Whodunit? The Deadly Bullets that Narrowly Missed General de Gaulle

Portrait of General de Gaulle
Portrait of General de Gaulle, by Michel Suret-Canale

On the afternoon of August 26, 1944, after 4 years of deprivation and humiliation under German occupation, an estimated 1 million Parisians flocked to the streets to cheer the return of their beloved General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle had reluctantly fled to England within days of Germany’s taking control of northern France in June of 1940. There, and later headquartered in Algiers (Algeria was then occupied by France), de Gaulle had tirelessly worked toward the liberation of his homeland. The previous day, Germany had ceded Paris to the Allies. The politically astute De Gaulle wanted to seize upon the first opportunity to march down the Champs-Élysées in a triumphal procession that would unite the French people behind him. Doing so nearly cost him his life.

An Extraordinary Portrait of Courage

After laying a wreath upon the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, beneath the Arc de Triomphe, de Gaulle headed down the Champs-Élysées on foot until he reached La Place de la Concorde. Masses of deliriously happy Parisians clogged the expansive boulevard. Dressed in blue, white, and red, spectators hung from lamposts, cheered from tree branches, and waved French flags to attract the gaze of their steadfast leader. De Gaulle, who was 6′ 5″, towered above most everyone around him. In contrast to his jubilant supporters, de Gaulle’s stately expression might be described as one of confidence and pride, but it was hardly celebratory.

De Gaulle's Parade
De Gaulle’s victory parade down the Champs-Élysées, August 26, 1944

Once at La Place de la Concorde, he boarded an open-air car which chauffeured him past clamoring throngs until it reached the Hôtel de Ville. After, delivering a rousing speech, de Gaulle proceeded to the Cathedral of Notre Dame for a Te Deum of thanksgiving. The parvis in front of the great church was bordered with tanks in a show of military might. As de Gaulle strode toward the massive bronze portals shots rang out, followed by machine gunfire. People ran for cover, hiding between the tanks or escaping into the church. De Gaulle appeared unperturbed as he continued on his intended route to mass.

Once indoors, however, the shooting continued. Snipers were positioned in the cathedral’s upper galleries. Parishioners threw themselves under pews and hid behind massive stone pillars in an effort to shield themselves. However, de Gaulle, without hesitation, continued his march down the center aisle toward the altar. The estimated number of casualties ranges from 100 to 300 but de Gaulle remained unscathed. One eyewitness reporter, Robert Reid, described the scene as follows:

There were blinding flashes inside the cathedral, there were pieces of stone ricocheting around the place… Heaven knows how they missed him, for they were firing the whole time.

—Robert Reid, BBC

The video below contains audio portions of Reid’s reporting that day. First a live description of de Gaulle approaching Notre Dame, followed by Reid’s later summary of events that took place inside the cathedral.

Political and Military Maneuvering

General Eisenhower
General Eisenhower, photo from the National Park Service

Just a few weeks earlier, few could have predicted de Gaulle’s triumphal return. As allied forces finalized their plans for the Normandy invasion, de Gaulle had been lobbying for the immediate liberation of Paris. In his book When Paris Went Dark, author Ronald C. Rosbottom writes, “given the amount of attention the major branches of the Reich’s government had lavished on the French capital, it might come as a surprise that the Allies did not consider its liberation strategically crucial”. Indeed, General Eisenhower wanted to avoid a battle that would likely result in substantial destruction to one of Europe’s most dazzling cities and leave him with the moral obligation of supporting the severely under-resourced population of 3.5 million residents.

Eisenhower was convinced that if he entered Paris, Hitler would draw the Allied troops into a long and drawn-out fight. He wanted to delay liberating the city for as long as possible, conserving gasoline and heading directly toward the Rhine and then onto Berlin. Stopping to free Paris along the way would drain his supplies and prolong the war.

However, neither de Gaulle nor Eisenhower, had fully anticipated the political maneuvers of France’s Communist Party. Led by Colonel Rol-Tanguy the communists had joined forces with the Comité Parisien de la Libération. In mid-August, sensing that the city’s population was on edge and more than willing to strike at the hated Nazi regime, Colonel Rol called for insurrection.

Colonel Rol and Major General Leclerc
Postcard of Colonel Rol and Major General Leclerc, head of the Second French Armored Division

Now de Gaulle worried that Rol, a shrewd political rival, would be strengthened in the eyes of the French people. Wishing to avoid a battle with the communists after the Nazis were gone, de Gaulle felt it was essential to lead French forces into Paris and demonstrate his authority. He planned to go forward with or without the Allies’ support. On August 20, de Gaulle urged Eisenhower to change his plans and send troops to Paris, but Eisenhower refused.

