The purpose of Captain Dronne's advance force was to immediately enter Paris whilst avoiding the Germans to urgently secure a central location in the heart of the city. This was to reassure the civilian population that there would be no repeat of what had happened in Warsaw a couple of weeks earlier, anticipating liberation, the Warsaw's population rose up, the liberating forces halted and the civilians were massacred and city razed to the ground. However, being such a small task force at the heart of a city occupied by some 25,000 German troops was a fairly risky proposition. In the meantime the rest of the Deuxieme Division Blindée and the American 4th Infantry Division continued to fight their way into the city against well prepared defences, a fight that eventually cost the 2ème DB 78 dead and 300 wounded.
|Early morning 22 August 1944, a man plays the Marseillaise in public in Rue Edgar Poe. Picture: Odette Eve.|
|Montmirail crew at L'Hôtel de Ville (Paris city hall). L-R Gaston Eve, Marc Casanova (wounded), Etienne Florkowski, Paul Lhopital, Lt Louis Michard.|
|RMT troops of "la Nueva" at l'Hôtel de Ville.|
|Early morning 25th August 1944. Lt Louis Michard reunites with friends from the Mission Etrangère.|
|"25 August 1944, Lutzen and Iéna in combat on the junction Boulevard Saint Michel - Place de la Sorbonne. Lutzen's Marcel Guénan talks with an RMT soldier. Also notice smashed bookshop windows at back."|
|25 August 1944, Gaston and Odette first meet on the Place de la Sorbonne.|
|Austerlitz on guard in the Boulevard St. Michel.|
|Montmirail, Bois de Boulogne. On tank Mme Gandon and Louis Michard. Standing L-R Gaston Eve, Odette Lampin, Paul Lhopital, Marc Casanova, M. Gandon, Etienne Florkowski and Sergent Georges Commeinhes.|
We were relieved by US troops and pulled back into one of those lovely Normandy apple orchards. Lieutenant Louis Michard took his turn at watch and took great care of all questions of safety. During the night he made frequent checks that all was well. Jamette and the crew of Montereau left for a day to inspect its replacement. They returned with the latest model of Sherman, which had a very long and powerful cannon. They had baptised it Montereau II and Lieutenant Michard painted the word "Revenge" on each side of the cannon.
Now and then we had contact with American units, sometimes their tanks still looking as if fresh from the factory. They would come and ask us what our strange tanks were with their grand names, numbers and insignia?
The new tracks for Montmirail arrived one evening as night fell. Adjudant Henri Caron was as always, kept busy with the Company's equipment. Night time or not, things had to be done immediately. No delay was allowed. We were unable to use lights but the thing was done all the same. During that night Montmirail was given new tracks, with three or four segments attached to her front for spares.
While we were resting, at about 11pm we were awakened by a great hubbub and since we slept fully clothed, we got ourselves up immediately. Adjudant Caron and Lieutenant Michard announced that we would be leaving in two hours and our direction would be toward Paris! Everyone laughed. Henri Caron slapped everybody on the back with his hands, which certainly weren't soft. We were shaking each other's hands and throwing ourselves into each other's arms, even though we weren't allowed to raise our voices or make any noises, it was a fantastic moment.
We were always ready to go and we put our sleeping bags on the tank and sat around until our turn came to move off which was at about 3am on the 23rd August. Without the least illumination, we set off. We made as little sound as possible. Tank drivers were told not to rev their engines and that there were to be no changes of gear so as to keep engine noise to the very minimum.
For about two hours, until daylight, the tanks crawled along in low gear and at very low speed. It was nice to receive the order to move at normal speed. In the total darkness we had had to move along very close behind one another and our faces were black with diesel fumes. When day was just commencing, at our first stop, we realised the tracks were hot because we could smell the rubber. [Sherman tanks had the novel addition of rubber treads on their tracks. Panzers therefore made an almighty din in comparison to a Sherman on French cobbled streets due to their bare metal tracks grinding on the granite cobbles.] However we continued like this and now and then I would stop Montmirail at some place where there were houses and ask the inhabitants to throw some buckets of water onto the tracks, which they did gladly. We were unable to stop for sufficient time in order to re-track because we would have lost contact with the Company. The buckets of water didn't make a big difference, but later Montmirail took a cold shower. At one point we passed a place which had a stream and I drove Montmirail along this stream with first one track in the water, then the other. This did a lot of good. Later, in the evening, the Company halted and Adjudant Caron took the situation in hand. We added a segment or two to each of the tracks with the aid of a light. We were saved, and took the road the next morning with the rest, but Arcis sur Aube and Montereau II failed to turn up.
One thing that always struck me in Normandy: The number of farms and houses in which could be found a photo of Marshal Petain. I understood that there were two points of view on this, but it re-enforced in me my dedication to Free France.
When we reached Longjumeau in the late evening, we had our usual snack and coffee and of course wine together and got our sleeping bags out. I slept soundly, apart from sharing the night watch on the tank. We awoke early on the 24th August. Everything was in place and our sleeping bags were stowed. Etienne Florkowski who invariably looked after the crew in food and drink made us a coffee, which we were never without. Our tanks were close by each other in a street from which they could not be seen as it was narrow and I have a recollection of three storied houses on each side.
As I walked towards Montmirail I briefly spoke with Michel Le Saoût, a volunteer of 1940 who was then just 21. He pulled my leg as to whether I had a good night and my tank being next to his, we parted with a smile. We were relaxed as there were no Germans in sight. We were all in position with turrets and doors open when, in a flash, I saw and heard 4 or 5 explosions which turned out to be mortars. They were perfectly timed and aimed. When no more came we got out of our tanks to help as we saw some direct hits on Austerlitz.
I think Bernard Guinlat, the co-driver on Austerlitz, did not die immediately but when we looked inside Austerlitz Le Saoût was on the floor having been decapitated by the mortar. He was a very athletically built young man and Lt. Michard organised his removal from the tank and he was laid alongside Austerlitz. The Lt. called those who were nearby and in his capacity as trainee priest until 1939, he led a brief but very moving prayer for this dear young man. Then we returned to our tanks. We left immediately and carried on much as though nothing had happened.
As we left Longjumeau I saw ahead what was either a pill box or a well built barricade along the road side at, what I think was, a minor crossroads. It was in open country. Whatever was in that position was creating havoc and as we got nearer to it, all I saw was one young German with a white bandage around his head, still firing. We were fired upon and fired back. I presume that the others who had been with him had been killed. He had no chance but never gave up and was quickly killed too. A very brave young man.
Progress from then on was not very rapid. We were not in the leading tanks and there were frequent stops. Sometimes we overtook artillery, lorries, jeeps or ambulances at others they overtook us. There were obviously great problems for those leading the attack and we could hear substantial firing. Towards evening we were very near the leading tanks. We stopped at a point where there was ahead of us a dip in the road and about 800 yards ahead, three tanks moving forward, one of which was desperately fighting for its life against an 88. It was being hit but they must have ricocheted since he fired on and on. Romilly and Montmirail were on a road leaving the highway to the right from the direction we had come. Soon after Champaubert turned up. We had lost Montereau II and Arcis Sur Aube due to mechanical failure on the way. [According to the "Odyssée", Michard's section turned back, took a minor road to the left of the main road and engaged and destroyed an artillery battery that was guarding the left flank of the emplacement ahead at the Croix de Berny. Dad never had any recollection of this.]
