The Paris Uprising and the Race for the Seine

Even before the battle of the Falaise encirclement had started, General Leclerc had been consumed with impatience. To have his whole force caught up in the fighting round Argentan while most of Patton’s other divisions were sent towards the Seine had filled him with frustration. Then, on 17 August, when the 2ème DB was ordered to attack Trun, Leclerc at first refused. His American corps commander ‘had to ask him categorically whether he would disobey a written order’. Leclerc eventually backed down. Eisenhower, on becoming Supreme Allied Commander had agreed to de Gaulle’s request that French troops would be allowed to enter Paris first. In return, de Gaulle had promised that the French would do everything to support him. The political could not be separated from the military, especially when it came to symbolic gestures of vital importance to the French.

While Leclerc’s division was stuck under General Gerow’s V Corps, clearing up the south-east corner of the Falaise gap, Patton’s Third Army had advanced much further than Bradley had realized. Patton, with his various corps spread over such a huge area, had to abandon his Jeep and take to the air. ‘This Army covers so much ground that I have to fly in Cubs most places,’ he wrote. ‘I don’t like it. I feel like a clay pigeon.’

Haislip’s XV Corps had moved from Dreux to Mantes on the Seine, where one of his regiments would cross the river on the night of 19 August. Patton, after a flying visit, proudly announced to Bradley that he had ‘pissed in the river that morning’. Meanwhile, XX Corps was advancing on Fontainebleau and Melun south of Paris. After Cook’s XII Corps had taken Orléans and Châteaudun, General Patton, in inimitable fashion, simply told him, ‘Go where you damn well please eastwards!’ Cook said that he wanted to go straight for Koblenz on the Rhine. Patton was all in favour, Cook recorded, but Bradley was less certain. He thought that Montgomery would object because he needed to clear the rocket sites in the Pas-de-Calais as his top priority. But Patton was then forced to hold XII Corps at Orléans because of fuel shortages.

Montgomery was indeed objecting. On 19 August, he had discovered at a meeting with Bradley that Eisenhower wanted to advance with the American 12th Army Group straight across eastern France to the German border. The British and Canadians would clear the Pas-de-Calais, then go into Belgium and take the port of Antwerp, as Montgomery had proposed. But Montgomery despaired of a broad front advance. He wanted both army groups to proceed in a massed group together under a single field commander. This difference of opinion on strategy led to a major rift in the Allied command. It was a battle which the weakened British were now bound to lose.

Tensions between the Americans and the French also began to increase at an even higher level. Eisenhower was tipped off by the British commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean that General de Gaulle was about to fly from Algiers to France. De Gaulle, determined not to be beholden to the Allies in any way, refused to give detailed flight plans and rejected a fighter escort for his Lockheed Lodestar. The Americans, genuinely concerned for his safety, offered to provide a Flying Fortress. De Gaulle then insisted that it must bear French markings and have a French crew, but no French pilots were qualified to fly the aircraft.

On 19 August, de Gaulle arrived at Eisenhower’s headquarters. He heard that the Americans had taken Chartres. ‘We must march on Paris,’ he said to Eisenhower. ‘There must be an organized force there for internal order.’ But Eisenhower wanted to bypass the city. Next day de Gaulle went to Rennes. News arrived that an insurrection had started in Paris. De Gaulle immediately sent General Alphonse Juin with a letter to Eisenhower insisting that it was ‘absolutely necessary to have Leclerc sent into Paris’.75 If this was not done, then he, de Gaulle, would order Leclerc into Paris.

The German commander of Gross-Paris - ‘Greater Paris’ - was now Generalleutnant von Choltitz, the former commander of LXXXIV Corps on the Cotentin coast. Hitler had summoned Choltitz to the Wolfsschanze on the morning of 7 August when the attack on Mortain was beginning. ‘Hitler made me a speech for three-quarters of an hour, as though I were a public meeting,’ he complained later. Hitler, looking sick and bloated, raged at the plotters of 20 July. He claimed that he had unmasked the opposition at one blow and would crush them all. Choltitz was convinced that he really had become deranged and that the war was lost. Hitler, having calmed down, then gave him his orders for Paris. Choltitz had full powers as the commander of a ‘besieged fortress’ over all Wehrmacht personnel in Greater Paris. The city was to be defended to the end.