The Beast of Sevastopol

General von Choltitz
German General Dietrich von Choltitz

Eisenhower’s suspicions regarding the Führer’s evil intentions toward the City of Lights proved accurate. Hitler was determined to hang onto Paris at all costs. When it looked as if Germany’s grasp was slipping, he hand-picked General Dietrich von Choltitz to oversee the city’s defense. Von Choltitz, known as the Beast of Sevastopol for the devastation he had wreaked upon the Soviet city, arrived in Paris on August 9th.

Von Choltitz was surprised to learn that an evacuation of German female personnel was already underway. Keenly aware of Germany’s weakening position, von Choltitz gathered all military men, vehicles, and artillery together and paraded them down the Avenue de l’Opéra. He hoped to convince Parisians that Germany’s might was not to be trifled with but the display of strength proved ineffective. Meanwhile, Hitler was repeatedly issuing orders to destroy the city’s industries, utilities, communication systems, and bridges. On August 22, von Choltitz received the following order signed by Hitler,

Paris is to be transformed into a pile of rubble. The commanding general must defend the city to the last man and should die, if necessary, under the ruins.

Order sent to von Choltitz by German general headquarters.
Franco-German film Diplomacy
Movie poster for the Franco-German historical drama, Diplomacy.

Other orders spoke of destroying architectural monuments, demolishing residential housing blocks, and holding public executions.

The 2014 Franco-German film, Diplomacy, dramatizes von Choltitz’ reluctance to decimate France’s magnificent capital. In order to free himself of the deplorable task, he agreed to let the Swedish Consul General, Raoul Nordling, contact the Allied Forces. Nordling essentially ended up inviting Eisenhower to remove von Choltitz from his post. However, Eisenhower had already decided that he needed to comply with de Gaulle’s request. On August 22, he ordered Major General LeClerc to move his Second French Armored Division into Paris.

French Troops must be First to Enter the City

Shortly before midnight on August 24, the first French soldiers rolled through the Porte d’Orléans. Tucked away in their homes under curfew, most Parisians were oblivious to the drama unfolding in the darkened town. The small and agile French force sped down narrow side streets, trying to go undetected until they reached the Hôtel de Ville in the heart of the city. Around 1:00 am on the 25th, bells rang out from the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Parisians knew immediately that their long wait would soon be over. They had not heard those bells since before the Occupation began.

By dawn, as the rest of Leclerc’s division marched into Paris, they were met with a zealous outpouring of emotion. Pelted with flowers, food, and various gifts the soldiers were greeted by a host of exuberant Parisiennes, dressed in blue, white, and red and eager to smother the liberators’ cheeks with fresh lipstick. De Gaulle had insisted that French troops be the first to enter the city. Newsreels, photos and written reports of French citizens being reunited with their long-departed sons would later reveal how impactful this decision had been.

A Parisian Woman Celebrates
A Parisian woman celebrates as Allied forces pass through Paris, August 25, 1944, AP photo

In the afternoon of August 25th, von Choltitz handed the city over to General LeClerc in the Gare Montparnasse. LeClerc accepted the surrender not in the name of the Commander of the Allied Forces but in the name of de Gaulle’s Provisional Government.

As a result of his actions, von Cholitz may be the only Nazi leader to come out of the war with his reputation unscathed. According to When Paris Went Dark, however, he did much to create the legend of his heroic role in saving Paris. We perhaps do owe him a debt of gratitude but it should be noted that he also sent more than 3 thousand political prisoners to concentration camps a week before his surrender. If Germans are to be thanked, we should also include General Hans Speidel, chief of staff to the general commanding the defense of France, who refused to carry out Hitler’s orders to bomb the city.

La Bachanale, Pablo Picasso, 1944
In the final days of the Nazi occupation. Picasso, holed up in his Paris apartment, produced La Bacchanale.

All Going According to Plan

De Gaulle entered Paris on the heels of the French liberators and drove straight to his prewar headquarters. He knew that the Communist Party of France would try to take credit for the Liberation by pointing to the insurrection that had begun more than a week before French forces arrived. He quickly arranged for the procession down the Champs-Élysées that would take place the following day.

By the time the Americans arrived, Paris would be nearly free of Germans but the exceedingly thorough de Gaulle worried that French Forces might not be able to hold the capital alone. He asked Eisenhower to leave behind enough Allied soldiers to help him secure the city. Again, Eisenhower refused.

