WARM summer rain drenched the motley legions of liberation at dawn on Thursday, August 24, as three columns from the French 2nd Armored Division made ready for battle twenty miles southwest of Paris. Village women scurried through the bivouacs carrying urns of coffee and platters heaped with fried eggs and breakfast rolls. Soldiers finished shaving with ritualistic precision, then shouldered their weapons and swaggered into formation, “booming like bitterns throughout the wood,” as an American colonel later wrote, “pounding their chests and screaming, ‘En avant!’”
Tricolor pennants flew from three thousand vehicles named for Napoleonic triumphs or for French towns now unshackled, like Caen and Cherbourg. Each tank and scout car bore a white silhouette of France with the cross of Lorraine superimposed. The twelve thousand troops comprised not only French regulars, but sailors far from the sea, Lebanese Christian engineers, and Senegalese riflemen who until three weeks earlier had never set foot on European France. Also in the ranks could be found Spanish Republicans, Gaullists, monarchists, Jews, Muslims, Catholic reactionaries, animists, anarchists, antipapists, communists, socialists, freethinkers, and militant Quakers.
Scores of frisky “warcos”—war correspondents—buzzed about swapping rumors, including a ludicrous report that any procession into Paris must await the arrival of Franklin Roosevelt. Among the scribes was Pyle, wearing a beret that made him resemble Montgomery; also Hemingway, credentialed to Collier’s magazine but commanding various French cutthroats whom he had ostensibly supplied with tommy guns and pistols and who called him Colonel or “le grand capitaine.” These irregulars, wrote Robert Capa, could be seen “copying his sailor bear walk, spitting short sentences from the corners of their mouths,” while Papa nipped from a canteen of calvados and patted the grenade tucked inside his field jacket, “just in case.” Hundreds of other Resistance fighters fell in, including a circus truck of sharpshooters who hissed the day’s challenge and parole to one another—“Paris” and “Orléans”—and daydreamed of unfurling a tricolor on the Arc de Triomphe after four years of the stinking swastika.
Astride the road outside Limours, with tank goggles perched on his kepi and clutching the malacca cane he had carried through the war, stood the commander of this unorthodox cavalcade, Philippe François Marie, vicomte de Hauteclocque, who had concocted the nom de guerre of Jacques Philippe Leclerc to prevent reprisals against his wife and six children. Scion of minor gentry from Picardy, lithe and avian with azure eyes and a deep voice, Leclerc cultivated an air of mystery: “Like the Scarlet Pimpernel [he] is said to have been seen here, there, and everywhere,” wrote the OSS operative David Bruce, who was among Leclerc’s oddball lieutenants that Thursday morning. Leclerc had been a cavalry captain in June 1940 when he was wounded; he narrowly eluded German capture, escaping by bicycle to southwestern France, then slipping through Spain and Portugal on a forged passport amended with a child’s toy printing set. Sent by De Gaulle from London to rally anti-Vichy resistance in central Africa, he reclaimed the Cameroons and Chad for Free France, routed the Italian garrison at Koufra in southern Libya, then marched across the continent with four thousand men and a camel corps in a Kiplingesque anabasis to tender his services to Montgomery at Tripoli in January 1943. He subsequently organized the 2nd Armored Division in Morocco before landing over Utah Beach on August 1, the vanguard of a reborn French army in France. A devout Catholic who received the Eucharist every day, gunplay permitting, Leclerc also evinced a mulish streak that discomfited his ostensible superiors, as when he had snarled the roads at Argentan. Now informed that U.S. intelligence detected five thousand SS troops ready to die for Paris, Leclerc pointed an index finger at heaven and said, “Have no fear, we shall smash them.”
En avant, then, en avant. Bumper to bumper the columns surged forward at seven A.M., escorted by “a weird assortment of private cars, trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles,” Don Whitehead reported. Veterans of the Franco-Prussian War stood at attention on the sidewalks, snapping stiff salutes. Cheering civilians tossed flowers, apples, and tomatoes, and offered tankards of “beer, cider, white and red Bordeaux, white and red Burgundy, champagne, rum, whiskey, cognac, Armagnac, and calvados,” David Bruce recorded, “enough to wreck one’s constitution.”
