We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


On Green Beach

In our recent trip to southern France, I did manage to squeeze in some time down at Green Beach, where most of the 36th Infantry Division came ashore. Since our stay in France was focused on two weeks in Avignon, Green Beach was quite a long drive – over two hours from our lodgings. The short trip up to the Montelimar battle square was far shorter.

36th BeachWe drove into the area Frejus, having used the A8 highway to come east from Avignon. Having spent a lot of time in rural France, enjoying the quaint and quiet villages, Frejus itself is something of a shock. We kept saying to each other how much it reminded us of going to Ocean City or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, since it was so Americanized. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say Americanized, just commercialized. The long plage in front of St. Raphael is a marvelous sandy beach and bikini-clad ladies parade past statues to the Senegalese troops, to General de Lattre de Tassigny and to Charles DeGaulle. It’s hard to argue with the people enjoying the beaches that were used in the liberation of France, since the soldiers fought exactly so that the beaches could be used this way. It’s still a little jarring to see a band playing for a crowd next to the statues of 5 soldiers who landed here.

Nonetheless, seeing Frejus Bay, you can understand how this soft sandy beach could have been a nightmare to assault. With the curve of the coastline and the rough terrain on anything that is not a sandy beach, you’d be landing troops into a kill zone. As they’d attack into Saint Raphael, they’d be exposing their backs to gun positions directly to their west. Since the remote-controlled explosive boats sent in to attempt early destruction of the obstacles were unsuccessful (radio interference likely helped scramble the signals and lead to some of these “drone” boats heading back at the fleet instead of into the beach), the Navy wisely decide to divert the planned landing of the 142nd Infantry Regiment from Red Beach and land them on Green Beach, secured hours earlier with the landings of the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 141st Infantry Regiment.

Green BeachBecause the 142nd diverted to Green Beach, where the 143rd Infantry Regiment had followed the landings of the 141st, all of the troops of the Division, other than the 1st Battalion of the 141st, ended up landing on Green Beach. So, it comes as no surprise that when it came time to commemorate the landing of the Division in France, that the monument went up on Green Beach. Of course, when we go to the parking area, I had to race to the beach first (and not just because there was a restroom down there, but that did spur me forward).

The shocker: it’s not a sandy beach. The entire landing area is covered with gallets, stones from the size of your hand to the size of your head. Needless to say, on the day that all the other beaches were swarmed with sun-worshippers, this beach had only a few dozen families. Melissa and I took off our shoes and gingerly approached the water, standing to allow the waters of the Mediterranean to wash over our feet. I raised my hands and shouted, “Lafayette, nous sommes ici!”

The map above does not at all convey what the terrain in the area is like. It’s rocky and hilly, imposing and difficult terrain, even with modern roads in place. Looking at the arrows on that map, you get no sense whatsover of how challenging the route along the coast eastward to Cannes really is. Some the materials I’ve read point out the challenge facing the 141st heading along that road. If you drive it, you can certainly understand how a few determined soldiers with machineguns and some explosives could halt a battalion-sized advance. The Germans, having been at war for half of a decade were experts at such actions. Thus, in this terrain, and later in the war in the Vosges Mountains, during the Battle of the Colmar Pocket, small groups in an army which some thought was already beaten, could inflict devastating casualties. This may help explain why, when General Truscott visited General Dahlquist’s headquarters during the battle of Montelimar, saw the terrain and the condition of the 36th Infantry Division troops and refrained from relieving Dahlquist on the spot.

As I find so often, when you walk the ground, you gain an understanding that is simply impossible to acquire from books and maps. I wish we’d had more time at Green Beach and been able to visit the drop zones, but mostly, I wish we’d been able to do so with a guide. I could relate some of what I’d read to the places, but it really takes significant study of the history and the terrain to be able to do more than scratch the surface.

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