With the German Armies: A War Diary
BY WILLIAM L. SHIRER
BERLIN, May 18, 1940. — Going to the front tomorrow. At last will get a chance — maybe — to see how this German army colossus has been doing it, walking through Belgium, Holland, and now northern France, so fast. We leave at 10 A.M. tomorrow, and will first drive to Aachen. Nine in party: four Americans, three Italians, a Spaniard, and a Jap.
Antwerp fell today. And while the German northern army is rolling back the Allied forces in Belgium towards the sea, the southern army, which broke through the Maginot Line between Maubeuge and Sedan, is driving rapidly towards Paris. A piece in the wellinformed (on military matters) BöRsen Zeitung tonight hints that the German armies now converging on Paris from the northeast may not try to take Paris immediately, as they did in 1914, but strike northwest for the channel ports in an effort to cut off England from France. A second force, it hints, may strike in the opposite direction and try to take the Maginot Line in the east from behind. German reports admit the Allies are putting up fierce resistance in Belgium and France, but say that they are being ‘outclassed’ by the sheer mass of German metal, especially tanks and airplanes. Perhaps in the next few days I’ll be able to see for myself.
AACHEN, May 19. — Most amazing thing about this Ruhr district, the industrial heart of Germany, which Allied planes were to have (and could have, we thought) knocked out in a few days, is that, so far as I can see, the night bombings of the British have done very little damage.
I thought the night bombings of Western Germany, about the deadly effects of which the BBC has been boasting since the big offensive began, would have affected the morale of the people. But all afternoon, driving through the Ruhr, we saw them—especially the womenfolk — standing on the bridges over the main roads cheering the troops setting off for Belgium and France.
We drove — a column of four cars — through many of the Ruhr centres. We naturally couldn’t see all the factories and bridges and railroad junctions in the Ruhr, but we saw several, and nothing had happened to them. The great networks of railroad tracks and bridges around Essen and Duisburg, where British night bombings had been reported from London, were intact. The Rhine bridges at Cologne were up. The factories throughout the Ruhr were smoking away as usual.
Copyright 1941, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.
Just east of Hanover, there had been a night raid by the British a few hours before we arrived. Local inhabitants told us twenty civilians, all in one house, had been killed. Fifteen miles east of Hanover we spotted a big Handley-Page bomber lying smashed in a field two hundred yards off the Autobahn. Gendarmes told us it had been brought down by anti-aircraft fire. The crew of five escaped in parachutes. Four had given themselves up to the village burgomaster in the town near by; one was still at large, and the peasants and the gendarmes were scouring the countryside for him. We inspected the machine. Gunner’s rear cockpit very small, and he had no protection. Front engines and pilot’s cabin badly smashed and burned. Funny: the glass in the rear cockpit had not been broken.
Almost a full moon toward the end, and it was very beautiful driving into Aachen along a road arched with trees. Along the road, endless columns of troops, in trucks and on foot, were moving up to the front, singing and in good spirits.
May 20. — We were off shortly after dawn from Aachen, across the Dutch province of Limburg to Maastricht. Little evidence that the Dutch did much fighting here. The houses whole, the windows unshattered. An occasional Dutch pillbox showed signs of having been hit by machine-gun fire, but nothing heavier. Apparently the Dutch made no attempt to slow up the Germans by blowing up the road to Maastricht. One bridge over a creek had been damaged — that was all.
We crossed over the Maas (Meuse) at Maastricht. The river is broad here and was a natural line of defense, though the Dutch did not take much advantage of it. They had done a halfhearted job of blowing up the bridges — one out of seven or eight spans on the two bridges I saw. Germans evidently had substitute spans, made of steel frames, waiting in the rear, and within a few hours of bringing them up had the bridges good as new. German supply columns were thundering over both bridges when we arrived.
7.30 A.M. — Arrived at the Albert Canal. With its steep banks thirty feet high, which the Belgians had cemented to make it impossible to climb them, it was a good defense line, especially against tanks. Only, the Belgians had not blown up the bridge. I asked a German officer why.
‘We were too quick for them,’ he said.
Apparently what happened here, and at most of the other important bridges leading to Liége, was that German parachutists rushed the bridges from behind, wiped out the defending machine-gun crews, even overpowered the pillboxes also defending the bridges, and cut the wires leading to the explosive charges in the bridges before the Belgians could set them off. This particular bridge over the canal was protected by a bunker at the Belgian end of the bridge itself, and by two other bunkers lying a hundred yards to the right and left of the bridge. The bunker at the bridgehead must have been taken in the same mysterious way that Fort Eben-Emael was taken at Liége — by parachutists.
The German officer warned us not to go inside the bunker, as mines were still lying about, but a couple of us ventured in. I saw at once that there had been a fire inside the bunker. From that I concluded — though with several reservations— that the parachutists who took the pillbox from behind must have had a fire pistol of some kind, and shot their flames inside the pillbox. Near by I noticed freshly dug graves over which Belgian steel helmets were posed on sticks. Probably the crew of the pillbox.
Speed played a rôle too, with its resultant surprise. The motorized Germans had crossed the Dutch border twenty miles away at 5 A.M. and were over this canal into Belgium (past Maastricht, which should have been strongly defended but wasn’t) at 10 A.M. — five hours later.
You were immediately struck by the difference between Holland and Belgium. As soon as we crossed into Belgium, we started running into blocks of pulverized houses along the road. Obviously the Belgians were of a different metal from the Dutch. At the outset they fought like lions, from house to house.
TONGRES, 7.45. — Here for the first time we suddenly came across real devastation. A good part of the town through which we drove smashed to pieces — Stuka dive bombers and artillery, an officer explained. The railroad station was in shambles, obviously hit by Stukas — the tracks all round torn and twisted, cars and locomotives derailed. One could — or could one? — imagine the consternation of the inhabitants. When they had gone to bed that Thursday night (May 9), Belgium had been at peace with the world, including Germany. At dawn on Friday the German bombers were leveling the station and town. The town itself was absolutely deserted. Two or three hungry dogs nosed sadly about the ruins, apparently searching for water, food, and their masters.
TIRLEMONT, 8.30. — A German officer remarks here: ‘It took us five days to get to Tirlemont. We have come about 100 kilometres from Aachen. Twenty kilometres a day — not bad.’ I notice that in all that distance I have not seen one bomb crater in the road. I deduce that while German Stukas put the Belgian railroad out of action they were careful not to blow up the roads, or their bridges. Apparently the German command decided in advance not to try to use the Belgian railways; only the roads. Their army was built to go on gasolinemotored vehicles.
We came to a terrific hole in the road, just as it crossed a creek at the entrance to the town. A pit 1 hirty yards in diameter and twenty-five feet deep. Officer explained that the French blew it up — that the French had sent in dynamite experts who at places ... ‘At places,’ he said, ‘they have done a beautiful job.
‘But it did not stop our tanks,’ he claimed, pointing to the enormous cavity. ‘They went around through the factory you see at the left, piercing the factory walls as if they were made of tissue paper, crossed the creek a couple of hundred yards upstream, and pursued the enemy. We lost little time,’ he added, ‘even though you have to admit the French did a good job of blowing up the road here.’ His admiration for the French dynamiters was terrific.
