Terror Is Broken by Terror

IN happier days, when the Reich was ascendant and the conquest of Britain seemed inevitable, Hitler had ordered construction of an elaborate command post for the German invasion of England in 1940. Tucked into a sheltered valley outside Margival, seventy-five miles northeast of Paris, Wolfsschlucht II, or W-II, was among more than a dozen elaborate Führer headquarters built in occupied Europe by a force of 28,000 workers pouring a million cubic meters of concrete. W-II rambled across ten square kilometers, with hundreds of offices, garrison rooms, and guest quarters appointed with thick rugs and new maple furniture. Engravings looted from Parisian art shops hung on the walls, and a bootjack could be found in every wardrobe. Larders held tons of canned meat and cherries, sugar, and tinned asparagus. Camouflage netting by the acre concealed the complex; rails leading into a train tunnel were painted rust-red to simulate disuse. Potemkin farmhouses, barns, and pig pens, and a grove of fake trees hid gun batteries on an adjacent ridge. An inconspicuous teahouse atop the Führer’s personal bunker offered a fine view of Soissons Cathedral, five miles south.

Although W-II had never been used, locals deemed it “the most forbidden place in France,” and it was here that Hitler ordered Rundstedt and Rommel to meet him for a secret conference on Normandy. The Führer and his entourage flew from Berchtesgaden in four Focke-Wulf Condors to Metz, then drove 175 miles in armored cars to Margival. (Venturing farther west by air seemed foolhardy when even SS soldiers had begun referring to predatory Allied fighter-bombers as “meat flies.”) At nine A.M. on Saturday, June 17, Hitler received the two field marshals in an entry hall with cyclopean walls and a green tile fireplace.

This was Hitler’s first return to France since 1940, and he looked like a man who was losing a world war: eyes bloodshot and puffy from insomnia, skin sallow, the toothbrush mustache a bit bedraggled. Aides reported that even his passion for music had waned. “It is tragic that the Führer has so cut himself off from life and is leading an excessively unhealthy life,” wrote his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Often he checked his own pulse, as if fingering mortality; a quack dubbed the Reich Injection Master frequently administered sedatives or shots of a glandular concoction. He shunned bright lights and wore a cap with an enlarged visor to shield his eyes. “I always have the feeling of tipping to the right,” he complained. He spoke of retirement, of a life devoted to reading, or meditating, or running a museum. His battle captains disappointed him, and of eighteen German field marshals and forty full generals, he would quarrel with more than half before the calamity ended. In Berlin it was rumored that he intended to take personal command in the west.

Hitler sat hunched on a wooden stool, fiddling with his spectacles and a fistful of colored pencils as Rommel opened the session with a glum progress report. The Allies had landed at least twenty divisions in Normandy—half a million men with 77,000 vehicles. The German Seventh Army opposed them with the equivalent of fourteen divisions, and those depleted units averaged under 11,000 men, compared with almost 17,000 a few years earlier. German casualties had reached 26,000, including more than 50 senior commanders. Allied naval guns could hit panzers more than twenty-five kilometers inland, while the enemy’s superiority in matériel was at least as profound as it had been in Africa.

Anglo-American warplanes harried the battlefield to a depth of 150 kilometers or more; day marches in fair weather were suicidal. Rail traffic could get no closer to the beachhead than two hundred kilometers. Air attacks now immobilized nearly three hundred trains a day. German aircraft reinforcements were shot down at a rate of three dozen each day, while others lost their way, ran out of fuel, or were destroyed by their own antiaircraft guns; of fifty-seven fighters that left Wiesbaden for Évreux, only three arrived. At dusk on Wednesday, British planes had dropped twelve hundred tons of explosives on Le Havre port, including six-ton “Tallboy” bombs, and more attacks followed on Thursday. Seven hundred French houses had been destroyed in Le Havre, but so too sixty-three German vessels, including attack boats and minesweepers.

Rommel pointed to a large map. Just this morning American tanks had crossed the Cherbourg–Coutances road; soon the Cotentin Peninsula would be severed, trapping forty thousand troops and dooming Cherbourg. If the Anglo-Americans broke free of the beachhead, either south of Caen or below the Cotentin, the road to Paris lay open and Brittany could be cut off.

Hitler stirred on his stool. “Don’t call it a beachhead, but the last piece of French soil held by the enemy,” he said calmly, adding, “Cherbourg is to be held at all costs.”

