before dawn,” in one subordinate’s phrase, he could also play the accordion and roll a cigarette with one hand from his sack of Bull Durham. Born in the Apache country of southern Arizona to a cavalry lieutenant who had lost a leg chasing horse thieves, Patch had graduated from West Point in 1913 without distinction except as a pole vaulter; he served credibly in France during the last war and began this one in the South Pacific. George Marshall had personally thanked him for a “superb job in New Caledonia and Guadalcanal” as a division and corps commander, then almost cashiered him for indiscreetly discussing the secret American code-breaking that permitted American fighter pilots in April 1943 to ambush and kill Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor sneak attack. “I am puzzled as to the course to follow,” Marshall had confessed during the investigation. In the end the chief did nothing, preferring to forgive if not forget, and Patch, now fifty-four, had been packed off to Europe.

“It feels as though it was three months ago when we commenced landing on the beaches,” Patch wrote Julia in September. “I look now for some very heavy stubborn resistance.” Resistance he got, but it was neither especially heavy nor stubborn. After three weeks of running, Blaskowitz halted the Nineteenth Army more than a hundred miles northeast of Lyon at Besançon, a town tucked into an oxbow of the river Doubs and elaborately fortified by the famed seventeenth-century military engineer, Vauban. At Truscott’s urging, the 3rd Division pounced before the enemy could dig in, reducing five outer forts in quick order with scaling ladders borrowed from local farmers. Twenty-five tank destroyer shells fired point-blank at the citadel gate unmanned the defenders on September 8, and four thousand men in the garrison surrendered or pelted for the woods on stolen bicycles. “I never saw such confusion in my life,” an American officer said. “Germans were flying every which way.”

The captured booty included 183,000 gallons of high-octane gasoline, a godsend. Truscott persuaded Patch to exploit the “fleeting opportunity”: rather than wait for the French to move forward, as originally planned, three U.S. divisions wheeled east toward the Belfort Gap. That ancient pass, also known as the Gate of Burgundy, had for centuries served as a trade and invasion corridor between the Rhône and the Rhine. Narrowing to just fifteen miles between the Jura Mountains in the south and the Vosges Mountains to the north, the gap in looking east gave onto the Alsatian plain, the Rhine valley, and the Black Forest beyond. Patch’s decision to press ahead irked the easily irked De Lattre, who accused the Americans of conspiring to exclude Army B from its fair ration of glory; in response, Patch agreed to permit one French corps to drive toward Belfort between Truscott’s right flank and the Swiss border, while another corps, which liberated Dijon on September 11, swung northeast toward Strasbourg. In a September 12 conference, Patch endorsed Truscott’s assessment that “the Belfort Gap is the gateway to Germany.”

Then the ground shifted. Far from this battlefield, Eisenhower struggled to control an Allied host that stretched from the North Sea to the Côte d’Azur. Prepossessed by the two army groups commanded by Montgomery and Bradley, he devoted little attention and less creative thought to the armies in the south, which now fell under SHAEF. The DRAGOON force he personally had insisted upon now seemed like an awkward appendage, bulling toward what he considered a topographical dead end in the Vosges and the Black Forest. The supreme commander in mid-September told Bradley that he would subordinate Seventh Army to the 12th Army Group but for the political necessity of keeping American suzerainty in the south: De Gaulle surely would demand overall French command of the remaining forces there if Patch was seconded to Bradley. At a minimum, Eisenhower promised, Seventh Army would always support Bradley’s larger maneuvers to the north. For that reason, VI Corps and other American forces were to be consolidated, cheek by jowl, with Patton’s Third Army, making the U.S. armies contiguous and giving De Lattre the extreme right wing of the Allied line, including the Belfort Gap.

