London, England June 2, 1944

In June 1943 in Algeria, North Africa, the Free French founded the Comité Fran­çais de Libéra­tion Nationale (CFNL). Much poli­tical maneu­vering was needed to merge the Free French, whose nu­cleus con­sisted of French­men who had escaped Ger­man cap­ture at Dun­kirk, the Channel port in North­western France (May 26 to June 4, 1940), with poli­ti­cians and armed forces from the French terri­tories freed by the Allies. Rival leaders Gen. Charles de Gaulle and Gen. Henri Giraud agreed to share the presi­dency of the CFNL.

Days before the Normandy landings, the CFNL announced that it was to be known as the Gouverne­ment Pro­visoire de la Répu­blique Fran­çaise, with de Gaulle as its head. Pre­si­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt, who thought de Gaulle had an over­sized ego and saw him as a poten­tial dicta­tor once he was back on French soil, insisted that the Allies were not liber­ating France to put de Gaulle in power. “I am unable at this time,” he wrote British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill, “to recog­nize any Govern­ment of France until the French people have an oppor­tunity for a free choice of Govern­ment.” The year before, he and Chur­chill had pri­vately mused about creating a tem­porary mili­tary govern­ment for France under a British or Amer­i­can general and con­tinued to do so into the sum­mer of 1944. (The military model would be used in 1945 in Germany.)

Churchill’s rela­tion­ship with de Gaulle was only slightly warmer than FDR’s. (Roose­velt’s suc­ces­sor in office, Harry S. Truman, called de Gaulle an “SOB” for the way he had treated the presi­dent.) Any­way, on this date, June 2, 1944, the British prime minis­ter sent two pas­sen­ger air­craft and a per­sonal emis­sary to Algiers to fly de Gaulle back to Britain. Churchill played on de Gaulle’s ego by having an RAF band play the “Marseil­laise” as the general descended the plane’s steps. Churchill’s inten­tion was to hand de Gaulle a script to read over the radio on DDay (le Jour J in French), but the gen­eral declined because it made no men­tion of his being the legit­i­mate in­ter­im ruler of France and it in­structed French peo­ple to obey Allied mili­tary author­i­ties pending elec­tions. Rejecting the role of stooge, de Gaulle exchanged hurt­ful words with Chur­chill. Only on August 1, 1944, did the Allies permit the Free French 2nd Armored Divi­sion under Gen. Philippe Leclerc to set foot on French soil in liberated Nor­mandy. Fifteen days later the French First Army (then called French Army B) under Gen. Jean de Lattre de Tassigny parti­ci­pated in the Allied invasion of Southern France (Operation Dragoon).

In the meantime de Gaulle made a whirl­wind visit to the city of Bayeux in Nor­mandy, pro­claiming Bayeux to be the capi­tal of Free France and leaving his aide-de-camp to head the civil admin­is­tra­tion. It was only in Octo­ber, after most of France had been lib­er­ated from the German occu­piers, that Chur­chill and Roose­velt recog­nized de Gaulle’s “govern­ment” as the pro­vi­sional govern­ment of France. Even in the absence of a free and fair national elec­tion that included the par­tic­i­pa­tion of a broad spec­trum of French polit­i­cal thinking, the two English-speaking Allies could not ignore the obvious stat­ure and gen­u­ine popu­larity de Gaulle enjoyed among the major­ity of French people. The wily Frenchman had indeed outsmarted les Anglo-Saxons.

Free French Return to France, August 1944

FrenchFrench 2nd Armored Division parade down Champs Élysées, August 25, 1944

Left: Christened Ile-de-France, a French Army M4 Sherman tank lands on Utah Beach in Nor­mandy, August 2, 1944, just under two months since the ini­tial D‑Day landings. Some 14,454 per­son­nel and equip­ment from Gen. Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Divi­sion landed over the next few days. Leclerc juggled three roles: He was a sub­or­di­nate divisi­onal com­mander in an Amer­i­can army, he was the com­man­der of a sepa­rate national (French) force, and he was Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s man on the scene.

Right: Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division even­tually led the drive toward Paris. A small advance party arrived at the Hôtel de Ville (city hall) late on August 24, 1944. The next day Gen. Philippe Leclerc with the rest of his French Armored Divi­sion, along with the U.S. 4th Divi­sion, entered the French capi­tal, and the Ger­man mili­tary gover­nor of Paris with his garri­son of 5,000 mostly unen­thu­si­astic men capit­u­lated. (Some spora­dic fighting con­tin­ued for sev­eral days.) On August 26 a large vic­tory parade took place along Paris’ main boule­vard, the Champs Élysées, lined with jubi­lant crowds acclaiming Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the 2nd Armored Divi­sion the libera­tors of Paris. A sign in the crowd reads, “Viva de Gaulle.”

Charles de Gaulle and entourage walk down the Champs Élysées, August 25, 1944U.S. troops march down the Champs Élysées, August 29, 1944

Left: Unmissable owing to his immense height, stub­born French patriot and Resis­tance leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle, in the com­pany of his en­tourage, set off on August 25, 1944, from the Arc de Triumphe down the Champs Élysées to Notre Dame Cathe­dral for a service of thanksgiving following the city’s liberation. Often during his tri­umphal walk, with thousands of people shouting “Vive de Gaulle,” the general raised his long arms above his head, turning left then right, as though offering grate­ful thanks. In a rousing speech inside the cathe­dral he averred to “Paris liberated by her own people.”

Right: A combined Franco-American military parade was hastily organized on August 29, 1944, which featured Maj. Gen. Norman D. Cota’s 28th Infantry Division marching down the Champs Élysées a little over a month after it stepped ashore on Nor­mandy’s beaches. After enjoying a respite, the division headed east to the German defensive Sieg­fried Line (West­wall), where it was the first of the Allied armies to reach German soil. Taking costly casual­ties during the ill-conceived Battle of the Huert­gen Forest (beginning mid-Septem­ber 1944) and the Battle of the Bulge (mid-Decem­ber 1944 to late Janu­ary 1945), the divi­sion memor­ably distin­guished it­self by impeding German advances in the Ardennes Forest in late December 1944, affording time for the Allies to organize the heroic defense of Bastonge in Belgium.

Contemporary American Newsreel of Liberation of Paris, August 1944