Author Archives: Joel

REMFs in Algiers, 1942-43

From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 3830ff:

A few days before leaving Gibraltar, Eisenhower had proposed limiting his headquarters to 150 officers. “Am particularly anxious that we strip down to a working basis and cut down on all of the folderol,” he told Clark. Algiers was to be a temporary billet, with Allied Forces Headquarters moving closer to the battlefield in a couple of months. But already AFHQ was expanding wildly. Within a fortnight, the headquarters would occupy nearly 400 offices scattered through eleven buildings. Three hundred officers now devoured as much meat as rationing allocated to 15,000 French civilians. Eisenhower’s signal officer proposed that the formula for staffing a headquarters should be “a reasonable estimate, multiplied by five.” AFHQ would remain in Algiers for years, expanding into a “huge, chairborne force” of more than 1,000 officers and 15,000 enlisted troops occupying 2,000 pieces of real estate. A popular aphorism soon circulated among frontline troops: “Never were so few commanded by so many from so far.” Asked why the Germans failed to bomb AFHQ headquarters, a cynical American major replied, “Because it’s worth fifty divisions to them.”

Algiers already showed the strains of occupation. So many electric razors buzzed in the morning that they interfered with radio transmissions. Prostitutes working the Aletti Hotel now charged £10 sterling per trick. A French newspaper began printing English-language lessons, including the sentence: “No, sir, I am married, and I am hurrying home where my husband is awaiting me.” In Oran, officers in their pinks-and-greens ate in a mess with green leather chairs while musicians in evening dress played Big Band melodies. A supply major proposed creating a medal inscribed “Valor, Patience, Indigestion,” which would be awarded for exemplary “paperwork connected with the social struggle.”

Oranges that had been fifteen cents a bushel in Algiers jumped to fifteen cents a dozen. Beer went from two cents a schooner to a dollar. Nightclubs with names like La Belle Rose and Bucket of Blood were always jammed, while battalion sergeant majors inspected various brothels and chose several of the least odious for licensing. Discovering huge wine barrels awaiting export on the wharves, soldiers tapped them with rifle fire and caught the drainage in their canteen cups; a drunken brawl led to a waterfront firefight suppressed by military policemen who then disarmed all dockworkers. Indiscipline overwhelmed the military justice system: in Oran alone, hundreds of American soldiers had been arrested for various infractions in the two weeks after the invasion, but less than 2 percent of them were prosecuted. A summary court was established to restore order; nearly 300 soldiers would be tried in the first part of December, with a total of 9 acquittals. A third of the cases involved drunkenness. Serious offenses drew harsh sentences: four years for a self-inflicted gunshot to the big toe to avoid combat; eight years at hard labor for kicking a superior officer; life in prison for a soldier who shot and killed an Algerian woman with his rifle.

There was folderol aplenty, despite Eisenhower’s wishes, and it all rested on the commander-in-chief’s squared shoulders. Many of the distractions were fatuous. A rumor in Arab neighborhoods that Eisenhower was a Jew sent by the Jew Roosevelt to establish a Jewish state in North Africa required a leaflet campaign stressing the general’s German Protestant ancestry. The War Department tried to inflate his dignity by urging reporters not to refer to him as “Ike,” and thus ensured that the nickname would stick forever. Ever eager to see his own name in headlines, Clark gave an interview full of breezy predictions about the imminent fall of Tunis and Bizerte; Eisenhower had killed the story just before leaving Gibraltar. Draconian censorship was soon imposed, with correspondents advised that no dispatches would be allowed that made people at home feel unhappy. Equally rigorous censorship of letters home inspired one soldier to write his parents:

After leaving where we were before we left for here, not knowing we were coming here from there, we couldn’t tell whether we had arrived here or not. Nevertheless, we now are here and not there. The weather here is just as it always is at this season. The people here are just like they look.

On this page a censor scribbled simply, “Amen.”

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U.S. Army Readiness in 1939

From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 351ff:

In September 1939, the U.S. Army had ranked seventeenth in the world in size and combat power, just behind Romania. When those 136 German divisions conquered western Europe nine months later, the War Department reported that it could field just five divisions. Even the homeland was vulnerable: some coastal defense guns had not been test-fired in twenty years, and the Army lacked enough anti-aircraft guns to protect even a single American city. The building of the armed forces was likened to “the reconstruction of a dinosaur around an ulna and three vertebrae.”

