Paris after the liberati.., p.6
Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949, p.6Antony Beevor
As Galtier-Boissière observed, fighting was much more civilized in the city than in the countryside, because you could go off for lunch with your rifle. There was another advantage: ‘The whole neighbourhood is watching you from their windows and applauding.’ A number of people, however, ignored the firing around them. Some sunbathed on the stone embankments of the Seine, while urchins dived in to escape the heat. Odd figures sat immobile on little canvas chairs, fishing in the river while German tanks attacked the Prefecture of Police, a few hundred metres away on the Île de la Cité; a perch from the Seine represented a free meal. Provisions were so short that when a horse was killed by stray bullets, housewives rushed out with enamel bowls and began slicing steaks off the carcass.
Paris being Paris, cultural landmarks counted for as much as ministries and police headquarters when it came to a revolution. For the acting profession, the first place to be liberated (not that there were any Germans there) was the Comédie-Française. Yves Montand, who had recently established himself in Paris as a singer, appeared for sentry duty; an actress had rung Edith Piaf, Montand’s lover and mentor for the last two weeks, to say that they needed more volunteers. The twenty-three-year-old Montand gave the secret knock to gain admittance to Molière’s theatre.
Actors and actresses greeted each other as if this were the greatest first-night party of their lives. Julien Berthau, appointing himself their leader, made a rousing speech, ending with the cry of the moment: ‘Paris sera libéré par les Parisiens!’ The whole company in a surge of emotion sang the forbidden Marseillaise, standing to attention. But there was something of an anticlimax when Berthau gave the order to distribute weapons. A few hundred metres from where they stood, German tanks waited for the first sign of trouble. To oppose them the ComédieFrançaise could produce just four shotguns and two stage revolvers.
The day was memorable as a day of collective bravery, as infectious as collective cowardice. Already bands of young men in the 17th arrondissement, with only a handful of weapons between them, had fought several German patrols. Those who were wounded refused to be taken to hospital and, as soon as they had been bandaged, insisted on returning to their barricade. There were numerous attacks on German convoys by corps-francs of the FFI, especially on the Left Bank. Some were ambushed from rooftops or windows with Molotov cocktails and stick grenades. Several groups also attacked Wehrmacht ration trucks coming from the Gare d’Austerlitz.
Any German soldiers rash enough to go out singly or in pairs were picked off or surrounded. The prime objective was to seize more weapons and vehicles. One daring young man made off with the German ambassador’s Horch convertible from outside the embassy at 78 rue de Lille.
Attacks often prompted heavy-handed German reaction. Five German armoured vehicles, supported by infantry, sallied forth from the Palais du Luxembourg up the rue Soufflot to attack the mairie of the 5th arrondissement in the Place du Panthéon. Shows of strength occurred elsewhere, but on the whole the Germans were effectively deterred from moving around the city.
Father Bruckberger, the Dominican chaplain-general of the Parisian FFI, rode from one area of fighting to another on his bicycle, ‘his white habit dirty from the smoke of battle’, as he supervised medical care for the wounded and attention to the dead. Coffins were piling up in churches, so heavy were the casualties among civilians. Burials were impossible in the circumstances, so as a defence against the August heat some bodies were kept in the meat-freezers at Les Halles, now empty of food.
The Champs-Élysées were ominously empty. The sidewalk cafés, where the Germans in their field-grey uniforms had been sitting en masse only a few days before, drinking their bocks, were now deserted. For the German tanks on the Place de la Concorde, the gentle incline to the Arc de Triomphe offered a perfect field of fire. But this part of Paris gave a misleading impression of calm. Elsewhere, confusion was compounded by rumours springing from either hopes or fears: the Americans were approaching from the south-west; a fresh panzer division had arrived from the north; there was no ammunition left; the Germans had mined every building in central Paris; the fifis had managed to cut the wires to the detonators. Nobody knew for certain what was happening.
On this day, 22 August, a new wireless station, Radiodiffusion de la Nation Française, came on air. It was to act as the voice of the Resistance. Proclamations from various bodies were read out, often followed by the Marseillaise, which had been banned for the last four years. People would turn up the volume and open their windows to make sure everybody in the street could hear it too.