However, Eisenhower did agree to yet one more victory parade. On August 27th, a day after de Gaulle had survived the sniper attack at Notre Dame, the American Twenty-Eighth Infantry Division and Fifth Armored Division retraced de Gaulle’s path down the Champs-Élysées. The American show of force drew huge crowds and another round of cheering. Members of the Milice, a French paramilitary force commanded by the Nazis, and other collaborators were certainly now less likely to launch a counter-attack.

American troops Champs-Élysées
American troops march down the Champs-Élysées, August 27, 1944

Identifying the Snipers of August 26th

In the immediate aftermath of the Notre Dame sniper attacks, France was fixated on who had carried out the assault. Most news organizations reported that German operatives were responsible. There were certainly hundreds of Germans still hiding within the city and tens of thousands of French collaborators. However, the only photographs shot that day of men carrying firearms in and around Notre Dame are those of either Allied soldiers or members of the Resistance. In his book, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, author Graham Robb talks of a 9-year old boy, Michel Barrat, who witnessed the arrest and brutal beating of a handful of “miliciens” that afternoon. Yet, no one was ever officially identified or charged with the crime.

Some historians posit that over-exuberant onlookers fired the initial shots and trigger-happy soldiers immediately added to the cacophony of gunfire. Indeed, celebratory rounds had been periodically fired into the air all along de Gaulle’s route. But this theory doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation of why shooting continued inside the cathedral.

De Gaulle would later write in his memoirs that he felt the incident had been staged by the communists who wanted to eliminate their fiercest political adversary.

The cynics hypothesize that de Gaulle staged the entire scene. His political savvy and understanding of the importance of optics are undeniable. De Gaulle could not have asked for a better outcome. When he left Notre Dame that day, he was now cemented in the French psyche as an unstoppable hero, maybe even one sanctioned and protected by God.

I suspect we’ll never know who was behind the shots that were fired that day. I’ll close by quoting a passage from Graham Robb’s book:

Only a man who begrudged de Gaulle his hour of glory would have bothered to ask such questions, and only a man who hoped to emulate his triumph might have wondered what lessons could be learned from his masterly manipulation of what appeared to be a totally unpredictable event.

—Graham Robb, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris
70th Anniversary Portrait
A giant portrait of de Gaulle, made from portraits of his supporters to mark 70-year anniversary of his call to arms in June 1940. Reuters

Other Resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

17 Comments

  1. Your articles always impress me to no end, really! This is such an intriguing bit of history, I’m always excited to see this place and time come up in a book. Everything about de Gaulle’s relationship to the country I find really interesting, actually, as well as Hitler’s obsession with the city when he’d only visited once. Have you read Is Paris Burning? I really liked it when I read it years ago, about this period in time and the orders given to destroy the city.

    Graham Robb’s book was great too, I loved all the stories he managed to weave in. (And I met him at Shakespeare in Paris when it was released, I was working in Paris that summer. He was so nice!)

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. I’ve long had the feeling that we’re into the same things. No, I’ve never read Is Paris Burning. I’ll check it out. If only I could read as fast as you!

      That’s so cool that you met Robb in person and at a famous Parisian bookstore no less! He’s an excellent storyteller.

      • It’s by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. It’s an older book, if I remember correctly, I think written in the 60s or 70s. It switches perspectives from a lot of people who lived through that place and time. I thought it was fascinating.

        It was really fun and serendipitous to meet him — the book had been on my radar and just been released while I was there, so I went to Shakespeare to pick it up (this was back in maybe 2010? 2011? The last time I visited Paris in 2019 Shakespeare was so full of tourists inside and out that you couldn’t linger and enjoy it like before, it made me sad! My husband had to keep telling me to move out of people’s photos). Robb was there signing copies and was very friendly and warm. I think of that every time I see the book mentioned, it’s such a happy memory!

        We really do have so many of the same interests, I am just so thrilled to have found your blog and be able to chat about these things with you!

        • The feeling is mutual. Did you read about Shakespeare’s financial struggle during the pandemic? Thankfully they’re back on their feet after receiving donations and paid subscribers to their newsletter.

          That’s annoying about having to avoid being in a tourist’s photo. Some people (and I feel this is particularly true of Americans) need lessons in discretion. Plus, if you’re going to go in there to gawk, please don’t leave without buying something!

          • I did read about it (maybe was even through you? I know it was from a fellow blogger) and I was so sad to hear it. They’re such a long-standing institution, historically and for the English-speaking community there. Paris has some great used bookstores but Shakespeare is so wonderful for everything new, you just know you can get it there right away. And the staff are always so friendly and helpful. I’m so glad they pulled through.

