D day the battle for nor.., p.55
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy,
On 21 August, Montgomery issued a declaration to the 21st Army Group: ‘The victory has been definite, complete and decisive. “The Lord mighty in battle” has given us the victory.’ Many, however, did not agree that the victory had been ‘definite, complete and decisive’. General Eberbach estimated that perhaps some 20,000 men, twenty-five tanks and fifty self-propelled guns had escaped the encirclement. ‘The losses of tanks from lack of gasoline were greater than those due to all kinds of enemy armaments put together,’ he wrote later. Gersdorff believed that between 20,000 and 30,000 managed to cross the Seine.74 On the Allied side, Montgomery’s strongest critics were British.
‘One of Monty’s great errors was at Falaise,’ Air Chief Marshal Tedder said after the war. ‘There he imperiously told US troops to stop and leave the British area alone. He didn’t close the gap.’ Predictably, Air Chief Marshal Coningham, who loathed Montgomery, was even harsher: ‘Monty is supposed to have done a great job at Falaise. [But he] really helped the Germans get away. He still wanted to do the job by himself, and kept the Americans from coming up. We closed on Falaise too late.’ Coningham attributed his actions to jealousy of Patton, which is not entirely true.
According to Montgomery’s chief of staff, General Freddie de Guingand, Montgomery had been ‘too tidy’. He thought the Americans should have been allowed to join the Poles at Trun. Monty regarded Bradley as under his command. Monty, said Brigadier Williams of the 21st Army Group, was ‘the high cock on the dungheap’. When Montgomery told Bradley to hold back at Argentan, ‘Bradley was indignant. We were indignant on Bradley’s behalf.’ According to Williams, Montgomery ‘was fundamentally more interested in full envelopment than this inner envelopment. We fell between two stools. He missed his chance of closing at the Seine by doing the envelopment at Falaise. Monty changed his mind and went for a short hook too late, perhaps because he was afraid of the Americans taking all the credit.’
These strictures certainly indicate the frustration which boiled among both British and American officers at the missed opportunity to destroy the German armies in Normandy entirely. They are unfair in some respects. It was Bradley’s decision to allow Patton to split Haislip’s corps at Argentan, not Montgomery’s. But there can be little doubt that Montgomery’s failure to reinforce the Canadians at the crucial moment constituted a major factor in allowing so many German troops, especially those of the SS panzer divisions, to escape. The only chance of catching Model’s battered remnants during the last ten days of August now lay on the River Seine.
The Paris Uprising and the Race for the Seine
Even before the battle of the Falaise encirclement had started, General Leclerc had been consumed with impatience. To have his whole force caught up in the fighting round Argentan while most of Patton’s other divisions were sent towards the Seine had filled him with frustration. Then, on 17 August, when the 2ème DB was ordered to attack Trun, Leclerc at first refused. His American corps commander ‘had to ask him categorically whether he would disobey a written order’. Leclerc eventually backed down. Eisenhower, on becoming Supreme Allied Commander had agreed to de Gaulle’s request that French troops would be allowed to enter Paris first. In return, de Gaulle had promised that the French would do everything to support him. The political could not be separated from the military, especially when it came to symbolic gestures of vital importance to the French.
While Leclerc’s division was stuck under General Gerow’s V Corps, clearing up the south-east corner of the Falaise gap, Patton’s Third Army had advanced much further than Bradley had realized. Patton, with his various corps spread over such a huge area, had to abandon his Jeep and take to the air. ‘This Army covers so much ground that I have to fly in Cubs most places,’ he wrote. ‘I don’t like it. I feel like a clay pigeon.’
Haislip’s XV Corps had moved from Dreux to Mantes on the Seine, where one of his regiments would cross the river on the night of 19 August. Patton, after a flying visit, proudly announced to Bradley that he had ‘pissed in the river that morning’. Meanwhile, XX Corps was advancing on Fontainebleau and Melun south of Paris. After Cook’s XII Corps had taken Orléans and Châteaudun, General Patton, in inimitable fashion, simply told him, ‘Go where you damn well please eastwards!’ Cook said that he wanted to go straight for Koblenz on the Rhine. Patton was all in favour, Cook recorded, but Bradley was less certain. He thought that Montgomery would object because he needed to clear the rocket sites in the Pas-de-Calais as his top priority. But Patton was then forced to hold XII Corps at Orléans because of fuel shortages.
