“Paris! Paris outraged! Paris Broken, Paris martyred, but Paris free!”
These words, later to become famous, were uttered by General de Gaulle on the evening of August 25 1944 in front of the French capital’s City Hall. They ended four years of darkness for the City of Light, four years of Nazi rule.
A few days previously the city had risen against the occupier, and resistance rapidly became organised, and more intense.
Disobedience became strikes, and then the barricades went up and street fighting began.
The Germans were caught off-balance and could only mount a rearguard action. In the end the Battle for Paris cost 1,600 people their lives. The Germans lost 3,200 soldiers.
Madeleine Riffaud was a 20-year-old Resistance volunteer. “While on a mission I shot a junior German officer on the bridge near the Tuileries in the middle of a beautiful Sunday afternoon, where everyone could see me, and everyone saw that a young girl on a bicycle could do such a thing, and do it well,” she remembers.
Paris could have been razed to the ground. Hitler gave the order. But the city survived thanks to the disobedience of SS General Dietrich von Choltitz whose job it was.
What good would it do, he reasoned, with the allies at the gates of the capital?
On de Gaulle’s insistence the French army entered Paris first – or nearly, as it was Spanish scouts for General Leclerc’s 2nd armoured division, 146 of them, who took that honour.
On their heels followed the men of the US army’s fourth infantry division, the same outfit that three months previously had waded ashore on Omaha beach. They came to re-inforce the French army, and were greeted as heroes.
There followed scenes of such joy and abandon they remained in the memories for years after for anyone present, even if they were mixed with scenes of savage retribution as collaborators were named, shamed, arrested and worse, in public.
Madeleine Riffaud has one memory that stands above all others: “We didn’t sleep for a week, and above all, we wanted to cry. Of course we were overjoyed Paris was free, but we just couldn’t take any more.”
Following the Germans’ surrender, General de Gaulle made a triumphal entrance to Paris along the Champs Elysee, flanked by his Spanish scouts and tanks from Leclerc’s division.
In this way he firmly established himself in the eyes of the Americans as the uncontested leader of France and his stubborn insistence on a French liberation of the city ensured France a seat at the victor’s table.