World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 2, UXL, 2000.
By the end of 1943, the Allies (the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) had won a series of victories that had changed the course of World War II. Yet the final defeat of Germany still seemed far away.
In the Soviet Union (Russia), the Red Army had fought and won a great tank battle around Kursk in July and continued to drive the Germans westward. But powerful German armies remained on Soviet territory. Millions of Soviet soldiers had already died in battle, and the Germans had captured millions more in the early part of the war. No one could be certain that the Russians could continue to bear the major part of the fighting against Germany.
The Americans and British had successfully invaded French North Africa in November 1942 and Sicily in July 1943, but this had not taken much pressure off the Soviet armies. The invasion of Italy, which began soon afterward, was going much more slowly than expected. Italy had changed its government, ended its alliance with Germany, and even declared war on its former ally. But the American and British armies were bogged down by strong German defensive positions along the mountainous Italian peninsula.
Pressure and Delay
The Russians had constantly pressed Britain and the United States to open a second front in western Europe. (A front is a combat zone, the area where two opposing armies are in contact.) American military leaders had favored an invasion of France almost from the time America had entered the war. After crossing France, the British and Americans could attack Germany from the west while the Russians closed in from the east.
The planning for the invasion had been going on for years, but it had always been delayed. The British feared that an early invasion, before they were fully prepared, would result in many deaths and would end in disaster. They remembered the way the German army had defeated them in France in 1940, and they remembered the terrible bloodshed of World War I, when armies tried to attack built-up defensive positions.
Political factors also played a part. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister (head of the government), wanted to maintain British influence in the Mediterranean and southeastern Europe. That was one of the reasons the Allies had invaded Italy. Churchill wanted to send the Allied armies from Italy into Yugoslavia and toward Vienna, the capital of Austria. Many historians believe he was afraid that otherwise the Russians would control these areas after the war. But Churchill’s plan might take years: the Allied armies were still in the southern half of Italy. (The political disputes among the Allies are discussed in Chapter 9.)
By the end of 1943, the Allies agreed that the great invasion could not be delayed any longer and set it for the spring of 1944. A supreme commander was named—Dwight D. Eisenhower, the American general who had commanded the invasions of North Africa and Italy. He was in charge of all land, sea, and air forces for the invasion. The commander of the ground troops was a British general, Bernard Montgomery, who had defeated the German Afrika Korps at the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt and led the British troops in Sicily. The invasion was code-named Operation Overlord. The day of the invasion would come to be known as D-Day.
Choosing a Location
The Allied planners had to decide the location of the invasion. It had to be within easy range of the fighter planes that would take off from airfields in England. The planners believed that the invasion would fail unless Allied planes covered the troops in their first hours onshore. (So important was protecting the troops sufficiently, the American and British airforces would assign more than 5,000 fighter planes to the operation, while the German air force [the Luftwaffe] had only 169 fighters to cover a much larger area.) The closer the invasion was to the airfields, the longer the fighter planes could stay in action before they had to return to their bases to refuel. In addition, the shorter the distance, the easier it would be to transport the troops and the enormous amount of equipment and supplies they would need.
This meant that the landings would have to be on the French coast facing the English Channel, somewhere between Belgium and the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy. The English Channel, separating the island of Great Britain from France, is quite narrow, only 30 miles wide in some places. Although there were strong currents and storms sometimes blew up suddenly, causing high waves, it was still an easy crossing when the weather was good. Since the troops would land from fairly small boats, not large troopships, rough seas would endanger their safety and their ability to come ashore.
An invasion farther east would have the advantage of putting the Allied armies closer to Germany itself. But it would be too far for the fighter planes and would require a much more difficult journey in the North Sea. Anyplace farther west or south would mean sending the landing boats across a section of the open Atlantic, again without fighter support.
The Atlantic Wall
Of course, the Germans understood these factors too. Two German armies guarded the English Channel coast of France. The Germans had lined the coast with high-quality artillery (cannon) units, including coastal artillery that could fire on invading ships, and antiaircraft and antitank guns. Often concrete blockhouses protected the artillery. Other fortifications (built-up strong points) protected the troops. Networks of barbed wire would make it difficult to attack the German machine gunners firing on the invading Allies. In some places, concrete tunnels connected the machine gun and artillery positions.
