Paris, France August 25, 1944

On this date Nazi Germany’s Paris garri­son surren­dered the French capi­tal to ele­ments of French Maj. Gen. Jacques Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Divi­sion. A little more than four years before, the German Wehr­macht (armed forces) goose-stepped into Paris on June 14, 1940, a month after mounting simul­ta­neous attacks on neigh­boring Nether­lands, Bel­gium, and Luxem­bourg. France was the last of the four nations to accept defeat, signing a humil­i­ating Franco-German armi­stice near Com­piègne on June 22, 1940. A puppet French state commonly known as Vichy was set up in the south of France under Marshal Philippe Pétain while the Wehr­macht assumed gover­nance of the northern and western parts of metropolitan France.

The opening phase of Paris’s liber­a­tion began on August 19, 1944, launched by Parisian mem­bers of the para­mili­tary French Forces of the Inte­rior (Forces fran­çaises de l’Inté­rieur), or FFI. The build­up to the up­rising began four days ear­lier when Paris Métro em­ployees and two national law enforce­ment organ­i­za­tions, the Sûreté nation­ale (police) and the Gen­dar­merie, went on strike. French postal workers struck the next day, August 16. On August 18 a city­wide strike shut down busi­nesses across the capi­tal. If these strikes were not worri­some enough to Gen. Diet­rich von Chol­titz, com­mander of the 20,000-man German garr­ison, armed French irregu­lars by the thou­sands made their street appear­ance on August 19, as already noted, and engaged their oppres­sors in day­long fire­fights. Chol­titz reacted by ordering his men to punish the insur­gents with­out hesi­ta­tion: anyone looking sus­pi­cious was shot, tanks shelled buildings, but Chol­titz and his men were running out of good options as their situ­a­tion grew more unten­a­ble by the day. Yet the biggest exis­ten­tial threat to Chol­titz’s garri­son force was Gen. George S. Patton, Jr’s approaching U.S. Third Army, of which Leclerc’s Free French 2nd Armored Division was an integral part.

Choltitz began evac­u­ating the city. Panicky streams of cars and trucks packed with admin­is­tra­tive person­nel and French col­lab­o­ra­tors raced for the exits. At the same time Gaul­list, non-Gaullist, and com­mu­nist résis­tants were hard pressed to embrace a com­mon course of action apart from ambushing German patrols and throwing gre­nades and firing wea­pons into fleeing German con­voys or shooting German strag­glers indi­vid­ually or in groups (see YouTube video below). Paris descended into looting and chaos, whooping, and singing unending strains of “La Mar­seil­laise,” France’s national anthem. Street barri­cades popped up, trees were felled across streets, and patriots took to planting the French Tri­color on govern­ment buildings, the Eiffel Tower, on balconies, in fact everywhere.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Commander of Allied armies in France, advised Leclerc that Allied forces must cir­cum­vent the French capi­tal less they endanger the entire Western Front by attacking Paris head-on and setting off a drawn-out, horribly destruc­tive urban battle. By August 22 Eisen­hower had reversed him­self and Leclerc ordered all 16,000 of his men to move full speed toward Paris. It was no walk in the park. Hun­dreds in Leclerc’s advancing column were bush­whacked, wounded, and killed before the first ele­ments entered Paris in the late hours of August 24. Pari­sians flooded into the streets, climbed lamp poles and passing tanks and jeeps, showering their lib­er­ators with flowers and kisses and shouting “Vive la France, Vive de Gaulle, Vivent les Allés.”

Early the next afternoon, August 25, Leclerc’s men burst into Chol­titz’s head­quarters in the Le Meu­rice hotel and took the dimin­u­tive Wehr­macht general into cus­tody. Gen. Charles de Gaulle arrived in Paris later in the after­noon to assume con­trol of the French capi­tal as head of the Provi­sional Govern­ment of the French Republic. Less than 24 hours later, on the after­noon of August 26, a beaming de Gaulle led a vic­tory parade down Paris’s famed Champs-Élysées boule­vard. Paris was again free and French.

Paris Liberation, August 1944

Liberation of Paris: Gen. Choltitz surrendering German garrison, August 25, 1944Paris Liberation: POW Choltitz and Gen. Leclerc, Paris street, August 25, 1944