That task had started with the 16 million men who registered for the draft in the fall of 1940, and who would expand Regular Army and National Guard divisions. By law, however, the draftees and newly federalized Guard units were restricted to twelve months of service—and only in the western hemisphere or U.S. territories. Physical standards remained fairly rigorous; soon enough, the day would come when new recruits claimed the Army no longer examined eyes, just counted them. A conscript had to stand at least five feet tall and weigh 105 pounds; possess twelve or more of his natural thirty-two teeth; and be free of flat feet, venereal disease, and hernias. More than forty of every hundred men were rejected, a grim testament to the toll taken on the nation’s health by the Great Depression. Under the rules of conscription, the Army drafted no fathers, no felons, and no eighteen-year-olds; those standards, too, would fall away. Nearly two million men had been rejected for psychiatric reasons, although screening sessions sometimes went no further than questions such as “Do you like girls?” The rejection rate, one wit suggested, was high because “the Army doesn’t want maladjusted soldiers, at least below the rank of major.”

Jeremiads frequently derided the nation’s martial potential. A Gallup poll of October 1940 found a prevailing view of American youth as “a flabby, pacifistic, yellow, cynical, discouraged, and leftist lot.” A social scientist concluded that “to make a soldier out of the average free American citizen is not unlike domesticating a very wild species of animal,” and many a drill sergeant agreed. Certainly no hate yet lodged in the bones of American troops, no urge to close with an enemy who before December 7, 1941, seemed abstract and far away. Time magazine reported on the eve of Pearl Harbor that soldiers were booing newsreel shots of Roosevelt and General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, while cheering outspoken isolationists.

Equipment and weaponry were pathetic. Soldiers trained with drain-pipes for antitank guns, stovepipes for mortar tubes, and brooms for rifles. Money was short, and little guns were cheaper than big ones; no guns were cheapest of all. Only six medium tanks had been built in 1939. A sardonic ditty observed: “Tanks are tanks and tanks are dear / There will be no tanks again this year.” That in part reflected an enduring loyalty to the horse. “The idea of huge armies rolling along roads at a fast pace is a dream,” Cavalry Journal warned in 1940, even after the German blitzkrieg signaled the arrival of mechanized warfare. “Oil and tires cannot like forage be obtained locally.” The Army’s cavalry chief assured Congress in 1941 that four well-spaced horsemen could charge half a mile across an open field to destroy an enemy machine-gun nest without sustaining a scratch. “The motor-mad advocates are obsessed with a mania for excluding the horse from war,” he told the Horse and Mule Association of America, four days before Pearl Harbor. The last Regular Army cavalry regiment would slaughter its mounts to feed the starving garrison on Bataan in the Philippines, ending the cavalry era not with a bang but with a dinner bell.

To lead the eventual host of 8 million men, the Army had only 14,000 professional officers when mobilization began in 1940. The interwar officer corps was so thick with deadwood that one authority called it a fire hazard; swagger sticks, talisman of the Old Army, could serve for kindling. Secret War Department committees known as plucking boards began purging hundreds of officers who were too old, too tired, too inept. Not a single officer on duty in 1941 had commanded a unit as large as a division in World War I; the average age of majors was forty-eight. The National Guard was even more ossified, with nearly one-quarter of Guard first lieutenants over forty, and senior ranks dominated by political hacks of certifiable military incompetence. Moreover, Guard units in eighteen states were stained with scandal—embezzlement, forgery, kick-backs, and nepotism.

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Pétain’s Deal with Hitler, 1940

From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 301ff:

Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun in World War I and now a laconic, enigmatic eighty-four-year-old, had once asserted, “They call me only in catastrophes.” Even Pétain had never seen a catastrophe like this one, and he sued for terms. Berlin obliged. Rather than risk having the French fight on from their colonies in North Africa, Hitler devised a clever armistice: the southern 40 percent of France—excluding Paris—would remain under the sovereignty of the Pétain government and unoccupied by German troops. From a new capital in the resort town of Vichy, France would also continue to administer her overseas empire, including the colonies of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, which together covered a million square miles and included 17 million people, mostly Arab or Berber. France could keep her substantial fleet and an army of 120,000 men in North Africa by pledging to fight all invaders, particularly the British. To enforce the agreement, Germany would keep 1½ million French prisoners-of-war as collateral.

