ON THIS DAY! Paris Liberated By The Free French Forces, August 25th 1944

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After the Allied Forces landed in Normandy and finally penetrated the German lines, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, American General Dwight Eisenhower, aimed to reach the German borders immediately. Fearing that a battle for France’s capital would do nothing but slow down his troops, Eisenhower was going to bypass Paris. But the events on the front dictated another course to the Allies’ actions.

On August 15th, more than two months after D-Day the news on the Allies’ advance and the second landing in southern France has arrived to the capital. When the Germans began to evacuate the city the workers from the Post Office and from the Metro went on strike. In four days the city was seized by a spontaneous uprising, nourished by the hope that the Allies will soon reach the city’s gates. Led by the members of the French Resistance, the inhabitants of Paris attacked the Germans, barricaded the streets and created as much chaos as possible. General Charles de Gaulle, the Free French Forces Commander, made a call to Eisenhower asking him to redirect the offensive towards Paris and even threatened to attack the city on his own if his request was refused. Giving his consent Eisenhower ordered de Gaulle to enter in Paris and gave him part of the US Forces.

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Confronted with this situation Hitler ordered the General Dietrich von Choltitz, the Military Commander of Paris, to destroy the city. The beautiful bridges over the Seine have been mined and preparations were made to fulfill Hitler’s orders. But von Choltitz hesitated and on August 20th approved a truce with the Parisian insurgents. However fighting on the streets continued.

On August 24th the vanguard of de Gaulle’s forces – led by General Jacques Leclerc – entered Paris, followed, within 24 hours, by the rest of his army. Facing in some key points the German defense, the liberators continued to advance while the French tanks surrounded von Choltitz’s headquarters. The Commander of Paris was captured without resistance and immediately signed the capitulation agreement. Then, though the fights continued in some places, General de Gaulle entered the city as a liberator on 26 August. After four years, Paris was free again.

Paris is finally free!

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John Mac Vane was a NBC correspondent and he accompanied the Allied troops in their advance towards Paris. This is his testimony.

“We arrived in Paris at the university at 8:10, by my watch. I felt I had to pinch myself; it was hard to believe I was back in Paris.

Suddenly a wave of bullets hits the street. The whole column stopped all of a sudden. We jumped out of the car and we huddled next to the jeep. The FFI soldiers (French Forces of the Interior which are Resistance Fighters) started shooting at something above our heads. Those from the vehicles in front of us started shooting at the university’s tower.

The Germans were firing in the column from the tower. I saw the stone that covered the building exploding into thousands of white flakes when Leclerc’s men held it under continuous fire.

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They were also shooting at us from a nearby house. Some FFI soldiers and Leclerc’s men sheltered next to the building then rushed in through the door and went up the stairs. I heard a grenade exploding then the shooting stopped. After nearly half an hour the university tower was quiet and the column continued its way.

The column was attacked two more times in a similar way. At a certain point, the streets were filled with people and at the first sound of a gunshot they rushed to the doors. The FFI soldiers, with old pistols and stolen rifles from the Germans, started shooting in the direction of what they believed to be the source of the attack.

Whenever the situation appeared to be critical Leclerc’s men fired several shots with their machine guns mounted on trucks. Or a light tank stopped at a street corner and a few soldiers would come out to cover our advance. We felt extremely unprotected in that jeep and the sound of the bullets flying past us was very unpleasant.

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When the column started moving again, a civilian with a black Homburg hat jumped into the jeep. I told him, pretty aggressive, to get down. The man smiled and told me, with a good English but with an accent, that he was an American secret agent and he was in Paris for three months preparing for our arrival. He was French by birth but a naturalized US citizen. I let him come with us on the Jourdain Boulevard, through Porte d’Orleans, then on St. Jacques Street he got out of the car with a “thanks a lot”, smiled and then disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared.

We crossed the bridge leading directly to the market in front of the Notre Dame and the police’s prefecture.  In the sunlight Paris never looked so beautiful. The clock was 8.45.

The vehicles in front of us entered the market and parked and we parked next to it. Kokoska stopped the engine. We looked at the splendid towers of Notre Dame and someone said “Well, that’s it! The fight is over.”

The bells from Notre Dame announce the liberation of Paris

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Right in that moment when he was finishing his speech, the air was filled with the sound of the bullets that were flying all over the market. The light French tanks began firing, over our heads, at some Germans beyond the Seine. The Germans were shooting from Notre Dame and nearby houses. For 25 minutes, Wright, Jack Hansen, Kokoska and I laid down to the ground next to the jeep. We couldn’t see any other shelter. They were shooting so much that we could hardly speak to each other. Pistols, machine guns, rifles – we could hear them all around us in a deafening sound.

The wounded were transported to the other side of the market by the girls and doctors in uniforms, waving Red Cross flags.

The shots thinned then nearly stopped, but broke out again with greater fury.

The atmosphere was strangely quiet. I could see the sun glowing in the white tracks left by the bullets that hit Notre Dame…

A new noise interrupted that morning’s silence: the bells from Notre Dame Cathedral. Someone began to ring the bells. They rang throughout Paris, as they did for centuries, a song of triumph; Paris was free again.

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There were some strange incidents in that market. Two men wearing American firefighter uniform approached me and, speaking an unmistakable US English, they told me: «Are you American? » «Sure… But what the hell are you guys doing dressed like this? »

One of them, whose name I have noted, presented himself to the authorities, at his request, and then told us «The two of us are Eighth Air Force; I am a pilot, he is a navigator. We have been downed and the Resistance took care of us. We’ve been in Paris for a month, attached to the fore brigade. We are having a great time at night, walking around the fires caused by the fighting, shooting Germans whenever we can. I would not have missed this for anything in the world! »

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«Do you speak French? » I asked them «Not a single word. » said the pilot. «One of the firemen speaks a little bit of English and he does the translations.

We go to a collaborator’s house, which is burning and we destroy everything before we put out the fire. Or we just leave it to burn completely. »

Before leaving the pilot added «It would be a shame to get back to flying after all this fun. »

Ovidiu Popa

Ovidiu Popa is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE