Ring bells and blow kisses to freedom: Paris was liberated 50 years ago tomorrow. Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper tell the story

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The Independent Online
ON THURSDAY 24 August 1944, Paris began its last day under the Occupation. General Philippe Leclerc's Second Armoured Division was fighting its way into the western suburbs to save the uprising of the Resistance which had started five days before.

The courage of Parisians did not slacken. People responded at once to an announcement on the radio that the mairie of the 11th arrondissement was under heavy attack by the Germans and that the defenders were almost out of ammunition; anyone with a weapon should go to their aid. Thanks to the unflagging work of telephonists on the central exchanges, people were able to pass news back and forth.

As they drove through villages or outer suburbs of the capital, some soldiers in Leclerc's advance units asked bystanders to ring their families in Paris to tell them that they were about to arrive. Inhabitants in one district kept friends in another up to date on events. Windows had become theatre boxes, albeit dangerous ones. Many watchers were mistaken for snipers or killed by stray bullets. Often, if they had been living alone, their bodies lay on the floor undiscovered until the smell of decomposition alerted a neighbour.

The Resistance fighters in Paris could now hear Allied tank guns. Captain Dronne's group, a troop of Shermans from the 501st Tank Regiment and 11 half-tracks had reached the suburb of Fresnes, from where they could see the Eiffel Tower. But the fighting had been heavy.

After knocking out the German detachment holding the prison of Fresnes, Dronne was ordered by his column commander, Colonel Billotte, to withdraw and rejoin the main axis of advance. Dronne was furious as he led his much reduced group back. On the way, he encountered General Leclerc.

'Dronne, what the hell are you doing here?' Leclerc demanded.

'Mon general, I'm following the order to pull back.'

'No, Dronne, head straight for Paris, enter Paris. Don't allow yourself to be held up. Take whichever route you want. Tell the Parisians and the Resistance not to lose hope, that tomorrow morning the whole division will be with them.'

Dronne quickly briefed his vehicle commanders - he was down to three Sherman tanks and 11 half-tracks - and set off.

Having been given carte blanche by Leclerc, and now guided by Parisian Resistants who had reconnoitred the routes into the city, Dronne was able to advance rapidly via a network of back streets, avoiding all German strongpoints.

In an hour and a half - just before half past nine - the little column of Shermans, half-tracks and Jeeps reached the Place de l'Hotel de Ville. Dronne climbed out of his Jeep to look around. He was seized by the exultant defenders of the Hotel de Ville and, amid cries of 'Vive La France]' and 'Vive de Gaulle]', was carried inside in triumph, to be embraced by the president of the National Council of Resistance, Georges Bidault.

Even before Dronne crossed the Pont d'Austerlitz to the right bank of the Seine, cyclists had started to spread the news of his arrival. The radio broadcast an appeal to priests to begin ringing their church bells. One group of ringers started to toll the great bell of Notre-Dame. Others joined in, one after another, until bells were pealing out right across the city. After four years of silence, this for many people was the most memorable sound of the whole war. With the occasional boom of a heavy gun and the constant refrain of the Marseillaise, both broadcast on the radio and sung spontaneously in the street, the liberation of Paris started to sound like the 1812 Overture.

In the more fashionable districts, the joy was less spontaneous: and not just in the apartments of Petainists who awaited the future in grim silence, nor in the shuttered hiding places of those advocates of the New European Order who had decided to stay behind. There were also those who had continued to live their lives much as before, caring little for politics. If they had consorted in various ways with Germans during the Occupation, their motives had been purely social, and they had thought little of it.

The German commander of Paris, General von Choltitz, on hearing the bells, telephoned his superior, General Speidel, and held the receiver to the open window so that Speidel knew what had happened.

For many people, that night was spent in excited anticipation. Women curled their hair and pressed their dresses. Most planned to wear the tricolor in some form, either in panels on their skirts, or even on earrings. Others sewed flags out of old clothes to greet their French and American liberators the next morning.

Early on the day of liberation, Friday 25 August, crowds began to gather at the Porte de Saint-Cloud. The beautiful weather had returned. A detachment commanded by Major Jacques Massu had secured the Pont de Sevres the night before, soon after Dronne reached the Hotel de Ville. Colonel Billotte's group was the first to enter Paris and headed for the Prefecture of Police. When people first sighted the olive-green Sherman tanks, half-tracks, Jeeps and GMC trucks, they assumed that the soldiers in them were American. Then they saw that the vehicles were marked with the cross of Lorraine, and although some of the soldiers had American helmets, others wore kepis, black French berets, leather tank helmets and midnight-blue sidecaps. The old and the ill were brought out from hospitals so that they too should not miss the liberation. Children were held aloft to see and remember the day. While the crowds waved from the pavements, young girls climbed on to vehicles to kiss their liberators.

