On August 26, 1944, one day after the Nazis had surrendered the city of Paris, Charles de Gaulle laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, re-lit the Arc de Triomphe’s eternal flame, and—peppered with sniper fire from a handful of stubborn holdouts—led a victory parade along the Champs-Élysées.
Except he didn’t actually lead it. According to his obituary in the Hastings Observer, that honor fell to Harry Hamilton, a British soldier from the sleepy county of Dorset, who found himself leading the generals and dignitaries by complete mistake.
Army Cheat Sheet
War often makes legends of opportunists, and Hamilton—who died in February at age 98—seemed to be a cheekier opportunist than most. His daughter told the Hastings Observer that, upon joining the army, he gained an immediate promotion by lying to his commanding officers about his ability to ride a motorcycle. Then he did it again, scoring an intelligence post after lying about his fluency in German. By 1944 he had somehow fallen in with Patton’s Third Army, and joined the convoy to Paris from northern France. This is where Hamilton’s shaggy-dog story begins.
According to the Daily Mail, Hamilton wrote in his unpublished memoirs that his truck broke down along the way, causing him to quickly fall out of step with the convoy. Once the truck was repaired, he wrote, “I knew that [Patton] was aiming at Paris, but he didn’t go the direct route, he went a slightly circular route in order to trap any troops. I went on the direct route and arrived in Paris before he did.” Given that Patton raced through France toward the Rhine at such a tremendous clip that it even managed to startle Eisenhower, you have to assume that Hamilton must have strapped himself onto a rocket to achieve this.
And so it was that Hamilton claims to have found himself on the Champs-Élysées ahead of de Gaulle, surrounded by hordes of giddy Parisians welcoming him as their liberator. “People were all cheering and everything,” he wrote. “The girls were blowing kisses.”
“I went on the direct route and arrived in Paris before [Patton] did.”
Deciding to experience some of this adulation up close, Hamilton jumped down from his truck and continued on foot. A professor stopped him, and presented him with a bottle of champagne. “He said to me: ‘I’ve been saving this bottle of Lanson for a great occasion and this is it,’” Hamilton wrote. Lanson would remain Hamilton’s drink of choice until his death.
It’s a terrific story. Whether or not it holds up, however, is another matter. While there is plenty of footage of de Gaulle marching down the Champs-Élysées on August 26 during his highly orchestrated parade, there is none of a baffled young truck driver. And while American troops did march through Paris in August 1944, it was a few days later, on August 29, in a separate parade. Could this have been the parade Hamilton joined? Was it another? Now we may never know.
Plenty of people tried to take credit for the Liberation of Paris. De Gaulle’s stock rose immeasurably after his “Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!” speech. The Nazi commander of occupied Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz, retroactively declared himself the “Savior of Paris” for defying Hitler’s orders to destroy the city. We may never know how much of Hamilton’s story really happened, or whether it happened at all. Nevertheless, there’s something irresistibly human in the story of Harry Hamilton, the chancer who got lost and liberated Paris by accident.
Stuart Heritage is a Writer at Large for Air Mail based in Kent, U.K.