Choltitz later portrayed himself as an anti-Nazi as well as the saviour of Paris, yet Hitler trusted him because of his performance in southern Russia. Choltitz had indeed carried out Nazi orders faithfully. In British captivity that autumn, Choltitz said to General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, ‘The worst job I ever carried out - which however I carried out with great consistency - was the liquidation of the Jews. I carried out this order down to the very last detail.’76 (Choltitz, however, never faced a war crimes tribunal for these acts.)

Choltitz reached Paris two days later when the Mortain counterattack had stalled. Leutnant Graf von Arnim met him at the Villa Coty, the residence of Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Boineburg-Lengsfeld, whom Choltitz was replacing. Arnim described the fifty-year-old general as ‘short of stature and round in shape, with a rasping voice, wearing a monocle, and on his round head he had a small parting almost right in the middle. He spoke rapidly.’ Arnim, who like many army officers in Paris had been linked to the July plot, was at first cautious with the new commander, purely because Hitler and the OKW evidently trusted him as ‘a bold and experienced general’.

After a simple supper, Choltitz, Boineburg and the chief of staff, Oberst von Unger, went off for a quiet talk, which lasted over two hours. Choltitz told them of Hitler’s instructions: ‘His order was brief: to destroy Paris if the enemy advanced, and defend it from the ruins.’ But Boineburg and Unger, both members of the army resistance, managed to persuade him that to destroy Paris served no useful military purpose. When the three men emerged, it was ‘clear that Boineburg and Unger were on the very best of terms with Choltitz’. Late that night, Arnim accompanied Choltitz to the headquarters of Gross-Paris in the Hôtel Meurice. Choltitz asked him to stay on his staff instead of transferring to a panzer division as he had requested. Arnim, finding that they had many friends in common, agreed.

The Parisian region had several headquarters. The Supreme Command West was at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, while Generalfeldmarschall Sperrle’s Luftwaffe headquarters were in the Palais Bourbon. There was also Admiral Krancke’s Marinekommando West, as well as various SS and Gestapo staffs, Otto Abetz’s embassy and numerous other German state and Nazi Party establishments. Hitler had told Choltitz to send the non-combatants back and form all rear troops into fighting units. Boineburg was returning to Berlin to take up another post. As the officer who had arrested the SS in Paris on 20 July, following Stülpnagel’s orders, his survival was nothing short of miraculous. He had a farewell dinner with Unger and Arnim. They tried to forget the disastrous course of the war and Hitler’s terrible revenge on the plotters by talking of their families, hunting and horses. Boineburg departed the next day from the Hôtel Majestic on the Avenue de Jéna in an armed convoy.

So far, there had been few attacks on German troops in Paris, but German military intelligence warned that an uprising was bound to come as the Allies approached. On 14 August, the day before he had been trapped in the Falaise pocket, Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge had called a conference at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, with Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and army officers, to discuss the defence of Paris. The next day, Choltitz organized a display of force, including seventeen Panther tanks, to rumble through Paris in the hope of discouraging the Resistance. In theory, he had some 25,000 soldiers, but soon afterwards, many of the troops and most of the tanks were taken from him and sent to strengthen positions against Patton’s spearheads.

Choltitz claims he was left with 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. Whatever the exact number of troops remaining, they were of low quality. They included an ‘interpreter battalion’ which, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘did not show much fighting spirit’, and another unit of ‘frequently ill people who were only fit for office work’. Some were German civilians working in Paris, who had been called up at the last moment.

An outer ring of defence, strengthened with Luftwaffe flak batteries, was later put under the command of Generalmajor Hubertus von Aulock (the brother of the commander at Saint-Malo). Aulock, a hard-liner, believed that ‘capitulation means treason’. Choltitz, however, felt that all he could do was to hold the western and southern suburbs as a route of withdrawal for the German troops still west of the Seine. Generalleutnant Bayerlein of the Panzer Lehr Division encountered him in civilian clothes on the Champs-Elysées. Choltitz immediately complained to him that he had no troops for the defence of Paris.

The insurrection, of which Choltitz had been warned, began to gather pace that week. Colonel Rol-Tanguy, the Communist commanding the FFI in the Parisian region and the Ile de France, had already issued an order to cut cables to German positions in the capital.

