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“Is Paris burning?”

The liberation of Paris

Soldiers of the U.S. 28th Infantry Division marching down the Champs-Élysées (Photo: AP)
Soldiers of the U.S. 28th Infantry Division marching down the Champs-Élysées (Photo: AP)

As a text-book execution of the Blitzkrieg, the German armed forces swept through Western Europe in 1940. On June 14, 1940, Paris, declared an “open city”, was taken without a fight by the Germans. From a military aspect, it was pointless for the French to resist and to destroy the city in an unnecessary fight. France surrendered on June 22, 1940 at Compiègne in the same rail car that Germany was forced to sign the armistice that ended World War I. This was Hitler’s one and only visit to Paris. Four difficult years of occupation followed the capitulation characterized by food rations and humiliation by the victors. Some parts of France were occupied by the Germans, while a pro-German state, Vichy France, was formed in the southeast, led by Marshal Philippe Pétain. The French Resistance fought on under the leadership of General de Gaulle in exile.

The Nazi flag flying over the Arc de Triomphe with the Eiffel Tower in the background (Photo: Everett Collection)
The Nazi flag flying over the Arc de Triomphe with the Eiffel Tower in the background (Photo: Everett Collection)
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After the landings in Normandy in June, the subsequent Battle of Normandy and the landings under Operation Dragoon on the southern coast of France in mid-August (read our earlier article), the main objective of the Allies was to destroy the German forces and to push to the Rhine towards Berlin as fast as possible. Taking Paris was not a military priority at all, the metropolis with its 4 million inhabitants was simply to be bypassed according to earlier plans.
 
On the other hand, holding Paris was a priority for Hitler who thought that losing Paris would mean losing all of France, thus he declared it “Festung Paris” (“Fortress Paris”). After the unsuccessful July 20 assassination attempt against him (read our earlier article), his distrust towards his generals grew even stronger and he wanted to control all major offensives even more, sometimes even to the tiniest detail, and quite often made decisions that went against all military logic. As of August 7, 1944, the commander of the German garrison in Paris was General Dietrich von Choltitz, a decorated Prussian officer of aristocratic background who fought in the Polish campaign, the French campaign, the siege of Sevastopol on the Eastern Front, at Anzio and eventually in Normandy. He was ordered by Hitler to hold and, if lost, raze the city which Choltitz strived to delay as long as possible (knowing that the phones were bugged by the Gestapo, he made fake phone calls about the preparations for the destruction of the city). He tried to ensure the normal functioning of the city and uphold law and order as much as possible. Altogether, he had approximately 20,000 men in and around Paris. The main units available for the defense were the 325. Sicherungs Division (“Security Division”) and anti-aircraft units of the Luftwaffe. The division led by Generalmajor Walter Brehmer consisted of around 5,000 men, mostly over-aged and poorly equipped soldiers tasked with occupational duties. There were also makeshift units made up of all kinds of personnel, for instance military police and translators. They were supported by the Milice, the Vichy militia forces. The occupiers have set up roadblocks and guard posts at major administrative buildings. Still, the German forces available were simply too weak to repel an attack or even to contain the partisan activity of the Resistance despite the growing number of executions by the Gestapo. As the Allied got closer and closer to the city, the Germans started evacuating administrative personnel.

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General Von Choltitz, the German commander of Paris (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
General Von Choltitz, the German commander of Paris (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

It was a matter of priority for all French political groups to lay the foundations of a new French state, and the liberation of Paris had a crucial and symbolic role in this. The different fractions were brought together in the National Council of the Resistance (CNR – Conseil National de la Résistance) and were supported by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The military wing of the Resistance was the French Forces of the Interior (Forces françaises de l'Intérieur - FFI). While appreciative of the efforts of French soldiers and the assistance of the Resistance fighters, the Anglo-American allies distrusted the French politicians for their unpredictability and uncoordinated actions. De Gaulle installed his own government in the liberated settlements before the Americans or the British could establish a temporary military administration.
 