Much evidence of street fighting here in Tirlemont. Houses pockmarked with machine-gun bullets; many leveled to the ground by Stukas and artillery.
LOUVAIN, 9.15. — This ancient university city, burnt by the Germans in 1914, is now again — to a considerable extent — destroyed. That’s the first impression, and somehow it hits me between the eyes. Block upon block upon block of houses an utter shambles. Still smouldering, for the town was only taken two or three days ago.
We drive through the ruins to the University, to the University Library. It too was burned by the Germans in 1914, and rebuilt (rebooked too?) by donations from hundreds of American institutions of learning.
‘What happened to the Library?’ I ask the local commandant, an elderly, pouch-faced colonel who is certainly not an unsympathisch fellow.
‘We shall be there in a minute. You will see,’ he says. He is silent for a moment. Maybe he notices my impatience. He adds: ‘There was a sharp battle here in the town itself. Heavy street fighting. Town changed hands several times. We would come in and they would drive us out. There was bound to be damage, mein Herr.’
It has been destroyed, then, I conclude. In a minute we are there, driving up the square in front of the Library, which is broken by rows of trenches. We climb out of our cars and look. . . .
The great library building is completely gutted. The ruins still smoulder. Some of the girders that held the roof remain. The tower still stands. The Tudor-like fçcade, blackened by smoke, holds out proudly, though a German soldier runs up to me as I approach and warns not to get too close, as the walls may cave in at any moment. I go in close anyway.
I’m fascinated by the inscriptions on the stones. I note a few down on a scrap of paper: THE FINCH SCHOOL; UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER; PHILLIPS ACADEMY, ANDOVER; UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS; AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSITY WOMEN; PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA IN PENNSYLVANIA. And so on. They and many ot hers of the kind donated the money to rebuild this library. I look for the famous inscription about which there was so much controversy at the time I first arrived in Europe, in 1925, when the building was being completed. I can’t find it.
‘And the books?’ I ask my commandant, who strikes me more and more like a decent fellow. ‘Burnt,’ he says, ‘all of them, probably.'
I must have looked shocked, for he added, ‘Too bad. A pity. But, my friend, that’s war. Look at it.’
I did. But it hurt.
Before we left Berlin a certain officer had come down to the Wilhelmplatz to tell us: ‘Gentlemen, we have just had word from Louvain. The British have plundered that fine old town. Plundered it in the most shameful manner.’ But we do not see or hear one shred of evidence that they did. Nor — it is only fair to say — do any of the regular army officers suggest it.
When we enter the town at 9.15 A.M., the battered streets are deserted. Not a civilian about; only a few troops or Arbeitsdienst men in Czech uniforms (are there not enough German uniforms to go around ?) or Organisation Todt men (who go in after the German army and clear up the débris) in nondescript working clothes and yellow arm bands.
Forty-one thousand people lived in Louvain until the morning Hitler moved west. A week later, when the Nazi army poured into the town, not a one of them was there. When we leave about noon, we see the first ones straggling back. Look at their faces — dazed; so horrorstricken; so bitter and resentful; and yet — so dignified! I see it — dignity masking suffering is, in a way, on the human face at such moments, a noble and even a beautiful thing. Our super-sophisticates like Aldous Huxley need to see more of this — in the flesh, amongst the ruins.
Our commandant takes us to the cathedral and the City Hall. Except for a broken window or two, they are untouched. They must have escaped the burning of the town in 1914, for they are not new edifices. A German officer remarks to me: ‘The Stukas have one advantage over ordinary bombers.’
‘What’s that?’ I ask.
‘They’re more accurate. See how the Rathaus and cathedral here have been spared. Ordinary bombers attacking the town probably would have hit them, too. Not our Stukas. They hit their targets.’
We file into the City Hall. In a long mediæval hall — probably the reception room, for it’s in the front — we see immediately that this has been a British headquarters. On a large table made of unpainted wood are maps, note pads, whiskey bottles, beer bottles, cans of biscuits with their quaint English labels. They bear evidence that the British were but lately here.
A corridor leads off to smaller, inner rooms where various British officers seem to have installed themselves; On their desks more maps, French-English dictionaries. On one I notice an artillery manual. The floor of one room is bloodstained. The commandant ventures the information that two wounded Belgians bled to death there. In each room, under the sweeping Renaissance paintings on the walls, are disheveled mattresses on which the British slept — most of them bloodstained, as if in the last days they were used not to sleep on, but for the wounded.
When we leave the City Hall, filing out through the large reception room, I notice that a great bronze plaque standing against the back wall has been tampered with, and one half ripped away and removed. ‘How about it? ‘ I ask an officer.
He says the plaque was an insult to the honor of the German armed forces — that it commemorated the martyrs of Louvain, the two hundred civilians who were shot as hostages by the German army in 1914; that, as the whole world knew, those two hundred leading citizens had only been shot as a result of the Belgians’ sniping at German soldiers; that the plaque said something about the barbarity of the German soldiers . . . and that as a consequence the half which told of the ‘heroic martyrs and the barbaric Germans’ had been removed, but the other half, commemorating the heroic deeds of the Belgian army in 1914 in defense of the land, had been left, because the Germans had nothing against that — just the opposite.
In the shambles of the square by the railway station a massive stone monument, around which Germans and British fought this time for three days, still stands. It also commemorates the good burghers who were shot in 1914. It even lists their names. So far the Germans have not dynamited it.
About noon we are speeding along a dusty road towards Brussels when someone sights Steenockerzeel and the mediae val-1 ike castle there where Otto von Hapsburg and his mother, Zita, former Empress of Austria-Hungary, have been living. We stop to take a look.
STEENOCKERZEEL, 12.30. — Otto’s castle is an ancient edifice, ugly with its numerous towers and conglomerate outline. Around it is a muddy moat. As we approach we see that a part of the roof has been blown off, and one wall looks shaky; windows broken. Evidently there has been concussion from a high explosive. Coming closer, we see two huge bomb craters, actually forming a part of the moat and enlarging it. The house obviously still stands only because both bombs — and they must have been 500pounders at least — fell in the moat, and the water and mud deadened the explosive force. The moat being but sixty feet from the castle, the bombs were certainly well aimed. Evidently the work of Stukas.
‘But why bomb Otto von Hapsburg’s castle?’ I ask an officer. He can’t figure it out. Finally he suggests: ‘It was undoubtedly used by the British as headquarters. It would therefore be a fair military target.’ Later, when we have gone through the castle from bottom to top, we find no evidence that the British have been there.
The castle, we soon not ice, once we are inside, has been plundered, though not very well. There is evidence that the occupants left in great haste. In the upstairs bedrooms, women’s clothes are lying on the floor, on chairs, on beds, as if those who were there could not make up their minds what dress to take, and did not have the time or the luggage space to take very much. All the clothes closets are filled with dresses and robes, hanging neatly from hangers. In one room, occupied by a man, books, sweaters, suits, golf sticks, gramophone records, and notebooks are scattered about. In the salon downstairs, a large room furnished in horrible bourgeois taste, books and notebooks and china lie in disorder on a large table. An enormous Book on Bugs has evidently been well thumbed through by someone, perhaps Otto. In what I take to be his study upstairs, I notice a book in French entitled The Coming War, and there are some very good books in French, German, English. Obviously Otto had excellent taste in books. Many, of course, are his university textbooks — on politics, economics, and so forth.
