The 2nd Armored Division is a Free French non-standing provisional unit originally authorized by the NWHA Board of Directors for participation in the Normandy event held June 3rd and 4th, 2000 at Fort Stevens, Oregon.
A TOUS LES FRANCAIS
La France a perdu une bataille!
Mais la France n'a pas perdu la guerre!
Il faut que la France, ce jour-la, soit
presente a la victoire.
VIVE LA FRANCE LIBRE!
The division would showcase the participation of France as an ally in reclaiming its homeland and other European democracies from the dominion of the Third Reich. Historically, it landed on “Utah” beach in Normandy on July 31 / August 1, 1944, to secure the allied lodgement and exploit the breakout into metropolitan France. Initial elements of the division were dispatched to blunt the counterattacks launched by the German reserve panzer divisions on Mortain on August 6-9. Assigned to the US Third Army as one of General Patton’s two armored divisions, it would participate in Operation Cobra and complete the encirclement of the retreating German Seventh Army through the Falais pocket at Argentan. The division reserved the honor of liberating Paris, and would join the French First Army in the deliverance of Alsace and Strasbourg, its capital on the Rhine. It would breach the Siegfried Line and end its campaign in southern Germany at Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” at Bertchesgaden.
No period during World War II gave the Allies more assurance of ultimate victory than the events unfolding from June 6, 1944 in the invasion of Normandy through the 31 days of August into metropolitan France. It was clearly the most decisive campaign to date that tipped the scales of victory to the Allied powers, fought from the beaches of Normandy across the plains of France to the liberation of Paris. The huge allied air and seaborne operation in the cross-channel invasion of Normandy, designated Operation Overlord, was conceived at the Casablanca Conference in 1943 to relieve pressure on the Russian front and reclaim the European democracies. General Charles De Gaulle, the head of the French provisional government, enjoyed almost idolatrous worship in France, and issued a proclamation to the French people on D-Day announcing that "the supreme battle has begun" for the liberation of their homeland. De Gaulle's political tidal wave would sweep across France ahead of the liberating armies, engulfing Paris on August 24 in one of the greatest emotional climaxes of the war.
The French “Corps Expeditionaire” of four divisions under General Alphonse Juin had already been fighting with the allies in Italy. It suffered heavy casualties assaulting Monte Casino, the lynchpin of the Gustav line, and succeeded in enveloping the abbey which ultimately resulted in its evacuation. The campaign for France itself would reveal a significant French military commitment in the twin sea-borne invasions of Normandy and the Riviera, leading to the liberation of Paris, and the final penetration of the Siegfried line into Bavaria and Austria. Despite heavy resistance to the Normandy invasion in June 1944, the German Atlantic wall would crumble by late July. French forces joined the preliminary British and American airborne assaults, dropping 430 French paratroopers from the 4eme Bataillon d’Infanterie de l’Air, Special Air Service. The 2eme Regiment de Chasseurs-Parachutistes were dropped into Brittany to retard the expected German advance toward Normandy. In a series of intense firefights, they lost 80 men, but inflicted over 800 German casualties. By August, there were 30,000 Resistance fighters operating under US direction on a large scale in Brittany, liberating a number of towns on their own initiative. On Sword Beach, a cadre of 177 French commandos from the 1er Bataillon de Fusiliers-Marins accompanied the initial wave of allied troops to liberate the city of Ouistreham on the left flank. A number of them switched their British helmets for green berets sporting their distinctive Free France commando badges.
After the fall of Caen, Operation Cobra would define the Allied breakout into the interior of France involving the near encirclement of the German 7th Army in the Falaise corridor. On July 31 / August 1, the French 2nd Armored Division landed in Normandy commanded by Major General Philippe Leclerc. A descendant of old nobility, Philippe, vicomte de Hauteclocque had escaped to England in his second attempt and adopted the assumed name of Leclerc to protect his family from reprisals. The war hero had commanded the Free French Forces in Africa, the Leclerc Column, as it was known, and led them in a 1500 mile marathon through the Sahara to storm the fortress at Koufra, clearing Libya, and join Montgomery’s 8th Army to participate in the successful Tunisian campaign against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The Foreign Legion’s 13th Demi-Brigade won honors against Rommel at Bir-Hakeim holding up an unrelenting German offensive long enough to save Egypt. Leclerc’s veteran division, one of two armored divisions in General Patton’s 3rd Army, landed in Normandy and would serve a crucial role in Operation Cobra. Their objective was Argentan, linking Patton’s army with the Canadians at Falais and pinching the 15-mile gap to trap the retreating German forces. They made spectacular progress and virtually destroyed the 9th Panzer Division before facing off the understrength 1st SS Panzer, 2nd Panzer, and 116th Panzer divisions in their progress. The 2nd French armored division suffered 141 killed and lost 58 medium and light tanks. It inflicted in turn considerable losses, killing 4500 Germans, taking 8800 prisoners, and destroying 118 heavy and medium tanks in the chase. But Falais was to be no Stalingrad, and Bradley ordered a halt at Argentan in accordance with General Montgomery’s established allied demarcation lines.
Leclerc’s division, which reserved the honor of liberating Paris, intended from the start to take the French capital under orders from General De Gaulle in order to reestablish the authority of the French republic. Leclerc even initiated a reconnaissance in force in advance of Eisenhower’s authorization. But De Gaulle had a secret ally in Eisenhower. The initial allied strategy was to by-pass the city to concentrate on the German forces retreating to the Rhine. But Leclerc’s determined rendezvous with the capital became more compelling once the French Resistance (Forces Francaises de l’Interieur or FFI) under Colonel Rol had immobilized the 6000 man German garrison. He had concluded a shaky truce with Lt. General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor, who was under express orders from Hitler to destroy Paris. General Eisenhower, embarrassed by the neglect of Paris, finally authorized Leclerc’s detour, convinced that the surrender of Paris was a virtual fait accomplis anyway. Leclerc’s push towards Paris was hardly a frolic, costing his division 35 tanks, 6 self-propelled guns and 111 vehicles before making its way through the jubilant throngs to the Hotel Meurice, von Cholitz’s headquarters, to accept his surrender. The governor of Paris spared the capital from destruction out of a higher sense of duty, but his honor prevented him from surrendering Paris without a fight. De Gaulle, in characteristic pride, would stride ahead of his entourage without escort followed by jubilant Parisians down the grand Avenue des Champs-Elysees, along which a conquering German army had marched four years earlier. It was a gesture to assure the French people that their nightmare was over at last.
Two months after D-Day in Normandy, the second phase of the liberation of France began called Operation Dragoon. On D-Day August 14, some 250,000 soldiers in 2000 warships landed on the southern coast of France, involving 14 allied divisions of the US 7th Army under Lt. General Alexander Patch and the 1st French Army under General Jean De Lattre de Tassigny. Its purpose was to liberate the southern two-thirds of France, assist the Normandy invasion by drawing off German opposition, and join allied forces in a pincer movement around the German army retiring toward Falaise, hopefully preventing the southern German forces from reaching the Rhine. The French were assigned the key objectives of the operation which were to capture the two largest port cities in France, Marseille and Toulon. These fortified ports would be essential in feeding allied personnel and materiel into Europe for the duration of the war. Toulon was an important French naval base where the fleet had been scuttled in 1942 to prevent it from falling into German hands. The initial landing consisted of three American divisions, the 3rd, 45th, and 36th divisions, including French commandos and marines.
The 1st French Army constituted the second wave, consisting of 7 French divisions, among which were the 1st and 5th French armored divisions. De Lattre had escaped from a German prison to join the Allies in the liberation of his country. The French assaulted and secured Toulon and Marseille, after their commandos and marines had seized roads leading to the landing zones neutralizing coastal gun emplacements. Facing the allied onslaught were seven German infantry divisions constituting the 19th German Army. Two divisions guarded the ports and the 11th Panzer division was held in reserve. There were 30,000 German troops in the landing areas and 200,000 in the neighborhood. The Germans were dug into well fortified positions, and the allied assaults took hard casualties. French marines landed in a machine-gun-raked mine field and suffered 50% casualties. The 9,000 U.S. airborne troops were dropped 30 miles off course, many in the sea; and 357 second-wave gliders crashed of the 407 launched, losing a third of the glider troops. The 90,000 sea-borne assault troops ran into stiff resistance, but succeeded in evicting the German defenders who withdrew north.
Following events closely, Hitler ordered an evacuation to save the army, but the two well-disciplined divisions in the fortress cities of Toulon and Marseille were ordered to fight to the end. After two weeks of bitter fighting, Toulon fell on August 27 and Marseille on August 28, with French troops facing the heaviest fighting and the worst casualties of the campaign. In Toulon, 5000 Germans died defending the four forts guarding the city, and 20,000 surrendered. French casualties amounted to 2700 killed and wounded. In Marseille, the French lost 4,000 men while killing 6,000 Germans and taking 37,000 prisoners in largely house to house fighting, with considerable assistance from the French Resistance (FFI). Patch was now free to exploit the invasion and pursue the retreating German 19th Army up the Rhone valley. His 7th Army, including De Lattre’s 1st French Army, linked up with Patton’s 3rd Army on September 12 at Dijon, merging operations Overlord, Cobra and Dragoon. The Allies took 5000 German prisoners in the advance from the Riviera beachheads, but three-quarters of the German defenders escaped, allowing the bulk of the 19th army to survive its 350-mile fighting retreat into Germany.
