The Light Line

FOR three months after her glorious liberation, Paris suffered. “She was largely without light or gas or heat,” wrote Alan Moorehead. “There were still no buses in the streets, no taxis. Every boulevard was a river of bicycles.” Shortages of soap and warm water resulted in an epidemic of ugly leg sores. “You could more easily take a bath in champagne than in hot water,” Martha Gellhorn added. “Since there was no leather for shoes, women clattered about the streets on platform soles made of wood, sounding like horses’ hooves.” Restaurant patrons dined in their overcoats on carrot-and-turnip soup.

The small fuel ration was restricted to adults over seventy-five, children under three, and the certifiably sick. A cord of black-market firewood sold for $120, or 6,000 francs at official exchange rates. The rich sometimes bought sawdust by the ton to burn in their stoves; they also purchased black-market gasoline for the trucks that delivered it. An American officer wrote home that his flat was “cold as charity,” and another soldier, assigned a dank, sepulchral room, reported that “on many nights we opened the windows and slept in sleeping bags.” A SHAEF officer who attended the opera described heavily muffled musicians, and patrons in formal dress swaddled in lap robes. “Like opening a refrigerator door,” he wrote, “a cold wave rolled out on us from backstage as the curtain was lifted.” Isaiah Berlin wrote a friend that the city seemed “empty and hollow and dead, like an exquisite corpse.” As for actual corpses, the Paris crematorium received only enough gas to operate for two hours a day, so bodies were burned quickly or not at all.

By late November conditions began to brighten and the city “was again alive,” according to Forrest Pogue. Tacticians defined the “light line” as the boundary between Allied field armies and the far rear; west of the line, nighttime blackouts no longer were mandatory. Paris again became la ville lumière, not least because the great coal fields around Valenciennes had been liberated intact and were soon disgorging the seven thousand tons a day needed to keep city utilities operating and the subway running. By mid-December, SHAEF reported that “electricity consumption in Paris is 94% of the peacetime figure,” with “an unnecessary amount of lighting used.”

For liberators behind the light line, life was good, and for the brass in Paris, life was splendid. A PX open only to general officers stocked perfume, bracelets, fountain pens, and new Zippos. General Everett Hughes described hunting partridge near Versailles, with “all the farm hands for miles around acting as beaters.” General Lee, the COMZ commander, ensured that fresh milk, butter, and fruit filled Eisenhower’s larder, and the White House even sent the supreme commander a bushel of Chesapeake oysters. Frontline troops groused about “all those goddamned chair-borne infantry at the Hôtel Majestic,” where Court House Lee kept his headquarters. “The COMZ set-up is shocking,” wrote Pogue. “Working on a schedule of 8:30–5:30 (more nearly 4:30); off one afternoon a week.” Denizens of the Majestic messed in a swank three-story café on the corner of the Champs-Élysées and Rue de Berri, where French waitresses served meals on starched tablecloths and a GI orchestra played from a mezzanine balcony.

The Majestic was hardly unique. Fifty-one generals lived in the George V, by Lee’s careful count, and more filled the Hôtel Palais Quai d’Orsay, where desk clerks and porters wore frock coats. SHAEF’s offices in the city occupied the J. P. Morgan bank on the elegant Place Vendôme, near the house where Frédéric Chopin died and opposite Napoléon’s column, made from melted-down enemy cannons captured at Austerlitz. SHAEF officers dined in the Hôtel Meurice, that last-ditch redoubt of General Choltitz, where the cupboards still smelled of Wehrmacht boot leather. A ditty percolating through the ranks advised:

Don’t go forward of army group,

Your proper place is SHAEF.

Don’t mind a bit

If you’re called a shit,

Just say, “Thank God I’m safe.”

The British occupied twelve hotels in Paris, the Canadians two; Americans filled well over three hundred. Champagne cost 300 to 600 francs a bottle—$6 to $12 at official exchange rates, $1.20 to $2.40 at black market rates—although imbibers were required to turn in two empty bottles to get a full one, and stoppers were at a premium because of Spanish cork shortages. A December 2 memo from COMZ, titled “Whiskey and Gin for General Officers,” allocated a total of six cases for each army commander through January, with four cases permitted corps commanders, three cases for division commanders, and two cases for every brigadier general. Aides could retrieve the tipple from a warehouse at the Belgium Exposition Grounds in Brussels.

