The French capital had been occupied for four years, and most Americans associated German occupation with a romantic picture of Parisians struggling against German oppression. In reality, the Vichy Government helped the Germans to send thousands of Jews to concentration camps, and hundreds of thousands of laborers to Germany to work in war production as slave labor. By 1945 most slave laborers were French; the Poles had died out.
The Liberation of Paris (also known as Battle for Paris) took place during World War II from August 19, 1944 until the surrender of the occupying German garrison on August 25, 1944, and is accounted as the last battle in the Campaign for Normandy and the transitional conclusion of the Allied invasion breakout in Operation Overlord into a broad-fronted general offensive. The capital region of France had been administered by Nazi Germany since the Second Compiègne armistice in June 1940 when Germany occupied the North and West of France and when the Vichy puppet regime was established with its capital in the central city of Vichy.
The liberation started with an uprising by the French Resistance against the German Paris garrison. On August 24, 1944, the FFI resistances received backup from the Free French Army of Liberation and from the United States' 4th Infantry Division.
This battle marked the end of Operation Overlord, the liberation of France by the Allies, the restoration of the French Republic and the exile of the Vichy government to Sigmaringen in Germany.
Allied strategy emphasized destroying German forces retreating towards the Rhine, when the French Resistance (FFI) under Henri Rol-Tanguy staged an uprising in the French capital. Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower did not consider Paris a primary objective; instead, American and British Allies wanted to enter Berlin before the Soviet Union's army and put an end to the conflict. Moreover Eisenhower thought it too early for a battle in Paris; he wanted to prevent another battle of Stalingrad, and knew that Hitler had given orders to destroy Paris. In a siege, it was estimated 4,000 tons of food per day would be needed to supply the Parisians, plus effort to restore vital infrastructure including transport and energy supply. Such a task would require time and entire Allied divisions.
However, Charles de Gaulle threatened to send his Free French 2nd Armored Division (2ème DB) into Paris single-handedly.
Paris was the prize in a contest for power within the French Resistance. The city was the hub of national administration and politics, the center of the railroad system, the communication lines and the highways. It was the only place from which the country could be governed. The overall aim of the Resistance, to get rid of the Germans, bound men of conflicting philosophies and interests together. But there were political differences among them. De Gaulle had organized the Resistance outside France to support his provisional government. But inside France, a large and vociferous contingent of the left contested de Gaulle’s leadership.
On August 24, 1944, delayed by poor decision-making, combat and poor roads, Free French General Leclerc, commander of the 2nd Armored Division disobeyed his superior U.S. field commander general Omar Bradley and sent a vanguard (la colonne Dronne) to Paris, with the message that the entire division would be there the following day. Bradley reportedly said "OK, Leclerc, run into Paris...". The vanguard column of M4 Sherman tanks, M2 half-track and GMC trucks was commanded by Captain Raymond Dronne, who became one of the first uniformed Allied liberating officers to enter Paris.
Allied forces traveled toward Paris on two routes. The northern column, expected to be the main effort, consisted of the bulk of the French division in the lead, some American reconnaissance and engineer troops and four battalions of the V Corps’ artillery. The southern column consisted of a French combat command, most of the U.S. cavalry, the V Corps headquarters and the 4th Infantry Division, in that order.
The columns made good progress. By nightfall on August 23, 1944 they were less than 20 miles from the capital. The northern column was beyond Rambouillet on the road to Versailles. The southern column was in similar position. Just short of their goal, however, the French met German opposition. Leclerc reached Rambouillet in the evening and learned from reconnaissance elements and French civilians that the Germans had set up a solid defensive line outside of Paris. Getting into the city would be no easy matter. Trying to speed up his advance, Leclerc changed his main effort from the northern column to the southern by sending a combat command from the northern force to the southern.
His decision was unfortunate in three respects. He inadvertently chose to make his main effort at the place where the German defenses were the strongest and in the greatest depth. He put his main effort out of range of supporting artillery in the northern column. And finally, he impinged on the route of advance reserved for the 4th Infantry Division.
