Operation Rugby

This was the Allied southern part of the airborne operation by Major General Robert T. Frederick’s 1st Airborne Task Force (sometimes called the 1st Provisional Airborne Division) as part of ‘Dragoon’ (i) (15 August 1944).

The northern part of the airborne operation was ‘Dove’.

The 1st Airborne Task Force comprised Colonel Rupert D. Graves’s US 517th Parachute Infantry, Lieutenant Colonel William P. Narborough’s US 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Edward I. Sachs’s 550th Glider Infantry Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Wood D. Joerg’s 551st Parachute Battalion and, after disputes with the French had removed the two French parachute battalions which were originally to have been involved, Brigadier C. H. V. Pritchard’s British 2nd Parachute Brigade.

The 1st Airborne Task Force’s responsibility was to land by parachute and glider at 07.00 some distance behind the assault beaches to open the way into the Argens and Nartuby river valleys near Le Muy for Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s US VI Corps of Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army. It was expected that the amphibious forces would move inland after landing without undue resistance from Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico’s 148th Division and Generalleutnant Johannes Bässler’s 242nd Division of General Friedrich Wiese’s 19th Army.

‘Rugby’ was to land parachute and glider infantry around the village of Le Muy, mid-way between Draguignan, and the ‘Camel’ landing beaches at Fréjus and St Raphaël. There were three drop and landing zones. The 2nd Parachute Brigade was assigned an area of open fields and vineyards, designated DZ/LZ O, some 400 yards (365 m) to the north of Le Muy on the northern side of the Nartuby river. The 517th Parachute Infantry was assigned an area of narrow fields, DZ/LZ A, about 2 miles (3.2 km) to the west of Le Muy and to the south of the Nartuby river. The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion and US 463rd Field Artillery were assigned an area, DZ C, about 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south-east of Le Muy: lying in a basin between two ridges with hills to the east and west, this area was steep, rocky and wooded, with only small areas of level and open ground at each end. It was reluctantly chosen in order to put troops on the high ground dominating Le Muy from the south.

On 15 August the all-important pathfinder teams to mark the drop and landing zones found the area obscured by fog up to an altitude of 800 ft (240 m). As a result only three of the nine teams, all of the 2nd Parachute Brigade, landed in their intended zones when they dropped at about 03.30. Two US teams landed 13 miles (21 km) to the east of Le Muy, another 8 miles (13 km) to the east, and three more, which landed closer to Le Muy, were unable to orient themselves before dawn. The combination of fog and lack of homing signals from the ground meant that the 509th Parachute Infantry and the 463rd Field Artillery, the first US units to drop, were scattered: two companies of the 509th Parachute Infantry and two batteries of artillery landed on the correct drop zone at 04.30, but one infantry company and two artillery batteries landed to the south of St Tropez, nearly 15 miles (24 km) distant to the south-east. The 517th Parachute Infantry fared even worse, with none of its men landing on their assigned drop zone. Arriving from about 04.35, most of the 1/517th Parachute Infantry was scattered between Trans en Provence, 4 miles (6.5 km) to the north-west, and Lorgues, 6 miles (10 km) farther to the west. Most of the 2/517th Parachute Infantry landed 1 or 2 miles (1.6 or 3.2 km) to the north-west of Le Muy, but about one-third of the battalion found itself to the east and north-east of the town. The 3/517th Parachute Infantry dropped about 12 to 14 miles (19 to 22.5 km) to the north-east of Le Muy, and a battery of the 460th Field Artillery landed just to the north-west of Fréjus 12 miles (19 km) to the south-east. Many other paratroopers were scattered far and wide in groups of less than a squad.

With two of its three pathfinder teams operating their radio beacons to mark the drop zones, the 2nd Parachute Brigade fared better. From about 04.50, half of the 4/Parachute, one company of the 5/Parachute and most of the 6/Parachute, in all two-thirds of the brigade, landed on their assigned drop zone. Most of the rest were scattered over an area 9 miles (14.5 km) to the north-east and north-west of Le Muy, in the area around Fayence.