Or perhaps enough to dull one’s martial edge. Ignoring General Gerow’s order to enter Paris from the west through Versailles, Leclerc shifted his weight to attack from the south past Arpajon, outrunning his artillery support and inadvertently stumbling into the thickest German perimeter defenses. The lesser, leftmost column punched through St.-Cyr to the intact Pont de Sèvres on the Seine, a few miles from the Eiffel Tower; the Arpajon force, after briefly sprinting at fifty miles an hour, soon battled roadblocks and street ambushes in suburban Massy and Fresnes. By Thursday evening the spearhead remained five miles from the Porte d’Orléans and eight miles from the city’s heart. Leclerc had suffered more than 300 casualties, with 35 tanks and 117 other vehicles destroyed.
An irate Gerow complained to Bradley by radio about Leclerc “dancing to Paris” and “advancing on a one-tank front.” Equally irked, Bradley ordered the U.S. 4th Infantry Division to outflank the French and “slam on in” to the city from the southeast. Leclerc had a note dropped by spotter plane over central Paris: “Tenez bon. Nous arrivons.” Hold on. We’re coming.
* * *
Eisenhower had long planned to bypass Paris to avoid street brawling and because SHAEF logisticians warned that victualing the city would be “equivalent to the maintenance of eight divisions” in combat. But events had forced his hand. Labor strikes began on August 11, first by rail and subway workers, then by the police, three thousand of whom seized the préfecture on August 18. Wehrmacht patrols were bushwhacked across the city; ration convoys were hijacked while traveling from train depots. Shootouts left 125 Parisians dead on August 19. The last train carrying Jewish deportees had left Paris for the east on August 15.
De Gaulle, who arrived in Cherbourg on August 20, feared another Warsaw: after a Polish uprising there began on August 1, in errant anticipation of the Red Army’s arrival, the Germans had methodically razed the city. Some 35,000 Resistance fighters infested greater Paris as part of a loose organization known as the French Forces of the Interior, or FFI, but their arsenal included only 570 rifles and 820 revolvers. De Gaulle moreover believed an insurrection would strengthen French communists, one of whom, a sheet-metal worker known as Colonel Rol, thundered that “Paris is worth 200,000 dead.” Eisenhower had consistently promised De Gaulle that French troops would free the city when the moment ripened; Deux Mètres now not only invoked that pledge but also displayed his genius for “tantrums, sulks, insults, postures, silence, Olympian detachment, political self-righteousness, [and] moral holier-than-thouery,” as the historian John Keegan later wrote.
The moment grew riper. As the insurrection intensified, messengers had slipped from the capital, foretelling catastrophe if the Allies did not step in, quickly. Hundreds of skirmishes broke out before a fitful truce took hold, widely ignored by both the SS and the communists. Isolated in enclaves, German defenders built strongpoints and deployed 88mm antitank guns on approaches to the city. Parisians resurrected the nineteenth-century art of barricade building, using street cobblestones, manhole covers, upended German trucks, and even a five-hole pissotière. Soon more than four hundred such redoubts stippled the city, including barricades with portraits of Hitler propped up like targets. “The pictures of Delacroix and Daumier had been studied not in vain,” a postwar account noted, “and some [Parisians] affected the loose neckerchief and shirt unbuttoned to bare the chest.” Insurgents stitched FFI armbands and mass-produced Molotov cocktails with champagne bottles; the lightly wounded wore arm slings fashioned from Hermès scarves. “For every Parisian, a Boche,” communist placards urged. A clandestine radio station played “La Marseillaise,” banned for four years; Parisians turned up the volume and opened their windows. “I have the feeling,” a German sergeant wrote his wife, “things are going to get bad here fast.” Another envoy, a plump Swedish ball-bearing factory manager named Raoul Nordling, told Bradley that at least some German authorities hoped for an Allied intervention before scorched-earth reprisals became inevitable.
By Tuesday, August 22, Eisenhower had relented. “If the enemy tries to hold Paris with any real strength,” the supreme commander told the Combined Chiefs, “he would be a constant menace to our flank.” Ambiguous intelligence suggested a German withdrawal. “It looks now as if we’d be compelled to go into Paris,” Eisenhower wrote Beetle Smith. “Bradley and his G-2 think we can and must walk in.”