On 12 August, the railway workers went on strike. Three days later, the Parisian police force of 15,000 men, whom the Germans were attempting to disarm, refused to put on uniform. On that day of the landings in southern France, the Communist Party newspaper, L’Humanité, called for an ‘insurrection populaire’. The next day, 16 August, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the Gaullist national military delegate, arrived from London. He had gone to England to warn General Koenig that an uprising was inevitable. Koenig told him to go back and stop it at all costs. The Allies did not want to take Paris before the beginning of September. That night Colonel Rol-Tanguy issued an instruction on how to attack tanks with Molotov cocktails, following the ‘shining example of thedinamiteros of the Spanish Republican army’.77

On 17 August, the National Council of Resistance and its military wing held a meeting to debate the call to arms. The Communists, led by Rol, wanted to start immediately, even though the Resistance in Paris had little more than 400 weapons. Although the British had parachuted nearly 80,000 sub-machine guns to the Resistance in France, only just over 100 had reached Paris. The Gaullists were in a difficult position. In spite of Koenig’s instruction, they knew that if they refused to act, the Communists would seize the initiative and perhaps power in the capital.

Hopes increased that day, which became know as ‘la grande fuite des Fritz’,‘the great flight of the Fritzes’. The diarist Jean Galtier-Boissière, striding the streets of the capital, observed the departure of senior German officers and office staff with amusement as the Feldgendarmerie directed traffic with their discs on the end of a stick. ‘Along the rue Lafayette,’ he wrote, ‘coming from the luxury hotels around the Etoile, sparkling torpedoes pass by containing purple-faced generals, accompanied by elegant blonde women, who look as if they are off to some fashionable resort.’ The departure was accompanied by a great deal of last-minute looting. The contents of wine cellars were loaded on to Wehrmacht trucks, as well as rolls of carpet, Louis XVI furniture, bicycles and works of art. Parisians, who had tried to ignore their German occupiers during the last four years, now jeered them openly. Sylvia Beach, the founder of the bookshop Shakespeare & Company, described how a crowd of Parisians waved lavatory brushes at them, but then the angry and nervous soldiers opened fire.

The next day, 18 August, Communist posters urging revolt appeared on walls. And early on the morning of 19 August, 3,000 members of the police in civilian clothes, but carrying their pistols, took over the Préfecture de Police. The tricolore was hoisted and they sang the ‘Marseillaise’. Charles Luizet, appointed by de Gaulle as the new head of the Parisian police, slipped into the building on the Ile de la Cité. Amédée Bussière, his predecessor appointed by Vichy, was locked up in his apartment.

The Germans had no idea of events at the Préfecture de Police. ‘A deceptive calm reigned in the city glowing from a hot August sun,’ wrote Leutnant von Arnim later. Choltitz sent Arnim off in an open Kübelwagen with two sergeants as bodyguards on a tour of the city to find out what was happening. The streets were almost entirely empty. They drove along the Seine embankment on the north side and past the Palais de Justice, which was ‘quiet as the grave’. They spotted nothing untoward at the Préfecture de Police. But when they reached the Place Saint-Michel on the left bank they suddenly came under fire. The NCO next to Arnim yelled out as he was hit in the upper arm. They grabbed their machine pistols and fired back blindly. A shot hit one of the front tyres. Arnim slapped the driver’s back and shouted at him, ‘Drive on! Drive on!’ Fortunately for them, the firing came only from one building, and they were able to reach the Feldkommandantur. But the Unteroffizier who had been shot in the arm had also received a bullet in the chest and died that afternoon.

Choltitz, finally hearing of the revolt in the Préfecture de Police, sent infantry in trucks and two tanks to force a surrender. The Panthers had only armour-piercing rounds, which made holes right through the building but caused few casualties. Unable to achieve their objective, the small force withdrew. This caused ecstatic cheering and gave rise to a dangerous optimism. Following Rol-Tanguy’s order to ‘create a permanent state of insecurity among the enemy and to prevent all his movements’, many attacks were carried out on isolated vehicles, but by that evening, the Resistance in Paris was almost out of ammunition.78

Over the next twenty-four hours, Parisians began to build barricades to bottle up the Germans. The rue de Rivoli, on which the Hôtel Meurice stood, was blocked at numerous points all the way to the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. German officers watched from the hotel’s balconies, but soon had to withdraw inside as bullets began to hit the hotel.

