The liberation of Paris, in theory, was only a matter of time after the success of D-Day in June 1944. The taking of Paris and its liberation would have been a massive morale boost not to just those who lived in Paris but to French people in general, but it did not seem to be a high priority to Allied leaders.
It would appear that the liberation of Paris was not even on the mind of those who planned ‘Operation Overlord’. No one at SHAEF General Staff seems to have planned ahead even when ‘Operation Cobra’ was ended. The general plan seems to have been to by-pass Paris both north and south and leave encircled the remaining Germans still in the greater Paris area. There was an understandable unease about street fighting in major cities. The Germans had thought the same in September 1939 when they preferred to attack Warsaw with artillery and bombers rather than risk a full-scale infantry attack. The destruction that occurred in Stalingrad confirmed to those in SHAEF that any ground attack on a large city would have resulted in vast and potentially damaging casualties – both militarily and among civilians. In particular, it seems that Eisenhower was definitely against such an attack. It was also apparent to planners that Paris had little strategic value especially when the American 79th Infantry Division crossed the River Seine at Mantes on August 20th. On August 26th, Patton’s 3rd Army crossed the same river.
Eisenhower also believed that he faced another problem. He did not want to be seen as interfering in French internal affairs. Whatever happened once the city was liberated, a new government would be formed. Eisenhower was very wary about de Gaulle sweeping into Paris after the city had been liberated and being declared head of what was fast becoming a liberated nation. He did not want to get involved in what would seem to some as ‘coat-tail’ politics – the Americans ‘placing’ de Gaulle in power. Eisenhower believed that the longer the situation went on for, the further the Allies would be from Paris and the accusation of interference could not be leveled at him.
However, events in Paris conspired to scupper Eisenhower’s plans. The speed of the Allies advance gave great hope to Parisians who fully expected their city to be liberated as quickly as was militarily feasible. By mid-August, the people of the city were beginning to openly challenge the authority of the Germans in the city. Railway men, postmen, the police and even undertakers went on strike. The activities of the French Resistance became more frequent and blatant.
The German commander of Paris was General Dietrich von Choltitz. He had commanded the 84th German Army Corps at the time of D-Day. The decisions he made at the time and his failure to stop General Bradley’s breakthrough by St Lô had displeased Hitler who had him replaced. The then commander of Paris, General von Stülpnagel, had been implicated in the July Bomb Plot and Hitler gave Choltitz control of the city after Stülpnagel’s arrest. He was given the power of life or death over anybody who lived in the ‘Greater Paris’ area. Hitler also ordered him to made the city a fortress which would include destroying every bridge in the city, regardless of the damage this would do to the surrounding area. Choltitz had at his disposal a considerable number of men. Any internal rising by the people of Paris (as was going on in Warsaw) could have been coped with. But Choltitz knew that his tenure in charge of the city was only a short one and that it is almost certain he knew that the city would be lost to the Germans as the Allies advanced. That barely any damage was done to the city by the time it was liberated must be credited to Choltitz who failed to carry out Hitler’s orders.
On August 1st, General Leclerc and the French 2nd Armoured Division, had landed at Utah Beach fighting with the US 15th Corps. Leclerc assumed that after the Falaise fighting, his 2nd Armoured Division would spearhead an advance on Paris as he naturally assumed that a French unit of some description would be allowed to be the first to the city. When he was left seemingly doing nothing after Falaise, Leclerc complained directly to General George Patton. He told Leclerc that he did not care who got to Paris first but that his sole desire was to move east to Germany. To Patton, rather like Eisenhower, Paris was an unnecessary distraction. Leclerc was in a difficult position. He and the French 2nd Armoured Division had been transferred to American General Gerow’s 5th Corps. However, Leclerc’s immediate superior in the French military set-up was de Gaulle. He, de Gaulle, wanted an immediate advance on Paris – Gerow did not. Gerow was also angered that one of his divisional generals was receiving instructions from another authority other than his own.
