The Liberation of Paris; 19-24 August 1944, was one of the strangest battles of World War II.
In particular, the Liberation was a battle that Allied Commanders tried to prevent. Moreover, the Liberation of Paris probably delayed the defeat of Nazi Germany and lengthened World War II in Europe.
Ironically, we remember the Liberation of Paris from the Nazis as a joyous occasion. However, the Allied Supreme Commander U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower feared the liberation of Paris and tried to delay the city’s recapture.
Why Eisenhower did not want to Liberate Paris
Eisenhower, or Ike, had several good reasons for keeping Allied troops out of Paris in 1944.
Ike’s greatest fear was that his armies could run out of fuel and ammunition because of Paris. To explain, the Allies could only land limited amounts of fuel, ammunition, and other supplies at their beachhead in Normandy. Predictably, they earmarked most of those supplies for the armies fighting the Nazis.
If they captured Paris the Allies would have feed the city’s people and provide them with fuel, medical supplies, and other items. A Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Forces study estimated Paris needed 75,000 tons of supplies.*
Each ton of supplies for Paris’s civilians was one less ton of supplies for Allied soldiers in the field. Eisenhower’s fear was that capturing Paris could leave soldiers in the field with no ammunition, or fuel for their vehicles.
Instead, Eisenhower wanted to delay Paris’s capture until the Allied armies had overrun most of France. In particular, Ike wanted to capture ports, farms, and coal mines that could supply Paris, without diverting resources from the war effort.
Why Eisenhower wanted to Keep de Gaulle out of Paris
Eisenhower also had political reasons to stay out of Paris. If the Allies freed Paris, Free French Leader Charles de Gaulle could proclaim himself President of France.
Hence, de Gaulle could go from a general to a head of state and out rank Eisenhower. Thus, de Gaulle could start ignoring and overriding Ike’s orders.
Predictably, Eisenhower and other Allied leaders wanted to keep de Gaulle in Algeria, then a French colony, to prevent his accession to power. General de Gaulle, however, had other plans.
General de Gaulle was afraid that his rivals; the French Communists, could seize Paris and proclaim themselves France’s legal government. Were that to happen, de Gaulle could go from France’s “leader” to being just a general. Worse, de Gaulle could find himself taking orders from the Communists.
How de Gaulle Outwitted Eisenhower in 1944
Hence, de Gaulle wanted to get to Paris as fast as possible to keep the Communists out of power. Ironically the Allies had given de Gaulle something that would prove to be the key to Paris – the French Second Armored Division.
The Allies allowed the Second Armored Division to land in Normandy and take the field against the Nazis. Importantly, the Second Armored was a unit of the French Army. Hence, the Second Armored’s officers and soldiers ultimately answered to the French government.
In 1944, however, the only government in France was the Vichy Regime, a Nazi puppet. Thus, de Gaulle was free to proclaim himself France’s leader and order the Second Armored to take Paris – if he was on French soil.
Moreover, the Second Armored Division had the numbers and firepower to force the Communists to accept de Gaulle as President – if it reached Paris. In detail, the 2nd Armored Division comprised 16,000 men and 2,000 vehicles, including tanks.*
On 20 August 1944 de Gaulle flew from Algeria to France. On 21 August 1944, the 2nd Division’s commander General Jacques Phillippe LeClerc ordered his force to go to Paris in defiance of Ike’s authority. Hence, de Gaulle and LeClerc had outwitted Eisenhower.
Once the 2nd Armored was on the road to Paris, there was nothing Eisenhower could do to stop it. Ike’s only alternative was to order British, Canadian, or American forces to block the division’s advance. That course of action could have led to fighting between Allied Armies. A situation that could only benefit Hitler.
Howde Gaulle Wrecked Eisenhower’s War Plans
Instead, Eisenhower reluctantly, accepted de Gaulle’s decision to liberate Paris and de Gaulle’s new role as President of France.
Consequently, Eisenhower’s war strategy was dead. To explain, Ike’s strategy in the Summer of 1944 was to have the Allied Armies go around Paris.
The American Third Army, commanded by the legendary General George S. Patton, would go south of Paris and make a dash for the German border. The hope being to cut France off from Germany and force the surrender of Nazi units in France without a fight.
By overrunning the launch area the British and Canadian forces could make it impossible for the vengeance weapons to hit England. Moreover, in the North the Allied armies could capture ports that could make supplying the Allied forces and France easier.
The V-weapon threat made it politically and strategically impossible to divert British and Canadian forces to Paris. Instead, Ike had to divert American troops to the City of Lights.
Why Hitler wanted the Allies to Go to Paris
Strangely, Adolph Hitler wanted the Allied Armies to enter Paris in August 1944. To elaborate, the Fuhrer hoped to turn Paris into a second Stalingrad that could stop the Allies from reaching Germany.
In 1942 and 1943, the German Blitzkrieg in Southern Russia ended at the Battle of Stalingrad. At Stalingrad the Russians defeated the Germans in street fighting. Stalingrad’s urban environment neutralized the Germans’ advantages of superior maneuverability and air power.
Hitler hoped his armies could copy the Russian success at Stalingrad in the streets of Paris. Additionally, the Fuhrer wanted to punish the French people for siding with the Allies and resisting his leadership by destroying Paris.
Eisenhower was well aware of the Stalingrad analogy. Indeed, Ike even used the term Stalingrad when he explained his reluctance to go to Paris. Hitler’s evil plan to recreate Stalingrad in Paris failed, largely because of the real Stalingrad.
To explain, Nazi Germany lacked the forces to fight in Paris because of the horrendous losses on the Russian front. The soldiers Hitler needed to defend Paris were either dead, in Russian POW camps, or fighting the Red Army.
In fact, there were only around 20,000 Germans in Paris in August 1944. Importantly, most of those Germans were headquarters staff, not fighting men. If the Second Armored Division could reach Paris it could capture the city with the help of local resistance fighters and American reinforcements.
Thus Hitler had to move forces from elsewhere if he wanted to fight for Paris. If the 2nd Armored could reach Paris fast it could take the city with minimal fight.
Fortunately, for the people of Paris, the 2nd Division and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division reached the city before Hitler’s reinforcements. Eisenhower ordered the 4th Infantry Division into Paris after he realized the 2nd Armored Division could take the city. Meanwhile, two Panzer divisions Hitler moved from Denmark to reinforce Paris arrived too late.
On 26 August 1944 Charles de Gaulle led a triumphant parade down the Champs de Elyses. Hence, de Gaulle established himself as the liberator and leader of France. Paris was free after over four years of Nazi occupation.
De Gaulle had liberated Paris against the wishes of his Supreme Commander and Hitler’s opposition.
By liberating Paris De Gaulle became the most powerful and influential man in France.
Although he would not become France’s official President until 1959, de Gaulle was able to force his vision of France as a conservative Catholic Republic on his country. France would not join the ranks of Europe’s social democracies until after de Gaulle’s death in the 1970s
Eisenhower’s fears came true, the Allied Expeditionary Force had to slow its advance. That gave the Germans time to regroup, and even mount a counteroffensive, the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. It took the allies until April 1945, after Hitler’s death, to overrun Germany.
Thus a combination of politics and one man’s ambition made the Liberation of Paris and one of World War II’s strangest victories possible.
*See Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominuque Lapierre page 20
*See Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominuque Lapierre page 153.