Montgomery was indeed objecting. On 19 August, he had discovered at a meeting with Bradley that Eisenhower wanted to advance with the American 12th Army Group straight across eastern France to the German border. The British and Canadians would clear the Pas-de-Calais, then go into Belgium and take the port of Antwerp, as Montgomery had proposed. But Montgomery despaired of a broad front advance. He wanted both army groups to proceed in a massed group together under a single field commander. This difference of opinion on strategy led to a major rift in the Allied command. It was a battle which the weakened British were now bound to lose.
Tensions between the Americans and the French also began to increase at an even higher level. Eisenhower was tipped off by the British commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean that General de Gaulle was about to fly from Algiers to France. De Gaulle, determined not to be beholden to the Allies in any way, refused to give detailed flight plans and rejected a fighter escort for his Lockheed Lodestar. The Americans, genuinely concerned for his safety, offered to provide a Flying Fortress. De Gaulle then insisted that it must bear French markings and have a French crew, but no French pilots were qualified to fly the aircraft.
On 19 August, de Gaulle arrived at Eisenhower’s headquarters. He heard that the Americans had taken Chartres. ‘We must march on Paris,’ he said to Eisenhower. ‘There must be an organized force there for internal order.’ But Eisenhower wanted to bypass the city. Next day de Gaulle went to Rennes. News arrived that an insurrection had started in Paris. De Gaulle immediately sent General Alphonse Juin with a letter to Eisenhower insisting that it was ‘absolutely necessary to have Leclerc sent into Paris’.75 If this was not done, then he, de Gaulle, would order Leclerc into Paris.
The German commander of Gross-Paris - ‘Greater Paris’ - was now Generalleutnant von Choltitz, the former commander of LXXXIV Corps on the Cotentin coast. Hitler had summoned Choltitz to the Wolfsschanze on the morning of 7 August when the attack on Mortain was beginning. ‘Hitler made me a speech for three-quarters of an hour, as though I were a public meeting,’ he complained later. Hitler, looking sick and bloated, raged at the plotters of 20 July. He claimed that he had unmasked the opposition at one blow and would crush them all. Choltitz was convinced that he really had become deranged and that the war was lost. Hitler, having calmed down, then gave him his orders for Paris. Choltitz had full powers as the commander of a ‘besieged fortress’ over all Wehrmacht personnel in Greater Paris. The city was to be defended to the end.
Choltitz later portrayed himself as an anti-Nazi as well as the saviour of Paris, yet Hitler trusted him because of his performance in southern Russia. Choltitz had indeed carried out Nazi orders faithfully. In British captivity that autumn, Choltitz said to General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, ‘The worst job I ever carried out - which however I carried out with great consistency - was the liquidation of the Jews. I carried out this order down to the very last detail.’76 (Choltitz, however, never faced a war crimes tribunal for these acts.)
Choltitz reached Paris two days later when the Mortain counterattack had stalled. Leutnant Graf von Arnim met him at the Villa Coty, the residence of Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Boineburg-Lengsfeld, whom Choltitz was replacing. Arnim described the fifty-year-old general as ‘short of stature and round in shape, with a rasping voice, wearing a monocle, and on his round head he had a small parting almost right in the middle. He spoke rapidly.’
After a simple supper, Choltitz, Boineburg and the chief of staff, Oberst von Unger, went off for a quiet talk, which lasted over two hours. Choltitz told them of Hitler’s instructions: ‘His order was brief: to destroy Paris if the enemy advanced, and defend it from the ruins.’ But Boineburg and Unger, both members of the army resistance, managed to persuade him that to destroy Paris served no useful military purpose. When the three men emerged, it was ‘clear that Boineburg and Unger were on the very best of terms with Choltitz’. Late that night, Arnim accompanied Choltitz to the headquarters of Gross-Paris in the Hôtel Meurice. Choltitz asked him to stay on his staff instead of transferring to a panzer division as he had requested. Arnim, finding that they had many friends in common, agreed.