There was evidently anxiety at the lack of progress and senior officers went by in their jeeps towards the spearhead. About seven in the evening, or perhaps a little earlier, General Leclerc arrived in his jeep and went on foot to the head of our attack group. Returning a few minutes later, he headed for Captain Dronne who was up ahead of us. Lieutenant Michard was called for and returned with a broad smile to tell us that our three tanks were going to enter Paris with our comrades of the RMT [ The "Nueva" company, Spanish veterans of the civil war in 16 half-tracks ]. This brought about a repetition of a scene played out just three days earlier in Normandy. There were the fifteen of us embracing each other, patting each other's backs and laughing heartily and I remember Henri Caron, for for whom I cared greatly, giving me one of his very heavy slaps on the back with an "Alors Eve, on y va"! This soon ceased because we were to depart very shortly, after taking one important decision!
At the moment of departure Lieutenant Michard said "I'm going at the front!" However it was not Montmirail's turn to be the lead tank so we soon heard Henri Caron reply "Ah no Louis. It's my turn to be at the front and I'm not giving up my place for anyone!" It was clearly a point of honour whichever way you look at it and Henri Caron had said just the same thing he said before entering that Normandy village. Lieutenant Michard conceded the point and said that Montmirail would go right behind him. I think that as we left an FFI ["Forces Francais de l'Intérieur"] partisan joined us as guide. I also think he placed himself on Romilly. He was replaced by someone sent from the Hôtel de Ville when we reached Paris proper.
It was still light when we departed. I think Captain Dronne had put himself at our head in his Jeep. We departed at a good speed using the by-roads. The streets were empty. Now and then we passed through a hamlet and I would spot a face peering from behind a curtain and disappear immediately. We waved or blew a kiss if it was a woman, but that was all. At one time, during a brief stop, a young man and a young lady of 20 or 22 years old came to talk with us. As we were departing the young man turned to the lady and said "You can embrace them." It was a beautiful moment in my life. Now and then I have recalled that couple with fondness.
All at once, on arriving at the top of a slope, I caught sight of the Eiffel Tower and Montmirail rolled forward on its own as I had taken my arms out of the tank and raised them above my head. We were going to be the first into Paris. The housing became denser but the streets remained empty.
We still had perhaps an hours daylight when we really began to see Paris. It was at this stage that we stopped when we saw ahead of us a car with a man in his thirties wearing a Resistance armband. He said he was sent from the Hôtel de Ville and knew the way inside Paris. He took over from the man who had guided us on Romilly up till now. Now and then we had to drive around a felled tree, nothing worse.
We moved on and the first stop in Paris itself was at one of those superb crossroads for which Paris is well known, with apartments all around it. The half tracks and tanks were close together. We stayed in our crew positions waiting to move on but after three or four minutes people started coming out of the apartments. In the warmth of the evening all their windows were open and I can remember hearing a radio commentator but I have no idea what he was saying. In a very short time the whole area was full of people with our half tracks and tanks totally surrounded. Men and women were clambering over the tanks and we had no option but to stand among them on the tanks. We could hear people around us saying "It's the Americans!" and asking what part of America we came from. This was because of our uniforms no doubt. I expect the the very finely medalled Spaniards of the Nueva had a little difficulty explaining that they were in a French unit fighting for France. We spoke French and it began to dawn on people that we were indeed French. Soon the news spread outward. I remember one elderly man who had fought his way to the Montmirail speaking with Lieutenant Michard who asked "Comment ca-va grandpère ?" and the old man replying "Vous etes français ? C'est impossible !" and repeating time and again to people around him "Des francais, pas possible!" We were being kissed on our faces and on our berets as so many people where totally overwhelmed by the madness of the moment. Our black faces were soon marked by lipstick
People were giving us bottles of wine and these were put away in the tank safely. We gave away packets of biscuits, little bits of our survival rations of chocolate and of course we returned the kisses being given us and hugged the people we were fighting for. We must have been there for 10 minutes altogether. Louis Michard, who had fought this way through the crowd to talk with Captain Dronne came back and said we were moving on. To open up a path through the crowd the Lieutenant decided to give some blasts of the siren while advancing very gently. I started to tell those on and around the tank that they must get off and those round about started pushing and shouting "Get off!" That proved effective and we started to see clear ahead of us. We departed behind Romilly very slowly because the way through was very narrow. Everybody was shouting I don't know what and waving us goodbye with their hands. We responded and waved away like gladiators going into the arena. What a moment for a soldier to have lived. Such moments live on in the soul ever more, believe me!.
