Paris after the liberati.., p.5
Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949, p.5Antony Beevor
On 14 June 1944 de Gaulle crossed the Channel in the French destroyer Combattante. His party included Gaston Palewski, the ambassador Pierre Viennot, and Generals Koenig and Béthouart. One of them, hoping to lighten their leader’s mood, said to him: ‘Has it occurred to you, General, that four years ago to the day the Germans marched into Paris?’
‘Well! They made a mistake!’ came the inimitable reply.
De Gaulle relaxed only after the party had landed on a beach near Courseulles in Normandy and visited General Montgomery in his caravan. He then went on to meet civilians on French soil for the first time since 1940. These rather dazed citizens all knew his voice from the nocturnal radio broadcasts, but nobody recognized his face: Vichy had never allowed the publication of his photograph. News spread rapidly. The local curé, Father Paris, came cantering up on his horse to reprove the General for not having shaken his hand. De Gaulle climbed out of the jeep he was in. ‘Monsieur le curé,’ he said, opening his arms, ‘I do not shake your hand, I embrace you.’ Two gendarmes then appeared on bicycles, which wobbled as they tried to salute. They were sent on ahead to Bayeux, heralds of the General’s coming.
Here the emotional reaction to de Gaulle’s appearance was muted by the usual Norman reserve. One old woman, however, became confused in the enthusiasm of the moment, and cried out, ‘Vive le Maréchal!’De Gaulle, on hearing this discordant note, is said to have murmured, ‘Another person who does not read the newspapers.’ Gaston Palewski, when told of the approach of the Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux ‘to greet the Liberator’, was certain they had finally won: ‘the clergy does not take risks’.
The sub-prefect appointed by Vichy, wearing his red, white and blue sash of office, welcomed de Gaulle’s party. But the change of regime had been too abrupt for him. He suddenly remembered the portrait of Marshal Pétain in the salle d’honneur and dashed off to take it down. It was four years and three days since the General and the Marshal had met on the steps of the Château du Muguet.
The Race for Paris
On 31 July, General Patton’s Third Army began the breakout from Normandy at Avranches. Encircling the Germans from the west, his right hook brought the Allies to Argentan, 167 kilometres from Paris.
For General de Gaulle, there was only one formation which merited the honour of liberating the capital of France. This was the Deuxième Division Blindée, the French 2nd Armoured Division, always known as the ‘2e DB’. Its commander was General Leclerc, the nom de guerre of Philippe de Hauteclocque.
Much larger than most divisions, the 2e DB was 16,000 strong, equipped with American uniforms, weapons, half-tracks and Sherman tanks. Its core consisted of men who had followed Leclerc from Chad across the Sahara, besieged the Italian garrison at Koufra and gone on to join the British. In its ranks served regulars from the metropolitan army, including cavalrymen from Saumur, Spahis (colonial troops), sailors without ships, North African Arabs, Senegalese and French colonials who had never before stood on the soil of France. One company, the 9th, was known as ‘la nueve’ because it was full of Spanish Republicans, veterans of even harder battles. Appropriately, the battalion itself was commanded by Major Putz, the most respected of all the battalion commanders in the International Brigades. Leclerc’s division was such an extraordinary mixture, with Gaullists, Communists, monarchists, socialists, Giraudists and anarchists working closely together, that General de Gaulle formed an over-optimistic vision of how post-war France could unite under his leadership.
De Gaulle had flown to Algiers after the Normandy landings. He regained France on 20 August, to be met with deeply unsettling news. A rising, largely inspired by the Communists, had begun in Paris. The Allied armies were in no position to come to its support. For de Gaulle, an insurrection was symbolically vital to demonstrate that the liberation of France was not purely an American operation. But at the same time he knew that for the Communists it was a deliberate part of their strategy, creating the opportunity to seize power before his own representatives could assert themselves.
On 15 August, the decision of the German authorities to disarm part of the Paris police force provoked a strike. News of the landings on the Mediterranean coast round Saint-Tropez was announced on the radio at noon and strengthened resolve. The Communists, who wanted to increase the pressure towards an uprising, had begun to infiltrate and recruit among the police as rapidly as possible. Since many policemen were embarrassed at their record of subservience to German orders, a Communist Party card offered a good insurance policy. The same day, a call for ‘l’insurrection populaire’ appeared in L’Humanité, the party newspaper.
Two days later the National Council of the Resistance and the COMAC (Comité Militaire d’Action) debated the call to arms. Although presided over by Georges Bidault, a Christian Democrat, the National Council of the Resistance was dominated by the Communists, as was the military committee. The twenty-nine-year-old Gaullist Resistance chief, General Jacques Chaban-Delmas, had returned from London the day before, having accomplished the last part of the journey through the German lines on a bicycle. The purpose of his clandestine journey had been to warn the Allies that a premature insurrection in Paris was inevitable. Yet he returned with the vain instruction from General Koenig, de Gaulle’s chief of staff, that there was to be no uprising without his order. Koenig had been appointed commander of all the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI), known both affectionately and disparagingly as ‘les fifis’, but so far his authority was purely theoretical.
