Paris is liberated after four years of Nazi occupation
After more than four years of Nazi occupation, Paris was liberated by the 2nd French Armored Division and the 4th American Infantry Division. German resistance was light and General Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of the German garrison, challenged an order from Adolf Hitler to blow up the monuments of Paris and burn the city down before its liberation. Choltitz signed a formal surrender this afternoon, and on August 26, Free French General Charles de Gaulle led a merry liberation march on the Champs Elysees.
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Paris fell to Nazi Germany on June 14, 1940, a month later Wehrmacht burst into France. Eight days later, France signed an armistice with the Germans and a French puppet state was created with its capital at Vichy. Elsewhere, however, General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French continued to fight, and Resistance arose in occupied France to resist Nazi and Vichy rule.
The 2nd French Armored Division was formed in London at the end of 1943 for the express purpose of leading the liberation of Paris during the Allied invasion of France. In August 1944, the division arrived in Normandy under the command of General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc and was attached to the 3rd American Army under General George S. Patton. On August 18, Allied forces were near Paris, and workers in the city went on strike as the resistance fighters emerged from their hiding places and began to attack German forces and fortifications.
At his headquarters two miles inland from the Normandy coast, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower had a dilemma. Allied planners had concluded that the liberation of Paris should be delayed so as not to divert valuable resources from important operations elsewhere. The city could be surrounded and then freed at a later date.
On August 21, Eisenhower met with de Gaulle and told him of his plans to bypass Paris. De Gaulle urged him to reconsider, assuring him that Paris could be recovered without difficulty. The French general also warned that the powerful communist faction of the Resistance could succeed in liberating Paris, thus threatening the reestablishment of a democratic government. De Gaulle politely told Eisenhower that if his advance against Paris was not ordered, he himself would send Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division into the city.
On August 22, Eisenhower agreed to proceed with the liberation of Paris. The next day, the 2nd Armored Division advanced on the city from the north and the 4th Infantry Division from the south. Meanwhile, in Paris, the forces of German General Dietrich von Choltitz were fighting the Resistance and completing their defenses around the city. Hitler had ordered Paris to defend itself to the last man and demanded that the city fall into the hands of the Allies only as “a field of ruins”. Choltitz dutifully began planting explosives under the bridges of Paris and several of its monuments, but disobeyed an order to begin destruction. He didn’t want to go down in history like the man who destroyed the “City of Light”, the most famous city in Europe.
The 2nd Armored Division collided with the German heavy artillery, suffering heavy losses, but on August 24 succeeded in crossing the Seine and reaching the Parisian suburbs. There they were greeted by enthusiastic civilians who besieged them with flowers, kisses and wine. Later that day, Leclerc learned that the 4th Infantry Division was about to defeat him in Paris proper, and he ordered his exhausted men to advance in a last burst of energy. Just before midnight on August 24, the 2nd Armored Division reached the Hôtel de Ville in the heart of Paris.
German resistance melted overnight. Most of the 20,000 soldiers surrendered or fled, and those who fought were quickly defeated. On the morning of August 25, the 2nd Armored Division swept through the western half of Paris while the 4th Infantry Division cleared the eastern part. Paris was liberated.
In the early afternoon, Choltitz was arrested in his headquarters by French troops. Shortly after, he signed a document officially ceding Paris to de Gaulle’s provincial government. De Gaulle himself arrived in the city later in the afternoon. On August 26, de Gaulle and Leclerc led a triumphant liberation march on the Champs d’Elysées. Scattered gunfire from a rooftop disrupted the parade, but the identity of the snipers has not been determined.
De Gaulle led two successive French provisional governments until 1946, when he resigned due to constitutional disagreements. From 1958 to 1969, he was French President under the Fifth Republic.
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