On 31 July, General Patton’s Third Army began the breakout from Normandy at Avranches. Encircling the Germans from the west, his right hook brought the Allies to Argentan, 167 kilometres from Paris.
For General de Gaulle, there was only one formation which merited the honour of liberating the capital of France. This was the Deuxième Division Blindée, the French 2nd Armoured Division, always known as the ‘2e DB’. Its commander was General Leclerc, the nom de guerre of Philippe de Hauteclocque.
Much larger than most divisions, the 2e DB was 16,000 strong, equipped with American uniforms, weapons, half-tracks and Sherman tanks. Its core consisted of men who had followed Leclerc from Chad across the Sahara, besieged the Italian garrison at Koufra and gone on to join the British. In its ranks served regulars from the metropolitan army, including cavalrymen from Saumur, Spahis (colonial troops), sailors without ships, North African Arabs, Senegalese and French colonials who had never before stood on the soil of France. One company, the 9th, was known as ‘la nueve’ because it was full of Spanish Republicans, veterans of even harder battles. Appropriately, the battalion itself was commanded by Major Putz, the most respected of all the battalion commanders in the International Brigades. Leclerc’s division was such an extraordinary mixture, with Gaullists, Communists, monarchists, socialists, Giraudists and anarchists working closely together, that General de Gaulle formed an over-optimistic vision of how post-war France could unite under his leadership.
De Gaulle had flown to Algiers after the Normandy landings. He regained France on 20 August, to be met with deeply unsettling news. A rising, largely inspired by the Communists, had begun in Paris. The Allied armies were in no position to come to its support. For de Gaulle, an insurrection was symbolically vital to demonstrate that the liberation of France was not purely an American operation. But at the same time he knew that for the Communists it was a deliberate part of their strategy, creating the opportunity to seize power before his own representatives could assert themselves.
On 15 August, the decision of the German authorities to disarm part of the Paris police force provoked a strike. News of the landings on the Mediterranean coast round Saint-Tropez was announced on the radio at noon and strengthened resolve. The Communists, who wanted to increase the pressure towards an uprising, had begun to infiltrate and recruit among the police as rapidly as possible. Since many policemen were embarrassed at their record of subservience to German orders, a Communist Party card offered a good insurance policy. The same day, a call for ‘l’insurrection populaire’ appeared in L’Humanité, the party newspaper.
Two days later the National Council of the Resistance and the COMAC (Comité Militaire d’Action) debated the call to arms. Although presided over by Georges Bidault, a Christian Democrat, the National Council of the Resistance was dominated by the Communists, as was the military committee. The twenty-nine-year-old Gaullist Resistance chief, General Jacques Chaban-Delmas, had returned from London the day before, having accomplished the last part of the journey through the German lines on a bicycle. The purpose of his clandestine journey had been to warn the Allies that a premature insurrection in Paris was inevitable. Yet he returned with the vain instruction from General Koenig, de Gaulle’s chief of staff, that there was to be no uprising without his order. Koenig had been appointed commander of all the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI), known both affectionately and disparagingly as ‘les fifis’, but so far his authority was purely theoretical.
Chaban-Delmas had told the military authorities in London that against the 16,000-strong German garrison, which might be reinforced by another division, the Resistance in Paris had fewer than 15,000 FFI volunteers and only enough weapons for 2,000. Even that seems an optimistic figure. The best the Resistance in Paris could hope for were some army rifles hidden since 1940, shotguns and revolvers often stolen from arms shops, a few sub-machine-guns parachuted elsewhere in France by the Allies and weapons taken from the Germans by force. A Communist youth group in the 18th arrondissement, for example, used to send their female comrades to pick up German soldiers round Pigalle, then entice them into an alley, where young male comrades were waiting to club them down and take their weapons.
A group of Communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP) also managed to seize a ton of explosive from the Poudrerie Sevran. But very few of the volunteers had much experience either of the army or of the Resistance. Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, the Communist who commanded the FFI of Greater Paris, admitted to Louis Teuléry, a major in the Service B (the Communist counter-intelligence service) that the Communist FTP had numbered only 600 men in the whole of the Greater Paris area before the Normandy landings. The real rush to join came afterwards.
Thirty-five young resistants fell headlong into a trap when they were promised a consignment of weapons by an agent provocateur working for the Gestapo. When they arrived at the rendezvous they were rounded up, brutally interrogated at Gestapo headquarters in the rue des Saussaies, and executed.
Yet Colonel Rol-Tanguy was unimpressed by calls for caution. That day the FTP gave the order to seize vehicles and prepare them with armour-plating, as if Paris in 1944 was comparable to Madrid or Barcelona in July 1936. The following day, flyposters across the city called for a general strike and ‘l’insurrection libératrice’.
On 17 August, Charles Luizet, de Gaulle’s appointee as Prefect of Police, arrived in secret. He became part of the skeleton team of administrators, of whom Alexandre Parodi, de Gaulle’s delegate general, was the most senior.
