My Reminiscences of events, old and new, and travels, far and near
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Recollection: The Liberation of Paris in August 1944 (part 3)
This is a continuation of my last post on the liberation of Paris, part 2. These are long posts because there is so much to tell - I know most people would enjoy looking at photos of Paris instead of reading about old history, but Paris pictures will come in later posts. In my last post I had written that on 25 August, 1944, in the afternoon, General Dietrich von Choltitz (1894-1966) the last German officer commander of Nazi-occupied Paris, had surrendered to General Leclerc (head of the Free French Army) and the head of the FFI (Free Forces of the Interior or French Resistance.) Von Choltitz was a dedicated and zealous German officer who was known to faithfully obey orders. Under his command, in 1940 and 41, the cities of Rotterdam and Sevastopol were leveled. (Von Choltitz nickname was the Butcher of Sevastopol.)
Von Choltitz also participated in the extermination of 50,000 Jews by the Einsatzgruppen no. 3, and fought the Allies in Normandy. Von Choltitz had arrived in Paris on 9 August; he did not know the city but during that short stay he had thousands of Resistance members and Parisians killed - had a last convoy of "political" deportees shipped to concentration camps on August 15 and another of Jews on August 17, 1944. He ordered the destruction of several beautiful landmarks around Paris and had 35 young members of the Resistance machine-gunned in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, ordered the destruction of the Pantin windmills to starve the citizens and had the Grand Palais burned as well as had his soldiers place mines under bridges and in Metro stations. Here he is below.
By mid-August 1944 von Choltitz forces were demoralized and, in addition, their military equipment was obsolete (some from WWI.) In order to destroy Paris, as instructed by Berlin, von Choltitz desperately asked that the German army send re-enforcements and also the "Karl" mortar (also known as "Thor",) the largest self-propelled siege mortar that his soldiers used in the siege of Sevastopol. Below is a postcard of the Karl/Thor mortar.
The mortar and additional soldiers did not get to Paris in time. Von Choltitz tried to destroy Paris by having his soldiers place dynamite in many areas; it was just too late with too little means (plus the Resistance would remove the mines as soon as the German moved away.) Von Choltitz decided to surrender to save himself on August 25, 1944, after hearing that the German army could not assure his safety if he could somehow have Paris destroyed. (Click on collage to enlarge.)
While in jail in England, von Choltitz's conversation which was secretly recorded, acknowledged that he had participated in the extermination of Jews. Released in 1947 he started writing his so-called "memoirs" where he claimed that he disobeyed Hitler's order to burn Paris. This was a self-serving fantasy to clear his name, improve his image by becoming known as a Paris hero. Unfortunately, two reporters (not historians) believed his fiction and included him in a book called "Is Paris Burning?" which was later made into a film. Now everyone believed, and still believes, that von Choltitz saved Paris. Although, at the time, the French Cinema Federation published a strong statement objecting that an American producer was filming a history of the French Resistance based on the words of a Nazi general only. In a 2004 interview, veteran FFI fighter, Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont described von Choltitz as a man who "as long as he could, killed French people and when he ceased to kill them it was because he wasn't able to do so any longer ... not only we owe him nothing but this is a shameless falsification of history to award him any merit." German historians who analyzed the recorded conversations of von Choltitz while in English jail supported Maurice's claim. Below, top photo, is von Choltitz taken to Leclerc to surrender on August, 25, 1944, and behind him, wearing glasses, Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont. Bottom photo is von Choltitz seated behind Gen. Leclerc in open car.
On August 26, 1944, the day after the liberation of Paris, General de Gaulle led a parade with the 2nd Division Blindee (2e DB) of General Leclerc, walking from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the Place de la Concorde. The immense crowd was overjoyed and cheering. Most members of the 4th American Division were actively patrolling in the east and northeast of Paris and few were in the parade. I remember going to the Champs-Elysees that day with my mother. There was such a crowd - it was warm too and noisy. I was holding my mother's hand tightly so as not to get lost. People were laughing, cheering; the picture is still in my memory even though I was only 4 years old. I do remember hearing shots but I don't know where this was in Paris.
General de Gaulle was driven in an open automobile from the Place de la Concorde to Notre-Dame de Paris where crowds were waiting. Policemen and FFI members were on top of buildings around La Concorde to ensure safety against the milice (French and foreign Gestapo collaborators.) Below, in middle right, is General de Gaulle in the open automobile.
In the evening of the 26th, at around 11:00 pm, the sirens started sounding because German aircraft were approaching Paris. They bombarded the city a last time (out of spite.) Buildings in the Marais area of Paris, the Mouffetard quarter, La Bastille area, Place d'Italie, Bichat Hospital, the wine warehouse in Les Halles were hit - 431 buildings were totally destroyed and 1597 partially destroyed.
Unfortunately, 189 Parisian men, women and children were killed and 890 injured.
