Flying a tortuous route from North Africa to the French coast of Normandy via Casablanca and Gibraltar, an unarmed Lockheed Lodestar of the Free French Air Force broke through cloud cover over the English Channel on the morning of Sunday, August 20, 1944.
The plane carried Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle, bound for a crucial meeting in Cherbourg with General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of Allied forces in the invasion of Europe. “I left for Paris,” General de Gaulle would write laconically in his Mémoires de Guerre,of the day he flew out of Algiers. He was returning to France with but one mission: to seize Paris in time to save it from a Communist takeover or from last-minute destruction by the fleeing Germans.
The Lodestar pilot, Colonel Lionel de Marmier, uncertain of his bearings, asked for permission to land in England. “Non,” replied de Gaulle, peering at a road map on his lap as he tried to identify a familiar landmark. With the plane’s gas tanks nearly empty, de Gaulle sighted the landing strip at Maupertuis, south of Cherbourg. “La-bas [over there],” he signaled, pointing to the ground. The Lodestar’s engines coughed out their last ounces of fuel as the plane thudded to a landing. Safely on the ground, de Gaulle received an ominous report from General Marie-Pierre Koenig, head of the Free French Forces of the Interior (FFI). “There has been an uprising in Paris. We need to move quickly.”
Two hours later, de Gaulle was at Eisenhower’s headquarters. The pace of the Allied advance was picking up all along the front, General Eisenhower told de Gaulle. The U.S. First Army under General Courtney Hodges was about to leap the Seine River north of Paris, while General Bernard Montgomery’s British and Canadian forces were advancing toward Rouen on the east bank of the Seine.
De Gaulle was surprised to hear no mention of Allied plans to occupy Paris. “I don’t see why you cross the Seine everywhere, yet at Paris and Paris alone you do not cross.”
This was the first meeting of the two generals since before D-Day and both were edgy and tired. The Allies did not want to risk the destruction of Paris and the heavy loss of civilian life that might come from a direct assault, General Eisenhower explained. It would be preferable to bypass the city, returning to it afterward.
“The fate of Paris is of fundamental concern to the French government,” de Gaulle told the Supreme Commander. If necessary, he would order the Free French 2nd Armored Division into Paris on his own.
General de Gaulle’s difficult relations with the Allied commander were well known. Since 1940, he had been struggling to assemble his country’s forces in opposition not only to Germany but also to the traitorous government of Marshal Philippe Pétain that had installed itself at Vichy after the French defeat. Now, four years and two months later, de Gaulle was in control of much of the old French Empire as the undisputed leader of the Free French and their army, navy, and air force that were fighting under the French Tricolor and the Cross of Lorraine. By the end of the war, the Free French would have two million men in arms.
De Gaulle’s proudest achievement was the building of the French 2nd Armored Division, which he had entrusted to a titled French patriot, Jacques-Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque. It had become de Gaulle’s strongest striking force and had joined other Allied troops in Normandy on August 1. Four French divisions had fought with valor in Italy, and the French First Army had landed on the Mediterranean coast, along with the U.S. VI Army Corps, just a week before de Gaulle’s arrival in Normandy.
The French general’s claim to equal treatment as an Allied war leader and his insistence on reclaiming his country’s “grandeur” was a cause of unending friction among the Allies. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, while sympathetic to de Gaulle, acceded to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s distrust of the Free French leader. The president leaned toward putting liberated France under an Allied military government as an alternative to what he saw as an incipient de Gaulle dictatorship.
All of these factors, plus the decision to exclude de Gaulle from D-Day planning, made for testy relations. There had been a ferocious blow up when de Gaulle, invited to England just ahead of D-Day, refused to provide liaison officers to assist Allied forces unless he was assured they would be recognized as the supreme civil authority in liberated territory.
This idea conflicted with President Roosevelt’s dictate that the French people should have the opportunity after the war to choose, if they wished, a government other than one headed by de Gaulle. A “School of Military Government” had been set up at the University of Virginia in 1942 to train officers to manage civil affairs in former enemy-occupied lands. These “60-day marvels,” as they came to be known, would face insurmountable tasks without the support of French administrators.
General Eisenhower handled the crisis skilfully. He obtained approval from the president to consult with the Free French on civil administration with the caution that “such dealings shall not constitute recognition [of a de Gaulle government].” After backing away from Roosevelt’s plan for a military administration of France, he turned his attention to dealing with the powerful German forces still entrenched there.
Since D-Day, the 56 German divisions that awaited the Allied assault had been reduced to 40, many mere skeleton forces. After the closing of the Falaise Gap, which saw the capture of 200,000 Germans and 50,000 dead, General S. George Patton hoped to lead the U.S. Third Army in a dash for the Rhine while General Montgomery’s British and Canadian forces pushed up the coast toward Belgium and Holland.
As Paris held no strategic military value, a pincer movement around the city was contemplated. Allied military planners had no desire to take on the job of maintaining order in Paris or of feeding the city’s five million hungry inhabitants. This would require the diversion from the front lines of 4,000 tons of food and supplies daily, something the hard-pressed U.S. Quartermaster Corps hoped to avoid.
As de Gaulle and Eisenhower talked through Sunday morning in Cherbourg, a full-scale uprising of the French Forces of the Interior—the Resistance—was underway in Paris. Barricades were going up, and German troops were being picked off by Resistance fighters armed with seized weapons. General Dietrich von Choltitz, the German commander of the Paris garrison, was weighing Adolf Hitler’s command that “Paris must not fall into enemy hands, or if it does, only as a field of rubble.” Choltitz told Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling, “I am a soldier. I get orders. I execute them.”
The uprising had been forced on the French Committee of National Resistance (CNR), the united underground assembled by de Gaulle delegate Jean Moulin, by the Communist leadership of the Paris Liberation Committee. “Paris is worth 200,000 dead,” declared Colonel Rol-Tanguy, its Communist head. Gaullist members of the CNR, fearful of letting the Communists take ownership of the uprising, had no choice but to back the rebellion.
After walkouts by Metro drivers, postmen, and telegraph workers, the city’s 15,000 policemen went on strike. On Saturday, the day before General de Gaulle’s return to France, they seized the Prefecture of Police on the Ile de la Cité. “The hour of liberation has come,” a police order declared. That day, a German Tiger tank had attacked the Police Prefecture, and 50 Germans had died in the fighting.
Nordling, as a representative of neutral Sweden, was in a position to negotiate with both sides. He met with General Choltitz to work out a truce, telling him that the Resistance was mainly against the French Vichy government that had been cooperating with Germany. The truce the two arranged provided for the Germans to recognize the French Resistance fighters as regular soldiers, not as terrorists. Not only that, the Germans would make an orderly evacuation from the city. The Resistance reluctantly accepted the truce, but sporadic fighting continued.
By midweek, 400 barricades had made the streets of Paris virtually impassable to heavy trucks or tanks. At each, young men—and some young women—clambered about, proudly displaying FFI armbands or bits of military uniforms picked up from dead Germans. To existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the uprising was “a symbolic rebellion in a symbolic city.” Those who could not play in the Resistance “felt left out of the game.”
Knowing that only the arrival of French forces would prevent further fighting, Nordling got Choltitz’s permission to send a secret mission through the lines to advise General de Gaulle to come quickly. At the same time, Rol-Tanguy agreed to send his chief of staff, Major Roger Gallois, through the Allied lines. Traveling with a Paris doctor who had a Red Cross pass allowing him safe passage, the two drove to a sanatorium in Bretèche, 20 miles west of Paris.
Just before dark, Gallois slipped through a forest and found himself at an American forward base. Several hours passed before he was interviewed by an intelligence officer who recognized the value of Gallois’s information. An uprising was underway in Paris, barricades were being erected, and the German high command had accepted a truce. Major Gallois was brought before a sleepy General Patton at 2 am on Tuesday, August 22. A lively discussion ended with Patton producing a bottle of champagne and offering a toast to victory.