Pétain so pledged. He was supported by most of France’s senior military officers and civil servants, who swore oaths of fidelity to him. A few refused, including a forty-nine-year-old maverick brigadier general named Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle, who took refuge in London, denounced all deals with the devil, and declared, in the name of Free France: “Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.” Hitler now controlled Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic Ocean to the River Bug. In September, Germany and Italy signed a tripartite pact with Japan, which had been prosecuting its own murderous campaign in Asia. The Axis assumed a global span. “The war is won,” the Führer told Mussolini. “The rest is only a question of time.”

That seemed a fair boast. Britain battled on, alone. “We are fighting for life, and survive from day to day and hour to hour,” Churchill told the House of Commons. But German plans to invade across the English Channel were postponed, repeatedly, after the Luftwaffe failed to subdue the Royal Air Force. Instead, the bombardment known as the Blitz continued through 1940 and beyond, slaughtering thousands and then tens of thousands of British civilians, even as RAF pilots shot down nearly 2,500 German planes in three months, killing 6,000 Luftwaffe crewmen and saving the nation.

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Forerunners of 007’s Q

From A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell (Penguin, 2019), Kindle pp. 138-139:

SOE had decided it was time to hit the Free Zone, while it still existed: to move on from the niggling small-scale attacks they had so far organized to detonate carefully selected “big bangs.” Virginia was soon ordered to dispatch Cowburn to sabotage the entire railway network around Lothiers in central France, using the specially equipped groups of men they had spent months training. She also took delivery of two hundred thousand francs to arm and instruct teams for, when the time came, taking control of Lyon’s Perrache station and a nearby airfield, as well as blowing up a power station.

Parachute drops of arms and explosives were generally being stepped up, when clear skies and light winds permitted. New agents came in with dozens of false-bottomed suitcases with warm clothing for the forthcoming winter on top, hiding explosives below. SOE “boffins” (or scientific blue-sky inventors) based at the Thatched Barn, a former hotel on the Barnet bypass in north London, had secretly designed a range of ingenious explosive devices to cause maximum impact in the most challenging situations. These real-life forerunners of James Bond’s Q had come up with milk bottles that exploded if the cap was removed, loaves of bread that would “cause devastation” when cut in half, and fountain pens that squirted poison. Perhaps the most popular was fake horse dung that exploded if driven over—but there were also tiny but lethal charges that could be inserted into cigarettes, matchboxes, bicycle pumps, fountain pens, or hair brushes, and perhaps most usefully railway engines or fuel tanks. On a larger scale, for the first time there was even talk of moving on from sabotaging industrial sites to identifying “A-class” or military targets to hinder the German counterattack in a future Allied invasion. Virginia’s months of slog and preparation appeared to be leading to real action. Finally, it seemed as if SOE had the critical mass and the direction needed to do something truly significant, and she wanted more than anything to see it through.

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Operation Donar Begins, 1942

From A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell (Penguin, 2019), Kindle pp. 127-128:

Virginia’s daring breakout of the Mauzac “terrorists” caused uproar at Nazi High Command and led Hitler to unleash a brutal crackdown in France. It made clear that the Resistance was now a significant threat and that French semiautonomous rule in the southern zone was no longer sustainable. Repeated attacks on factories, railway trucks, German cars, power lines, and a Lyon recruitment office also proved to Berlin that Pétain’s administration, for all its promises, could not be trusted to destroy the enemy within. So the Third Reich would now lay the groundwork for a full occupation, ordering Vichy to issue five hundred French identity cards to the Gestapo to help them infiltrate secret Allied networks across the Free Zone. Under Operation Donar, named after the Germanic god of thunder, the Nazis planned to honeycomb the cities of the south with double agents to root out and eliminate the remaining terrorist cells. The terms of the 1940 armistice stated that the Gestapo were to intervene only in the presence of French police, but the Germans now just arrested and tortured virtually at will. Lyon was their primary target. “The pot was simmering,” as one SOE historian has put it, “and it would soon boil over.”

They made it an urgent priority to track down those responsible for Mauzac as well as the notable recent upswing in the effectiveness and frequency of sabotage. Both the Gestapo and the Abwehr now harbored suspicions about the American consulate in Lyon, where Virginia was still a frequent visitor, and kept it under close surveillance. The two security services of the Reich were bitter rivals, however, and competed against each other in pursuit of the greatest prizes. For now its success with breaking SOE codes—thanks to Sergeant Bleicher and La Chatte—put the Abwehr in pole position. It had deduced that the target was either English or Canadian and a woman; a woman with a limp—la dame qui boite or Die Frau die hinkt—called Marie Monin. But the Abwehr favored a methodical approach over the Gestapo’s preference for wholesale arrest. Bleicher would not move in until he was sure who she was and who she was working with. He would also wait until he could get his hands on one of her wireless transmitters, so that he could play Funkspiel with London in her name. By the beginning of August he had a plan to bring her down—and disrupt the British war effort—and just the man to carry it out. It was to be a pivotal month.