Some Germans were indeed decamping. Hitler authorized the departure of clerks and police apparatchiks. One journalist described how “Gestapo small fry in gabardine raincoats” crowded the train stations along with “gray mice,” uniformed German females. Ash from burning documents drifted around the Hôtel de Talleyrand and the Bois de Boulogne. Vindictive soldiers smashed hospital elevators and clogged the plumbing with concrete, then stripped foliage from boulevard trees to camouflage trucks piled high with bidets, carpets, and other loot. “We’ll be back for Christmas,” they shouted. Parisians, who for four years had so painstakingly avoided eye contact that Germans joked about “la ville sans regard”—the city that never looks at you—now jeered and flourished toilet brushes at their departing occupiers.
* * *
With his main thrust delayed by skirmishers, General Leclerc dispatched a force with three Shermans and sixteen half-tracks through the back streets of southern Paris at dusk on August 24. Up the Avenue d’Italie the detachment darted, through spattering picket fire near the Gare d’Austerlitz. Seeing the five-pointed white star on the Sherman hulls, Parisians shrieked, “Les Américains!” Soon the truth would out: these troops were France’s own. Citizens opened barricades along the Seine and a radio broadcast from the Hôtel de Ville announced, “Rejoice! The Leclerc Division has entered Paris!… Tell all the priests to ring their church bells.”
From a balcony of the Hôtel Meurice, on the Rue de la Rivoli overlooking the Tuileries gardens, a chubby elf in a German general’s uniform stood listening to the consequent pealing, punctuated by a deep, fatidic toll from Notre Dame. Thick of body and short of leg, with a dimpled cowcatcher chin and hocks for cheeks, General Dietrich von Choltitz was considered a ganz Harter—a tough guy—for his role in obliterating Rotterdam in 1940 and Sevastopol two years later; for those actions he was nicknamed “the Smasher of Cities.” As a corps commander in Normandy, Choltitz had seen his force routed in COBRA before he was assigned to Paris under Hitler’s edict that the city “must not fall into the hands of the enemy except as a field of ruins.” A Saxon whose forebears had soldiered for eight centuries, he had told the Swede Nordling, “It has been my fate to cover the retreat of our armies and to destroy the cities behind them.” On Sunday he sent a note to his wife in Germany, along with coffee requisitioned from the Meurice kitchen: “Our task is hard and our days grow difficult.”
With only twenty thousand men to hold a city of three million, Choltitz had no illusions about the outcome of the imminent battle. “The enemy has now recognized our weakness,” he told Model. But reducing the City of Light to Hitler’s field of ruins held little appeal even for the ganz Harter, and he had temporized with skill, guile, and perhaps conscience. “Ever since our enemies have refused to listen to and obey our Führer,” he told his staff with a sardonic glint, “the whole war has gone badly.” While encouraging Nordling and others to put spurs to the Allies, Choltitz played for time by concocting elaborate, largely imaginary plans to destroy bridges, utilities, and two hundred factories. He told superiors of placing explosives by the ton in Les Invalides, the Opéra, and other public buildings; demolitionists would level the Arc de Triomphe for enhanced fields of fire and dynamite the Eiffel Tower “as a wire entanglement to block the Seine.” All the while he urged “a prudent and intelligent attitude” from his troops while trying to play Resistance factions off against one another and hoping for reinforcements. Now, in a phone call to Army Group B headquarters, he held the receiver overhead. “Will you listen, please?” Choltitz said. “Do you hear that? It is bells.… What they are telling this city is that the Allies are here.”
Just so. By ten on Friday morning, August 25, Leclerc managed to slide his entire division into town, tank tracks shedding sparks as they clipped across the cobbles. Two hours later, the 4th Division’s 12th Infantry reached Notre Dame, then clattered through the eastern precincts. Despite vicious firefights at the Quai d’Orsay and elsewhere, crowds lined the sidewalk twenty deep, baying “Vive la France” in a hallucinatory admixture of celebration and gunfire. Anticipating something wondrous, women curled their hair and pressed their finest dresses. At 12:30 the national colors flew from the Eiffel Tower for the first time since June 1940; ninety minutes later, firemen unfurled the tricolor from the Arc de Triomphe. Animals set loose from a local circus scampered down the Champs-Élysées. So many Parisians pulled uniforms from storage in a rush to join the FFI that they were dubbed Naphtalinés, for their strong scent of mothballs.