As we left the crossroad the streets again became deserted and the column, with its guide, moved along at a good speed. Now everyone was looking out of apartment windows! When we had first stopped and been overwhelmed a church bell had begun to ring. As we went along more and more church bells rang from behind us. We could hear it all as we were not in combat positions. My head, Marc Casanova's and Louis Michard's were all out of the tank. Etienne Florkowski and Paul lHopital were not so lucky as their positions were inside the turret.
I have no idea of what route we took but we arrived along the banks of the Seine, then close by, at the Hôtel de Ville [Paris city hall]. The square was held by the Resistance, there were no civilians but plenty of comings and goings of FFI personnel with their tricolour armbands. Henri Caron had steered his Romilly to a stop facing the steps in the centre of the Hôtel de Ville, while Champaubert parked in the square on the side where is the Bon Marché. Montmirail remained by the Seine. There was a bridge over the Seine to our left and in front of us was a German tank destroyed by the Resistance. There was at our side one of those Parisian advertising kiosks which is still there, when I go to Paris I stand there a while.
Numerous Resistance members were coming and going in columns. Now and then we could not resist breaking up their ranks and hugging them in our arms. It must have been 9:30 and night had fallen [In fact it was 8:45]. Captain Dronne and Lieutenant Michard were in discussion with the Resistance around a map spread out on the Jeep's bonnet. The Lieutenant told us that we would remain in that place for the night.
Of a sudden an extraordinary event came to pass: All the windows of a building facing L'Hôtel de Ville were opened and from these windows our comrades of the Resistance simultaneously let off volleys of pistol, rifle and sub-machine gun into the air, while others let of rockets of red, yellow and green making an incredible scene lasting 2 minutes or more. We had been greeted in a manner unique in military history ! It was a superb greeting and I think few soldiers could have had a better one.
Reporters were also turning up and posing questions to Lieutenant Michard as the platoon commander. One of them was "What were the names of the tanks that entered Paris?" to which he correctly replied Montmirail, Romilly and Champaubert. Then we took out our sleeping bags and swallowed our K rations.
Late in the night we had a nap beside or underneath Montmirail. It was beautiful. We were happy on the cobblestones. The next morning, a very beautiful morning, day was breaking when I heard some people speaking at the side of Montmirail and I got out of my sleeping bag in which I always slept fully clothed and I met my first Parisians. Evidently they had many questions and Florkowski, our gunner, had made some coffee and we ate our American K rations, which we shared with the civilians. Everything was fine and we were well guarded by the resistance in the neighbourhood !
The newspapers arrived very early and some copies were handed to Lt. Michard. The Lieutenant laughed heartily holding up to us the front page: "Look" he said, "'Montmirail, Romilly, Champaubert, the first tanks into Paris'." He went off to see Henri Caron newspaper in hand: "Look Henri, you've been had. It's not Romilly, Montmirail, Champaubert but Montmirail in front!" the two men laughed together at this comical error, but alas it was their last conversation. Also on the morning of the 25th August Louis Michard sent a message to the Rue du Bac, as it was there he had been a Clerc Minoré at the "Mission Etrangère". I have a photo of his first meeting with fellow priests.
The three tanks were sent off in different directions to clean out pockets of resistance. Montmirail left along the Seine and the route was lined with people on each pavement. The population of Paris now knew we were there. They had enormous joy and everybody waved hello to us or blew us kisses, people were crying. For several minutes the pilot and co-pilot had hatches open and we also waved with our hands. The fact that we were going into combat was of little importance.
