In August of 1944, 76 years ago this month, one of the most significant and positive events of the Second World War took place: the Liberation of Paris.
The City of Light—so named for King Louis XIV’s efforts to put lanterns on every corner in the 1660s to discourage crime, but also because of its cultural richness—had suffered four dark years under the heel of Nazi Germany.
Since June of 1940, when the occupation began, thousands of Jews had been torn from their homes and sent to die in concentration camps. Hunger spread as food became scarce, diverted to feed the occupiers. Those caught attacking German troops were lined up and shot in the streets. When the perpetrators escaped, innocents were taken to suffer the same fate.
Underground agents caught helping downed Allied airmen were also executed, as were entire families—children included—of those found sheltering the men. The Allied bombing campaign was the only sustained and large-scale front against the Germans in occupied Europe until D-Day on June 6, 1944.
Commando attacks on the coast were brief affairs. Help for the Resistance was important but limited. The Italian Campaign, often underappreciated, was fought against the Nazis in the “soft underbelly” of Europe, as Churchill called it.
Led by the Royal Air Force—the United States wouldn’t enter the war for another two years—the bombing campaign was waged by crews based in England. They came from all over the Commonwealth, including Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and even Nigeria. (My late father, an airman in the war, taught a Nigerian prince, John Thomas, to fly; his father had donated generously to the RAF). Some Americans, often called “Tex,” came north to enlist in Canada and flew in the RAF and the Royal Canadian Air Force. Many Free French Forces members such as Pierre Clostermann took part, and even some Turks.
Led by Wellington, Halifax, and Lancaster bombers, the air war succeeded in damaging to various degrees Germany’s morale and war-making capacity, so much so that factories were eventually built underground. It also diverted tens of thousands of German men, who otherwise could have been carrying rifles, to roles such as firefighting and repair work. This likely helped the Russians on the terrible Eastern Front, where Nazi divisions had attacked in June 1941, to Joseph Stalin’s chagrin.
While about 80 million people died in the war, 27 million were Soviet troops and civilians, a staggering figure compared to Canada’s loss of 43,000 and America’s 405,000. At least four million German troops also died on the Eastern Front.
In defending their homeland and occupied France, German fighter pilots and flak batteries shot down hundreds of Allied planes. Some 250,000 Allied soldiers and airmen were stranded behind enemy lines and became prisoners of war, John Nichol and Tony Rennell write in “Home Run: Escape from Nazi Europe.” Between 3,000 and 5,000 men eluded capture, stayed free, and made a run back to “Blighty,” as Britain was called. These were the evaders.
“They walked hundreds of miles, swam raging rivers in the dark, climbed mountains, sneaked past German barracks and frontier posts, talked their way through checkpoints or snap inspections,” or posed as deaf mutes, Nichol and Rennell write.
Many spent time in or around Paris. A railway hub, Paris offered anonymity in its vast and diverse population. By D-Day and beyond, Paris was a “city of rumours and lies, patriotism and denunciation. Nervous German soldiers marched its streets. The Resistance lay low, waiting for its chance to strike.”
Twenty miles south of Paris, in Fréteval Forest, airmen and other evaders hid with local fighters, attacking German patrols, eliminating collaborators, and hoping to avoid betrayal (many were discovered and shot).
If the world today seems in turmoil with the vast pandemic, cancel culture, political correctness, rioting, looting, and killing, it very much is, but the upheaval and death toll of 1940s Europe were immeasurably worse. (One sure sign of hope is how Allied and German aircrews, once committed foes, mingled amicably at post-war aircrew reunions.)
By late summer of 1944, things were looking up. The liberation armies, which in June had made up the largest armada in history for D-Day when they landed on the beaches of Normandy, by August had surged eastward in the wake of the retreating but still-fighting Nazis. Parisians would soon be free.
“On 18 August barricades blocked streets; snipers pinned down enemy soldiers. The police prefecture and the town hall were seized,” Nichols and Rennell write, as the French Resistance—men and women, many in their teens, who risked all to free France—went into action. Between 800 and 1,000 Resistance fighters were killed in the battle for Paris, and another 1,500 wounded.
Meanwhile, American troops led by General Patton raced to the outskirts, stepping aside to allow a Free French division to be the first liberators on its historic boulevards.
On Aug. 25 the German commander, Dietrich von Choltitz, surrendered. He had refused to implement Hitler’s “scorched-earth” orders to demolish the great city, its bridges, museums, and architecture. Now other Allied troops poured in from the south and west. U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower also showed constraint in not bombarding the city, wanting to avoid another Stalingrad.
General Charles de Gaulle assumed control of Paris as head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic, and so ended the Nazi occupation of the City of Light. France as a whole would be free by December.
In a speech to Parisians that August day, de Gaulle said: “These are moments which go beyond each of our poor lives. Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!”
Brad Bird is an award-winning writer who has reported from war zones including Kosovo and eastern Ukraine. His books “Nickel Trip” and “My Dear Boy” recount the experiences of his late father, Fl. Lt. F.C.C. Bird, and uncle, Lt. J.M. Bird, who fought in the air war and Italian Campaign. Another uncle was in the navy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.