On August 27th, 1944, there were still pockets of fighting in Paris between the milice and isolated retreating German soldiers. Women who had been "friendly" to the enemy had their head shaved. General Leclerc's cousin was killed. Paris was free but the war was not over yet. This not well known late bombing of Paris shows the heavy price the Parisians kept paying for the freedom of their city. Below, top right picture, is a German Tiger tank seized by French civilians.
The FFI or Resistance in France had been instrumental in liberating Paris, but they also helped tremendously with D-Day in Normandy sending, in May alone, 3,000 written reports to the Allies, 700 wireless reports and by destroying 1,800 railway engines, 52 locomotives and cutting railway lines in over 500 places thus isolating Normandy. Below are memorials for Jean Moulin (1899-1943) who under the direction of de Gaulle from London unified 17 disparate resistance groups under the one French Resistance. He was tortured by Klaus Barbie, chief of the Gestapo in Lyon, France, and died without speaking. He is a national hero, the emblem of the Resistance.
The American historian Robert Paxton estimated that active French Resistance members were about 400,000 in addition to two million civilian participating on a temporary basis. I know both my father and mother did "jobs" for the Resistance. Gen. Eisenhower said that on D-Day the Resistance had the effectiveness of 15 divisions and later "Throughout France the Resistance had been of inestimable value in the campaign. Without their great assistance the liberation of France and the defeat of the enemy in Western Europe would have consumed a much longer and meant greater losses to ourselves." From about 56,000 Resistance fighters sent to concentration camps, less than half returned.
A week long commemoration took place in Paris, from 19 through 26 August, 2014, for the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris. I read many articles about it on the Web. Some American sites had numerous ugly comments, such as "Yea, sure they fought! yawn....We were the ones to save Paris, no one in Paris fought but us!" and "Q How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? A Don't know, it has never been done." Someone asked why there were so many mean French comments and another answered "Americans are generally anti-French, and anti-Canadian to a lesser degree." The Parisians did fight for Paris, suffering many casualties and deaths - their courage is not a myth.
Looking at the postcards and photos on the liberation parades in Paris, Place de la Concorde, I noticed that there were US flags in one and not the other - they had to be on different days.
This was confirmed when I read Tom Reid's diary, a late citizen of Marietta, Georgia. He was a member of the 22nd Infantry Regiment and said: "One final word. Whenever you see the oft printed picture of American troops massed fifty abreast marching down the Champs Elysees in Paris with the Arc de Triomphe in the background and billed as the liberation of Paris, brand it as a phony. That is the 28th Infantry Division some three or four days after the 4th Infantry Division had rolled through Paris that bright August day."
Gen. de Gaulle had asked Gen. Eisenhower to send some troops to Paris to parade as a show of Allied support for his new provisional government. Accordingly, on 29th August, 1944, the 28th Reconnaissance troop and the 110th, 112th and 109 Infantry Regiments marched down the Champs-Elysees to the Place de la Concorde where de Gaulle reviewed them on an improvised platform. 15,000 US men and all their equipment marched there among ecstatic Parisians (many of them thinking that the troops had been fighting in Paris instead of just arriving in the capital and marching through it.)
"I had no spare units to station temporarily in Paris, I did promise him [de Gaulle] that two of our divisions, marching to the front, would do so through the main avenues of the city. I suggested that while these divisions were passing through Paris they could proceed in ceremonial formation and invited him to review them" ... "Because this ceremonial march coincided exactly with the local battle plan it became possibly the only instance in history of troops marching in parade through the capital of a great country to participate in pitched battle on the same day." (from Crusade in Europe, page 298, by Dwight D. Eisenhower.)
To add to the confusion, the US post office issued a stamp to honor the American Army in WW2 and decided to use these US regiments marching through Paris on August 29, 1944 (with additional aircraft drawings as regards to the Air Force - who had not been there.) This stamp solidified in the US public's mind, the idea that the US Army had delivered Paris from the Nazi that August. Pictures from this march have been widely seen and used. These American troops were in Paris on 29th August and the liberation of Paris was on August 25th, 1944 (when Gen. von Choltitz surrendered.)
The liberation of Paris during WW2 must sound like very old history to everyone, and I am sure not as much fun as a post on the monuments, food, decor, fashion or tourists sights of Paris - but there are many blogs that concentrate just on that. For me Paris is more than all this, it is also its history, its people and my childhood. I remember that warm August day so many years ago, walking in Paris, my home town, with my mum and watching General de Gaulle and the parade after Paris was free again ...just one last and final part on this subject and it will be over.
Addendum: my blogging friend Carola mentioned that German Resistance was also active during WW2 - their collective name was Widerstand. Between 1938 and 1945 they attempted 17 times to assassinate Hitler. Following the last attempt in July 1944, 5,000 of their members were captured and executed.