On August 19th, the people of Paris rose up against the Germans – it was a rising that was to cost the lives of 1,500 citizens. Choltitz’s first reaction was not to use force to put the rising down. On August 20th, he even signed a truce with resistance representatives. The more extreme leaders in the French Resistance were angered that a truce had been agreed to but M Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul-general in Paris, did all he could to keep it alive. On August 21st, de Gaulle urged Eisenhower to send Leclerc and his men straight to Paris. On the same day, Patton received Rolf Nordling, the brother of Raoul, who described the precarious situation in the city. On August 22nd, Paris was brought to another standstill when barricades were put up in the city centre and many went on strike. However, the Americans believed that
|“Choltitz was not the man to undertake systematic destruction in Paris unless things get out of hand before the arrival of regular troops.”|
Leclerc had already made up his mind that he would be first to Paris – a decision he had made on August 21st. It is generally thought that sheer exasperation caused him to do this as it does not seem that he received any direct orders from de Gaulle to do this. Leclerc got together ten tanks and ten armoured cars with 150 men under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel de Guillebon and ordered the small unit to advance directly to Paris.
However small the unit may have been, it was still seen by the Americans outside of its designated area. This information was relayed to Gerow who immediately ordered Leclerc to recall de Guillebon. Leclerc decided to take his grievances to a higher authority – General Hodges, commander of the American 1st Army. At this meeting at Hodge’s headquarters, Leclerc learned that Eisenhower had ordered that the French 2nd Armoured Division as an entity should move on to Paris without delay. At 06.30 on August 23rd, they started their move on to the city. British and American units were ordered to assist, but fearing the political issues at stake, the British asked Eisenhower not to include them.
Two different advances took place – from the ‘north’ (via Versailles) and from the south (via Fresnes Croix de Berny). In both advances, the French 2nd Armoured Division was to be at the front, with American forces assisting. 20,000 German troops were placed outside of the city commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Hubertus von Aulock. However, the military value of these 20,000 men was debatable. Choltitz kept 5,000 men in Paris itself, with 50 artillery guns and a company of tanks. On August 23rd he received an instruction from Hitler that “Paris is not to fall in the hands of the enemy, except as a heap of ruins.” Choltitz was considered to be a loyal soldier who followed orders – but this order he found simply unpractical and probably unacceptable.
The two advances to Paris had met more opposition than they had expected from dug in 88’s and mine fields. Leclerc had moved away from the agreed route of advance and had come up against fierce resistance. As a result, the American units commanded by General Barton had decided to move on to Paris regardless of Leclerc’s position and whether Leclerc was at the front or not. In fact, Leclerc’s casualties were high – 71 killed, 225 wounded, 35 tanks and 6 self-propelled guns lost and 111 vehicles of various descriptions lost – “a rather high ratio of losses for an armoured division” (J Mordal).
As the Allies entered the city’s suburbs, another element held up their advance – the people of Paris. Such was their joy at seeing Allied soldiers – be they French or American – that streets were blocked with those celebrating their freedom. Leclerc got a small plane to drop leaflets on the city centre that read “Hold on, we are coming.” At 22.30 on the evening of August 24th, a small detachment of French soldiers entered Paris led by Captain Dronne. By August 25th, it became clear to Choltitz that resistance of any form was useless. However, sporadic fighting continued in the city – including at the Champs Elysées in the area by the Arc de Triomphe.
Choltitz was taken prisoner on August 25th after the capture of his headquarters and this date is used to mark the city’s liberation from German rule. Getting the information out that Choltitz had surrendered German forces in the city was difficult and fighting continued throughout the centre of Paris and by the time things had settled down, 1,483 Parisians had been killed with 3,467 wounded.
De Gaulle entered Paris on August 25th. He declared his intention to walk down the Champs Elysées and on to Notre Dame on the 26th but expected that the French 2nd Armoured Division to be present, if only for security. General Gerow did not agree with this request but Leclerc, naturally, decided to side with de Gaulle. To ease the diplomatic strains this whole issue was causing, Leclerc was moved away from Gerow’s command and kept in Paris, along with the 2nd Armoured Division, until September 7th, by which time Gerow had moved on.