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Paris Saved by a Bullitt

The Ambassador, France, and World War II

Photograph made from B-17 Flying Fortress on December 31, 1943 when they attacked the vital CAM ball-bearing plant and the nearby Hispano Suiza aircraft engine repair depot in Courbevoie near Paris, France. At the top of the photo, we see a cluster of bombs falling down. U.S. Department of Defense

As the last of more than 300,000 overwhelmed Belgian, British, and French troops were evacuating Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe bombed Paris for the first time. In broad daylight on June 3, 1940, a thousand bombers and fighters struck French airfields, aircraft, munitions factories, and the morale of the rapidly dwindling number of Parisians who had not already fled the capital. That raid 75 years ago this month remains the most devastating aerial bombardment in the city’s history. It left 254 dead and 652 injured.

The sirens sounded 18 minutes after William Christian Bullitt Jr., the U.S. ambassador to France, arrived for a 1 pm lunch at the Air Ministry. “Heavy bombs fell on all sides,” Bullitt wired his confidant and fellow Francophile, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “and we went down to the air raid shelter amid flying glass and plaster.” One bomb landed on the roof of the reception room he, armed only with a glass of sherry, had just left. It was a dud. Two vehicles were destroyed by other bombs, Bullitt reported, but “my own car was untouched and I am entirely uninjured and lost only my hat and gloves, which are sitting at this moment close to the unexploded bomb.”

William Christian Bullitt, March 6, 1937.
William Christian Bullitt, March 6, 1937. Library of Congress
The Luftwaffe had already obliterated Warsaw and Rotterdam, but Paris was sui generis. There, the Reich was being more judicious. “From the propaganda point of view, we don’t intend to do anything regarding this first attack,” Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis’ information minister, confided to his diary. “We shall see what the enemy does.” (The Nazis insisted publicly, though, that the U.S. ambassador himself hadn’t been a target, and surely not of defective munitions. “It is not characteristic of German bombs not to explode in decisive moments,” the Hamburger Fremdenblatt huffed.)

Within a week of the air raid, German tanks, armored cars, motorcycles, and infantry would thunder into the outskirts of Paris. Well before they arrived, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had reminded the French of  “the enormous absorbing power of the house-to-house

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