That day also saw the exodus of Germans and collaborators in increasing numbers – what the inimitable diarist Jean Galtier-Boissière described as ‘la grande fuite des Fritz’. The immensely tall Galtier-Boissière, with his military moustache from the First World War, straw hat in the style of a Victorian traveller and ivory-handled umbrella, was a curious figure, full of contradictions. A funny and endearing anarchist of the grande bourgeoisie, he had started his satirical publication Le Crapouillot (the slang for a trench-mortar) as a corporal in the front line. Now he noted the traffic jams of departing vehicles directed by German Feldgendarmerie with their discs on sticks: ‘Along the rue Lafayette, coming from the luxury hotels around the Étoile, sparkling torpedoes pass by containing purple-faced generals, accompanied by elegant blonde women, who look as if they are off to some fashionable resort.’
Overruling the objections of Pierre Laval, the German ambassador, Otto Abetz, ordered the evacuation of the Vichy administration to Belfort, a few miles from the German border. Laval’s attempts over the last few days to convene parliamentarians, such as Édouard Herriot, the President of the National Assembly, had only managed to enrage General Oberg, the chief of the SS in France.
The Germans, preparing to leave, were stared at openly and scornfully by groups of Parisians who, for the last four years, had pretended not to see them. But when a detachment of soldiers on the Boulevard Saint-Michel was mocked – Sylvia Beach, the founder of the bookshop Shakespeare & Company, described the Parisians cheerfully waving lavatory brushes at them – they opened fire into the crowd.
In many cases, packing up included some last-minute looting. The Gestapo broke into the apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on the rue Christine. A neighbour rang the police and twenty appeared. Backed up by half the population of the street, they demanded to see the Gestapo’s authorization. The Gestapo officials, uttering threats, were forced to leave.
A group of soldiers, probably on the order of a senior officer, loaded the contents of the wine cellar of the Cercle Interallié, a large private club, on to lorries. Other military and civilian vehicles, including even ambulances and a hearse, were piled with anything which might be of value: Louis XVI furniture, medicines, works of art, pieces of machinery, bicycles, rolls of carpet and food.
Odd bursts of firing seemed to break out on all sides on Friday, 18 August, after Communist posters had appeared. The next day, the tricolour reappeared on several public buildings, most notably the Prefecture of Police on the Île de la Cité. Since seven in the morning, policemen on strike over the German move to disarm them began to arrive in ever-increasing numbers following a summons by their Resistance committees. Passing through the city, Colonel Rol-Tanguy had been surprised to hear the Marseillaise being sung inside: 2,000 police resisters had occupied the building and arrested Amédée Bussières, Vichy’s Prefect of Police. He was replaced by the Gaullist Charles Luizet, who slipped into the Prefecture. The Gaullists, led by Parodi, by now had no alternative but to accept the direction of events and join the rising.
Any Parisian rash enough to hang a tricolour from a balcony in imitation of those which had appeared on public buildings might receive a fusillade through the window from a passing German patrol. At lunch time, German tanks and trucks of infantry arrived to crush the rebellion in the Prefecture of Police, but the tanks had only armour-piercing shells, which made holes without breaking down walls.
Heavy bursts of firing broke out in other parts of Paris, with Wehr-macht vehicles ambushed, and their occupants replying. On the left bank opposite the Île de la Cité the fighting was particularly heavy. Altogether that day, forty Germans were killed and seventy wounded, at a cost of 125 Parisians killed and nearly 500 wounded. The Resistance had started with so little ammunition that by evening it was almost exhausted.
The situation within the besieged Prefecture was critical. The Swedish Consul-General, Raoul Nordling, arranged a truce with General von Choltitz, the German commander of Greater Paris.
The truce was not respected, partly due to the chaotic lack of communications, but it somehow held for two days, thanks to the tolerance or complaisance of General von Choltitz. This in itself was regarded by the insurgents, with dangerous optimism, as a proof of victory. The continuing attacks did not come just from over-eager groups of young Communists. The Gaullists, in the interests of restoring ‘Republican legality’, needed to take as many symbolic buildings as possible. On 20 August, leaders of the National Council of the Resistance took over the Hôtel de Ville in an operation that deliberately excluded Communists.
Over the next four days, the Germans peppered the walls of the Hôtel de Ville with machine-gun fire, but never mounted a determined attack; fortunately, since the insurgents had only four machine-guns and a handful of revolvers.
On 21 August the National Council of the Resistance met to discuss the truce. It was a tense and bitter meeting and the Communists prevailed. The council decided to rescind the truce the following day. Once again the Gaullists were forced to follow the Communist lead to avoid civil war.
Since the first news of the rising in Paris two days before, General Leclerc had found it hard to contain his impatience and frustration. His American commanders showed no willingness to advance on the city. Eisenhower meant to leave Paris in German hands for a few weeks longer. That would allow Patton to follow the defeated Germans across northern France, and perhaps even to push right through to the Rhine while they were still disorganized. If the Americans were to relieve Paris and thus become responsible for feeding the city, he would have neither the fuel nor the transport to support Patton’s push. But for de Gaulle and Leclerc, Paris was the key to France, and they feared that a Communist-led rising could result in another Paris Commune. The Americans would then step in and impose their AMGOT on France.