We rummage for a half hour through the rooms. They are poorly furnished for the most part, the bathrooms very primitive. I remember the splendor I’ve seen in the Hofburg in Vienna, where the Hapsburgs ruled so long. A far cry to this. Some of our party are loading up with souvenirs. I pick up a page of English composition which Otto evidently did when he was boning up on his English prior to his recent visit to America. Feel like a robber. Someone discovers some of Zita’s personal calling cards and hands me one. It says: L’Impératrice d’Autriche et Reine de Hongrie. I pocket it, plunderer that I am. A sad, hungry, bewildered dog wanders around the litter in the rooms and follows us out to our car. We leave the castle to him. No human being is about.
From Steenockerzeel to Brussels the roads are jammed with German army trucks and motorized guns speeding westward, on the right side; on the left side, an unbroken column of tired refugees returning in the heat and the dust to their destroyed towns. An appetite for a good hearty lunch in Brussels has been growing in me. This sight takes it away.
BRUSSELS, 2 P.M. — Brussels has been spared — the one lone city in Belgium that has not been in whole or in part laid waste. The Germans threatened to bomb and destroy it on the ground that the Belgians were moving troops through it and that it was no longer an open city. Perhaps its rapid fall saved it. Here and there, as you drive through the town, you see a demolished house where a stray German bomb fell. And all the bridges over the canal in the middle of the city — and there must be a dozen of them — were blown up by the English.
It’s a warm, late-spring day, and the streets are thronged with the local inhabitants. The same bitter but proud faces we have seen in the other towns. The German officer in charge of our four cars stops to ask a passer-by the way to a restaurant where we are booked to eat. The gentleman, a professorial-looking fellow with a beard and a wide-brimmed black hat, gives directions. He is coolly polite. The officer thanks him with a salute. The professor tips his hat stiffly.
Soon we are in the centre of the town, in front of the East Station, and speeding, the Klaxon shrieking ruthlessly and needlessly, down the street to the square in front of the Hôtel Métropole.
We eat at the Taverne Royale, which I often frequented when in Brussels. The place seems to have been taken over by the army. We eat well. Food like this has not been available in Berlin for years.
Some of our party buy out the restaurant’s stock of American tobacco in a few minutes. I take three packages of Luckies myself. I cannot resist, after a year of smoking ‘rope’ in Germany. I will save them for breakfast; one a day, after. Most buy by the carton, which relieves my conscience. We pay in marks at the absurd rate of ten francs to one mark. After lunch most of the party go out to plunder with their paper marks, now worth a great deal. They buy shoes, shirts, raincoats, women’s stockings, everything.
F. and I go off to find a shop I used to patronize here — not to buy, but to talk. The wife of the patron is tending it. She half remembers me. She is dazed, frightened — but brave. She does not yet realize what has happened. She says: ‘It came so suddenly. I can’t get it straight yet. First the German attack. Then the government fled. We didn’t know what was happening. Then Friday [today is the following Monday], about eight in the evening, the Germans marched in.’ She admits the German soldiers are behaving ‘correctly.’
‘Where’s your husband?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know. He was mobilized. He went to the front. I’ve heard nothing. I only keep hoping he’s alive.’
A couple of German soldiers sauntered in and bought a half-dozen packages of American cigarettes each. In Germany the most they would have been allowed to buy would have been ten bad German cigarettes. When they had gone, she said: —
‘I keep the store open. But for how long? Our stocks came from England and America. And my child — where shall I get milk? I’ve got canned milk for about two months. But after that . . .’
She paused. Finally she got it out: —
‘ In the end, how will it be? I mean, do you think Belgium will ever be like before — independent, and with our king?’
‘Well, of course if the Allies win, it will be like the last time.’ We gave the obvious reply.
‘If? But why do they retreat so fast? With the British and the French, we had more than a million men in Belgium. And they didn’t hold out as long as the few Belgians in 1914. I don’t understand it.’
We didn’t either, and we left. Back at the restaurant, where our cars were waiting, some of our party were returning, their arms laden with booty. Many were not back yet, so F. and I wandered over to the Rathausplatz. Above the City Hall, the Swastika floated in the afternoon sun.
Left Brussels late in the afternoon, our cars filled with the loot almost everyone had bought. Returned to Aachen about 9.90 P.M. Had some luck: arranged with RRG in Berlin for a broadcast from Cologne at 4.30 A.M. tonight.
Had to get censors from the Foreign Office, Propaganda Ministry, and High Command out of bed to read it.
Returning from Brussels to Aachen, we ran across a batch of British prisoners. It was somewhere in the Dutch province of Limburg — a suburb, I think, of Maastricht. They were herded together in the brick-paved yard of a disused factory. We stopped and went over and talked to them. They were a sad sight. Prisoners always are, especially right after a battle. Some obviously shell-shocked, some wounded, all dead tired. But what impressed me most about them was their physique. They were hollow-chested and skinny and round-shouldered. About a third of them had bad eyes and wore glasses. Typical, I concluded, of the youth that England neglected so criminally in the twenty-two post-war years when Germany, despite its defeat and the inflation and six million unemployed, was raising its youth in the open air and the sun.
I asked the boys where they were from and what they did at home. About half were from offices in Liverpool; the rest from London offices. Their military training had begun nine months before, they said, when the war started. But it had not, you could see, made up for the bad diet, the lack of fresh air and sun and physical training, of the post-war years. Thirty yards away German infantry were marching up the road towards the front. I could not help comparing them with these British lads. The Germans bronzed, clean-cut physically, healthylooking as lions, chests developed and all. It was part of the unequal fight.
The English youngsters, I knew, had fought as bravely as men can. But bravery is not all — is not enough in this machine-age war. You have to have a body that will stand terrific wear and tear. And then, especially in this war, you have to have all the machines of warfare. I asked the English about that. There were six of them, standing a little apart — all that were left, they told me, from a company that had gone into battle near Louvain.
‘We didn’t have a chance,’ one said.
‘We were simply overwhelmed. Especially by those dive bombers and tanks.’
‘What about your own bombers and tanks?’ I asked.
‘Didn’t see any.’ This answer was chorused.
Three of the men had dirty, bloody bandages over one eye. One of the three looked particularly depressed and stood there gritting his teeth in pain.
‘A shame,’ his comrade whispered to me. ‘He’s lost the eye. Feels pretty rotten about it.’
‘Tell him it isn’t so bad,’ I said, trying in my awkward way to be comforting. ‘I lost the sight of one eye myself,’ I said, ‘and you never notice it.’ But I don’t think he believed me.
On the whole, though, despite the shell shock, despite the black future as prisoners, they were a cheery lot. One little fellow from Liverpool grinned through his thick glasses.
‘You know, you’re the first Americans I’ve ever seen in the flesh. Funny place to meet one for the first time, ain’t it?’ This started the others to make the same observation, and we had a good laugh. But inside I was feeling not so good. F. and I gave them what cigarettes we had, and went away.