For GIs without stars on their shoulders, Paris seemed a fantastic sanctuary, the ne plus ultra of life outside the combat zone. The Army’s first leave center opened in Paris in late October. That was followed by the first of fifty-one GI clubs on the Continent. Located in the Grand Hotel on Boulevard des Capucines, the initial club in Paris charged 30 cents a night for a bed; Major Glenn Miller’s orchestra played each evening, even after the band leader disappeared in mid-December during a foul-weather flight over the English Channel. Soon ten thousand soldiers a day poured into the city on forty-eight-hour passes. “Just returned from a trip to Paris,” a Seventh Army soldier wrote his wife. “It was wonderful, but I slept on the floor because the bed was just too much like sleeping in butter.” A woman working for the OSS described fleets of vélos, odd contraptions like “canvas-covered bathtubs and drawn or propelled by motorcycles or bicycles,” carting around GIs “who little count the cost in their exuberance at being alive.” The writer Simone de Beauvoir concluded that “the easygoing manner of the young Americans incarnated liberty itself.”

Troops packed movie theaters along the Champs-Élysées, and two music halls featured vaudeville shows. Post Number One of the American Legion served hamburgers and bourbon, and bars opened with names intended to entice the homesick, like The Sunny Side of the Street and New York. Army special services organized activities ranging from piano recitals to jitterbug lessons, while distributing thousands of hobby kits for sketching, clay modeling, and leather craft. The Bayeux Tapestry, long tucked away for safekeeping, reemerged in an exhibit at the Louvre, with the segment depicting the Norman defeat of the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 tactfully folded from sight.

In early December, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas returned to Paris from exile in southern France with their dog, Basket, and the Red Cross arranged GI tours of their apartment. Soldiers organized in groups of fifty, often bearing gifts of cigarettes and soap, also visited Picasso in his studio on Rue des Grand Augustins, where Hemingway had left behind a box of grenades. Callers to the atelier were “stratified,” wrote one observer: “on the ground floor there were GIs and American journalists; then came communist deputies and prominent party members who showed signs of impatience; then came old acquaintances; and finally one came to Picasso.” When the artist—who sometimes received guests in his underwear—was shown photos of war damage in London, he exclaimed, “C’est épouvantable! And that is happening all over the world?”

For many soldiers, of course, culture was the least of their interests. From deuce-and-a-half truck beds rumbling toward the Tuileries came shouts of “We’re all going to get laid, French-style!” COMZ counted at least 230 brothels in the city, plus six thousand licensed prostitutes working the streets. Another seven thousand were unregistered, according to Paris police estimates, and of the unregistered more than a third carried venereal disease. A typical transaction cost three packs of Chesterfields, and a survey found that among soldiers who spent two days or more in Paris, two-thirds had intercourse at least once, often in what were called “Where am I?” rooms. In Pigalle, solicitations from aggressive streetwalkers—known as “body snatchers”—could be heard from every corner. “Come along, ba-bee,” they cooed, “come along.” Soldiers replied, “Coushay avec?” or simply, “Zig zig?” One quartermaster private disclosed on his required “VD contact form” that he picked up nine different women around the same Parisian intersection, took them to six different hotels, and essayed seven “sexual exposures,” all within eight hours. “Our soldiers,” an American officer wrote, “were devastated by aphrodisiac dreams.”

They were devastated by more than dreams. The venereal-disease rate in the European theater quickly doubled, and more than two-thirds of all infections acquired in France originated in Paris. The U.S. Army, which had tracked VD in the ranks since 1830, considered a rate below 30 cases per 1,000 troops annually to be “acceptable”; by mid-October the rate in Europe was twice that. It doubled again among the Army Air Forces, and—at 222 per 1,000—was sevenfold the “acceptable” figure in COMZ’s Loire encampments. Confronted by another threat to Allied strength, Eisenhower counterattacked by declaring “all brothels, bordellos and similar establishments” off-limits.

