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 Post subject: D-Day @ 70 - Normandy Campaign, Liberating Paris
Unread postPosted: 07 Sep 2014, 09:34 
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D-Day @ 70
The Liberation of Paris

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As the old joke goes: why are there trees on the Champs-Élysées? So the Germans can march in the shade (or in this case American 28th Infantry Division, August 29, 1944).


By Spencer Lane

Paris was officially liberated 25 August, 1944. It came after nearly three months of bitter fighting in Normandy. For the lucky Allied troops who had the privilege of liberating Paris or taking part in the two victory parades through the city, it must have been a very sweet, crowning moment of victory after the horrors of Normandy. Pictures of smiling Allied troops marching along the Champs-Élysées being showered with flowers and kisses by beautiful Parisian women are some of the most endearing images from the war. But for the leaders of both sides, Paris was a headache and little else.

By mid- to late-August, the German army in Normandy was on its last legs. After the British had (finally) captured Caen, after the Americans had taken Brittany and then broken out into the open country south of Normandy and east of Paris, and after the Germans had been trapped and badly battered in the Falaise Pocket, the remaining Axis forces in France went into a headlong retreat (with the exception of those trapped in the Atlantic ports and those in the south of France). It was in many ways a remarkable achievement that the Germans had held out as long as they had, but they had reached the end of their rope. The US Army chased after the fleeing Germans in “the race for the Seine” while the British and Canadian Armies pressed grimly onwards towards Belgium, fighting three still unbroken German divisions as they marched past the same battlefields where the British Expeditionary Force was beaten by the Germans in 1940 and past the forgotten trenches of the War to End All Wars.

All was not won, however. As the Allied leadership was all too painfully aware, the Germans were down but not out. They would have to push right into Germany to end the war. On that Eisenhower and Montgomery were agreed but just exactly how that was to be done was a matter of sharp disagreement, one that would sour Anglo-American relations significantly in the months ahead. For the moment however, both agreed that as long as the Germans were in disorganized retreat, the Allies should pursue them as closely as possible.

To this end, Eisenhower wanted to bypass Paris altogether. To him, Paris was one giant roadblock, a traffic jam just waiting to happen. He reasoned that capturing Paris would serve only to slow down the Americans, giving the Germans time to regroup and prepare defenses for the Fatherland. Although Paris was defended by only a handful of troops, it would still take precious time to capture the city, to say nothing of lives, supplies, and equipment. Eisenhower was also determined to see Paris avoid the kind of hard fighting which had already destroyed countless towns and villages in Normandy, to say nothing of the destruction seen in places like Stalingrad or Warsaw.

To the French, however, the capture of Paris was of the utmost importance. The Forces Françaises Libres under General Charles de Gaulle had done their share of fighting in Normandy and elsewhere and they were keen to liberate their capital, albeit for a variety of reasons, not all of them “to help win the war”. In addition to the symbolic significance of the French capital being liberated by French troops, de Gaulle believed that capturing Paris outright would broadcast to the French public at large that the country was definitely out of German hands, making the task of liberating the rest of France easier. Equally, the capture of Paris would allow the Gaullists to prevent the Communists from seizing power. A substantial portion of the French Resistance was under communist leadership, and as the German hold on France weakened the specter of a civil war between French Communist maquis and Gaullist maquis was one which haunted de Gaulle.

Even before the Falaise Pocket was closed, on 19 August, de Gaulle began pestering Eisenhower to push on Paris. His efforts produced little effect at first. The French in general and de Gaulle in particular were viewed with a great deal of suspicion and skepticism by the Allies, especially Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was hesitant to support Charles de Gaulle for fear that he would set up a right-wing military dictatorship in France, which is a bit odd given that FDR was at the same time the driving force behind the United States’ substantial support for Chiang Kai-Shek, a corrupt, right-wing military dictator. Likewise, Eisenhower and especially his chief of staff, Bedell Smith, were often impatient with de Gaulle. Winston Churchill was often the only person of significance in the Allied cause who was supportive of the French, despite his off and on relationship with de Gaulle.

