Paris, Occupied France August 10, 1944

On August 1, 1944, almost two months after the initial D-Day landings in Nor­mandy, France, more than 14,000 per­son­nel and equip­ment from 41-year-old Gen. Philippe Leclerc’s Free French 2nd Armored Divi­sion began landing on Utah Beach. Leclerc (1902–1947) juggled three roles: He was a sub­ordi­nate divi­sional com­mander in an Amer­i­can army under the supreme command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, he was the com­mander of a sep­a­rate national (French) force (2nd Armored Division), and he was Free French leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s man on the spot.

As the tide turned against Nazi Germany after the Allies’ Normandy break­out (August 1, 1944), Free French leaders wanted their own troops to lead the lib­er­a­tion of Paris, a city of roughly 2 mil­lion people. In fact, Parisians were readying them­selves for libera­tion—by them­selves if neces­sary. Nine days after the citi­zens of Warsaw, Poland’s capital, began their uprising, French rail workers went on strike on this date, August 10, 1944. Five days later, as another Allied inva­sion took place in South­ern France (Opera­tion Dra­goon), Paris police struck as well. By August 18 the French capi­tal was com­pletely para­lyzed. Spo­radic street fighting broke out the next day. Pari­sians built barri­cades in the streets, sniped from roof­tops at German Wehr­macht and Waffen‑SS soldiers evacu­ating the city (some in stolen French vehicles), and posted pro­pa­ganda posters on walls assuring resi­dents that “victory is near” and promising “chastise­ment for the traitors,” i.e., Vichy loyalists who had collaborated with the occupiers.

The German military governor of Paris, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, would have needed (according to a French esti­mate) between 60,000 and 135,000 first-line troops to hold and defend Paris. Short of any­thing close to those figures, Choltitz responded by cutting off all power and food sup­plies in the city. On August 23 radio listeners heard that Pari­sians were libera­ting them­selves, an act that caused the Allied high com­mand—which feared any insur­rec­tion that might result in the use­less slaugh­ter of civil­ians as was currently happening in Warsaw—to accel­er­ate their drive east­ward. Thus, on the night of August 24, an advance divi­sion of the Free French Army under Gen. Leclerc entered the French capi­tal, its once beau­ti­ful buildings looking tired and faded after four years of war. The next day Leclerc accepted the sur­render of the German garri­son, which had shrunk to 5,000 mostly unen­thu­si­astic men. Four years of pent-up frustra­tion and hatred exploded over the heads of the German occu­pa­tion forces and espe­cially their French colla­bo­rators who had betrayed, tor­tured, and exe­cuted mem­bers of the Resis­tance. At least 11,000 col­labo­rators were sum­marily executed before and after Choltitz surrendered Paris to Leclerc.

The Liberation of Paris, August 19–25, 1944

Liberation of Paris: Parisian snipers at street barricade, August 1944Liberation of Paris: Parisians disarm dead German soldier, August 1944

Left: On August 19, 1944, the first skirmishes between French irreg­u­lars (résis­tants) and the German occu­piers began in Paris. Skir­mishes reached their height of inten­sity on August 22 when some German units tried to leave their strong­holds. It is esti­mated that 800–1,000 resis­tance fighters were killed during the battle for Paris and 1,500 wounded. Leclerc’s Free French 2nd Armored Divi­sion suffered 130 dead and just over 300 wounded. German losses were placed at 3,200 dead. Between June 6 and the col­lapse of the Wehr­macht in France in late 1944, hun­dreds of thou­sands of German sol­diers would lose their lives. Total civil­ian and mili­tary deaths in France during World War II would exceed 567,000.

Right: Screenshot from the documentary “La Libération de Paris,” which was secretly shot by the French Resis­tance during the battle of Paris in August 1944. This still shows two Pari­sians, pos­si­bly mem­bers of the Forces fran­çaises de l’inté­rieur (French Forces of the Inte­rior, or FFI), dis­arming a recently killed German sol­dier. In the frames before this, the sol­dier is seen being shot, as Parisian snipers directly over­looking Notre Dame Cathe­dral watch him die. In the next few scenes, the woman and the man remove his rifle, a pistol, and other objects. (See video below.)

Liberation of Paris: Captured German officers, Paris, August 26, 1944Liberation of Paris: French 2nd Armored Division parades down Champs Élysées, August 26, 1944

Left: High-ranking German officers captured by Free French troops are detained in the Hôtel Majestic, Wehr­macht head­quarters during the Nazi occu­pa­tion of Paris, August 26, 1944. Gen. Diet­rich von Chol­titz, com­mander of the German gar­ri­son and mili­tary gover­nor of Paris, sur­ren­dered on August 25 at the Hôtel Meurice, the newly requi­si­tioned head­quarters of Gen. Leclerc. Some 12,800 Ger­mans were taken prisoner. (Choltitz, ten years before his death in 1966, quietly visited his wartime headquarters.)

Right: The French 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. Leclerc and the rest of his French Armored Divi­sion, along with the U.S. 4th Infan­try Divi­sion, entered the French capi­tal. Some spo­radic fighting con­tinued for several days following the German capitu­la­tion. Never­the­less, on August 26 a great vic­tory parade took place down Paris’ main boule­vard, the Champs Élysées, lined with jubi­lant crowds acclaiming Gen. de Gaulle and the French 2nd Armored Division the liberators of Paris. A sign in the crowd reads, “Viva de Gaulle.”

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

Left: Free French head Gen. Charles de Gaulle and his entou­rage set off from the Arc de Tri­umphe down the Champs Élysées to the Cathe­dral of Notre Dame in Paris for a service of thanks­giving following the city’s liberation, August 25, 1944.

Right: On August 29, 1944, following the over­night arrival of U.S. Maj. Gen. Norman D. Cota’s 28th Infantry Divi­sion, a com­bined Franco-Amer­i­can mili­tary parade was organ­ized. On the saluting dais at the Place de la Con­corde were Omar Brad­ley, com­mand­ing gene­ral of the Twelfth U.S. Army Group, and Gen. de Gaulle. (British Gen. Bernard Law Mont­go­mery declined the invita­tion to come to Paris.) This iconic photo­graph, taken by a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, shows the freshly scrubbed infantry­men of the 28th Divi­sion, fixed bayonets on their slung rifles, marching in full battle order down Paris’ Champs Élysées directly into com­bat north of Paris. The men, twenty-four abreast, were accom­panied by Jeeps, some mounted with .50 caliber machine guns; 155mm M2 “Long Tom” field guns; and M4 Sherman tanks and tank destroyers.

Contemporary American Newsreel of Liberation of Paris, August 1944