Twenty-nine prophylactic dispensaries sprouted across Paris, with huge signs declaring, “Pro Station Here.” Mandatory “short-arm” inspections by medical “pecker checkers” increased sharply. Naval commanders at a hotel on the Avenue Marceau barred entry to any woman unless she produced “proof of chastity.” A December issue of Army Talks warned, “Don’t forget the Krauts were fooling around France a long time before we got here.… So any dame you get now is plenty second-hand.”

Still the VD rate climbed. Soldiers excused from duty while being treated for syphilis or gonorrhea were said to be “whores de combat,” and the Good Conduct ribbon became known as the “No-Clap Medal.” Women who swapped sex for rations or chocolate were called “Hershey bars,” while a brothel was a “house of horizontal refreshment.” The French Foreign Ministry asked SHAEF to consider “assigning a certain number of houses of prostitution for the Allied nationals’ use” because of “a noteworthy recrudescence of clandestine prostitution” and increasing VD among French civilians. Eisenhower declined. When Patton proposed providing bordellos with penicillin because “it is futile to attempt to go against human nature,” the supreme commander replied tartly, “I most emphatically do not agree.… To run the risk of being short in this important drug merely in order that brothels in France may be supplied with it is absolutely unacceptable to me.” Patton for once held his tongue.

*   *   *

Paris soldiered on, or perhaps sashayed. Vendors near the Eiffel Tower sold pinwheels and balloons, and among pitched stalls at the stamp market, collectors by the hundreds examined specimens with magnifying lenses. French communists tossed clenched-fist salutes to British officers in red-banded uniform caps, mistaking them for Soviets, and young women bicycled down the boulevards with billowing skirts and big hats, a vivid apparition that brightened everyone’s morale. In November, De Gaulle’s government had closed public dance halls as unseemly, since some two million French citizens remained incarcerated in German labor camps or prisons. But surreptitious dancing continued across Montmartre, and cabarets and nightclubs remained open. Among them was the Sphinx, which Bill Mauldin described as “jammed with French civilians, all smoking [black market] Camels” and served by waitresses who “wore lace caps and high-heeled shoes, with absolutely nothing between.”

A lively tableau could also be found in the Hôtel Scribe, abode of many of the nearly one thousand journalists accredited to SHAEF, including the likes of William Shirer, George Orwell, and Robert Capa. “It was an American enclave in the heart of Paris,” De Beauvoir wrote. “White bread, fresh eggs, jam, sugar and Spam.” (The bar, always crowded, featured a medley of intoxicants called the Suffering Bastard.) Collectively the correspondents filed more than 100,000 words from Paris each day, plus hundreds of photographs and thousands of feet of movie film. Two dozen SHAEF censors sat in a suite on the second floor of the hotel, scrutinizing the copy while occasionally glancing at a long list of “hot stops”—details not to be publicly disclosed, such as troop movements and unit strengths—scrawled in colored chalk on a blackboard. The triple bleating of buzzers in the Scribe lobby announced a new press release, according to the Australian reporter Osmar White, and wire services hired “nimble French youths to race from the briefing room to the dispatching office on the first floor with ‘flashes.’”

Sporadic privation would beset Paris for the duration, including shortages of milk, bread, and even government stationery. Reams embossed with the Vichy letterhead were reused, with “État Français” struck out and “République Française” typed in. Particularly alarming to GIs was a theater-wide cigarette shortage: U.S. Army soldiers alone smoked more than a million packs a day in Europe, and COMZ put the total need for December at 84 million packs. A two-month supply—along with more than one million blankets and sleeping bags—was discovered aboard offshore cargo ships, unable to berth for weeks because priority was given to ammunition and fuel. Until the crisis eased, cigarettes were diverted from rear-echelon troops behind the light line to the front, and Eisenhower began rolling his own as a gesture of solidarity with his men.