Eisenhower’s firm ‘no’ eventually became a “we’ll see” when de Gaulle on 20 August threatened to order LeClerc into Paris if Eisenhower did not give the order. Word had reached de Gaulle that an insurrection had started in Paris and he was keener than ever to establish his presence in Paris. For the moment though, Eisenhower refused to budge. On 22 August Eisenhower was visited by Ralph Nordling, the brother of the Swedish consul-general in Paris. Nordling pleaded a humanitarian case; that tens of thousands of Parisians were in danger of starvation and that thousands were already dying. Eisenhower told Bradley “Well, what the hell Brad, I guess we’ll have to go in” (Beevor, 494). Whether he said this sarcastically or not is not recorded, but later that evening, Bradley himself told General LeClerc he had been ordered to liberate Paris. Without wasting a moment, LeClerc and the Free French 2iéme Division-Blindée set off for the capital as soon as they were pulled out of the line around the Falaise Pocket on 21 August.

For the Germans’ part, there was little they could do to hold on to Paris. Even Hitler recognized that the city could not be held. In typical Hitler-fashion though, he ordered that the city be held to the last man and that the German defenders should fight to the last bullet before ensuring the city’s complete destruction. The German military governor of the city, Dietrich von Choltitz, probably rolled his eyes at the suggestion. Choltitz has gone down in history as the “savior” of Paris, but just how deliberate his actions were is difficult to surmise. It’s quite possible that Choltitz did intend to raze Paris but simply didn’t have the means. While he carried out Hitler’s orders to the letter on previous occasions, burning Rotterdam and executing Jews in Ukraine, on this occasion he seemed at least to have some hesitance in discharging his duty, possibly after being treated to a 45 minute long rambling speech by Hitler in early August.

The German defenses of Paris were not terribly impressive. There were no more than 25,000 Germans in the city, and the actual number was probably a lot smaller than that. Many of the troops weren’t even second-line quality troops. Choltitz later detailed his garrison as being comprised of “a security regiment of old soldiers, four tanks, two companies mounted on bicycles, some anti-aircraft detachments and a battalion with seventeen elderly French armoured cars” (Beevor 484). Other ersatz units were formed from an interpreter battalion or frequently ill soldiers used for office work. Even German civilians working in Paris were called-up at the last moment. The best (but not necessarily good) German units were likely the Luftwaffe flak units which were situated in a ring around the city, many armed with the dreaded 88mm gun.

Tensions had been rising throughout the week prior to Paris’ liberation. As news of German setbacks and Allied advances filtered into the capital, railway workers went on strike on 12 August and on 15 August the Parisian police (15,000 of them) went on strike in response to German attempts to disarm them. The Resistance groups in Paris (broadly separated into Gaullists and Communists) had been heretofore hesitant to act. Despite the British dropping more than 80,000 submachine guns into France, barely more than a hundred had reached Paris, and the Resistance had all-told only 400 weapons. On 17 August, the Resistance held a war council between the Gaullists and the Communists to decide what to do. That same day became known as the “Great Flight of the Fritzes” as many German occupiers decided to flee the city, often doing some last minute looting, snatching everything from irreplaceable paintings to bicycles. French citizens on balconies mockingly waved their toilet brushes as the Germans motored out of the city along La Rue la Fayette. Early in the morning on 19 August, 3000 Parisian policemen seized the Préfecture de Police. It was the beginning of the end for the Germans in Paris.

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Place de la Concorde: people dive for cover as sniper fire breaks out

From then on, resistance groups began to seize other buildings and landmarks, and fired on Germans from the windows. The Germans tried to recapture the buildings. Although the Germans did have tanks, they were not terribly effective in urban operations; they were firing armor piercing shells which passed right through buildings without exploding, causing few casualties. The insurrection, however, was as much about the French fighting each other as it was fighting the Germans. The Gaullists generally seized political buildings, like the city hall (the Hotel de Ville) in an attempt to prevent the communists from usurping them. The insurrection quickly bogged down in stalemate; the Germans were too few in number to stamp out the Resistance fighters but the Resistance was too weak to overpower the Germans holed up in their isolated strongholds. The Swedish consul-general negotiated a temporary truce between the two sides, but the truce did not seem to be closely adhered to by either side and fighting quickly broke out again. Like any good insurrection in Paris, barricades were quickly thrown up in the streets, usually by communists.

