How Papa Liberated Paris

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Putting his hand on my arm, he smiled radiantly, pointed an index finger toward heaven, and said: “Have no fear! I, Leclerc, shall smash them!”

It was a wonderful bit of business, and quite suddenly I came awake to it. The colonel had introduced me as historian of the United States Army. Leclerc was talking for the benefit of Clio, the Muse of history.

So I got out my little notebook and I wrote down his immortal words, which are here reported for the first time. On several occasions during the advance I saw and talked to Leclerc again, but his words were no longer on parade. What he had said was good enough; they typify him; they could serve as his epitaph. His assured presence was an antidote to the contagion of fear, and he smashed the enemies of France at every point where he could lay on.

In the heart of Rambouillet was an ancient hotel delightfully shaded. There Ernest Hemingway had held forth during the preceding several days while the town was being defended by a group of F.F.I. Colonel David K. E. Bruce of the O.S.S., later U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’, was with him. Together, they supervised the irregular operations around Rambouillet, while American units maneuvered in the general neighborhood but did not close on Rambouillet. Many tall tales have been written about “Force” Hemingway. The real story is good enough. As a war writer, Hemingway spun fantastic romance out of common yarn. But he had the courage of a seladang, and he was uncommonly good at managing guerrillas.

That afternoon he was away from the hotel. Its surrounding apple orchard swarmed with bees darting at the honeysuckle, and big-name war correspondents attacking the apples. There was enough talent in that orchard to cover Armageddon.

Ernie Pyle was there, a bit unsteady, a little teary. It was our last conversation. No, he wasn’t going for Paris, the hell with Paris. He said: “I’m leaving here to go home. I can’t take it any longer. I have seen too many dead. I wasn’t born for this part. It haunts me. I’ll never go to war again. I’ll never let anyone send me. I’ll quit the business first.”

A great little guy. But hardly clairvoyant.

Matter of Sentiment

We are still at Rambouillet. What I did not know when I talked to General Leclerc and found him ignorant of his situation was that he had been on the road most of that day with his division, barreling from Argentan, which is a hellish long haul for armor.

Here it is desirable to backtrack and explain why things happened in the way they did.

There was in Paris a Monsieur Gallois, leader of an especially aggressive resistance group. In mid-August his forces had started pushing the Germans around, driving them from building to building by fire. The situation became so acute that the Germans asked for a truce, starting the night of August 20 and continuing until noon on August 25. The fact was that General von Choltitz, their commander, did not have his heart in the defense and was stalling for a break which would relieve his embarrassment and save his honor.

Because of the truce, Monsieur Gallois jumped the gun, taking it for granted that the job was done and Paris delivered. That was how the rumor built up: on a semisolid foundation. Like Paul Revere, Gallois mounted his horse and rode to carry the word, heading for General Patton’s Third Army.

From its headquarters, the story was carried to Generals Eisenhower and Bradley, who were in that hour conferring.

On getting the news, Bradley said to Eisenhower: “Let’s send the French and Armored in.” That is how the decision was made, according to Sibert, the eyewitness, and that is how it was done. General Omar N. Bradley, for all his native shrewdness and hard practicality as an operator, is at heart a sentimentalist. Months before, while in Africa, he had promised that if he could have his way, when the hour came to free Paris, Frenchmen would do it.

However, if the High Command shared in full the supreme optimism of Monsieur Gallois, it still left very little to chance. The jury-rigged plan which developed around the main idea of passing the laurels to Leclerc’s division was framed with due caution. It made Leclerc’s advance not a road march but rather a major reconnaissance in force designed to test whether the Germans intended to stand and fight before backing away.

Leclerc got his orders at Argentan on a Tuesday afternoon. His division was to move to the northwest rim of Paris and there demonstrate. The clear purpose was to threaten and abort the garrison under Choltitz, if possible, rather than to engage it. For in the subsequent move, still not entering Paris, the French armor was to make a great wheel around to the southwest of the city, then force an entry in the neighborhood of Sèvres. So doing, it should snare most of the game.