The new station was soon warning people to avoid certain areas. The rue de Seine in Saint-Germain-des-Prés was particularly dangerous because the Germans had a line of fire from their strongpoint in the Palais du Luxembourg. The Place Saint-Michel at the bottom of the boulevard was so dangerous that it was known as ‘le carrefour de la mort’. But however invaluable the broadcasts, people could only listen during the short periods when the electricity supply was restored.
That evening the firing died away. ‘Fritz and fifis went off for supper,’ remarked Jean Galtier-Boissière. And sightseers soon emerged to inspect the damage.
The Germans continued to improve their principal strongpoints in the centre of Paris: the Prinz Eugen barracks near the Place de la République, the Palais du Luxembourg (the Senate), the Palais Bourbon (the National Assembly), the École Militaire, the Invalides and the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber. The Hotel Meurice on the rue de Rivoli, which was General von Choltitz’s headquarters, was less heavily fortified.
There, the commander of Gross-Paris received the formal order from Hitler’s headquarters to defend Paris to the last man and turn the city into ‘a pile of ruins’. Choltitz, to the enduring gratitude of its citizens, had no desire to carry this out, but needed the Allies to arrive soon so that he could surrender to regular forces. If they did not come in time and Hitler discovered the degree of procrastination in following his instructions, he would order in the Luftwaffe.
Finally, that evening, there was a change of heart in the Allied camp twenty kilometres south-west of Bayeux. A messenger managed to convince General Eisenhower’s staff officers that failure to move on Paris immediately would lead to a terrible massacre and possibly the destruction of the city. Eisenhower, who had turned down de Gaulle’s appeal two nights earlier, was now convinced. Shortly before nightfall, Leclerc received the order from General Omar Bradley to advance rapidly on Paris. The exultant yells of ‘Mouvement sur Paris!’ provided an electrifying charge of fierce joy.
At dawn the following morning, Wednesday 23 August, the 2e DB, in two columns following parallel routes, pushed eastwards out of Normandy as fast as it could through heavy rain towards the Île de France. The hot weather had broken at the worst moment, and their tanks and half-tracks slithered on the slippery roads. Leclerc went ahead. He had over 140 kilometres to go to Rambouillet, a town forty kilometres from the capital, lying close to a very ill-defined front line.
The officers of Leclerc’s division found a curious collection of irregulars at Rambouillet when they arrived in the afternoon, of whom the most colourful was Ernest Hemingway. Officially, Hemingway was a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine, but he was more interested in playing the professional soldier. He was surrounded by some locally recruited and heavily armed ruffians, and seemed to be making up for lost opportunities in Spain seven years before.
Based in the Hotel du Grand Veneur, waiting for the 2e DB to advance the last stretch to Paris, were Colonel David Bruce of the OSS (who in 1949 became the United States ambassador to France), John Mowinckel from a field unit of the Secret Intelligence Staff, and a senior member of the Gaullist intelligence service, Michel Pasteau, whose nom de guerre was ‘Mouthard’.
Hemingway and his group of fifi irregulars had been reconnoitring the routes into Paris over the last few days, but their methods were unsubtle. A pathetic little German soldier, a straggler seized a few kilometres down the road, was broug
Mowinckel told him to go to hell and the little soldier was released. Hemingway did, however, lend ‘Mouthard’ an automatic pistol to execute a traitor.
Another arrival was Major Airey Neave of MI9, who wanted to get into Paris as soon as possible on a mission of retribution. He was after a British army sergeant, Harold Cole, who had deserted in northern France in 1940, had later joined the French Resistance, then betrayed its largest escape line. As a result of his treachery the Germans arrested 150 people, of whom around a third had been executed. After this great coup for the Abwehr, Cole was transferred to the Gestapo in Paris, where he was still managing to trap other Resistance workers.