The first call to insurrection by French Communists in Paris had come two weeks after General Bor-Komorowski had launched the ill-fated Warsaw uprising on the approach of the Red Army. Yet the rush to revolution in France in the summer of 1944 was a spontaneous reaction in French Communist ranks, not Kremlin policy. The regular political leadership of the French Communist Party had no control over events. Maurice Thorez was in Moscow, and his deputy, Jacques Duclos, hidden in the countryside, exerted little influence over the party’s fighting arm, the FTP. Hamstrung by difficult communications and the Communists’ own draconian security measures, Duclos found himself unable to control Charles Tillon and the other leaders of the FTP, who, like most of their followers, wanted to carry resistance through into revolution.
Leclerc, at his headquarters near Argentan, eventually decided to send a small detachment towards Versailles on the evening of 21 August. He did so without the permission of his American corps commander. This minor act of military insubordination strengthened the suspicion among a number of American officers that the Gaullists were fighting their own war for France, not the Allies’ war against Germany.
Leclerc had not managed to contact de Gaulle, but wrote, impressing upon the leader of the provisional government that Eisenhower must be persuaded to change his plans without any further delay. A series of messengers from Paris, all bearing warnings that the city would be destroyed if the Allies did not capture it quickly, had achieved little success.
The Communist FFI commander for Greater Paris, Colonel Rol-Tanguy, relaunched the fighting the next morning, 22 August. Posters across the city proclaimed his battle-cry – ‘Chacun son Boche!’ This was followed a short while later by an even more atavistic call to battle – ‘TOUS AUX BARRICADES!’ – recalling the failed revolutions of the nineteenth century, and the old myth of Paris as the Red Jerusalem. Rol-Tanguy, a former commissar in the International Brigades in Spain, ordered the whole population of Paris, men, women and children, to barricade every street they could to prevent the Germans from moving, a lesson learned in Barcelona at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
Hardly any barricades were erected in the fashionable arrondissements, the 7th, 8th and 16th; the greatest number were in those quarters around the north and east of the city, which had voted overwhelmingly for the Popular Front in 1936. The most effectively sited were in the south-eastern part of Paris, where the FFI was commanded by Colonel Fabien, the Communist who had assassinated the young German naval officer three years before.
Teams formed spontaneously from street or neighbourhood. The young and strong uprooted cobblestones, while a human chain, mostly women, passed them back to those building the barricade with railings, iron bedsteads, a plane tree chopped down across the street, cars turned on their sides, and even, in one case, a vespasienne public urinal. A tricolour was usually planted on top. Women meanwhile stitched white FFI armbands for their menfolk usually with just the initials in black, or with patches of red and blue to make a tricolour. Paris at this time was a city of rumours. No one knew how far away the Allies were, or whether German reinforcements were on their way. This created a tense atmosphere, affecting defenders and onlookers alike.
‘I arrive at a small FFI position near the Place Saint-Michel,’ wrote Galtier-Boissière in his diary. ‘A machine-gun is placed on the pavement, covering the Saint-Michel bridge; a tall, fair-haired and well-dressed young man is the gunner. On both sides of the boulevard there are about ten young men in shirt sleeves, with a brassard round their biceps, carbine in hand or brandishing little revolvers. Some wear army helmets. These combatants are surrounded by about fifty lookers-on waiting for something to happen. As soon as a vehicle appears on the bridge, all the lookers-on rush back into nearby doorways.’
People helped as they could. The bravest were the stretcher parties, collecting hundreds of wounded from bullet-spattered streets, with only a Red Cross flag to protect them. Professor Joliot-Curie, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and devoted Communist, set up a production line making Molotov cocktails in the Sorbonne. Between Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Place Saint-Michel, Zette Leiris, who ran a well-known gallery, started a canteen for FFI members in the rue Saint-André des Arts. Concierges swabbed blood from the paving stones.
As Galtier-Boissière observed, fighting was much more civilized in the city than in the countryside, because you could go off for lunch with your rifle. There was another advantage: ‘The whole neighbourhood is watching you from their windows and applauding.’ A number of people, however, ignored the firing around them. Some sunbathed on the stone embankments of the Seine, while urchins dived in to escape the heat. Odd figures sat immobile on little canvas chairs, fishing in the river while German tanks attacked the Prefecture of Police, a few hundred metres away on the Île de la Cité; a perch from the Seine represented a free meal. Provisions were so short that when a horse was killed by stray bullets, housewives rushed out with enamel bowls and began slicing steaks off the carcass.
Paris being Paris, cultural landmarks counted for as much as ministries and police headquarters when it came to a revolution. For the acting profession, the first place to be liberated (not that there were any Germans there) was the Comédie-Française. Yves Montand, who had recently established himself in Paris as a singer, appeared for sentry duty; an actress had rung Edith Piaf, Montand’s lover and mentor for the last two weeks, to say that they needed more volunteers. The twenty-three-year-old Montand gave the secret knock to gain admittance to Molière’s theatre.