“The rip tide of courage,” in one GI’s phrase, proved stirring and strong. Volunteer nurses in white smocks darted through bullet-swept streets to carry bloody litters to safety. At a traffic circle, where artillery fire splintered a chestnut tree and snipers took potshots, French half-tracks and tanks raced round and round, pumping “not less than five thousand bullets” into adjacent buildings. Resistance fighters in automobiles combed Parisian parks, firing at enemy bivouacs from the rumble seats. Police watched subway exits for fleeing Germans; “those who come out,” a U.S. Army report noted, “are massacred or made prisoners.” Five hundred Germans at the Chamber of Deputies surrendered to a Signal Corps photographer, and negotiations at some strongholds were conducted in Yiddish, the closest common language. Wehrmacht troops emerging with hands raised from the Hôtel Continental had the Iron Crosses ripped from their necks, while GIs ordered those captured in the Crillon to check their weapons in the cloakroom. On this feast day of St. Louis, who died in Tunis while crusading in 1270, most Parisians ate lunch at the usual hour.
Choltitz dined too, on Sèvres china with silver candlesticks in the elegant Meurice dining room. “Germany’s lost the war,” he told his staff, “and we have lost it with her.” Upstairs his orderly packed a valise with three shirts, underwear, socks. At table, a lieutenant recalled, the general and his staff were “silent from the effort of showing no emotions.” When asked to move away from the window to avoid stray bullets fired from the Louvre across the street, Choltitz replied, “No, particularly not today.” But as the gunfire intensified he at last pushed away his plate. “Gentlemen, our last combat has begun.” He stood to go wash and don a fresh uniform.
Just down the street, fighting swept through the Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine had removed more than a thousand heads during the Revolution, including those of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre. Five Sherman tanks sent to assault the Meurice were soon knocked out, but two hundred French infantrymen trotted under the arcade fronting the Rue de la Rivoli. Lieutenant Henri Karcher bolted into the Meurice lobby, flinging a smoke grenade from behind the reception desk, while a soldier scorched the elevator cage with a flamethrower. Upstairs an FFI fighter burst into an office and demanded of the portly figure sitting behind a table, “Sprechen deutsch?” “Yes,” Choltitz replied, “probably better than you do.” Karcher arrived to declare, “You are my prisoner.”
A furious mob punched and spat at the Germans, snatching spectacles, watches, and shoulder boards as the erstwhile occupiers were herded through the street. At three P.M. Choltitz arrived at the Préfecture, where Leclerc also had been dining on china and a white tablecloth. They retired to the billiard room; Choltitz adjusted his monocle, then signed the formal surrender of Paris. Bundled into an armored car, he sat bowed and silent in the rear while a triumphant Leclerc stood in front like a centurion in his chariot. At the 2nd Armored command post, abutting platform No. 3 in the Gare Montparnasse, Choltitz signed another document ordering his remaining strongpoints to cease fire. He then requested a glass of water. Asked whether he intended to swallow poison, he replied, “Oh, no. We don’t do things like that.”
Teams of French and German officers carried white flags and copies of the cease-fire through the city. In a final redoubt at the Palais du Luxembourg, 700 Wehrmacht soldiers each received a pint of cognac and a pack of cigarettes; then, at 7:35 P.M., the gates swung open and their commander marched out beneath a huge white flag, followed by his troops and ten panzers. All told, 15,000 German soldiers were bagged in Paris—many would be confined for days in the Louvre courtyard—with another 4,200 killed or wounded.
“German spoken” signs vanished from shop fronts, sometimes replaced by Resistance placards that warned, “Supplier of the Boche.” Collaborators were pelted with eggs, tomatoes, and sacks of excrement; shorn women, stripped to the waist, had swastikas painted on their breasts and placards hung around their necks: “I whored with the Boches.” An American sergeant barked at a mob shearing yet another wretch, “Leave her alone, goddamn you. You’re all collaborationists.” Le Figaro resumed publication of a daily feature called “Arrests and Purges.” Rough justice flourished, the equivalent of that guillotine in the Place de la Concorde. The historian Robert Aron later calculated that as many as forty thousand summary executions of collaborators and other miscreants took place across France, “a figure sufficiently high to create a psychosis that will remain forever in the memories of the survivors.” Some 900,000 French men and women would be arrested in the épuration—the purge—of whom 125,000 were forced to answer in court for their behavior during the occupation. Those guilty of indignité nationale served prison terms, while those convicted of dégradation nationale were banned from government jobs.
