When Colonel Rol-Tanguy gave the order ‘Tous aux barricades!’ on 22 August, the plan was copied from the anarchists in Barcelona in July 1936. There, the rising of the right-wing Spanish generals in the city had been blocked by barricades erected by the working class. Rol wanted to bring all Wehrmacht traffic to a halt and besiege the Germans in their main strongpoints, which included Choltitz’s headquarters in the Hôtel Meurice, the Palais de Luxembourg, the Ecole Militaire and Invalides, the Assemblée Nationale in the Palais Bourbon, and the Prinz Eugen barracks by the Place de la République.
The call to arms was relayed by posters, handbills and a new wireless station, Radiodiffusion de la Nation Française, which acted as the voice of the Resistance. Every time it played the forbidden ‘Marseillaise’, people opened their windows and turned up the volume so that those in the street outside could hear it. Very few barricades were erected in the fashionable 7th, 8th and 16th arrondissements of western Paris. The vast majority were in the north and eastern parts, which had voted overwhelmingly for the Popular Front in 1936.
The tension in Paris was palpable as rumours became even more exaggerated. Some said that the Americans were at the gates, others that two panzer divisions were approaching from the north and the city might be destroyed. Colonel Rol continued to issue calls to arms: ‘Every barricade should be a recruiting centre recalling the “Patrie en danger” of the Revolution.’ He instructed the FFI to move around the city through the Metro tunnels to avoid the tanks guarding key intersections. Appalled to hear that ‘acts of looting seem to have taken on an unacceptable scale’, he also ordered that anyone caught would be shot immediately and a notice stating ‘Pillager’ placed on the corpse.
Colette’s husband, Maurice Goudeket, described those ‘strange, indecisive days’: ‘The Germans held Paris only by little islands, and with a few tanks which made their way clumsily through the streets. Paris babbled the first words of a forgotten liberty, newspapers no larger than a leaflet began to appear, flags were made out of scraps of cloth. While waiting for an imminent settling of accounts, the Parisian rediscovered in his deepest memory the solidarity of the barricades, a heroic banter, a smell of gunpowder and sweat.’
Despite the rumours, both Communist and Gaullist leaders were now certain that the report of 150 Tiger tanks being sent to Paris was false. So the danger that the rising in Paris would be crushed like the Polish Home Army in Warsaw greatly diminished. The Gaullists were also prepared to join the fight, now that they had secured the ministries. One of the first and most satisfying tasks was to remove the official portraits and busts of Marshal Pétain. Alexandre Parodi, de Gaulle’s representative, even held a symbolic council of ministers at the Hôtel Matignon, the official residence of the prime minister. For the Gaullist leaders in Paris, the arrival of the 2ème DB was vital to give substance to their skeleton administration.
The Communists, misled by their own propaganda, believed that power lay in street barricades and in the committees of the Resistance. Carried away by revolutionary exultation, they could not imagine that the last thing that Stalin wanted was a Communist uprising in France which would antagonize his American suppliers of Lend-Lease.
At dawn on 24 August, the 2ème DB moved out from the forest of Rambouillet. Leclerc sent a detachment of Spahis Marocains in their light Stuart tanks towards Versailles as a diversion to persuade the Germans that this was their main line of advance. The rest of Colonel Paul de Langlade’sgroupement tactique, accompanied by a squadron of the American 102nd Cavalry, was to advance across the Chevreuse valley, but they soon faced heavy opposition in the Bois de Meudon.The 12ème Chasseurs d’Afrique lost three Shermans to anti-tank guns. Their ultimate objective was the Pont de Sèvres, on the western edge of Paris.
The day was grey and wet, to such a degree that it interfered with radio communications. Colonel Billotte’s column headed for Arpajon and Longjumeau, while Colonel Dio’s groupement tactique was kept in reserve. Billotte’s force was headed by Commandant Putz’s battalion of the 2ème Régiment de Marche du Tchad. Putz had been one of the most respected commanders in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. His 9ème Compagnie was known as ‘La Nueve’ because it was manned almost entirely by Spanish Republicans. Their commander, Capitaine Raymond Dronne, a red-headed stalwart with a powerful paunch, had been chosen because he could keep his Spanish socialists, Communists and anarchists in order.
Putz’s first major skirmish was in Longjumeau. Ten of his wounded were taken to the civilian hospital in the town and the bodies of eight men killed in the battle were placed in its morgue. One of the divisional chaplains, the Reverend Père Roger Fouquer, came across a terrible scene in a house partly demolished by a shell. He found two nuns kneeling by a young mother who, having just given birth, had been killed by a shell splinter through the chest. Her baby lay silently beside her dead body. Then the church bells rang out to celebrate liberation.
In many places it was a day of joy and horror. ‘Slam’ Marshall and his companion John Westover in their Jeep ‘Sweet Eloise’ joined one of Langlade’s columns as it made its way through villages and towns on the south-western edges of the city. They attached an American flag to distinguish themselves from the tricolores all around. Advancing slowly, bumper to bumper, Westover described the scene as ‘a big disordered picnic’. Vehicles were brought to a halt by rejoicing crowds, forcing kisses and bottles on the soldiers, who begged to be let through unhindered. ‘We laughed so much at the insanity of the whole thing that we cried,’ he wrote.
There were tragedies too that day. ‘On one occasion a beautiful young woman approached a Sherman of the 501ème Régiment de Chars de Combat, raising her arms, certain of being pulled aboard, when a German machine gun opened up on them. The girl slipped back down to the ground, snagging on the tank’s tracks, her best summer dress peppered with bloody bullet holes.’
By midday Putz’s column had reached Antony, just south of Paris. On his right, another column had a lively encounter near Orly airfield, but then came up against 88 mm anti-tank guns outside Fresnes prison. The guns were manned by German soldiers who had been serving a sentence there. They still wore their canvas prison uniforms. Desert veterans of the 2ème DB thought that it made them look like their old adversaries, the Afrika Korps. After losing two Shermans, the remaining French tanks managed to knock out the guns. One charged straight into the courtyard of the prison. Some vehicles were still burning outside. Capitaine Dupont walked past one which was nearly burnt-out, but grenades in it suddenly exploded and killed him. Only three days before, he had told Father Fouquer that he knew he was going to die.
General Gerow, vainly hoping to keep the French division on a tight leash, had left his headquarters at Chartres that morning accompanied by his chief of staff, Brigadier General Charles Helmick. They could not find Leclerc anywhere. Gerow had to return to Chartres and told Helmick to seek him out ‘and remain with him as senior United States Army representative’.
Irritated by the way Leclerc had pushed his advance round to the south without warning Corps headquarters, Gerow told his 4th Infantry Division to push on into Paris without waiting for the 2ème DB. Having no doubt seen the delays caused by welcoming crowds, he jumped to the conclusion that the 2ème DB was taking it easy. He is supposed to have claimed to Bradley that the French troops were doing little more than ‘dance their way into Paris’. But the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division was also held up by ‘over-enthusiastic French mademoiselles’ who insisted on kissing the drivers.
Gerow was wrong. Nobody could have been more impatient that day than General Leclerc. To speed the advance he had already pushed his reserve, the groupement tactique Dio, into the battle for the industrial outer suburbs, but Antony was not taken until 16.00 hours. The line of advance via Arpajon had turned out to be more heavily defended than he had expected.
Leclerc, fearing that German reinforcements might reach the capital from the north, was desperate to have troops in the centre of Paris by nightfall. To encourage the Resistance to hold out, he sent orders to the senior pilot of his spotter planes to deliver a message packed in a weighted musette bag. It said simply, ‘Tenez bon, nous arrivons’ - ‘Hold on, we’re coming.’
Capitaine Dronne’s company had managed to bypass Fresnes and reached the Croix-de-Berny. They caught their first sight of the Eiffel Tower. The company then received orders to return to the Orléans road. They were intercepted by General Leclerc, his tank goggles round his kepi, tapping the ground impatiently with his malacca cane.
‘Dronne!’ Leclerc called to him. ‘What are you doing there?’
‘I’m returning to the axis [of advance] as ordered, mon général.’
Leclerc told him that that was idiotic. He took him by the sleeve and pointed to the capital. ‘Slip straight into Paris, to the very heart of Paris.’
The unshaven Dronne, standing to attention, with his battered kepi and sweat-stained American uniform stretched over his belly, saluted. Leclerc, who had been questioning civilians, told him to take what other forces he could muster and avoid the main routes. He was to get to the centre of Paris and tell them to hold on and not lose courage. The rest of the division would be in the city the next day.
At 19.30 hours, Dronne’s ‘La Nueve’, mustering fifteen vehicles including half-tracks bearing the names of Spanish Civil War battles, such as ‘Madrid’, ‘Guadalajara’ and ‘Brunete’, set off. This company of Spanish Republicans was reinforced at the last moment with a platoon of engineers and three Shermans from the 501ème Chars de Combat, a regiment of Gaullist loyalists. Their tanks bore the names of Napoleonic battles from 1814, ‘Montmirail’, ‘Romilly’ and ‘Champaubert’. Their commander was Lieutenant Michard, a priest from the White Fathers.81
The half-track ‘Guadalajara’ led the way, guided by a local on an ancient motorcycle. He knew all the back streets and where the German roadblocks were, so Dronne’s little column threaded its way safely through the remaining suburbs to the Porte d’Italie, the southernmost point of Paris. The men cheered as they passed the city boundary. The column was frequently held up by ecstatic civilians, unable to believe that these were French troops arriving to save the capital. Another guide, an Armenian, presented himself on a moped. Dronne told him to take them to the Hôtel de Ville, but when he returned to his Jeep, he found that a heavily built woman from Alsace had planted herself on the front to act as the Republican symbol of ‘Marianne’.
