On August 20th, the 509th began its progression towards Cannes, its first major objective before reaching the banks of the Var river. However, other less important objectives must be taken at first. The paratroopers of the 509th PIB relieves the men of the C/141st I.R. of the 36th Infantry Division in front of Hill 84 ‘Castle Hill’ in the afternoon of August 20th and plans are made to make an asault on the hill and the castle the next morning. The Paratroopers of the 509th take up a position south of the hill where between the two lies the steep valley of the Rague dales. ‘The Castle’ is a strong point of a trench system and fortified machine gun emplacement.
At 5:00 am on August 21st, the 463rd PFAB launched a powerful shelling on the German positions. At 6am, C/509 descends to assaultt the main ridge with two platoons leading the assault and a third behind the platoons on the left. Always unnoticed by the Germans, they follow the coastal road. The main elements of the assault reach the Germans and The Castle even before they realize that an assault is taking place. The surprise effect is decisive. Even if gunshots are felt, the resistance is light and unorganized. They progress under the fire of machine guns and presses purées German. However, the Germans do not throw their weapons and increase the fire. The 3rd Platoon of the C Company is the unit which assault the hill first. When they approach the castle, the firing stops. The platoon of 1st Lt. Justin McCarthy returns and cleans the castle. The peloton makes 15 to 20 prisoners, most of whom are Polish. Some paratroopers are of Polish origin and sympathize with the prisoners.
61 prisoners are made and are brought back after taking the castle. Immediately after, enemy artillery shells the area. Shots are probably adjusted from a building on the other side of the castle. The naval artillery fires at the house and thus silences artillery fire.
While the C Company is busy taking the castle, the B Company descends into the valley to take Hill 84. The Germans are on their guard and the B Company meets a much more serious resistance than the C Company and is grounded for a while because of the snipers and machine guns firing at them. The company loses at least two platoons and have no contact with the 551st PIB on Hill 105 located on the left flank. Ammunition is running out quickly.
Five or six men from the C Company are sent to the castle with communication wire, field telephones and binoculars. From the position of the hill, they can see German rail guns firing and then hide in their positions in the mountain to reload. A fire mission is required from the navy guns and a rail gun is destroyed. Unfortunately, the Germans mark their position and a German mortar team marks a direct blow on their observation post, injuring many men by killing one of them. The day of August 21 is catastrophic for the 509th PIB and especially for the B Company. About 13 men died and many others are injured.
Hill 131 and the village of La Napoule
A/509 commissioned by Captain Ernest T. ‘Bud’ Siegel was kept in reserve during the attack on Castle Hill would henceforth be sent in. At 6am, the artillery make an artillery barrage on Hill 131 and the paratroopers of the A Company attack in the direction of the hill, overtaking the positions of the B and C Company but the coordination is very bad and several men are wounded or killed The Captain Bud Siegel is also wounded that day. literally "sniped" by an 88mm just after he stormed his company and was hit in the shoulder, and at 7:30 am the hill was taken along with 12 German prisoners. That day, Major John N. Apperson, second in command of the battalion is killed along with two other officers of the 509th PIB.
Bloody rendezvous at Hill 105
The 551st left Draguignan on August 18 for a rest period in Puget-sur-Argens. They are joined by the Pathfinders of their unit. The 551st begin a walk of three days on the 19th of August in the mountains towards Cannes. A direct advance over the city is impossible without securing dominant hills. On the afternoon of the 20th, the battalion takes over the men from 2/141 of the 36th Infantry Division. The battalion is then stopped by a fort in La Napoule, or Hill 105, containing a 105mm gun. When men arrive timidly 1km from Cannes on a hillock, they enter at the range of 280mm railguns, located in Nice about 24 km away. Far ... But not enough. The fighting on Hill 105 gives rise to a bloody rocking, the Germans first surprise the Goyas by jumping from their foxholes and firing at close range.
The next morning, the front is quieter and Wood Joerg orders his battalion to attack further east in the afternoon like all units of the FABTF. Afternoon until late night of August 21, rail guns in the distance, shot. The shells are of all sizes, from 88 to 280mm. The men jump around, shrieking, trying to crawl into the ground, finding nowhere a hole deep enough to keep a man alive for the night. For nearly two and a half days they are not supplied with food or food, under a lot of heat ...
Inevitably, friendly fire is also present. For days, the US Navy off the coast of the Riviera has no chance of silencing German giants mastodons retracting into concrete blockhouses. With the artillery barrage on Hill 105, and the ceaseless appeals of the 509th and 551st, the naval guns fire off.
