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The Battle of Marseille refers to the combat and other actions from August 21–28, 1944 which led to the liberation of Marseille by French forces in World War II. The groundwork was laid by the Allied invasion of southern France in Operation Dragoon on 15 August 1944 by the United States Seventh Army, with major support from the French First Army.
Along with Toulon, the main port for the French Navy (French: Marine nationale, "national navy"), informally "La Royale", the Port of Marseilles was a vital objective.:88 The port, its facilities and the rail and road links leading up the Rhone valley, being essential to the liberation of southern France and the ultimate defeat of German forces.
After the successful execution of Operation Overlord, the Normandy landings, attention shifted to the south. Most ports in the north were unusable, or too heavily fortified (e.g. Cherbourg, Brest, Lorient, Saint Nazaire), which made seizure and control of the French ports at Marseille and Toulon increasingly attractive. The French leaders pressed for an invasion in southern France, too. Finally, after many delays, on 14 July 1944, Operation Dragoon was authorized by the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff.
The groundwork was laid by the Allied invasion of southern France in Operation Dragoon on 15 August 1944 by the United States Seventh Army under General Patch, with support from the French First Army who began landing on 16 August and would within days amount to two thirds of the Dragoon troops on the ground.
German defences centred on almost static infantry units guarding the coastal areas, with 11th Panzer Division providing a mobile reserve.
Utilising existing French Army defensive points, including large artillery batteries provided a reasonable seaward defence. On the landward side, augmented with mines and the digging of weapons pits, trenches and tank obstacles.:77
On 20 August they scuttled the ships that were in the harbour, 1 tanker, 3 passenger ships, 20 cargo ships and a cable laying ship.
Marseilles played host to two major resistance movements, the non communist coalition known as Mouvements Unis de la Résistance (MUR) with 800 men and the French Communist Party Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP) with 2,000 men.:95 Gaston Defferre was a leading figure in MUR as well as heading the Allied intelligence network. Both MUR and the Allies had operated a policy of non arming of communist groups. In February 1944 the creation of French Forces of the Interior (FFI) in theory merged the two groups, however they stayed opposed to each other until the FFI was absorbed into the regular French Army.
On 23 August, with French Army troops approaching the city suburbs, the Resistance took over the city's Prefecture. The German garrison could easily have destroyed this opposition, but seemed distracted by the regular French Army.:125
Softening up using heavy bombers to attack gun positions around Marseilles began on 12 August, the city had few anti aircraft defences. The 23/24 attacks scored some direct hits on gun positions in the Marseille area and roaming fighter bombers took on targets of opportunity.:125
Ordered to clear the suburbs of Marseille, on 24 August 3rd Algerian Infantry Division occupied the centre of Marseilles. General Joseph de Goislard de Monsabert decided that with the Resistance rising up and 1st Combat Command moving on the Old Port, he would call upon the Germans to surrender, but was refused.:125
Pockets of resistance were mopped up on 26 August. A German explosive-controlled boat attack on minesweepers sweeping channels to the port was broken up, and eight were sunk.
The main German resistance centred on the old fort of St Nicolas. French artillery opened up on 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 cruisers USS Augusta and USS Philadelphia accepted the surrender of Germans on the fortified harbour islands.:126
French casualties were over 1,800 and they took 11,000 prisoners.
The ports of Toulon and Marseille were captured in 14 days, when the plan of attack had estimated D+40.:126
In World War II the Old Port of Marseille was left in complete ruins. According to eye-witness accounts, in January 1943, the Germans, aided by the French police, dynamited much of the historic old town and demolished the gigantic aerial ferry or "transbordeur", an engineering tour de force that had become a major landmark of Marseille, comparable to the Eiffel tower in Paris.
The main Marseille-Fos Port facilities suffered damage from 2,000 mines that were used to destroy quays, bridges, moles, cranes and sheds, however with hard work, two weeks later, the first ship entered the port to begin unloading supplies.:126
The landing of supplies increased rapidly, with 63,000 tons of rail freight moving from the port in September, plus 220,000 tons by truck.:188
A fuel pipe line was built,:191 it started at Martigues and utilising storage tanks in the La Mede refinery. The harbour was mined and it was 9 September when the first tanker docked. A tug assisting it dock hit a mine. Pipe laying started the same day. Six teams, each laying over two miles of 4 inch pipe a day. Interim storage and dispensing points were built. When completed it was capable of moving 500 tons of petrol a day, which reduced the problems caused by a shortage of Jerrycan's and trucks. A second 6-inch pipeline would be laid and it eventually reached the Sarrebourg, 850 km away. By Spring 1945, 1,200,000 gallons were being pumped every day. Meeting the requirements of both the Seventh United States Army and the First Army (France).
By mid October, with the repairs to the railway lines, especially bridges, freight increased. The southern route would become a significant source of supplies to help the Allied advance into Germany, moving over 100,000 tons a week and providing about one third of the total Allied requirement.
The left wing French resistance took over the city administration and the American forces did not have an easy time of getting their requirements met, using the city as a rest and relaxation centre was not appreciated.:126
General Charles de Gaulle took a dim view of FTP and the part it played in the liberation. He ensured that these para military units were absorbed into the regular army, so eliminating any threat against him. The French Army presence in southern France combined with the Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Liberation of Paris elevated De Gaulle to the leader of the Provisional Government of the French Republic in the eyes of the Allied Politicians.
The port of Marseilles had been the prime route for the shipping of Red Cross parcels from Lisbon to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, for onward transport to PoW camps. Operation Dragoon put a stop to that, although a few parcels did start arriving again through Toulon in November.