Rundstedt said little, taciturn as usual in his trim gray uniform with the carmine trouser stripe that marked a general staff officer. If Rommel was an unlicked cub, then Rundstedt—at sixty-eight, the oldest German field marshal, he had been a Prussian soldier for half a century—was known as both der alte Herr, the old gent, and der schwarze Ritter, the black knight. The scion of Junker gentry and eight centuries of soldiering ancestors, he had served as an army group commander and then military governor in Poland. After receiving his marshal’s baton in 1940, Rundstedt arrived in France to help plan SEA LION, the aborted invasion of England. During the subsequent attack on the Soviet Union, he commanded six field armies, captured the Ukraine, and then retired in late 1941 after a spat with Hitler, only to return in uniform as commander-in-chief for the west.

Beset by rheumatism, an ailing heart, and what one general called “psychic resignation,” Rundstedt lived in the Parisian suburb of St.-Germain-en-Laye, where he slept late, read Karl May westerns, and addressed visitors in credible French or English. He disdained both the telephone and the “brown dirt” of Nazi thuggery; although loyal to Hitler, he was not above deriding him as “the Bohemian corporal,” or denouncing the Führer’s orders with his favorite epithet, “Quatsch!” Nonsense! He “would have been most happy if Prussia had remained alone,” his chief of staff later observed, “just as before 1866.” Rarely did he visit the front, considering the Atlantic Wall “a bit of cheap bluff.” He preferred to command from a one–to–one million scale map on which the beachhead—or rather, that last bit of France held by the enemy—was hardly bigger than a playing card. His pessimism ran deep, and the past ten days had only deepened his gloom.

Now Rundstedt stepped forward to support the Marshal Laddie. A rigid defense of the Cotentin was doomed, he warned. Better to pull exposed German forces back inside Cherbourg’s bristling fortifications. Hitler nodded in agreement, but believed southern approaches to the port should also be defended. “The fortress is to hold out as long as possible,” he said, “if possible until about mid-July.” He had earlier drawn a line with a red pencil across the peninsula below Cherbourg, declaring, “They must hold here.”

What about further Allied landings? the Führer asked. Rundstedt thought another invasion was likely. Intelligence from Britain suggested that fifty more divisions had coiled for a second, larger blow. For this reason the German Fifteenth Army had diverted but a single division to Normandy; twenty-one others remained in the Pas de Calais, peering seaward. Yet even if the Allied force in Normandy had been bottled up for the time being, Rundstedt agreed with Marshal Rommel that it was “impossible to hold everything.” Both men advocated evacuating southern France to the Loire River, shortening German lines and forming a mobile reserve of some sixteen divisions to safeguard the line of the Seine.

Hitler waved away the proposal—“You must stay where you are”—then changed the subject. Great things were afoot, he said, magical things. New jet-propelled aircraft would soon dominate the skies. New sea mines, triggered by pressure waves from passing ships and almost impossible to sweep, had already holed a number of Allied ships. But the greatest secret weapon had just come into play. Until now, the Reich had no answer for the Anglo-American bombers devastating the Fatherland; a single German city might absorb more bombs in twenty-four hours than had fallen on Britain in all of 1943. That was about to change.

Hitler had once dismissed rocketry as “imagination run wild,” but in September 1943 his scientists had begun production of a self-propelled bomb in a Volkswagen factory. Technical glitches and thirty-six thousand tons of Allied explosives dropped on suspected launch sites had delayed the program, but German engineers found that simple mobile equipment using little more than a flimsy metal ramp would suffice to get the bomb off the ground. The weapon was a flying torpedo, twenty-five feet long with stubby wings, a crude jet engine, and a one-ton warhead. It could cross the English coast twenty minutes after launch; when the fuel ran dry, the engine quit and the bomb fell. Hitler called them “cherry stones.”

The first salvo, launched from western France early Tuesday morning, had flopped: in Operation RUMPELKAMMER—JUNKROOM—just four of the initial ten bombs even reached England, and only one caused any casualties. But subsequent volleys showed greater promise. By noon on June 16, of 244 launches, 73 cherry stones had reached “Target 42,” also known as London. This very morning the nameless weapon had been anointed the Vergeltungswaffe—reprisal weapon—or V-1. “Terror is broken by terror,” the Führer liked to say. “Everything else is nonsense.”