Two SS officers arrived at the Hôtel Meurice in an armoured vehicle. Arnim took them up to see Choltitz. They announced that on direct orders from the Führer they were to ‘save’ the Bayeux tapestry, which was in the cellars of the Louvre, by taking it back to Germany. By then the windows of the Meurice were under constant fire from the Louvre, because members of the FFI were shooting at the red and black Nazi banners hanging from the façade of the building. Choltitz pointed out the Louvre and told the two SS officers where the tapestry lay. He remarked that for the finest of the Führer’s soldiers it would surely be a minor matter to take possession of it. The two of them did not dare object to his sarcasm. Persuaded of the impossibility of their task, they withdrew.

Clemens Graf Podewils, a well-known war reporter for the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, was the next visitor. His assignment was ‘to cover the heroic defence of Fortress Paris, and thus strengthen the determination of the homeland to resist’. But it did not take Podewils long to see that the German occupation of the French capital could now be counted in days. Arnim experienced ‘an oppressive sense of paralysis’, wondering what the end would bring.

The next morning, 20 August, a Gaullist group audaciously seized the Hôtel de Ville. It was part of their plan to take over as many key buildings and ministries as possible to install ‘republican legality’ and thwart the revolutionary aspirations of the Communist FTP. The sight of the French tricolore flying from public buildings once more stirred Parisians profoundly. Individuals followed this example and began to display the French flag from their balconies, even in the rue de Rivoli, close to Choltitz’s headquarters. Long lines of Wehrmacht trucks were spotted hidden under the plane trees along the Boulevard de la Madeleine, ready to withdraw eastwards. Rumours began to spread that the Germans were about to pull out.

The Swedish consul-general, Raoul Nordling, then negotiated a truce with Choltitz. The German commander even agreed to recognize the FFI as regular troops and allow the Resistance to hold on to the public buildings in return for respecting German strongholds. The truce was endorsed at a meeting of the National Council for the Resistance, because only one of the Communist delegates was present. Rol-Tanguy was furious when he heard. In any case, sporadic fighting continued. Shirt-sleeved young men and women in summer dresses, some wearing old helmets from the First World War, continued to hold the barricades which had been constructed out of cobblestones, overturned vehicles, bedsteads, furniture and chopped-down trees. Many started to wear red, white and blue brassards with the initials FFI embroidered on them by wives and girlfriends.

On Monday, 21 August, the National Council met again. All of Chaban-Delmas’s arguments to maintain the truce were violently rejected by the Communists, who regarded it as an act of treason. Eventually, a compromise was reached. The truce would not be rejected until the following day. The Communists prepared posters ordering ‘Tous aux barricades!’ Skirmishes between the Germans and the FFI continued. In the Place de l’Odéon, just below the German strongpoint in the Palais de Luxembourg, a grenade was thrown into a German truck, setting it on fire. The Resistance in Paris was dismayed that the BBC still made no mention of the uprising.

That day, the British 11th Armoured Division relieved Leclerc’s 2ème DB near Argentan, allowing them to be ready ‘for new missions’. All the division’s thoughts lay ‘in the direction of Paris’. They heard over the radio that American reconnaissance patrols had already reached Rambouillet and the Forêt de Fontainebleau, while the 7th Armored Division was preparing to cross the Seine south of Paris at Melun, Montereau and Sens. ‘What are we doing here?’ was their dismayed reaction. ‘The honor of relieving Paris is surely ours. We have been given a specific promise.’

Leclerc’s troops knew that Paris was in a ferment, and their understandably impatient commander felt that ‘Paris cannot wait much longer for its solution’. As a Frenchman, and especially a conservative Catholic who feared some sort of Communist coup in the capital, he found it impossible to accept Eisenhower’s argument that Paris must wait to allow a rapid advance towards the Rhine.