The division attacked at dawn on August 24, 1944. The northern column fought fiercely to gain about 15 miles. By evening, the troops had reached the Pont de Sevres, a wide bridge across the Seine. It was still intact, and a few tanks crossed the river and entered the suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. Paris proper was less than two miles away at the Porte de St. Cloud. But the troops stayed where they were, as enthusiastic civilians swarmed over them in eager welcome, pressing flowers, kisses and wine on their liberators. The main column in the south advanced about 13 miles with great difficulty. The head of the column was still about five miles from the closest entrance, the Porte d’Orléans; seven miles from the final objective, the Panthéon; and about eight miles from the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame, the center of the capital.
The supposed expiration of the armistice at noon on August 24, 1944 was very much on the minds of the Americans. It was incredible to them that the French were making such little progress. They seemed to be procrastinating. French troops, Bradley later said,’stumbled reluctantly through a Gallic wall as townsfolk…slowed the French advance with wine and celebration.’
To Gerow, Leclerc’s attack seemed halfhearted. Hoping to shame the French into greater effort, Gerow asked Bradley whether he could send the 4th Division into the city. Bradley was angry. How long could Choltitz wait for regular troops before destroying the capital? Bradley said he could not let the French ‘dance their way to Paris.’ He told Gerow, ‘To hell with prestige. Tell the 4th to slam on in and take the liberation.’
Gerow informed Maj. Gen. Raymond O. Barton, the 4th’s commander, and Leclerc that precedence in favor of the French no longer applied. Barton’s 4th Division was to enter the city, too.
On receipt of this information, Leclerc made one more attempt to get his troops into Paris during the night of August 24, 1944. It was impossible for him to order the northern column to continue beyond the Sevres bridge because, as the French reported, ‘liaison between the columns for all practical purposes no longer exists.’ This, too, was a mistake or an oversight by Leclerc, an error due to inexperience. So Leclerc, who was with his main effort in the south, sent a detachment of tanks and halftracks forward.
This small force, under Captain Raymond Dronne, rolled along side roads and back streets, crossed the Seine by the Pont d’Austerlitz, drove along the quays on the right bank and reached the Hôtel de Ville just before midnight, August 24, 1944.
The bells of nearby Notre Dame began to ring joyously. Another church took up the refrain and then another. Soon all the churches in Paris were ringing their bells in celebration. A cascade of sound washed over the city. Not many Parisians had gone to sleep that night. The telephones had been working, and everyone knew that soldiers were in the suburbs. The bells of the churches could mean only one thing: The liberators had arrived.
On the following morning, the official day of liberation, an enormous crowd of joyous Parisians welcomed the arrival of the 2nd French Armored Division, which swept the western part of Paris, including the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées, while the Americans cleared the eastern part. The Germans had melted away during the previous night. Two thousand of them remained in the Bois de Boulogne, and 700 more were in the Luxembourg Gardens. But most had fled or simply awaited capture.
The battle cost the Free French 2nd Armored Division 71 KIA, 225 wounded, 35 tanks, 6 self-propelled guns, and 111 vehicles, which is "a rather high ratio of losses for an armoured division" according to historian Jacques Mordal.
On August 25, 1944, at 10:30AM, General Pierre Billotte, commander of the First French Armored Brigade (the 2nd Armored Division's tactical group), sent an ultimatum to von Choltitz. Raoul Nordling played the role of mediator and delivered the message.
“ All yesterday, my brigade crushed all opposed strong points. It inflicted heavy losses and took several prisoners. This morning, I entered Paris and my tanks occupy the Île de la Cité area. Large armored units, French and Allied, will join me soon. I estimate that, from a strictly military point of view, the resistance of German troops in charge of defending Paris cannot be effective anymore. In order to prevent any useless bloodshed, it belongs to you to put an end to all resistance immediately. In the case where you would see fit to carry on a struggle that no military strategy could justify, I am determined to pursue it until total extermination. In the opposite case, you would be treated according to the laws of war. I await your answer within half an hour from the delivery of this ultimatum.”
Despite repeated orders from Hitler that the French capital "must not fall into the enemy's hand except lying in complete debris", this to be accomplished by bombing it and exploding its bridges, German General Dietrich von Choltitz, the commander of the Paris garrison and military governor of Paris surrendered on August 25, 1944 at the Hotel Meurice, newly established headquarters of General Leclerc. Von Choltitz was kept prisoner until April 1947. In his memoir ... Brennt Paris? ("Is Paris Burning?"), first published in 1950, von Choltitz describes himself as the savior of Paris.