Rundstedt suggested that the V-1 be used against those half million enemy soldiers now massed in the beachhead. Rommel agreed. Hitler summoned a military expert who explained that the flying bomb’s inaccuracy made any target smaller than London difficult to hit: the V-1s were aimed at Tower Bridge on the Thames, but the margin of error might be fifteen kilometers or more. Relentless pummeling of Target 42, Hitler told the field marshals, would “make it easier for peace.” Panic would paralyze Britain, with psychological and political chaos.

They broke for lunch, a joyless repast taken in silence. Two SS guards stood behind the Führer’s chair as he wolfed down a plate of rice and vegetables—first sampled by a taster—garnished with pills and three liqueur glasses of colored medicines. A sudden warning of sixty Allied planes approaching sent Hitler and the field marshals scuttling into a cramped bomb shelter for another leaden hour until the all-clear sounded.

Hitler walked Rommel to his car at four P.M., promising to visit him at La Roche–Guyon the next morning. “What do you really think of our chances of continuing the war?” Rommel asked with his habitual effrontery. Was it not time to consider coming to terms with the West, perhaps in common cause against the Bolsheviks? “That is a question which is not your responsibility. You will have to leave that to me,” Hitler snapped. “Attend to your invasion front.”

A laconic Rundstedt later summarized the conference with concision: “The discussion had no success.” Rather than press on to Rommel’s headquarters, Hitler would abruptly bolt for Bavaria after an errant V-1 flew east rather than west and detonated near the Margival bunker; it did little damage but brought court-martial investigators sniffing for possible assassins. Back in Berchtesgaden, the Führer bemoaned Rommel’s gloom. Had the Desert Fox lost his strut? “Only optimists can pull anything off today,” Hitler told his courtiers.

In fact, Rommel felt buoyant, having been beguiled once again by the master he served. He “cannot escape the Führer’s influence,” an aide wrote home. After supper on Saturday he walked the château grounds with his chief naval adviser, Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge, to discuss the day while admiring the mother-of-pearl vistas along the Seine. Movies often were projected on a cave wall behind the castle, and the sound of laughter from staff officers watching a light comedy carried on the evening air. Ruge was reading Gone with the Wind, and Rommel enjoyed hearing the latest plot twists. In Scarlett, Rhett, and the doomed Confederacy, the admiral detected “endless parallels with our time” and an affirmation that “rebuilding after a total defeat was possible.”

Rommel retired to his chambers, beyond the ancient portcullis slot and the curiosity room with its glass cases of mounted insects and its stuffed hawk. In the morning he would dash off a “dearest Lu” note about Margival and the new V-1 campaign. “The long-range action has brought us a lot of relief,” he told her. “The Führer was very cordial and in a good humor. He realizes the gravity of the situation.”

*   *   *

Even on the Sabbath morn, antiaircraft crews across Target 42 manned their guns and scanned the southeastern sky for the apparition soon called Doodlebug, Hell Hound, Buzz Bomb, Rocket Gun, Headless Horseman, or, simply, It. Earlier in the week some gunners had crowed in jubilation at shooting down what they believed were German bombers but were now known to be pilotless bombs designed to fall from the sky. This Sunday, June 18, was Waterloo Day, and worshippers packed London churches to commemorate the British Army’s victory over Napoléon in 1815, and to petition for divine help again.

In the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk, across from the former pig meadow and leper colony currently known as St. James’s Park, a full-throated congregation belted out the “Te Deum” and prepared to take communion from the bishop of Maidstone. “To Thee all angels cry aloud,” they sang, “the heavens and all the powers therein.” At 11:10 A.M. an annoying growl from those same heavens grew louder. Ernest Hemingway heard it in his Dorchester Hotel suite, where he was making pancakes with buckwheat flour and bourbon; from the window he looked for the telltale “white-hot bunghole” of a jet engine. Pedestrians in Parliament Square heard it and fell flat, covering their heads. Clementine Churchill, the prime minister’s wife, heard it in Hyde Park, where she was visiting the gun battery in which her daughter Mary volunteered. The Guards Chapel congregation heard it and kept singing.

Then they heard nothing—that most terrifying of all sounds—as the engine quit, the bunghole winked out, and the black cruciform fell. Through the chapel’s reinforced concrete roof It plummeted before detonating in a white blast that blew out walls, blew down support pillars, and stripped the leaves from St. James’s plane trees. A funnel of smoke curled fifteen hundred feet above the wrecked nave; rubble ten feet deep buried the pews even as six candles still guttered on the altar and the bishop stood unharmed. One hundred and twenty-one others were dead and as many more injured. Two thousand memorial plaques accumulated by Guards regiments during eons of war lay pulverized, although a mosaic donated by Queen Victoria remained intact: “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.”