Irwin Shaw, the author who later wrote The YoungLions, turned up with his combat camera detachment of the Army Signal Corps. Shaw had introduced his lover, Mary Welsh, to Hemingway not long before D-Day, an encounter which led to her becoming the fourth Mrs Hemingway. (The third Mrs Hemingway, the journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn, had infuriated her husband by getting ashore in Normandy well before him.)
A group of American war correspondents arrived next. They were piqued to find Hemingway acting as the local commander of Rambouillet. When the Chicago journalist Bruce Grant made a disobliging comment about ‘General Hemingway and his maquis’, the object of the remark strode over and knocked him to the ground.
At six o’clock that evening, General de Gaulle joined Leclerc at the Château de Rambouillet, a former residence of the kings of France. While the soldiers of the 2e DB cooked their rations in the woods and, on the assumption that they would be in Paris the next day, shaved with ritualistic care, their commander explained his plan of attack to the head of the provisional government in one of the salons of the château. When he had finished, de Gaulle reflected for a short while, then agreed with his proposals. ‘You are lucky,’ he said, thinking of the glory ahead.
On the following morning, Thursday 24 August, while the two columns advanced to make contact with the enemy, Paris began its last day under the Occupation. Several key figures in the future administration received the call to report for work. Jacques Charpentier, the leader of the French Bar, set off on the very uncertain journey across a barricaded and enfiladed city to the Palais de Justice on the Île de la Cité. He encountered a twelve-year-old urchin proudly showing off an automatic pistol and boots taken from a dead German officer. The boy then acted as his guide frombarricade to barricade, on a complicated but effective route.
The courage shown over previous days did not slacken. People responded at once to an announcement on the radio that the mairie of the 11th arrondissement was under heavy attack by the Germans and that the defenders were almost out of ammunition; anyone with a weapon should go to their aid. Thanks to the unflagging work of telephonists at the central exchanges, people were able to pass news back and forth. Some soldiers in Leclerc’s advance units, as they drove through villages or outer suburbs of the capital, asked bystanders to ring their families in Paris to tell them that they were about to arrive. Inhabitants in one district kept friends in another up to date on events with a running commentary. Windows had become theatre boxes, albeit dangerous ones. Many watchers were mistaken for snipers or killed by stray bullets. Often, if they had been living alone, their bodies lay on the floor undiscovered until the smell of decomposition alerted a neighbour.
The Resistance fighters in Paris could now hear Allied tank guns. Captain Dronne’s group, a troop of Shermans from the 501st Tank Regiment and the half-tracks of ‘la nueve’ had reached the suburb of Fresnes, from where they could see the Eiffel Tower. But the fighting had been heavy, with well-concealed anti-tank guns (unidentified by Hemingway’s scouts) ambushing Leclerc’s Shermans and causing many casualties.* After knocking out the German detachment holding the prison of Fresnes, Dronne was ordered by his column commander, Colonel Billotte, to withdraw and rejoin the main axis of advance. Dronne was furious as he led his much reduced group back. On the way, he encountered General Leclerc.
‘Dronne, what the hell are you doing here?’ Leclerc demanded.
‘Mon général, I’m following the order to pull back.’
‘No, Dronne, head straight for Paris, enter Paris. Don’t allow yourself to be held up. Take whichever route you want. Tell the Parisians and the Resistance not to lose hope, that tomorrow morning the whole division will be with them.’
Dronne quickly briefed his vehicle commanders – he was down to three Sherman tanks and eleven half-tracks – and set off.
That same afternoon, Leclerc’s American commander (furious to find that the French division had changed the main thrust of its advance over to the right, where the US 4th Infantry Division was supposed to be advancing in support) passed on General Omar Bradley’s order that the American troops were to force on into Paris, whether or not the French had got there first. Clearly, neither de Gaulle nor Leclerc wished to acknowledge the fact that the 2e DB was under Allied orders.
Dronne, having been given carte blanche by Leclerc and now guided by Parisian resistants who had reconnoitred the routes into the city, was able to advance rapidly via a network of back streets, avoiding all German strongpoints. In an hour and a half – just before half past nine – the little column of Shermans, half-tracks and jeeps reached the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. Dronne climbed out of his jeep to look around. He was seized by the exultant defenders of the Hôtel de Ville and, amid cries of ‘Vive la France!’ and ‘Vive de Gaulle’, was carried inside in triumph, to be embraced by the president of the National Council of the Resistance, Georges Bidault.