Of these rarefied machinations, Truscott knew nothing. On Thursday, September 14, Patch’s Field Order No. 5 arrived at the VI Corps command post. The corps was to pivot northeast, attacking through the Vosges toward Strasbourg. Truscott was “both surprised and disappointed,” his headquarters war diary recorded, the “plan being entirely contrary to his conversation with Gen. Patch on [September] 12th.” Bedeviled by an abscessed tooth and seething with grievances, Truscott stewed for an evening, nipping from a bottle of “medicinal bourbon.” The next morning he composed a letter to Patch that ranged in tone from prickly to impudent.

“The assault on the Belfort Gap should begin at the earliest possible moment,” Truscott wrote, before Blaskowitz stiffened his defenses. De Lattre would not be ready until early October, but one French and three American divisions could attack immediately. To fight in the Vosges, as Seventh Army now proposed, would waste “the three most veteran divisions in the American Army.… As demonstrated in Italy during last winter in less rugged terrain, the Boche can limit progress to a snail’s pace.” If Patch did not want VI Corps to force the Belfort Gap, Truscott proposed packing up his divisions for an assault on Genoa to help Fifth Army in Italy. Unaware that the army commander was heeding a SHAEF directive, he closed by asking Patch to refer the matter up the chain of command for adjudication.

Truscott sent the note to the Seventh Army command post, now in a French barracks at Lons-le-Saunier, where Napoléon had persuaded Marshal Ney—“the bravest of the brave”—to rejoin him during the Hundred Days.

Patch phoned at 6:30 P.M. on Saturday, September 16.

Patch: I don’t think that letter of yours was advisable. A less sensitive man than I—and I’m not sensitive at all—would see the lack of confidence shown in your leaders.

Truscott: I wrote the letter only because it was something I believe in.

Patch: When I have something on my chest I just have to say it to that person.

Truscott: You have my complete and wholehearted support, once the decision is made. If you think someone else can do the job better, it’s all right with me. But I don’t think you can find one.

Patch: I know that.

So ended DRAGOON, in bickering frustration.

Truscott’s pluck notwithstanding, his ability to force the Belfort Gap and jump the Rhine was dubious at best. With frayed logistical lines stretching three hundred miles, a senior officer observed, VI Corps was “living with just one day’s supplies ahead of the game.” Blaskowitz on September 19 reported to the German high command that his residual armies were forming a defensive bulwark west of the Vosges, “still able to fight, although much weakened.” His greatest fear—a flanking attack southeast toward Belfort by Patton’s Third Army—had not come to pass. Of the Army Group G troops who decamped from southern France, more than 130,000 had escaped, although Nineteenth Army salvaged only 165 of 1,600 artillery pieces, and 11th Panzer had barely two dozen tanks left. For his troubles, Blaskowitz was sacked that very day; infuriated by the retreat and by reports of German straggling, Hitler summoned a panzer army commander from Russia to replace him. Blaskowitz soon returned to Dresden. “Hans is now home,” his wife wrote her relatives, “planting cabbage.”

On the same Tuesday that Blaskowitz was relieved, Truscott received his third star. He, Patch, De Lattre, and their men had reason for pride: in barely a month, they had hastened the German eviction from France, opened new ports and airfields, started the rehabilitation of French industry and commerce from Bordeaux to Burgundy, and demolished two enemy armies by killing, wounding, capturing, or marooning 158,000 Germans.

But ahead lay the granite and gneiss uplands of the Vosges, a primordial badland of cairns, moors, peat bogs, and hogback ridges rising above four thousand feet. Freezing autumn rains had begun here already, Sevareid noted, causing GIs to recall “the Italian winter and to long again for home.” The VI Corps war diary recorded, “Looking for skis.” In a letter home, Truscott wrote, “I dread the approaching wet and cold and snow and tedious mountain work. The skies weep continuously now.” Patrols creeping along the dark flanks of the Vosges could hear the plink of picks and shovels as German sappers burrowed into the hillsides. “There are indications,” Truscott told Sarah, “that the beast has every intention of continuing the fight right to the bitter end.”

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