The headmaster who liberated Paris: Jonathan Foster recalls the bizarre wartime adventure that took a lieutenant in the Royal Signals and his friend into the French capital 36 hours ahead of the liberators

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST liberators of Paris brought a freedom breakfast with them, corned beef al fresco served informally by a Scouser, with cigarettes to follow.

Fifty years ago today, on 23 August 1944, Lieutenant Pat McCarthy of the Royal Signals was tapping-out the Victory tones on his Jeep's horn as he drove up the Champs-Elysees on the wrong side of the road.

History had been suspended. The Germans had fled, and 36 hours were to elapse before the first units of Leclerc's forces - three light armoured cars under a Captain Dronne - entered Paris on the evening of 24 August and later reached the Place de l'Hotel de Ville, signalling the beginning of the formal liberation.

The McCarthy raid was a freelance humanitarian adventure, never intended to change the military course of the war. But the individual lives it touched, and the route it took to Paris, stand as a memorial of war as valid as any great battle.

On D-Day, Patrick McCarthy was a 24-year-old trainee teacher from Birkenhead who came ashore with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles at Juno beach. His 29-man unit established the first communications from the beach-head, a task so perilous their orders covered only the first 24 hours after invasion. Seven men died, seven were wounded.

They made their way inland, their path littered with German corpses. They found a field near the village of Courseulles, and stayed there, picking cherries as the war disappeared beyond the hedges.

The remnants of a similar unit arrived from Gold beach, commanded by Lieutenant Johnny Watson. The signallers drilled, and the villagers watched. Fraternisation took place. They played football, Liberators v Liberated, and Lt McCarthy was befriended by Madame Enault, owner of the field.

There were still no orders. 'We were at a loose end,' McCarthy would recall. 'We didn't go looking for work.' One Scots officer did, leaving to volunteer for the Airborne Division. He and his driver were killed by a shell a short distance from Airborne HQ.

Life in a fecund Norman countryside was agreeable. They had long Sunday lunches at the Enault home, where three Parisian men were billeted. They had been forced labour for German defence works along the coast; one was Madame Enault's brother-in-law, and all were worried about their loved ones in the capital 180 miles away.

Rumours were rife, and McCarthy and Watson discussed them in the local cafe at night. The Germans were retreating, Paris was starving. In the cafe on the night of 22 August, Pat McCarthy and Johnny Watson decided to see Paris for themselves.

They filled the Jeep with petrol, loaded a case of corned beef and packs of cigarettes, and they agreed to take Gaston Vannier with them so he could check on his wife and daughter.

Vannier brought a crock of butter. They left a note, and drove off. They took a detour to avoid some Germans. In the half light, they passed Leclerc's Second Armoured Division moving ponderously toward the official liberation of Paris.

The morning of 23 August found McCarthy, Watson and Vannier sounding the Victory signal in a Versailles square, serving the first corned beef. They drove to the Enault family's apartment near the Arc de Triomphe, and served more corned beef, handing out cigarettes as the Resistance were on the streets, hunting murderously for collaborators.

There was more corned beef at the Etoile. 'Johnny, Gaston and I were kissed and embraced and had our hands nearly shaken off.'

They liberated Vannier's family in the suburbs, celebrated with the Enault family, returned to Vannier's to party. Madame Enault's niece, Nicole, christened the Jeep with wine and wrote her name on the bonnet before the first church bells announced Leclerc's arrival. Maybe a dozen people were seized in this joyful, temporary frenzy. Pat McCarthy went off to fight the war in the Far East, to marry, raise a family and become a head teacher in the Home Counties. He is still alive, living back on Merseyside to be near his son. He lost his wife last year, and his sight is no longer sharp enough to navigate through a dark, Norman battlefield.

He went back for the D-Day commemoration, one of those elderly men in blazers recalling the terror and the bravery and the comrades who never got to sit under a cherry tree.

What happened to the others touched by McCarthy's raid, he does not know. But somewhere in Paris tonight a toast will be drunk and an old family story re- told about those two crazy Tommies, and the night Paris feasted on corned beef and freedom, the night before history says it happened.

(Photographs omitted)