Paris: Vive la liberation

'Is Paris burning?' asked Adolf Hitler as his German forces fled during the Second World War. Will Hawkes takes a tour that reveals how the French capital escaped destruction

The bullets tore into the side of the truck, sending the troops inside scattering for shelter. Within seconds, all but one of them was dead. From his position huddled behind the now stationary vehicle, this lone survivor looked towards the source of the gunfire. In the corner of his eye he saw an arm swinging, a dark-green bottle being flung towards him. Instinctively, he jumped up and ran across 100 yards of open space towards a nearby bridge – and safety. He could hear bullets deflecting off the ground around him and the truck exploding as he ran, grenades clutched in his bloodied hands.

A scene from modern-day Iraq? Perhaps Afghanistan? Neither. Try Paris, where for a week in August 1944, the city was a battlefield as French and American forces struggled to liberate it from Nazi control. The incident, when a German truck came under fire from Resistance forces at the Préfecture de Police on the Ile de la Cité, in the centre of the city, is related by Mike Franz, who guides a Second World War tour around the French capital. "I think that's the most popular story on the tour," he says. "It really brings the war to life. People can see how the most historic parts of Paris became a battlefield – and how Paris almost perished due to the fighting."

Franz, a genial, enthusiastic Californian, emphasises repeatedly on the two-hour tour just how close Paris came to oblivion. The man appointed by Adolf Hitler to govern the city in the dying days of the conflict, General Dietrich von Choltitz, was picked due to his track record of destruction in the name of the Führer. As Allied troops battled their way into the city, Germany's crazed ruler contacted Von Choltitz to see how his orders were being carried out.

"Is Paris burning?" he asked. It was not, and would not. As Franz relates, Von Choltitz couldn't bring himself to destroy Europe's loveliest city. Unlike London, which suffered months of bombardment, Paris escaped from the war relatively unscathed. The city through which Franz guides his groups is remarkably like the one that came under Nazi rule in 1940.

While the city survived, many of its residents did not. The first stop on Franz's tour is the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, located behind the cathedral of Notre-Dame on the Ile de la Cité. Franz believes this stark, claustrophobic memorial – which was opened in 1962 and commemorates the 200,000 people deported to German concentration camps during the war – reflects France's contradictory attitude to the war: a desire to remember and forget at the same time.

"There's a very objective attitude to the war now, particularly among younger people," he said. "But there was a time when people didn't talk about it much. Look at the memorial – it is really central, but out of sight: it's sunken and it's hard to find. Is that intentional? I don't know."

The memorial is certainly bleak. The visitor descends from the grassy Square de L'Ile-de-France into a high-walled, roofless concrete enclosure: the Seine is barely visible through a low, grilled window. On the left is a narrow entrance into a high-ceilinged room. As you enter, there is a corridor in front of you with 200,000 pieces of quartz crystal embedded in its walls. It is a touching and elegant reminder of Nazism's appalling impact in France.

A short walk from the memorial takes you to the Préfecture. Thousands of tourists pass this imposing, fortress-like structure every day without appreciating its significance: it was here that the Resistance took up residence on the morning of Saturday 19 August 1944, and it was from here that Sergeant Bernhard Blache – sole survivor from the truck that came under fire, who escaped to the Right Bank clutching grenades – ran for his life later that morning.

The place he escaped to – the rue de Rivoli – is one of Paris's most elegant streets: it is down this road that the final stage of the Tour de France sweeps every year. Towards the Place de la Concorde is the Hôtel Meurice (still one of Paris's most elegant hotels) where Von Choltitz had his HQ, and where he surrendered to French troops on 25 August 1944 – though the war in Europe rumbled on until May of 1945. At the end of the road is the bullet-scarred wall of the Ministère de la Marine; across the road is a row of memorials to members of the Resistance and the Free French forces who died in the battle to liberate Paris. Next to the Ministère, just off the rue de Rivoli, is Maxim's, the restaurant where Hermann Goering spent many indulgent evenings during the war.

