D day the battle for nor.., p.57
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.57Antony Beevor
In the town of Rambouillet, Leclerc’s officers were surprised to find at the Hôtel du Grand Veneur a cast of characters worthy of an improbable play. Most were journalists, waiting impatiently for the liberation of Paris. Ernest Hemingway, officially a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine, was far more interested in acting as an irregular soldier with the local Resistance. He openly carried a heavy automatic pistol, even though it was strictly illegal for a non-combatant. According to John Mowinckel, an American intelligence officer there, Hemingway wanted to interrogate a pathetic German prisoner hauled in by his new Resistance friends. ‘I’ll make him talk,’ he boasted. ‘Take his boots off. We’ll grill his toes with a candle.’ Mowinckel told Hemingway to go to hell and released the boy, who clearly knew nothing.
Others at Le Grand Veneur included David Bruce, then of the OSS and later American ambassador to Paris. There was also Major Airey Neave of MI9, the secret British organization to assist the escape of prisoners of war. Neave was in pursuit of a British sergeant who had betrayed a French Resistance network to the Germans. The combat historian Sam Marshall also turned up. He had to protect Hemingway afterwards with false testimony stating that he had never seen him carry a gun. Irwin Shaw, later author of The Young Lions, also appeared with a camera crew from the Signal Corps. This cannot have eased the atmosphere, since Hemingway was in the process of appropriating his lover, Mary Welsh, who later became the fourth Mrs Hemingway.
Shaw was followed by a group of American war correspondents, all no doubt longing to claim that they were the first to enter Paris. ‘They looked like “50-mission fliers” with crushed hats to match,’ wrote Marshall’s companion, Lieutenant John Westover. ‘Among them were Ernie Pyle, and Bob Capa. Pyle was wearing a beret which made him look like Field Marshal Montgomery.’ Some of them were irritated, although not entirely surprised, to find Hemingway acting as if he were the local military commander. When Bruce Grant of the Chicago Daily News made a sarcastic remark about ‘General Hemingway and his Maquis’, Hemingway walked over and punched him.
While so many could think only of Paris’s liberation, senior American commanders were far more preoccupied with the advance on Germany. Patton flew that day to Laval to see Bradley before he left for a meeting with Montgomery and Eisenhower. Both Patton and Bradley were still worried that Eisenhower might give in to Montgomery’s demand that both the 21st and the 12th Army Groups should turn north. According to Patton, ‘Bradley was madder than I have ever seen him and wondered aloud “what the Supreme Commander amounted to”.’ Patton told him that the two of them and Hodges should offer to resign unless Eisenhower agreed to head east, instead of north into the Pas-de-Calais and Belgium, as Montgomery demanded. But Patton’s fears were groundless. Eisenhower by this stage felt that Montgomery was disloyal and he refused to listen to his arguments.
When de Gaulle reached the Château de Rambouillet that evening, he was deeply concerned about the state of affairs in Paris. He feared that the Communist-led rising could lead to a disaster comparable to the Paris Commune of 1871. After de Gaulle had supped off cold C-Rations in the ornate surroundings of Rambouillet’s state dining room, Leclerc briefed him on his plan of attack. De Gaulle approved. ‘You are lucky,’ he said to him after a long pause, thinking of the glory that awaited the liberator of Paris. Camped out beside their vehicles in the sodden park and forest, the soldiers of the 2ème DB cooked their rations, cleaned their weapons and shaved carefully in preparation for the welcome which awaited them.
The Liberation of Paris
When Colonel Rol-Tanguy gave the order ‘Tous aux barricades!’ on 22 August, the plan was copied from the anarchists in Barcelona in July 1936. There, the rising of the right-wing Spanish generals in the city had been blocked by barricades erected by the working class. Rol wanted to bring all Wehrmacht traffic to a halt and besiege the Germans in their main strongpoints, which included Choltitz’s headquarters in the Hôtel Meurice, the Palais de Luxembourg, the Ecole Militaire and Invalides, the Assemblée Nationale in the Palais Bourbon, and the Prinz Eugen barracks by the Place de la République.