Not least among the problems for Court House Lee and others attempting to victual the Allied host was a virulent and ingenious black market. Coffee, gasoline, tires, blankets, boots, soap, and morphine were bought and sold in staggering volume at enormous profit. A pack of Lucky Strikes that cost a nickel at the post exchange on the Champs-Élysées could be peddled on the sidewalk outside for $2. A twenty-pound can of coffee or fifty D-ration chocolate bars brought $300, and the standard soldier musette sack became known as a “black market bag.” British Commandos financed their stay at the Ritz by peddling a two-hundred-pound keg of Danish butter for one hundred pounds sterling. An entire train with three engines and forty boxcars full of cigarettes and other PX supplies vanished without a trace during a journey from Normandy to Paris, despite a prolonged search by agents in Cub spotter planes. The distribution of five thousand captured German horses to French farmers was halted in the fall to prevent their diversion to black-market butchers, which did not stop Osmar White from enjoying a “superbly camouflaged horse steak with vintage Château Latour” at an illicit restaurant off Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré.

Eisenhower’s provost marshal estimated that in December eighteen thousand American deserters roamed the European theater, plus another ten thousand British absconders. The equivalent of a division of military fugitives was believed to be hiding in the Parisian demimonde, often joining forces with local black marketeers to peddle K rations for 75 cents from the tailgates of stolen Army trucks—hundreds of such vehicles vanished every day—or simply selling the entire deuce-and-a-half for $5,000. Eventually four thousand military policemen and detectives worked the streets of Paris. From September through December they arrested more than ten thousand people, including French civilians caught selling marijuana to soldiers. A five-story French army barracks on the Boulevard Mortier became a detention block capable of holding more than two thousand miscreants, while the merely AWOL were rounded up and trucked back to the front in lots of sixteen under MP guard. Many soldiers in an Army railway battalion in Paris were arrested and court-martialed en masse for pilferage; nearly two hundred of them drew prison sentences, some as long as fifty years—later commuted for those who agreed to combat duty. Still, the malfeasance and misconduct would thrive through the end of the war, to the point that Paris, the city of light, the city of learning, the city of love, earned yet another nickname: “Chicago-sur-Seine.”

*   *   *

Shortly before six P.M. on Tuesday, December 12, at roughly the hour that Hitler was meeting his second group of HERBSTNEBEL generals at the Adlerhorst, Eisenhower rode in a limousine through the dim streets of London toward 10 Downing Street for a meeting with Churchill and his military brain trust. After flying from Versailles the previous day, the supreme commander had kept busy with appointments in his high-windowed corner office overlooking Grosvenor Square, followed this afternoon by a courtesy call on Ambassador Winant at the U.S. embassy down the street.

As his car sped southeast across Piccadilly toward Whitehall, Eisenhower could see that London, unlike Paris, showed little evidence of revival. Blackout restrictions remained in force, and the few cars on the road were described by one visitor as “little points of blue light dragging darkness after them but leaving blackness behind.” At Claridge’s, a doorman flashed his torch to guide patrons across the sidewalk. Toy and cake shops stood empty a fortnight before Christmas, and even potatoes were in short supply. The city’s most popular diversions included a new film adaptation of Henry V starring Laurence Olivier and a waxwork exhibit depicting German atrocities. “Horrors of the Nazi Concentration Camps. Come inside and see real Nazi tortures,” the marquee beckoned. “Children’s amusement section no extra charge.”

A national ban on making ice cream had been lifted in November, and, with the threat of German invasion now gone, the antique Home Guard stood down with a fine parade. But what would be the coldest winter in fifty years had set in, its miseries exacerbated by millions of broken windows and missing roof tiles. The homeless and unnerved still retreated to shelters and subways at dusk with their deck chairs and rugs—“cave dwellers getting their cave ready for the night,” an American airman recorded—sometimes sleeping five deep on steel shelves erected across the platforms. Much of the Tate Gallery collection had been stored in unused Underground stations on the Piccadilly and Central Lines; the Elgin Marbles now resided in an empty tunnel under Aldwych. An all too familiar sight on London’s streets was a telegram delivery boy carrying bad news past twitching parlor curtains as he sought the proper address. “This is a priority,” the messengers were told as they set out. “It’s death.”

