Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Liberation That Almost Wasn’t

From Annamaria Alfieri:
It is my enormous honor to present today's post.  James R. Benn, a past contributor here on MIE, is one of my favorite mystery writers.  He makes writing historical fiction look effortless.  Zoe Sharp - who gave up her spot today to Jim - and all the rest of us on MIE know how hard one has to work to make writing fiction look easy.  Jim's writing is like Fred Astaire dancing.  The work is there, but it doesn't show.  For us readers, this means that all we have to do is open the book and let our eyes scan the pages.  The story flows into our minds without a hitch.

Today Jim takes us back exactly seventy-five years to the day to Paris...

Sunday, August 25, 2019 is the 75thanniversary of the Liberation of Paris during the Second World War.

            It almost didn’t happen.
            And it certainly wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did.
            In early August of 1944, Allied forces had finally broken out of the Normandy countryside where the Germans had put up a constant, skilled, and stiff defensive fight. Allied casualties since D-Day had totaled nearly 225,000, with more than 50,000 of those killed in action. The battles following the invasion had been bloodier and slower than anticipated. 
            But when the breakout finally came, the German front disintegrated. General George Patton’s Third Army was unleashed. They made a massive end run around Nazi troops and trapped large numbers near the town of Falaise. During the battle of the Falaise Pocket, approximately 10,000 Germans were killed and 50,000 captured. As their front collapsed, German troops began to withdraw from across Normandy, making for the safety of the River Seine and Paris. 
            Constant air attacks and a lack of fuel turned the German retreat into a chaotic rout. As an example, one German armored division that had started the Normandy campaign with 20,000 men and 150 tanks made it out of the Falaise Pocket with only 300 men and 10 tanks. 
            Much of the Allied success in this battle was due to the valiant stand of the Polish 1st Armoured Division, who took a hill overlooking the road from Falaise and fought off repeated attacks by the Germans attempting to escape. The map below shows the crucial position of the Poles (marked by their white and red flag). Note also the French flag (blue, white, red) to the lower right. That’s the Free French 2nd Armored Division, and we’ll get back to them in a bit.

So what next? With disorganized German forces making for Paris and beyond, what was the Allied strategy? As General Dwight David Eisenhower saw it, his job was to defeat Germany, and that meant defeating the German Army in the field. His plan was not to take Paris, but to actively pursue and destroy the Germans before they could get to the relative safety of the Siegfried Line at their own border. Eisenhower also knew that the population of Paris needed food. Estimates ran to 3,600 tons per day, all of which would have to be trucked into the city, using resources that were needed for the war effort. Not something he was prepared to do.
As can be plainly seen in this situation map, which is current up to August 20, 1944, no one was going to Paris. Patton’s Third Army was to cross the Seine north and south of Paris, but no one was given the objective of taking the city. 

            Then, all hell broke loose. The Paris police and postal workers went on strike, assuming a rapid Allied advance on the city was part of the Allied plan. The police barricaded themselves in their headquarters and raised the French flag in clear defiance of German rule. Sensing that the population was behind the police and ready for action, the leader of the French Forces of the Interior in the Paris area, Henri Rol-Tanguy (known by his nom de guerre Colonel Rol), declared it was time for a general uprising. Posters went up across the city calling on French citizens to take up arms against the occupier.

            Barricades sprung up in most neighborhoods, although they were noticeably absent in the Champs Elysées, the wealthy 8th Arrondissement.

            Now Eisenhower had a problem. The Parisians, having little in the way of arms or supplies, were expecting the Allies to come to their rescue. But this fellow, General Charles de Gaulle, had an even bigger problem. 

            Colonel Rol was a Communist. He was a leader of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP), one of the largest and best-organized Resistance groups. Charles de Gaulle had plans to declare himself president of the new French Republic and realized that might be difficult if the Communist led uprising was successful. De Gaulle had no intention of entering Paris only to be greeted by its liberator. He would liberate the city, no one else.
Neither Eisenhower nor de Gaulle had been in favor of a Parisian rebellion, each for his own reason. But once it got underway, it quickly became apparent to both men that something had to be done.
            Charles de Gaulle took the first decisive step. He declared that if Eisenhower did not act, he would withdraw the Free French 2nd Armored Division (equipped and supplied by the Americans) from the front line and send it on to Paris. This would have been a disaster for the Allies, and Ike knew it. So he gave the order for the Free French along with the US 4th Infantry Division to advance upon the city. 
            The map below, current up to August 25, 1944, shows the new dispositions, with powerful forces aimed directly at the City of Lights.

            When regular Allied forces entered the city, the Germans capitulated quickly. As occupiers, they were understandably loath to surrender to irregular Resistance forces, especially those dominated by the Communists. But once a regular French officer fought his way to the commandant’s headquarters at the Hotel Meurice, the surrender was ordered.
The fight for Paris entailed significant losses. About 1,600 Resistance fighters died, and 130 members of the 2nd French Armored Division lost their lives in the assault on Paris. American units took casualties as well.
            General de Gaulle had his entrance into Paris and a grand parade. Colonel Rol was thanked for his service and shunted aside. 

            The first night of Liberation was pure madness. Church bells rang, wine flowed, and kisses were bestowed. In numerous accounts, eyewitnesses said it was the most joyous event they had ever witnessed.

Vive la France!


  1. Great post. I had not known that and found it very interesting. Thanks.

  2. You are welcome; glad you found it of interest. Seventy-five years ago this morning a lot of people were waking up with grand hangovers!

  3. Jim, you and Billy Boyle are quite a duo. You tell the story and he lives it. He's lucky to have such a gifted collaborator...though collaborator may be the wrong word considering the backdrop to "When Hell Struck Twelve." :) Congratulations on what's certain to be another terrific success.

  4. Thanks, Jeffrey. Billy has a collaborator (the good kind) in this book; one Claude Leduc. Sound familiar to anyone?

  5. Great story I've never heard before. Darn, James, I think you just sold me on the series. I've been resisting because it's POPULAR! Ha.

  6. Glad to hear you are sold, Jack. Start with the first—Billy Boyle—named after the series main character. Then you will be hooked good and proper. I was.