Without seeking General Gerow’s permission, Leclerc ordered one of his officers, Jacques de Guillebon, with a squadron of light tanks and a platoon of infantry in half-tracks, to carry out a detailed reconnaissance towards Versailles and perhaps on to Paris. He also told Capitaine Alain de Boissieu (de Gaulle’s future son-in-law) to take the American liaison officers off on a sightseeing trip to keep them out of the way. But the next day, one of them discovered what was happening and tipped off V Corps headquarters. Gerow was furious. He immediately ordered that the patrols hould be called back, but Leclerc ignored his instruction. This marked the rapid deterioration of what had started as a good relationship. Gerow had previously acknowledged that Leclerc was not just the commander of a division, but the senior French officer with the Allied armies in Normandy. Now Gerow shared the suspicion of many senior American officers that the Gaullists were fighting their own war for France, not the Allies’ war against Germany. He would have been even angrier if he had known that the 2ème DB had been secretly stockpiling fuel, through over-indenting and even stealing from gasoline dumps. The French troops were acutely aware that if Leclerc disobeyed orders by making an unauthorized dash for Paris, the Americans would cut off their supplies.

While Patton’s divisions were crossing the Seine around Paris, the British and Canadians north of the Falaise gap slogged on eastwards towards Lisieux and the lower section of the river. Unlike the Americans to the south, they faced three unbroken infantry divisions which fought in retreat, from village to village and river to river. These small skirmishes cost a surprising number of lives. When a company from the Tyneside Scottish battalion with the 49th Infantry Division reached a village, a detachment of the 21st SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment which had just withdrawn promptly mortared the place. The British rapidly took shelter. A young soldier, Private Petrie, entered the house of a local scholar and climbed under a desk in the library. At that moment, a shell splinter from a mortar bomb came through the ceiling, through a book on top of the desk - it happened to be Kleist’s Prince of Homburg - and finally skewered the unfortunate soldier’s throat. He died rapidly and was buried by his comrades in a neighbouring garden as soon as the shelling ceased. The liberation of this one small village had cost eight dead and ten wounded.

In the woods and valleys of the Pays d’Auge, the Germans laid ambushes for tanks with their 88 mm flak guns. On 22 August, twenty-six Shermans were lost in a single attack. Disasters like this were even more of a shock when inflicted by a supposedly beaten enemy. The advance to the Seine was not very rapid as a result. A chaplain with the Wessex division wrote of the enemy, ‘We all know he’s lost the war, and feel all the more annoyed at any casualties.’

That same day near Lisieux, ‘the infantry captured a pair of villainous looking SS men,’ a gunner lieutenant noted in his diary, ‘and I watched as they were interviewed at battalion headquarters. They were pretty arrogant, and after they were led off I had to wonder whether they even got as far as the PoW cage.’

In many places ordinary German soldiers paid for the crimes of the SS. South of Lisieux, near Livarot, a last group of retreating SS soldiers stopped at a large farm and asked for milk. The milkmaids told them that there was none left. They carried on a couple of hundred yards and rested in a ditch. Soon afterwards, they watched some Canadian scouts appear. The young women dashed out to cut flowers for their liberators. As soon as the Canadians moved on, the SS soldiers returned to the farm and wreaked their revenge on the young women with sub-machine guns and grenades, killing six of them. ‘We took the same number of German prisoners as there had been victims at the farm at Le Mesnil-Bacley,’ a member of the local Resistance wrote later, ‘and made them dig their own graves ... And once they had finished they were publicly executed.’ He then added, ‘To celebrate the liberation a few days later at Livarot, we paraded all the women who had had relations with the occupiers, after having shorn their heads.’ Elsewhere, one woman noted cynically that when the Canadians arrived, the girls who had compromised themselves the most during the German occupation were the first to approach the victors, ‘smiles on their lips and their arms full of flowers’. She also observed that when Allied troops threw chocolate and cigarettes to young women as they drove by, they waited until the truck had disappeared, then knelt down a little shamefacedly to pick them up.

Many Normans were cynical about members of the Resistance. ‘The explosive growth of the FFI is incredible,’ observed a local lawyer. ‘All the village boys who chased girls and danced on Saturday nights appear with a brassard and a submachinegun.’ Yet Allied troops greatly appreciated the help of the true Resistance fighters. ‘The Maquis are doing an excellent job, we see more and more of them,’ a Canadian major wrote home. And Myles Hildyard at 7th Armoured Division noted in his diary that, during the advance to the Seine, ‘every 11th Hussar [armoured] car has a Maquis on it and they have been invaluable’.

