- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Private Ronald Ritson, Major E.R. Hargreaves, Staff Sergeant C.A. Miles, Brigadier Browne, Major B. Mann, LACW Marie F. Cranfield, Charles de Gaulle, Captain Philippe Dronne, Dietrich von Choltitz
- Location of story:
- Paris, River Seine, Falaise, France, Holland
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 February 2005
The Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre, Paris. One of the places visited by members of 26 FHS, RAMC at the end of August 1944. They had a nice picnic lunch in the Place du Tertre on the top of Montmartre
Arguably, one of the greatest events in the history of Paris is its Liberation from German Occupation in August 1944. It is a period that has gone down in both history and legend. One of the set books for a French language course I studied was ‘Paris brûle-t-il’ (Is Paris burning?) by Larry Collins and Dominique La Pierre based on interviews from people who lived through those times. It has also been made into a film starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Boyer, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret.
After more than four years of Occupation, in mid-August 1944 the Parisian Committee of Liberation and National Resistance Council declared an insurrection, the police force occupied the police buildings, barricades were built in the streets.
On 24 August the first Allied tank arrived at the Porte d’Orleans, and it was a French tank commanded by Captain Philippe Dronne. Dietrich von Choltitz, the German Governor of Paris surrendered on 25 August. General Charles de Gaulle arrived the following day to a tumultuous welcome and proceeded to walk down the Champs Elysée and attend a ‘Te Deum’ at Notre Dame Cathedral, ignoring sniper fire from the rooftops.
While researching the Battle of Normandy for another university project, for the first time I learnt that I had a kinsman who had been in Paris at the end of August 1944. One of my uncles, Private Ronald Ritson, RAMC, first visited the French capital at the end of August 1944. He was one of the relatively few British troops who actually visited Paris at that time. Most British troops were advancing towards Belgium and the Netherlands. The Allied troops in Paris immediately after the Liberation were mostly either Free French or American.
During his lifetime, Ronald saw Paris on only one other occasion. This was just before Christmas 1944 when he chauffeured his Commanding Officer, Major E.R. Hargreaves, from the Netherlands to take up the post of Senior Medical Officer to the British Army Staff in Paris. This account of the about the aftermath of the closing of the Falaise Gap and the two occasions Ronald saw Paris is based on both his recorded personal testimony in April 2000, other earlier relating of the visits plus additional information from Major Hargreaves. I am indebted to both of these gentlemen for sharing their memories.
The German retreat from Falaise
Private R. Ritson, 7517826, RAMC, 26 Field Hygiene Section:
“At the battle where they trapped the Germans, at the ‘Falaise Gap’, they defeated the German Army. There were a lot of them who got out of there and I think they went pretty fast! We moved on from where we had been at and camped near Flers.
Then we moved on from there and we pulled into a field to dig in. Next, we were told, “You needn’t dig any further. We’re off again! They can‘t keep up with the Germans. They’re running that fast.” So, they were retreating very fast now, the Germans, and the infantry had a job keeping up with them. The ‘recce’ parties, which are leading the main force of the infantry, they went forward to probe where the main German forces were. They’d just lost all contact with them and we just kept on the move. I think we stopped on the River Seine to the south of Paris.
We weren’t far from Paris all through that bit. Now, along the way, on our way to the Seine there were all kinds of German soldiers and all kinds of people in different uniforms that had likely been released by the Germans. The road was pretty well blocked by them. They were pushing them on to the side of the road to get the armies moving.”
The first time I saw Paris
“We weren’t far from Paris now. We were only maybe 30 miles or so away from Paris. At that time our Commanding Officer Major Hargreaves, in his goodness, thought he would take advantage of this and send a group of us into Paris. Word had been going round the troops that Paris was liberated and it was on the BBC.
Half the Unit went one day and the other half the next day. The C.O. stayed overnight in a hotel. We went into Paris and had a nice day out in Paris. We visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Sacré Coeur and various other places in Paris, with picnic lunch at the Place du Tertre. It was a lovely day, so we were really chuffed and quite happy after all the running we had to do.