Meanwhile, the Gestapo’s most notorious investigator—who would within a year be awarded the Iron Cross (reputedly by Hitler himself) for torturing and slaughtering thousands of résistants—was also taking a personal interest in Virginia. Hauptsturmführer Klaus Barbie, reared by an abusive father who had been severely mentally and physically damaged in fighting the French at Verdun in 1916, was not yet based full-time in Lyon. But he was already consumed by an obsessive desire to crush SOE, seen by the Germans as the backbone of the whole underground threat. Dozens of Gestapo officers were intercepting suspect signals coming out of Lyon and conducting waves of arrests and constant day and night raids from a plushly carpeted suite of offices on the third floor of the cavernous Hôtel Terminus next to Perrache station. They knew they were fast moving in on the center of the terrorist cell. Someone would break down under torture; Barbie would make sure of it. The Limping Lady of Lyon was becoming the Nazis’ most wanted Allied agent in the whole of France.

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Escaping Vichy via the Vic Line

From A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell (Penguin, 2019), Kindle pp. 95-96:

Morel deliberately stopped eating and his health rapidly worsened, almost certainly with help from SOE’s famous sickness tablets smuggled in by Virginia (which caused symptoms similar to typhoid such as stomach cramps and a high fever). Friendly wardens were able to have him moved to a prison hospital near Guth’s offices in Limoges for an abdominal procedure. After the operation, Morel was transferred from a cell patrolled by heavily armed military guards to an annex monitored by a single policeman. The surgeon, also a recruit, signed a statement that it would be impossible for Morel to walk in his postoperative condition and the sole officer outside his room also obligingly dozed off. A prewarned Morel crept out of his bed, slipped on a doctor’s white coat, and, with the aid of a sympathetic nurse, scaled the hospital perimeter wall. Yet another helper was waiting on the other side to provide him with a suit, shoes, sugar, and some rum. Morel then traveled through a snowstorm to one of Virginia’s safe houses, where he gathered his strength before pushing on to her apartment in Lyon. To spring one of Vichy’s most prized prisoners was, by any measure, a spectacular coup. It showed what Virginia could now do.

After a few days nursing him back to health, she escorted Morel down to Marseille despite the dangers of accompanying the subject of a major national manhunt on a train rife with Gestapo. They were then to pick up the escape line that she had helped to set up, which left from Perpignan to cross over the eastern edge of the Pyrenees to Barcelona in northern Spain. Code-named the Vic Line—in honor of its chief, Victor Gerson—it would see hundreds of agents and airmen to safety thanks to guides, or passeurs, supplied by a general from the remnants of the rebel Catalan Republican Army. Gerson was a Jew, as were most of his lieutenants—all taking a greater risk in the field but also driven by great personal anti-Nazi motivation. Against the odds, the Vic Line shepherded the still unwell Morel over the mountains into Spain. Back in London there was “stupefaction” at Virginia’s success and Morel also marveled at what she had done for him. “Her amazing personality, integrity and enthusiasm was an example and inspiration for us all,” he reported. “No task was too great or too small for her; and whatever she undertook she put into it all her energy, sparing herself nothing.” For Virginia the escape was really the first time that she was not preparing, helping, or supporting others but directing an operation herself. She had proved she could take charge in spectacular style. Morel, though, was merely the warm-up.

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1918 Flu Hits Holy Zamora

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 79-83, 87:

The Spanish city of Zamora–known as la bien cercada, or well enclosed, due to its impressive fortifications–straddles the River Duero in the north-western region of Castile and León. Deeply religious, it is famous even today for its sombre processions of hooded, barefoot penitents in Holy Week. In 1914, when its citizens learned that they were about to receive a new bishop, the bells rang out for three days. The man himself arrived a few months later, stepping down from a specially chartered train to a railway station packed with well-wishers. Fireworks were let off, and a joyful crowd accompanied him to the cathedral where he took his oath of office. The church-sanctioned newspaper, El Correo de Zamora, promised obedience to the new bishop, and praised his eloquence and youth.