Reversing the trend against the Germans on Hill 105, Mortar Platoon Leader, Lt. Robert E. Buscher’ Heavy Mortar platoon leader, creates an innovation in the field. It was with dizzying speed that Buscher's men fired mortar shells that came back and forth on the hill at such rapid fire and concentration of fire that a captured German asked what kind of artillery they use. It is because Buscher mortars that the German resistance is finally put in distress. 1st Lt. Robert E. Buscher fills a 551st gap on the hill by firing his mortars as well as the 75 and 105mm artillery that the Goyas had never had and what they were suffering from all the time.
When the day finally appears, on August 22, seeing the blue waters of the Mediterranean scintillating in the distance, Joerg's paratroopers grimace at the sight of their wounds and the dead lying everywhere where some are exposed to the sunlight and invaded by the flies. The hill becomes strangely quiet. The Germans are apparently withdrawn in the early hours of August 22, towards Cannes. Before they crossed the banks of the Var river, the "Navarone guns" on rails were not heard. Either the Navy had finally destroyed them, or they were running out of ammunition. Joerg's paratroopers suffered grievously on Hill 105, where they were subjected to intense fire from mortars and 105mm German artillery that lasted nearly 24 hours, losses are 25 paratroopers.
Coming down the hill, the battalion collects old trucks, bicycles and buses lying along the road, across Mandelieu and on the Siagne River. Since their own means of transport had not yet arrived, the Goyas are doing what they can by improvising their transport by "releasing" vehicles.
During the day of August 22, the 551st takes Hill 78 and the rest of Hill 105 without encountering any resistance. The Germans are apparently removed probably because of the capture of these hills and the village of La Napoule by the 509th. These catches are hurting German defenders who can be surrounded in the Tremblant area.
The advance on Cannes
The 551st PIB had secured the northern flank of La Napoule after taking Hill 105 on the road Termes-Mandelieu. La Napoule is the place that blocked the Gingerbread Men to progress on Cannes. The next day, the 509th Combat Team leaves the hills and heads to the plain of the Siagne River.
On 23 August, the 509th Combat Team will establish a defense line along the Siagnes River east of San Peyre. To their surprise this day, the 509th is not supported by the Navy. From the castle hill, men can see the path where A Company must advance on Cannes. Elements crossed the river to establish new defensive positions along RN 7 at Saint-Cassien just north of the Cannes aerodrome. The advance on the eastern shore of the Siagne turns into a violent fight when the Germans counterattack and repel the parachutists north of the airfield in the area of the RN 7 bridge on the Béal, a small river parallel to the Siagne River.
Crossing the Siagne, the fire that falls on the paratroopers is intense and deadly. A German column advancing on the road is eliminated, but the German gunners mark the parachutists and trigger an artillery fire on them. Five paratroopers are killed, and 6 others are wounded. The German counter-attack is pushed back, but the bridge is inaccessible because of the anti-tank guns and the American paratroopers have to withdraw to strengthen their position.
Captain Roy E. Baze, surgeon of the 509th PIB also goes to the Béal Bridge to help evacuate the wounded under a fire of artillery and machine-gun very nourished and is determined to help the wounded. Placing a stretcher on his shoulder, he begins to swim in the river and reaches the opposite bank and finally cares for the wounded for five hours until they are evacuated. Roy Baze receives the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism.
South of La Bocca, A Company platoons are fighting against an entrenched enemy position that the paratroopers dislodge after a short fight. The Germans counter-attack the morning of 24, at sunrise and are supported by two anti-tank guns, which leads to heavy loss on the side of US paratroopers. However, the counter-attack is pushed back.
The entry into Cannes
After Saint-Cassien fightings, the 509th PIB is in a favorable position to advance into Cannes. On the morning of August 24, A Company sends patrols to the suburbs of Cannes. They reports that the Germans withdrew from the city. The afternoon of August 24, the 1st and 2nd Platoon of the 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion are in support of 551st & 509th PIB. The crossing of the river has to be forded and a M10 Tank Destroyer is riddled after driving on a mine. The Germans had heavily undermined the whole area and had already caused the death of three officers of 509th PIB. Capt; Roy E. Baze who has distinguished himself on the Siagne is a new victim of these mines. By accidentally rolling on one of them, his jeep will be completely destroyed and her body dislocated.
At 5 pm on August 24, after several difficulties due to the destruction of the bridge over the Siagne river and the mines, A/509 troopers made a triumphant entry into Cannes. The 551st PIB follows of loan and together, the two units parade in the city under the acclamation of the population. For two years since the 509th fought, paratroopers never received such a welcome by releasing a city. The 509th Combat Team stays in the city for a few days, while his patrols determine the number of enemy forces at their next objectives : Nice.
Orfalea, Gregory. Messengers of the Lost Battalion. Free Press, New York, New York, 1997.
Morgan, Dan. The Left Corner of My Heart, Wauconda, Washington; Alder Enterprises, 1984.
Gassend, Jean-Loup. Operation Dragoon Autopsy of a Battle: The Allied Liberation of the French Riviera August-September, 1944. Atlen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2014.