There is a controversy about von Choltitz's actual role during the battle since he is regarded in totally different way in France and Germany. In Germany, he is regarded as a humanist and a hero who saved Paris from urban warfare and destruction. In 1964, Dietrich von Choltitz explained in an interview taped from his Baden Baden home, why he had refused to obey Hitler: "If for the first time I had disobeyed, it was because I knew that Hitler was insane" ("Si pour la première fois j'ai désobéi, c'est parce que je savais qu'Hitler déraisonnait")". According to a 2004 interview his son Timo gave to the French public channel France 2, von Choltitz disobeyed Hitler and personally allowed the Allies to take the city back safely and rapidly, preventing the French Resistance from engaging in urban warfare that would have destroyed parts of Paris. He knew the war was lost and decided alone to save the capital.
However in France, this version is seen as a "falsification of History" since von Choltitz is regarded as a Nazi officer faithful to Hitler involved in many controversial actions such as:
In 1940 and 1941, he gave the orders to destroy Sevastopol and burn Rotterdam.
During the battle for Paris:
On August 23rd he ordered the burning of the Grand Palais occupied by FFI resistance.
On August 19th he ordered the destruction of the Pantin great windmills in order to starve the population.
On August 16th he ordered the execution of 35 members of the resistance at the Bois de Boulogne waterfall.
In a 2004 interview, Parisian Resistance veteran Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont describes von Choltitz as a man who "as long as he could, killed French and when he ceased to kill them it was because he wasn't able to do so any longer". Kriegel-Valrimont argues "not only do we owe him nothing, but this a shameless falsification of History, to award him any merit." The Liberation de Paris documentary secretly shot during the battle by the Resistance brings evidence of bitter urban warfare that contradicts the von Choltitz father and son version. Despite this, the Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre novel Is Paris Burning? and its 1966 film adaptation emphasize Von Choltitz as the saviour of Paris.
A third source, the protocols of telephonic conversations between von Choltitz and his superiors found later in the Fribourg archives and their analysis by German historians support Kriegel-Valrimont's theory. Also, Pierre Taittinger and Raoul Nordling both claim it was they who convinced von Choltitz not to destroy Paris as ordered by Hitler. The first published a book in 1984 describing this episode, ...et Paris ne fut pas détruit (... and Paris Wasn't Destroyed), which earned him a prize from the French Academy.
German losses are estimated at about 3,200 killed and 12,800 prisoners of war.
Charles de Gaulle, president of the Provisional Government of the French Republic moved back into the War Ministry on the rue Saint-Dominique, then made a rousing speech to the population from the Hotel de Ville.
“ "Why do you desire that we hide the emotion which seizes us all, men and women, who are here, at home, in Paris that stood up to liberate itself and that succeeded in doing this with its own hands?
No! We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion. These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives. Paris! Outraged Paris! Broken Paris! Martyred Paris! But liberated Paris! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France! Well! Since the enemy which held Paris has capitulated into our hands, France returns to Paris, to her home. She returns bloody, but quite resolute. She returns there enlightened by the immense lesson, but more certain than ever of her duties and of her rights. I speak of her duties first, and I will sum them all up by saying that for now, it is a matter of the duties of war. The enemy is staggering, but he is not vanquished yet. He remains in our territory. It will not even be enough that we have, with the help of our dear and admirable Allies, chased him from our home for us to consider ourselves satisfied after what has happened. We want to enter his territory as is fitting, as victors. This is why the French vanguard has entered Paris with guns blazing. This is why the French grande armée of Italy has landed in Southern France (Operation Dragoon) and is advancing rapidly up the Rhone valley. This is why our brave and dear Forces of the Interior will arm themselves with modern weapons. It is for this revenge, this vengeance and justice, that we will keep fighting until the last day, until the day of total and complete victory. This duty of war, all the men who are here and all those who hear us in France know that it demands national unity. We, who have lived the greatest hours of our History, we have nothing else to wish than to show ourselves, up to the end, worthy of France. Long live France!"