FFI forces inside Paris were led by the communist Henri “Colonel Rol” Tanguy. The strongest unit within this group was a group of 600 communist fighters, hence Rol’s appointment as commander of the Resistance in Paris. They were eager to start an uprising even before the Allied reached the city but they only had limited stocks of weapons. The Gaullists opposed an early uprising and deemed it premature and wanted to avoid the massacre similar to the one carried out by the Germans during the Warsaw uprising. Secondly, they wanted to prevent the communists from taking Paris.

Henri “Colonel Rol” Tanguy, commander of the Free French Forces in Paris (Photo: AFP)

Still, tension rose gradually in the city especially when the locals saw that the Germans started evacuating their forces. The insurrection started with the strike of the railway workers on August 10, demanding the release of political prisoners and larger food rations. On August 13, the German high command ordered the disarmament of the local police, the strongest French armed force in the city with many Resistance fighters among its ranks. This became the main reason for the uprising which triggered a strike among the police followed by postal and Metro workers. The German evacuation ended on August 17-18. By then, public services were paralyzed by the strikes. Diplomatic efforts were made to declare Paris an open city, similarly to 1940 when the capital was taken by the Germans.
 
Despite the concerns of the Gaullists, the Resistance, pushed by the communist wing of the movement, decided to start an overall uprising on August 19. 2,000 policemen took the police headquarters located in the neighborhood of the Notre Dame cathedral, and other smaller Resistance groups erected hundreds of barricades and clashed with Germans forces. None of the fighting parties managed to overwhelm the other. The Gaullists contacted the Swedish consul to mediate between them and the German commander to negotiate a truce on August 20. In the chaos and due to some French Resistance groups not accepting the truce, it did not entirely take effect and the fighting further intensified. The different Resistance groups sent messengers to the U.S. forces to convince them to hurry up and liberate the city instead of bypassing it. Eventually, on August 22, Eisenhower and Bradley decided to change the original plans in order to avoid the escalation of chaos in Paris. Even the German commander asked the Swedish diplomats to relay the same message to the Allied. He repeatedly received orders from Hitler to demolish the city and could not delay the destruction of the city much longer. He played a dangerous double game since his family was still in Germany and could have faced retaliation. He hoped to avoid the bloodshed of Warsaw and to hand over Paris peacefully like Rome was liberated earlier in June 1944.

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Famous Resistance fighter, Simone Segouin who once captured 25 Germans with her submachine gun (Photo: NARA)
Famous Resistance fighter, Simone Segouin who once captured 25 Germans with her submachine gun (Photo: NARA)

The French wanted Paris to be liberated by the French 2nd Armored Division (2e Division Blindée or 2e DB) led by the popular General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque. The division had landed on August 1, 1944 on Utah Beach. Its training was based on the American training methods and was equipped with American weapons. The American decision makers assigned U.S. 4th “Ivy” Infantry Division led by Major-General Raymond O. Barton belonging to Major-General Leonard Gerow’s V Corps of the First U.S. Army. Barton had been commanding the 4th Infantry Division from July 1942 and led his troops to battle on D-Day. He was assigned to oversee the Leclerc’s actions in order to make sure they act in line with the overall Allied strategy (the French have already sent a forward recon task force to Paris, which infuriated Barton and ordered Leclerc to withdraw but the latter ignored the order). Barton had a difficult and tense relationship with Leclerc during the operation due to taking orders from de Gaulle and not from his official superiors, and because of not sharing information.