Left: Gen. Dietrich von Chol­titz (1894–1966) is seen here officially sur­ren­dering his gar­ri­son to the French Forces of the Inte­rior following Paris’s liber­a­tion by sol­diers of Maj. Gen. Jacques Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Divi­sion, or 2eme Divi­sion Blindée (2e DB) in French. Chol­titz signed the six-para­graph docu­ment (French, Red­di­tion de la gar­ni­son alle­mande de Paris) at Leclerc’s tem­po­rary com­mand post, Paris’s Gare Mont­par­nasse train station. Leclerc, to Chol­titz’s right, and a smiling Henri Tan­guy (nom de guerre Colonel Rol), com­mu­nist leader of the regional branch of the FFI, counter­signed. After 4 years of zeal­ous ser­vice on both the West­ern and East­ern Fronts, Chol­titz arrived in Paris on August 9, 1944, appointed Wehr­macht com­man­der of Greater Paris (Wehr­machts­befehls­haber von Groß-Paris) and mili­tary pre­fect (gover­nor) of Paris in a meeting with Hitler 3 days before. With Allied armies just over 2 weeks (as it turned out) short of entering the French capi­tal, Hitler instructed Chol­titz to “stamp out with­out pity” all civil­ian acts of terror­ism and insur­rec­tion and, if neces­sary, leave Paris a burned-out shell should German forces ever find their back­sides pressed to the pro­ver­bial wall. Chol­titz, able destroyer of Nether­lands’ Rotter­dam and Crimea’s Sevas­to­pol, allegedly used the inter­vening days to under­go a change of heart and fore­stall Paris’s scorched-earth destruc­tion. When Free French sol­diers burst into Chol­titz’s office in his Le Meu­rice head­quarters early in the after­noon of August 25, 1944, and ordered him to sur­ren­der him­self, Choltitz did so without a quibble.

Right: Standing in an open-topped armored M3 Scout Car, Leclerc whisked his booty Chol­titz, seated on the car’s rear seat, through Paris streets to cheering crowds shortly after taking the former German gar­ri­son com­man­der pri­soner on August 25, 1944. On the side of the scout car is the Free France em­blem, the Cross of Lor­raine, imposed on a map of metro­pol­i­tan France. Chol­titz was one of 12,800 prisoners taken during the Battle of Paris.

Liberation of Paris: Parisians take aim at German targets from windowLiberation of Paris: Parisians disarm dead German soldier, August 1944

Left: Gaullist or Parisian irregulars line an open win­dow firing their wea­pons at German tar­gets. On the morning of August 19, Gaul­list forces in the hun­dreds com­menced attacking German armed forces and for­ti­fi­ca­tions through­out Paris, thus kicking off the Battle for Paris from inside the city. It wasn’t long before rival leftist insur­gents, who num­bered roughly 5,000 men and women more than the Wehr­macht’s 20,000, joined the fray, and scores of occu­pa­tion troops were assailed by Pari­sians armed with World War I sur­plus rifles, Molo­tov cock­tails, pistols, shot­guns, and a few slow-firing Hotch­kiss machine guns. An esti­mated 800–1,000 résis­tants were killed during the battle to liber­ate Paris, and another 1,500 wounded. Civil­ian casual­ties were put at 585 killed and 2,012 wounded. German casual­ties were between 2,800 and 3,200 dead and an indeter­mi­nate num­ber wounded. Another 1,000 Germans were killed in the week­long fighting against insur­gents in Paris it­self. Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Divi­sion suffered 71 killed and 225 wounded. Material losses were heavy: 35 tanks, 6 self-propelled guns, and 111 vehicles.

Right: Screenshot from the 30-minute docu­men­tary “La Libé­ra­tion de Paris,” which was secretly shot by the French Resis­tance during the Battle of Paris. This still shows two Pari­sians, pos­si­bly mem­bers of the French Forces of the Inte­rior, dis­arming a recently killed German sol­dier. In the frames before this, the sol­dier is seen being shot (5:19), as Parisian snipers directly over­looking the land­mark Notre Dame Cathe­dral watch him die. In the next few frames, the woman and the man remove his rifle, a pistol, and other objects (5:33–5:38). (See video below.)

Liberation of Paris: Leclerc’s arrival, August 25, 1944Liberation of Paris: Gen. de Gaulle leading marchers down Champs-Élysées, August 26, 1944

Left: French Maj. Gen. Philippe Leclerc (1902–1947) standing in his M3 Scout Car arrived to an exul­tant Pari­sian welcome after a pell-mell 2‑day, 122‑mile drive, having ordered on his own author­ity the men of his 2nd Armored Divi­sion to strike out early on August 21. The dash to Paris actually began at dawn on August 23. It was impor­tant to Leclerc, and later his Amer­i­can supe­riors, that French sol­diers be the first Allied troops to enter France’s capi­tal and largest city. That happened just before mid­night on August 24. At the behest of Gen. Omar Brad­ley, head of the Twelfth U.S. Army Group, the vet­er­an 4th U.S. Infan­try Divi­sion (nick­names “Ivy” and “Iron Horse” divi­sion) entered Paris in the early hours of August 25, followed in the early after­noon by British com­man­dos known as 30 Assault Unit. At 3:30 that after­noon Chol­titz surren­dered his garrison to Leclerc as other French units streamed into the capital.

Right: Gen. Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970), towering Free French center­piece, leads a victory parade on foot from the Arc de Triomphe down the famous Champs-Élysées to Notre Dame Cathe­dral, where a thanks­giving mass was cele­brated, August 26, 1944. Heading the parade were four Sher­man tanks repre­senting Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Divi­sion, the first Allied soldiers to liberate the French capital.

Contemporary American Newsreel of Liberation of Paris, August 1944