Video: Remembering the Allied landing in Provence
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France marks the 70th anniversary Friday of one of the most important operations of World War II when, on August 15, 1944, 50,000 Allied troops stormed the coast near Marseille and Toulon, beginning the liberation of southern France from the Nazis.
Two months after the successful D-Day landings in Normandy, Operation Dragoon saw the Allies attempt to open up a second front against the Germans in occupied France.
A force including thousands of free French as well as a significant contingent of troops from the country’s then-African colonies landed on the beaches of Provence to retake the key ports of Marseille and Toulon.
Among the fighters was 19-year-old Jacques LiCari. Born in Tunisia, the young man had never set foot on French soil.
“When we saw the French coast, we were in shock,” says LiCari, now 89. “It’s like telling a child who’s never seen his mother that he’s finally going to meet her; the motherland ... France.”
Facing an opposing force of badly equipped and demoralised German troops, the operation was a major success, but not without itscosts.
Nearly 3,000 troops gave their lives to free Toulon alone.
“Toulon wasn’t a piece of cake,” says LiCari. “The Germans were in the mountains dominating the valley. We were down there getting shot. I lost many friends.
“After a day of fighting, we would say, ‘This one died, this one had his leg blown off,’ and we would think ‘Oh God, maybe we’re next'.”
Lionel de La Haye St Hilaire was 23 years old at the time. His platoon was also sent to the Toulon region but with a different task.
“Our platoon was sent to relatively empty beaches in order to get around the enemy,” explained St Hilaire.
Though the Americans wanted to proceed in stages, General De Lattre de Tassigny, who led French troops, decided to take Marseille and Toulon at the same time – a strategy that paid off. By August 28, both cities were free.
"We had won,” said St Hilaire. ”The French were welcoming us with open arms. I kissed so many girls!"
Days after the southern landings, allied troops freed Paris, marking the end of the Nazi occupation of France.
On Friday, French President François Hollande will lead a ceremony on board the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, anchored off Toulon, to mark the anniversary of Operation Dragoon.
He will be joined by 240 veterans of the operation as well as 15 leaders from France's former African colonies, in recognition of the key role troops from these countries played.