The Germans had dug ditches and placed large metal obstacles in the open fields behind the coast, making it difficult for planes or gliders carrying troops to land and for tanks to cross. (Gliders are engineless planes that are towed behind a regular plane by ropes and then allowed to float down to land.) They purposely flooded some of the fields so that parachute troops who landed there might drown. They placed other obstacles underwater near the beaches to tear out the bottoms of landing boats as they approached the shore. A quarter of a million of these obstacles were in place by the time of the invasion. The water obstacles often had mines (explosive devices) attached, so that a boat that bumped into them would blow up. Other mines were placed in the water and on the beaches. By May 1944, there were 4 million mines along the French coast.
This system of fortifications, obstacles, and mines was called the Atlantic Wall. The Germans tried frantically to strengthen it, and by the time of the invasion, it had become a very powerful defensive position. But it was never really a wall. There were many gaps along the coast, manned by second-rate troops.
The Germans could not guard every place on the coast equally well. Most of their best troops were fighting in Russia. Others were needed to block the Allied armies that were moving up through Italy. The Germans did not have enough material or manpower to fortify every section of the hundreds of miles of coast where the invasion might take place. They had to guess where the Allies would land—and they guessed wrong.
Capturing a Port or Landing on the Beaches?
Ideally, the Allies would have liked to capture a major port in the invasion. Then they could bring supplies across the English Channel—or even directly from America—on large ships, which could be unloaded at the docks. Having a port would also make it much easier, in the days after the first troops landed, to bring in tanks, trucks, and artillery and vast quantities of gasoline to keep them going; ammunition and food for the troops; and more and more troops. The Germans expected that the invasion would center on one of the large ports on the Channel.
Problems Attacking a Port
But the raid on Dieppe in 1942 (see box) had convinced the Allied planners that it would be impossible to land the troops at a major port. The German defenses at these ports were too powerful. That was where the Germans positioned the most cannons and built the best fortifications against Allied air attack. The Dieppe raid had shown that a small number of well-fortified defenders could destroy a much larger attacking force. Even if an invading force succeeded in getting past the beach into a port city, every house would become a German strongpoint, hiding machine guns and riflemen. The Allied troops would have to fight their way through the town street by street and house by house.
While the Allies fought to take the city, the Germans would have time to bring in reinforcements from other parts of France. This would happen quickly, since the ports were always on roads and railway lines. If the Germans could bring in enough soldiers and tanks before the Allies could reinforce their troops, the invasion would fail.
Finally, attacking a port would greatly increase the number of French civilians who were killed or wounded. The Allies had learned this lesson from Dieppe as well. They would blast the area picked for the invasion with the giant guns of the warships and the bombs of the planes before the troops landed. This would kill many German soldiers and destroy some of their tanks, artillery, and fortifications. The Allied planners hoped it would also make it harder for the surviving German soldiers to fight when the Allied troops landed, their being stunned and confused by the naval and aerial bombardment. Some would have been deafened by the noise. They would be afraid. They might run away or surrender when the Allied soldiers came onshore.
Allies Choose a Beach Landing
For all these reasons, the Allies decided that the invasion force would land on beaches. The troops would then capture a port as soon as possible after they had landed. In the meantime, although it would be more difficult, the Allies would land supplies and reinforcements on the beaches that they had captured at the beginning of the invasion.
The Beaches of Normandy
The location of the invasion came down to two choices. The planners had ruled out the places where the beaches were not wide enough or were faced by high cliffs that the troops would have to climb while the Germans shot down at them. They also rejected targets that were too far from good ports.
The eastern end of the English Channel coast was one of the remaining options. This was the area of France called the Pas de Calais (pronounced pah de kal-LAY), on the narrowest part of the Channel, a short hop from the English port of Dover. Besides being close to England, this area was also relatively close to Germany, especially to the industrial areas whose factories built the weapons that the German army needed. A successful invasion at the Pas de Calais would put the Allied armies in a good position to drive into Germany and end the war quickly. But, because it seemed the most logical place to attack, the Germans were concentrating on defending this area.
The Allies decided that the invasion force would land on the beaches of Normandy, just west of the town of Caen. The landing would be on five separate beaches, stretching along 50 miles of coast. Each beach had a code name and was assigned to a different part of the Allied armies. The code names have become famous. From east to west, the beaches were called Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah. The British would attack Sword and Gold, the Canadians would land at Juno, and American troops would take Omaha and Utah. Five infantry divisions would land from the sea, one at each beach. (A division is a large unit of an army, usually around 15,000 soldiers.) In addition, a British airborne division, including parachute troops and glider-carried soldiers, would land east of the five beaches to prevent the Germans from attacking the invasion from the side. Two American parachute divisions would land on the west side of the invasion area, inland from Utah beach, to protect that area.
