The Liberation of Paris Revisited

“Turn Paris into a pile of ruins.  Defend it to the last man,” were Hilter’s orders to the German Commander of Greater Paris in mid-August 1944.  Adolf Hitler was smelling imminent defeat, and he intended taking the city of Paris and its people down with him.

Fortunately, like many of us, Commander General von Choltitz loved Paris.  He ignored Hitler for as long as he could, hoping the Allies would arrive before the Luftwaffe, thus enabling him to hand Paris over intact.  But he couldn’t wait forever, and Eisenhower was making him wait, preferring to leave Paris in German hands for a few weeks longer.

Fifty years ago this August historic beautiful Paris, survivor of revolutions and countless human tragedies, was on the brink of total annihilation.

By August 17 1944 the Nazis were looting their way out of Paris.  Germans and collaborators began to exodus in increasing numbers, the Germans packing lorries and ambulances with the contents of wine cellars, works of art and Louis XVI furniture as they went.  Left behind was a 16,000 strong heavily-armed garrison to carry out Hitler’s ‘Paris solution’.

Civilian Parisians, sensing freedom for the first time in four years, began to harrass the Germans in any way they could. Communist resistance workers seized the opportunity to openly oppose the Germans.  They infiltrated the Paris police force, many of whom were frightened by their record of enthusiastic co-operation during the Occupation, they had rounded up French Jews even the Nazis were prepared to leave alone  Participation in the police strike starting August 15 was good insurance for their future.

The strike, coupled with news that day of more Allied landings off St Tropez, ignited the resentments and hopes of Parisians and, urged on by the communists, an uprising was borne.

With the exception of wealthier suburbs like the 7th, 8th and 16th arrondoisemments, people erected barricades to prevent the German garrison from moving around the city.  Women, children and older Parisians formed human chains, uprooting and passing cobblestones and anything else at hand to build barricades.  Telephonists passed messages directing people to where fighting had broken out and help was needed, either fighting the Germans or mopping up the blood.

Battles began to break out all over the city as the resistance tried to wrest back buildings from German control.  Resistance headquarters at Hotel de Ville were constantly peppered with German machine-gun fire, although General von Choltitz never mounted an all-out attack.

The Germans were hampered by the barricades but had vastly superior weapons and far more of them than the Parisian resistants and civilians.  The FFI volunteers in Paris (Forces Francaises de l’Interier) numbered less than 15,000 and only had a motley collection of weapons, enough for 2,000 people.  They began to rely on what they could steal from the Germans.   A favourite method amongst young communist women was to pick up German soldiers in Pigalle, enticing them into alleyways where their male comrades would ambush the Germans for weapons.

On 16 August heavy fighting on the left bank opposite Ile de la Cite left 125 Parisians dead and 500 wounded.  Bodies began to pile up in the Les Halles freezers as fighting and the August heat took its toll.  A Nobel Prize-winning physics professor organised a production line manufacturing molotov cocktails at the Sorbonne.  There was no shortage of young men to throw them.  On the stone banks of the Seine some Parisians managed to sunbathe on regardless.

Politically, differences of opinion within the Resistance between Communists and Gaullists now brought the possibility of civil war to France.  The Gaullists seemed more mindful of Hitler’s intention to destroy Paris and wanted a truce, pending the Allies’ arrival.  Also, to them a communist-led uprising ran the risk of another Paris commune, which in turn would allow the Americans to impose their military authority on Paris.  The last thing they wanted after ousting the Germans was to lose Paris to American control.

The Communists wanted to fight on.  In the end the Gaullists had no choice but to follow the turn which events had already taken.  They voted to continue the uprising, hoping the Allies would move on Paris immediately.

The Allies, however, were still holed up in Normandy, waiting for orders from Eisenhower to move into Paris.  And Eisenhower wasn’t moving.

The Allied command had always suspected de Gaulle and his men were fighting their own war for France instead of joining the Allies’ war against Germany.  De Gaulle and General Leclerc, on the other hand, felt that Paris was the key to France, and feared if they sat in Normandy much longer there would be no Paris.

In Paris itself rumours were rife.  No-one knew how far away the Allies were, or whether German reinforcements were on the way.  The situation was very tense, but the ranks of the Resistance swelled dramatically.  For Parisians – resistants, civilians and collaborators alike, there was no turning back.  Over …………… Parisians were to die in the fight for their city during the ten day uprising.

Finally, a second act of insubordination, this time from 2eDB Division Commander General Leclerc, broke the deadlock.  On the evening of August 21, without the permission of his American commanders, Leclerc decided to move some of his men towards Paris.  Two days later the Americans were finally persuaded a massacre in Paris was imminent and did likewise.

Leclerc met trouble on the road and in a battle with Germans lost 71 men and 35 armoured vehicles.  Another 225 men were wounded.  He was ordered to pull back and wait for the others, but when de Gaulle heard this he insisted it was vital that Leclerc continue on to Paris regardless.

On the evening of August 24 Leclerc reached the outskirts of Paris.  Division 2eDB was guided into the city, to Pont Austerlitz, via backstreets reconnoitred by resistance workers, avoiding German patrols.  The next day this 16,000 strong collection of varied French Nationals who had followed Leclerc from their victory at Bir Hakiem would become known as the first liberators of Paris.  They rolled into Paris and experienced one of the most exciting and jubilant days in modern history.  Final skirmishes with the Germans were mixed with a hero’s welcome from ecstatic Parisians.
This summer, fifty years later, Paris will be awash with ‘Liberation Day’ festivities on and around August 25th.

That evening a huge parade will retrace the steps of the original liberators, leaving Porte d’Orleans at 9.15pm for Hotel de Ville, re-enacting along the way the five main battle scenes – Denfert Rochereau, Port Royale, Place Edmund Rostand, Place St Michel and Place du Chatelet.  A documentary film on the liberation will be projected onto giant video screens around Hotel de Ville, followed by fireworks over the Seine, then dancing at a ‘bal populaire’ at Place de la Concorde.

The next day de Gaulle’s victory march down Champs Elysee will be commemorated by 12,000 children from all over France parading down the famous avenue, leaving at 6pm for Place de la Concorde and a ‘surprise’ event.

Celebration schedules in English are available from tourism offices, airports, railway stations and civic centres.

Paris is also hosting some excellent exhibitions to commemmorate liberation.  One of the best is at Musee de L’Armee, Hotel National des Invalides and runs for the next year.  ‘Ensemble, ils ont libere la France’ combines succinct histories of ‘defeatist’ France, ‘resistant’ France and the countdown to the liberation along with documentary films, historical artifacts and documents and relevant personal items of key players in the drama.

Hotel de Ville is running a mainly photographic exhibition of Paris under German occupation and the liberation with photos by Robert Doisneau, Suzanne Laroche, Robert Cohen and Presse Liberation amongst others.

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