Also near Livarot, a troop of the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards joined a company of the 1st/5th Queens soon after dawn. The company commander waved them to a halt. The troop leader, Lieutenant Woods, jumped down. ‘Would you like a Panzer Mark IV for breakfast?’ the infantry officer asked. He led him down a track to an orchard. ‘Moving hesitantly in open ground on the next ridge about 800 yards away was the quarry, which had clearly no idea that he was observed.’ Woods brought his tank through the apple orchard thick with foliage and fruit. They spent a seemingly endless time manoeuvring so that both the commander and the gunner could see the target, which drove Trooper Rose, the driver, to distraction as the tension mounted: ‘The minutes ticked by; the dialogue in the turret verged on the acrimonious.’ Finally, they had a clear shot. The first armour-piercing round hit the suspension towards the rear. The panzer’s turret began to traverse round towards them. The second round also struck, but the gun continued to turn towards them. Only after the third strike did it stop. At first there was just a wisp of smoke, then flames appeared and the crew baled out frantically.

The Americans, having returned to the plan of a long envelopment of the Germans retreating to the Seine, sent first the 5th Armored Division and then Corlett’s XIX Corps to swing left up the west bank of the river. But they too found it hard going and had a tough fight at Elbeuf, where Generalfeldmarschall Model had ordered his fragmented divisions to hold them off to protect the crossing places further downstream.

This manoeuvre also led to another row between the Americans and the British. Bradley, at his meeting with Montgomery and Dempsey on 19 August, had offered the British enough trucks to move two divisions to make this right-flanking move themselves. Dempsey declined on the grounds that he could not extricate them quickly enough.

‘If you can’t do it, Bimbo,’ Bradley replied, ‘have you any objection to our giving it a try? It’ll mean cutting across your front.’

‘Why no, not at all,’ Dempsey said. ‘We’d be delighted to have you do it.’

But when Dempsey was later questioned by British newspaper correspondents about the advance to the Seine, he replied that it would have been faster if they had not been held up by US Army traffic across their front. Monty apologized to Bradley afterwards, saying that Dempsey must have been misquoted, but Bradley was unconvinced. He never forgave Dempsey for that remark. Some years later, he described it as ‘one of the greatest injustices ever done to the American army’.

On 21 August, the Canadian and British armies had reached a line running from Deauville on the coast to Lisieux and then Orbec. The Canadians were reinforced with the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade, which took Deauville the next day, and the Royal Netherlands Brigade (Princess Irene’s), which advanced towards Honfleur on the Seine estuary. A Czech armoured brigade also arrived right at the end of the battle. The roads leading to the Seine crossings were frequently blocked by German vehicles, some abandoned because of lack of fuel, others burned out from fighter-bomber attacks.

Once again Typhoon pilots made wildly excessive claims. They estimated that they had destroyed 222 armoured vehicles, but out of 150 abandoned by the Germans, only thirteen were found to have been destroyed by air attack. But there can be no doubt that their cannon accounted for a large proportion of the 3,468 German vehicles and guns. The Typhoons of 123 Wing also suffered a nasty shock over the Seine, losing four aircraft when ‘bounced’ by Messerschmitt 109s, which hardly ever managed to penetrate the protective screen of Mustang and Spitfire squadrons patrolling inland.

The Germans still on the west bank of the lower Seine crossed by night, using boats and even a pontoon bridge, which was disassembled at dawn to avoid air attacks. ‘Ferry points for the Seine crossing were prepared and allotted to divisions,’ wrote General Bayerlein. ‘This allocation was not observed, and everyone crossed the river wherever he felt like it. Most of the ferries were confiscated by the SS, who generally did not allow members of other units to use them.’ Artillery units had held on to their horses and some of them swam their animals across. On 23 August, when bad weather kept away the Allied fighter-bombers, the 21st Panzer Pioneer Battalion began to build a bridge at Rouen to get their tanks across. But the next day was sunny and the bridge was destroyed two hours after it was finished. The steep wooded sides of the twisting valley at least allowed the Germans to hide during daylight.

Model’s headquarters at La Roche-Guyon had been abandoned on the approach of American forces. Fifth Panzer Army moved its command post first to Rouen and then to Amiens, where Eberbach and his chief of staff, Gersdorff, were later captured by the Guards Armoured Division, though Gersdorff managed to escape a few hours later.

South of Paris, the remains of the pioneer group from the 276th Infanterie-Division reached Melun on 22 August in their Citroën just before Patton’s spearhead arrived. Gefreiter Spiekerkötter and his comrades thought that they had reached safety and could carry on to Metz. But as soon as they were identified as pioneers by the Feldgendarmerie they were ordered into Paris to prepare bridges over the Seine for demolition. Reunited with other members of their battalion, they received new Opel-Blitz trucks, but when they drove into the Place de la Concorde, they became increasingly aware of the empty streets and the threatening silence. Barricades manned by the FFI could be seen in side streets.

They were led to a fort used in 1871 during the Siege of Paris which was a naval depot for torpedo warheads. Kriegsmarine sailors helped them load the explosive into the trucks. Later, driving down the Champs-Elysées, they heard a shot. In a panic, all the pioneers opened fire in all directions. They discovered, shamefacedly, that one of their tyres had exploded. Fortunately nobody was killed.

On 22 August, the FFI ended the truce and went on to a general offensive with the order ‘Tous aux barricades!’ On the same day, General von Choltitz received the clearest order from Hitler that Paris was to be destroyed. It was also the day on which Ralph Nordling, the brother of the Swedish consul-general in Paris, managed to reach Patton’s headquarters at Dreux to ask him to save Paris. (He had been preceded by Commandant Roger Gallois, Colonel Rol-Tanguy’s representative, with a similar plea.) Major General Gilbert Cook, the commander of XII Corps, was present and recorded the conversation.

‘Paris should be declared an open city and spared,’ Nordling said, having described conditions in the city in a perhaps over-apocalyptic manner.

‘I can open it wide and fold it back in 24 hours,’ Patton replied.

‘The Germans there are in too great a force.’

‘I am better informed’, said Patton, presumably as a result of what Gallois had told him in the early hours of that morning.

He agreed to send Nordling and his companions on to Bradley’s headquarters near Laval to plead their case there.

Both Nordling and Gallois, who had also been sent on to 12th Army Group, were assisted by urgent signals to Eisenhower from de Gaulle and General Koenig, who had learned of their arrival. Bradley, who was with Eisenhower at Granville, heard about their arguments from his chief of staff, Brigadier General Edwin L. Sibert. They had told him that ‘between 4,000 and 5,000 children and old people were dying each day from starvation’ and that the Metro and the sewage system had been mined.

Eisenhower had already been weakening in his resolve to bypass Paris. ‘Well, what the hell, Brad,’ he said, ‘I guess we’ll have to go in.’ Bradley agreed that they had no option. Eisenhower had to sell the decision to General Marshall back in Washington as a purely military one to aid the Resistance. Roosevelt would be furious if he thought that the change in plan was an attempt to install de Gaulle in power.79

At 19.30 hours, Leclerc was waiting anxiously beside the landing strip at 12th Army Group headquarters for Bradley’s return. Finally the Piper Cub appeared and taxied towards Leclerc’s Jeep. ‘Well, you win,’ Bradley said to him as he climbed out. ‘They’ve decided to send you to Paris.’ Leclerc returned as quickly as possible to his divisional command post. Even before his Jeep came to a halt, Leclerc shouted to one of his staff officers, ‘Mouvement immédiat sur Paris!’ The order brought tears of fierce joy. Even for those from the colonial army who had never seen Paris before, its freedom represented everything that they had fought for during the last few years.

General Gerow at V Corps had already been summoned to First US Army headquarters, where he was briefed on the uprising, the Resistance running out of ammunition and thousands supposedly dying each day from starvation. General Eisenhower, he was told, had given the order that a force of French, American and British troops start for Paris immediately.80 ‘The city was to be entered only if the resistance was such that it could be overcome with light forces. There was to be no severe fighting, air or artillery bombardment so as to avoid the destruction of the city.’ As soon as Paris was secured, General Gerow was to hand over to General Koenig, who had been named as the military governor of the capital by de Gaulle. Gerow immediately issued a warning order to the 2ème DB and the 102nd Cavalry Group, to be on one-hour standby for a rapid move to the east.

Just after midnight, V Corps issued its orders. The 2ème DB with B Troop of the 102nd Cavalry Squadron was to cross the line of departure at midday, to ‘gain control of Paris in coordination with the French Forces of the Interior, and be prepared to move east as ordered by the Corps Commander’. The American 4th Infantry Division, with the rest of 102nd Cavalry, was to take a more southerly route. But Leclerc had already issued his own orders before midnight. And as Gerow’s staff noted, the 2ème DB did not wait: ‘The march on Paris began that same night.’

