Aug. 25, 2022

The Liberation of Paris

The Liberation of Paris

August 25, 1944. After four years of Nazi occupation, Paris is finally liberated by an Allied force of British, French and American troops during World War II.


Cold Open

CONTENT WARNING: A listener note, this episode contains a brief reference to suicide.

It’s the morning of June 17th, 1940; World War II is underway in Europe, and the Nazis have just taken France.

On an airfield in the port city of Bordeaux, a French cabinet minister named General Charles de Gaulle briskly leads his friend Edward Spears, a British liaison officer, toward a waiting plane.

As they walk, Charles glances over at the sizable group of armed French police watching their every move. And when Charles arrives at the plane… he opens the cockpit door and gestures to Edward to climb inside. Edward does as he’s told.

Charles cuts his eyes back at the French policemen. And then… he slaps the side of the plane… As the pilot starts the engine, Charles shakes his head with frustration. He doesn’t recognize his country anymore. Three days ago, Nazi Germany completed its invasion of France. And instead of resisting, the French Prime Minister agreed to collaborate with Hitler. Edward has been given permission to fly home to England. And Charles has come to see him off; at least that’s what these policemen think.

Just as the plane begins to move slowly down the runway… the cockpit door flies open again, and Edward extends his hand to his friend. Charles bolts forward, taking hold of Edward’s arm, and the Englishman pulls the Frenchman aboard the moving aircraft. The French Police look on, mouths agape, as the plane accelerates down the runway and takes off into the clear blue sky.

Despite the French Prime Minister agreeing to collaborate with the invading Germans, many in the French government opposed this defeatist attitude, including Charles de Gaulle. Charles knew his opposition to the government would eventually get him arrested. And he came to believe that the only way to serve France was by fleeing it, leading the fight against Germany from abroad. But France was crawling with Nazis on the ground. So he and Edward created a secret plan to sneak him out by air.

The next day, while safe in England, Charles will broadcast a radio address to the people of France, “Believe me, nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us to a day of victory. Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished…”

France will heed Charles’ call to arms. Over the next four years, a French resistance movement will take shape. It will have two main components: one led by Charles de Gaulle and his military commanders abroad, and another, led by an underground network of resistance fighters inside the occupied country. In this way, the French people will resist the enemy – internally and externally – until the Nazis are finally driven from France, and Paris is liberated by the Allies, on August 25th, 1944.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is August 25th, 1944: The Liberation of Paris in World War II.

Act One: La Résistance

It’s June 17th, 1940, in Chartres in northern France; four years before Paris is liberated.

Jean Moulin, a local government official, stands by the window in his office looking gravely down at the street below. A column of Nazi stormtroopers march across the cobblestones, flanked by dozens of armored trucks. Jean watches as the soldiers come to a halt outside his building. Calmly, Jean walks to his desk, sits down, and waits.

A few moments later, he hears the sound of jackboots climbing the stairs to his office. The door swings open and a Nazi commandant marches into the room.

The German informs Jean that France has succumbed to the Nazi invasion. The country's defenses have crumbled, Paris has fallen, and all local government departments are now employed solely in the service of the German war effort.

Jean remains expressionless as the commandant sits down and makes himself comfortable. He hands Jean a document and orders him to sign it. It’s a declaration, accusing a group of Senegalese soldiers in the French Army of massacring civilians in a nearby town. But Jean knows the civilians were killed by German bombs, and he refuses to participate in a cover-up of Nazi war crimes. He hands the document back, unsigned.

The commandant smirks with contempt and arrests Jean for insubordination.

Jean is transported to an abandoned farmyard outside town. The Nazis have established a base there, running communications from the farmhouse, and using the barn as a prison for captured enemies. A pair of stormtroopers shove Jean inside the barn and slam the door shut.

Jean peers around in the gloom. There are several dark shapes on the floor. And it takes a moment for Jean to realize what they are: dead bodies, riddled with bullet holes. For the first time since his arrest, Jean is afraid. But he doesn’t fear for his own safety. Rather, he’s afraid the Nazis will elicit information out of him through torture; information that could jeopardize the safety of France. He realizes he needs to do something drastic – and fast.

Jean spots a piece of broken glass on the floor. And without pausing to reflect on what he’s about to do, he picks up the shard and lifts it to his neck. Then he closes his eyes, and after the briefest of hesitations, slices his throat.

But Jean’s suicide attempt fails.

When the Nazi guards discover him bleeding, Jean is sent to a nearby hospital, where he quickly recovers. Days later, Jean emerges from the hospital to find his homeland changed beyond recognition. Rather than resisting occupation, the right-wing prime minister of France, Philippe Pétain, has accepted Hitler’s armistice, agreeing to collaborate with the Nazis.

