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De Gaulle choreographs his triumph during the Liberation

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about the Liberation of Paris first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Charles de Gaulle in Paris 1944,  picture, image, illustration

Charles de Gaulle takes his Victory Walk down the Champs Elysses during the liberation of Paris, by Graham Coton

The Champs Elysees was crammed with people pressed breathlessly together in one great cheering mass. The more agile had climbed the lamp-posts and clung there waving, shouting yelling greetings to a tall, lank man most of them had never seen before.

He moved slowly in a small group that could only trickle through the crush while all round him, his name was chanted out and echoed from pavement to pavement: “De Gaulle! De Gaulle! De Gaulle!

During World War Two, if any name had a meaning for Parisians and Frenchmen everywhere, it was this one.

For four years, it was a name to be whispered in bistros and cafes, with one’s eyes always wary to detect the approach of a Nazi uniform. It was a name to strain one’s ears for, while huddling round radios turned down to near-inaudibility in case some sharp-eared German should know illicit Allied broadcasts were being heard.

By 26th August, 1944, the day General Charles de Gaulle walked in triumph down the most famous street in Paris, the need for secrecy and watchfulness had come to an end. But its marks were still starkly apparent on the faces and in the eyes of the Parisians.

They had the gauntness and pallor of those who had known years of food shortages, empty grates and freezing hours spent queueing for the simplest of human wants. The smiles and laughter of new-found freedom failed to dim the sadness in eyes that had seen sons and husbands carried off to forced labour camps, or hostages snatched in the streets and slaughtered in a burst of rifle fire.

Scenes and experiences like this were not unique to Paris, of course. They were repeated in towns and cities all over Nazi-occupied Europe. However, for Parisians, Nazi domination held a special disgrace.

On 14th June 1940, their famous city had been yielded to the Germans without a fight. And the next four years had seen dozens of men and women openly collaborating with the invader and accepting from him the comforts denied to those who were less perfidious.

This was an affront which had to be avenged; for the honour of France, a compelling ideal to the French, had been smirched and sullied.

The spirit of vengeance was particularly strong in those who actively resisted the Germans, wrecking cars, sniping at soldiers, blowing up railway lines, cutting telephone wires.

Others resisted more passively, but with no less conviction. They sheltered fugitives from German labour gangs, scrawled insults on walls, ignored faults in arms produced for German forces, and even jabbed dirty thumbs into a German officer’s soup while serving in a restaurant.

Whether active or passive in their resistance, they all derived inspiration from Charles de Gaulle, even though he was nothing more than a voice beamed over radio waves from London.

On 18th June, 1940, in his first broadcast, this obscure army officer who came to embody the spirit of Free France, told his captive people, “The flame of French resistance is not extinguished, and it will not be extinguished.”

It never was, though its vigour was muted at times when Resistance leaders were arrested and killed.

Then, in the summer of 1944, there came the great opportunity to make the fight against the Germans something more than a matter of furtive sniping and surreptitious bomb-plants.

On 6th June, British, American and other Allied forces invaded Europe. By early August, the Germans in Paris were loading trucks with important papers and equipment and had begun to send soldiers back to Germany. The acrid smell of smoke rose from inside offices as documents and records were systematically burned.

It was at this point that Resistance groups, together with the police, the railwaymen and hundreds of ordinary Parisians, openly rose against the Germans, and for ten days in August made every street, every alleyway, every suspiciously open window, every rooftop the site of potential danger.

The French seized buildings like the Prefecture and the Hotel de Ville and, from sandbagged windows, raked the streets with bullets, shooting up German trucks, armoured cars and infantry.

Elsewhere, French and Germans skirmished from house to house and street to street. They shot at each other across barricades that were a jumble of wrecked cars, iron railings, old furniture, paving stones, and sewer gratings. From behind them, the French lobbed hand-grenades or home-made “Molotov cocktails” and erupting pavements and roadways into a mass of jagged, spinning stones and splinters. German vehicles disintegrated in sheets of fire, spilling their crews on to the roadway in an inferno of exploding petrol and red-hot metal.

By August 24th, the Resistance groups held three-quarters of the city, while the Germans were confined to a few strongholds at the centre.

Here, the German commander, General Dietrich von Choltitz, realised that he had lost control of Paris, and was simply waiting for the Allies to come and accept his surrender. A man of some sense and sensitivity, Choltitz had resisted Hitler’s hysterical orders to blow up Paris, together with everyone and everything in it.

Late in the evening of the 24th, a new sound permeated the streets.

One after the other, the bells of churches and cathedrals began to peal as a small group of vehicles moved along the right bank of the Seine and pulled up outside the Hotel de Ville.

Resistance fighters, tears streaming down their cheeks, rushed out to embrace the men who emerged from them hot, dusty and unshaven. They were the advanced guard of the French Second Armoured Division, specially diverted from Argentan, sixty miles away, to liberate the city and mop up the remaining German defenders.

Next morning, the Division rumbled into Paris in force. As they crossed the Seine bridge, their tanks were mobbed by laughing, weeping, cheering crowds who swarmed all round offering the crews wine, chocolates, cigarettes and flowers.

At noon, the tricolour of France streamed out at the top of the Eiffel Tower, and a while later, it was draped across the Arc de Triomphe.

That afternoon, at the Prefecture, Choltitz signed the German surrender in the presence of French and American officers and Resistance leaders.

By that time, General de Gaulle had already arrived in Paris to prepare for his triumphal “official” entry next day.

On that Saturday back streets and squares left near-deserted by crowds cheering in the Champs Elysees were marked with small spontaneous memorials to the dead. Nearly 1,000 Resistance fighters had died and 1,500 had been wounded in the battle for Paris.

Here and there, wreaths of flowers lay among the rubble on the pavements roughly chalked crosses stood out white against the pitted, blackened brickwork and on wrecked tanks, now burned-out and silent, were scrawled simple messages of grief and gratitude.

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