            It was just odd, it was completely packed in a way I’d never seen before. We were trying to look through the tables that were outside and people were hanging around holding cameras up, clearly waiting for us to move! Like hello, we were looking for books to actually buy and they just wanted Insta-worthy pictures of the facade without any people in the shot. It was so disappointing! And I agree, you should buy something especially if you’re treating it like a museum.

  2. Rol-Tanguy was quite a player in this drama. But then so were Pisani, Chaban-Delmas and many, many others. Did you see “Paris brûle-t-il?” If you haven’t, do.
    Leclerc was also instrumental. My uncle Gérard, my father’s brother-in-law did all the war under Leclerc’s orders. Uncle Gérard was driving one of the first jeeps to enter Paris. Funnily enough, his last name was… Leclerc…

    • Cool. I’m not familiar with the other major players that you mentioned. Much to learn. No I haven’t seen the film either. Thanks for your insights and recommendation.

      Seems like with a last name of Leclerc, and assigned to work under him, you might be able to get away with some shit. 🙂

      • Do see the film. It is very well done. With all the major actors of the time.
        Leclerc was a code name for the General. His real name was Philippe de Hauteclocque. He took his “nom de guerre” to protect his family who’d remained in France.
        My uncle’s name was indeed Leclerc. They actually only “met” once. Uncle was a private. A long way form the General. The 2eDB was racing to the South of Paris, through small villages. The jeep my uncle drove broke down in a narrow road just outside the village. Effectively blocking the entire armoured division. Leclerc, the General was a few vehicles behind. Stepped down and ran towards the stopped Jeep. Gave my uncle a dressing. “Get this Jeep moving! What’s your name, private?!”. “Er, my name? Like yours General.” The General looked at the name tag. Harrrumphed and summoned a few other soldiers to push the jeep away in a ditch, and proceed to liberate Paris. (He did get away. My uncle)

  3. Fascinating historical account that takes us right into the action. It’s difficult to imagine that de Gaulle would have walked into a hail of bullets if he hadn’t had some knowledge about what was coming— unless he had delusions about his immortality. I find it surprising that the perpetrators were never identified. Perhaps they were, but not publicly.

    I’m steeped in the same time period but a different locale at the moment—reading The Daughters of Yalta about the role played by Churchill’s, Harriman’s, and FDR’s daughters at that meeting with Stalin. Not too far into it yet, but so far it’s a worthwhile perspective.

    Love your blog, Carol. Excellent work!

    • Thanks Annie. As I commented to Infidel, given the number of casualties, I doubt de Gaulle was behind it. You bring up a good point about him possibly having delusions about his own infallability. He was, after all, a brilliant politician.

      Daughters of Yalta sounds fascinating. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about it.

  4. Fortunate that von Choltitz and Speidel made the decisions they did. Who would want to go down in history as the man who destroyed Paris? But Göring or Himmler would certainly have done it if they’d been there. The one was a barbarian (self-proclaimed) and the other a toady.

    The fact that the shooting remains mysterious is rather strange. It sounds as though a large number of shooters must have been involved. After all this time, one would think somebody would have spoken out, or evidence of involvement been discovered after somebody’s death.

    It’s not at all implausible that the communists could have done it. They were a pretty ruthless bunch. Stalin was seriously considering turning against the western allies and pushing the Soviet wave-front of conquest all the way to the Atlantic, until the demonstration of the atomic bomb in Japan showed him that doing so would be suicide. He would have had no interest in an orderly reconstitution of governments in western Europe.

    At any rate, one can barely imagine the relief the people of Paris must have felt at finally being rid of the Nazi occupation. What a nightmare.

    • Excellent points Infidel. My story is perhaps a bit unfair because it highlights de Gaulle’s political skill and ambition and his penchant for staging impressive displays. The fact that he appeared not to flinch, makes him a possible suspect in the whole affair but when you take into consideration the number of casualties, I doubt he would have risked it.

      You’re so right about the relief of the French people. Many of us have been feeling discouraged by the months of COVID confinement and by the political divisions in our country. These hardships pale by comparison.

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your wealth of knowledge.

  5. So it didn’t go down like “The Day of the the Jackal”?

    • Ha! I saw that film long ago and didn’t remember at all that it was about an attempted de Gaulle hit. I’m going to have to see it again. I just read a synopsis to learn it’s fictional. Thanks for your comment.

  6. A fascinating account of how de Gaulle oversaw the liberation of Paris. I never realized that he also had the communists to contend with as well as any remaining Nazis. Thanks for enlightening me.

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