A humorous moment occurred when two SS officers reach Choltitz’s headquarters in the Hotel Meurice, located opposite the Jardin des Tuileries and within sight of the Louvre. The SS men said they were there to “save” the Bayeux Tapestry, which was being kept in the Louvre’s basement. Choltitz led them out to the balcony where the nearly constant sound of gun fire could be heard as armed Resistance fighters in the Louvre itself took potshots at the red Nazi banners hanging to each side of the hotel’s balcony. Choltitz pointed at the Louvre and said “That’s where the tapestry is. I’m sure for two of the Fuhrer’s finest soldiers it should be only a minor matter to take possession of it.” The humor seems to have been lost on the SS men who decided not to take the tapestry after all.

On 23 August, LeClerc’s troops entered the outer suburbs of Paris in the southeast under a pouring rain. The real battle began the next day, the 24th. Over two days, the French managed to lose 35 tanks, 3 self-propelled guns, and 111 vehicles, in addition to nearly 300 casualties as they pressed in towards the city center. Late in the afternoon on the 24th, LeClerc ordered a small detachment to slip directly into the heart of the city and to bypass any German resistance, recognizing that the bulk of his division wouldn’t get into the city center until the following day. Taking the back roads, the company of Free French soldiers (many of them exiled Spanish Republicans) made it all the way to the besieged Hotel de Ville by 21:30. Despite intermittent German artillery, mortar and sniper fire, a mob of ecstatic civilians quickly surrounded the Free French soldiers.

Early in the morning the next day, Friday 25 August, the American 4th Infantry division entered the city from the south. Marching along the streets while being feted by civilians, they paraded right past the front of Notre Dame before dispersing around the Gare Montparnasse, which had become General LeClerc’s headquarters. Significant pockets of German resistance still had to be cleared out, particularly in the Jardin du Luxembourg where 700 Germans held out and another 2000 in the Bois de Boulogne. As the French armored cars and tanks made their way towards the fighting, girls were riding on top of them and crowds of civilians followed the vehicles. Although the girls riding the tanks jumped off once the shooting started, the crowds were keen to watch the battles.

The Germans had established strongholds in many other places, among them several Parisian landmarks like the École Militaire (which is today a very good military museum), L’Assemblée Nationale, and the Palace du Luxembourg. Panther tanks had taken up positions in the Jardin des Tuileries. A German mortar team had even put spotters in the dome of the Palais du Luxembourg, which was blasted by French Sherman tanks. These were still being cleared out even as the celebrations started. Ernest Hemingway had already “liberated” the bar in the Hotel Ritz the day before.

But of all the small, individual battles in the liberation of Paris, perhaps none is more fascinating than the tank battle of the Champs-Élysées. On the most famous street in all of Europe, perhaps the world, a genuine tank duel actually took place. One of LeClerc’s Sherman tanks found itself right in front of the Arc de Triomphe when a tank shell screamed overhead. At the other end of the Champs-Élysées on La Place de la Concorde was a German Panther tank. The French tank had by chance a Parisian gunner who knew the exact length of the Champs-Élysées (1800 meters) and was able to score a direct hit on the German tank with their first shot. Several more hits followed in quick succession and the German crew bailed out. As ever, a mob of French civilians were kissing the Sherman crew moments after the shooting stopped.

Early in the afternoon, Choltitz was taken prisoner after his headquarters was stormed. He quickly agreed to surrender and sent German emissaries—with French escort—to persuade other German holdouts to surrender.