Dodging down back streets away from the Avenue d’Italie, they headed north to the Pont d’Austerlitz. As soon as the column reached the far bank of the Seine, they turned left along the quais. At 21.20 hours, the tanks and half-tracks rumbled into the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville.
At the other end of Paris, Colonel de Langlade’s tanks finally reached their objective, the Pont de Sèvres. On the order of Commandant Massu, later famous for his pitiless role in the battle for Algiers, a Sherman of the Chasseurs d’Afrique began to cross the bridge, accompanied by four members of the FFI on foot. To their relief, they encountered no mines, but they were under intermittent fire from a German artillery battery sited on the racecourse at Longchamp.
At the Hôtel de Ville, Capitaine Dronne ordered his force to take up all-round defence. He entered the building and strode up the grand staircase to report. Leaders of the Resistance, led by Georges Bidault, embraced him. Bidault tried to make a speech, but the emotion of the moment was too much for him.
Outside, civilians crowded round the tanks and half-tracks. At first they were nervous, but when they saw the divisional symbol of a map of France with the Cross of Lorraine, they went wild, embracing and kissing the grizzled soldiers. Several people ran to nearby churches. Bells began to peal out and soon afterwards the great bell of Notre-Dame, ‘Le Bourdon’, began to sound across the city in the twilight. The housebound Colette, with tears of joy in her eyes, wrote of that momentous evening ‘when the night rose like a dawn’.
It was the pealing of Le Bourdon which finally convinced the people of Paris. A woman refugee from Normandy was undressing for bed when she heard it. Then the street outside began to fill with people yelling, ‘They’re here!’
At the far end of the rue de Rivoli from the Hôtel de Ville, in the anteroom to his office, Choltitz and his staff officers were drinking champagne from the Meurice’s cellar. On that humid August night, they were discussing the St Bartholomew’s Eve massacre of Huguenots in Paris and whether there were any similarities to their own position. When they heard the bells, Choltitz stood up and went through to his desk. He rang Generalleutnant Speidel and, once he was through, he held the receiver towards the window. Speidel knew immediately what it signified. Choltitz, who knew that he would not see Germany again for a long time, asked him to look after his family.
While the bells rang out, the pioneer group from the 256th Infanterie-Division, with their truck-loads of torpedoes, were guarding the Alexandre III bridge opposite the Quai d’Orsay. Their officer, Leutnant Novick, had been summoned to an orders group. On his return, his men begged him to let them slip out of Paris. Novick replied firmly that they still had their duty to perform. The soldiers were less afraid of the prospect of fighting than of being lynched by the population when they surrendered.
Dronne’s soldiers, on the other hand, received every kindness from civilians eager to be of service. They rang up the young men’s relatives so that they could announce their arrival. Women brought mattresses and precious cakes of soap, and even took their filthy uniforms away to wash and press them.
The population of Paris rose early the next morning in an atmosphere of tense excitement. Many women had not slept, having stitched through the night to make flags and prepare dresses in patriotic colours to greet their liberators. One woman, who made an American flag, cut all the stars individually from an old dress.
After the days of rain, Friday, 25 August, the feast of France’s patron saint, Saint-Louis, proved to be a beautiful sunny day once the morning mist evaporated. Crowds gathered in the south-west of the city to greet Langlade’s troops. As news spread, others swarmed to the Porte d’Orléans and the Porte d’Italie, where Commandant Putz led Billotte’s column into Paris. Leclerc followed, escorted by Spahis in Staghound armoured cars. He was met by the Gaullist Resistance leader, Chaban-Delmas, and they headed for the Gare Montparnasse, which Leclerc had designated as his divisional command post because of its good communications.
Ecstatic citizens surged forward waving improvised flags and holding their fingers up in V for victory signs. Streets cleared in a moment of panic when firing broke out, then filled again almost as quickly a short time later. The chaplain, Father Fouquer, described it as ‘a noisy and lyrical carnival punctuated by shots’. Armoured columns were brought to a halt as young women in their best summer dresses clambered up to kiss the crew, while men proffered long-hoarded bottles to toast the Liberation. Fouquer, who was wearing the same combat kit and black tank beret of the 50ème Chars de Combat, complained good-naturedly that ‘never in my life have I had cheeks so coloured by lipstick’. The soldiers called out to the women, ‘Careful! Don’t kiss him too much. He’s our chaplain.’
Yet amid the singing of the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘Internationale’, Father Fouquer’s thoughts were mixed. He could not stop thinking about the death of Capitaine Dupont at Fresnes the previous afternoon. He also eyed the crowd with a certain scepticism. ‘In the spontaneous outpouring which accompanied the enthusiasm of the Liberation,’ he wrote, ‘it is hard to distinguish the real Resistance fighters from the parasites, that’s to say the miliciens and the collaborators of the day before.’
For the Parisians in the streets, this was not an Allied victory, it was entirely French. The shame of 1940 and the Occupation seemed to have been obliterated. One young woman remembered glowing with pride at the sight of the Sherman tanks, with their French names: ‘Victorious, Liberty advanced on their tracks. France delivered by France. It was exalting to be part of that nation.’ The fact that the 2ème DB would never have reached France in its present form without American help was entirely overlooked in the delirious patriotism of the moment.
The leading American elements from the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron and the 4th Infantry Division also entered Paris at 07.30 hours from the southern side. They found ‘the people bewildered and afraid of us. They were not sure whether we were Americans or Germans. ’ But once they were convinced of the Americans’ identity ‘then the fun started’. Civilians helped pull aside the barricades to let them through. Within an hour, they were outside Notre-Dame. Having been told that the Parisians were starving, American soldiers thought that they looked healthy. ‘French girls, beautiful girls, were climbing all over us and giving us flowers,’ a staff sergeant wrote. ‘Some of those girls had the most beautiful teeth. They must have been getting good food somewhere.’
Their progress had been slow through crowds shouting, ‘Merci! Merci! Sank you, sank you! Vive l’Amérique!’ ‘At every one of the numerous halts,’ Colonel Luckett of the 12th Infantry Regiment recorded, ‘mothers would hold up their children to be kissed, young girls would hug the grinning soldiers and cover them with kisses, old men saluted, and young men vigorously shook hands and patted the doughboys on the back.’ Unlike General Gerow, their corps commander, Luckett and his men did not seem to mind that the 2ème DB were the stars of the show. The 4th Infantry Division freely recognized that ‘Paris belonged to the French’.
General Gerow entered the city at 09.30 hours and also headed for the Montparnasse railway station to keep an eye on Leclerc. Gerow had the same reaction as his soldiers that the accounts of mass starvation had been somewhat exaggerated. ‘The people of Paris were still well dressed and appeared well fed,’ he reported at the time, but later amended this by saying that ‘there were no signs of a long-standing malnutrition except in the poorer classes’. Americans simply did not appreciate how much physical survival during the Occupation had depended either on paying black-market prices or on having contacts in the countryside. Poorer Parisians had indeed suffered greatly.
The triumphal processions changed rapidly when columns approached the centres of German resistance. On the south-western side of Paris, Massu’s men cleared the Bois de Boulogne, then Langlade’s units advanced through the 16th arrondissement towards the Arc de Triomphe.
Colonel Dio’s groupement tactique had some of the most heavily defended German strongpoints as their objectives - the Ecole Militaire, the Invalides and the Palais Bourbon of the Assemblée Nationale. Meanwhile, Capitaine Alain de Boissieu, with a squadron of Stuart light tanks and some Shermans from the 12ème Cuirassiers, headed towards the Boulevard Saint-Michel to tackle the German defences in and around the Palais de Luxembourg, which housed the Senate. The young cavalry officer was slightly surprised to find himself reinforced by the ‘Fabien’ battalion of the Communist FTP.
In the meantime some Staghound armoured cars manned by Spahis Marocains had already reached the Boulevard Saint-Michel, having come from the east via the rue Saint-Jacques. The diarist Jean Galtier-Boissière was in his bookshop near the Sorbonne when he heard that Leclerc’s troops had arrived. He hurried out with his wife to see what was happening. ‘A vibrant crowd,’ he wrote, ‘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 overalls and little red side-caps, there are clusters of girls, women, boys and Fifis wearing armbands. People lining the street applaud, blow kisses, shake their hands.’
Once Boissieu’s force was in position, an officer blew a whistle. ‘Allons, les femmes, descendez! On attaque le Sénat!’ The young women climbed down from the armoured vehicles, and gunners and loaders dropped back inside their turrets. German mortars in the Jardins du Luxembourg began to open fire, but the mass of civilians still followed the armoured vehicles towards the fighting. Boissieu, guessing that the Germans had an observation post on top of the palace’s dome, ordered two of the Shermans to fire on it. They traversed their turrets, raising their guns to maximum elevation. A moment after they fired, he saw the German mortar controllers hurled into the air, then fall on the roof. But the large German force was too well entrenched in the park to force a rapid surrender.
Near the Arc de Triomphe, as Langlade’s column advanced, a crowd including the actor Yves Montand and the singer Edith Piaf gathered to watch the surrender of the Germans in the Hôtel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber. They cheered as the prisoners were led out, but the head of the Protestant church in France, Pasteur Boegner, then looked on in horror when four bareheaded German soldiers, with their field-grey tunics unbuttoned, were dragged off to be shot. Edith Piaf managed to stop a young Fifi from throwing a grenade into a truck full of German prisoners.