The plan was that the soldiers would win control of the beaches and push inland several miles. Meanwhile, reinforcements would be landing constantly. The five separate forces, plus the airborne troops, would then link up so that the Allies would control an area 50 miles wide and several miles deep. Then part of the invasion force would turn north to capture the port of Cherbourg, on the Cotentin Peninsula.
Weather: The Uncontrollable Factor
The invasion was scheduled for June 5, 1944. On that day and the next two, there would be the right combination of tides and moonlight. Moonlight was needed so that the parachute troops could see when they dropped into France the night before the invasion. The tides had to be just right so that the obstacles and mines that the Germans had placed on the beaches would not be hidden underwater when the landing craft reached the beaches at dawn. If the invasion did not happen on one of these three days, it would be two more weeks before the conditions were right again.
On the evening of June 4, the weather in England was terrible. Heavy winds blew the rain almost parallel to the ground. It would be difficult for the bombers to see their targets and for glider pilots to find their landing zones. Pilots would have trouble delivering the parachute troops over the correct drop zone, and the wind would scatter the soldiers and make it almost impossible for them to land in large groups. The small landing craft were not designed for rough seas. Many might sink, drowning the soldiers before they could even get to the beaches. And bad weather and heavy clouds immediately after the invasion meant that German tanks and troop-carrying trucks could travel toward Normandy without being seen—and attacked—by Allied planes.
The German commanders knew that the invasion would need good weather. They were sure the Allies would not land in the storm, and many of them took the opportunity to relax. General Erwin Rommel, the commander of German forces on the coast, went home to Germany for a few days to celebrate his wife’s birthday.
But the Allied weather forecasters predicted that the winds would die down just long enough to launch the invasion. It was probably the most important weather forecast ever made, but no one could be sure that it was right. And once the invasion was set in motion, it would be difficult to stop. The soldiers were packed tightly on the ships that would later transfer them to the landing boats. Many of the soldiers—who would soon have to fight a major battle—were becoming seasick. They could not be left waiting on the ships much longer. To maintain secrecy, they had not been allowed to communicate with anyone. If they were unloaded and returned to their bases, it would be impossible to prevent the Germans from learning which ports were being used—and that would tell them that the invasion was heading for Normandy, not the Pas de Calais. In addition, the bases the invasion troops had left in England were filling with new soldiers. Sending them back would create a transportation nightmare.
For days, the Allies had been bombing the railroads and roads in northern France so that they could not be used to bring German reinforcements to Normandy. If the invasion were delayed, the Germans could repair some of the damage. In addition, the bombing had not yet focused on Normandy itself, to keep the location secret. Just before the invasion, the bombers would concentrate entirely on Normandy. If that happened and the invasion were delayed, it would probably reveal the location, and the Germans would be waiting when the Allies did land.
Sometime after midnight on the morning of June 5, while the wind and rain continued over England, the Channel, and Normandy, General Eisenhower made his final decision. The landings would begin at dawn on June 6, 1944. The parachute landings would begin several hours before. The invasion was on.
The Airborne Attack
The three airborne divisions began landing east and west of the invasion beaches during the night. At the eastern edge of the area, the British troops, many landing by glider, captured several important bridges over rivers and canals that German reinforcements would have to cross. The lightly armed airborne troops were to hold these positions until the main invasion force, with its more powerful weapons and its tanks, fought its way to them from the beaches.
At the western end, the wind and poor light made it impossible for the American paratroopers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions to land in large groups, as intended. Many fell miles away from their drop zones. They were scattered all over the countryside, many drowning in the flooded fields, others shot by the Germans while they hung helpless above the ground, their parachutes tangled in trees.
Combat units that had been trained to fight as a team found themselves separated from the other soldiers in their squads. Each unit had been assigned specific targets to attack. In most cases, this was now impossible. For hours—and in some cases, for days—small groups of paratroopers from different units searched for others, formed a bigger group, and attacked a crossroad or a bridge or an artillery position. Little by little, the groups became larger and better organized and began to go after their assigned targets.
Although the confusion cost many paratroopers their lives, some military historians believe it may have actually helped make the invasion successful. The Germans were not sure what was happening; they had no idea how many para-troops had landed or what their targets were. For a long time, they remained uncertain about whether this was just another commando raid or part of an invasion.
More than a thousand bombers of the British Royal Air Force began their attack on the defenses at the beaches code named Sword, Juno, and Gold at three in the morning. The bombing continued for two hours, and in that time they dropped more than 10 million pounds of bombs. The American bombers did the same at Utah and Omaha beaches.
