This day in history, August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation by the French 2nd Armored Division and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division.
General Dietrich von Choltitz, Commander of the German garrison, defied Adolf Hitler’s order to blow up Paris’ landmarks and burn the city to the ground before its liberation because Paris “must not fall into the enemy’s hand except lying in complete debris.” Choltitz signed a formal surrender that afternoon, and on August 26, French General Charles de Gaulle led a triumphant liberation march down the Champs d’Elysees.
Paris fell to Nazi German forces on June 14, 1940, one month after the German Wehrmacht stormed their way into France. Eight days after that, France signed an armistice with the Germans, and a new French state was set up with its capital at Vichy. Elsewhere, however, General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French kept fighting against Nazi rule.
In late 1943, The French 2nd Armored Division was formed in London with the purpose of leading the liberation of Paris during the Allied invasion of France. In August 1944, the 2nd Armored Division arrived at Normandy under the command of General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc along with General George S. Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army. By August 18, Allied forces were near Paris, and resistance fighters began attacking opposing German forces and fortifications.
Allied forces leaders concluded that the liberation of Paris should be delayed so that valuable resources wouldn’t be taken away from important operations elsewhere. The city could be surrounded and then liberated at a later date, they determined. On August 21, Eisenhower met with de Gaulle and told him of his plans to not enter Paris. De Gaulle urged him to reconsider, telling him that it would be easy to recover Paris. De Gaulle also warned that the communist faction of the Resistance might liberate Paris before they could and threaten the re-establishment of a democratic government. De Gaulle told Eisenhower that if they did not advance into Paris, he would send Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division into the city anyway.
On August 22, Eisenhower agreed to proceed with the liberation of Paris and on August 23, the 2nd Armored Division advanced on Paris from the north and the 4th Infantry Division from the south. The forces of German General Dietrich von Choltitz were fighting the Resistance and completing their defenses around Paris at the time. Hitler ordered that Paris be defended to the last man and that the city not be turned over to Allied control except in “complete debris.”
Choltitz’ forces began laying explosives under Paris’ bridges and many of its landmarks, but decided to disobey Hitler’s order to destroy it. In an interview in 1964, Choltitz said that he refused to obey Hitler’s orders.
“If for the first time I had disobeyed, it was because I knew that Hitler was insane,” Choltitz said.
The 2nd Armored Division were hit hard by German artillery, taking heavycasualties, but on August 24, they managed to cross the Seine and reach the outskirts of Paris. Leclerc learned that the 4th Infantry Division was poised reach Paris before him, so he ordered his men forward to push through and liberate Paris. Just before midnight on August 24, the 2nd Armored Division reached the Hýtel de Ville in the center of Paris.
On the morning of August 25, the 2nd Armored Division cleared out the western half of Paris while the 4th Infantry Division cleared out the eastern part. Many of the 20,000 German troops surrendered or fled. By the early afternoon, Choltitz was arrested in his headquarters. He was forced to sign a document formally surrendering Paris to De Gaulle. De Gaulle later arrived in the city that afternoon and on August 26, de Gaulle and Leclerc led a march down the Champs d’Elysees in celebration of the liberation of Paris.