Actors and actresses greeted each other as if this were the greatest first-night party of their lives. Julien Berthau, appointing himself their leader, made a rousing speech, ending with the cry of the moment: ‘Paris sera libéré par les Parisiens!’ The whole company in a surge of emotion sang the forbidden Marseillaise, standing to attention. But there was something of an anticlimax when Berthau gave the order to distribute weapons. A few hundred metres from where they stood, German tanks waited for the first sign of trouble. To oppose them the ComédieFrançaise could produce just four shotguns and two stage revolvers.
The day was memorable as a day of collective bravery, as infectious as collective cowardice. Already bands of young men in the 17th arrondissement, with only a handful of weapons between them, had fought several German patrols. Those who were wounded refused to be taken to hospital and, as soon as they had been bandaged, insisted on returning to their barricade. There were numerous attacks on German convoys by corps-francs of the FFI, especially on the Left Bank. Some were ambushed from rooftops or windows with Molotov cocktails and stick grenades. Several groups also attacked Wehrmacht ration trucks coming from the Gare d’Austerlitz.
Any German soldiers rash enough to go out singly or in pairs were picked off or surrounded. The prime objective was to seize more weapons and vehicles. One daring young man made off with the German ambassador’s Horch convertible from outside the embassy at 78 rue de Lille.
Attacks often prompted heavy-handed German reaction. Five German armoured vehicles, supported by infantry, sallied forth from the Palais du Luxembourg up the rue Soufflot to attack the mairie of the 5th arrondissement in the Place du Panthéon. Shows of strength occurred elsewhere, but on the whole the Germans were effectively deterred from moving around the city.
Father Bruckberger, the Dominican chaplain-general of the Parisian FFI, rode from one area of fighting to another on his bicycle, ‘his white habit dirty from the smoke of battle’, as he supervised medical care for the wounded and attention to the dead. Coffins were piling up in churches, so heavy were the casualties among civilians. Burials were impossible in the circumstances, so as a defence against the August heat some bodies were kept in the meat-freezers at Les Halles, now empty of food.
The Champs-Élysées were ominously empty. The sidewalk cafés, where the Germans in their field-grey uniforms had been sitting en masse only a few days before, drinking their bocks, were now deserted. For the German tanks on the Place de la Concorde, the gentle incline to the Arc de Triomphe offered a perfect field of fire. But this part of Paris gave a misleading impression of calm. Elsewhere, confusion was compounded by rumours springing from either hopes or fears: the Americans were approaching from the south-west; a fresh panzer division had arrived from the north; there was no ammunition left; the Germans had mined every building in central Paris; the fifis had managed to cut the wires to the detonators. Nobody knew for certain what was happening.
On this day, 22 August, a new wireless station, Radiodiffusion de la Nation Française, came on air. It was to act as the voice of the Resistance. Proclamations from various bodies were read out, often followed by the Marseillaise, which had been banned for the last four years. People would turn up the volume and open their windows to make sure everybody in the street could hear it too.
The new station was soon warning people to avoid certain areas. The rue de Seine in Saint-Germain-des-Prés was particularly dangerous because the Germans had a line of fire from their strongpoint in the Palais du Luxembourg. The Place Saint-Michel at the bottom of the boulevard was so dangerous that it was known as ‘le carrefour de la mort’. But however invaluable the broadcasts, people could only listen during the short periods when the electricity supply was restored.
That evening the firing died away. ‘Fritz and fifis went off for supper,’ remarked Jean Galtier-Boissière. And sightseers soon emerged to inspect the damage.
The Germans continued to improve their principal strongpoints in the centre of Paris: the Prinz Eugen barracks near the Place de la République, the Palais du Luxembourg (the Senate), the Palais Bourbon (the National Assembly), the École Militaire, the Invalides and the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber. The Hotel Meurice on the rue de Rivoli, which was General von Choltitz’s headquarters, was less heavily fortified.
There, the commander of Gross-Paris received the formal order from Hitler’s headquarters to defend Paris to the last man and turn the city into ‘a pile of ruins’. Choltitz, to the enduring gratitude of its citizens, had no desire to carry this out, but needed the Allies to arrive soon so that he could surrender to regular forces. If they did not come in time and Hitler discovered the degree of procrastination in following his instructions, he would order in the Luftwaffe.
Finally, that evening, there was a change of heart in the Allied camp twenty kilometres south-west of Bayeux. A messenger managed to convince General Eisenhower’s staff officers that failure to move on Paris immediately would lead to a terrible massacre and possibly the destruction of the city. Eisenhower, who had turned down de Gaulle’s appeal two nights earlier, was now convinced. Shortly before nightfall, Leclerc received the order from General Omar Bradley to advance rapidly on Paris. The exultant yells of ‘Mouvement sur Paris!’ provided an electrifying charge of fierce joy.