The 1st French Army kept its rendezvous with Leclerc’s 2nd armored division, the first to reach the Rhine, reclaiming the German-speaking province of Alsace and Strasbourg, its capital, which Hitler had annexed to the Reich. In the determined German counteroffensive through the Ardennes, Eisenhower ordered a withdrawal from northern Alsace to consolidate the allied lines. The decision stunned the French. Leclerc had pledged his division that the fighting would not end until the French flag flew from the steeple of Strasbourg’s cathedral. De Gaulle refused to sanction the abandonment of Strasbourg without a fight, noting the certainty of German reprisals on the people and the potential of a defeatist psychosis that might emerge. Eisenhower relented, and Strasbourg held with the support of its new arm, the First French Air Force. Strasbourg today is the seat of the parliament of the European Union.
Operation Dragoon attained its objectives in two weeks, half the time originally anticipated. Eisenhower declared Operation Dragoon an unqualified success stating that “there was no development of that period which added more decisively to our advantage or aided us more in accomplishing the final and complete defeat of German forces than did this attack.”
The resurgence in the French military effort made it possible for the US to reduce its outlay of combat manpower in the Mediterranean and European theaters by 8 to 10 divisions and 19 air squadrons. From the beginning of the Tunisian campaign to the end of the war in Europe, French losses in ground forces alone accounted for 23,500 killed and 95,000 wounded in action. De Lattre’s 1st French Army would invade Germany punching three holes through the Siegfried Line, Germany’s “maginot line”. He signed for France the documents of the German army’s unconditional capitulation in Berlin. When Feld Marschal Keitel noticed the French tricolor among the stand of allied flags behind the signatories, his eyes searched out De Lattre. “Ach!” he grumbled, “It lacked only this!” Upon De Lattre’s death, he would be made a marshal of France. Juin, the chief of the French general staff, had confronted Rommel in Africa and earned high esteem from Kesselring, his adversary in Italy. He accompanied Leclerc in the liberation of Paris and would lead his division into southern Germany. He too would receive his marshal’s baton posthumously. After the fall of the Reich, Leclerc commanded French military forces in Indochina freeing it from Japanese occupation, and he would sign for France the Japanese surrender document with the victorious Allies. Eisenhower and De Gaulle would become presidents, exchanging state visits and sharing war stories at Ike’s Gettysburg farm. Operations Overlord, Cobra and Dragoon would justify allied confidence in their ultimate triumph over the Axis powers. The supreme allied effort in the campaign for France would also erase the shame, if not the memory, of the unpreparedness of the allies against strident fascist aggression around the world which had resulted in a train of military disasters that included Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor, Corregidor and Bataan.
The spirited participation of the French armed forces in the campaign of France fortified the alliance with a determined and aggressive military capability. The integrated allied partnership sustained general De Gaulle’s ardent and cherished goal, addressed to the despairing French people on the fall of France, that France would be present at the victory.
Suggested Reading: The principal sources used for the campaign of France are Miller, Robert A., August 1944, Presidio Press, Novato, CA. (1996); and Breuer, William B., Operation Dragoon, Presidio Press, Novato, CA. (1996). Presidio Press is located at 505 B, San Marin Drive, Suite 300, Novato, California 94945-1340. Highly recommended also is the Quarterly Journal of Military History, Spring 1994, Volume 6, Number 3, a special issue devoted to “Europe in the Summer of 1944".
* Monro, MacCloskey, Brig. Gen., Rearming the French in World War II, Richard Rosen Press, Inc., New York (1972).
* Fargo, Ladislas, Patton Ordeal and Triumph, Astor-Honor, Inc., New York (1964).
* After the Battle magazine, No. 105, Resistance in France, Battle of Britain International, Ltd., Church House, Church St., London, E15 3JA, England (2000).
* Revue de la Societe des Amis du Musee de l’Armee, No. 108, Decembre 1994, La participation de la 2eme DB a la liberation de Paris, Hotel national des Invalides, Paris, France.
* Paris Match, Numero Special Historique, US Debarquement 1944 L’Ete le Plus Long, Supplement No. 2350, Publication Filipacchi par Compagnie general d’edition et de presse, 63, avenue des Champs-Elysees, 75008 Paris, France (1994).
* Aury, Bernard, La Delivrance de Paris 19-26 Aout 1944, B. Arthaud, Paris, France (1945).
* De Lattre de Tassigny, Jean, Marshal, History of the French First Army, Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London (1952).
* Bergot, Erwan, La 2eme D.B., Presses de la Cite, Paris, France (1980).
I wish to acknowledge the kind cooperation and grateful assistance offered by Colonel Vincent Desportes, French Liaison Officer, US Army Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Monroe, Virginia; Lieutenant-Colonel Marc J. Henry, French Military Mission, NATO Supreme Allied Command Atlantic, Norfolk, Virginia; Colonel Le Bot, Chief of Staff, 2nd Armored Brigade, Orleans, France; and Lieutenant-colonel F. Guelton, Directeur, Recherche historique, Service historique de l’armee de terre, Vincennes, France. The author, John Beresford Welsh, is solely responsible for the content of this article. He is a member of the Northwest Historical Association, PO Box 2024, Portland, Oregon 97208-2024.
Vive la France! Vive la Liberte!