The Battle of Toulon (1944) was an urban battle of World War II in southern France that took place August 20–26, 1944 and led to the liberation of Toulon by Free French forces under the command of General Edgard de Larminat.
Toulon was the main port for the French Navy (French: Marine nationale, "national navy"), informally "La Royale". On 27 November 1942, German troops had attacked the port, with the intention of seizing the French fleet, the subsequent fight lasted just long enough to scuttle the 75 warships, the pride of France.:26
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.
Toulon was not a good target for an amphibious assault, it was well defended from a seaborne assault, so it would have to be taken from the land. The land approaches were also defended. A 700m high hill provided excellent artillery and observation positions. Ridges nearby were protected by French pillboxes. In 1941-2, as a token of goodwill to the Germans, the Government of Vichy France strengthened the defences.:78 These defences were strengthened further by the Germans who took equipment off the scuttled French fleet ships, installing two 340mm turrets and 75 medium-sized guns along the coast.:78
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. Patch gave the order to General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny to take the cities of Toulon and Marseille, which were to be attacked simultaneously with de Larminat in charge of attacking Toulon.
The German troops took the opportunity to try to scuttle the remaining ships in Toulon harbour, including the battleship Strasbourg and the cruiser La Galissonnière, both which had been refloated, with the plan to block the southern channel, but American bombers sank them first.:113
On 16 August the 17th Bombardment Group returned with the object of destroying the heavy guns. This was not a task appreciated by the crews, who had experienced the very heavy flak already. There would be a total of 28 raids against the submarine pens and artillery batteries, in which eight B-26 were lost and 125 damaged. The result was five dents to the defensive batteries.:119–21
The 242nd Division was involved in fighting against the left wing of the Allied force, until on 18 August the remnants retired into Toulon.:119
The original plan for the capture of Toulon was for the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division to attack from the north followed by the 9th Colonial Infantry Division . There would be distraction and flanking protection provided by other units. The attack to be made on 24 August.:122
Given the success of the Allied invasion, de Lattre decided to move ahead with the liberation of Toulon rather than wait for the second wave of Allied landings and started the move on 18 August with the troops that were available. Sixteen thousand fighters went into battle with thirty tanks and a few artillery batteries.
The mission was given to the 3 Algerian in the north, and the 1st Free French Division in the south with support from the 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Algerian Spahi regimentnote 1. The center was given to the 9th Colonial Infantry Division . Larminat was in command of 52,000 troops of the 2nd Army Corps, chiefly from the 1st Free French Division and the 9th CID.
On 20 August 3 Algerian reached the suburbs at Mont Faron and on the 21st Toulon was surrounded. That evening 3 Algerian moved into the town streets. To the east, German troops used old French tanks in their defence. It took time, but by 23 August French troops were everywhere in the city, raising the tricolour and there was a steady stream of prisoners. During the 24th the last German defences were taken together with 1,000 prisoners.:124
The Naval base was now attacked. Heavy fighting and artillery barrages began to tell with first one fort then others surrendering. A victory parade was held on the 27th to the sound of German artillery guns still firing on the attackers, including the 340mm guns. Attempts by the Germans to flee by sea were stopped by naval ships.:124
The nine-day battle had cost 2,700 casualties for which they had taken 17,000 prisoners and captured the vast naval base.:125
The liberation of the city of Marseilles, which was running in parallel with the fighting in Toulon was achieved when the Germans surrendered on 28 August. The Battle of Provence was won more than 60 days ahead of schedule.
After the war General Charles de Gaulle was to claim that the battle for France was also the battle of Frenchmen for France, it was he who ensured that de Lattre and Leclerc had been in defining moments in the "Liberation of France", it was they who had driven into Marseilles, Paris and Toulon.:171