General Leclerc with the tanks of his division (Photo: AFP)
General Leclerc with the tanks of his division (Photo: AFP)
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The two divisions were grouped into two columns approaching Paris from the north and south. They were ordered to refrain from using aerial or artillery bombardment to spare the city. They ran into strong German resistance on the outskirts of the city on August 23-24. Only a small detachment managed to slip into Paris on the evening of August 23 and began to ring the bells of the Notre Dame to indicate the arrival of the liberating forces. The main force entered Paris on the morning of the 24th welcomed by jubilant Parisians and advanced towards the city center where the main German fortifications were located. They stormed Choltitz’s headquarters in Hotel Maurice. The German commander and his staff surrendered at 2:00 p.m. to the French and were taken to the police headquarters then to the place of the official capitulation at the Montparnasse railway station where Leclerc had set up his command post. Meanwhile German officers were sent out to the resisting German units to order them to lay down their arms.

General Choltitz signing the surrender of German troops in Paris (Photo: Wikipedia)
General Choltitz signing the surrender of German troops in Paris (Photo: Wikipedia)

De Gaulle arrived later on Friday and planned to lead a procession from the Arc de Triomphe through the Champs-Élysées to the Notre Dame a day later, on August 25. Leclerc’s armored division was tasked by de Gaulle to ensure the security of the event since there were still many Germans and Milice collaborators in the city and, on top of that, undisciplined FFI members also meant a risk to law when they started summary executions of locals accused of collaboration with the occupiers. Major-General Gerow had other plans for Leclerc’s division (they did not even inform Gerow about the plans of the procession) but the French disregarded his orders which further worsened their relationship. The march started in the afternoon but it was not without difficulties since snipers of unknown affiliation shot at the ecstatic crowd several times. While others were looking for cover, de Gaulle disregarded the bullets flying past him on his way to the Notre Dame and even inside the cathedral where the shooting continued during the mass.

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De Gaulle marching down the Champs-Élysées, on his side General Leclerc with his walking stick (Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
De Gaulle marching down the Champs-Élysées, on his side General Leclerc with his walking stick (Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Seeing the dangerous situation in Paris, the American leadership agreed to redirect the 28th Infantry Division to parade through the city and the Champs-Élysées greeted by thousands of celebrating Parisians on its way to the front on 28 August to show their support and to discourage anyone from questioning de Gaulle’s power. This gesture contributed largely to the establishment and the stabilization of the Fourth Republic.

Cheering Parisians and soldiers at the City Hall (Photo: AP)
Cheering Parisians and soldiers at the City Hall (Photo: AP)

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On August 24, Hitler asked his staff: “Is Paris burning?” He was furious when he learned about the capitulation of Choltitz and that the city was still intact. He ordered the destruction of the city by aerial bombing on August 26 but the night attack of the already weakened Luftwaffe managed to hit only the eastern segment of the city, killing 213 and wounding 914 locals. In early September, a couple of V2 rockets were also fired at the city, causing light damage but still killing 6 Parisians and injuring 36 others. These feeble attacks could not turn around the wheel of time and the Allied were already liberating other parts of France and were fighting their way to Germany.

The crowd waiting for the victory parade (Photo: AFP)
The crowd waiting for the victory parade (Photo: AFP)

After the capitulation, General Choltitz was taken to London and later to Camp Clinton in Mississippi along with other German and Italian POWs. He died in 1966 in Germany in Baden-Baden and was buried in the presence of senior French officers. General Leclerc led his armored division up until Bavaria to the Eagle’s Nest. He was killed in an airplane crash in Algeria in 1947. His body was taken back to Paris through France along the route his division followed to liberate the city in 1944. The main battle tank of France is named after him.
 
Today, tourists can find several streets named after iconic figures and events of the liberation. A statue was erected to pay tribute to de Gaulle’s march on the Champs-Élysées. A museum dedicated to the liberation was opened on its 50th anniversary. It was later rebuilt on a better location, on the former secret underground command center of FFI leader “Colonel Rol”, during the 75th anniversary in 2019.

The entrance to Colonel Rol’s command bunker under the museum (Photo: RFI /I. Martinetti)
The entrance to Colonel Rol’s command bunker under the museum (Photo: RFI /I. Martinetti)
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