At dawn the following morning, Wednesday 23 August, the 2e DB, in two columns following parallel routes, pushed eastwards out of Normandy as fast as it could through heavy rain towards the Île de France. The hot weather had broken at the worst moment, and their tanks and half-tracks slithered on the slippery roads. Leclerc went ahead. He had over 140 kilometres to go to Rambouillet, a town forty kilometres from the capital, lying close to a very ill-defined front line.
The officers of Leclerc’s division found a curious collection of irregulars at Rambouillet when they arrived in the afternoon, of whom the most colourful was Ernest Hemingway. Officially, Hemingway was a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine, but he was more interested in playing the professional soldier. He was surrounded by some locally recruited and heavily armed ruffians, and seemed to be making up for lost opportunities in Spain seven years before.
Based in the Hotel du Grand Veneur, waiting for the 2e DB to advance the last stretch to Paris, were Colonel David Bruce of the OSS (who in 1949 became the United States ambassador to France), John Mowinckel from a field unit of the Secret Intelligence Staff, and a senior member of the Gaullist intelligence service, Michel Pasteau, whose nom de guerre was ‘Mouthard’.
Hemingway and his group of fifi irregulars had been reconnoitring the routes into Paris over the last few days, but their methods were unsubtle. A pathetic little German soldier, a straggler seized a few kilometres down the road, was brought back to the hotel in triumph, his hands tied behind his back. Hemingway asked Mowinckel to help bring the prisoner up to his room, where they would interrogate him at ease while drinking another beer. ‘I’ll make him talk,’ he said. Once in the room, Hemingway told Mowinckel to dump him on the bed. Then he said: ‘Take his boots off. We’ll grill his toes with a candle.’
Mowinckel told him to go to hell and the little soldier was released. Hemingway did, however, lend ‘Mouthard’ an automatic pistol to execute a traitor.
Another arrival was Major Airey Neave of MI9, who wanted to get into Paris as soon as possible on a mission of retribution. He was after a British army sergeant, Harold Cole, who had deserted in northern France in 1940, had later joined the French Resistance, then betrayed its largest escape line. As a result of his treachery the Germans arrested 150 people, of whom around a third had been executed. After this great coup for the Abwehr, Cole was transferred to the Gestapo in Paris, where he was still managing to trap other Resistance workers.
Irwin Shaw, the author who later wrote The YoungLions, turned up with his combat camera detachment of the Army Signal Corps. Shaw had introduced his lover, Mary Welsh, to Hemingway not long before D-Day, an encounter which led to her becoming the fourth Mrs Hemingway. (The third Mrs Hemingway, the journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn, had infuriated her husband by getting ashore in Normandy well before him.)
A group of American war correspondents arrived next. They were piqued to find Hemingway acting as the local commander of Rambouillet. When the Chicago journalist Bruce Grant made a disobliging comment about ‘General Hemingway and his maquis’, the object of the remark strode over and knocked him to the ground.
At six o’clock that evening, General de Gaulle joined Leclerc at the Château de Rambouillet, a former residence of the kings of France. While the soldiers of the 2e DB cooked their rations in the woods and, on the assumption that they would be in Paris the next day, shaved with ritualistic care, their commander explained his plan of attack to the head of the provisional government in one of the salons of the château. When he had finished, de Gaulle reflected for a short while, then agreed with his proposals. ‘You are lucky,’ he said, thinking of the glory ahead.
On the following morning, Thursday 24 August, while the two columns advanced to make contact with the enemy, Paris began its last day under the Occupation. Several key figures in the future administration received the call to report for work. Jacques Charpentier, the leader of the French Bar, set off on the very uncertain journey across a barricaded and enfiladed city to the Palais de Justice on the Île de la Cité. He encountered a twelve-year-old urchin proudly showing off an automatic pistol and boots taken from a dead German officer. The boy then acted as his guide frombarricade to barricade, on a complicated but effective route.
The courage shown over previous days did not slacken. People responded at once to an announcement on the radio that the mairie of the 11th arrondissement was under heavy attack by the Germans and that the defenders were almost out of ammunition; anyone with a weapon should go to their aid. Thanks to the unflagging work of telephonists at the central exchanges, people were able to pass news back and forth. Some soldiers in Leclerc’s advance units, as they drove through villages or outer suburbs of the capital, asked bystanders to ring their families in Paris to tell them that they were about to arrive. Inhabitants in one district kept friends in another up to date on events with a running commentary. Windows had become theatre boxes, albeit dangerous ones. Many watchers were mistaken for snipers or killed by stray bullets. Often, if they had been living alone, their bodies lay on the floor undiscovered until the smell of decomposition alerted a neighbour.
The Resistance fighters in Paris could now hear Allied tank guns. Captain Dronne’s group, a troop of Shermans from the 501st Tank Regiment and the half-tracks of ‘la nueve’ had reached the suburb of Fresnes, from where they could see the Eiffel Tower. But the fighting had been heavy, with well-concealed anti-tank guns (unidentified by Hemingway’s scouts) ambushing Leclerc’s Shermans and causing many casualties.* After knocking out the German detachment holding the prison of Fresnes, Dronne was ordered by his column commander, Colonel Billotte, to withdraw and rejoin the main axis of advance. Dronne was furious as he led his much reduced group back. On the way, he encountered General Leclerc.