The Parisian region had several headquarters. The Supreme Command West was at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, while Generalfeldmarschall Sperrle’s Luftwaffe headquarters were in the Palais Bourbon. There was also Admiral Krancke’s Marinekommando West, as well as various SS and Gestapo staffs, Otto Abetz’s embassy and numerous other German state and Nazi Party establishments. Hitler had told Choltitz to send the non-combatants back and form all rear troops into fighting units. Boineburg was returning to Berlin to take up another post. As the officer who had arrested the SS in Paris on 20 July, following Stülpnagel’s orders, his survival was nothing short of miraculous. He had a farewell dinner with Unger and Arnim. They tried to forget the disastrous course of the war and Hitler’s terrible revenge on the plotters by talking of their families, hunting and horses. Boineburg departed the next day from the Hôtel Majestic on the Avenue de Jéna in an armed convoy.
So far, there had been few attacks on German troops in Paris, but German military intelligence warned that an uprising was bound to come as the Allies approached. On 14 August, the day before he had been trapped in the Falaise pocket, Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge had called a conference at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, with Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and army officers, to discuss the defence of Paris. The next day, Choltitz organized a display of force, including seventeen Panther tanks, to rumble through Paris in the hope of discouraging the Resistance. In theory, he had some 25,000 soldiers, but soon afterwards, many of the troops and most of the tanks were taken from him and sent to strengthen positions against Patton’s spearheads.
Choltitz claims he was left with a security regiment of old soldiers, four tanks, two companies mounted on bicycles, some anti-aircraft detachments and a battalion with seventeen elderly French armoured cars. Whatever the exact number of troops remaining, they were of low quality. They included an ‘interpreter battalion’ which, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘did not show much fighting spirit’, and another unit of ‘frequently ill people who were only fit for office work’. Some were German civilians working in Paris, who had been called up at the last moment.
An outer ring of defence, strengthened with Luftwaffe flak batteries, was later put under the command of Generalmajor Hubertus von Aulock (the brother of the commander at Saint-Malo). Aulock, a hard-liner, believed that ‘capitulation means treason’. Choltitz, however, felt that all he could do was to hold the western and southern suburbs as a route of withdrawal for the German troops still west of the Seine. Generalleutnant Bayerlein of the Panzer Lehr Division encountered him in civilian clothes on the Champs-Elysées. Choltitz immediately complained to him that he had no troops for the defence of Paris.
The insurrection, of which Choltitz had been warned, began to gather pace that week. Colonel Rol-Tanguy, the Communist commanding the FFI in the Parisian region and the Ile de France, had already issued an order to cut cables to German positions in the capital.
On 12 August, the railway workers went on strike. Three days later, the Parisian police force of 15,000 men, whom the Germans were attempting to disarm, refused to put on uniform. On that day of the landings in southern France, the Communist Party newspaper, L’Humanité, called for an ‘insurrection populaire’. The next day, 16 August, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the Gaullist national military delegate, arrived from London. He had gone to England to warn General Koenig that an uprising was inevitable. Koenig told him to go back and stop it at all costs. The Allies did not want to take Paris before the beginning of September. That night Colonel Rol-Tanguy issued an instruction on how to attack tanks with Molotov cocktails, following the ‘shining example of the dinamiteros of the Spanish Republican army’.77
On 17 August, the National Council of Resistance and its military wing held a meeting to debate the call to arms. The Communists, led by Rol, wanted to start immediately, even though the Resistance in Paris had littlemorethan 400 weapons. Although the British had parachuted nearly 80,000 sub-machine guns to the Resistance in France, only just over 100 had reached Paris.The Gaullists were in a difficult position. In spite of Koenig’s instruction, they knew that if they refused to act, the Communists would seize the initiative and perhaps power in the capital.
Hopes increased that day, which became know as ‘la grande fuite des Fritz’,‘thegreatflightofthe Fritzes’.The diarist JeanGaltier-Boissière, striding the streets of the capital, observed the departure of senior German officers and office staff with amusement as the Feldgendarmerie directed traffic with their discs on the end of a stick. ‘Along the rue Lafayette,’ he wrote, ‘coming from the luxury hotels around the Etoile, sparkling torpedoes pass by containing purple-faced generals, accompanied by elegant blonde women, who look as if they are off to some fashionable resort.’ The departure was accompanied by a great deal of last-minute looting. The contents of wine cellars were loaded on to Wehrmacht trucks, as well as rolls of carpet, Louis XVI furniture, bicycles and works of art. Parisians, who had tried to ignore their German occupiers during the last four years, now jeered them openly. Sylvia Beach, the founder of the bookshop Shakespeare & Company, described how a crowd of Parisians waved lavatory brushes at them, but then the angry and nervous soldiers opened fire.
