War recalled on tourist beaches

SAILING along the Cote d'Azur, 33 vessels from the navies of the Second World War Allies yesterday opened ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Allied landings in Provence, 10 weeks after those celebrating the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

With President Francois Mitterrand taking the salute on the aircraft carrier Foch, the flotilla sailed from Villefranche-sur-Mer near Nice to Toulon, passing holidaymakers at Cannes and Saint Tropez on the way. Britain was represented by the Duke of York and the US by Pamela Harriman, its ambassador to France.

The Provence landings were an exercise in which Free French forces were to play a leading role, using troops from the colonies, many of them Africans and Arabs. To acknowledge this, 15 African leaders accompanied Mr Mitterrand yesterday.

The celebrations, continuing today, had been planned to stress 'the French effort in the liberation of the continent', Francois Leotard, the Defence Minister, said. Apart from the ships, 130 aircraft and 1,350 troops were taking part.

As in Normandy, the French authorities were presented with a headache by American paratroopers who fought in 1944 and, now in their seventies, wanted to jump again. At the D-Day anniversary, the 'jumping grandpas' floated to earth despite French attempts at dissuasion, with only one veteran sustaining a slight injury.

In the south of France, the military was even more unenthusiastic, saying the hard ground of Saint Endreol, now a golf course, was not as welcoming as the rain- sodden turf of Normandy, and that the hot weather made for unpredictable and dangerous currents. As a compromise, five US veterans have been authorised to jump equipped with lifejackets into the sea with younger comrades today.

The original Provence landings were much smoother than in Normandy. Alerted by the battles in the north, the French Resistance was quick off the mark, joined by many eleventh-hour recruits, to sabotage German installations and harass the occupying forces.

Originally, the operation - first codenamed 'Anvil' then 'Dragoon' - had been planned for 6 June, the day that 'Overlord' started in Normandy. But it was delayed and, until the last moment, Churchill was worried that the inevitable diversion of troops from the fighting in Italy would weaken the war effort there.

Stalin, whose arguments helped convince the Americans, said a landing in southern France was necessary to bring troops to the borders of Nazi Germany quickly; the progression through Italy, he said, would be slowed by the Alps. It was only on 2 July 1944, six weeks before the landing, that Churchill finally agreed.

The French Liberation ceremonies move north again next week for the anniversary of the Liberation of Paris where an uprising by police smoothed the way for the Allies. Among the ceremonies will be a re-enactment of some of the fighting in an evening of entertainment on 25 August including war-time music, a fireworks display along the Seine and, on the Place de la Concorde, jitter-bugging until dawn.