- 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
That sudden decision to pick up Elena and take her to Paris had unlimited romantic consequences, not at the moment foreseeable.
Elena was the innocent catalyst rather than the prime mover. We lacked a spare helmet or knitted cap, the jeep was topless, and with her long tresses floating in the breeze as we buzzed along, there was no way to disguise her. On that day of razzle-dazzle fire and movement, she was a conspicuous heroine, the lone woman in a column of armored Frenchmen, all bent on playing Cyrano or maybe d’Artagnan.
But night must fall, and Frenchmen must think of things other than war. A late moon found us bivouacked in the gutters opposite the Renault plant on the wrong side of the Seine, and by then there was not a tank, half-track, or truck in the column but bloomed with women. Each frowning turret looked like a beauty parlor ad, and the squealing within and around the hulls did not come of grit in the bogie wheels. Leclerc’s mobile division had suddenly doubled in size while losing half of its fighting power.
I will get back to the calmer workaday entries from my diary of the loony liberation soon enough. There is one concluding note on the feminization of the French and Armored. Five days after the liberation was complete, Leclerc was still trying to get the women of Paris out of his tanks. The division bivouac in the fields out along the Soissons road looked like a transplanted Pigalle under arms.
Memory’s a witch. Thinking back, I would have sworn that the German battery at Toussus was overwhelmed in a breeze with no loss to our side. But thumbing through my faded notes I find this entry: “As we advance, one French half-track, turning into the battery, is hit dead on. Ahead of me an overloaded weasel takes a direct hit from a shell. Our losses, six killed and eleven wounded.”
We churned on to Jouy-en-Josas. There the column blocked and stopped as the van started uphill through the main street. We were hard by the railway station, and for five minutes the wait was joyous. Out poured the townsfolk, arms loaded with cold bottles of champagne. Mothers lifted babies to be kissed, only to be crowded out by the younger beauties of the place, who had the same general idea. Old soldiers who looked like relics of the Franco-Prussian war lined the sidewalks at stiff salute.
Then the music started. The Germans had a heavy mortar battery in a nearby chateau and behind it two field guns. Three French tanks charged the battery position; one was knocked out, the others finished the action.
We moved up to the main street and again halted. Twenty-one German prisoners, several of them wounded, all of them captured in the fight around the chateau, were brought back to be paraded down the main street of Jouy-en-Josas. About sixty Frenchmen of the advance guard formed facing each other within the street, holding aloft their rifles, mess gear, or any hard object that was swingable. As the Germans entered this gantlet, they cracked down hard, aiming at the heads of the passing men. The Germans didn’t try to run. They marched. Except when they reeled or fell from a blow, they took it heads-up, eyes to the front, saying not a word, uttering no cry. They emerged from it looking as if they had been torn by wild beasts. There was wretched and unforgettable depravity in this scene, redeemed only by the bearing of a few helpless young men who knew how to walk seemingly without fear. To have tried to intervene would have been an act bolder than any I saw along the road to Paris.
We were in motion again, and shortly we made a sharp right turn onto a main avenue three kilometers east of Versailles. The road ahead was a mass of greenery, its surface blocked by a half-mile-long line of felled sycamore trees. The French tanks moved uncertainly into this stuff. Four hundred yards off to our left was a dense copse. Out of it suddenly a man came running swiftly, screaming into the wind as he ran.
I asked Elena: “What’s he saying?”
She said: “There’s a German antiaircraft battery in that wood. Three guns altogether. And they’re ready to open fire.”
So with the way partly cleared, we sped ahead, looking for the commander of the forward tank battalion to tell him he was about to be smacked broadside. With every second counting, he still might have gotten his tanks around. At least he listened respectfully. Then he answered: “I know all about it; we’ve already taken care of that battery.”
Never was an overconfident statement more beautifully punctured. It came like this—Boom! Boom! Booml At four hundred yards point-blank the Germans couldn’t miss. Behind us there was loud screaming. One vehicle on the pivot exploded. Another burst into flame. Said the French major: “So now we know.”
So much for the legend that intelligence supplied by Hemingway, with an assist from his two adjutants, Mouton and David Bruce, enabled Leclerc and troops to slip through to Paris, skirting the nodes of resistance. Nothing nastier could be said of the operation; not one sign of applied intelligence distinguished it.