This would have been just after the Liberation of Paris, August 1944. It would have been then. So then we stayed in that area and near the Seine. I can’t say for how long. But we stayed there a little while, well into September when the ‘Operation Market Garden’ started.”
Other reflections about this first visit
On a number of other occasions over the years, Ronald’s first visit to Paris came up once or twice in general conversation, so unfortunately there is no written or audio recording. However, Ronald did explain in more detail how magical Paris seemed to him at the time, especially coming from Scilly Banks, a small village of only twenty houses or so.
There were very few motorised vehicles in vehicles, other than military vehicles. There were lots of bicycles and horse-drawn carriages and most of the streets were empty. The Parisians were really friendly, and they got the same enthusiastic welcome they’d received at the village of Plumetot just after D-Day, with lots of handshakes, flag waving and cheering. Major Hargreaves, in his own account of this visit to Paris, recorded similar experiences, emphasizing: “Paris was magical, the streets almost empty.”
The last time I saw Paris
Private R. Ritson, 7517826, RAMC, 26 Field Hygiene Section.
“After Arnhem we went forward as far as the Nijmegen Bridge. We were in Holland for a while then. I think before Christmas we lost our Major Hargreaves, but he wasn’t killed. I don’t want to mislead you! He had been given a ‘Staff’ job to do back in Paris. He had been posted as Senior Medical Officer to the British Army Staff in Paris. He had to report to a Brigadier Browne, Commanding Officer in Paris. We now got a new Commanding Officer, Major Mann, a younger man.
And as batman to Major Hargreaves, I had the good fortune to drive him back there, with the sergeant, Staff Sergeant C.A. Miles. This was right in the centre of Paris (NB - It was at Roger Gallet, Faubourg St Honoré). However, when I got him back there, my car broke down and I couldn’t get back. Then, when I took it to the Army garage they ‘played war’ with us! They said I shouldn’t have fetched the car down.
Well, I said to them, “I’m here, and it has had a garage inspection. There’s my log book with all the signatures in it saying it’s OK, and I’m just driving”. So they had to do it for us to get back. Then, he said to me, “Don’t you realise you people up at the Front are first priority for all the spare parts and we just get what’s left!” However, he had to do the repair. The sergeant and myself went back and left Major Hargreaves to his new job. But anyway, that was it, the last time I saw Paris!”
Other reflections about this second visit
The Officer’s Mess for Major Hargreaves was the Westminster Hotel, Rue de la Paix, not far from the Place Vendôme and his office at Roger Gallet, almost opposite the British Embassy. There were comparatively few British troops in Paris during these last months of World War Two.
Shortly after his posting to Paris, the former Unit of Major Hargreaves, 26 Field Hygiene Section, sent a copy of the December issue of the Section magazine ‘Hygienal Mag’ to his office in Paris. Every member of the Section had signed the cover page including his replacement as Commanding Officer of 26 F.H.S., Major Mann. Major Hargreaves kept this magazine and signatures over the years.
Early in February 1945, Private Ronald Ritson married his fiancée Marie Cranfield in South Norwood, London. He never saw Paris again, either during the war or afterwards . Marie and Ronald had a long happy married life until Marie passed away in October 1990.
Ronald passed away suddenly in July 2000. A few days later I was in Paris on a pre-arranged visit to France researching a university project. I had the chance to look again at some of the places the members of 26 FHS, part of the RAMC, had visited in August 1944. People say that Paris never looked lovelier and the Parisians were never friendlier than at the end of August 1944. There were only a few British troops who had the opportunity to visit then. Soldiers of 26 FHS were among the lucky ones, thanks to Major Hargreaves.
When Major Hargreaves and Private Ritson were alive, I attempted to make contact or find out what had happened to Staff Sergeant C.A. Miles, believed to be from Andover, Hampshire. He is mentioned in the above account about visiting Paris. However, it did not prove possible to find anyone who knew of Staff Miles’ whereabouts at that time. This account has been written and submitted to record and commemorate the short but exciting visit to Paris in 1944 by some soldiers in the RAMC.
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