Background - How it Happened
In spring of 1940 Paris is the jewel of Europe, the cultural center
of the world. Home of the world’s most brilliant writers and scholars.
The home in exile of Joyce and Hemingway. The Lido Club on the Champs
Elysees is one of the most celebrated night spots in the world. The
Opera represents a height of culture, while the most famous brothel in
Paris, “One-Two-Two” caters to less refined appetites. The Jockey
Club is known throughout the world. Paris has the worlds most modern
phone system, and largest subway system - the metro. Aircraft leave
Paris day and night, and Parisians thrill to the sound of Maurice Chevalier
on Radio-Paris. Life is caviar and champagne in the city of lights.
Soiree Home /
VIA Home Page / Intercon
The spring of 1940 is one of the most beautiful in living memory.
Nearly everyone agrees on that. The air is warm, the weather perfect,
and along the river valleys of northern and central France, everything
The winter is over now, the winter of the “phoney war.”
The whirlwind has lasted less than a year, and now it is sweeping the
face of Europe. Since the Nazi sword fell on Poland last year no-one
has seriously believed that spring would not bring an invasion.
The French Government understood that Germany would invade, almost
certainly through neutral Belgium. Belgium had been an ally until
French isolationism and German military might had driven it to declare
Hitler would eventually come. But no one knew when. This
year? Next? There was hope for negotiation, another Pan-European
Congress to discuss the pressing issues. France and Britain had given up
Czechoslovakia without a fight, to save the rest of Europe. The French
government, now convinced war was coming was faced with the neutralization
of Belgium. The Maginot line must be extended, to cover the gap.
Time to build defenses was vital.
On the 23rd of August, 1939, Molotov of the Soviet Union, and Von Ribbentrop
of Germany signed a non-aggression pact. Britain was forced to declare
herself, and signed a treaty of defense with Poland two days later.
In Parliament, Chamberlain called for peace even as bombs began falling
on Warsaw on the first of September. On the next evening the British
issued an ultimatum, and France followed suit. At 9 in the morning
on the clear fall day of September 3 1939, Britain declared war.
At six that evening, France followed her ally into the fray.
The "Phoney War"
Throughout the winter, as Hitler reduced Poland, and Russia attacked
Finland, the Allies talked of “the phoney war.” Poland was destroyed
in nineteen days, and surrendered 19 September, 1939. Despite air-raid
drills, and blackout orders, travel agencies urged tourists to go ahead
with their vacation plans in spring. In America, not everyone was
convinced of the seriousness of the war, and americans travelled throughout
Europe, safe as citizens of a neutral country, although America’s interests
lay firmly with the Allies.
Tales of atrocities tumbled in. In the winter theaters,
moviegoers could warm up to Gone with the Wind, or The Wizard of Oz, but
newsreels of the War brought the details of a distant fight. Poland
fallen, Warsaw in rubble. Helsinki bombed from the air, thousands
killed in the terrible devastation wrought by Stalin’s bombers.
The French government staked its reputation on a campaign to aid Finland,
after Russia invaded November 30th. The brave Finns were no pushover
like Poland, but they weren’t in for a very pleasant Christmas either.
Their first class ski-troops smashed the Russians again and again, but
finally, they were forced to surrender to the Russians, and grant them
much of the east of Finland. They held out until the 12th of March,
1940. Estonia and Latvia were crushed under Stalin and Hitler’s boot
heels. But the Eastern European war was remote.
Debacle in Norway!
The war remained a thing that happened somewhere else, and was reported
on newsreels, and in Le Monde, or The Times. In Paris Bistros were
open, and rationing besides, there was plenty of everything. Most
everyone thought that France, and Britain should do something to aid the
rest of Europe. The question was, what?
The Allies wanted to help Finland, the Germans to prevent it.
Both sides decided that the only answer was to take northern Norway.
For the British, it would be a corridor to move supplies to Finland.
The Germans wanted another conquest. Denmark was in the way. On the
9th of April, 1940 the Germans dropped the guillotine on Denmark and Norway.
The Allies weren’t ready yet, that much was clear. Denmark fell
that day. German battleships pounded Oslo, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim,
and Narvik. The King and government took to the hills and issued
a defiant “no” to Hitler’s demands for surrender. Once more newsreels
of burning ships, shattered cities, injured civilians. On the 14th
of April, the Allies landed. There was no hiding the debacle. The
troops had no snowshoes, and no artillery. They could not fight the
Germans, and they could not get away fast enough. Even so, they were
able to win victories around Narvik, and there was some hope. The
British damaged the German fleet, and the Norwegians sank one of their
It became clear that the expedition was a legend of poor planning.
Planning bad enough to topple a state. Parliament debated from 7-8
May, and at the end of the debate, Neville Chamberlain was ousted as Prime
Minister by a huge margin. Winston Churchill, former Secretary of
the Navy, which had been the only force that really worked well in the
Norwegian campaign, formed a coalition government.