Chaban-Delmas had told the military authorities in London that against the 16,000-strong German garrison, which might be reinforced by another division, the Resistance in Paris had fewer than 15,000 FFI volunteers and only enough weapons for 2,000. Even that seems an optimistic figure. The best the Resistance in Paris could hope for were some army rifles hidden since 1940, shotguns and revolvers often stolen from arms shops, a few sub-machine-guns parachuted elsewhere in France by the Allies and weapons taken from the Germans by force. A Communist youth group in the 18th arrondissement, for example, used to send their female comrades to pick up German soldiers round Pigalle, then entice them into an alley, where young male comrades were waiting to club them down and take their weapons.
A group of Communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP) also managed to seize a ton of explosive from the Poudrerie Sevran. But very few of the volunteers had much experience either of the army or of the Resistance. Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, the Communist who commanded the FFI of Greater Paris, admitted to Louis Teuléry, a major in the Service B (the Communist counter-intelligence service) that the Communist FTP had numbered only 600 men in the whole of the Greater Paris area before the Normandy landings. The real rush to join came afterwards.
Thirty-five young resistants fell headlong into a trap when they were promised a consignment of weapons by an agent provocateur working for the Gestapo. When they arrived at the rendezvous they were rounded up, brutally interrogated at Gestapo headquarters in the rue des Saussaies, and executed.
Yet Colonel Rol-Tanguy was unimpressed by calls for caution. That day the FTP gave the order to seize vehicles and prepare them with armour-plating, as if Paris in 1944 was comparable to Madrid or Barcelona in July 1936. The following day, flyposters across the city called for a general strike and ‘l’insurrection libératrice’.
On 17 August, Charles Luizet, de Gaulle’s appointee as Prefect of Police, arrived in secret. He became part of the skeleton team of administrators, of whom Alexandre Parodi, de Gaulle’s delegate general, was the most senior.
That day also saw the exodus of Germans and collaborators in increasing numbers – what the inimitable diarist Jean Galtier-Boissière described as ‘la grande fuite des Fritz’. The immensely tall Galtier-Boissière, with his military moustache from the First World War, straw hat in the style of a Victorian traveller and ivory-handled umbrella, was a curious figure, full of contradictions. A funny and endearing anarchist of the grande bourgeoisie, he had starte
Overruling the objections of Pierre Laval, the German ambassador, Otto Abetz, ordered the evacuation of the Vichy administration to Belfort, a few miles from the German border. Laval’s attempts over the last few days to convene parliamentarians, such as Édouard Herriot, the President of the National Assembly, had only managed to enrage General Oberg, the chief of the SS in France.
The Germans, preparing to leave, were stared at openly and scornfully by groups of Parisians who, for the last four years, had pretended not to see them. But when a detachment of soldiers on the Boulevard Saint-Michel was mocked – Sylvia Beach, the founder of the bookshop Shakespeare & Company, described the Parisians cheerfully waving lavatory brushes at them – they opened fire into the crowd.
In many cases, packing up included some last-minute looting. The Gestapo broke into the apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on the rue Christine. A neighbour rang the police and twenty appeared. Backed up by half the population of the street, they demanded to see the Gestapo’s authorization. The Gestapo officials, uttering threats, were forced to leave.
A group of soldiers, probably on the order of a senior officer, loaded the contents of the wine cellar of the Cercle Interallié, a large private club, on to lorries. Other military and civilian vehicles, including even ambulances and a hearse, were piled with anything which might be of value: Louis XVI furniture, medicines, works of art, pieces of machinery, bicycles, rolls of carpet and food.
Odd bursts of firing seemed to break out on all sides on Friday, 18 August, after Communist posters had appeared. The next day, the tricolour reappeared on several public buildings, most notably the Prefecture of Police on the Île de la Cité. Since seven in the morning, policemen on strike over the German move to disarm them began to arrive in ever-increasing numbers following a summons by their Resistance committees. Passing through the city, Colonel Rol-Tanguy had been surprised to hear the Marseillaise being sung inside: 2,000 police resisters had occupied the building and arrested Amédée Bussières, Vichy’s Prefect of Police. He was replaced by the Gaullist Charles Luizet, who slipped into the Prefecture. The Gaullists, led by Parodi, by now had no alternative but to accept the direction of events and join the rising.
Any Parisian rash enough to hang a tricolour from a balcony in imitation of those which had appeared on public buildings might receive a fusillade through the window from a passing German patrol. At lunch time, German tanks and trucks of infantry arrived to crush the rebellion in the Prefecture of Police, but the tanks had only armour-piercing shells, which made holes without breaking down walls.
Heavy bursts of firing broke out in other parts of Paris, with Wehr-macht vehicles ambushed, and their occupants replying. On the left bank opposite the Île de la Cité the fighting was particularly heavy. Altogether that day, forty Germans were killed and seventy wounded, at a cost of 125 Parisians killed and nearly 500 wounded. The Resistance had started with so little ammunition that by evening it was almost exhausted.
The situation within the besieged Prefecture was critical. The Swedish Consul-General, Raoul Nordling, arranged a truce with General von Choltitz, the German commander of Greater Paris.
The truce was not respected, partly due to the chaotic lack of communications, but it somehow held for two days, thanks to the tolerance or complaisance of General von Choltitz. This in itself was regarded by the insurgents, with dangerous optimism, as a proof of victory. The continuing attacks did not come just from over-eager groups of young Communists. The Gaullists, in the interests of restoring ‘Republican legality’, needed to take as many symbolic buildings as possible. On 20 August, leaders of the National Council of the Resistance took over the Hôtel de Ville in an operation that deliberately excluded Communists.
Over the next four days, the Germans peppered the walls of the Hôtel de Ville with machine-gun fire, but never mounted a determined attack; fortunately, since the insurgents had only four machine-guns and a handful of revolvers.
On 21 August the National Council of the Resistance met to discuss the truce. It was a tense and bitter meeting and the Communists prevailed. The council decided to rescind the truce the following day. Once again the Gaullists were forced to follow the Communist lead to avoid civil war.
Since the first news of the rising in Paris two days before, General Leclerc had found it hard to contain his impatience and frustration. His American commanders showed no willingness to advance on the city. Eisenhower meant to leave Paris in German hands for a few weeks longer. That would allow Patton to follow the defeated Germans across northern France, and perhaps even to push right through to the Rhine while they were still disorganized. If the Americans were to relieve Paris and thus become responsible for feeding the city, he would have neither the fuel nor the transport to support Patton’s push. But for de Gaulle and Leclerc, Paris was the key to France, and they feared that a Communist-led rising could result in another Paris Commune. The Americans would then step in and impose their AMGOT on France.
The first call to insurrection by French Communists in Paris had come two weeks after General Bor-Komorowski had launched the ill-fated Warsaw uprising on the approach of the Red Army. Yet the rush to revolution in France in the summer of 1944 was a spontaneous reaction in French Communist ranks, not Kremlin policy. The regular political leadership of the French Communist Party had no control over events. Maurice Thorez was in Moscow, and his deputy, Jacques Duclos, hidden in the countryside, exerted little influence over the party’s fighting arm, the FTP. Hamstrung by difficult communications and the Communists’ own draconian security measures, Duclos found himself unable to control Charles Tillon and the other leaders of the FTP, who, like most of their followers, wanted to carry resistance through into revolution.
Leclerc, at his headquarters near Argentan, eventually decided to send a small detachment towards Versailles on the evening of 21 August. He did so without the permission of his American corps commander. This minor act of military insubordination strengthened the suspicion among a number of American officers that the Gaullists were fighting their own war for France, not the Allies’ war against Germany.
Leclerc had not managed to contact de Gaulle, but wrote, impressing upon the leader of the provisional government that Eisenhower must be persuaded to change his plans without any further delay. A series of messengers from Paris, all bearing warnings that the city would be destroyed if the Allies did not capture it quickly, had achieved little success.
The Communist FFI commander for Greater Paris, Colonel Rol-Tanguy, relaunched the fighting the next morning, 22 August. Posters across the city proclaimed his battle-cry – ‘Chacun son Boche!’ This was followed a short while later by an even more atavistic call to battle – ‘TOUS AUX BARRICADES!’ – recalling the failed revolutions of the nineteenth century, and the old myth of Paris as the Red Jerusalem. Rol-Tanguy, a former commissar in the International Brigades in Spain, ordered the whole population of Paris, men, women and children, to barricade every street they could to prevent the Germans from moving, a lesson learned in Barcelona at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
Hardly any barricades were erected in the fashionable arrondissements, the 7th, 8th and 16th; the greatest number were in those quarters around the north and east of the city, which had voted overwhelmingly for the Popular Front in 1936. The most effectively sited were in the south-eastern part of Paris, where the FFI was commanded by Colonel Fabien, the Communist who had assassinated the young German naval officer three years before.
Teams formed spontaneously from street or neighbourhood. The young and strong u
‘I arrive at a small FFI position near the Place Saint-Michel,’ wrote Galtier-Boissière in his diary. ‘A machine-gun is placed on the pavement, covering the Saint-Michel bridge; a tall, fair-haired and well-dressed young man is the gunner. On both sides of the boulevard there are about ten young men in shirt sleeves, with a brassard round their biceps, carbine in hand or brandishing little revolvers. Some wear army helmets. These combatants are surrounded by about fifty lookers-on waiting for something to happen. As soon as a vehicle appears on the bridge, all the lookers-on rush back into nearby doorways.’
People helped as they could. The bravest were the stretcher parties, collecting hundreds of wounded from bullet-spattered streets, with only a Red Cross flag to protect them. Professor Joliot-Curie, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and devoted Communist, set up a production line making Molotov cocktails in the Sorbonne. Between Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Place Saint-Michel, Zette Leiris, who ran a well-known gallery, started a canteen for FFI members in the rue Saint-André des Arts. Concierges swabbed blood from the paving stones.
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