German Defenses of Paris 1944

General Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of German forces in Paris, seen shortly after he formally surrendered the city late on the afternoon of August 25.

At first Hitler’s assignment did not seem to be too much of a burden to the new Wehrmacht Paris Commander General of Infantry Dietrich von Choltitz. Choltitz’s main tasks in Paris were to maintain law and order, to eliminate any and all so-called rear echelon phenomena, and to comb out the various headquarters to find men who were still fit to fight. But the swift Allied advance introduced the problem of how the city could be defended against external attack. Initial guidance came from Kluge, the OB West at that time, who analyzed the situation correctly and assessed as unlikely any major Allied push to Paris. Kluge noted expressly that defensive efforts would have to be concentrated entirely on the barrier belt that ran to the west of the city.

Here was at least a chance of beating off enemy reconnaissance probes with the help of field fortifications and tank barriers along the outgoing streets, as well as with the 88mm batteries of the Paris antiaircraft artillery belt. Kluge wanted to avoid street fighting, and for that matter any fighting at all in the city. As for the initiation of the so-called “paralysis and demolition measures”-which were entirely customary during withdrawal operations to slow down the enemy’s pursuit-Kluge stipulated that any such actions in Paris would be initiated only on his specific orders.

To keep a handle on things at all times and to prevent any independent actions, Kluge had the Wehrmacht Paris Commander report to him directly. Even after Kluge was relieved, Choltitz continued to make every effort to conform to the intentions of the former OB West. Model, the new OB West who had just arrived in France, did not have the time to address in detail the rather secondary problem of Paris.

Thus the priorities were established. The main body of the twenty thousand men available in the Paris area was employed to the west of the city. Remnants of the decimated 352nd Infantry Division were also deployed to the front of the barrier ring. Given their heterogeneous and provisional makeup, neither those units nor the two regimental battle groups committed there under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hubertus von Aulock could possibly carry out a delaying defense along the approximately forty-five-kilometer long barrier belt.

The higher-level staffs were entirely familiar with these problems. As early as August 16 higher headquarters estimated that the enemy would at any time be in a position to penetrate the only lightly manned defensive positions. But the various headquarters in the west had no idea of what should be done in the case of an offensive. A telephone conversation between chiefs of staff Blumentritt and Speidel indicates clearly the existing doubt as to whether the city of Paris should be defended at all.

Once the barrier belt had accomplished its mission of gaining time, there was nothing to prevent any evacuation of the metropolis without a fight. The notion that Paris, like Rome, could be declared an open city might have been a factor, although there was no indication at the time that the Allies would honor any such declaration. Choltitz’s original mission to preserve stable internal conditions grew increasingly more difficult as the unrest bubbling beneath the surface of the city rose to the point of near eruption. Despite the Allied successes in Normandy, the population of the city initially had adopted a wait-and-see attitude. That mood was now changing, driven, among other things, by inadequate food supplies. Paris was now cut off from its sources of supply, which had been located to the west. And with the rail lines destroyed, food shipments reached Paris only irregularly by highway. The French Ravitaillement General (the general supply system), which until then had done the job of distributing the few arriving goods in coordination with the German military, collapsed or was put out of action by the Resistance. Paris was on the brink of starvation. Compounding the tensions were rumors that the entire male population of the city capable of working would be deported. Such a decision was actually under consideration in the Reich Chancellery, which estimated a labor force of some one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand men. Those rumors increasingly drove Parisians into the arms of the militant Resistance. Especially after the point when the defensive main effort was placed in the outer barrier ring, Choltitz had forces within the city with which to oppose the more than twenty thousand (albeit poorly armed) members of the FFI. The 325th Security Division, first organized in 1942, with the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 190th Security Regiments, was the force assigned to the Commandant of Greater Paris for maintaining internal control. The 325th Security Division, however, no longer existed as such. All Choltitz had was the 2nd Battalion of the 190th Security Regiment, the 17th Technical Battalion, two companies of the 5th Security Regiment, and remnants of the 317th Reserve Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion. That meager force was supported by a few Panzers and World War I-era French-built tanks. That was the only tactical reserve Choltitz had available. The desolate situation of the defenders inside the city, totaling some five thousand men, was augmented by four so-called “Paris Alert Battalions,” patched together partly from Military Administration civilian officials, who were quickly put into Wehrmacht uniforms and placed in various buildings that were designated as strongpoints. In the event of any fighting, the decisive advantages would be with the FFI, which fought with guerrilla tactics. They had the ability to pop out from the population at any moment, execute their action, and then merge just as quickly back into the population. Thus restricted in his military options, all Choltitz could do was try somehow to defuse by other means the tense atmosphere. If he could do that, he could buy time until either the evacuation of Paris was authorized by the Führer Headquarters or adequate reinforcements arrived to put the resistance down. The possibility of reinforcements for Paris was something the various German headquarters in the west still considered a real possibility at that point. Such notions did not originate out of thin air. The First Army, in whose sector Paris was located, was supposed to receive control of not only the 48th Infantry Division but also the 47th and 49th Infantry Divisions from the Channel coast. Additionally, the remnants of three Panzer or Panzer Grenadier divisions were then refitting in the immediate vicinity of the city.