The call to arms was relayed by posters, handbills and a new wireless station, Radiodiffusion de la Nation Française, which acted as the voice of the Resistance. Every time it played the forbidden ‘Marseillaise’, people opened their windows and turned up the volume so that those in the street outside could hear it. Very few barricades were erected in the fashionable 7th, 8th and 16th arrondissements of western Paris. The vast majority were in the north and eastern parts, which had voted overwhelmingly for the Popular Front in 1936.
The tension in Paris was palpable as rumours became even more exaggerated. Some said that the Americans were at the gates, others that two panzer divisions were approaching from the north and the city might be destroyed. Colonel Rol continued to issue calls to arms: ‘Every barricade should be a recruiting centre recalling the “Patrie en danger” of the Revolution.’ He instructed the FFI to move around the city through the Metro tunnels to avoid the tanks guarding key intersections. Appalled to hear that ‘acts of looting seem to have taken on an unacceptable scale’, he also ordered that anyone caught would be shot immediately and a notice stating ‘Pillager’ placed on the corpse.
Colette’s husband, Maurice Goudeket, described those ‘strange, indecisive days’: ‘The Germans held Paris only by little islands, and with a few tanks which made their way clumsily through the streets. Paris babbled the first words of a forgotten liberty, newspapers no larger than a leaflet began to appear, flags were made out of scraps of cloth. While waiting for an imminent settling of accounts, the Parisian rediscovered in his deepest memory the solidarity of the barricades, a heroic banter, a smell of gunpowder and sweat.’
Despite the rumours, both Communist and Gaullist leaders were now certain that the report of 150 Tiger tanks being sent to Paris was false. So the danger that the rising in Paris would be crushed like the Polish Home Army in Warsaw greatly diminished. The Gaullists were also prepared to join the fight, now that they had secured the ministries. One of the first and most satisfying tasks was to remove the official portraits and busts of Marshal Pétain. Alexandre Parodi, de Gaulle’s representative, even held a symbolic council of ministers at the Hôtel Matignon, the official residence of the prime minister. For the Gaullist leaders in Paris, the arrival of the 2ème DB was vital to give substance to their skeleton administration.
The Communists, misled by their own propaganda, believed that power lay in street barricades and in the committees of the Resistance. Carried away by revolutionary exultation, they could not imagine that the last thing that Stalin wanted was a Communist uprising in France which would antagonize his American suppliers of Lend-Lease.
At dawn on 24 August, the 2ème DB moved out from the forest of Rambouillet. Leclerc sent a detachment of Spahis Marocains in their light Stuart tanks towards Versailles as a diversion to persuade the Germans that this was their main line of advance. The rest of Colonel Paul de Langlade’s groupement tactique, accompanied by a squadron of the American 102nd Cavalry, was to advance across the Chevreuse valley, but they soon faced heavy opposition in the Bois de Meudon.The 12ème Chasseurs d’Afrique lost three Shermans to anti-tank guns. Their ultimate objective was the Pont de Sèvres, on the western edge of Paris.
The day was grey and wet, to such a degree that it interfered with radio communications. Colonel Billotte’s column headed for Arpajon and Longjumeau, while Colonel Dio’s groupement tactique was kept in reserve. Billotte’s force was headed by Commandant Putz’s battalion of the 2ème Régiment de Marche du Tchad. Putz had been one of the most respected commanders in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. His 9ème Compagnie was known as ‘La Nueve’ because it was manned almost entirely by Spanish Republicans. Their commander, Capitaine Raymond Dronne, a red-headed stalwart with a powerful paunch, had been chosen because he could keep his Spanish socialists, Communists and anarchists in order.
In many places it was a day of joy and horror. ‘Slam’ Marshall and his companion John Westover in their Jeep ‘Sweet Eloise’ joined one of Langlade’s columns as it made its way through villages and towns on the south-western edges of the city. They attached an American flag to distinguish themselves from the tricolores all around. Advancing slowly, bumper to bumper, Westover described the scene as ‘a big disordered picnic’. Vehicles were brought to a halt by rejoicing crowds, forcing kisses and bottles on the soldiers, who begged to be let through unhindered. ‘We laughed so much at the insanity of the whole thing that we cried,’ he wrote.
