December 9, 2014

"Battle for Paris" by Ernest Hemingway

Battle for Paris
"Ernest Hemingway and an unidentified soldier look at a map in Europe during World War II, ca. July 1944 – January 1945," 1944 (source)
From Collier's magazine, September 30, 1944, pp. 11, 83-84, 86. (See Hemingway's other World War II essays here.)

Here is the first dispatch by Collier's correspondent, long a resident of the City of Light, on one phase of the swift drive into the French capital—and how impatient guerrillas joined in the fight for liberation.

On August 19th, accompanied by Private Archie Pelkey of Canton, in upstate New York, I stopped at the command post of the infantry regiment of the division in a wood just outside of Maintenon to ask for information on the front this regiment was holding. The G2 and G3 of this regiment showed me where their battalions were placed and informed me that their most advanced outpost was at a point a short distance beyond Epemon on the road to Rambouillet (23 miles southwest of Paris), where the summer residence and hunting lodge of the president of France is located. At the regimental command post I was informed there was heavy fighting outside of Rambouillet. I knew the country and the roads around Epemon, Rambouillet, Trappes and Versailles well, as I had bicycled, walked and driven a car through this part of France for many years. It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them.

Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motorcar only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle. At the outpost of the regiment we found some Frenchmen who had just come in from Rambouillet by bicycle. I was the only person at the outpost who spoke French, and they informed me that the last Germans had left Rambouillet at three o'clock that morning but that the roads into the town were mined.

I started to return to regimental headquarters with this information, but after driving a short way down the road back to Maintenon I decided it would be better to return and get the Frenchmen, so they themselves could be interrogated and give fuller information. When I reached the outpost again, I found two cars full of French guerrilla fighters, most of whom were naked to the waist. They were armed with pistols and two Sten guns they had received by parachute. They had just come from Rambouillet and their story of the German withdrawal tallied with the information other French had given.

Private Pelkey and I conducted them back to the regimental command post, driving ahead of the two cars in our jeep, where I translated their information on the town and the state of the road to the proper authorities.

We then returned to the outpost to wait for a mine-clearing detail and a reconnaissance troop that were to join us there. After waiting some time and none coming up. the French guerrilla fighters became very impatient. The obvious thing seemed to be to proceed to the first mine field and establish a guard to prevent any American vehicle which might advance from running into it.

The Discipline of Example

We were proceeding toward Rambouillet when we were joined by Lieutenant Irving Krieger of East Orange, New Jersey, from the antitank company of the infantry regiment. Lieutenant Krieger was short, stocky, exceedingly tough and very cheerful. I could see the guerrillas were very favorably impressed with him and, as soon as they saw him at work finding and clearing the mines, they had complete confidence in him. When working with irregular troops you have no real discipline except that of example. As long as they believe in you they will fight if they are good elements. The minute they cease to believe in you, or in the mission to be accomplished, they disappear.

War correspondents are forbidden to command troops, and I had simply conducted these guerrilla fighters to the infantry regiment command post in order that they might give information. Anyway, it was a beautiful day that day and when we came down the smooth black road toward Rambouillet with the big plane trees on either side and the wall of the park on our left, we saw the road block ahead.

First, there was a smashed jeep on our left. Then there were two German miniature tanks that they used as self-propelled antitank weapons. One was in the road pointing straight up the hill that we were coming down toward the felled trees of the road block. The other was on the right side of the shoulder of the road. Each one had two hundred pounds of TNT in it, and they were controlled by wires that ran back to behind the road block. If an armored column came down the road, one of these doodlebug tanks could be sent straight up the road at it. If the vehicles swerved to the right, as they would have to because of the wall on the left, the other miniature tank would be released to hit them on their flank. They looked like ugly toads squatting on the road. There was another smashed jeep just this side of the road block, and a big truck, also smashed.

Lieutenant Krieger dived into the minefield, which was laid in and around two big trees that had been felled across the road, like a boy looking for his name on the packages under a Christmas tree. Under his direction, Archie Pelkey and the guerrillas carried mines on the wall of a culvert. We learned from the French that the Germans had shot up an American reconnaissance patrol at this point. They had let the armored car, which was leading, pass the crossroads into Rambouillet, and then they opened on the truck and the two jeeps with antitank and machine-gun fire and killed seven men. The Germans then took the American mines out of the truck and laid this field.

The French had buried the Americans in the field beside the road where they had been ambushed, and while we were clearing the mine field, French women came out and put flowers on the graves and prayed over them. No reconnaissance outfit had come up yet, but Lieutenant Krieger's men had arrived and he was now in communication with the regiment by radio.

I went into the town with a patrol of French guerrillas, and we found out to what point the Germans had withdrawn and in what force they were. I gave this information to Lieutenant Krieger and, since we knew there was no screen of any kind between us and the Germans, who had, we found later, at least ten tanks beyond the town, it was decided to relay the mine field and establish a proper guard over it to bar the road in case the Germans should return. Fortunately, at this time, a reconnaissance troop, commanded by Lieutenant Peterson of Cleveland, Ohio, came up, and our worries were over for the moment.

That night our French guerrillas ran out patrols on the main roads out from Rambouillet to screen Lieutenant Peterson's reconnaissance force, which held the center of town. It rained very hard during the night, and the French guerrillas were wet and tired in the morning. The previous afternoon they had been clothed with fatigue uniforms abandoned in the truck in which the members of the recon outfit had been killed in the ambush.

The first time we had entered the town all but two were naked from the waist up, and the populace did not greet us with any degree of fervor. The second time I went in with them, everyone was uniformed and we were cheered considerably. The third time we went through the town the men were all helmeted and we were cheered wildly, kissed extensively and heavily champagned, and we made our headquarters in the Hotel du Grand Veneur, which had an excellent wine cellar.

On the morning of the second day I returned to the infantry regiment command post to give an account of the situation in Rambouillet and the nature of the German force which was operating between Rambouillet and Versailles. Members of the French gendarmerie and guerrillas in gendarme uniforms had been in and out of Versailles, and reports were coming in hourly from members of the French resistance groups. We had accurate information on German tank movements, gun positions, and antiaircraft emplacements, the strength of German troops and their disposition.

This information was continually kept up to date and made more complete. The colonel commanding the infantry regiment asked me to go to divisional headquarters, where I gave an account of what was happening in Rambouillet and beyond, and more arms were obtained for the French resistance forces from stocks of captured German materiel in Chartres.

Bulwark Against the Enemy

I returned to Rambouillet to find that Lieutenant Peterson had pushed his reconnaissance troop up the Versailles road a ways, and that an armored cavalry outfit had arrived in his support. It was very cheerful to see troops in town and to know that there was something between us and the Germans, since we now knew that there were three Tiger tanks among the fifteen tanks the Germans were operating in the area north of Rambouillet.

During the afternoon a great many people arrived in town. Intelligence officers, British and American, returned from missions or waiting to go on them, some newspaper correspondents, a colonel from New York who was the ranking U.S. officer present and Lieutenant Commander Lester Armor, U.S.N.R., were all in the town when the two armored reconnaissance units received orders that all missions were canceled, and told the point to which they should withdraw.

This withdrawal left the town with no troops of any kind between it and the Germans. By this time we knew the exact force of the Germans and their tactics. They were moving their tanks out in an area between Trappes and Neauphe le Vieux and blocking the road to Versailles from Houdon. They would run their tanks onto the main road between Rambouillet and Versailles, at various points, using side roads, and they patrolled the area to the east around Chevreuse and St. Remy les Chevreuses with light tanks and cyclists.

On that night, after the U.S. Army reconnaissance units were withdrawn, the force defending Rambouillet was composed of mixed patrols of regulars and guerrillas, armed with antitank grenades and small arms. It rained hard during the night and there was a part of the night, between 2 and 6 A.M., that was the loneliest I ever spent. I do not know if you understand what it means to have troops out ahead of you and then have them withdrawn and be left with a town, a large and beautiful town, completely undamaged and full of fine people, on your hands. There was nothing in the book issued to correspondents for their guidance through the intricacies of military affairs which dealt with this situation; so it was decided to screen the town as well as possible and, if the Germans, observing the withdrawal of the American force, advanced to make contact, to provide them with the necessary contact. This was done.

During the next days the German tanks roamed around the roads ahead of us. They took hostages in the various villages. They picked up men of the French resistance forces and shot them. They went where they pleased. But all of this time they were followed and kept track of by French guerrillas on bicycles, who came back with accurate information on their movements.

The same man could only work through the same country once unless he had a legitimate reason for moving back and forth. Otherwise the Germans would suspect him and shoot him. People who knew in what a small force we were, who had accomplished missions, were kept under arrest in order that, returning into German-held territory, they might not be forced to talk by the Germans if they were captured.

A very young Pole deserted from the German tank unit ahead of us. He buried his uniform and his submachine gun and filtered through the lines in his underwear and a pair of trousers he had found in a shelled house. He brought good information and was put to work in the kitchen of the hotel. Security was at that time in a very primitive state, since everyone who was armed was running patrols, but I can remember the colonel being considerably shocked when the cook came into the dining room which was serving as a command post and asked permission to send the prisoner out by himself to get bread from the baker. The colonel was obliged to refuse this request. Later the prisoner asked me to send him under guard to dig up his uniform and his gun so he could fight with the outfit. This request was also regretfully refused.

Nazis Fight by the Book

During this period of unorthodox warfare a German tank took a side road and came down to within three miles of town and killed a very nice policeman, who was out on patrol, and one of our local guerrillas. Everyone present at this episode dived into the ditch and commenced firing on the tank, which, having established contact, withdrew. The Germans at this period exhibited a lamentable tendency to fight entirely by the book. If they had thrown the book away they could have moved into town and been drinking the excellent wines of the Hotel du Grand Veneur and even gone so far as to take their Pole out of the kitchen and either shoot him or got him back into uniform.

It was quite a strange life in the Hotel du Grand Veneur in those days. An old man you had seen a week before during the taking of Chartres, and who had ridden in the jeep as far as Epernon, had come in the last time you had seen him and said he believed there was very interesting information to be discovered in the forest of Rambouillet. This, as a correspondent, was none of your damned business. Now you picked him upon a road six miles north of town and he had complete information on a mine field and antitank emplacement on the road just past Trappes. You sent out and verified the information. It was then necessary to hold the old man under guard since he wished to go out for more information and he knew too much about our present situation to risk his being captured by the Germans. So he joined the Polish child in protective custody.

All of this should have been handled by the Counter Intelligence Corps. But we did not have any, nor did we have any Civil Affairs. I remember the colonel saying, "'Ernie, if we just had some CIC or just a little Civil Affairs. Just refer all that to the French." Everything was referred to the French. Usually, though not always, it was promptly referred back to us.

During this epoch I was addressed by the guerrilla force as "Captain." This is a very low rank to have at the age of forty-five years, and so, in the presence of strangers, they would address me, usually, as "Colonel." But they were a little upset and worried by my very low rank, and one of them, whose trade for the past year had been receiving mines and blowing up German ammunition trucks and staff cars, asked confidentially, "My Captain, how is it that with your age and your undoubted long years of service and your obvious wounds (caused by hitting a static water tank in London) you are still a captain?"

"Young man," I told him, "I have not been able to advance in rank due to the fact that I cannot read or write."

Eventually another American Army reconnaissance outfit arrived and took up position on the road to Versailles. The town was then screened and we were able to devote all of our time to running patrols into German-held territory and checking exactly on the German defensive dispositions in order that, whenever an advance on Paris should be made, the force which would make it would have accurate information to operate on.

The main high lights of this period that I remember, outside of being scared a number of times, are not publishable at this time. Sometime I would like to be able to write an account of the actions of the colonel both by day and by night. But you cannot write it yet.

This is what the alleged front was like at that time: You come down a slope of highway to a village with a gas station and a cafe. Ahead is a small village with a church spire on the road opposite the cafe. From this point you can see a long slope of highway to your rear and a long stretch of highway ahead. Two men are standing in the road with field glasses. One watches the road to the north and the other to the south.

This is necessary since the Germans are both ahead of us and behind us. Two girls are walking down the road toward the town, which is held by the Germans. They are good-looking girls, wearing red-heeled shoes. A guerrilla comes up and says, "Those girls were sleeping with the Germans when they were here. Now they are going toward the German lines and can give them information."

"Hold them," someone says.

Just then comes a shout, "A car! A car!"

"Theirs or ours?"


At this everyone scatters with rifles or submachine guns behind the cafe and the filling station, and several prudent citizens take refuge in the fields.

Battle at the Filling Station

A tiny German jeep comes up the road opposite the filling station, commences firing a 20-millimeter gun. Everyone shoots at it and it wheels around and goes back up the road. It is shot at, as it disappears, by the more prudent citizens, who become very brave as it retreats. Total casualties: Two enthusiasts who have fallen with their wineglasses in their hands in the cafe and have slight cuts.

The two girls, who, it turns out, speak German as well as having allegedly been fond of the Germans, are picked up out of a ditch and put in a secure location to be returned to town. One of them says that all she did was go swimming with the Germans.

"In the nude?" asks a guerrilla.

"No, Monsieur," she answers. "They were always correct." They have in their handbags many German addresses and other articles which do not endear them to the local population, and they are sent back to Rambouillet. There is no hysteria and no beating or hair cutting by the local population. The Germans are much too close for that.

Two miles off to the left a German tank comes into a village where they find three guerrillas who have been checking on their movements and who are recognized by the tank men who have seen them too many times.

One of these is a man who, when I asked him if he had actually seen the tank himself, said, "Captain, I touched it." They are shot by the Germans and their bodies are left alongside the road. An hour later a guerrilla who was in the town brings us the news. This produces a certain amount of head-shaking and makes it more difficult to send the Germans, who are being continually picked up in the woods from the units which escaped from Chartres, back to be interrogated.

An old man appears and says that his wife is covering five Germans with a pistol. This pistol had been given him the night before, when, he said, Germans were coming into his place from the forest to eat. These are not the Germans who are organized and fighting ahead but are from scattered units which are dispersed through the forest. Some of them are trying to rejoin the main German body to continue fighting. Others are anxious to surrender if they know how they can do it without being killed.

A car is sent out to pick up the five Germans the old woman is holding. "Can we kill them?" one of the patrol asks.

"Only if they are SS," a guerrilla says.

"Bring them in here, so they can be questioned and passed on to Division," I say, and the car pulls out.

The Polish kid, who had the face of Jackie Cooper when Jackie Cooper was still young, is polishing glasses in the hotel dining room, and the old man is smoking his pipe and wondering when he can be released to go on another mission.

"My Captain," the old man says, "why cannot I be allowed to perform some useful function instead of resting here in the garden of this hotel while Paris is at stake?"

Guarding Our Information

"You know too much to let the Germans get hold of you," I tell him.

"The little Pole and I could make a useful mission, and I would kill him if he attempted to escape."

"He cannot make a useful mission," I said; "he can only be sent with troops."

"He says he will return in uniform and get any information that is needed."

"Let's stop the fairy stories," I said to the old man, "and since there is no one here to guard the little Pole you are responsible for him." At this point a large amount of information came in which had to be evaluated and typed out, and it was necessary for me to leave on a patrol to St. Remy les Chevreuses. There was a report that General Le Clerc's Second French Armored Division was approaching Rambouillet on the road to Paris, and we wanted to have ready all the information on the German dispositions.

(Mr. Hemingway will continue his story of the liberation of France in future dispatches from the battle front.)