By Michael S. Neiberg, Howard K. Johnson Professor of Military History, US Army War CollegeAugust 5, 2011
Hard as it may seem to believe today, the United States Army had little interest in liberating Paris in the summer of 1944. The staff officers of General Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters (SHAEF) had their eyes squarely fixed on the Rhine, not the Seine. They hoped to cut off the retreating German Army before it could establish solid defensive positions on the German frontier or, in the nightmare scenario for the British, on the good defensive terrain of the old Western Front from the last world war. Eisenhower also worried about the recent example of his friend General Mark Clark, who had moved into Rome rather than cut off the Germans. As a result of Clark’s decision, an entire German Army had lived to fight another day in northern Italy. Eisenhower and his principal American field commander, General Omar Bradley, commanding the 12th Army Group, did not want to be lured to the French capital as Clark had been to the Italian one.
Callous as it may have been, the American Army also did not want to assume the responsibility of feeding the starving people of Paris. For four long years, the Germans had ravaged Paris, leaving less and less for the starving population. The landings in Normandy had ironically made this situation much worse, as Paris was now cut off from its primary source of meat, fruits and dairy products. Allied bombardment of Paris’s rail network, moreover, had made distribution of food into the city more difficult. With its own supplies already thin, the Allies saw the diversion of tons of fuel and food into the French capital as too risky, although in fairness to the men at SHAEF, few had any idea of just how desperate the situation really was.
The final closing of the Falaise pocket in mid-August opened a window for the Allies to go into Paris, but Eisenhower and Bradley, still unsure of the exact situation, continued to move cautiously, their eyes set on the region east of Paris instead of the city itself. Then, on the evening of August 21, a French Resistance agent who spoke excellent English showed up at the front lines asking to speak to an American general. After the usual security matters, Roger Cocteau-Gallois was taken to meet with an American general in the middle of the night. The sleepy general entered the room and said to Gallois, “OK. I’m listening. What’s your story?” Gallois told the general that an uprising had begun in the starving city and that if the Allies did not send help, the Germans would kill thousands of people and maybe destroy the city itself. The general berated Gallois, telling him that the job of armies was to kill the enemy, not capture cities. He also told a stunned Gallois that the Parisians had no right to begin an uprising without orders. Then he turned and left the room, leaving a dejected Gallois alone.
The general must have had a quick change of heart, because a few short minutes later he came back holding a bottle of champagne. George Patton then offered Gallois a toast to victory and asked him, “Are you ready to take a long voyage?” Patton wanted Gallois to meet the one man who could order the Allied armies to change course and head to Paris. Gallois emptied his glass and headed to a small airfield to fly to meet General Omar Bradley, whom he would convince to order French and American forces into Paris. The City of Light was about to taste its first freedom in four years, and the Americans would be there to see it all.
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021. Website: www.carlisle.army.mil/ahec