Hired a car and chauffeur to drive me to Cologne — about forty miles. He insists on starting now— 1 A.M. Says the troops on the road will sknv us up, maybe too the British bombers. So far, they’ve not been over tonight, though it’s almost a full moon.
May 21, 6.15 A.M. — Broadcast went off all right. No English bombers. Snatched a half hour’s sleep at the studio, and dozed for the hour and a half that it took us to drive back to Aachen. Dozed almost all the way, that is. It was a beautiful dawn and I finally woke up to feel it. Down to breakfast now, and then we’re off to the front at 6.30. No time to take my clothes off, but did snatch a shave.
Finally got to the actual front and saw my first battle — along the Scheldt River in Western Belgium. It was the first fighting I had seen since the battle for Gdynia in Poland last September.
Heading southwest from Brussels, we drove along the road to Tournai, still in Allied hands. At Tubize, a few miles southwest of Waterloo, the familiar signs of recent fighting — the houses along the streets demolished, half-burnt débris everywhere. So far, I thought, this war has been fought along the roads — by two armies operating on wheels. Almost every town wholly or partially destroyed, but the near-by fields untouched. Returning peasants already tilling them.
About noon we reached Enghien and drove to the headquarters of General von Reichenau, commander of the German 6th Army. Headquarters were in a château not far from the town. In the park leading to the Schloss, anti-aircraft guns were mounted everywhere. It was one of those pleasant Renaissance châteaus that dot the countryside in Belgium and France, and the park and lawn leading up to it were cool and green.
Reichenau, whom I had scon occasionally in Berlin before the war, greeted us on the porch. He was tanned and springy as ever, his invariable monocle squeezed over one eye. With typical German thoroughness and with an apparent frankness that surprised me, he went over the operations thus far, stopping to answer questions now and then. In a brief cable to CBS scribbled out later from my notes taken during the interview, I wrote: —
Despite the German successes up to date, R. emphasized to us that the fighting so far had been only an enveloping movement, and that the decisive battle had yet to take place.
‘When and where?’ I asked him.
‘Where,’ he laughed, ‘depends partly on what the enemy does. When, and how long it will last, I leave to the future. It can be short or long. Remember, the preliminary fighting at Waterloo lasted several days. The decisive battle of Waterloo was decided in eight hours.’
R. admitted that ‘possibly our progress will now be slowed up if Weygand decides to make a great stand. We started this battle absolutely confident. But we have no illusions. We know we still have a big battle ahead of us.’
R. said the German losses were comparatively small so far, averaging about one tenth of the number of prisoners taken. Last official counting of prisoners was 110,000, not counting the half-million Dutch who surrendered.
Someone asked how the German infantry got across the rivers and canals so fast, seeing that the Allies destroyed the bridges pretty well.
‘Mostly in rubber boats,’ he said.
Some further quotations from Reichenau I noted down roughly:—
Hitler is actually directing the German army from his headquarters. Most of the blowing up of bridges and roads in Belgium carried out by French specialists. ... I ride 150 miles a day along the front and I haven’t seen an air fight yet. We’ve certainly been surprised that the Allies didn’t try at least to bomb our bridges over the Maas River and Albert Canal. The British tried it only once in the daytime. We shot down eighteen of them. But there seems to be no doubt that the English are holding back with their air force. At least that’s the impression I get. [And I got the impression that this rather bothered him!]
English have two army corps in Belgium, largely motorized. Belgians hold the north sector, British the centre and southern flanks. We encountered one Moroccan division. It fought well, but lacked staying power, and didn’t hold out long. . . . The hardest fighting the first days was along the Albert Canal. Then later along the Dyle line, especially around Gembloux, northwest of Namur.
A few more questions and answers. The general is in an almost jovial mood. He is not tense. He is not worried. He is not rushed. You wonder: ‘Have these German generals no nerves?’ Because, after all, he is directing a large army in an important battle. A few miles down the road two million men are trying to slaughter one another. He has a certain responsibility. The general smiles and, jauntily, says good-bye.
‘I’ve just given permission for you to go to the front,’ he says. His eyes light up. ‘ You may be under fire. But you’ll have to take your chances. We all do.’
He turns us over to his adjutant, who wines us with an excellent red Bordeaux, no doubt from the cellar below. Then off to the front.
Near Ath, we make a little detour and hit down a pleasant country lane. We come, all of a sudden, on to a very pungent smell — all that is left of a small miscellaneous French column after a German air attack. Along the narrow road are a dozen dead horses stinking to heaven in the hot sun, two French tanks, their armor pierced like tissue paper, a six-inch gun and a 75, and a few trucks, abandoned in great haste, for scattered about them are utensils, coats, shirts, overcoats, helmets, tins of food and — letters to the wives and girls and mothers back home.
We push on. We pass a tiny village. Five or six farmhouses at the crossing of a path with the road. Cattle graze in the pastures. Pigs squeal about the barnyards. All are thirsty, for the farmhouses are deserted. The cows have not been milked for some days, their udders swollen with milk.
We can hear the guns pounding very clearly now. We speed down the dusty road past endless German columns of trucks carrying troops, ammunition, allimportant oil; hauling guns, big and small. The bridge over a stream or a canal at Leuze has been blown up, but German engineers have already constructed an emergency one over which we go.
Leuze is jammed with vehicles and troops. Blocks of houses have been smashed to smithereens. Some still smoulder. We stop for half an hour in a pleasant little square, surrounded by a church, a school, and the city hall, or some government building. The school is a Red Cross station. I meander over to it. The ambulances are lined up, waiting to unload the wounded, seven or eight of them waiting. Even with the wounded there is the same machinelike, impersonal organization. No excitement. No tension. I seem to be the only one whose stomach goes a little sick at sight of the wounded. Even the wounded seem to play their part in this gigantic businesslike machine. They do not moan. They do not murmur or complain.
We get a bit to eat while we wait — a piece of brown bread with some sort of canned fish ragout spread over it. Then off to the front. Before we start, the army officer in charge warns of the danger; warns that we must follow his orders promptly; explains how to dive for a near-by field and lie flat on your belly if the Allied planes come over or if the French artillery opens fire. Our party is a little tense now as we go forward. We proceed north, parallel with the front and behind it about five miles, to Renaix, hurry through the town, and then north towards the Scheldt River, where they’re fighting. Infantry on foot , almost the first we’ve seen, are deploying down various paths towards the river. Heavy artillery, — and this is amazing to see, — six-inch guns, pulled by caterpillar trucks and on rubber tires, are being hauled up a hillside at forty miles an hour. (Is this one of the German military secrets, such big guns being hauled so fast?)
Finally we stop. A battery of six-inch guns, concealed under trees in an orchard at the right of the road, is pounding away. Now we have a view over the valley of the Scheldt, and can see the slopes on the other side. The artillery thunders, and a second later you see the smoke from the shells on the far slopes. An officer explains they’re bombarding the roads behind the enemy lines. You can follow the winding roads on the other side by the smoke of each exploding shell. We pile out of our cars, but immediately someone orders us back. Someone else explains we’re too exposed. Enemy planes or artillery could get us here. So we cut back, and then turn due west and climb a hill beyond the artillery positions, so that they are now behind us, firing over our heads. This is an artillery observation post in the woods at the summit of the hill. We sit on a slope and look through the trees towards the front line.