As in Antwerp, death could also arrive directly, as a consequence of Hitler’s decision to concentrate his V-2 rockets almost exclusively on the Belgian port and the British capital. Churchill in mid-November had finally confirmed that those mysterious detonations since early September were not exploding gas mains. More than one thousand of the rockets would fall on British soil, about half in greater London. Like the V-1, the V-2, dubbed Big Ben, would have little military impact; according to official German calculations the effort invested by Berlin in the V-weapons was roughly equivalent to that of producing 24,000 fighter planes. Further, the V-2 rocket—a hundred times more expensive to build than the V-1—proved less effective than the flying bomb as a terror weapon. Not least among the reasons was the very futility of defending against a missile streaking across the heavens at Mach 5. Since they afforded no protection anyway, neither Allied antiaircraft batteries nor fighter squadrons were tied down, as they had been during the V-1 onslaught.

Radar usually detected V-2 launches from the Netherlands, but warning sirens were deemed pointless; only transport authorities got a minute or two of notification to close subway floodgates beneath the Thames. “You just strolled along, daydreaming, till you were hit,” one witness said. Because the odds against shooting down a V-2 with ground fire were considered as high as a thousand to one, dupery had to suffice as a countermeasure. False intelligence about where the Big Bens hit, fed that fall to the Germans through agents controlled by British counterintelligence, persuaded enemy rocketeers that they were overshooting central London. Soon the mean point of impact migrated eastward, a shift that by war’s end was credited with sparing an estimated 1,300 British lives, 10,000 other casualties, and 23,000 houses.

That was cold comfort for the nearly three thousand Britons killed by V-2s, or the tens of thousands whose homes were obliterated. “Never have I seen buildings so cleanly swept away, and these are 3- or 4-story tenement houses,” a survivor reported. One of the worst attacks occurred shortly after noon on November 25 in the working-class borough of Deptford, where a Saturday sale on saucepans had drawn a long queue at the local Woolworth’s. A young mother outside the store described “a sudden airless quiet, which seemed to stop one’s breath, then an almighty sound so tremendous that it seemed to blot out my mind completely.” A survivor recalled that as the smoke cleared:

A horse’s head was lying in the gutter. There was a pram hood all twisted and bent and there was a little baby’s hand still in its wooly sleeve. Outside the pub there was a crumpled bus, still with rows of people sitting inside, all covered in dust and dead. Where Woolworth’s had been, there was nothing.

The blast killed 168 and injured even more. “The slogan of ‘London can take it’ will prevail,” a British government official wrote Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s close aide. “But there may be quite a lot to take.”

*   *   *

No V-weapons fell on Whitehall during Eisenhower’s Tuesday night visit, but the specter was never farther away than the nearby gutted shops and blown-out windows patched with beaverboard. At six P.M., Churchill welcomed the supreme commander to his map room, where they were joined by Tedder, Brooke, and several other senior British officers. Brooke, as part of his conspiracy with Montgomery to “take the control out of Eisenhower’s hands,” had tried to arrange a direct meeting with George Marshall; the Army chief declined the invitation and instead told Eisenhower to make his own case in London.

Eisenhower now commanded sixty-nine divisions on the Western Front, a force he expected to expand to eighty-one divisions by February. Using the prime minister’s huge wall maps, upon which various battlefronts were delineated with pushpins and colored yarn, the supreme commander once again reviewed his campaign scheme: how Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, bolstered by the U.S. Ninth Army, would angle north of the Ruhr, while Bradley’s 12th Army Group swung farther south, shielded on the right flank by Devers’s 6th Army Group. The twin envelopment would exploit Allied mobility and force the enemy to burn his dwindling fuel stocks by defending a wide, perilous front.

Brooke—his narrow raptor face as intent as the visage of a peregrine watching a pigeon—told his diary later that night:

Ike explained his plan, which contemplates a double advance into Germany, north of Rhine and by Frankfurt. I disagreed flatly with it, accused Ike of violating principles of concentration of force, which had resulted in his previous failures. I criticized his future plans and … I stressed the importance of concentrating on one thrust.… Ike does not hope to cross the Rhine before May!!!