Clementine Churchill hastened home to alert the prime minister, who was still reviewing papers in his bed at 10 Downing Street. “The Guards Chapel,” she told him, “is destroyed.” He hurried to Birdcage Walk and watched salvage teams lift out the dead. Among others, several musicians from the Coldstream Guards band were found in a side gallery, still holding their instruments as if in a wax tableau, surely faithful unto death. Churchill wept.

That afternoon he motored to Bushy Park and asked Eisenhower to redouble efforts against the flying bomb. In a memo on Sunday evening, the supreme commander ordered that the targets code-named CROSSBOW, comprising V-1 launch areas, supply dumps, and related sites, “are to take first priority over everything except the urgent requirements of the battle.” Yet more than thirty thousand attack sorties already had flown in the past six months, dropping the tonnage equivalent of four Eiffel Towers on CROSSBOW in an effort to eviscerate a program Allied intelligence knew was in development. Some launch sites were hit forty or more times before analysts realized that the V-1 could be fired from elusive mobile launchers. Ideas for defeating the flying bombs poured in from the public: harpoons fired from tethered Zeppelins; huge butterfly nets; projectiles filled with carbolic acid. One patriot offered to put a curse on German launch crews.

CROSSBOW countermeasures in the coming weeks were more conventional but fitfully efficacious. Two thousand barrage balloons were deployed on approaches to London in hopes that their tethering cables would bring down the bombs in flight; German engineers responded by fitting V-1 wings with Kuto-Nasen, sharp blades to cut the cables. Fighter pilots grew adept at shooting down the bombs with 20mm cannons—at 380 miles per hour, the RAF Tempest could overtake the V-1—and some even learned to use their wings to create enough turbulence to send a bomb spiraling out of control. Although a V-1 was considered eight times more difficult to bring down with ground fire than a German bomber, more than a thousand antiaircraft guns were shifted from greater London to the southeast coast for better fields of fire, along with 23,000 gunners and 60,000 tons of ammunition and radar equipment. Sussex and Kent in the southeast became known as Bomb Alley.

Eisenhower’s “first priority” edict dismayed his air force chieftains, who favored the uninterrupted smashing of German cities, oil facilities, and other strategic targets. The order stood: one-quarter of all combat sorties in the next two months would be flown against CROSSBOW targets, and crews would drop 73,000 tons of bombs—another eight Eiffel Towers. This enormous diversion of bombers had little impact on German launches; typically, one hundred V-1s were still fired at Target 42 each day. Few could doubt that the best solution was for Allied armies to overrun what was now dubbed the Rocket Gun Coast of northwestern France. “We must give the enemy full credit for developing one of the finer weapons of the war,” the war diary for the U.S. Strategic Air Forces acknowledged. “People are beginning to get a bit jittery and jump when a door slams.”

A British study calculated that “the average Londoner” could expect to be within a half mile of a V-1 detonation once a month, odds that did “not appear unduly alarming.” Few Londoners saw it that way. V-1 explosions sucked workers from office windows, incinerated mothers in grocery stores, and butchered pensioners on park benches. A lieutenant who was recuperating in a hospital hit by a flying bomb wrote his wife that the blast “pushed through the walls and surrounded us, gripped us, entered us, and tossed us aside.” He confessed to being “more afraid than I have ever been of anything in my life.”

Soon not a pane of glass remained in city buses. Tens of thousands of houses were smashed. “The most horrible thing was the sound of burning timber,” a witness reported, “the crackling, malicious sound, like little devilish laughs.” Eisenhower complained in a note to Mamie that he had been forced into a Bushy Park air raid shelter nineteen times one morning. When a V-1 was heard during a performance at the St. James Theatre, one patron muttered, “How squalid to be killed at this disgusting little farce.”

Fewer and fewer were willing to accept the risks. By August, 1.5 million Londoners would evacuate the city, more than during the Blitz. Of 10,492 V-1s ultimately fired at Britain, about 4,000 were destroyed by fighters, balloons, and antiaircraft guns, while others veered off course or crashed prematurely. But about 2,400 hit greater London, killing 6,000 and badly injuring 18,000. (Not one struck Tower Bridge.) It was, an official British history concluded, “an ordeal perhaps as trying to Londoners as any they had endured throughout the war.”

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