An officer explains they’re fighting along the river there below. The Allies still hold both banks, but are retreating across the Scheldt. The only evidence you have of the infantry fighting is that the German artillery barrage advances, then stops, then starts again much nearer to us. You conclude that the other side has counter-attacked, and the German attack, behind its own artillery barrage, must start all over again. The infantry is invisible.
From the smoke of the exploding shells on the slopes across the Scheldt you can see that the Germans are giving the enemy’s rear lines of communication a terrible pounding. Through field glasses you see how the Germans shoot up a road, following all the windings. After a while there is a great cloud of smoke spreading over the far side. So far we haven’t heard much of the German artillery as a factor in their amazing progress. The work of the Stuka bombers took most of our attention. But it’s obvious that this German motorized artillery, brought up to position right behind the advancing tanks at forty miles an hour, is a tremendous factor. The Allies probably had not reckoned that artillery could move so fast. Around us now the Germans are firing with sixinch guns and 105’s. The noise is not so deafening as I expected. Perhaps one’s ears get used to it.
I note that over the front all afternoon hover two or three reconnaissance planes — German, obviously directing artillery fire. They cruise above the battlefield unmolested. But there are no planes directing Allied artillery fire, which seems to be aimed exclusively against the German forward positions, at no time against German artillery, which is strange. The lack of observation planes alone puts the Allies in a hole. In fact, we do not see an Allied plane all day long. Once or twice we get an alarm, but no planes show up. How England and France are paying now for their criminal neglect of their aviation!
As the afternoon wears away to the pounding of the guns, artillery units near us get orders to take up new positions forward. The advance, you suppose, is going ahead according to schedule. Immediately, from all around us in the woods, men and motors — which we have not even seen — limber up, the men tossing off some of the tree limbs which have so completely camouflaged them, and get off. We take a last look at the Scheldt valley, at the smoke from the bursting shells on the other side of the river. The whole chaos (to me) of the battlefield is in reality a picture of a welloiled machine of destruction doing its stuff— to Germans, that is.
We drive back to Brussels. German dive bombers fly past us going up to do a little late afternoon work. At Brussels, German fighters and bombers demonstrate over the city. . . .
BERLIN,May 24.—Two weeks ago today Hitler unloosed his Blitzkrieg in the West. Since then, this has happened: Holland overrun; four fifths of Belgium occupied; the French army hurled back towards Paris; and an Allied army, believed to number a million men and including the elite of the Franco-British forces, trapped and encircled on the Channel.
You have to see the German army in action to believe it. It has absolute air superiority. It seems incredible, but at the front I did not see a single Allied plane during the daytime. Stuka dive bombers are softening the Allied defense positions, making them ripe for easy attack. Also they’re wrecking Allied communications in the rear, bombing roads filled with trucks, tanks, and guns, wiping out strategic railroad stations and junctions. Furthermore, reconnaissance planes are giving the German Command a perfect picture of what is going on. Against this, the Allies have no eyes; few of their reconnaissance planes get over. Also, Allied bombers have completely failed to disturb German lines of communication by daytime attacks. One of the sights that overwhelm you at the front is the vast scale on which the Germans bring up men, guns, and supplies — unhindered. All day long at the front, driving along at forty or fifty miles an hour, you pass unending mechanized columns. They stretch clear across Belgium, unbroken. And they move fast — thirty or forty miles an hour. You wonder how they are kept fed with gasoline and oil. But they are. Gas supplies come forward with everything else. Every driver knows where he can tank up when he runs short.
What magnificent targets these endless columns would make if the Allies had any planes!
And what a magnificent machine keeps them running so smoothly! In fact, that is the chief impression you get from watching the German army at work. It is a gigantic, impersonal war machine, run as coolly and efficiently, say, as our automobile industry in Detroit. Directly behind the front, with the guns pounding daylight out of one’s ears and the airplanes roaring overhead, and thousands of motorized vehicles thundering by on the dusty roads, officers and men alike remain cool and businesslike. Absolutely no excitement, no tension. Morale of the German troops is fantastically good. I remember a company of engineers that was about to go down to the Scheldt River to lay a pontoon bridge under enemy fire. The men were reclining on the edge of a wood reading the day’s edition of the army daily paper, the Western Front. I’ve never seen men going into a battle from which some were sure never to come out alive so — well, so nonchalant.
The contention of the BBC that these flying German columns — such as the one that broke through to the sea at Abbeville — are weak forces which cannot possibly hold what they get is a myth. The Germans thrust not only with tanks and a few motorized infantry troops, but with everything. Light and heavy motorized artillery goes right up behind the tanks and infantry.
May 25. — German military circles in Berlin tonight put it flatly. They said the fate of the great Allied army bottled up in Flanders is sealed.
May 28. — King Leopold has quit on the Allies. Great jubilation here about it. It leaves the British and French, cut off in Flanders, in a pretty hole. . . .
B., who was in Rotterdam last week, tells me the town was largely destroyed after it had surrendered. German explanation is that surrender came after the Stukas had left the ground and they could not be recalled in time.
May 29. — Boss of one of the big American broadcasting chains (not Columbia) cables the German Broadcasting Company today: ‘Please arrange broadcast by King Leopold.’
Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, killed in action on the Western Front, was buried with military honors in Potsdam today. Had things gone smoothly for Germany after 1914, he probably would have been, as eldest son of the Crown Prince, the German Emperor.
May 30. — A German dropped in today. He said: ‘How many years will the war last?’ The question surprised me, in the light of the news. Last week three Germans in the Wilhelmstrasse bet me the Germans would be in London in three weeks — that is, two weeks from now.
The great battle in Flanders and the Artois nears its end. One gathers, though, that the British are taking off a lot of men at Dunkirk. The German goal was to capture those men, and in this they are failing. But the BBC in London boasts too much about the ' most successful rear-guard action in history’ at Dunkirk. The British have been fighting too many of these.
June 4. — The German army today entered Dunkirk, and the remaining Allied troops — about 40,000 — surrendered. The German High Command in an official communiqué says the battle will go down in history ‘as the greatest battle of destruction of all time.’ German losses for Western offensive, as given out tonight, are said to be: Dead, 10,252; missing, 84G7; wounded, 42,523. The communiqué, obviously written by Hitler, concludes: ‘As the enemy still declines Peace, he will get a fight until he’s destroyed.’
June 6. — The church bells rang and all the flags were out today, by order of Hitler, to celebrate the victory in Flanders. No real elation over the victory discernible in the people; no emotion of any kind. In grandiose proclamations to the army and the people, Hitler announced that today a new offensive was being launched in the West. So far no details available here, but the BBC says the offensive is on a 200-kilometre front from Abbeville to Soissons, with the biggest German pressure along the SommeAisne canal.
June 9. — The High Command broke its reserve about the great offensive with a bang this afternoon. Says the French south of the Somme and in the Oise district have been beaten all along the line. Talks about the German troops driving towards the lower Seine, which is a hell of a way forward from the Somme, where they started four days ago. BBC at six tonight confirmed this. The Germans also announce: ‘ This morning on a further part of the front in France, a new offensive has started.’ Weygand reveals it’s on a front from Reims to the Argonne. No drive in World War I on this scale!
