When the beaches were REALLY hot.

St.-Tropez was big stuff when I was a kid back in the 70’s. That was the decade of the “savage tan” and sun tan lotions that bore the name of St.-Tropez were everywhere. I wasn’t a beach kid then. Being shy, pale and soft in the middle I gravitated more toward books and plastic models, especially of the military sort. My mental image of St.-Tropez wasn’t a sun-soaked playground for the rich and famous but rather a war zone, a city at the geographical center of the second largest sea invasion of the Second War War: Operation Dragoon.

People don’t think much about Operation Dragoon these days. It’s been overshadowed by the much more famous Operation Overlord, better known as the Invasion of Normandy, the 67th anniversary of which was yesterday. In the popular imagination, the Normandy invasion was the point at which the Allies first set foot on the European Continent. In reality Allied troops had been operating in the Mediterranean for years by that time.

Operation Torch — the British and American invasion of French North Africa — came two years before in 1942 (in fact the first troops that we Americans fought in World War II were French…bet you didn’t know that, did you?). From there it was a slow slog across the North African coast, over to Sicily and onto the Italian peninsula. The Allies spent a good deal of 1943 and 1944 fighting there, working their way steadily up the boot. German resistance got stronger as they did. Indeed it wasn’t until June of 1944 — two days before D-Day — that Rome was finally liberated, but it left quite a bit of Italian real estate still to go.

Rather than keep fighting their way into mainland Europe by land and over mountains, the Allies decided to mount a sea invasion up the Western Italian coast. German forces expected a landing at Genoa in extreme northern Italy. Instead the Allies swung west and hit the beaches of the French Riviera on August 15th. I mean…wouldn’t you?

It turned out to be a relative picnic compared to the D-Day invasions of two months before. The German forces were not only sparse, they were in very poor condition. Fully half of them were there to recuperate from wounds they’d received on the Russian front. Hundreds of Allied tanks and tens of thousands of troops were the last thing they were in the mood to deal with. French resistance forces had cut the communication lines behind them, making reinforcements all but impossible. So the Germans mostly gave themselves up.

That’s not to say there wasn’t serious fighting at points along the coast, but overall the resistance was a whole lot lighter than it was in Normandy. One U.S. soldier famously remarked on the Allied leadership:

There must be a hell of a row going on in Whitehall now. They’d never have sent us if they’d known it was going to be like this: the bastards would have come themselves!

I’m guessing that after all the planning, preparation, apprehension and fighting, the pastry tasted especially good on that day.

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