Two years earlier, under similar circumstances in Casablanca, Brooke had assailed Eisenhower over a proposed offensive across Tunisia. Unprepared and intimidated, Eisenhower had mounted a halfhearted defense before retreating in disarray from the room. This time he held his ground, parrying Brooke’s objections and explaining his rationale with patience and coherence. Closing to the Rhine from Holland to Alsace would give Allied forces the “capability of concentration” for an eventual double thrust. Winter flooding along much of the river now precluded attacks farther east anyway. The fighting in October and November had been grim indeed—Allied troops still occupied only five hundred square miles of Germany—but Wehrmacht divisions were bleeding to death, and with them, the Reich.

“Ike was good,” wrote Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham, the first sea lord. “Kept an even keel. He was obviously impressed by [Brooke’s] arguments but refused to commit himself.” The debate continued over cocktails and dinner, quickly becoming the same tautological gyre that characterized so many Anglo-American strategic conversations.

The evening ended in stilted silences and muzzy talk about postwar Allied unity, to which the supreme commander pledged to devote “the afternoon and evening of my life.” Brooke grew so frustrated that he contemplated resigning, particularly after Churchill chimed in to endorse Eisenhower’s broad-front concept. In his diary Brooke conceded that he had “utterly failed … in getting either Winston or Ike to see that their strategy is fundamentally wrong.” A day later, the prime minister asserted that he had simply been acting the gracious host in refusing to gang up on the only American at table.

Eisenhower flew back to Versailles on Wednesday morning, weary and hardly less dispirited than Brooke. “Field Marshal Brooke seemed disturbed by what he calls our ‘dispersion’ of the past weeks of this campaign,” he cabled Marshall. To Mamie he admitted craving a three-month vacation on a remote beach. “And oh, Lordy, Lordy,” he added, “let it be sunny.”

*   *   *

Eisenhower knew that more was at stake in this tedious contretemps than the march routes of armies. Every additional day of war left Britain weaker and less capable of preserving the empire or shaping the postwar world.

“I greatly fear the dwindling of the British Army is a factor in France as it will affect our right to express our opinion upon strategic and other matters,” Churchill had cabled Montgomery. German intelligence believed that fourteen British divisions still awaited deployment to the Continent, but the prime minister and Brooke knew otherwise. Indeed, Britain was so hard-pressed that even after cannibalizing two existing divisions to fill the diminished ranks in other units, commanders faced “an acute problem in the next six months to keep the army up to strength,” as one staff officer in London warned. Wastage in infantry riflemen especially was running at a rate higher than the War Office could make good: a British rifle-company officer who landed in France on June 6 had nearly a 70 percent probability of being wounded by the end of the war, and a 20 percent chance of being killed.

Nor was Britain’s plight unique. “All of us are now faced with an unanticipated shortage of manpower,” Roosevelt had written Churchill in October. The American dearth was even more problematic, if only because U.S. troops provided the preponderance of Eisenhower’s strength. In December, the American armed forces comprised twelve million, compared with five million for the British, but insatiable and competing global demands pressed even that multitude. A million Army troops were now in the Pacific, while the Army Air Forces had requested 130,000 men to fly and maintain the new B-29 bomber—beyond the 300,000 workers already building the Superfortress. Almost five million American men had been granted occupational deferments, and many soldiers were being furloughed to work in hard-pressed critical industries. In December, 2,500 were sent home to make artillery ammunition and another 2,000 to make tires; thousands more went to foundries, toolmakers, and other plants. Even now Marshall felt pressure from Congress to trim Army manpower so that the production of consumer goods, from toasters to Buicks, could resume.

To swell the ranks, Selective Service exemptions for fathers were belatedly abolished: one million would be drafted in 1944–45. The average age of draftees had climbed from twenty-two in 1940 to twenty-six in 1944, and many new privates were over thirty-five. A ban on shipping eighteen-year-olds overseas was rescinded in August. Induction standards for “physically imperfect men,” already loosened, were further relaxed in October. Draft examiners were advised that “such terms as ‘imbecile’ and ‘moron’ will not be used,” but 330,000 inductees, some of whom could fairly be classified as at least dull-witted, were subsequently discharged for sundry mental defects. A three-page primer advised examiners how to detect malingering, including feigned epilepsy, bed-wetting, and tachycardia “induced by ingestion of drugs such as thyroid extracts.” Would-be draft dodgers “may shoot or cut off their fingers or toes, usually on the right side.… Some may put their hands under cars for this purpose.”

The need for more soldiers—fit or unfit, willing or unwilling, whole or maimed—grew ever more acute as the fall months passed. U.S. battle casualties in Europe had doubled from October to November, to two thousand a day; on December 7, the figure hit three thousand. The trench foot epidemic caused nonbattle casualties to also double in November, to 56,000. Consequently, even as the last of the U.S. Army’s eighty-nine divisions prepared for deployment to Europe, and even though more than three hundred thousand individual replacement troops had arrived since D-Day, Bradley’s 12th Army Group reported in December that every division already in the theater was below its authorized strength. “The life expectancy of a junior officer in combat was twelve days before he was hit and evacuated,” Bradley asserted. Patton advised his diary on December 3, “Our situation is bad; 11,000 short in an army of three armored divisions and six infantry divisions.”

*   *   *

All combat arms felt pinched—the “handling and delivery of armored replacements has been a colossal failure,” an Army investigator wrote—but none more than the infantry, that breed apart, described by one private as “a black line on a war map.” Using obsolete data from World War I and from other World War II theaters irrelevant to Europe, the War Department had predicted that infantry losses would amount to 64 percent of all casualties. The forecast was a botch: by December, the actual figure was 83 percent, and even higher for divisions that saw especially intense fighting. In January 1944, the Army had estimated a need for 300,000 replacement infantrymen worldwide that year. The eventual number was nearly double, 535,000.

Of more than eight million soldiers in the Army as the year ended, barely two million were serving in ground units. That was simply not enough, particularly since the Navy, Marines, and Air Forces tended to get a disproportionate share of the smartest and most physically able young men. The severest shortage was of that priceless creature known as a “745,” the rifleman, so called for his military occupational specialty number. An infantry division might have more than 14,000 soldiers, with another 24,000 troops sustaining the division in ancillary support units, but the point of the spear comprised just 5,200 riflemen in twenty-seven rifle companies. (Others manned mortars and machine guns, cookstoves and radios, stethoscopes and bulldozers and clerical desks.) “We find ourselves totally out of infantry rifle replacements because of the War Department’s inability to ship the numbers that are necessary,” Bradley’s personnel chief warned. As casualties mounted, the shortages grew more desperate and the combat soldier’s fatalism deepened. As one veteran wrote, “Nobody gets out of a rifle company. It’s a door that only opens one way, in. You leave when they carry you out.” Lieutenant Paul Fussell believed that “no infantryman can survive psychologically very long unless he’s mastered the principle that the dead don’t know what they look like.”

Frantic efforts were made to muster more riflemen into battle. The Army already had culled privates and noncommissioned officers from forty divisions while they were still training in the United States. Seventeen of those divisions had lost at least two-thirds of their infantry privates and countless junior officers, who then were sent overseas as individual replacements while new recruits filled the ranks behind them. Not only were the original divisions devastated by this turnover—the 65th Division reported that some platoons had churned through as many as sixteen platoon leaders even before leaving the United States—but also many GIs found themselves in battle without sufficient training. “We had to take them over behind a hill right in the middle of the action and show them how to load their rifles,” one warrant officer complained.

Crash programs to convert quartermaster soldiers and other support troops into riflemen also began in late November. These so-called “miracle men,” or “retreads,” often proved wanting, and at least one regiment trying to rebuild after the Hürtgen bloodletting refused to accept hundreds of infantry novices. “State of mind of men being converted into riflemen is, on the whole, not good,” an inspection report advised. A survey of infantry divisions found that nearly three-fourths of respondents agreed that “the infantry gets more than its share of the men who aren’t good for anything else.” Lieutenant Fussell wrote that the implicit message to an infantryman was: “You are expendable. Don’t imagine that your family’s good opinion of you will cut any ice here.”