Then at five in the morning, the bombing stopped, and the big guns of the navy warships opened fire from off the coast. The ships, including seven battleships, twenty-three cruisers, and more than one hundred destroyers, fired shells— some as heavy as automobiles—into the German fortifications. Many of the soldiers waiting on their landing ships claimed they could actually see the shells flying over their heads toward the beaches. Every witness, Allied and German, who later described the bombardment mentioned the incredible noise. No one had ever heard anything as loud. No one had ever seen so much firepower aimed at so small a place. Some American soldiers waiting to land later remembered thinking that not a single German could still be alive.
Behind the smoke of the bombardment, more than 6,000 ships, including 4,000 landing craft, were waiting. It was the largest fleet ever assembled. Between 6:00 and 7:30 in the morning (depending on the tides at each of the five beaches), the troops began to land. The sea was rough, and many of the small landing boats began to fill with water. In many cases, the soldiers had to use their helmets to bail the water out. Others were not so lucky: their boats sank, and the soldiers, wearing combat boots and carrying heavy backpacks and other equipment, often drowned.
Other boats hit mines and blew up. Sometimes they hit sandbars and had to let the soldiers out too far from shore. Then the troops charged out into water that was over their heads, trying desperately to run toward the beach. All the time, the Germans fired on them.
Despite these setbacks, at four of the five beaches the landings went very well. At Sword, Juno, and Gold, the boats landed tanks right onto the beaches, where they could protect the troops immediately. The three attacking divisions of British and Canadian troops overwhelmed the single, poor-quality German division that opposed them. By 10:00 A.M., the invaders had landed 30,000 men, 3,000 cannons, and 700 armored vehicles, including tanks. Soon, the British troops who landed on Sword beach, the farthest east of the landing areas, linked up with the paratroopers and glider-borne soldiers of the British airborne division. German resistance was somewhat stronger at Gold beach, but by the end of the day, the British had pushed several miles inland.
At Utah beach, the American 4th Infantry Division completely surprised the Germans. The German troops, another poor-quality division, were stunned by the bombardment. They felt surrounded by the landings in front of them and the American paratroopers behind them. After relatively little resistance, most of the Germans surrendered. Twenty-three thousand American troops landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Only a dozen Americans were killed and less than two hundred wounded.
At Utah beach, everything went right. Even the mistakes—which happen in every large military operation— helped the Americans. Strong currents had carried many of the boats away from their intended landing areas. Although at first confused and unsure of where to go, the troops accidentally landed in an area that was almost undefended.
Omaha Beach: The American Agony
But at Omaha beach, everything went wrong. Much of the beach led to steep banks, some of them 200 feet high. The German defenders could fire down on the Americans from these banks. In addition, at each end of Omaha there were high cliffs, with German cannons on top of them. The huge air and sea bombardment had not destroyed these guns, probably because of the cloud cover. (Elite American units called Rangers, which were like the British commandos, attacked the cliffs on D-Day, using ropes to climb the cliffs in the face of German fire.)
This was the kind of beach that the planners of Operation Overlord had wanted to avoid, but Omaha was in the center of the invasion area. It was the link between Utah beach and the American paratroopers on the west and the British and Canadians on the east.
There was more bad news at Omaha. It was defended by the best German troops in the area, tough combat veterans who had recently been sent to Normandy for more training. The landing boats were blasted by German fire long before they reached the beaches. Many of the soldiers died in the boats or in the water before they could reach shore. The specially designed swimming tanks launched from their boats too far from shore, and most of them sank, often drowning their crews. (These tanks had canvas covers that were filled with air. When the tank reached land, the covers were removed.) Many of the combat engineers, whose job was to clear the beach of obstacles, also died, and their special equipment was lost in the water.
The first wave of soldiers at Omaha beach had no tanks to protect them and no way to clear the beach of obstacles. They were pinned down by German artillery, machine gun, and rifle fire. Some clung to the half-submerged obstacles, trying to get any cover they could from the devastating enemy fire. The bodies of their dead friends floated beside them. The wounded lay screaming around them. Moving forward seemed impossible. Staying where they were, at the edge of the water, was just as bad. Finally, little by little, one or two soldiers at a time, then in small groups, they began to advance toward the Germans. One of their officers (no one is certain which) summed up their situation in words that became famous: “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach,” he shouted. “The dead, and those about to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”
By the end of D-Day, more than 3,000 Americans had been killed or wounded at Omaha beach. But the Germans could not drive them back into the sea. As night fell on June 6, 1944, the Allied armies had five footholds on the coast of France.