Even before Dronne crossed the Pont d’Austerlitz to the right bank of the Seine, cyclists had started to spread the news of his arrival. The radio broadcast an appeal to priests to begin ringing their church bells. One group of ringers started to toll the great bell of Notre-Dame. Others joined in, one after another, until bells were pealing out right across the city. After four years of silence, this for many people was the most memorable sound of the whole war. With the occasional boom of a heavy gun and the constant refrain of the Marseillaise, both broadcast on the radio and sung spontaneously in the street, the Liberation of Paris started to sound like the 1812 overture.
In the more fashionable districts, joy was less spontaneous; and not just in the apartments of Pétainists, who awaited the future in grim silence, nor in the shuttered hiding places of those advocates of the New European Order who had decided to stay behind and now listened to the rejoicing outside, wondering what fate awaited them. There were also those who had continued to live their lives much as before, caring little for politics. If they had consorted in various ways with Germans during the Occupation, their motives had been purely social and they had thought little of it.
General von Choltitz, on hearing the bells, telephoned his superior, General Speidel, and held the receiver to the open window so that Speidel knew what had happened.
While the bells rang out, Albert Camus, in the offices of the Resistance newspaper Combat, surrounded by ‘enormous disorder and enormous gaiety’, worked on an editorial which became famous: ‘The greatness of man,’ he wrote, ‘lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition.’
For many people, that night was spent in excited anticipation. Women curled their hair and pressed their dresses. Most planned to wear the tricolour in some form or other, either in panels on their skirts or even on earrings. Others sewed flags out of old clothes to greet their French and American liberators the next morning. A friend of the writer Julien Green worked through the night on an American flag, which, she said, ‘gave her a lot of trouble because of the stars, which she had been obliged to cut out from a dre
Early on the day of Liberation, Friday 25 August, crowds began to gather at the Porte de Saint-Cloud. The beautiful weather had returned. A detachment commanded by Major Jacques Massu had secured the Pont de Sèvres the night before, soon after Dronne reached the Hôtel de Ville. All was ready for Colonel Paul de Langlade’s advance up through the 16th arrondissement to the Place de l’Étoile and the German administrative headquarters in the Hotel Majestic.
Colonel Billotte’s group, the first to enter Paris, headed for the Prefecture of Police. Meanwhile, Colonel Dio’s group was heading for the Porte d’Orléans. Its objectives were the strongpoints of the École Militaire, the Invalides and the Palais Bourbon, which housed the Chambre des Députés.
When people first sighted the olive-green Sherman tanks, half-tracks, jeeps and GMC trucks, they assumed that the soldiers in them were American. Then they saw that the vehicles were marked with the cross of Lorraine set in an outline map of France, and although some of the soldiers had American helmets, others wore képis, black French berets, leather tank helmets and midnight-blue sidecaps. The old and the ill were brought out from hospitals so that they too should not miss the Liberation. Children were held aloft to see and remember the day. While the crowds waved from the pavements, young girls climbed on to vehicles to kiss their liberators. In many cases, the columns were brought to a virtual standstill, so afraid were the drivers of crushing civilians under their tracks. In any case, the crews saw no reason to refuse kisses or the bewildering array of alcohol offered in celebration.
Soon after nine o’clock, Jean Galtier-Boissière, in his bookshop on the Place de la Sorbonne, was suddenly told that Leclerc’s troops had arrived. He ran outside with his wife. ‘A vibrant crowd surrounds the French tanks draped in flags and covered in bouquets of flowers. On each tank, on each armoured car, next to crew members in khaki mechanics’ overalls and little red caps, there are clusters of girls, women, boys and fifis wearing armbands. People lining the street applaud, blow kisses, raise clenched-fist salutes, call out to the victors their joy at liberation!’
Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949 by Antony Beevor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes