Liberators and Liberated

For some time after the Liberation and even the end of the war, white-helmeted military policemen used to halt the traffic on the Place de la Concorde to give priority to US vehicles approaching the American Embassy.

Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander, was no thick-skinned autocrat, yet even his relationship with the provisional government suffered from the distrust which had grown up between President Roosevelt and de Gaulle during the war. The plan to install Allied rule as if France were conquered enemy territory was bound to poison any alliance.

Allied forces came ashore in Normandy comprehensively prepared. The ‘France Zone Handbook No. 16, Part III’ ostensibly dealt with ‘Local Information and Administrative Personalities’, but was in fact a guide to Parisian brothels, arrondissementbyarrondissement. Prepared in May 1944, presumably from information supplied by Allied intelligence services, it warned that the list was ‘not necessarily exhaustive’ and that ‘owing to the shortage of all medical supplies’ there had been ‘a very great increase in the number of VD cases in the country’.

Whether or not foreknowledge of the brothel known as ‘Aux Belles Poules’ in the rue Blondel, or the unnamed establishment at 4 rue des Vertus (‘street of the Virtues’), or the ‘House of All Nations’ in the rue Chabanais hastened the American advance on the capital is hard to judge. But clearly American troops made good use of the information so liberally provided by their commanders, because within a year US military authorities felt obliged to print barrack posters which proclaimed: ‘Gonorrhea. Do you want aFamily? 12% of all men who contract Gonorrhea become STERILE. Keep fit to go home.’

The puritan General Montgomery put brothels out of bounds to British troops and posted military police in red-light districts. This did not put a stop to business. In spite of all the summer storms, the fields next to bivouac areas were used instead.

To the dismay of French patriots, the exuberance of the Liberation was rapidly tarnished by pilfering or dabbling in the black market. For many people it was a question of survival, as it had been during the Occupation. Even Yves Farge, later the Minister of Supply, admitted that there were those ‘condemned to trade illegally or perish’. Yet the black market was at first seen as a French disgrace, both by the Allies and by the French themselves.

Early posters issued by the provisional government concentrated on the threat to French patriotism: ‘French people do not have the right to make their fellow citizens go hungry’… ‘Officers and soldiers of our Allies are astonished at the prices charged in certain shops and restaurants.’ It soon became apparent, however, to both civil and military authorities that members of the Allied forces were profiteering just as shamelessly. In fact many people suspected that the black market had moved into a higher gear with the rackets operated by certain quartermasters and young entrepreneurs determined to make a fortune before they returned to the States.

Since French shops were virtually bare, almost all the items provided by the American military cornucopia – coffee, gasoline, tyres, cigarettes, boots, soap, ammunition, morphine, Spam or whisky – were resold on the black market, thus flaunting a wild capitalist streak at a government trying to introduce an effective war socialism.

On 13 January 1945, newspapers carried a proclamation by the military governor of Paris to the population: ‘Anyone found in possession of gasoline, arms, munitions, equipment or war material will be tried by court martial.’ But such warnings did little good. The theft and sale of fuel supplies in jerrycans even started to endanger the attack on Germany.

Colouring the gasoline did little good. The court martial of American soldiers, several of whom received extremely severe sentences, made no difference. The profits to be made were so easy and so large that French drug dealers moved in on the racket, sometimes in alliance with American servicemen. It was above all the effrontery of the black-marketeers which drove the government almost to despair. On one occasion, the Minister of Supply issued an order to ‘seize three French trucks transporting food, travelling with papers signed Eisenhower’.

To the exasperation of the French government, there were other ways for American soldiers to make a killing at its expense. All US forces were exempt from French exchange controls and import duties. This meant that servicemen were allowed to convert their pay in French francs back into dollars at the official rate of exchange. Many of them promptly sold their dollars for francs on the black market at a great profit. Another money-making activity at the expense of the French government emerged later. ‘I am told,’ Caffery reported to Washington, ‘that a large number of New York firms are mailing American cigarettes and nylon stockings to [Army Post Office] addresses here. Much of this merchandise is illegally bartered or sold by American purchasers enjoying benefits of APO exemption from French customs control.’

The nylon stockings may not have been destined for the black market. For American soldiers, they were the most obvious bait to persuade young Frenchwomen to go out with them. Overall, exploitation was probably evenly balanced between the two sides. ‘Lise’s main sport since the Liberation,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir of a young woman who lived in the same hotel, ‘was what she called “hunting the American”.’ This meant charming them into parting with cigarettes and rations, which she then resold.

For attractive midinettes (the young Parisians who worked in the fashion industry and shops) there was no shortage of American soldiers on seventy-two hours’ leave from the front, with dollars saved up and eager to see Paris. The GIs were bowled over by themidinettes, who were brilliantly inventive in their clothes and especially their hats, piled high in Carmen Miranda-like fantasies. ‘The hats in Paris are really terrific,’ one young soldier wrote in a letter home, ‘very high, usually like a waste basket turned upside down with feathers and flowers all over them.’

The welcome for the young soldiers had been quite genuine at first, largely because of what they represented. ‘The easygoing manner of the young Americans,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir, ‘incarnated liberty itself… once again we were allowed to cross the seas.’

Young Frenchmen, however, would not have agreed with the US Embassy euphemisms which described their troops as ‘ardent and often very enterprising’ in the pursuit of women. Many reports, in fact, suggest that within a few months of the Liberation, certainly by the spring of 1945, American ardour was no longer appreciated by most Parisian girls, who did not like the arrogance that went with it. Summoned by a whistle and a proffered packet of ‘Luckys’, one girl earned the cheers of French onlookers by taking a cigarette from the GI, dropping it to the ground and grinding it under her foot.

This coolness was accompanied by another development which embarrassed and shocked the American military authorities. According to a SHAEF report, very young girls had begun to loiter in large numbers outside US army camps, offering themselves to GIs. It is hard to tell whether this was juvenile prostitution driven by hardship or thrill-seeking by children disturbed by the war. The Americans put forward various suggestions, including the imposition of a curfew for girls under sixteen and an increase in the age of consent to sexual intercourse from thirteen to fifteen, but the French government reacted frostily to any hint of interference from its ally.

With fewer young Frenchwomen prepared to go out with soldiers, the behaviour of servicemen began to provoke trouble. The conduct of US airborne troops in Nancy, a designated rest area from the front, led to a rash of complaints. What American officers regarded as the natural high spirits of their men was more often seen by the French as insulting behaviour.

The Hotel Meurice was the Paris officers’ mess for SHAEF. Staff were also billeted at the Crillon, but those in the Meurice remember the smell in cupboards from the thick, greased leather of Wehrmacht boots. Morgan’s Bank in the Place Vendôme was taken over as SHAEF’s offices in Paris, but the bulk of Eisenhower’s swelling military court was out at Versailles.

SHAEF was dominated by the Americans, with General Walter Bedell Smith as Eisenhower’s chief of staff, but the British were also well represented. Bedell Smith’s deputy was General Freddie Morgan, the chief planner of D-Day. But the two main administrators were General Lewis and his British counterpart, General Dixie Redman. Redman lived in some style, having taken over the apartment of Lady Mendl, best known as the decorator Elsie de Wolfe. There he entertained, with a limitless supply of whisky, gin and sandwiches made from NAAFI bread and tinned salmon.

Almost inevitably, SHAEF represented a state within a state, and Duff Cooper’s concern was that ‘all the Generals at SHAEF are violently anti-French except Morgan’. General Kenneth Strong, Eisenhower’s chief intelligence officer, was prepared to show the British and American ambassadors intelligence reports only on condition that they did not show them to the French. Clearly, diplomats were suspected of being too sympathetic. Strong told even British colleagues that American officers at SHAEF ‘did not have a high opinion of Mr Caffery’, and that the ambassador was ‘likely to be subordinated to General Eisenhower as long as the latter is in France’.

The fact that it was fighting a war gave SHAEF licence to do whatever it pleased, ignoring Allied diplomats and the French provisional government. In the autumn of 1944 it obstructed the return of French officials from Algiers to Paris and British journalists coming over to France. The British also complained that Paris was ‘full of American businessmen dressed in uniform’, while British businessmen were refused permits to travel.

SHAEF’s worst demonstrations of bloody-mindedness were reserved for the end of the war. It suddenly decided to destroy all the German equipment which the Americans did not need and refused to give any to the French. ‘It seems hardly believable,’ wrote Duff Cooper, when he heard. A month later SHAEF went further, ordering the French to hand over all captured enemy arms and equipment for destruction. ‘The French have very sensibly refused,’ wrote Duff Cooper in his diary on 13 June.

American diplomats appear to have had much more sympathy for France’s predicament. When the American ambassador made ‘a quiet and unostentatious visit to some of the so-called “red banlieues” of Paris’ he was ‘shocked and disturbed by the misery’ he saw there and was surprised at the calm way their inhabitants regarded the terrible destruction from Allied bombing attacks on the marshalling yards. Over a thousand people had been killed in one area.

‘It is clear that they expect pertinent help from the US,’ he reported to Washington. Telegrams from the American Embassy expressed one exasperation after another.

The French, on the other hand, felt belittled by the American attitude to their war record. Senior French officers had begun to complain openly that ‘the US is supplying inferior and semi-obsolete tanks and other material to the French forces’. A far greater cause for French resentment, however, was the generally justified suspicion that the Americans preferred the Germans. In France, Americans claimed to hear only complaints and excuses; while in Germany they found a population grateful for having been saved from occupation by the Red Army.

Even military parades and celebrations of victory produced bad feeling among the Allies. During the spring and early summer of 1945, de Gaulle held no fewer than five major parades in just over three months. Allied diplomats and officers, especially the Americans, became increasingly exasperated at having to stand for hours watching ‘their’ tanks trundling past on victory parades, using their gasoline when the French were complaining about shortages of fuel.

After the victory celebrations in May came the biggest parade of all on 18 June – the anniversary of de Gaulle’s broadcast from London – with a march-past by 50,000 men, led by the whole of the 2nd Armoured Division. It was a tremendous display, with the French air force flying low overhead in the shape of the cross of Lorraine. ‘One couldn’t help thinking,’ wrote the usually sympathetic Duff Cooper, ‘how all these [planes and vehicles] and most of the equipment was of Anglo-American origin. Not a single English or American flag was shown. There was no evidence of an ounce of gratitude and one felt throughout that France was boasting very loud, having very little to boast about.’

SHAEF had another reason for disapproving of the celebrations with the extra national holidays announced by the government. Coal production in France fell 80 per cent during the week of VE Day, just at the time when France was demanding more coal from the Ruhr on top of the 50,000 tons already allocated. ‘They do not seem to be taking any very active steps to put their own house in order,’ the SHAEF report concluded. Inevitably, another unfavourable comparison was made with the German determination to get back to work.

The French Communist Party was quick to exploit the reservoir of anti-American feeling. Some of the rumours spread were ludicrous, yet gained a measure of credence. The Communist minister, François Billoux, claimed that during the fighting the United States air force had bombed heavily ‘in a premeditated plan to weaken France’. Another rumour even claimed that the Americans had been so angry about the Franco-Soviet pact signed in Moscow that they had allowed the German Ardennes offensive to penetrate into France purely to give the French a fright. Other rumours, rather closer to the truth, concerned a wave of crime by American servicemen and deserters.

Galtier-Boissière wrote: ‘it appears that they are American deserters, who, with sub-machine-guns in hand, are playing at Chicago movies’. The Germans had been the ‘Fridolins’; now the Americans became known as ‘les Ricains’.

At a dinner at the British Embassy, General Legentilhomme, the military governor of Paris, painted a terrifying picture to the Englishwoman beside him. American servicemen were ‘barbarians, worse than the Russians, you simply cannot imagine, chère madame, how appalling the situation is’. Coincidentally a British diplomat, driving back with his wife from a dinner party, found a street cordoned off by men armed with sub-machine-guns ready to rob the occupants of any car which passed. Reacting quickly, he accelerated, forcing them to jump for cover.

There is no way of telling whether these hold-ups were carried out by military personnel or by civilians who had got hold of uniforms. Military police apparel was the most sought after. Clearly, French deserters and former fifis were also involved in some of the attacks. The director-general of the Sûreté Nationale described this ‘increase in armed attacks’ in a strong letter to the Minister of the Interior. On one evening alone, seven armed robberies had been carried out in the capital, two of them by American soldiers.

The generosity the French displayed towards the Americans and British had been unstinted in the early days, going far beyond the bottles of champagne hidden until the Liberation. ‘We’ve been waiting for you for so long,’ they had said over and over again, with genuine emotion. But then, as Malcolm Muggeridge observed, everybody ends up by hating their liberators. The writer Alfred Fabre-Luce wrote of ‘an army of drivers, with no indication of rank, who threw cigarettes to onlookers as if to an African crowd’.

The French indeed felt themselves very poor relations. The quantity of vehicles alone was a painful reminder of the French army in 1940, trudging to war after being delivered to a railhead in cattle trucks. The US army seemed to run not just on gasoline, but also on baked beans, coffee, cigarettes and packets of almost everything imaginable; not just cookies, candy and condoms, but also sachets of stew and mashed potatoes, permanganate to sterilize the water, tins of peanut butter and condensed milk, doughnut-making machines mounted on army trucks, and, of course, K rations. French children swarmed round their vehicles, begging for chewing gum. Soon the drivers of trucks painted on their tailboard: ‘No Gum Chum’.

The American influence in Paris became unmistakable. Some typically French bars were transformed, in an attempt to attract the rich liberators. Windows were darkened, iron chairs changed for comfortable upholstered ones, and the waiters in their black waistcoats and long white aprons were replaced with smiling girls. As a final touch, these new venues were given names like ‘New York’ or ‘The Sunny Side of the Street’.

Many disliked the way French youth appeared infatuated with all things American – detective stories, films, clothes, jazz, bebop, Glenn Miller. This fascination represented both a yearning to escape from the poverty and dilapidation around them and a preference for American informality after the stuffiness of Vichy. But it also struck a deeper chord, the legend of a new world offering a vision to the old. ‘America symbolized so many things!’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir. ‘It had stimulated our youth. It had also been a great myth – an untouchable myth.’

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