All at once Lieutenant Michard ordered us to combat stations. I sat myself down and closed the hatch over my head. All our heads disappeared into the tank, with the certain exception of the Lieutenant's. I looked all about using my periscope. There were still many people on each pavement but these spectators showed no joy. Almost every hand was pointing down to the road ahead of us. They indicated "They are there" and "Take care" and I saw much apprehension on their faces. A hundred metres further on and there was nobody in the street apart from Montmirail the RMT and some Resistance. We moved forward as we had so often done and arrived in a square, completely empty save for a couple of lorries and some civilian cars all burning. There was a brief commotion in which Montmirail was not involved. We were anticipating being attacked but while advancing towards a crossroads some men in armbands spoke with Lieutenant Michard who, as usual had his turret hatch open. They told him that the Germans were no longer there.
Shortly after, we made an about turn to return by the route we had come. What we saw was crazy. The road was once again full of people. Everyone was shouting and saluting us with their arms as if we had beaten the enemy. We responded like gladiators returning from combat. Montmirail had done nothing, but we were with the victors! We went back to the Hotel De Ville in procession with our comrades of the RMT and Resistance. It was a completely bizarre situation !
Upon arriving at the Hôtel de Ville we found Champaubert waiting for Romilly. When it arrived we saw that Henri Caron was not in the turret. A little while later we were informed that Adjudant Caron had been wounded and was now evacuated to a hospital. Caron had, while close to the Rue des Archives, exited his tank to reconnoitre the ground before risking his tank, when his crew saw him fall from a volley of machine gun or sub-machine gun fire coming from a Metro entrance. It was dreadful news but he was alive and that was the important thing. He was a volunteer of 1940. [Fascists had set fire to the city Archive. Romilly had been sent to protect firemen from snipers. The firemen warned Caron of a German tank waiting in ambush around the corner. He checked it out, it was a Panther. He armed himself with a PM and left Romilly to personally go sort out the Panther, but was hit in the thigh by a cowardly sniper waiting in ambush in the metro entrance.]
Towards the end of the morning a considerable crowd gathered at the Hotel De Ville milling all around. German prisoners were arriving on foot with soldiers around them but the crowd jostled to get at the Germans. At one time a group of German officers arrived and they received stones and blows from all sides despite the protection of their escort. At another moment a man with a pistol was seen running towards the Germans. He put the pistol to a German's head and killed him. All of the cruelty of war was there, I was to see it many times and I did not like what I saw.
In the course of the morning the church bells resumed their chimes. We heard them all around. Then having nothing more to do at L'Hôtel de Ville we were sent to rejoin the rest of the company who had been fighting at the Luxembourg. We crossed the bridge which had been immediately to our left. We saw some of our Company's tanks nearby and were directed to the Place de la Sorbonne where we parked. I saw the Lutzen firing. It was positioned on the Boulevard St Michel opposite the Place de la Sorbonne, but I do not know what it was firing at. My Free French friend Marcel Guénan was the driver of that tank and I clearly remember seeing him come out of the tank bare headed when the firing was over. We stayed at the Place de la Sorbonne that afternoon and all night (25/26 August).
The 25th of August was the festival of St Louis [the saint's day] and our Lieutenant was delighted. During the day we received a delivery of fuel and food and received the very white bread which Parisians had not seen for years. All about, it was party time. We distributed our supplies to the children. All of a sudden a burst of sub-machine-gun fire rang out from one of the apartments in the Place de la Sorbonne and bullets ricocheted off the cobbles. By reflex I roughly shoved a young boy and girl I had been talking with round the side of Montmirail and sheltered them with my body. [Then in a typical act of bravery Lieutenant Michard went into the Sorbonne and climbed onto the huge dome atop the roof to try to spot the German sniper] When it was all over I returned to our conversation. We were sat against the front of the tank when a passer by took a photo. He asked me for my military mail address and had the kindness to send me the photo. In October 1945 I married the young lady and we will always have this precious souvenir of the Place de la Sorbonne.