The next day, 18 August, Communist posters urging revolt appeared on walls. And early on the morning of 19 August, 3,000 members of the police in civilian clothes, but carrying their pistols, took over the Préfecture de Police. The tricolore was hoisted and they sang the ‘Marseillaise’. Charles Luizet, appointed by de Gaulle as the new head of the Parisian police, slipped into the building on the Ile de la Cité. Amédée Bussière, his predecessor appointed by Vichy, was locked up in his apartment.
The Germans had no idea of events at the Préfecture de Police. ‘A deceptive calm reigned in the city glowing from a hot August sun,’ wrote Leutnant von Arnim later. Choltitz sent Arnim off in an open Kübelwagen with two sergeants as bodyguards on a tour of the city to find out what was happening. The streets were almost entirely empty. They drove along the Seine embankment on the north side and past the Palais de Justice, which was ‘quiet as the grave’. They spotted nothing untoward at the Préfecture de Police. But when they reached the Place Saint-Michel on the left bank they suddenly came under fire. The NCO next to Arnim yelled out as he was hit in the upper arm. They grabbed their machine pistols and fired back blindly. A shot hit one of the front tyres. Arnim slapped the driver’s back and shouted at him, ‘Drive on! Drive on!’ Fortunately for them, the firing came only from one building, and they were able to reach the Feldkommandantur. But the Unteroffizier who had been shot in the arm had also received a bullet in the chest and died that afternoon.
Choltitz, finally hearing of the revolt in the Préfecture de Police, sent infantry in trucks and two tanks to force a surrender. The Panthers had only armour-piercing rounds, which made holes right through the building but caused few casualties. Unable to achieve their objective, the small force withdrew. This caused ecstatic cheering and gave rise to a dangerous optimism. Following Rol-Tanguy’s order to ‘create a permanent state of insecurity among the enemy and to preve
Over the next twenty-four hours, Parisians began to build barricades to bottle up the Germans. The rue de Rivoli, on which the Hôtel Meurice stood, was blocked at numerous points all the way to the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. German officers watched from the hotel’s balconies, but soon had to withdraw inside as bullets began to hit the hotel.
Two SS officers arrived at the Hôtel Meurice in an armoured vehicle. Arnim took them up to see Choltitz. They announced that on direct orders from the Führer they were to ‘save’ the Bayeux tapestry, which was in the cellars of the Louvre, by taking it back to Germany. By then the windows of the Meurice were under constant fire from the Louvre, because members of the FFI were shooting at the red and black Nazi banners hanging from the façade of the building. Choltitz pointed out the Louvre and told the two SS officers where the tapestry lay. He remarked that for the finest of the Führer’s soldiers it would surely be a minor matter to take possession of it. The two of them did not dare object to his sarcasm. Persuaded of the impossibility of their task, they withdrew.
Clemens Graf Podewils, a well-known war reporter for the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, was the next visitor. His assignment was ‘to cover the heroic defence of Fortress Paris, and thus strengthen the determination of the homeland to resist’. But it did not take Podewils long to see that the German occupation of the French capital could now be counted in days. Arnim experienced ‘an oppressive sense of paralysis’, wondering what the end would bring.
The next morning, 20 August, a Gaullist group audaciously seized the Hôtel de Ville. It was part of their plan to take over as many key buildings and ministries as possible to install ‘republican legality’ and thwart the revolutionary aspirations of the Communist FTP. The sight of the French tricolore flying from public buildings once more stirred Parisians profoundly. Individuals followed this example and began to display the French flag from their balconies, even in the rue de Rivoli, close to Choltitz’s headquarters. Long lines of Wehrmacht trucks were spotted hidden under the plane trees along the Boulevard de la Madeleine, ready to withdraw eastwards. Rumours began to spread that the Germans were about to pull out.
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