The Battle of Normandy
The Germans were slow to send reinforcements to the battle. They were still afraid that another invasion would attack the Pas de Calais. Allied bombing and sabotage (destruction of military targets) by the French resistance made it difficult to move their armored (tank) divisions to the battlefield. The armored troops were the best in the German army, and only the tanks could now defeat the Allies. But the German divisions arrived one at a time, and too late.
By June 12, the Allies had connected their troops into a continuous front. By June 18, they had landed more than 600,000 soldiers in Normandy. Also on that day, American troops who had cut across the neck of the Cotentin Peninsula reached the Atlantic coast. They captured the port of Cherbourg on June 26, but the Germans had heavily damaged the harbor and the Allies could not use it for several weeks. It took months before the port became an important unloading point. Even so, Allied reinforcements kept pouring into the battle area, until the Americans and British had more troops, tanks, artillery, and—as throughout the fighting—air power than the Germans.
The German army was under increasing pressure. They could not bring reinforcements from Russia. As the Soviets had promised the British and Americans, the Soviet army began a massive offensive on June 22. Within a week, almost 200,000 German troops had been killed, wounded, or captured, and the entire German army in the Soviet Union was in danger.
Heavy fighting continued in Normandy for more than two months. The British failed several times to capture the town of Caen, which they had almost reached on D-Day. The fighting was made especially difficult by the way the Normandy countryside was divided. Each farm was surrounded by tall mounds of earth covered with thick plant growths. These hedgerows, as they are called, made it impossible for the Allied tanks to cross the fields. Instead, they had to creep along the narrow roads, between the hedgerows, where they made easy targets for the Germans. The Allied foot soldiers had to take each field under fire from the Germans, who used the hedgerows for cover.
On July 25, the Americans at the west end of the Normandy front attacked the German defenders near the town of Saint-Lô. The Germans had fought with tremendous determination since D-Day, but now they were exhausted. The units in this area began to retreat and then to fall apart, as many of the soldiers surrendered. The American armored divisions of General George S. Patton’s Third Army broke through the gap in the German lines toward the south and then swung east. The British and Canadian troops attacked from the north. Much of the German army in Normandy was between these two forces near the town of Falaise.
The Germans, on German dictator Adolf Hitler’s direct orders, tried to counterattack on August 7, attempting to cut off Patton’s Third Army from its supplies. But the counterattack was defeated. The Germans had committed their last tank forces to this attack. Now they too were trapped, under constant bombardment from the Allied air forces, with the Allied ground troops closing the circle around them. There was only a narrow gap separating the advancing Allied troops. The Germans got about 300,000 soldiers and 25,000 vehicles through this gap before it closed on August 20. They retreated east, trying to establish a new defensive line closer to the German border. But 50,000 German soldiers were dead, and 200,000 had surrendered. Two German armies, with their tanks and artillery, had been destroyed.
The Allies Race Across France
The Battle of Normandy was over. The German defenses had crumbled. Patton’s tanks, almost unopposed, raced east across France. The British chased the retreating Germans through the northern part of the country. At one point, they advanced more than 100 miles in two days. Within two weeks they had entered Belgium, freeing its capital, Brussels, on September 4, 1944.
Meanwhile, on August 15, the American Seventh Army landed eight divisions that had been fighting in Italy, five of them French, on the Mediterranean coast of France, between Nice and the great port of Marseilles. The second invasion, code-named Operation Anvil, had finally come—at the other end of the country from the Pas de Calais, where the Germans had expected it. The Allied forces overwhelmed the German troops, capturing Marseilles and racing north from the Mediterranean deep into France. The German army retreating from Normandy was now in danger of being cut off and surrounded if it tried to make a stand too far west (see map on p. 272). This was one of the reasons that the Germans moved so far east so quickly.
On August 17, 1944, Patton’s troops had reached the river Seine, northwest and southeast of Paris. But the Allies were not planning to capture Paris immediately. They did not want a battle that might destroy the famous monuments, historic buildings, and artistic treasures of the city. They did not want to risk the lives of the people of Paris. And, perhaps most of all, they did not want to have to supply the city with food and fuel. All their trucks were being used to supply the armored divisions that were trying to destroy the retreating German army.
But Paris was not just a great city; it was the symbol of France. Liberating Paris from the Germans had political as well as military importance. General Eisenhower had long since promised that the first Allied troops to enter Paris would be French.