There were tragedies too that day. ‘On one occasion a beautiful young woman approached a Sherman of the 501ème Régiment de Chars de Combat, raising her arms, certain of being pulled aboard, when a German machine gun opened up on them. The girl slipped back down to the ground, snagging on the tank’s tracks, her best summer dress peppered with bloody bullet holes.’
By midday Putz’s column had reached Antony, just south of Paris. On his right, another column had a lively encounter near Orly airfield, but then came up against 88 mm anti-tank guns outside Fresnes prison. The guns were manned by German soldiers who had been serving a sentence there. They still wore their canvas prison uniforms. Desert veterans of the 2ème DB thought that it made them look like their old adversaries, the Afrika Korps. After losing two Shermans, the remaining French tanks managed to knock out the guns. One charged straight into the courtyard of the prison. Some vehicles were still burning outside. Capitaine Dupont walked past one which was nearly burnt-out, but grenades in it suddenly exploded and killed him. Only three days before, he had told Father Fouquer that he knew he was going to die.
General Gerow, vainly hoping to keep the French division on a tight leash, had left his headquarters at Chartres that morning accompanied by his chief of staff, Brigadier General Charles Helmick. They could not find Leclerc anywhere. Gerow had to return to Chartres and told Helmick to seek him out ‘and remain with him as senior United States Army representative’.
Irritated by the way Leclerc had pushed his advance round to the south without warning Corps headquarters, Gerow told his 4th Infantry Division to push on into Paris without waiting for the 2ème DB. Having no doubt seen the delays caused by welcoming crowds, he jumped to the conclusion that the 2ème DB was taking it easy. He is supposed to have claimed to Bradley that the French troops were doing little more than ‘dance their way into Paris’. But the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division was also held up by ‘over-enthusiastic French mademoiselles’ who insisted on kissing the drivers.
Gerow was wrong. Nobody could have been more impatient that day than General Leclerc. To speed the advance he had already pushed his reserve, the groupement tactique Dio, into the battle for the industrial outer suburbs, but Antony was not taken until 16.00 hours. The line of advance via Arpajon had turned out to be more heavily defended than he had expected.
Leclerc, fearing that German reinforcements might reach the capital from the north, was desperate to have troops in the centre of Paris by nightfall. To encourage the Resistance to hold out, he sent orders to the senior pilot of his spotter planes to deliver a message packed in a weighted musette bag. It said simply, ‘Tenez bon, nous arrivons’ - ‘Hold on, we’re coming.’
Capitaine Dronne’s company had managed to bypass Fresnes and reached the Croix-de-Berny. They caught their first sight of the Eiffel Tower. The company then received orders to return to the Orléans road. They were intercepted by General Leclerc, his tank goggles round his kepi, tapping the ground impatiently with his malacca cane.
‘Dronne!’ Leclerc called to him. ‘What are you doing there?’
‘I’m returning to the axis [of advance] as ordered, mon général.’
Leclerc told him that that was idiotic. He took him by the sleeve and pointed to the capital. ‘Slip straight into Paris, to the very heart of Paris.’
The unshaven Dronne, standing to attention, with his battered kepi and sweat-stained American uniform stretched over his belly, saluted. Leclerc, who had been questioning civilians, told him to take what other forces he could muster and avoid the main routes. He was to get to the centre of Paris and tell them to hold on and not lose courage. The rest of the division would be in the city the next day.
