Beginning with a strike by French gendarmes, the civilian police, on 15 August 1944, two factions of the French Resistance movement vied for the credit of liberating the French capital. The well-organized and more numerous Communist wing of the Resistance advocated a complete uprising in Paris, hoping that with popular credit for liberation of Paris they would have a significant advantage in taking power in France after the war. Gaullist Free French Resistance leaders in Paris were well aware of this plan, and although they feared destruction of the city by the Germans in any uprising, they grew increasingly concerned that an Allied failure to act would jeopardize future Gaullist control of the French government.
German general of infantry General Dietrich von Choltitz had taken command of the greater Paris area on 7 August 1944. Choltitz had established his military credentials on the Eastern Front, especially in heavy fighting that led to the capture of Sevastopol in July 1942. Choltitz had the reputation of following his orders to the letter, and these, delivered to him in a personal meeting with German leader Adolf Hitler, called for the destruction of Paris before allowing it to fall into Allied hands. Hitler instructed Choltitz to begin preparations for the destruction of the city.
On 19 August, when Allied forces were still more than 50 miles from the city to the north and south, Gaullist elements in Paris preempted their Communist rivals by seizing the Paris prefecture of police. On learning of this action, the larger Communist organization sprang into action and initiated a general uprising within the city. Choltitz immediately deployed infantry backed by tanks around the city, and the fighting spread. German tanks opened fire on the prefecture of police. The citizens of Paris were no longer intimidated by the Germans, and Resistance fighters fought the Germans with what weapons they possessed, mostly small arms and homemade gasoline bombs that they used against German vehicles. By 23 August, more than 400 street barricades were in place, and localized intense fighting was occurring in many areas of the city.
Both Hitler and Eisenhower were soon aware of the fighting in the city. As the number of German casualties steadily mounted, Choltitz was faced with a dilemma. Plans were in place for the destruction not only of public works and buildings, but also monuments and museums in Paris. Swedish consul general in Paris Raoul Nordling pleaded with Choltitz to save the city and attempted on his own initiative to arrange a cease-fire in Paris. However, commander of Communist forces Henri Tanguy (alias Colonel Rol) refused.
Choltitz had his orders; he also had serious doubts about Hitler's mental condition and he did not wish to become notorious for all time as the destroyer of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Choltitz could not cede the city to the insurgent civilians without resistance, because his family members were in Germany; his not-unreasonable fear of reprisals against them apparently had some bearing on his decisions. Choltitz, however, minimized the combat in various ways, especially by his decision to move the bulk of German combat forces outside the city and into formal tactical defensive positions oriented toward the approaching Allied armies in areas beyond the city limits. During the fighting, he also withheld the use of heavy artillery.
On 21 August, Major General Philippe Leclerc, against Allied orders, turned his 2nd Free French Armored Division north toward Paris. Meanwhile, within the city, Resistance leaders met and decided to continue fighting. Choltitz, now determined to spare the city, sent Nordling to the Allies to ask that they enter Paris. Choltitz pledged to hold off destroying the city until they arrived. Eisenhower then agreed that Leclerc's division should move into Paris. At the same time, Choltitz rejected repeated orders from Berlin to begin the destruction of the French capital.
By 23 August, fighting in parts of Paris was intense. That day, Nordling conferred with commander of U.S. 12th Army Group Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley. Impressed by what Nordling told him, Bradley ordered the U.S. 4th Infantry Division to move into Paris before Choltitz could change his mind.
By early 24 August, Leclerc's tanks had reached Rambouillet 20 miles south of Paris. De Gaulle arrived at the Chateau of Rambouillet that same day. Fighting was now raging in virtually every section of the city. Late on 24 August, Leclerc's tanks arrived in Paris. Part of his division moved through the Porte d'Orleans, and the rest entered by the Porte de Vanves. By 11:30 p.m., Leclerc's tanks were in front of the H™tel de Ville (city hall) in the center of Paris, and the bells of Notre Dame pealed out the good news to the populace.
On 25 August, French and U.S. forces eliminated pockets of German resistance, and at 3:00 p.m. Choltitz and his staff surrendered to French officers. Many of the German troops, unaware of the surrender, continued to fight. De Gaulle arrived in the city that evening, and the next day he and the Resistance moved on foot from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame Cathedral for a celebratory mass. Although there was sniper fire, both events proceeded.
It is impossible accurately to assess casualties in the liberation of Paris. Although the cost in casualties to Allied forces was slight, the liberation of Paris and the need to feed the city were heavy loads on an already overburdened Allied supply system. But the cost of a destroyed Paris would have been far higher, and the liberation of the French capital was a great psychological boost to the Allies in their effort to defeat the Third Reich.
Robert Bateman and Spencer C. Tucker
Aron, Robert. France Reborn: The History of the Liberation, June 1944–May 1945. Trans. Humphrey Hare. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964.; Blumenson, Martin. United States Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations: Breakout and Pursuit. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1961.; Collins, Larry, and Dominique Lapierre. Is Paris Burning? New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.; Mitcham, Samuel W., Jr. Retreat to the Reich: The German Defeat in France, 1944. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.; Schoenbrun, David. Soldiers of the Night: The Story of the French Resistance. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980.