Massu, who had taken the surrender, walked with Langlade up to the Arc de Triomphe to salute the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Above them, a huge tricolore, which had just been hoisted inside the arch by Paris firemen, moved gently in the breeze. But then a tank shell screamed over their heads. A Panther on the Place de la Concorde at the far end of the Champs-Elysées had spotted some of Langlade’s tank destroyers move into position on either side of the Arc de Triomphe. Their commanders yelled their fire orders. One gave the range as 1,500 metres, but his gunner, a Parisian, suddenly remembered from his schooldays that the Champs-Elysées was 1,800 metres long. He made an adjustment and scored a first-round hit. The crowd surged forward and sang the ‘Marseillaise’. Pasteur Boegner noted that the fighting and the impression of a Fourteenth of July celebration ‘were mixed up in a hallucinating way’.
At 11.00 hours that morning, Colonel Billotte had sent an ultimatum via the Swedish consul-general, Raoul Nordling, to Generalleutnant von Choltitz. It demanded the surrender of the city by 12.15 hours. Choltitz sent back a message to say that the honour of a German officer prevented him from surrendering without a proper fight.
Fifteen minutes after the ultimatum expired, Choltitz and his staff officers assembled for their last lunch together in the large dining room of the Hôtel Meurice. ‘Silent from the effort of showing no emotions, we gathered as usual,’ wrote Leutnant Graf von Arnim. Instead of sitting at a table near the window to enjoy the view, as was the custom, they took their places further back in the room. Bullets fired from the Louvre riddled the windowpanes and sent chunks of wall flying around. ‘But apart from that,’ Arnim added, ‘it was the same setting, the same waiter and the same food.’
Leclerc, having set up his headquarters alongside a railway platform in the Gare Montparnasse, left General Gerow there and went to the Préfecture de Police. This was where Choltitz would be brought as soon as he surrendered. Leclerc’s impatient mood was not helped by the chaotic and noisy banquet which Charles Luizet had laid on. He swallowed a few mouthfuls hurriedly, then escaped to the Grand Salon. He had heard from Billotte that the attack on the Meurice would go in at 13.15 hours, with infantry and Shermans from the 501ème Chars de Combat advancing west along the rue de Rivoli.
As Choltitz and his officers finished their meal, the noise outside seemed to increase with more shooting. Arnim escorted Choltitz and Colonel von Unger back upstairs. On the way up, Choltitz paused to speak to an old soldier manning a machine gun by the elaborate wrought-iron balustrade of the staircase. He remarked to him that it would soon all be over and that one way or another he would be home before long. As they reached Choltitz’s office, they heard explosions and the sound of shattered glass. Arnim saw Oberst von Unger, the chief of staff, go to his desk, open his briefcase and take out framed photographs of his wife, his children and his house on the Steinhuder Meer, a picture of peace and calm.
The explosions they had heard were tanks firing as the Shermans took on the few remaining Panthers in the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries gardens. French infantry had been making their way down the rue de Rivoli, racing from pillar to pillar along the colonnade on the north side opposite the Louvre. Eventually, smoke grenades were thrown into the lobby of the Hôtel Meurice and there were bursts of automatic fire as French soldiers, led by Lieutenant Henri Karcher, surged into the building followed by members of the FFI.
Karcher raced upstairs to Choltitz’s office, where he was joined by Commandant de la Horie, Billotte’s chief of staff. ‘After a short, correct conversation’, according to Arnim, Choltitz stated that he surrendered with his staff and the occupation forces in Paris. Choltitz and Unger were then led downstairs. With smoke still swirling in most of the rooms, the Meurice was invaded by a crowd wanting to experience at first hand the capture of the German commander in Paris. The French officers hurried their two captives out of the rear door on the rue du Mont Thabor and drove them to the Préfecture de Police.
Some junior officers and soldiers of the headquarters staff were not so fortunate when they were escorted outside by the FFI. A screaming crowd rushed at them to seize what they could. Arnim’s attaché case was wrenched from him. Hands searched their pockets, others grabbed spectacles and watches. German officers and soldiers were punched in the face and spat at. Finally, the prisoners were forced into three ranks and marched off. Their FFI escorts found it very hard to protect their prisoners and even themselves from the fury of the mob. Arnim saw ‘a bearded giant in shirtsleeves’ appear out of the crowd, put a pistol to the temple of his friend, Dr Kayser, who was in the row in front, and shoot him through the head. Arnim stumbled over the doctor’s body as he fell. According to Arnim, unarmed members of the Kommandantur transport company were also shot down in the Tuileries gardens after they had surrendered. Father Fouquer of the 2ème DB was shocked by ‘the crowd, often hateful when facing the enemy disarmed by others’.
Choltitz and Unger were led into the billiard room of the Préfecture de Police, where Leclerc awaited him with Chaban-Delmas and Colonel Billotte. General Barton of the 4th Infantry Division, who had also been present, retired to leave the honours to the French. Leclerc eyed his prisoner.
‘I am General Leclerc,’ he said. ‘Are you General von Choltitz?’
Despite his German general’s uniform, medals and the thick burgundy stripes of the general staff down his breeches, the squat Choltitz did not look impressive. His grey skin glistened from sweat. He was breathing heavily and soon swallowed a pill for his heart condition. When Choltitz sat down and adjusted his monocle to read the text of the surrender document, Oberst von Unger stood beside him, completely pale and with a vacant stare. Choltitz had just one comment to make. Only the garrison of Paris was under his orders. Other pockets of German resistance should not be declared outlaws if they did not obey his order. Leclerc accepted the point.
In an adjoining office, Colonel Rol-Tanguy and Kriegel-Valrimont, another senior Communist in the Resistance, protested to Luizet that the FFI should not be excluded from the surrender. Luizet slipped into the billiard room and told Chaban-Delmas, who in turn persuaded Leclerc to let Rol enter and sign the document too. Leclerc, who just wanted to get the ceremony over, agreed. But later, when de Gaulle saw that Rol had signed above Leclerc, he was deeply irritated.
After Choltitz was brought to the Gare Montparnasse from the Préfecture de Police, he was questioned by General Gerow. Choltitz stated that he had ‘saved Paris’. He had ‘only put up a sufficient fight to satisfy his government that the city was not capitulated without honour’. Gerow asked him when the Nazis would surrender. Choltitz replied that ‘the Americans had something to go home to’. The Germans, on the other hand, had ‘nothing to look forward to’.
Gerow believed that Choltitz, who had been their opponent in Normandy, should have ‘surrendered Paris to V Corps’. This was certainly not a view shared by General de Gaulle. Gerow’s revenge was a calculated insult. ‘General Gerow, being in military command of Paris,’ his report continued, ‘set up the command post in the offices of Marshal Pétain in the Invalides.’
On that day of Paris’s liberation, it was decided back in Britain that the dummy camps and signposts for the fictitious 1st US Army Group of Plan Fortitude could be dismantled. SHAEF insisted, however, that the false wireless traffic should be maintained to keep the Germans guessing about this phantom force.
The Allied victory was complete, yet elsewhere in France the savagery of the Occupation had not yet finished. At Maillé, south of Tours, trainee SS soldiers, bypassed by the Third Army’s advance north of the Loire, carried out a terrible massacre in what had been an area of considerable Maquis activity. Following a clash with members of the Resistance the day before, they killed 124 civilians, ranging from a baby of three months to an eighty-nine-year-old woman. The troops involved were from a replacement battalion of the 17th SS Panzer-Division Götz von Berlichingen at Châtellerault. In their fury of defeat, they even used an anti-aircraft gun against their victims and gunned down livestock as well.
General von Choltitz, during the surrender, had also agreed to send several of his officers with French emissaries under a flag of truce to persuade the remaining strongpoints to give up the fight. So while intermittent firing echoed across the city and the burnt-out Panther tanks still smoked in the Jardins des Tuileries, these groups went off in Jeeps armed only with a piece of white cloth attached to a radio antenna.
German officers were terrified of being handed over to French‘terrorists’. Eventually they agreed to give in. But Gefreiter Spiekerkötter and the other pioneers from the 256th Infanterie-Division, who had become part of the Palais Bourbon garrison, soon suffered the same battering from the crowds as the soldiers outside the Hôtel Meurice. They were taken away in an old Parisian bus without windows, which stopped from time to time ‘to give the crowd an opportunity to let off their anger’. By the time they reached the fire station, where they were to be locked up, most of their officers had blood pouring down their faces. Spiekerkötter found that their own heavy-drinking officer, Leutnant Nowack who had toasted ‘Calvados still in German hands’ as they left Normandy, now seized his bottle of eau-de-Cologne from the depot in Chartres and poured that down his throat.
Other surrender negotiations proved more dangerous for the emissaries. One German officer prisoner sent with a white flag was shot down along with an FFI officer. And a Luftwaffe flak officer killed himself by holding a grenade against his stomach and pulling out the pin. But by nightfall, the 2ème DB found itself responsible for over 12,000 prisoners who had to be lodged and fed amidst a hungry population who did not want any food to be given to the Germans. Later that night, infuriated Parisians tried to storm the fire station to kill the prisoners from the Palais Bourbon.
De Gaulle, after a meeting with Leclerc at the Gare Montparnasse, went to the ministry of war in the rue Saint-Dominique to make a symbolic visit to his old offices from 1940, when he was a junior minister. He was greeted by a guard of honour from the Garde Républicaine. He found that nothing had changed. Even the names alongside the buttons on the telephone were the same. The building had hardly been used during the four years of Occupation until the FFI took it over.
De Gaulle finally agreed to go to the Hôtel de Ville, where Georges Bidault and the National Council of the Resistance awaited him. Whatever the suspicions lingering between the two sides, their acclamation of the general who had refused to abandon the fight was overwhelming. There, in the great hall, their tall, awkward yet regal leader made one of the most famous 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.’
Some members of the Resistance present still felt that he had not paid sufficient tribute to their work.82 And when Bidault asked him to proclaim the Republic to the crowds waiting outside, de Gaulle refused. This was not a snub, as many people believed. De Gaulle in fact replied, ‘But why should we proclaim the Republic? She has never ceased to exist.’ Pétain’s Etat français, in his view, was an aberration which should not be acknowledged. He agreed, however, to make an appearance to the crowd. De Gaulle simply raised those seemingly endless arms in a victory sign. The response was tumultuous.
When the fighting was over, most of the correspondents headed for the Hôtel Scribe, which they had known from before the war. Hemingway and David Bruce, surrounded by some of the writer’s improvised militia, went straight to the Ritz, which Hemingway was determined to ‘liberate’. But the most legendary part of the Liberation was what one young officer of the 2ème DB described as ‘les délices d’une nuit dédiée à Vénus’. The Parisiennes, who had greeted the troops with the heart-felt cry, ‘We’ve waited for you for so long!’, welcomed the Allies that night with unstinted generosity in their tents and armoured vehicles. Father Fouquer, when he returned to his unit after dining with some friends, found that most of the 2ème DB had moved to the Bois de Boulogne. ‘I was providentially removed from the Bois de Boulogne and this night of madness,’ he wrote. The American 4th Infantry Division, bivouacked in the Bois de Vincennes on the eastern edge of Paris and on the Ile de la Cité behind Notre-Dame, also enjoyed the generosity of young Frenchwomen.
The city seemed to suffer from a collective hangover the next morning. David Bruce recorded in his diary that the previous day they had drunk ‘beer, cider, white and red Bordeaux, white and red Burgundy, Champagne, rum, Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados. . . the combination was enough to wreck one’s constitution’.
‘Slowly the tank hatches opened,’ wrote an American officer, ‘and bedraggled women crawled stiffly out.’ In the Bois de Boulogne, Capitaine Dronne went round pulling the young women out of his men’s tents. One of them made advances to him. To roars of laughter from his men, he replied, ‘Me, I don’t give a damn. I’m homosexual.’ The lovers of the night then breakfasted together on K-Rations round improvised campfires.
Saturday, 26 August was also a fine, sunny day. There were a few miliciens and isolated Germans who still held out, but the occasional bursts of shooting came mostly from over-excited members of the Resistance. Many of them charged around dangerously in commandeered black Citroëns with the letters FFI daubed all over them.
General Gerow, hearing the small-arms fire, persuaded himself that the 2ème DB was failing to carry out its primary duty of clearing the city. He still seethed at the way the French commanders flouted his authority. Hearing that General de Gaulle was planning a victory procession that afternoon, he sent the following signal at 12.55 hours to the 2ème DB: ‘Direct General Leclerc that his command will not, repeat not, participate in parade this afternoon but will continue on present mission of clearing Paris and environs of enemy. He accepts orders only from me. Ack[nowledge] and report when directive delivered to Leclerc. Signed Gerow.’
Once again, Gerow was ignored. At 15.00 hours, de Gaulle took the salute of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad by the Arc de Triomphe. This uniquely French moment was in no way undermined by the international composition of the 2ème DB, with its Spaniards, Italians, German Jews, Poles, White Russians, Czechs and other nationalities.
When de Gaulle set off on foot down the Champs-Elysées on his way to Notre-Dame, he was guarded on either side by half-tracks of the division. Colonel Rol-Tanguy’s headquarters had called for 6,000 members of the FFI to line the route of the procession, but their presence did little to reassure de Gaulle’s entourage. He was followed by Generals Leclerc, Koenig and Juin. Behind them came the rather disgruntled members of the National Council of Resistance, who had not at first been invited. But the joy of the enormous crowds - lining the great avenue, perched on lamp posts, leaning out of windows and even standing on roofs - could not be doubted. Over a million people were estimated to have thronged central Paris that afternoon.
Shooting broke out on the Place de la Concorde, causing panic and chaos. Nobody knows how it started, but the first shot may well have come from a nervous or trigger-happy Fifi. Jean-Paul Sartre, watching from a balcony of the Hôtel du Louvre, came under fire and Jean Cocteau, watching from the Hôtel Crillon, claimed unconvincingly that the cigarette in his mouth was shot in half. But a senior official in the Ministry of Finance was shot dead at a window and at least half a dozen others died in the cross-fire.
De Gaulle was then taken by car to the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Cardinal Suhard was conspicuously absent. He had been prevented from attending because he had welcomed Pétain to Paris, and had recently presided over the memorial service in honour of Philippe Henriot, the Vichy minister of propaganda assassinated by the Resistance.
When de Gaulle entered Notre-Dame more fusillades broke out, both inside and outside the cathedral. But de Gaulle never flinched. As almost everyone threw themselves to the ground around him, he continued to march up the aisle, doubly determined to disarm the FFI, which he regarded as a far greater threat to order than any remaining miliciens or Germans. ‘Public order is a matter of life and death,’ he told Pasteur Boegner a few days later. ‘If we do not re-establish it ourselves, foreigners will impose it upon us.’ American and British forces now appeared to be seen as ‘foreigners’ rather than allies. France was truly liberated. As de Gaulle himself put it, France had no friends, only interests.