June 11. — Roosevelt came through very clearly on the radio last night.
Promised immediate material help for the Allies. Scorched Musso for his treachery. Not a word about the speech in press or on radio here.
The Wilhelmstrasse keeps making the point that American aid will come too late. A man just back from seeing Hitler tells me the Führer is sure that France will be finished by June 15, — that is, in four days, — and Great Britain by August 15, at the latest! Word here is that the French Government has left Paris. The Germans tonight are roughly about as near Paris as they were on September 1, 1914.
June 14. — Paris has fallen. We got the news on the radio at 1 P.M., after loud fanfares had blazed away for a quarter of an hour calling the faithful to hear the announcement. Berlin has taken the news of the capture of Paris as phlegmatically as it has taken everything else in this war. Later I went to Halensee for a swim, it being warm and I feeling the need of a little relaxation. It was crowded, but I overheard no one discussing the news. Out of 500 people, three bought extras when the newsboys rushed in shouting the headlines.
It would be wrong, though, to conclude that the taking of Paris has not stirred something very deep in the hearts of most Germans. It was always a wishdream of millions here. And it helps wipe out the bitter memories of 1918 which have lain so long — twenty-two years — in the German soul.
Poor Paris! I weep for it. For so many years it was my home — and I loved it as you love a woman. Said the Völkische Beobachter this morning: ‘Paris was a city of frivolity and corruption, of democracy and capitalism, where Jews had entry to the court, and Negroes to the salons. That Paris will never rise again.’ But the High Command promises that its soldiers will behave —will be ‘as different as night is from day compared to the conduct of the French soldiers in the Rhine and Ruhr.’
Tomorrow, probably, I shall leave for Paris. I do not want to go. It will be the saddest assignment of my life.
MAUBEUGE, June 16. — Got up at 3 A.M. In the Ruhr little evidence of the British night bombings. Arrived at Aachen at 11 A.M. Thence through Limburg to Liége and Namur. Surprised to see so little destroyed along this route. Very unlike the road from Aachen to Brussels, where most of the towns lie in shambles. Drove all afternoon up the valley of the Meuse. Amazing little evidence of the war. Ate dinner at Charleroi. Bitter faces in the streets. No bread in the town, and water only for drinking. But we got some meat and salad in a little bistro.
Bought the local journal, the Journal de Charleroi. It publishes both German and French war communiqués. An order in the paper said the German troops and the Belgian gendarmerie would fire without warning into any lighted windows.
Maubeuge itself has been terribly destroyed. The main part of the town is reduced to broken stone, twisted girders, and ashes. One of the German officers tells us what happened. German tanks tried to get through the town. French anti-tank guns concealed in houses got the first five or six. The Germans had to retreat. Word was sent back to the Stukas. They came over and did their job with their usual murderous efficiency. Underneath the church, the commandant tells us, was the town’s biggest air-raid shelter. One of the bombs hit it square on. Result: 500 civilians lie buried under the débris. Buried airtight, though, because on this warm, star-lit summer evening there is no smell.
The local commandant, a German business man called up from the reserve, receives us in one of the few houses in town still standing. A few facts from him: 10,000 out of 24,000 residents of Maubeuge either have returned or rode out the bombing and the bombardment.
The German army and, since a few days, German relief workers help to keep them from starving. They bring bread from Germany. But yesterday the old boy says he uncovered some wheat and is getting it ground into flour. ‘One business,’ he says, ‘apparently didn’t close up shop at any time, during the battle or since. The local bordel. I finally closed it, but the Madame came to see me and was very much put out. “Business as usual — why not?” she said.’
We consume several bottles of pretty fair vin rouge and nibble biscuits, and the commandant talks on enthusiastically about his problems. Obviously he enjoys his job, and he is certainly not the old sadistic Prussian master of the storybooks. On the whole, a very human old fellow. Homesick, I gather. Hoping the war won’t last much longer. Somehow it’s worse, he thinks, than what he went through in the four years of the First World War in this very district. But perhaps that is because it’s so recent, and the old memories blurred. Anyway, he talks of his dog and his wife and his family.
PARIS, June 17. — We came in about noon. It was one of those lovely days which Paris always has in this month and which, if there had been peace, would have been spent by the people going to the races at Longchamp or idling along the boulevards under the trees or on the cool terrace of a café.
First shock: the streets were utterly deserted, the stores closed, the shutters down tight on all the windows. It was the emptiness that got you. Coming in from Bourget (remembering — sentimentally— the night I raced afoot all the way into town from there to write the story of Lindbergh’s landing), we drove down the rue Lafayette. German army cars and motorcycles, speeding, screaming down the street. But on the sidewalks not a human being. At the various corner cafés along the street which I knew so well they had taken in the tables and drawn the shutters, and had fled — the patrons, the gargons, the customers. Our two cars roared down the rue Lafayette, honking at every street we crossed, until I asked our driver to desist.
There, on the corner, the Petit Journal building in which I had worked for the Chicago Tribune when I first came to Paris in 1925. Across from it the TroisPortes cafe — how many pleasant hours I idled there when Paris, to me, was beautiful and gorgeous, and my home.
We turned left down the rue Le Peletier to the Grand Boulevard. I noticed the Petit Riche was closed. The Boulevard too was deserted, except for a few German soldiers, staring into the windows of the shops. The Place de I’Opéra now. For the first time in my life, no traffic tie-up there, no French cops shouting meaninglessly at cars hopelessly blocked. The façadw of the Opera House was hidden behind stacked sandbags. The Café de la Paix seemed to be just reopening. A lone garçon was bringing out some tables and chairs. German soldiers stood on the terrace grabbing them. Then we turned at the Madeleine, its façade also covered with sandbags, and raced down the rue Royale. Larue’s and Weber’s, I noted, were closed. Now, before us, the familiar view: the Place de la Concorde, the Seine, the Chambre des Députés, over which a giant Swastika flag flies, and in the distance the golden dome of the Invalides. Past the Ministry of Marine, guarded by a big German tank, into the Concorde. We drew up in front of the Hotel Crillon, now German headquarters.
Demaree Bess and Walter Kerr, who had stayed on in Paris after almost all of their colleagues had fled, were in the lobby. They came up to my room and we had a talk. D. says the panic in Paris was indescribable. Everyone lost his head. The government gave no lead. People were told to skit, and at least three million out of the five million in the city ran, many without any baggage, literally ran on their feet towards the south. It seems the Parisians actually believed the Germans would rape the women and do worse to the men. They had heard the most fantastic tales of what happened when the Germans occupied a city. I have a feeling that what we’re seeing here in Paris is the complete breakdown of French society. A collapse of the army, of government, of the morale of the people. It is almost too tremendous to believe.
June 18. — Marshal Pétain has asked for an armistice! The Parisians, already dazed by all that has happened, can scarcely believe it. Nor can the rest of us. That the French army must give up is clear. But most of us expected it to surrender, as did the Dutch and Belgian armies, with the government going, as Reynaud had boasted, to Africa, where France, with its navy and African armies, can hold out for a long time.