Reinforcements late August

Choltitz’s disastrous military strength situation was the basis of his actions, which were cautious in dealing with the French at least. Choltitz released three of de Gaulle’s captured representatives after they had assured him that they would urge compliance with the armistice. In the final analysis, however, Choltitz’s efforts to play the factions of the Resistance against each other were meaningless because the reinforcements he was hoping for never arrived. Choltitz’s hopes did not last long. Instead of the divisional-sized units he was hoping for, Choltitz received only an engineer and an artillery unit of battalion strength, plus the 11th Assault Gun Brigade with twenty combat vehicles. That was all Model was able to spare, because of the threat facing Army Group B. The 47th and 49th Infantry Divisions from the Channel coast were immediately deployed against the Seine River bridgeheads above and below the city; the 47th Infantry Division was halted dead in its tracks as Allied fighter-bombers shot up the locomotives of the trains moving the unit.

Various actions taken by Model indicate that the German command in the west had given Paris up as lost on August 23.

The reactions to the “Rubble Field Order”-as it was now mockingly called-from the Führer Headquarters were crystal clear. Hitler’s demands for resorting to “the severest measures upon the first indication of an uprising, such as demolition of residential housing blocks, public executions,” were based on an utterly wrong estimate of the situation. Choltitz had seen that immediately, with no little indignation. As he reported to Model in a telephone conversation that day, one had to expect “that Paris would soon be wrested from the German armies, possibly by the internal enemy, because the enemy has now recognized our weakness.” That evening Model advanced the same opinion in a telephone conversation with the chief of the Wehrmacht operations staff, and he urged that the existing directive be amended. In response to Jodl’s hesitant reply that “Paris would have to be held for the moment,” the OB West thundered that he did not want “provisional orders” but a clear directive in case of the loss of Paris. A city of millions of people, Model insisted, could not be defended internally or externally with the weak forces available. Model further insisted that “these situation assessments be reported to the führer clearly.”

It was all in vain; Hitler’s mind could not be changed. As a consequence, Choltitz lost the more promising and militarily significant opportunity of withdrawing from Paris and organizing the defenses along the eastern edge of the city without the permanent threat to his rear from the FFI. But now Choltitz’s position was exceptionally precarious because he had gone out on a limb by his actions and his harsh criticism of Hitler’s order. His only remaining chance of avoiding a rather somber fate while at the same time fulfilling his sense of duty as a soldier was to hold out at his post to the bitter end. To avoid exposing his men to the FFI with no protection and therefore leaving them to face the explosion of stored-up popular anger, Choltitz hoped that he would be able to continue fighting, at least until such time as he was facing regular Allied units.

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