‘Dronne, what the hell are you doing here?’ Leclerc demanded.
‘Mon général, I’m following the order to pull back.’
‘No, Dronne, head straight for Paris, enter Paris. Don’t allow yourself to be held up. Take whichever route you want. Tell the Parisians and the Resistance not to lose hope, that tomorrow morning the whole division will be with them.’
Dronne quickly briefed his vehicle commanders – he was down to three Sherman tanks and eleven half-tracks – and set off.
That same afternoon, Leclerc’s American commander (furious to find that the French division had changed the main thrust of its advance over to the right, where the US 4th Infantry Division was supposed to be advancing in support) passed on General Omar Bradley’s order that the American troops were to force on into Paris, whether or not the French had got there first. Clearly, neither de Gaulle nor Leclerc wished to acknowledge the fact that the 2e DB was under Allied orders.
Dronne, having been given carte blanche by Leclerc and now guided by Parisian resistants who had reconnoitred the routes into the city, was able to advance rapidly via a network of back streets, avoiding all German strongpoints. In an hour and a half – just before half past nine – the little column of Shermans, half-tracks and jeeps reached the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. Dronne climbed out of his jeep to look around. He was seized by the exultant defenders of the Hôtel de Ville and, amid cries of ‘Vive la France!’ and ‘Vive de Gaulle’, was carried inside in triumph, to be embraced by the president of the National Council of the Resistance, Georges Bidault.
Even before Dronne crossed the Pont d’Austerlitz to the right bank of the Seine, cyclists had started to spread the news of his arrival. The radio broadcast an appeal to priests to begin ringing their church bells. One group of ringers started to toll the great bell of Notre-Dame. Others joined in, one after another, until bells were pealing out right across the city. After four years of silence, this for many people was the most memorable sound of the whole war. With the occasional boom of a heavy gun and the constant refrain of the Marseillaise, both broadcast on the radio and sung spontaneously in the street, the Liberation of Paris started to sound like the 1812 overture.
In the more fashionable districts, joy was less spontaneous; and not just in the apartments of Pétainists, who awaited the future in grim silence, nor in the shuttered hiding places of those advocates of the New European Order who had decided to stay behind and now listened to the rejoicing outside, wondering what fate awaited them. There were also those who had continued to live their lives much as before, caring little for politics. If they had consorted in various ways with Germans during the Occupation, their motives had been purely social and they had thought little of it.
General von Choltitz, on hearing the bells, telephoned his superior, General Speidel, and held the receiver to the open window so that Speidel knew what had happened.
While the bells rang out, Albert Camus, in the offices of the Resistance newspaper Combat, surrounded by ‘enormous disorder and enormous gaiety’, worked on an editorial which became famous: ‘The greatness of man,’ he wrote, ‘lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition.’
For many people, that night was spent in excited anticipation. Women curled their hair and pressed their dresses. Most planned to wear the tricolour in some form or other, either in panels on their skirts or even on earrings. Others sewed flags out of old clothes to greet their French and American liberators the next morning. A friend of the writer Julien Green worked through the night on an American flag, which, she said, ‘gave her a lot of trouble because of the stars, which she had been obliged to cut out from a dress’.
Early on the day of Liberation, Friday 25 August, crowds began to gather at the Porte de Saint-Cloud. The beautiful weather had returned. A detachment commanded by Major Jacques Massu had secured the Pont de Sèvres the night before, soon after Dronne reached the Hôtel de Ville. All was ready for Colonel Paul de Langlade’s advance up through the 16th arrondissement to the Place de l’Étoile and the German administrative headquarters in the Hotel Majestic.
Colonel Billotte’s group, the first to enter Paris, headed for the Prefecture of Police. Meanwhile, Colonel Dio’s group was heading for the Porte d’Orléans. Its objectives were the strongpoints of the École Militaire, the Invalides and the Palais Bourbon, which housed the Chambre des Députés.
When people first sighted the olive-green Sherman tanks, half-tracks, jeeps and GMC trucks, they assumed that the soldiers in them were American. Then they saw that the vehicles were marked with the cross of Lorraine set in an outline map of France, and although some of the soldiers had American helmets, others wore képis, black French berets, leather tank helmets and midnight-blue sidecaps. The old and the ill were brought out from hospitals so that they too should not miss the Liberation. Children were held aloft to see and remember the day. While the crowds waved from the pavements, young girls climbed on to vehicles to kiss their liberators. In many cases, the columns were brought to a virtual standstill, so afraid were the drivers of crushing civilians under their tracks. In any case, the crews saw no reason to refuse kisses or the bewildering array of alcohol offered in celebration.