The inhabitants got the news of Pétain’s action by loud-speakers, conveniently provided by the Germans in nearly every square in town. I stood in a throng of French men and women in the Place de la Concorde when the news first came. They were almost struck dead. Before the Hotel Crillon cars raced up and unloaded gold-braided officers. There was much peering through monocles, heelclicking, saluting. But the people, listening to the loud-speaker, did not see or hear it. They stared at the ground, then at each other. They said: ‘Pétain surrendering! What does it mean? Comment? Pourquoi?' And no one appeared to have the heart for an answer.
I noticed today some open fraternizing between German troops and the inhabitants. Most of the soldiers seem to be Austrian, are well mannered, and quite a few speak French. Most of the German troops act like naïve tourists, and this has proved a pleasant surprise to the Parisians. It seems funny, but every German soldier carries a camera. I saw them by the thousands today, photographing Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Invalides.
At 4.30 P.M. the military rushed me out to Compiegne. (Yesterday Hitler and Mussolini met at Munich to draw up the armistice terms for France.) When we arrived on the scene at 6 P.M., German army engineers were feverishly engaged in tearing out the wall of the museum where Foch’s private car in which the 1918 Armistice was signed had been preserved. The building itself was donated by Arthur Henry Fleming of Pasadena, California. Before we left, the engineers, working with pneumatic drills, had demolished the wall and hauled the car out from its shelter.
Plan is, the Nazis tell me, to place the car in exactly the same spot it occupied in the little clearing in Compiegne forest at 5 A.M. on the morning of November 11, 1918, and make the French sign this armistice there. . . . We talked over technical details for broadcasting the story with various German officers and officials. It will make a spectacular broadcast, but a tragic one. A colonel showed me through the car. Place cards on the table showed where each had sat at that historic meeting in 1918.
PARIS,June 21. — On the exact spot in the little clearing in the forest of Compiègne where at 5 A.M. on November 11, 1918 the armistice which ended the World War was signed, Adolf Hitler today handed his armistice terms to France. To make German revenge complete, the meeting of the German and French plenipotentiaries took place in Marshal Foch’s private car. Even the same table in the rickety old wagan-lit was used. And through the windows we saw Hitler occupying the very seat on which Foch had sat at that table when he dictated the other armistice.
The humiliation of France, of the French, was complete. And yet, in the preamble to the armistice terms, Hitler told the French that he had not chosen this spot at Compiègne out of revenge; merely to right an old wrong. From the demeanor of the French delegates I gathered that they did not appreciate the difference.
The German terms we do not yet know. The preamble says the general basis for them is: (1) to prevent a resumption of the fighting; (2) to offer Germany complete guaranties for her continuation of the war against Britain; (3) to create the foundations for a Peace, the basis of which is to be the reparation of an injustice inflicted upon Germany by force. The third point seems to mean revenge for the defeat of 1918.
Kerker for NBC and I for CBS, in a joint half-hour broadcast early this evening, described today’s amazing scene as best we could. It made, I think, a good broadcast.
The armistice negotiations began at 3.15 P.M. A warm June sun beat down on the great elm and pine trees, and cast pleasant shadows on the wooded avenues as Hitler, with the German plenipotentiaries at his side, appeared. He alighted from his car in front of the French monument to Alsace-Lorraine which stands at the end of an avenue about two hundred yards from the clearing where the Armistice car waited.
That Alsace-Lorraine statue, I noted, was covered with German war flags, so that you could not see its sculptured work or read its inscription.
Through my glasses I saw the Führcr stop, glance at the monument, and observe the Reich war flags with their big Swastikas in the centre. Then he strode slowly toward us, toward the little clearing in the woods. I observed his face. It was grave, solemn, but there was also in it, as in his springy step, a note of the triumphant conqueror, the defier of the world. There was something else, difficult to describe, in his expression — a sort of inner joy that he seemed to feel at being present at this great reversal of Fate, a reversal he himself had wrought.
Now Hitler reaches the little opening in the woods. He pauses and looks slowly around. The clearing is in the form of a circle some two hundred yards in diameter and laid out like a park. Cyprus trees line it all round — and behind them the great elms and oaks of the forest. This has been one of France’s national shrines for twenty-two years. From a discreet position on the perimeter of the circle we watch.
Hitler pauses, and gazes slowly around. In a group just behind him are the other German plenipotentiaries. Göring, grasping his field marshal’s baton in one hand, wears the sky-blue uniform of the Air Force, All the Germans are in uniform, Hitler in a double-breasted gray uniform with the iron cross hanging from his left breast pocket. Next to Göring are the two army chiefs — General Keitel, Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command, and General von Brauchitsch, Commander in Chief of the German Army. Both are just approaching sixty, but look younger, especially Keitel, who has a dapper appearance with his cap slightly cocked on one side.
Then there is Dr. Raeder, Grand Admiral of the German Fleet, in his blue naval uniform and the invariable upturned collar worn by German naval officers. There are two non-military men in Hitler’s suite — his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, in the field-gray uniform of the Foreign Office, and Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, in a gray Party uniform.
The time is now 3.18 P.M. Hitler’s personal flag is run up on a small standard in the centre of the opening.
Also in the centre is a great granite block which stands some three feet above the ground. Hitler, followed by the others, walks slowly over to it, steps up, and reads the inscription engraved in great high letters on that block: ‘Here on the eleventh of November, 1918, succumbed the criminal pride of the German Empire . . . vanquished by the free peoples which it tried to enslave.’
Hitler reads it and Göring reads it.
They all read it, standing there in the June sun and the silence. We look for the expression on Hitler’s face. . . . Finally he leads his party over to another granite stone, a smaller one some fifty yards to one side. Here it was that the railroad car in which the German plenipotentiaries stayed during the 1918 Armistice negotiations stood from November 8 to 11. Hitler merely glances at the inscription: ‘The German Plenipotentiaries.’
It is now 3.23 P.M. and the Germans stride over to the Armistice car. For a moment or two they stand in the sunlight outside the car, chatting. Then Hitler steps up into the car, followed by the others. We can see nicely through the car windows. Hitler takes the place occupied by Marshal Foch when the 1918 Armistice terms were signed. The others spread themselves around him. Four chairs on the opposite side of the table from Hitler remain empty. The French have not yet appeared. But we do not wait long. Exactly at 3.30 P.M. they alight from a car. They have flown up from Bordeaux to a near-by landing field.
They too glance at the Alsace-Lorraine memorial, but it’s a swift glance. Then they walk down the avenue, flanked by three German officers. We see them now as they come into the sunlight of the clearing: General Huntziger, wearing a bleached khaki uniform, Air General Bergeret and Vice-Admiral Leluc, both in dark blue uniforms, and then, almost buried in the uniforms, M. Noel, formerly ambassador to Poland. The German Guard of Honor, drawn up at the entrance to the clearing, snaps to attention for the French as they pass, but it does not present arms. The Frenchmen keep their eyes straight ahead. Their faces are solemn, drawn. They are the picture of tragic dignity.
They walk stiffly to the car, where they are met by two German officers, Lieutenant-General Tippelskirch, quartermaster-general, and Colonel Thomas, chief of the Führer’s headquarters. The Germans salute. The French salute. The atmosphere is what Europeans call ‘correct.’ There are salutes, but no handshakes.