At ten P.M., the first of an eventual eighteen hundred Allied counterintelligence agents set up a command post in the Petit Palais. “T Force,” mimicking a similar unit in Rome, had amassed the names of eighty thousand suspected spies, saboteurs, and villains in France, as well as thick dossiers on Gestapo and SS facilities. Eighty-four of those listed were collared that very day. Among the more wrenching discoveries would be three windowless torture cells in a German barracks, where condemned prisoners had scratched messages in charcoal or pencil. “Gaston Meaux, my time is up, leaves five children, may God have pity on them,” read one; another, simply: “Revenge me.” Alan Moorehead quoted a Parisian as saying, “I’ll tell you what liberation is. It’s hearing a knock on my door at six o’clock in the morning and knowing it’s the milkman.”
Such sobriety could not suppress “a great city where everybody is happy,” in A. J. Liebling’s judgment. “I never in my life been kissed so much,” a sergeant wrote his parents in Minnesota. Another GI climbed three flights of stairs to visit a bedridden Frenchwoman who had pleaded to see an American before she died. “The cobblestones, the flapping signs in red and gold over the pavement cafés … three golden horse heads over the horse butcher, the flics with their flat blue kepis,” Moorehead wrote. “Had we ever been away?” Leclerc’s men seized a train before it departed for Germany with treasures from the Jeu de Paume in 148 packing cases: 64 Picassos, 29 Braques, 24 Dufys, 11 Vlamincks, 10 Utrillos, and works by Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Renoir. The Bank of France cellars were found to hold 400,000 bottles of cognac, 3 million cigars, and 235 tons of sugar.
An American patrol arrived at the Claridge to be told by the manager, “This hotel is under lease to the officer corps of the German army.” A colonel drew his .45 and said, “You’ve got just thirty seconds to get it unleased. We’re moving in.” Hemingway, pulling up to the Ritz with two truckloads of his French irregulars, told the bartender, “How about seventy-three dry martinis?” Later, after he and several companions had dined on soup, creamed spinach, raspberries in liqueur, and Perrier-Jouët champagne, the waiter added the Vichy tax to the bill, explaining, “It’s the law.” No matter: “We drank. We ate. We glowed,” one of Hemingway’s comrades reported. Private Irwin Shaw of the 12th Infantry, who later won fame as a writer, believed that August 25 was “the day the war should have ended.”
To Ernie Pyle, ensconced in a hotel room with a soft bed though no hot water or electricity, “Paris seems to have all the beautiful girls we have always heard it had.… They dress in riotous colors.” The liberation, he concluded, was “the loveliest, brightest story of our time.”
* * *
De Gaulle entered the city late Friday afternoon by car down the Avenue d’Orléans, “gripped by emotion and filled with serenity,” in his words. At five P.M. he made his way to the War Ministry in the Rue St.-Dominique, whence he had fled on June 10, 1940. All was unchanged—the heavy furniture, the ushers, the names on the phone extension buttons, even the blotting paper. “Nothing was missing except the state,” De Gaulle later wrote. From a balcony at the Hôtel de Ville he proclaimed, “Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated. Liberated by herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France.” He uttered hardly a word about the Americans, British, Canadians, or Poles, who together since June 6 had sacrificed more than fifty thousand lives for this moment. A U.S. Army captain assigned as De Gaulle’s aide spent the evening scrounging rations, Coleman lanterns, and Players cigarettes for him.
“City is scarcely damaged. Great enthusiasm,” 12th Army Group reported to SHAEF. Sufficient coal remained to fire the waterworks and to provide electricity for two hours a day until mid-September. A few buses with charcoal burners still ran, but they were far outnumbered by horse carts, antique carriages, and bicycles. The Dôme, the Rotonde, and other cafés in Montparnasse did a lively business beneath striped awnings. About two thousand Resistance fighters and twenty-five hundred civilians had been killed or wounded in the battle of Paris, and Hitler continued to kill more. Upon learning in answer to his infamous question—“Brennt Paris?”—that, no, the city was not burning, he ordered V-1 and Luftwaffe onslaughts. Bombers would inflict twelve hundred casualties in the eastern suburbs within a day after Choltitz’s surrender. Parisians fired at the sky with every firearm at hand, including ancient pistols. “After a noisy hour,” a witness reported, “the wheezy ‘all clear’ sounded.” Eisenhower cabled Marshall, “We should not blame the French for growing a bit hysterical.”