Betrayal of Rotterdam
The beautiful spring was beginning to embrace Europe, and time was
running out. General Gamelin, sixty-eight year old, Chief of Staff
of the French Army and a veteran of the Great War, braced northern France,
committing his best troops to the Belgian frontier. Gamelin drew
up a plan with the British. The Germans would invade through Belgium,
and France and Britain would immediately launch a counterthrust, cutting
German lines, and keeping the fighting out of France.
On the morning of 10 May, it finally happened. That was only
a month and four days ago. France waited by radios for the news.
Chatter in public places was casual. Parisians sipped aperitifs.
The papers made little of the incursion into Belgium, which was minor and
under control. Much space was devoted to a possible German invasion
of the Balkans. Even as the Nazis smashed Belgium, little was revealed
of the weakness or hopelessness of the Allied position.
The Nazis fell from the sky, not only on Belgium, but on the Netherlands
too, a totally innocent neutral, not even in the way. The 18th army
slammed through the Netherlander’s puny defenses, as the 6th army cut its
way into Belgium.
This time the Allies were ready. The British Expeditionary
Force under and the French army under the general command of Gamelin moved
into Belgium, slower than the German amour, but large. They would cut off
the Germans, and then force them to surrender or retreat.
On the 14th, the Germans delivered an ultimatum to the Netherlands.
Surrender, or they would destroy the city of Rotterdam. The Netherlanders
never got a chance to decide. Two hours before the deadline ran out,
the Germans bombed Rotterdam anyway.
The casualties were close and terrifying. Red Cross estimates
totalled 980 dead, another 29,000 injured or wounded. The city in
ruins. But while Frenchmen burned with rage at this atrocity, a greater
threat was already occurring. Waking on the 15th the news was already
about that the Germans had sent units through the impassible territories
of the Ardennes, at Sedan, and established a bridgehead in France across
the Meuse river.
March to the Sea
The Germans had more important targets than central France. Over
the last few weeks, news reports, refugees, and rumors have told a coherent
tale. Rumor is always hours or days ahead of radio, always more accurate.
Military censorship has made the press and radio a poor source of information.
The Germans under General Guderian cut a swathe across northern France
to the sea. Reports came in of victories and advances, but they were
always wrong. Advancing at forty miles a day, the Germans reached the sea
on the 20th of last month.
Rumors - Dunkirk
Prime Minister Reynaud sought to pull command together as the armies
in the north disintegrated. He fired General Gamelin, and replaced
him with 72 year old General Weygand, also a hero in the last war.
Six days later rumors led to official reports that the British Expeditionary
force, and French army, encircled where they had attempted to advance in
to Belgium, and unable to regain contact with the south was being evacuated
Ten days ago, they were gone, evacuated, with remnants of the French
army, from Dunkirk. No one knows when and if the British will re-arm
the French troops, or if they can do any good if they could return.
The French army cut to ribbons in the north, against all odds, and
in next to no time. Poland is one issue, but the French army is modern
and mechanized, her infantry well trained and disciplined, and her artillery
the finest in the world. French tanks outnumber those of Germany,
and the French Air Force is supported by the RAF of England. Spies
betrayed France, and it is spies that the police and authorities have sought,
questioning travellers, and snarling the impossible traffic.
A fortnight ago, Paris seemed doomed. Nazi artillery could be
heard to the north, the Radio and Papers still printed only good news,
but it was common knowledge that the Germans were within fifty miles of
the city. But then, a reprieve. The Germans split into two columns,
and passed to the east and west.
Talk of surrender loomed heavy in the air. Marshall Petain, former
ambassador to Spain was known to favor an armistice. A pamphlet circulated,
hinting that Petain should assume leadership of the nation and make peace.
Weygand continued to fight, and a hard line young General named De Gaulle
who had hit the Germans hard during the advance to the sea, was appointed
to Reynaud’s Cabinet. Reynaud favored continuing the struggle.
Terms like “In North Africa if necessary” were bandied about.
But salvation might still be achieved. Once before the Germans were
turned just outside of Paris. To the common man, it still seemed
possible that Weygand might win a victory like Marne.
Chaos in Paris
Paris was no longer peaceful, tensely or sleepily awaiting news.
millions of Belgians flooded over the border ahead of Nazi amour. None
were turned away...there wasn’t a force on earth that could have turned
them. By the second week, eight million people were on the move.
They choked the roads, and blocked them. Many started out in motorcars,
which blocked the highways as they stalled one by one, out of petrol.
The roads leading south became a graveyard of Renault, Citroen, Ford and
Mercedes automobiles. The army pushed them to the side, as trucks carried
troops toward the front.
If there was no miracle of the Marne, God provided one small miracle.
The Railroads still ran. In fact, considering the dive bombers, refugees,
and military trains, they have run very well. Regular service with
delays has continued uninterrupted since the breakthrough at Sedan.
Every day saw trains crammed with refugees pour out of Paris, the stations
hectic but manageably organized. To the last, there has been ticketing
and reservations. If France cannot run an army at least she can run
And not only the Belgians retreated. The entire north of France
converged on Paris: the center of every road, railway, or bicycle path
for hundreds of kilometers. Paris represented a safe haven.