Soon after nine o’clock, Jean Galtier-Boissière, in his bookshop on the Place de la Sorbonne, was suddenly told that Leclerc’s troops had arrived. He ran outside with his wife. ‘A vibrant crowd surrounds the French tanks draped in flags and covered in bouquets of flowers. On each tank, on each armoured car, next to crew members in khaki mechanics’ overalls and little red caps, there are clusters of girls, women, boys and fifis wearing armbands. People lining the street applaud, blow kisses, raise clenched-fist salutes, call out to the victors their joy at liberation!’
When the vehicles halted on the quai, more young women climbed up to kiss the soldiers. Shortly afterwards, the time came to launch the attack on the German strongpoints round the Palais du Luxembourg. A whistle blew. There was a shout: ‘Allons les femmes, descendez… On attaque le Sénat.’ The young women climbed down, tank gunners and loaders dropped back inside the turrets of their Shermans, and the column set off up the Boulevard Saint-Michel. A crowd of spectators followed the tanks and watched them take up position. Meanwhile, from the other direction, Captain de Boissieu, commanding the divisional headquarters defence squadron, advanced from the Port Royal métro. He was joined by the ‘Fabien battalion’ of the FTP, who volunteered to act as his infantry. Boissieu, a young cavalry officer who seventeen months later married one of General de Gaulle’s daughters, had never imagined finding himself in command of a Communist unit. He had little time to consider the paradox. Mortar fire from the Jardin du Luxembourg landing on the Boulevard Saint-Michel had to be stopped. Evidently, the Germans had an observation post in the clock tower of the Senate. Two tanks traversed their guns on to it, and a moment after they fired, he saw the German observers hurled into the air then fall on to the roof.
At a quarter past two on the right bank of the Seine, as Colonel de Langlade’s armoured column came clanking and grinding up the Avenue Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondissement towards the Place de l’Étoile, Paris firemen hung a huge tricolour from the Arc de Triomphe. Crowds gathering to watch the attack on the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber yelled their support. Yves Montand and Edith Piaf were among those who had to throw themselves flat on the ground or shelter behind trees when the firing began.
The assault on the Majestic was almost perfunctory, although still confused. The defenders were hardly élite troops, but like most of the Gross-Paris garrison, soldiers ‘abandoned by their officers to a suicidal task’. There was confusion over the surrender. The Protestant leader, Pastor Boegner, saw four German soldiers, bareheaded, their field-grey tunics unbuttoned, hands raised and clasped behind their necks, led at gunpoint to the Place de l’Étoile. One of them was alleged to have shot a French officer after the white flag had been hoisted. All four were shot. ‘Chose atroce!’ the Protestant clergyman recorded, powerless to save them. Shortly afterwards, Edith Piaf stopped a young fifi from throwing a grenade into a lorry full of German prisoners.
After the Majestic had fallen, catching fire in the process, the crowd gathered at the Arc de Triomphe under the firemen’s tricolour to sing the Marseillaise. The fighting and the impression of a 14 July celebration ‘were mixed up together in a hallucinating way’, Boegner noted.
Many of Leclerc’s soldiers were returning home after four years far from their families. One young woman suddenly spotted her husband on a half-track, but emotion made her dumb. Fortunately, he caught sight of her, but clearly he hardly believed what he saw. Husband and wife threw themselves into each other’s arms, while his comrades, equally filthy and unshaven, crowded round to share in the joy of their embrace.
The most important objective was to force General von Choltitz’s surrender. Only then could the fighting in other parts of Paris come to an end. Choltitz had refused to accept a message demanding his submission.
At about the same time as Colonel de Langlade’s troops began their attack on the Majestic, Colonel Billotte’s group moved against the Hotel Meurice. Five Shermans and a force of infantry set off along the rue de Rivoli towards the Meurice, near the gilt statue of Jeanne d’Arc in the Place des Pyramides. As they got closer to their objective, they began dodging forward along the rue de Rivoli colonnade. Crowds cheered on the attackers in a carnival atmosphere, but as soon as the fighting started, the mood changed abruptly. The German tanks in the Tuileries gardens and on the Place de la Concorde were dealt with at the cost of four Shermans. After a brief battle, resistance ceased. Two French officers went up to General von Choltitz’s roomand demanded his surrender.
The crowd surged forward, some spitting, when he was driven off to sign the surrender with General Leclerc at the Prefecture of Police. Other German soldiers coming out of the headquarters with their hands up were attacked by a crowd, mainly of women, who tore at their clothes, spectacles and watches.
The formal act of surrender took place in the billiard room of the Prefecture in the presence of the military leaders of the Resistance. Colonel Rol-Tanguy announced that as commander of the FFI in Paris, he wished to sign the document with Leclerc. His request was supported by the other leaders, including the non-Communists, Chaban-Delmas and Colonel Lizé, so Leclerc felt obliged to agree. Due to a confusion, Leclerc’s signature came below that of Rol-Tanguy.