Later that same day, de Gaulle arrived. He made his way first to the Hotel de Ville, where he visited his old offices and found the names next to the buttons on the telephones had not been changed. He delivered a rousing speech in the Great Hall, cementing himself as leader of France in many minds. He then led a procession down the Champs-Élysées on foot, flanked by Free French half-tracks and trailed by Resistance fighters. When he reached the Place de la Concorde, shooting broke out and half a dozen people were killed—probably accidentally. De Gaulle was unfazed but he was persuaded to continue to Notre Dame by car. Shots rang out in the Cathedral itself, as well as outside, but de Gaulle didn’t bat an eye. Throughout the day crowds often burst out, singing La Marseillaise.

On the 26th, the US 28th Infantry Division was granted the honor of a victory march through Paris. Eisenhower extended an invitation to Montgomery to send a representative British unit to participate but Montgomery declined the offer for unknown reasons. Under the Arc du Triomphe, General Bradley and de Gaulle laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before taking up positions on an upturned section of Bailey Bridge on La Place de la Concorde to review the passing troops. The Americans were led by General Norman Cota, who had led the 29th Infantry Division on D-Day; Cota himself was one of the first men landed on Omaha Beach. Tens of thousands of Parisians watched as did many Allied airmen who had been shot down over France and had finally been brought out of hiding.

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Free French soldiers take cover in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe. Note the casualties in the street (that would be the Champs-Élysées).

Almost simultaneously, the nasty business of reprisals and recriminations began. Women who had participated in collaboration horizontale had their heads shaved or worse. Many Allied soldiers, even Free French soldiers, were disgusted by the brazen behavior of many of the French as they righted past wrongs. The French would quickly become disgusted with their liberators as combat weary American and British soldiers began receiving leave in Paris, which became a kind of playground for them. Senior American officers commandeered the best hotels and refused entry to the French. American GIs quickly took to calling the Parisian red-light district Pigalle “Pig Alley”—as had their doughboy fathers in the First World War—where thousands of prostitutes struggled to cope with the demands of tens of thousands of servicemen. Americans brazenly feasted on their luxurious rations in front of the near starving and long deprived Parisians. Drunken American soldiers lay passed out on the pavement of the Place Vendôme; American MPs took full authority over the city and treated the Parisian gendarmes with much condescension. The Grand Palais was taken over by American soldiers who set up, among other things, a distribution center for free condoms. While true debauchery was committed by only a small minority, many Parisians and Frenchmen felt as though they had replaced one occupier with another. Franco-American relations were never quite the same. As many Parisians joked, the British behaved better generally than Americans, but only because the British soldiers had less money to spend than their American counterparts.

There was one final injustice in those heady days, one many would have failed to notice. There were no colored faces in columns of victorious soldiers parading through Paris. Despite the Free French Forces being comprised overwhelmingly of black African troops from French colonies (nearly two-thirds), they were deliberately denied the privilege of liberating Paris, though many still ended up fighting and dying to clear out the suburbs. This was mainly a product of American pressure, though the British abetted it. In January 1944, Bedell Smith had written a memo stating that it would be “preferable” for the divisions which liberated Paris to consist of white personnel. British general Frederick Morgan, a deputy to Bedell Smith, told the French they were more likely to get their wish of liberating Paris if they produced an all-white division to do so. It was a slight that was never forgotten by the Algerians and Moroccans who had fought so hard for a country which wasn’t theirs.

The Parisians and the French as a whole still had many problems to face and issues to sort out, but they didn’t let the daunting future ruin their joyous celebrations during those beautiful August days. The war would not be over for several more months, but for many Frenchmen they felt as though their own personal war had been won. The great national embarrassment of 1940 had been avenged; Paris had been liberated by France’s own soldiers. Never mind that they wore American uniforms, rode in American tanks, ate American rations, and used American weapons; the Liberation of Paris was a victory for the French to savor, and such a sweet victory. Unlike the fate Berlin suffered, the citizens of Paris and the soldiers who liberated it had a largely intact, beautiful city to enjoy. It was one of the few happy moments of the war, and something anyone lucky enough to experience it would never forget.



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 Post subject: Re: D-Day @ 70 - Normandy Campaign, Liberating Paris
Unread postPosted: 28 Sep 2014, 15:45 
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It's a shame that the exploits of Free-French and other Allied soldiers in Paris were marred by race issues.



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