The bishop’s name was Antonio Álvaro y Ballano, and at thirty-eight he already had a glittering career behind him. As a student at a seminary in Guadalajara, he had shone in every subject he had turned his hand to. At twenty-three he had taken up the chair in metaphysics, and after winning a hard-fought contest for the magistral canonry of Toledo, the most important archdiocese in Spain, he had come to the attention of Cardinal Sancha, Primate of Spain. He had been named a bishop in 1913, and prior to his arrival in Zamora, had held the post of prefect of studies at the seminary in Toledo.

When the Naples Soldier [the Spanish name for the flu] returned to Spain in the autumn of 1918, it appeared first in the east of the country, but it soon followed the bishop along the train tracks to Zamora. September is a month of gatherings in Spain. The crops are harvested, the army takes on new recruits, and weddings and religious feasts are held–not to mention that most popular of Spanish pastimes, the bullfight. Young army recruits, some from distant provinces, converged on Zamora to take part in routine artillery exercises, and in the middle of the month, the Correo reported nonchalantly that ‘There is cholera at the frontier, flu in Spain and in this tiny corner of the peninsula, fiestas.’ Then the recruits began to fall ill.

Attempts to quarantine the sick soldiers in barracks on the site of the city’s eleventh-century castle failed, and the number of civilian casualties began to rise. As it did so, the shortage of manpower began to interfere with the harvest, exacerbating pre-existing food restrictions. The press began to sound less sanguine. On 21 September, the Heraldo de Zamora–a newspaper that was nominally independent of the church–rued the unsanitary state of the city. Zamora resembled a ‘pigsty’ in which, shamefully, people still shared living space with animals, and many houses lacked their own lavatory or water supply. The paper repeated an old hobbyhorse, that the Moors had bequeathed to Spain an aversion to cleanliness. ‘There are Spaniards who only use soap for washing their clothes,’ it noted severely.

During the first wave of the pandemic, the country’s inspector general of health, Martín Salazar, had lamented the inability of a bureaucratic and underfunded health system to prevent the disease from spreading. Though provincial health committees took their lead from his directorate, they had no powers of enforcement, and they quickly came up against what he described as the ‘terrible ignorance’ of the populace–the failure to grasp, for example, that an infected person on the move would transmit the disease. Now that the Naples Soldier had returned, one national newspaper, El Liberal, called for a sanitary dictatorship–a containment programme imposed from the top down–and as the epidemic wore on, the call was picked up and echoed by other papers.

On 30 September, Bishop Álvaro y Ballano defied the health authorities by ordering a novena–evening prayers on nine consecutive days–in honour of St Rocco, the patron saint of plague and pestilence, because the evil that had befallen Zamoranos was ‘due to our sins and ingratitude, for which the avenging arm of eternal justice has been brought down upon us’. On the first day of the novena, in the presence of the mayor and other notables, he dispensed Holy Communion to a large crowd at the Church of San Esteban. At another church, the congregation was asked to adore relics of St Rocco, which meant lining up to kiss them.

Also on 30 September, it was reported that Sister Dositea Andrés of the Servants of Mary had died while tending soldiers at the barracks. Sister Dositea was described as a ‘virtuous and exemplary nun’ who had accepted her martyrdom with equanimity and even enthusiasm, who had slept no more than four hours a day, and who had spent much of her time coaxing sick soldiers to eat. The Mother Superior of her order asked for a good turnout at her funeral, and the papers passed on her request. In accordance with tradition, readers were informed, the bishop would grant sixty days’ indulgence to those who complied. Apparently the turnout was not as good as the Mother Superior had hoped, because the day after the funeral the Correo lambasted the citizenry for its ingratitude. The bishop, on the other hand, was satisfied with attendance at the novena, which he described as ‘one of the most significant victories Catholicism has obtained’.

By mid-November, the worst was over. … Zamora had suffered worse than any other Spanish city. But its residents do not seem to have held their bishop responsible. Perhaps it helped that they had grown up with the legend of Atilano, the first Bishop of Zamora, who in the tenth century had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to repent of his sins and free his city of plague. There are even those who defend Álvaro y Ballano, claiming that he did what he could to console his flock in the face of inertia at the town hall, the real problem being an ineffectual health system and poor education in matters of hygiene. Before 1919 was out, the city had awarded him the Cross of Beneficence, in recognition of his heroic efforts to end the suffering of its citizens during the epidemic, and he remained Bishop of Zamora until his death in 1927.

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