Jean is outraged by Pétain’s cowardice and refuses to work for his collaborationist government. Instead, he decides to join a burgeoning movement of underground dissidents – a disorganized network of partisans intent on destabilizing the Nazi regime in occupied France.

In early 1941, Jean travels to Marseille, a port city in the south of France, and the epicenter of the resistance movement. After asking questions around town, Jean is given a name and an address: Henri Frenay. 67 Rue de Rome. If you want to join the resistance, Jean is told, this is the place to start.

So on a brisk winter's morning, Jean walks along Rue de Rome and knocks on the door of number 67. He tightens the scarf around his neck – a measure both to defend against the cold and to conceal the unsightly scar left by the suicide attempt.

The door creaks ajar, revealing a suspicious-looking housekeeper. Jean introduces himself and explains he’s here to see Henri Frenay. The housekeeper narrows her eyes. She’s about to turn him away when suddenly, a square-jawed man in his thirties appears. Henri beckons Jean inside, casting a furtive look up and down the street before closing the door.

Henri Frenay is the founder of a resistance group called Combat. Combat is one of many small, fragmented French resistance organizations engaging in acts of sabotage and reconnaissance. Their enemy is the Gestapo – the Nazi secret police. And although the Gestapo employs an army of leather-jacketed officers charged with hunting down the Resistance, Henri and his associates have managed to stay one step ahead.

Jean has sought out Henri to an act of plan. Jean has realized that if the various resistance groups could unite, synchronize and work together, they could participate more effectively in the war effort, establish lines of communication with allies outside the country, and build a network of intelligence that could ultimately bring down the Nazi regime in France. But to achieve this, they will need the support of somebody powerful and influential, someone like the man who first galvanized the people of France to light the flames of resistance: General Charles de Gaulle.  

Act Two: The Butcher of Lyon

It’s January 2nd, 1942; over two years before the liberation of Paris.

High above the mountains of Provence, in southern France, a dark-haired man with a scar on his neck freefalls through the night sky. Jean Moulin, the French partisan leader, pulls his parachute’s ripcord and feels his body jerk back with the uplift. Far above him, having delivered its human cargo, a British Royal Air Force airplane turns sharply and sets off home for England.

Jean drifts slowly to earth, landing on a rocky hillside among scattered pines.

For the last few months, Jean has been in England, establishing a support system for the French Resistance. In October, he met with General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the French government-in-exile, who’s been coordinating France’s war effort from London. De Gaulle was intrigued by what Jean told him about the various resistance groups forming all across France. De Gaulle believes the French Resistance could become a vital component of the fight against Nazi occupation. But first, these groups will need to get organized. So, de Gaulle gave Jean a mission: go back to France and turn the fragmented resistance movement into a unified force.

So after his covert landing in the mountains of Provence, Jean gets to work. Using the codename “Max”, Jean reconnects with Henri Frenay, founder of the resistance group, Combat. With Henri’s help, Jean coordinates with several other resistance leaders, pulling all the various strands together until the disorganized movement begins to resemble a united front.

Then in May 1943, Jean, Henri, and other resistance leaders meet secretly in Paris. Dressed in his customary black scarf and homburg hat, Jean proudly declares the inauguration of the National Council of the Resistance, or NCR. This coordinated nationwide organization is intent on driving the Nazis out of France. And from his headquarters in the city of Lyon, Jean directs the activities of the group conducting campaigns of espionage, relaying top-secret intelligence about Nazi operations back to Charles de Gaulle in London.

The group also carry out acts of sabotage, derailing Nazi supply trains and assassinating enemy soldiers. Jean oversees the creation of the Resistance Press Bureau, a service responsible for disseminating anti-Nazi propaganda throughout France, boosting morale among civilians. And meanwhile, from London, Charles de Gaulle and his staff provide the Resistance with provisions, using clandestine parachute drops to maintain a regular supply of weapons and equipment.

Organized and cohesive, the French Resistance is working. They quickly turn into a formidable thorn in the sight of the Nazis occupying France. But soon, however, an act of betrayal will cost the Resistance the life of one of its leaders, and deliver Jean Moulin into the hands of the Gestapo.


On June 21st, 1943, in a nondescript townhouse in the suburbs of Lyon, Jean Moulin leads off a meeting with several other Resistance leaders. Beneath the dim glow of a naked lightbulb, Jean discusses various items on the agenda: scheduled arrivals of Nazi ammunition shipments, rumored deployments of Allied troops in the north. 

As Jean goes over the items one by one, he scans the faces of the men with him. He has known and worked alongside them for months, if not years; all except one. A new addition to the Resistance, René Hardy is a young, fresh-faced specialist in railroads. But some at this meeting didn’t want him to come at all. They worried his presence would constitute a security risk. Hardy is unproven, and his loyalties are untested. But after lengthy consideration, Jean ultimately decided Hardy’s expertise was required.

