- Historic Sites
How Papa Liberated Paris
An eyewitness re-creates the wonderful, wacky day in August, 1944, when Hemingway, a handful of Americans, and a senorita named Elena helped rekindle the City of Light. Champagne ran in rivers, and the squeals inside the tanks were not from grit in the bogie wheels
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
The United States 4th Infantry Division was then a few miles southwest of Longjumeau and much closer to Paris. The plan proposed for it a kind of backstop role, to move but not to fight. Major General Barton’s mission was supposed to be complete when his command “seized high ground south of Paris.”
The 4th got its orders on the afternoon of August 23, when Leclerc was already closing on Rambouillet; they were approximately equidistant from the heart of Paris. The timing was perfect. From the topside view it must have looked as if everything was set, but the plan simply frustrated the desire of the French to fight for their capital even more than it miscalculated the readiness of Germans to give them the opportunity.
Leclerc’s assigned mission fell apart when he got word of the substantial force of German armor covering the road at Buc. He might have brushed off this block by calling for artillery or an air strike.
But now there was a palpable reason for changing direction, declining the oblique maneuver to the northwest, and, by wheeling farther south, insuring that he would have to take his division directly into the city. By momentarily risking the appearance that he was avoiding a sham fight, he was gambling that he would get a real one.
However, the change altered the whole frame of operations, whether because the High Command got an exaggerated impression of German strength or because it became dubious when Leclerc took the direct approach. On the next day, the U.S. 4th Infantry Division was ordered to go directly into Paris instead of cooling its heels on the outside. Everybody loves a race. So it happened that the 4th’s spearhead—one battalion of the 12th Infantry Regiment—got to Notre Dame at noon on the big day just as Leclerc was crossing the Seine. History doesn’t say so, but history is often wrong.
When in field operations a man jellies on the pivot, wondering what to do next, anything moving in what seems to be the right direction pulls like a magnet. That is how we happened to join General Leclerc’s column headed for Paris. A busy man, he had neglected to invite us. Otherwise, he had been most courteous. But this was not his manner toward all men on that day. According to the legend which blooms larger every time any magazine writer dwells on Hemingway and war, Papa got to Leclerc and told him how to fight his battle and where to expect resistance. There’s no doubt that the contact was made. But as to what came of it, Hemingway should be the best witness. He wrote: “We advanced in some state toward the General. His greeting—unprintable—will live in my ears forever. ‘Buzz off, you unspeakables,’ the gallant general said in effect in something above a whisper. Colonel Bruce, the resistance king, and your armored-operations correspondent hastily withdrew.”
In the free-for-all situation, we had no orders. In late evening, we still dallied in the Hotel du Grand Veneur in Rambouillet, having almost given up the idea of joining the air drop across the Seine because the Germans obstinately blocked the road. Four tanks and ten half-tracks passed the veranda, French-manned and headed east. Westover said: “Maybe they’re going to bull through to Paris. Maybe that story about the RB at Buc is bunk. Maybe we ought to get going.” So with no more thought than that, we mounted the jeep and trailed after.
But it was only a short run. The column veered south from the road we had earlier traveled, and after a half dozen miles pulled up in a wood southwest of Cernay la Ville. It was the division bivouac. Enough light remained to pitch the pup tent. That night nothing happened except steady rain and the arrival of an unsteady American major. He was from the staff of the U.S. Fifth Corps but had somehow lost it. His tone was like a child deserted by mama.
Westover said to him: “The hell with Fifth Corps. This show is headed for Paris. Come along and you’ll have the time of your life. If you’re already lost, two days more won’t hurt. Besides, the boss knows General Gerow and he’ll square it for you.”
The major said a few noble words about duty, then settled down, sleeping under his own jeep. When we were awakened at dawn by hundreds of Frenchmen booming like bitterns throughout the wood, he was all enthusiasm. How could one avoid it? All around us were warriors scuttling about with the eccentric motion of waterbugs, pounding their chests and screaming: “En avant!” Lasting all of ten minutes, that cry pulled us right out of our sacks, and when at last everyone grew hoarse, we enavanted.