The government was in Paris, the army would defend Paris, Paris never fell
during the Great War.
Along the way the route became at first annoying, as cars broke down
or ran out of petrol, then frightening, as luggage was abandoned, and scalping
farmers sold water from pumps for 20 francs a glass, and finally deadly,
as Nazi dive bombers cleared roads for advancing troops by strafing and
bombing retreating civilians.
The wave of refugees that has rolled across France from Paris has been
a thing of frightful wonder. Hundred mile long traffic jams, as the
entire population of the worlds most sophisticated metropolitan center,
with more motorcars than any other city in the world, jammed the roads.
Phone lines down, the massive electrical pulse of Paris failing, the city
isolated, the vast wave leaving debris and bodies by the roadside.
In the meantime, the tide of refugees, thinned to a trickle and stopped.
In the past week, Paris has become a city of ghosts. Before the war,
there were five million, and two weeks ago, twenty million crammed through
the city and choked the roads to the south, seeking asylum. Now only
maybe 700,000 remain. Night clubs are closed, bistros locked. Theaters
ceased operation. Only one in ten of Paris’ businesses is open.
One eyewitness described the flight:
Along the Boulevard Saint-Michel, an uninterrupted flow of people
began to leave Paris with the most varied means of transport. Cars
crammed with luggage; heavy trucks loaded with people and suitcases.
Some set out on bicycles, others proceeded at a more modest pace pushing
small hand-carts, with an occasional dog to be seen here and there tied
underneath on a lead. On the edge of the pavements stood a number
of people with cases, their faces blending bewilderment with despair, waiting
for transport of every conceivable kind, whilst the more fortunate crammed
as much into cars as possible. At the Boulevard Saint-Germain it
was much the same spectacle. In the rue Dauphine luggage was strewn
all over the pavements. Trucks loaded up. Stores shut up.
Others were preparing to leave with nothing more elaborate than a pram.
A few hotels struggle on. The Crillon has stayed open, the manager
awaiting occupation, but fearing that if the building is vacant it will
be made into a Nazi command post. He plans to charge the Nazis for
their stay in Paris. Most of the staff has gone, and the Crillon
has promoted from among the ranks. It is rumored that a former elevator
boy is now the maitre d’hotel. Near the Gare D’Orsay, the American-owned
Hotel Hampton is open. A few days ago no rooms could be had in Paris
for any price. Now rooms go begging. The neutral ground of
the American Embassy is locked down tight, though U.S. Ambassador Bullit
remains in the city hoping to safeguard any American citizens remaining
The Lights Go Out
Three days ago, the jackal, Italy, declared war on France. The
humiliation is worse than the threat. But there is more than humiliation.
Churchill came the next day, but the British have withdrawn the air support,
and most of the French air force is burned on the runways, or lying in
the fields of the Oise and Ainse valleys. With no air force has come no
relief from the bombing, and no hope on the ground.
Faced with encirclement, the government abandoned Paris, although that
also was done before Marne. They withdrew to the Loire, Reynaud still
vowing that the French would fight. But the armies are withdrawing
from Paris, and Marshall Petain of the armed forces.
Tonight, Paris is being declared an open city. The newspapers,
which carried no reliable news anyway, shut down on the tenth, when the
government abandoned the city.
Today, the PTT has shut down the telephones, and the banks are closed.
The Metro has stopped running.
Yesterday, the military governor had posters put up informing the citizens
that Paris would not be defended, but would be declared an open city.
Trains and trucks are ferrying out the army and supplies. The Paris
Metropolitan Police Department is the only tool of law and order. France
may still be a Republic, but tonight Paris is under the rule of Petain,
and tomorrow it will be under the rule of Hitler.
As the remnants of the Third Republic withdraw from the deserted city,
a danse macabre begins among the remaining inhabitants. There are
as many travellers here as Parisians, men and women unable or unwilling
to flee farther from Hitler, or neutrals, hoping to escape the injury of
war as Paris is surrendered peacefully. The mad or the old remain,
or those who believe the war is already over. Diplomats remain, and
as well must the foreign spies who betrayed France.
Since dawn today, Paris has been choked in a cloud of thick black smoke.
No one is really sure what it is, though the general theory is that retreating
French troops have set fire to oil reserves stored outside the city,
in an attempt to keep them out of German hands.
By order of General Weygand, Commander in Chief of the French Army,
the City of Paris has been declared an open city, and will not be defended
by troops of the French Army, in order to preserve the health and safety
of the populace. The City of Paris will be surrendered to the German
Citizens of the City of Paris are warned to obey the orders of the
Metropolitan Police. The Prefect of Police will give orders to the
Citizens on how to respond to occupation forces.
The City of Paris is under the command of General Georges.
Obey the orders of any member of the Open City Garrison at once.
Looting is forbidden. Metropolitan Police and troops of the
Garrison of the Open City have been authorized to shoot looters on site.
All citizens of Paris should carry their identification papers at all times.
This announcement has been authorized by the Metropolitan Prefecture