Although the different resistance organizations and movements were supposed to be united under the authority of General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French (see Chapter 9), there were many conflicts among them. One of the most important resistance organizations was dominated by the French Communist Party. They did not trust de Gaulle’s plans for postwar France, and he did not trust theirs. The Communists wanted the people of Paris to rise up and liberate themselves from the Germans, not wait for the American army to free them. De Gaulle’s supporters were afraid this would lead to a bloodbath if it failed, and they were also afraid that it would lead to Communist control of the city if it succeeded. On the other hand, de Gaulle’s supporters also wanted to fight the Germans and regain the honor that France had lost in the surrender of 1940.
As tensions mounted in Paris and the Allied armies began to break out of Normandy, the Germans ordered the French police in Paris to be disarmed, fearing their weapons would be used by the resistance. The police went on strike instead. Other workers were also on strike, defying the Germans.
On August 17, 1944, the police took over the main police headquarters in central Paris, barricaded themselves, and raised the French flag above the building—the first time it had flown in Paris since June 1940.
Soon other barricades appeared on the streets of the city. Young men and women, armed with rifles, pistols, and homemade gasoline bombs called Molotov cocktails, attacked German patrols. Resistance groups began taking over official buildings. Some of the buildings were now empty; in others, there was heavy fighting against the Germans. Similar small actions occurred throughout the city. By the standards of the great battles in Russia and Normandy, these did not amount to a major military action. Even so, about 1,500 French resistance fighters died in the next few days, and another 3,000 were wounded—more than the number of American soldiers who had been killed or wounded on Omaha beach on D-Day.
A German General’s Honor
For the next several days, the fighting in Paris spread. After a short truce, arranged by the representative of neutral Sweden, the fighting broke out again. On August 22, Hitler ordered the Germans to destroy Paris rather than surrender. He told the German military commander Dietrich von Choltitz that only a “field of ruins” should be left. Von Choltitz did not want to be remembered as the man who had blown up Paris, no matter what Hitler ordered. Destroying bridges, to prevent the Allies from crossing the Seine, was one thing. But dynamiting famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre Museum made no military sense. It went against his idea of military honor.
But von Choltitz’s sense of honor also would not allow him to surrender without putting up a fight. And he felt he could not surrender to a bunch of armed civilians, only to officers of a regular army. In addition, on July 20 there had been an attempt by some German officers to kill Hitler. (See Chapter 12.) Von Choltitz knew that any sign of disobeying Hitler’sorders would put him under suspicion of being part of the anti-Hitler plot and would endanger his family back home in Germany.
The Second Armored Division
As news of the uprising reached the Allied commanders, the French Second Armored Division, which had been among the best Allied forces in the recent battle around Falaise, received new orders. It was to move immediately to Paris, 120 miles away. The next day, August 23, the division sped along the roads toward Paris, avoiding the Germans as much as possible. On August 24, as they reached the suburbs, they were held up several times by German antitank defenses.
Their advance was also slowed by the crowds and celebrations that broke out along their route. One American general accused them of “dancing to Paris.” Afraid that American troops would be ordered to take the city, the French commander, General Philippe Leclerc, decided to send a small force into Paris that night.
One platoon of soldiers (about thirty men) and three tanks headed into the city, turning down side streets and going around any defended position. At 9:30 that night, they reached the Paris City Hall, near the center of town. Even though it was only three tanks, church bells began to ring all over Paris, as the fighting between the resistance and the Germans continued.
At seven the next morning, Leclerc’s main force entered the city from the south. Huge crowds—sometimes twenty deep—cheered them. At first, the Parisians thought that American troops had arrived, since the tanks and jeeps and even the uniforms were American. The celebrations were even more joyful when it became clear that the soldiers were French.
The crowds passed them food and drink and flowers. They opened bottles of champagne that had been hidden away for more than four years, waiting for this day. Women hugged and kissed the liberating troops.
Many of the French soldiers were from Paris. They passed notes to people in the crowd, asking them to phone their families with the news they had come home. Some of these soldiers died before they could see their families, however. In the rush of happiness, the crowds had forgotten that the Germans were still fighting in Paris.
As Leclerc’s men approached the center of Paris, many German positions held out fiercely. At about 2:30 in the afternoon of August 25, 1944, some of the French troops reached German headquarters, fought their way in, and captured General von Choltitz. The French drove him to police headquarters, where Leclerc was waiting. The two generals signed the terms of the German surrender of Paris. A little while later, one of the leaders of the resistance added his name. The people of Paris and the French army had freed Paris together.