So tonight, Jean continues the business of the meeting. He turns to Hardy and is about to ask a question about railroads when suddenly Jean freezes. Dark shadows are visible through the gap under the front door. And a split second later, a regiment of Nazi stormtroopers smash in the door and swarm the room. 

The partisans jump to their feet and back up against the wall. Jean hears the sharp click of boot-heels as a Gestapo officer appears - a man with dark, pointed features and a mouth set in a sneer. Jean knows exactly who this man is: Klaus Barbie, the head of the Gestapo in town. Barbie’s reputation for cruelty has earned him a nickname: the Butcher of Lyon.

Soon, Jean and his comrades are placed in handcuffs and led out of the room. Only one partisan is let go: René Hardy, the young railroads specialist. As Jean is shoved into the back of an SS truck, he catches René eye and detects a trace of guilt. At that moment, Jean knows he and his associates have been betrayed.

Before long, Jean and the rest of the Resistance members are thrown inside Lyon’s jail. Over the next three weeks, they are subjected to horrific torture at the hands of the Nazis. Jean receives the most brutal abuse of all. Klaus Barbie has already received congratulations from Adolf Hitler himself for capturing Jean Moulin - the notorious leader of the French Resistance. Now, Barbie is under orders to extract as much information as possible – by whatever means necessary.

By the time the interrogation is over, Jean lies slumped in a pool of his own blood, battered, bruised, and barely breathing. But despite the extent of the torture, Jean hasn’t given up a word of information that could compromise the safety of France.

Shortly after the violent interrogation, Jean falls into a coma and never wakes up. His death at the hands of the Gestapo will be mourned throughout France, but his life will serve as an inspiration for those who survive him. Jean is dead. But the battle is not yet lost. The Resistance will continue to destabilize and disrupt the occupying Nazi forces until the combined armies of Britain, France, and the United States land on French shores to finish what the Resistance started.

Act Three: Paris Liberated

It’s August 22nd, 1944; three days before the liberation of Paris.

Just outside the town of Argentan, in northern France, a wiry, mustached French general patrols the edge of his encampment. General Philippe Leclerc is Charles de Gaulle’s right-hand man, and the senior-most French military officer participating in the liberation of his homeland. Right now, Leclerc is awaiting orders from Allied Supreme Command to advance toward Paris - and he’s anxious with impatience.

Following the fall of France in 1940, Leclerc managed to escape the clutches of the Germans and make his way to England, where Charles de Gaulle had established a government-in-exile. Leclerc spent much of the war commanding French Army in Africa, aiding the British in their campaign against Axis forces in Libya.

Then, in 1944, when he learned the Allies were preparing to invade France and drive out the Germans, Leclerc enthusiastically volunteered. The invasion began with D-Day on June 6th, when more than 160,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy. Once the first wave of Allied troops had established inroads, Leclerc and his 2nd Armored Division crossed the English Channel to serve under the command of US Army General, George S. Patton.

Now, Leclerc and his division are poised for what they hope will be the final action of this invasion: the liberation of Paris. But Leclerc doesn’t yet know what his involvement will be - whether he’ll be a key participant or just a minor player. But when one of his officers rushes over, the clerk learns the news; they’ve just received word from the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower has decided that if Paris is to be liberated, then a Frenchman should spearhead the charge. Leclerc is ecstatic; this is the moment he’s been dreaming of for years.

The following morning, riding aboard a Sherman tank, Leclerc leads the final push against the German occupiers. While torrential rain lashes down, he and his 16,000 men thunder through the countryside north of Paris. Nothing could dampen the spirit of these French troops as they advance on their beleaguered capital. Along the way, they encounter several well-defended German garrisons, whose deadly anti-tank artillery keep the French occupied for two days, and inflict heavy losses.

But the will of the French liberators proves too strong. They overcome the Germans and, on the morning of Friday, August 25th, 1944, Leclerc and his division roll into Paris. The majority of Nazi authorities have fled the capital, leaving the streets clear for Parisian crowds to welcome a jubilant Leclerc. Soon, the commander of German forces in Paris has been captured, and the swastika above the Eiffel Tower has been replaced by a French Tricolore.

The liberation of Paris proves a turning point in World War II. Bolstered by their capture of the French capital, the Allies will continue their sweep across Europe, eventually forcing the Germans to surrender by May 1945. But the memory of the work and sacrifice of the French Resistance lives on. Decades later, in 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will pay homage to the members of the Resistance who died defending their country, and whose brave actions paved the way for the Allied forces to liberate Paris on August 25th, 1944.


Next on History Daily. August 26th, 1907. Submerged in the waters of San Francisco Bay, California, Harry Houdini escapes from chains in 57 seconds. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.