Although the French reluctance to acknowledge American help still rankled deeply, General Gerow subsequently accepted Leclerc’s peace-making overture. His 2ème DB was ready to move on 27 August and went into action against the Germans round Le Bourget aerodrome. Also on that day, Eisenhower and Bradley paid ‘an informal visit’ to Paris. Eisenhower had invited Montgomery, but he refused on the grounds that he was too busy. Despite the informality of the event, General Gerow could not resist meeting his superiors at the Porte d’Orléans with a full armoured escort from the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron to accompany them into the city. The following day, V Corps reported, ‘General Gerow, as military commander of Paris, returned the capital city to the people of France.’ When informed of this by Gerow, General Koenig replied that he had been in charge of Paris all along.
Gerow arranged for the 28th Infantry Division, newly attached to V Corps, to march through Paris the next day to create ‘a parade of the might of the modern American Army for the populace’. Generals Bradley, Hodges and Gerow were joined by General de Gaulle at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, where they laid a wreath. Then the four men reviewed the march-past from a stand erected by American engineers out of a Bailey bridge turned upside down on the Place de la Concorde. It was entirely fitting that Norman Cota, now the commander of the 28th Division, should lead the parade. Few men had demonstrated so clearly, as he had done at Omaha, the need for determined leadership in battle.
The ugly side of Liberation reared up almost immediately, with denunciations and revenge on women who had had liaisons with German soldiers. Marshall and Westover saw one woman scream ‘collaboratrice! ’ at another. The crowd turned on the accused woman and started to rip her clothes. Marshall and Westover, with a couple of American journalists, managed to save her. In Paris too the head-shaving began. On the balcony of a local mairie, barbers attacked the hair of women rounded up for ‘collaboration horizontale’ with Germans. The crowd below yelled its approval and applauded. A young woman who had been present recorded afterwards how much she despised herself for having been part of that crowd. And a young officer with the 2ème DB wrote, ‘We are sickened by these dregs who mistreat women with shaved heads for having slept with Germans.’ Altogether some 20,000 Frenchwomen are estimated to have had their heads shaved in the summer of 1944.
Disillusionment between liberated and liberators also increased. Americans and British saw Paris not just as a symbol of Europe’s freedom from Nazi oppression, but as a playground for their amusement. ‘As we neared the city we were seized by a wild sort of excitement, ’ wrote Forrest Pogue. ‘We began to giggle, to sing, yell and otherwise show exuberance.’ American supply services, to Eisenhower’s irritation, commandeered all the best hotels to lodge their senior officers in style. No French people were allowed to enter without an invitation. They were naturally jealous of the food. Simone de Beauvoir described the Hôtel Scribe, reserved for foreign journalists, as ‘an American enclave in the heart of Paris: white bread, fresh eggs, jam, sugar and Spam’. In the centre of the city, US military police assumed full powers, often treating the local gendarmerie as auxiliaries. Soon the French Communist Party labelled the Americans ‘the new occupying power’.
Pogue himself was shaken to find that the Petit Palais had been taken over, with a large sign announcing the distribution of free condoms to US troops. In Pigalle, rapidly dubbed ‘Pig Alley’ by GIs, prostitutes were coping with over 10,000 men a day. The French were also deeply shocked to see US Army soldiers lying drunk on the pavements of the Place Vendôme. The contrast with off-duty German troops, who had been forbidden even to smoke in the street, could hardly have been greater.
The problem was that many American soldiers, loaded with dollars of back-pay, believed that hardship at the front gave them the right to behave as they liked in the rear. And American deserters in Paris, combined with a few Milo Mindbenders in the supply services, fuelled a rampant black market. The capital of France became known as ‘Chicago-sur-Seine’.
Sadly, the behaviour of a fairly unrepresentative minority soured Franco-American relations more profoundly and permanently than was understood at the time. It distorted the huge sacrifice of Allied soldiers and French civilians in the battle for Normandy, which had freed the country from the suffering and humiliation of the German Occupation. It also diverted attention away from the massive American aid. While combat engineers deactivated mines and booby traps, over 3,000 tons of supplies per day were rushed to Paris, bringing much of the Allied advance on Germany to a virtual halt.
‘Paris had fallen very suddenly,’ the Central Base Section reported. ‘People thought that we had an inexhaustible supply of food and lots of clothing and plenty of gasoline for their cars. Our offices were as crowded as the Paris Metro.’ There was an overwhelming demand for penicillin as well as morphine for civilian use. Major General Kenner, SHAEF’s chief medical officer, organized a monthly allocation to be made to the French government. Meanwhile, the medical services of the American, British and Canadian armies did whatever they could for injured and sick civilians in their area.
The success of the Allied double invasion, first in Normandy and then on the Mediterranean coast, had at least spared most of France from a long-drawn-out battle of attrition.