Once on the ground, the Allied paratroopers regrouped. Most of the 1 and 2/517th Parachute Infantry reached their assembly areas shortly after dawn, and the British troops who had landed near Callas arrived later in the morning. The bulk of the troops who landed outside the immediate area joined their parent units on D+1, but the last scattered elements did not arrive until D+5. Overall, less than 40% of the troops in the pre-dawn drops had landed in their zones, and by dawn at 06.00 only about 60% of the men had assembled in the area of Le Muy.

Follow-on parachute and glider landings were scheduled to arrive at 08.15, delivering artillery and anti-tank units of the 2nd Parachute Brigade. Fog still blanketed the landing areas when the aircraft and gliders arrived, however, so the aircraft turned back without releasing their tows, finally returning about 18.00. Other gliders carrying the 1st Airborne Task Force headquarters and other support troops were delayed for about an hour, and landed about 09.30. The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, dropped into the 517th Parachute Infantry’s drop zone at 18.10 as planned, and the 550th Glider Infantry Battalion arrived on schedule at 18.30. Other gliderborne support units which arrived later in the day also landed according to schedule.

The Germans had planted anti-landing obstacles (mostly stout wooden stakes) throughout much of the area, and impact with these stakes snapped gliders’ wings and caused ground loops: only 50 of around 400 gliders used were salvageable. Casualties among the embarked troops and damage to the cargo were light however: only about 80 casualties among the paratroops and about 150 glider troops, excluding 16 glider pilots killed and 37 injured. By 19.00 about 90% of the troops and equipment brought in by glider were ready for action.

The failure of the British artillery support to arrive early in the day meant that Le Muy remained in German hands, but the British paratroopers did manage to take and hold the high ground along both sides of the Argens river in the area to the east of Le Muy, and also the high ground to the north, establishing road blocks and patrols, while the 517th Parachute Infantry occupied the hills overlooking the corridor linking Toulon and St Raphaël near Les Arcs, 5 miles (8 km) to the west of Le Muy, and the 509th Parachute Infantry dug in on the high ground to the south of Le Muy with 11 75-mm (2.95-in) pack howitzers in position overlooking the town.

The Allied airborne soldiers’ first contact with friendly ground forces took place at 20.30 when men of the 509th Parachute Infantry met a reconnaissance patrol of Major General William W. Eagles’s US 45th Division. The 550th Glider Infantry Battalion tried to take Le Muy after dark, but the attack failed and the battalion withdrew to wait until morning.

Except for the seizure of the town, the 1st Airborne Task Force completed its tasks for 15 August, establishing a strong blocking position along the Argens river valley and isolating the ‘Dragoon’ (i) beach-head from German counterattack. Thus the scattered nature of the parachute drops had not appreciably affected the operation and may indeed have helped to confuse the Germans as to the objectives of both the airborne and amphibious assaults.

The night of 15/16 August was quiet, and on the morning of 16 August the 550th Glider Infantry Battalion attacked Le Muy again, and by 15.30 the village was in Allied hands and 170 prisoners had been taken. At about 12.00 an Auster light aeroplane landed to report the progress of Major General John E. Dahlquist’s US 36th Division: this had taken Fréjus and St Raphaël, and its 142nd Infantry would start to move up the Argens river valley toward Le Muy during the afternoon. This was the first direct contact between the 36th Division and the airborne force. Early on the morning of 17 August forward elements of the 36th Division reached Le Muy, and then continued their advance toward Draguignan and Toulon.

with the completion of ‘Rugby’, the 1st Airborne Task Force moved to the north-east to cover the right flank of the 7h Army, in the process liberating Cannes and Nice, before being deployed to the Alpes Maritimes area in the static role, initiating patrols and keeping watch on the German forces in the area of the Franco-Italian border. Colonel Edwin A. Walker’s 1st Special Service Force was attached on 22 August, after capturing Port Cros island and the Ile du Levant in ‘Sitka’, to replace the 2nd Parachute Brigade, which was released on 26 August 1944 and six weeks later was deployed to Greece.

In November the 1st Airborne Task Force was sent to Soissons to rest and refit, and on 23 November was disbanded, most of the units being attached to Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s US XVIII Airborne Corps.