Paris was freed from Nazi rule on August 25th 1944 by the 2nd Armoured Division of the Free French army, a few months after D-Day. The strange thing is that all the soldiers seemed to be white – even though the French army at the time was two-thirds black. As it turns out the British and Americans who ran D-Day would only let all-white army divisions cross the Channel. Even the black American soldiers were left behind in Britain and joined the fighting only later.
France in those days ruled much of Africa and had black soldiers in its army. In 1940 when Paris fell to Hitler 17,000 black soldiers had lost their lives defending France. In spite of that no black soldiers were allowed to take part in the liberation of Paris four years later. And to this day there is no monument in Paris to honour them.
After the fall of Paris, De Gaulle fled to Africa to raise an army to some day return to free France. By 1944 his army was two-thirds black. But then five months before D-Day the British and Americans told him they did not want black soldiers freeing Paris – they would allow whites only.
De Gaulle was against it – he did not separate his men by race like the Americans did – but he had little choice.
Most of De Gaulle’s divisions were about 40% white. The whitest one was 75% white – the 2nd Armoured Division in Morocco. It would be hard to move it into position for D-Day because of all its tanks, but it was the only one that could be made all-white in time. But even as it was, many of the “whites” were not French at all but Spanish, Syrian and North African.
But why did the British and Americans want an all-white division? They said it would be better for propaganda and French morale – as if they knew more about French morale than De Gaulle himself.
Propaganda: it seems the (white) American commanders were afraid of how the sight of black soldiers freeing Paris would look on newsreels back home where everyone had been brought up on whitewashed history. So to maintain that image they forced the French to whitewash their army, forcing fiction on fact.
At the time the American army was segregated on the grounds that blacks were not brave enough to fight in battle. Blacks worked in the supply chain behind front lines as truck drivers and dock workers. They were not thrown into battle until near the end when General Eisenhower had little choice. But the black African soldiers had already proved their courage in France in 1940 and had even fought alongside white Americans in Italy in 1943.
The American motives seem clear, the British ones do not. Their army was not segregated by race and they had nothing like Jim Crow to maintain on the home front. Some say it is because they were afraid of having a black fighting force on their soil – D-Day was staged from their shores.