We were given more sad news: Adjudant André Corler, also a volunteer of 1940, had been wounded while reconnoitring from a balcony overlooking the Luxembourg. From about 7pm there was more and more firing around and things became quite severe, though not in the Place itself. That evening I told the girl to head back home and lent her my helmet for protection in view of the density of firing around and told her to bring it back the following morning when all would be over.
It was difficult to sleep during that night because on the corner, at the junction of Place de la Sorbonne and Boulevard St Michel, was a bookshop you see behind the Lutzen, with German literature and collaborators books displayed in the windows. Towards about 11pm the windows were smashed and the books burned. This took a long time and sleep was impossible. The next morning I wanted to get myself shaved at a barbers, an old gentleman offered me his place and another paid for me to have a hair cut. This was the good life!
In the early morning we departed for the Tuileries and in the afternoon the young girl came with the boy to return my helmet to me. We said goodbye for the second time. That afternoon (26th August) the Company went to the Pré Catelan in the Bois de Boulogne and we met there almost every day. The young lady became one of the crew. Inevitably we often had visitors at the Bois de Boulogne and amongst them were M. et Mme Gandon who were also photographed with the crew of Montmirail. She came to see us every day and brought us flowers and delicacies. [Madame Gandon, I think Dad said, had been a well known ballerina. She made a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers for the crew which she stuck in the muzzle of the canon. It stayed there for several days and Montmirail can be recognised from this feature. She also nursed Paul Lhopital after he was wounded in the hand which I think Dad said occurred in the sniping at Place de la Sorbonne.]
At the Bois de Boulogne, the company acquired volunteers to fill out our ranks. There came a young gentleman of 17 or 18 years named Jean de Valroger. He seemed to have no military aptitude but had courage, he was very determined. One day his mother came to find him and was very unhappy with her son for his hanging around with us. As she was leaving she had the ill judgement to say to her son "Take care my little kitten". The nickname kitten ["Minet"] stuck and he stayed for the rest of the campaign with us.
Another that came to join us was Sergeant Georges Commeinhes who was a tank sergeant in 1939. He was a Parisian and a very gay and friendly man. He had had English friends before the war and he came and stayed with us. Over the next few days Commeinhes often saw the young lady in conversation with me. From that time on I was nicknamed "Milord" and she as "Milorine" by Commeinhes. In a few days he was completely part of the company and was with Captain De Witasse's tank. Three months later he was dead having taken a bullet to the head while near the Fort Kléber in Strasbourg. We had lost our Petit Parisien, so named by Milord and Milorine.
Montereau II and Arcis sur Aube rejoined us so the Platoon found itself once more complete. Every day Louis Michard went to see Henri Caron. He never came back very happy about his condition. They had been obliged to amputate a leg and he found him very weakened. On about the 29 or 30 August he came back from the hospital and he called us around and told us in an unsteady voice that Henri Caron had died. We retreated to the side of his tank, remained in silence some minutes and very slowly dispersed. The death of Caron was a hard blow for the company. We had lost a truly wonderful man. It was he who had made us the professionals that we had become. It was a great ordeal for Lieutenant Michard because the pair of them got on perfectly and there was a great bond of affection. The Lieutenant made the funeral arrangements alone.
It's very sad to say but we accepted the death of comrades as inevitable. Our hearts rested with them, but if we had kept thinking of them the suffering would have been unbearable.
There were two parades in Paris and they were two lovely occasions. Even though they didn't do any more than the other tanks Montmirail, Romilly and Champaubert were especially fêted.
So after a truly memorable fortnight or thereabouts the dream was over and we moved back to the loneliness and the reality of combat. When we left Paris my young lady was there and I gave her all my money. I re-assured her, telling her there was no point in it being burned up with me if something happened to Montmirail. Our departure for the east was a virtual country ramble because the front was now far beyond Paris. The mobilisation was very rapid and superbly organised, typical of the Deuxième Blindée.