THROWBACK THURSDAY – On this day, after more than four years of Nazi occupation, Paris is liberated by the French 2nd Armored Division and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. German resistance was light, and General Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of the German garrison, defied an order by Adolf Hitler to blow up Paris’ landmarks and burn the city to the ground before its liberation. Choltitz signed a formal surrender that afternoon, and on August 26, Free French General Charles de Gaulle led a joyous liberation march down the Champs d’Elysees.
Paris fell to Nazi Germany on June 14, 1940, one month after the German Wehrmacht stormed into France. Eight days later, France signed an armistice with the Germans, and a puppet French state was set up with its capital at Vichy. Elsewhere, however, General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French kept fighting, and the Resistance sprang up in occupied France to resist Nazi and Vichy rule.
The French 2nd Armored Division was formed in London in late 1943 with the express purpose of leading the liberation of Paris during the Allied invasion of France. In August 1944, the division arrived at Normandy under the command of General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc and was attached to General George S. Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army. By August 18, Allied forces were near Paris, and workers in the city went on strike as Resistance fighters emerged from hiding and began attacking 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 to not divert valuable resources away from important operations elsewhere. The city could be encircled and then liberated 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 reclaimed without difficulty. The French general also warned that the powerful communist faction of the Resistance might succeed in liberating Paris, thereby threatening the re-establishment of a democratic government. De Gaulle politely told Eisenhower that if his advance against Paris was not ordered, he would send Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division into the city himself.
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 defended to the last man, and demanded that the city not fall into Allied hands except as “a field of ruins.” Choltitz dutifully began laying explosives under Paris’ bridges and many of its landmarks, but disobeyed an order to commence the destruction. He did not want to go down in history as the man who had destroyed the “City of Light”—Europe’s most celebrated city.
The 2nd Armored Division ran into heavy German artillery, taking heavy casualties, but on August 24 managed to cross the Seine and reach the Paris 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 poised to beat him into Paris proper, and he ordered his exhausted men forward in a final burst of energy. Just before midnight on August 24, the 2nd Armored Division reached the Hótel de Ville in the heart of Paris.
German resistance melted away during the night. Most of the 20,000 troops surrendered or fled, and those that fought were quickly overcome. On the morning of August 25, the 2nd Armored Division swept clear 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 formally surrendering Paris to de Gaulle’s provisional government. De Gaulle himself arrived in the city later that afternoon. On August 26, de Gaulle and Leclerc led a triumphant liberation march down the Champs d’Elysees. Scattered gunfire from a rooftop disrupted the parade, but the identity of the snipers was not determined.
De Gaulle headed two successive French provisional governments until 1946, when he resigned over constitutional disagreements. From 1958 to 1969, he served as French president under the Fifth Republic.