At 19.30 hours, Dronne’s ‘La Nueve’, mustering fifteen vehicles including half-tracks bearing the names of Spanish Civil War battles, such as ‘Madrid’, ‘Guadalajara’ and ‘Brunete’, set off. This company of Spanish Republicans was reinforced at the last moment with a platoon of engineers and three Shermans from the 501ème Chars de Combat, a regiment of Gaullist loyalists. Their tanks bore the names of Napoleonic battles from 1814, ‘Montmirail’, ‘Romilly’ and ‘Champaubert’. Their commander was Lieutenant Michard, a priest from the White Fathers.81
The half-track ‘Guadalajara’ led the way, guided by a local on an ancient motorcycle. He knew all the back streets and where the German roadblocks were, so Dronne’s little column threaded its way safely through the remaining suburbs to the Porte d’Italie, the southernmost point of Paris. The men cheered as they passed the city boundary. The column was frequently held up by ecstatic civilians, unable to believe that these were French troops arriving to save the capital. Another guide, an Armenian, presented himself on a moped. Dronne told him to take them to the Hôtel de Ville, but when he returned to his Jeep, he found that a heavily built woman from Alsace had planted herself on the front to act as the Republican symbol of ‘Marianne’.
Dodging down back streets away from the Avenue d’Italie, they headed north to the Pont d’Austerlitz. As soon as the column reached the far bank of the Seine, they turned left along the quais. At 21.20 hours, the tanks and half-tracks rumbled into the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville.
At the other end of Paris, Colonel de Langlade’s tanks finally reached their objective, the Pont de Sèvres. On the order of Commandant Massu, later famous for his pitiless role in the battle for Algiers, a Sherman of the Chasseurs d’Afrique began to cross the bridge, accompanied by four members of the FFI on foot. To their relief, they encountered no mines, but they were under intermittent fire from a German artillery battery sited on the racecourse at Longchamp.
At the Hôtel de Ville, Capitaine Dronne ordered his force to take up all-round defence. He entered the building and strode up the grand staircase to report. Leaders of the Resistance, led by Georges Bidault, embraced him. Bidault tried to make a speech, but the emotion of the moment was too much for him.
Outside, civilians crowded round the tanks and half-tracks. At first they were nervous, but when they saw the divisional symbol of a map of France with the Cross of Lorraine, they went wild, embracing and kissing the grizzled soldiers. Several people ran to nearby churches. Bells began to peal out and soon afterwards the great bell of Notre-Dame, ‘Le Bourdon’, began to sound across the city in the twilight. The housebound Colette, with tears of joy in her eyes, wrote of that momentous evening ‘when the night rose like a dawn’.
It was the pealing of Le Bourdon which finally convinced the people of Paris. A woman refugee from Normandy was undressing for bed when she heard it. Then the street outside began to fill with people yelling, ‘They’re here!’
At the far end of the rue de Rivoli from the Hôtel de Ville, in the anteroom to his office, Choltitz and his staff officers were drinking champagne from the Meurice’s cellar. On that humid August night, they were discussing the St Bartholomew’s
While thebells rang out,the pioneer groupfrom the 256thInfanterie-Division, with their truck-loads of torpedoes, were guarding the Alexandre III bridge opposite the Quai d’Orsay. Their officer, Leutnant Novick, had been summoned to an orders group. On his return, his men begged him to let them slip out of Paris. Novick replied firmly that they still had their duty to perform. The soldiers were less afraid of the prospect of fighting than of being lynched by the population when they surrendered.
Dronne’s soldiers, on the other hand, received every kindness from civilians eager to be of service. They rang up the young men’s relatives so that they could announce their arrival. Women brought mattresses and precious cakes of soap, and even took their filthy uniforms away to wash and press them.
The population of Paris rose early the next morning in an atmosphere of tense excitement. Many women had not slept, having stitched through the night to make flags and prepare dresses in patriotic colours to greet their liberators. One woman, who made an American flag, cut all the stars individually from an old dress.
After the days of rain, Friday, 25 August, the feast of France’s patron saint, Saint-Louis, proved to be a beautiful sunny day once the morning mist evaporated. Crowds gathered in the south-west of the city to greet Langlade’s troops. As news spread, others swarmed to the Porte d’Orléans and the Porte d’Italie, where Commandant Putz led Billotte’s column into Paris. Leclerc followed, escorted by Spahis in Staghound armoured cars. He was met by the Gaullist Resistance leader, Chaban-Delmas, and they headed for the Gare Montparnasse, which Leclerc had designated as his divisional command post because of its good communications.
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