At three P.M. on Saturday, August 26, De Gaulle appeared at the Arc de Triomphe in an unadorned khaki uniform, as Moorehead reported, “stiff, ungainly, a heavy lugubrious face under his kepi … an imposing and unattractive figure.” A police band played as he laid a cross of Lorraine fashioned from pink gladioli and relit the memorial flame that had gone cold four years earlier. Much palaver had been devoted to whether le général should ride a white horse or a black one down the Champs-Élysées; he chose instead to walk, preceded by four Leclerc tanks. A loudspeaker truck blared, “General de Gaulle confides his safety to the people of Paris.” Behind him trailed an arm-in-arm, curb-to-curb phalanx of police, soldiers, and FFI fighters. They were followed by a procession of jeeps and armored vehicles teeming, it was said, “with girls whose destiny does not seem likely to be a nunnery.”
A million people or more lined the boulevard, a prancing, dancing human herd, cheering to the echo the unsmiling man who strode a head taller than the rest. Across the Place de la Concorde, near the smoke-stained Hôtel Meurice, De Gaulle had just climbed into an open car when shots rang out. Thousands fell flat on the pavement. “It was like a field of wheat suddenly struck by a strong gust of wind,” Moorehead wrote. “Everyone who had a gun began blazing away at the housetops.” Armored cars rushed “up and down the streets at fifty miles an hour, firing wildly with machine guns at roofs and high windows,” David Bruce told his diary. Thirty GIs standing on supply trucks fired “to beat hell,” an officer reported. Nary a marksman seemed sure of his target.
Undeterred, De Gaulle and his entourage crossed the Pont d’Arcole, FFI men with bandoliers strapped across their chests astride the running boards. At 4:15 P.M., as the convoy arrived at Notre Dame, the clap of a revolver and then automatic weapons fire seemed to come from overhead, perhaps from behind a gargoyle, sparking another wild spray of return fire that brought stone chips sprinkling down. As Leclerc barked for a cease-fire and whacked at soldiers’ rifles with his malacca, De Gaulle strolled through the Portal of the Last Judgment, head high and shoulders back. He marched down the aisle to the north transept, kepi in hand, when more shots reverberated through the nave. “The huge congregation, who had all been standing, suddenly fell flat on their faces,” a British intelligence officer reported. Worshippers crouched behind columns and beneath wooden stalls as policemen and FFI fighters fired at the organ pipes and clerestory. Ricochets pinged off the ceiling. Through it all De Gaulle stood unflinching, “the most extraordinary example of courage that I’ve ever seen,” a BBC reporter declared. Hymnal in hand, he honked through the Magnificat—a canticle to the Virgin—while an aide shouted at the cowering congregation, “Have you no pride? Stand up!”
Praise to God Himself would have to wait for a more pacific moment. The “Te Deum” was omitted, the service curtailed, and the great cathedral evacuated posthaste. Precisely who had started the gunfight would never be known. No sniper was shot, captured, or even spotted. “The first shots started a wild fusillade,” De Gaulle would write a day later. “We shall fix this too.” He returned to his car and drove off to begin the hard work of rebuilding France.
* * *
So ended the great struggle for Normandy. For Germany the defeat was monumental, comparable to Stalingrad, Tunis, and the recent debacle in White Russia. Fritz Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr Division and Rommel’s erstwhile chief of staff, later concluded that among history’s memorable battlefield drubbings, including Cannae and Tannenberg, none “can approach the battle of annihilation in France in 1944 in the magnitude of planning, the logic of execution, the collaboration of sea, air, and ground forces, the bulk of the booty, or the hordes of prisoners.” The “greatest strategic effect,” Bayerlein added, was to lay “the foundation for the subsequent final and complete annihilation of the greatest military state on earth.” That was true, though it badly undersold Moscow’s role in destroying the Reich.