When the vehicles halted on the quai, more young women climbed up to kiss the soldiers. Shortly afterwards, the time came to launch the attack on the German strongpoints round the Palais du Luxembourg. A whistle blew. There was a shout: 'Allons les femmes, descendez . . . On attaque le Senat.' The young women climbed down, tank gunners and loaders dropped back inside the turrets of their Shermans and the column set off up the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

At a quarter past two, on the right bank of the Seine, as Colonel de Langlade's armoured column came clanking and grinding up the Avenue Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondissement towards the Place de L'Etoile, Paris firemen hung a huge tricolor from the Arc de Triomphe. Crowds gathering to watch the attack on the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kleber yelled their support.

The assault on the Majestic was almost perfunctory, although confused. The defenders were hardly elite troops, but like most of the Gross-Paris garrison, soldiers 'abandoned by their officers to a suicidal task'. There was confusion over the surrender. The Protestant leader, Pastor Boegner, saw four German soldiers, bareheaded, their field-grey tunics unbuttoned, raised and clasped behind their necks, led at gunpoint to the Place de l'Etoile. One of them was alleged to have shot a French officer after the white flag had been hoisted. All four were shot. 'Chose atroce]' the Protestant clergyman recorded, powerless to save them.

The most important objective was to force General von Choltitz's surrender. Only then could the fighting in other parts of Paris come to an end. Choltitz had refused to accept a message demanding his submission.

At about the same time as Colonel de Langlade's troops began their attack on the Majestic, Colonel Billotte's group moved against the Hotel Meurice. Five Shermans and a force of infantry set off along the rue de Rivoli colonnade towards the Meurice. As they got closer to their objective, they began dodging forward along the rue de Rivoli. Crowds cheered on the attackers in a carnival atmosphere, but as soon as the fighting started, the mood changed abruptly. The German tanks in the Tuileries gardens and on the Place de la Concorde were dealt with at the cost of four Shermans. After a brief battle, resistance ceased. Two French officers went up to General von Choltitz's room and demanded his surrender.

De Gaulle, on this victorious evening, did not hurry to meet Bidault and the leaders of the Resistance. After the railway station at Montparnasse, his first visit was to the Ministry of War, his own fief in 1940 before the Petainist usurpation intervened. Then he went to the Prefecture of Police where he was greeted by a huge crowd and a band of the fire brigade. Finally, after eight in the evening, he crossed to the right bank, to the Hotel de Ville, where Georges Bidault and the National Council of the Resistance awaited him.

There, in the great hall, he made one of the most emotional speeches of his life. 'Paris. Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated] Liberated by herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France, that is to say, of the France which fights, the true France, eternal France.'

When de Gaulle had finished, Bidault asked him to proclaim the republic to the crowds waiting below, but de Gaulle refused. This exchange has often been described as a cruel snub to Bidault and the leaders of the Resistance. In reality, de Gaulle simply wished to re-emphasise his view that Petain's regime had been an illegal aberration. Although refusing to declare the republic, De Gaulle nevertheless agreed to make an appearance. He got up on to the balustrade and raised those endless arms in a victory sign to the crowd below. The response was tumultuous.

That night, for once in history, soldiers seem to have had a better time than their officers. What Simone de Beauvoir described as a 'debauche de fraternite'during the day became a debauche tout court after dark. Few soldiers were to sleep alone that night.

Major Massu, on returning from an officers' dinner at the Invalides to his battalion camped around the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, wrote later that he preferred to draw a veil over what he found there.

In fact, so widespread was the love-making that a Catholic group began distributing hastily run-off tracts addressed to the young women of Paris: 'In the gaiety of the liberation do not throw away your innocence. Think of your future family.'

Not everybody, however, was out on the streets to savour a new era of freedom. Through an open window, Pastor Boegner saw an old lady, sitting playing patience, just as she did every evening.

Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper 1994

This is an abridged extract from 'Paris after the Liberation', published by Hamish Hamilton, pounds 20.

Bryan Appleyard is away.

(Photographs omitted)