Even the deployment of intact divisions was beset with snafus. Under a plan known as the “Red List,” twenty-nine divisions that were ostensibly “fully equipped and ready for combat within fifteen days after landing” arrived overseas beginning in September. In the event, tanks and other heavy equipment meant for these divisions were routed to embarkation ports through a warehouse complex in Elmira, New York, which was already inundated with thousands of military railcars each month. Congestion and confusion led to chaos—thirty workers in Elmira toiled full-time just to strip off erroneous shipping labels—and the Army conceded that an “inability to keep up with paperwork eventually bogged down the entire operation.” As a result, many units arrived in Europe without critical combat gear, including three divisions that docked in Marseille so bereft of communications equipment that SHAEF spent months making up the shortages.

The Red List was a paragon of efficiency compared to the Army’s individual replacement system. Tens of thousands of soldiers were disgorged onto the Continent woefully unprepared for combat; as Eisenhower conceded, each arrived with the “feeling of being a lost soul … shunted around without knowing where he is going or what will happen to him.” Many lacked mess kits, bayonets, or even rank insignia; replacement lieutenants and captains used adhesive tape to simulate the bars on their shoulders. So many also lacked weapons that the War Department shipped fifty thousand World War I–vintage rifles to Europe. “We left Fort Meade with no rifles, we arrived in Scotland with no rifles, we arrived in France with no rifles, [and] we arrived in Belgium with no rifles,” a soldier recalled.

Replacements traveled for days in unheated French “forty-and-eight” boxcars, considered suitable for forty men or eight horses, although as Eisenhower wrote Marshall, “We have reduced the figure to thirty-five enlisted men per car in order that by tight squeezing men can at least lie down.” They then spent weeks or months in replacement centers known as “stockage depots,” often sleeping on straw in flimsy tents, waiting to join a unit even as their physical fitness and combat skills deteriorated. A Stars and Stripes exposé reported that “many replacements had not bathed in thirty days.”

“We want to feel that we are a part of something,” one GI in a stockage depot explained. “As a replacement we are apart from everything.… You feel totally useless and unimportant.” Inactivity, Stars and Stripes added, became “a form of mental cruelty.” The Army attempted to mitigate the fears of novice troops headed for combat by segregating “salt waters”—new replacements arriving from the United States—from wounded or sick soldiers just out of the hospital. “The battle veterans,” a battalion commander explained, “scared the pants off the green boys.”

Court House Lee proposed on December 1 that the word “replacement” be supplanted by “reinforcement.” “‘Replacement,’” he told Bradley, “carries a cannon fodder implication that we could overcome by using another term.” The change would take effect shortly after Christmas, but no euphemism could obscure the fact that “the morale of our officers and enlisted men coming though the replacement system is completely shot,” an inspector general’s report warned. Even so, U.S. ground forces in Europe since June 6 had received almost half a million replacements, most of them “salt waters,” and for all its flaws and indignities the system had kept the field armies reasonably strong for seven months.

Now the Army’s ability to replenish its ranks was in jeopardy. SHAEF on December 8 predicted a shortage of 23,000 riflemen by year’s end, enough to preclude any attack into Germany. After returning from London, Eisenhower on December 15 ordered rear-echelon units to comb out more combat troops, and an eight-week course to convert mortar crews and other infantrymen into 745s was truncated to two weeks. At least a few officers wondered whether the time had come to allow black GIs to serve in white rifle companies, but for now that radical notion found few champions in the high command.

No one was more fretful than Omar Bradley, whose army group numbered 850,000 men and almost four thousand tanks, yet mustered less than 80 percent of its authorized strength in riflemen. He contemplated breaking up newly arriving divisions to cannibalize infantry as the British had, despite what he conceded would be “tremendous wastage.” So irked was Bradley at the Pentagon’s failure to provide enough trigger-pullers—“Don’t they realize that we can still lose this war in Europe?” he had asked Eisenhower—that he told SHAEF he planned to fly to Versailles from Luxembourg City to explain his troubles in detail. The conference was scheduled for Saturday morning, December 16—Beethoven’s birthday.

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