France holds dear a handful of heroes from World War II, among them towering Gen. Charles de Gaulle, dashing aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of “The Little Prince”) and wily Resistance Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. But in the long memory of postwar generations the nation’s deepest affection lies with Gen. Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque.
This November marks both the 120th anniversary of his birth and 75th anniversary of his death, an occasion to be marked by commemorations, re-enactments, parades and conferences, mostly in Paris, but also in other cities. Rare are the French towns without a street, avenue or place du Général Leclerc, reflecting an outpouring of honor that eclipses any other French historical figure. Gen. Jean-Paul Michel, president of the Fondation du Maréchal Leclerc de Hauteclocque, noted that in never losing a battle, Leclerc erased the shame of the collapse of France in 1940.
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“Leclerc gave the French people back their pride,” he said. “The popular adulation this man drew in postwar glory has been transmitted to later generations.”
Philippe de Hauteclocque, who took the pseudonym Leclerc when he joined de Gaulle in exile in England in 1940, rose from captain to general during the war years, from his first command of a dozen men in French Cameroon in 1941 to leading nearly 20,000 members of the French 2nd Armored Division at Utah Beach in August 1944. Veterans who fought under his command had nothing but songs of praise, most commenting on his fraternal style with troops, a far cry from the verticality of traditional French army ranks.
“Leclerc loved his men,” said 2nd Armored Division veteran Raymond Fischer, 98, in a recent interview. “We called him ‘Boss.’ I had enormous admiration for Leclerc.” Fischer, who joined the division in Normandy in August 1944, is among an ever-shrinking circle of surviving veterans. But in 25 years of interviewing division veterans, I have heard nothing but the same. “There are certainly differences between Gen. Leclerc and the good Lord above, but I would have trouble naming them,” one veteran quipped.
The cities of Paris and Strasbourg have particular regard for Leclerc, each owing their liberation from Nazi occupation directly to him. In August 1944, as the Battle of Normandy pushed German forces ever eastward, the question arose of what to do with Paris. American commanders, Gen. George S. Patton among them, wanted to skirt the capital and continue driving toward Berlin. The French, on the other hand, saw the weighty political and social gains to be made from liberating Paris. Patton wrote in his memoirs:
Leclerc of the 2nd French Armored Division came in, very much excited.…He said, among other things, that if he were not allowed to advance on Paris, he would resign. I told him in my best French that he was a baby, and I would not have division commanders tell me where they would fight, and that anyway I had left him in the most dangerous place. We parted friends.
Patton had asked for Leclerc’s division to join his Third Army on Aug. 1, a month earlier than scheduled, after having inspected their ranks in England and measured their eagerness to get into the fight. Patton and Leclerc had very different styles of command but shared a core of steely determination to succeed. “Leclerc and Patton were, in my opinion, the only Allied military commanders to conceive and exploit fully what an armored division of that era could do,” General Edgard de Larminat wrote in a postwar memoir.
And Leclerc was “in a black fury” over the question of Paris, according to a French Resistance messenger sent to urge the U.S. Army to liberate the capital. American Brig. Gen. Omar Bradley flew to headquarters in London to consult Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, returning with a green light and a warning for Leclerc: This could turn into catastrophe, see that it doesn’t.
That very evening Leclerc gave the signal to depart. Two columns of 2,400 vehicles raced the 125 miles to the southern outskirts of Paris, the first company slipping into the city the night of August 24. Its members held up the radio mike so those waiting at the gates could hear the bells of Notre Dame tolling the city’s salvation. The next day Leclerc set up headquarters in the Gare Montparnasse and accepted the surrender of German General Dietrich von Choltitz, Wehrmacht commander of the Paris area.
Strasbourg, in German-claimed Alsace, was Leclerc’s target from the start of Free French battles on the African continent. With the German occupation of the metropole, French forces turned to their African colonies for support. They found it in French Cameroon and French Chad and with growing momentum took the Italian-occupied area of Kufra in Libya on March 1, 1941. There Leclerc asked his men to swear an oath never to stop fighting until the French colors flew again above the cathedral at Strasbourg. It took nearly four years to do it, but on Nov. 23, 1944, Strasbourg surrendered to Leclerc’s forces.
In the joyous aftermath a butcher’s wife sewed together a makeshift flag of liberation from a blue worker’s apron, a white dress shirt and a red tablecloth, and a daring young infantryman scaled the heights to hang it from the cathedral’s needle. Service order No. 73: The Oath of Kufra had been met.
Leclerc and the Second Division entered Germany in April 1945, reaching Adolf Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden for the surrender on May 7. Leclerc later led forces to French Indochina, at the time occupied by Japan, and was then named inspector of land forces in North Africa. He and his staff died in a plane crash in French Algeria on Nov. 28, 1947.
Commemoration activities have been organized by the Association of Commerçants and Artisans of the Avenue du General Leclerc of Paris in conjunction with the Fondation Maréchal Leclerc de Hauteclocque, Fondation de la France Libre and the Musée de la Libération–Musée General Leclerc–Musée Jean Moulin.
Ellen Hampton is a Paris-based historian and author. Her latest book, “Doctors at War: The Clandestine Battle Against the Nazi Occupation of France,” is due to be published by the Louisiana State University Press in March 2023.