Operation Battle of Marseille

The 'Battle of Marseille' was fought between French and German forces for the city and port of Marseille within the context of 'Dragoon' (i) (21/28 August 1944).

The origins of the battle can be found in the Allied 'Dragon' (i) invasion of southern France on 15 August 1944 by Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army with major support by Général de Corps d’Armée Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s French II Corps d’Armée, soon the core of the new French 1ère Armée.

Together with Toulon, the main base of the French navy, the port of Marseille was a vital Allied objective. The port, its facilities, and its rail and road links up the Rhône river valley, was a strategic target wholly essential to the liberation of southern France and the ultimate defeat of the German forces in France. After the successful execution of the 'Overlord' operation in the northern French region of Normandy, Allied attention shifted to the south, for most of ports in the north were either unusable or too heavily fortified (for example Cherbourg, Brest, Lorient and St Nazaire), which made the seizure and control of the French ports at Marseille and Toulon increasingly attractive. Moreover, the Free French leadership pressed for an invasion in southern France. Finally, after many delays, on 14 July, 'Dragoon' (i) was authorised by the Allied Combined Chiefs-of-Staff for implementation on the following day. French forces started to come ashore on 16 August and within days constituted two-thirds of the Allied troops. Patch ordered de Lattre de Tassigny to take the cities of Toulon and Marseille, which were to be attacked simultaneously with Général de Corps d’Armée René Marie Edgar de Larminat in command of the forcers detailed for the attack on Toulon.

The German defences were centred on almost static infantry formations and units guarding the coastal areas, with Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision providing the mobile reserve of General Friedrich Wiese’s 19th Army within Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe 'G'. In Marseille, the main defence was provided by Generalleutnant Hans Schäfer’s 244th Division, this formation comprising the infantry of the 932nd, 933rd and 934th Grenadierregimenter, together with the guns of the 344th Artillerieregiment.  Existing French defensive positions, which included large artillery batteries, provided a reasonable seaward defence. The landward defence was augmented with mines and the digging of weapons pits, trenches and tank obstacles. 

On 20 August the Germans scuttled the ships that were in the harbour: these were one tanker, one cable-laying ship, three passenger ships and 20 cargo ships.

Marseille was the home of two major resistance movements, the non communist coalition known as Mouvements Unis de la Résistance with 800 men, and the French communist party’s Francs-Tireurs et Partisans with 2,000 men. Gaston Defferre was a leading figure in the Mouvements Unis de la Résistance as well as heading the Allied intelligence network. Both the Mouvements Unis de la Résistance and the Allies had operated a policy of providing no weapons to the communist groups. In February 1944 the creation of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur notionally merged the two groups, but these remained ideologically opposed to each other until the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur were absorbed into the French regular army.

On 23 August, with French army troops approaching the Marseille’s suburbs, the resistance took over the city’s prefecture. The German garrison could have destroyed this opposition with ease, but appeared to have been distracted by the imminent arrival of French regular forces.

The process of softening the German artillery positions around Marseille with heavy bombers began on 12 August, and the Germans were poorly equipped to fend off the attacks as they had little in the way of anti aircraft defences. The attacks of 23 and 24 August scored some direct hits on artillery positions in the Marseille area, and roaming fighter-bombers took on targets of opportunity.

On 21 August the approaches to the city were cut, isolating the Marseille garrison. French formations and units closed on the suburbs, and the Germans blew the Marseille transporter bridge in an effort to prevent the French forces from reaching the port.

Ordered to clear the suburbs of Marseille, on 24 August de Goislard de Monsabert’s 3ème Division d’Infanterie Algérienne approached the centre of Marseilles. The commander decided that with the resistance forces rising and 1st Combat Command moving on the Old Port, he would call on the Germans to surrender, but was refused.

Pockets of resistance were mopped up on 26 August. A German attack with remotely controlled explosive-laden boats on minesweepers clearing channels to the port was broken up, and eight of the boats were sunk.

The main German resistance was centred on the old fort of St Nicolas. French artillery engaged the fort and after two days it was clear that resistance was futile and the Marseille garrison surrendered on 27 August. On 29 August marines from the US cruisers Augusta and Philadelphia accepted the surrender of the German garrisons of the fortified harbour islands.

The French casualties were more than 1,800 men, and the German surrender yielded more than 11,000 prisoners.

The ports of Toulon and Marseille were thus captured within 14 days: the plan of attack had estimated that this would be achieved in 40 days.

The Old Port of Marseille appeared to be in complete ruins. According to eye-witness accounts, in January 1943 the Germans, aided by Vichy French police, had dynamited much of the historic old town and demolished the great transbordeur aerial ferry, an engineering tour de force which had become a major landmark of Marseille, comparable to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. However, the harbour was still functional. In August 1944 Adolf Hitler ordered his troops under the command of Generalleutnant Hans Schäfer to hold Marseille 'to the last man and last cartridge' and to destroy the harbour beyond repair if defeat was inevitable. Schäfer refused to let the majority of his men become casualties, and allowed only partial demolition. Thus he and his 11,000 surviving men surrendered on 28 August, as noted above.

The main Marseille-Fos Port facilities suffered damage from 2,000 mines that were used to destroy quays, bridges, moles, cranes and sheds, but hard work only two weeks later the first ship entered the port to begin unloading supplies. The quantities of supplies that was landed increased rapidly, with 57,000 tonnes of rail freight moving from the port in September, plus 200,000 tonnes by truck.

A fuel pipeline was built, starting at Martigues and utilising storage tanks in the La Mede refinery. The harbour had been mined, so it was 9 September before the first tanker docked. A tug assisting the tanker’s docking struck a mine. Pipe-laying started on the same day, and six teams each laid more than 1.85 miles (3 km) of 100-mm (3.94-in) diameter pipe per day. Interim storage and dispensing points were built. When completed it was capable of moving 450 tonnes of petrol per day, which reduced the problems caused by a shortage of jerrycans and trucks. A second 150-mm (5.01-in) diameter pipe was later laid, and this eventually reached Sarrebourg, some 530 miles (850 km) distant. By the spring of 1945, 1.2 million US gal (4.5 million litres) were being pumped every day to meet the requirements of both the US 7th Army and French 1ère Armée.

By the middle of October, repairs to the railway lines and especially their bridges, the quantities of freight handled by rail increased. The southern route became a significant source of supplies to help the Allied advance into Germany, moving more than 91,000 tonnes per week and providing about one-third of the total Allied requirement.

The left-wing French resistance took over the administration of Marseille, and the US forces did not have an easy time of getting their requirements met: use of the city as a rest and relaxation centre was not appreciated. 

Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, the Free French leader, disapproved on the FTP and the part it was playing in the liberation of France. He ensured that these paramilitary units were absorbed into the regular army, so eliminating any threat against him. The French army presence in southern France combined with the liberation of Paris by Général de Division Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque’s 2ème Division Blindée elevated de Gaulle to the position of leader of the Provisional Government of the French Republic in the eyes of the Allies.

It is worth noting that the port of Marseille had been the primary route for the shipping of Red Cross parcels from Lisbon to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva for onward transport to prisoner of war camps. 'Dragoon' (i) ended that process, although a few parcels did start to arrived once more in November through Toulon.