Now we get our picture through the dusty windows of that old wagon-lit car. Hitler and the other German leaders rise as the French enter the drawing-room. Hitler gives the Nazi salute, the arm raised; Ribbentrop and Hess the same. The German officers give the military salute. The French do the same. I cannot see M. Noel to know whether he salutes or not.
Hitler, so far as we can see through the windows, does not say a word to the French or to anybody else. He nods to General Keitel at his side. We see General Keitel adjusting his papers. Then he starts to read. He is reading the preamble of the German armistice terms. The French sit there with marble-like faces and listen intently. Hitler and Göring glance at the green table top.
The reading of the preamble lasts but a few minutes. Hitler, we soon observe, has no intention of remaining very long, of listening to the reading of the armistice terms themselves. At 3.42 P.M., twelve minutes after the French arrive, we see Hitler stand up, salute stiffly, and then stride out of the drawing-room, followed by Göring, Brauchitsch, Raeder, Hess, and Ribbentrop. The French, like figures of stone, remain at the greentopped table. General Keitel remains with them. He starts to read them the detailed conditions of armistice.
Hitler and his aides stride down the avenue toward the Alsace-Lorraine monument, where their cars are waiting. As they pass the guard of honor, the German band strikes up the two national anthems, Deutschland über Alles and the Horst Wessel song.
The whole ceremony, in which Hitler has reached a new pinnacle in his meteoric career and Germany avenged the 1918 defeat, is over in a quarter of an hour.
BERLIN, June 27.— To sum up. From what I’ve seen in Belgium and France, and from the talks I’ve had with Germans and French in both countries, with French, Belgian, and British prisoners along the road, it seems fairly clear to me that — France did not fight.
If she did, there is little evidence of it. Not only I but several of my friends have driven from the German border to France and back, along all the main roads. None of us saw any evidence whatsoever of serious fighting.
Admitted that the French fought in the towns. But even in the towns not many of the millions of men available could have fought. There was not room. But they did not fight in the fields, as in all other wars. The grain twenty yards from the main roads has not been touched by the tramping feet of soldiers or their tens of thousands of motorized vehicles. I do not mean to say that at many places French units did not fight valiantly. Undoubtedly they did. But there was no organized, well-thought-out defense, as in the last war. From all I’ve seen, the French let the Germans dictate a new kind of warfare. This was fought largely along the main roads; rarely on a line running across the country. And on the roads the Germans had everything in their favor: utter superiority in tanks and planes.
An Austrian soldier told me last night it was unbelievably simple. They went down the roads with tanks, with artillery support in the rear. Seldom did they meet any serious resistance. Dugouts or posts here and there would fire. Usually the heavily armored German tanks paid no attention, just continued down the road. Infantry units on trucks behind, with light artillery, would liquidate the pillboxes and the machine-gun nests. Once in a while, if resistance was a little strong, they’d phone or radio or signal back for the artillery. If the big guns didn’t silence it, an order went back for the Stukas, which invariably did. So it went, he said, day after day.
I keep asking myself: If the French were making a serious defense, why are the main roads never blown up? Why so many strategic bridges left untouched? Here and there along the roads a tank barrier, — that is, a few logs, or stones or débris, — but nothing really serious for the tanks. No real tank traps — such as the Swiss built by the thousands.
But since the Germans chose to fight the war on the roads, why didn’t the French stop them? Roads make ideal targets for artillery. And yet I have not seen one yard of road in all northern France which shows the effect of artillery fire. Not a yard. Driving to Paris over the area where the second German offensive began, an officer from the High Command who had missed the campaign kept mumbling that he could not understand it, that up there on that height, dominating the road and providing wonderful artillery cover with its dense woods, the French must have had the sense to plant a few guns. Just a few would have made the road impassable, he kept repeating, and he would order us to stop while he studied the situation. But there had been no guns on those wooded heights, and there were no shell holes on or near the road. The Germans had passed along here with their mighty army, hardly firing a shot.
The French blew up many bridges. But they also left many strategic ones standing, especially over the Meuse, a great natural defense because of the deepness, the steepness of the valley and its wooded cover. More than one French soldier I talked to thought it was downright treachery.
At no point in France, and at only two or three in Belgium, did I see a road properly mined, or, for that matter, mined at all. In the villages and towns the French had erected tank barriers, usually of blocks of stone and rubbish. But the Germans brushed them aside in minutes. A huge crater left by an exploded mine could not have been brushed aside in a few minutes.
D.B., in Paris, having seen the war from the other side, concludes that there was treachery in the French army from top to bottom — the Fascists at the top, the Communists at the bottom. And from German and French sources alike I heard many stories of how the Communists had received orders from their party not to fight, and didn’t. . . .
Many French prisoners say they never saw a battle. When one seemed imminent, orders came to retreat. It was this constant order to retreat before a battle had been joined, or at least until it had been fought out, that broke the Belgian resistance.
The Germans themselves say that in one tank battle they were attacked by a large fleet of French tanks after they themselves had run out of ammunition. The German commander ordered a retreat. After the German tanks had retired some distance to the rear, with the French following them only very cautiously, the Germans received orders to turn about and simulate an attack, firing automatic pistols or anything they had out of their tanks and executing complicated manœuvres. This they did, and the French, seeing an armada of tanks descend upon them, though these were without ammunition, turned and fled.
One German tank officer I talked to in Compiègne said: ‘French tanks in some ways were superior to ours. They had heavier armor. And at times — for a few hours, say— the French tank corps fought bravely and well. But soon we got a definite feeling that their heart wasn’t in it. When we learned that, and acted on the belief, it was all over.’ A month before, I should have thought such talk rank Nazi propaganda. Now I believe it.
Another mystery. After the Germans broke through the Franco-Belgian border from Maubeuge to Sedan, they tell that they continued right on across northern France to the sea without hardly firing a shot. When they got to the sea, Boulogne and Calais were defended mostly by the British. The whole French army seemed paralyzed, unable to provide the least action, the slightest counter-thrust.
True, the Germans had air superiority. True, the British didn’t provide the air power they could and should have provided. Yet even that does not explain the French debacle. From what one can see, the effectiveness of the air force in this war has been overemphasized. One read of the great mass air attacks on the Allied columns along the roads. But you look in vain for the evidence of it on the roads. There are no bomb craters. True, the German technique was first to machine-gun the troops and then, when they’d scattered to the side of the road, to bomb the sides of the road (thus sparing the road when they wanted to use it later). But you also see little evidence of this. A crater here and there along the roadside or in a near-by field — but not enough to destroy an army. The most deadly work of the German air force was at Dunkirk, where the British stopped the Germans dead for ten days.
On the whole, then, while the French here and there fought valiantly and even stubbornly, their army seems to have been paralyzed as soon as the Germans made their first break-through. Then it collapsed, almost without a fight. In the first place the French, as though drugged, had no will to fight, even when their soil was invaded by their most hated enemy. There was a complete collapse of French society and of the French soul. Secondly, there was either treachery or criminal negligence in the High Command and among the high officers in the field. Among large masses of troops, Communist propaganda had won the day. And its message was: ‘Don’t fight.’ Never were the masses so betrayed.