The Liberation of Paris (also known as the Battle for Paris) took place from 19 August 1944 until the surrender of the occupying German garrison on 25 August. The battle had cost the Free French 2nd Armoured Division 71 killed, 225 wounded, 35 tanks, six self-propelled guns, and 111 vehicles.
The capital region of France had been governed by Nazi Germany since the signing of the Second Compiègne Armistice in June 1940, when the German Army occupied northern and western France, and when the puppet regime of Vichy France was established in the town of Vichy.
The Liberation of Paris started with an uprising by the French Resistance against the German garrison. On 24 August, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) received reinforcements from the Free French Army of Liberation and from the U.S. Third Army under General Patton. This battle marked the liberation of Paris and the exile of the Vichy government to Sigmaringen in Germany.
However, there was still much to be done before the whole country was liberated. The Wehrmacht fought for the rest of 1944.
Paris was considered to be of too great a value culturally and historically to risk its destruction in a battle and seemed to be the only place from which France could be governed. The city was the hub of national administration and politics, the centre of the railroad system and the highway system of Central France.
As late as 11 August, nine French Jews were arrested by the French police in Paris. Four days later, in Pantin (the northeastern suburb of Paris from which the Germans had entered the capital in June 1940), 2,200 men and 400 women – all political prisoners – were sent to Buchenwald concentration camp on the last convoy to Germany. That same day, the employees of the Paris Métro, the Gendarmerie and police went on strike, followed by postal workers on 16 August.
On 17 August, concerned that explosives were being placed at strategic points around the city by the Germans, Pierre Taittinger, the chairman of the municipal council, met general Dietrich von Choltitz, the German military governor of Paris. On being told that Choltitz intended to slow the Allied advance as much as possible, Taittinger attempted to persuade Choltitz not to destroy Paris. Two days later, columns of German tanks, half-tracks and trucks towing trailers and cars loaded with troops and material, moved down the Champs Élysées.
The streets were deserted following the German retreat; suddenly the first skirmishes between French irregulars and the German occupiers commenced. Spontaneously, other people went out into the streets, some FFI members posted propaganda posters on walls. Focused on a general mobilization order, the posters were signed by the ‘Parisian Committee of the Liberation’.
As the battle raged, some small mobile units of the Red Cross moved in the city to assist French and German wounded. That same day in Pantin, a barge filled with mines exploded and destroyed the Great Windmills.
On 20 August, barricades began to appear and resistants organised themselves to sustain a siege. Trucks were positioned, trees cut down and trenches dug in the pavement to free paving stones for consolidating the barricades. Fuel trucks were attacked and captured, painted with camouflage and marked with the FFI emblem. Fort de Romainville, a Nazi prison in the outskirts of Paris, was liberated.
Skirmishes reached their height of intensity on the 22nd when some German units tried to leave their strongholds. At 09:00 on 23 August, the Germans set fire to the Grand Palais, controlled by FFI, and tanks fired at the barricades in the streets. Hitler gave the order to inflict maximum damage on the city. It is estimated that between 800 and 1,000 Resistance fighters were killed during the battle for Paris, another 1,500 were wounded.
Allied strategy emphasised destroying German forces retreating towards the Rhine, but when the French Resistance under Henri Rol-Tanguy staged an uprising in the city, Charles de Gaulle threatened to send the division into Paris, single-handedly, to prevent the uprising from being crushed as had recently happened in Warsaw. Dwight Eisenhower, who was the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe, agreed to let the French armoured division and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division go and liberate Paris.
In the early morning of 23 August, the 2nd French Armoured Division, led by Philippe Leclerc, left the south of Argentan on its march to Paris, a march which was slowed by poor road conditions, French crowds, and fierce combat near Paris. The next day, General Leclerc sent a small advance party to enter the city, with the message that the Division would be there the following day.
On 25 August, the French 2nd Armoured and the U.S. 4th Division entered Paris and liberated it. After hard fighting that cost the 2nd Division 35 tanks, 6 self-propelled guns, and 111 vehicles, von Choltitz capitulated at the Hôtel Meurice.
The following day, 26 August, a great victory parade took place on the Champs Élysées, which was lined with a jubilant crowd acclaiming General de Gaulle and the liberators of Paris.