German casualties in the west since June 6 exceeded 400,000, half of them now prisoners. More than four thousand panzers and assault guns were lost on all fronts during the summer, nearly half in Normandy. SHAEF would tell the Charlie-Charlies in Washington and London that the equivalent of eleven panzer or panzer grenadier divisions had been obliterated or “severely mauled,” although some still mustered ten thousand men, even if bereft of tanks. Thirty-six infantry divisions had been eliminated, “very badly cut up,” or isolated in coastal enclaves. Several thousand Luftwaffe planes were destroyed; as well, Berlin lost its early-warning network along the Atlantic and its access to French coal, bauxite, farm bounty, and horses. An OSS analysis concluded that Germany now averaged monthly casualties of a quarter million, while only 45,000 young men turned eighteen each month. A study of obituaries in seventy German newspapers over three years would find “a noticeable increase” in the proportion of war dead both eighteen or younger and thirty-eight or older. The Reich was bleeding to death.
The number of Americans killed, wounded, missing, or captured since June 6 topped 134,000; casualties among the British, Canadians, and Poles totaled 91,000. In half a million sorties flown during the summer, more than four thousand planes were lost, evenly divided between the RAF and the AAF. Some units had been eviscerated. The 82nd Airborne had given battle in Normandy with four regimental and sixteen battalion commanders, as well as several spare senior officers; of these, fifteen were killed, wounded, or captured. Normandy paid a fell price for her freedom: by one tally, of 3,400 Norman villages and towns, 586 required complete reconstruction. Throughout France, 24,000 FFI fighters would ultimately be slain or executed by the Germans; the 600,000 tons of Allied bombs dropped on occupied France—the weight of sixty-four Eiffel Towers—would be blamed for between 50,000 and 67,000 French deaths.
Most prominent among the German dead was Erwin Rommel, albeit his was a death delayed. For two months he recuperated from the strafing attack at home in Herrlingen, reminiscing about Africa and fingering his marshal’s baton. Insomnia, headaches, and his injured left eye troubled him; merely lifting the eyelid proved difficult. Despite an unctuous letter to Hitler—“Just one thought possessed me constantly, to fight and win for your new Germany”—he was implicated in the July 20 assassination plot as a man who had known too much for his own good.
The killers would come to Herrlingen in a green car with Berlin plates on October 14. After a brief private meeting with them in his study, Rommel told his son, “I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour.… Hitler is charging me with high treason.” Dressed in an open-collar Africa tunic, he emptied his wallet, petted the family dachshund, and climbed into the rear seat of the car with his marshal’s baton under his left arm. To spare his family he swallowed cyanide, permitting the regime to claim he had died of his injuries. Hitler, who sent a six-foot floral wreath even before Rommel’s death was confirmed, said of the news, “Yet another of the old ones.” In a funeral oration at the Ulm town hall, Rundstedt would declare, “A pitiless destiny has snatched him from us. His heart belonged to the Führer.” That was another lie: not his heart, but certainly his soul.
Among the Allied casualties was Ernie Pyle. “If I ever was brave, I ain’t any more,” he wrote a friend. “I’m so indifferent to everything I don’t even give a damn that I’m in Paris.” The war had become “a flat, black depression without highlights, a revulsion of the mind and an exhaustion of the spirit.” In a final column from Europe, he told his readers, “I have had all I can take for a while. I’ve been twenty-nine months overseas since this war started; have written around seven hundred thousand words about it.… The hurt has finally become too great.” Arriving at Bradley’s headquarters on September 2—“worn out, thin, and badly in need of a shave,” one officer reported—he said goodbye, then sailed home on the Queen Elizabeth, her decks crowded with other wounded. “I feel like I’m running out,” he confessed to another writer. Eight months later, while covering the Pacific war, he would be killed by a Japanese bullet in the head.
For many rank-and-file troops a wild optimism took hold, “spreading like a disease,” as one SHAEF officer wrote home. PX officials announced that holiday gifts already in the mail from the home front to soldiers in Europe would be returned because the war was likely to end before Christmas. But others recognized, as an officer told his family, that “Hitler can trade space for a long time.” Eisenhower advised reporters, “Anyone who measures this war in terms of weeks is just a damn fool.”