After the ceremony, Leclerc, accompanied by most of those who had been present, including General von Choltitz, moved to the railway station of Montparnasse, where he had arranged to meet de Gaulle. The head of the provisional government arrived around four o’clock, while Choltitz’s orders to cease fighting were sent off to the last German strongpoints. De Gaulle was angry when, shown the act of surrender, he saw that not only was Colonel Rol-Tanguy’s signature on the document, but it came first. He was irked not so much by the fact that Rol-Tanguy was a Communist, but that he had no official position in the provisional government or its armed forces. But this did not stop de Gaulle fromcongratulating Colonel Rol-Tanguy on the achievement of his men. He knew full well the value of the myth that the rising had created.
For de Gaulle, on this victorious afternoon, symbolism was of paramount importance. He did not hurry to meet Bidault and the leaders of the Resistance at the Hôtel de Ville. After Montparnasse, his first visit was to the Ministry of War in the rue Saint-Dominique, his own fief in 1940 before the Pétainist usurpation intervened. His memoirs describe how little the place had changed: ‘Not a piece of furniture, not a tapestry, not a curtain had been altered. The telephone was still in the same place on the desk and exactly the same names were to be seen under the buttons.’
Then he went to the Prefecture of Police to see Alexandre Parodi and Charles Luizet. He was greeted by a huge crowd and a band of the Parisian fire brigade, led by its drum-major, playing patriotic anthems. Finally, just after eight in the evening, he crossed to the right bank, to the Hôtel de Ville, where Georges Bidault and the National Council of the Resistance awaited him.
There, in the great hall, he made one of the most emotional speeches of his life: ‘Paris! Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! Liberated by herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France, that is to say of the France which fights, the true France, eternal France.’
Yet many members of the Resistance felt that in one way the General had not been emotional enough. ‘One would have liked more understanding,’ wrote one of them in his journal. ‘And this speech… short, authoritarian and spotless. Very good, perfect, but all the same, he should have said thank you to the CNR and to Alexandre [Parodi], who had given so much of themselves.’
When de Gaulle had finished, Bidault asked him to proclaim the Republic to the crowds waiting below, but de Gaulle refused. Largely as a result of his deliberate hauteur, this exchange has often been described as a cruel snub to Bidault and the leaders of the Resistance. Even Bidault himself later contributed to the myth of a great clash.
In reality, de Gaulle simply wished to re-emphasize his view that Pétain’s regime had been an illegal aberration. René Brouillet, Bidault’s chef de cabinet, who was standing just behind the two men when the request was made, had a clear memory of the exchange. ‘The request of Georges Bidault was the request of a history professor who had a strong memory of the proclamation of the Republic from the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville, in 1848 and 1870. And as a result [he] asked General de Gaulle in the most natural way, and the General, in no less natural a way, replied, “But why should we proclaim the Republic? She has never ceased to exist.”’
De Gaulle nevertheless agreed to make an appearance. The ‘balcony’ of the Hôtel de Ville is more of an imposing balustrade, adding to the importance of the principal window. De Gaulle got up on to the balustrade and raised those endless arms in a victory sign to the crowd below. The response was tumultuous.
General Koenig, the new military governor of Paris, invited officers of the 2e DB to dinner at the Invalides. Before they went in, Koenig stopped Captain de Boissieu in the courtyard and made a sweeping gesture, saying: ‘Look, Boissieu, it is extraordinary to have liberated Paris without having destroyed its wonders; all the bridges, all the great buildings, all the artistic treasures of the capital are intact.’
The last guest to arrive was Major Massu, still filthy in oil-stained battledress. He shook out his napkin, laid it carefully over the seventeenth-century tapestry seat and sat down to eat.
All over central Paris, liberators were sitting down to celebration dinners. When Colonel David Bruce and Ernest Hemingway, followed by the private army, entered the Ritz lobby, the hotel appeared deserted, but soon Claude Auzello, the manager, appeared. He recognized both Hemingway and Bruce from pre-war days. The forty-six-year-old Bruce, a Princeton friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, had spent much of his youth in Europe: from military service in France at the end of the First World War until 1927, when he returned to the United States.
The ‘imperturbable’ Monsieur Auzello asked what he could do for them. Hemingway and Bruce glanced back at the mob behind them for a rough head-count and answered that they would like fifty martini cocktails. The martinis ‘were not very good, as the bartender had disappeared,’ Bruce recorded in his diary, ‘but they were followed by a superb dinner’.
For once in history, soldiers seem to have had a better time that night than their officers. What Simone de Beauvoir described as a ‘débauche de fraternité’ during the day became a débauche tout court after dark. Few soldiers were to sleep alone that night.
Major Massu, on returning from the dinner at the Invalides to his battalion camped around the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, wrote later that he preferred to draw a veil over what he found there. In fact so widespread was the lovemaking that a Catholic group began distributing hastily run-off tracts addressed to the young women of Paris: ‘In the gaiety of the Liberation do not throw away your innocence. Think of your future family.’
Not everybody, however, was out on the streets to savour a new era of freedom. Through an open widow, Pastor Boegner saw a neighbour, an old lady, sitting at her table playing patience, just as she did every evening.