On the same day that Von Choltitz surrendered, General de Gaulle, the man who had become the voice of French resistance due to his regular broadcasts on the BBC, returned to the capital in time, he hoped, to quell a Communist bid for power. A key moment came when he led a march up the Champs-Elysées while fighting still raged in pockets around the city and German snipers waited to snuff out the life of the leader of the Free French.

A large statue now stands beside that magnificent avenue marking De Gaulle's courageous, some would say foolhardy, return to the city. Franz, an enthusiastic guide, enjoys relaying the obstinate Frenchman's story. "I love to talk about Charles de Gaulle," he said. "Partly because everyone has heard of him, but it's also because he's such an interesting person. He was bold and dynamic."

Just behind the statue of De Gaulle is the Grand Palais, where one of the Liberation's more tragicomic events took place. The building had been rented by the circus impresario Jean Houcke, and he had brought lions, tigers and panthers to the city before the Liberation with the intention of cleaning up as Parisians celebrated freedom. Unfortunately for Houcke, who had sunk every last centime into the venture, the police commissariat of the eighth arrondissement lay beneath the building. On 23 August, policemen from that arrondissement had ambushed a German car driving down the Champs-Elysées. Von Choltitz ordered reprisals: a tank stuffed with explosives was driven into the building, and tanks then fired incendiary shells into the wreckage. Lions and tigers poured from the gutted building. A circus horse garlanded in red, white and blue ribbons galloped into the street and was shot dead. Hungry Parisians rushed from nearby buildings with plates and knives at the ready.

Understandably enough – given it is delivered in English – Franz's tour attracts mostly anglophone tourists. "I occasionally get Germans on the tour, which is interesting, and quite a lot of Scandinavians, but it's mostly Americans, Canadians and Brits. The reaction from locals, Franz adds, is very good.

"We do get French people doing the tour every once in a while. Most have really enjoyed it – it has been very positive. Sometimes, locals come up and listen for a bit: every once in a while, they'll speak up, say something like, 'That was a great story; I haven't heard that one before'."

Franz's tour ends on the Champs-Elysées, but there is plenty more wartime history to see in Paris. One of the most impressive sites is the Ecole Militaire, which stands in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. The building is still pockmarked with bullet holes: the Germans chose it as a stronghold as they sought to hold out during the dying days of the conflict. Indeed, it was not until some time after Von Choltitz had called on his troops to surrender that the Germans inside the Ecole Militaire finally laid down their arms. More than anywhere else in the city, the exterior of the Ecole bears witness to the fierce fighting that took place to liberate Paris.

There were plenty of Parisians, of course, who did not live to see their great city freed. Jews, here as elsewhere in Occupied Europe, suffered the most. On 16 and 17 July 1942, the French police rounded up and arrested over 13,000 mainly foreign or "stateless" Jews in Paris. They were taken to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, a cycling arena close to the Eiffel Tower, from which they were subsequently deported to Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp.

Close to where the Vélodrome d'Hiver (which burnt to the ground in 1959) once stood there is now a simple, slightly unkempt memorial, inaugurated in the early 1990s. It features seven figures in bronze, their few belongings strewn around them, sitting on a curved stone base (representing the cycle track). Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, they are gazing accusingly up at the nearby Eiffel Tower. On a plaque are the words, "N'oublions jamais": Let us never forget.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) trains from London St Pancras and Ashford International; return fares to Paris start at £59.

Visiting there

Tours are operated by Classic Walks (00 33 1 56 58 10 54; www.classicwalksparis.com). The World War Two walk departs from Pont St-Louis.

Grand Palais, avenue Winston-Churchill (00 33 1 44 13 1 717; www.grandpalais.fr).

Ecole Militaire, 21 Place Joffre.

Staying there

Le Meurice, 228 rue de Rivoli, Paris (00 33 1 44 58 10 10; www.meuricehotel.com). Doubles from €650 (£542), room only.

Eating & drinking there

Maxim's, 3 rue Royale, Paris (00 33 1 42 65 27 94; www.maxims-de-paris.com).

More information

00 33 8 92 68 3000; www.parisinfo.com

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