Yet surely things looked brighter than ever for the Allies. Berlin had again demonstrated a “fundamental inability to make sound strategic judgments,” as the historian Geoffrey P. Megargee later wrote, with profound weaknesses in intelligence, personnel, and logistical systems. The tactical edge long possessed by Wehrmacht troops now seemed much diminished as GIs gained competence and confidence. The Luftwaffe had fled to the Fatherland, whereas the U.S. Army Air Forces had built thirty-one airfields in France by August 25 and in the next three weeks would begin sixty-one more. The U.S. Army had displayed not only devastating firepower—a method as effective as any in killing an adversary—but also an impressive ability to adapt under the gun. And Montgomery’s strategy had won through, even if he resisted acknowledging necessary deviations from the plan. He had fought perhaps his most skilled battle, in the estimation of the historians Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray, and the swift liberation of Paris lifted spirits throughout the Allied ranks. A British major wrote his mother, “The war is much more amusing now we are on the move.”
The European war also could be seen ever more clearly to “possess a vivid moral structure,” in the phrase of the writer Paul Fussell, who fought as an infantry lieutenant. Just when Allied soldiers reached Paris, Soviet troops in Poland overran the concentration camp at Majdanek, where tens of thousands had been murdered. “I have just seen the most terrible place on the face of the earth,” a New York Times reporter wrote. Other journalists accompanying the Red Army described machines for grinding bones into fertilizer. “This is German food production,” a Soviet officer explained. “Kill people, fertilize cabbages.” Photos of Zyklon B, the poison used in gas chambers, appeared in Life, and Time published a vivid account of a warehouse containing 820,000 pairs of shoes taken from inmates: “Boots. Rubbers. Leggings. Slippers. Children’s shoes, soldiers’ shoes, old shoes, new shoes.… In a corner there was a stock of artificial limbs.” Other storerooms contained piled spectacles, razors, suitcases, toys. The evidence gave weight to Roosevelt’s recent accusations of deportations and “the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe,” although not until the camps in Germany were uncovered in 1945 would the full horror come clear to the civilized world.
In truth, a soldier need not look far to know what he was fighting for: markers on Allied graves all over Normandy contained that most stirring of epitaphs, “Mort pour la liberté.” After viewing a military cemetery near Ste.-Mère-Église, a soldier on August 28 scribbled lines from A. E. Housman in his diary: “The saviors come not home tonight: Themselves they could not save.” At the La Cambe cemetery, Don Whitehead listened as a French girl read a letter to a dead soldier from his mother: “My dearest and unfortunate son, on June 16, 1944, like a lamb you died and left me alone without hope.… Your last words to me were, ‘Mother, like the wind I came and like the wind I shall go.’”
The death of Conrad J. Nutting III, whose P-51 clipped a tree as he attacked an enemy truck convoy on June 10, also prompted his pregnant wife, Katherine, to write to him beyond the grave:
It will be my cross, my curse, and my joy forever, that in my mind you shall always be vibrantly alive.… I hope God will let me be happy, not wildly, consumingly happy as I was with you.… I will miss you so much—your hands, your kiss, your body.
Another pilot, Bert Stiles, who at age twenty-three had but three months of his own life left, wrote, “It is summer and there is war all over the world.… There is hope as bright as the sun that it will end soon. I hope it does. I hope the hell it does.”
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A final gesture of American arms played out in Paris three days after the Notre Dame shootout. De Gaulle had pleaded for two U.S. divisions as a “show of force” against communists and other troublemakers. A bemused Eisenhower agreed to a half measure, diverting the 28th Infantry Division through the capital en route to the front. The 28th’s ancestry reached back to units first organized by Benjamin Franklin before the Revolution; its forebears had fought in every American war since. Once commanded by Omar Bradley, now the division was led by the paladin of Omaha Beach and St.-Lô, Dutch Cota, recently promoted to major general.
Hurriedly trucked to Versailles on Monday, August 28, then assembled in the Bois de Boulogne, the men toiled through a rainy night to clean uniforms and polish brass. On Tuesday morning, as skies cleared and the Seine bridges gleamed in the summer sun, Cota and the division band led the ranks in battle dress as they marched twenty-eight abreast to the strains of “Khaki Bill” beneath the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées, a sight so grand that its image soon appeared on a three-cent postage stamp. With weapons loaded and antiaircraft guns poised, the troops tramped past cheering Parisians and an improvised reviewing stand packed with generals in the Place de la Concorde.
Beyond Paris to St.-Denis they marched, through the rolling meadows of Ile-de-France, past stone churches and beetroot fields, marching as the blue shadows grew long, marching in pursuit of the foeman fleeing east, marching, marching, marching toward the sound of the guns.