ABOARD THE CHARLES DE GAULLE (AP) – France on Sunday honored soldiers, including tens of thousands of Africans, who staged an assault on the French Riviera 60 years ago to break the Nazi grip – one of the least-remembered military operations of World War II.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco, 13 African heads of state and representatives of eight other nations joined President Jacques Chirac for the belated tribute to the Aug. 15, 1944, landings in Provence – codenamed “Operation Dragoon” – which helped change the course of the war.

Aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, anchored off the Mediterranean port of Toulon, Chirac pinned France’s prestigious Legion of Honor award on the chests of 21 veterans representing countries that had contributed troo ps.

Chirac called the landings along France’s southern shores a “new stage … in the merciless struggle that would decide the fate of our nations” and said they “opened a major new front.”

“Sixty years ago, at the cost of immense sacrifices, the forces of freedom pursued their assault to smash the machine of death and hatred that was on course to enslave Europe,” Chirac said in a speech on the deck of the Charles de Gaulle.

U.S. soldiers and British paratroopers also were honored in two ceremonies on Saturday, with 18 among them receiving the Legion of Honor.

Overshadowed by the bigger and bloodier D-Day landings in Normandy 10 weeks earlier, the southern landings have been largely overlooked and are often referred to as “The Other D-Day.”

While veterans of Operation Dragoon were honored 10 years ago, on the 50th anniversary, Sunday’s ceremony was the first time African vets were so remembered with such military pomp and fanfare.

White-robed African veterans stood proudly to receive their honors and kisses on both cheeks from Chirac. Many expressed mixed emotions at being honored so long after combat.

“Sixty years after, they’ve remembered. It took a long time,” 83-year-old Hamady Gadio of Mauritania said at a morning ceremony in the village of Cavalaire.

In an unusual gesture, the French president also gave a special award, the Cross of the Legion of Honor, to the city of Algiers, then part of France and the seat from 1943-1944 of the Provisional Government of the French Republic – the government of Gen. Charles de Gaulle opposed to the collaborationist Vichy regime.

Chirac said it was important to recognize the “crucial and singular” role of Algiers, which had been “the capital of fighting France.”

A Naval parade of 21 French and five foreign ships moved westward from Antibes to pass the Charles de Gaulle during the ceremony. A dozen airplanes also flew by.

“Those valiant soldiers came from metropolitan France and from every horizon of France’s overseas empire,” Chirac said. “The sons of your nations joined their names to the military legend of France and forever mingled their blood with ours.”

Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, speaking at the ceremony in Cavalaire, west of Saint Tropez, said the southern landings “marked the Renaissance of the French army,” fortified by Africans who “united with Europeans under the French flag.”

While meeting little resistance in many cases, soldiers who took part in the southern assault then made their way to the more dangerous north toward Germany.

The chaos of battle has prevented a definitive Allied death toll, but the French Defense Ministry says 1,300 Allied soldiers died in the operation’s first two days.

Estimates for the numbers of the soldiers who fought in Operation Dragoon, one of the least remembered operations of World War II, vary widely. French military experts have put the figure of African soldiers between 50,000 and 120,000. The higher figure would be about half of the French contingent.

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