On 23 August,the 2ème DB’s three groupementstactiques, the equivalent of the American combat command, headed south-east in heavy rain with their seemingly endless columns of Staghound armoured cars, Stuart light tanks, half-tracks, Shermans, tank destroyers, Jeeps and trucks. Leclerc, preceding the main force, reached the Château de Rambouillet, the official country residence of French presidents. He sent a message back to de Gaulle, who replied that he would join him there. Leclerc then began to interview members of the local Resistance and gendarmerie, hoping to discover the least-defended route into the capital. It appeared from their information and from Commandant de Guillebon, commanding the reconnaissance patrol, that he should avoid Versailles and swing further round to the south of Paris. The fact that this might get in the way of the US 4th Infantry Division did not concern him.

In the town of Rambouillet, Leclerc’s officers were surprised to find at the Hôtel du Grand Veneur a cast of characters worthy of an improbable play. Most were journalists, waiting impatiently for the liberation of Paris. Ernest Hemingway, officially a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine, was far more interested in acting as an irregular soldier with the local Resistance. He openly carried a heavy automatic pistol, even though it was strictly illegal for a non-combatant. According to John Mowinckel, an American intelligence officer there, Hemingway wanted to interrogate a pathetic German prisoner hauled in by his new Resistance friends. ‘I’ll make him talk,’ he boasted. ‘Take his boots off. We’ll grill his toes with a candle.’ Mowinckel told Hemingway to go to hell and released the boy, who clearly knew nothing.

Others at Le Grand Veneur included David Bruce, then of the OSS and later American ambassador to Paris. There was also Major Airey Neave of MI9, the secret British organization to assist the escape of prisoners of war. Neave was in pursuit of a British sergeant who had betrayed a French Resistance network to the Germans. The combat historian Sam Marshall also turned up. He had to protect Hemingway afterwards with false testimony stating that he had never seen him carry a gun. Irwin Shaw, later author ofThe Young Lions, also appeared with a camera crew from the Signal Corps. This cannot have eased the atmosphere, since Hemingway was in the process of appropriating his lover, Mary Welsh, who later became the fourth Mrs Hemingway.

Shaw was followed by a group of American war correspondents, all no doubt longing to claim that they were the first to enter Paris. ‘They looked like “50-mission fliers” with crushed hats to match,’ wrote Marshall’s companion, Lieutenant John Westover. ‘Among them were Ernie Pyle, and Bob Capa. Pyle was wearing a beret which made him look like Field Marshal Montgomery.’ Some of them were irritated, although not entirely surprised, to find Hemingway acting as if he were the local military commander. When Bruce Grant of the Chicago Daily News made a sarcastic remark about ‘General Hemingway and his Maquis’, Hemingway walked over and punched him.

While so many could think only of Paris’s liberation, senior American commanders were far more preoccupied with the advance on Germany. Patton flew that day to Laval to see Bradley before he left for a meeting with Montgomery and Eisenhower. Both Patton and Bradley were still worried that Eisenhower might give in to Montgomery’s demand that both the 21st and the 12th Army Groups should turn north. According to Patton, ‘Bradley was madder than I have ever seen him and wondered aloud “what the Supreme Commander amounted to”.’ Patton told him that the two of them and Hodges should offer to resign unless Eisenhower agreed to head east, instead of north into the Pas-de-Calais and Belgium, as Montgomery demanded. But Patton’s fears were groundless. Eisenhower by this stage felt that Montgomery was disloyal and he refused to listen to his arguments.

When de Gaulle reached the Château de Rambouillet that evening, he was deeply concerned about the state of affairs in Paris. He feared that the Communist-led rising could lead to a disaster comparable to the Paris Commune of 1871. After de Gaulle had supped off cold C-Rations in the ornate surroundings of Rambouillet’s state dining room, Leclerc briefed him on his plan of attack. De Gaulle approved. ‘You are lucky,’ he said to him after a long pause, thinking of the glory that awaited the liberator of Paris. Camped out beside their vehicles in the sodden park and forest, the soldiers of the 2ème DB cooked their rations, cleaned their weapons and shaved carefully in preparation for the welcome which awaited them.

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