Americans Go to War

DRUE TARTIÈRE WAS RECEIVING HELP from the Vittel camp gynaecologist, a Jewish physician named Dr Jean Lévy, in convincing the Germans that she had ovarian cancer and needed treatment in Paris. Dr Lévy had been reluctant at first, telling Drue, ‘You must realize the position they have me in, with my old father locked up, and the rest of my family potential hostages.’ As Dr Lévy fell in with her plan, he gave her drugs to increase haemorrhaging. Heavy bleeding would help to convince the other doctors she was gravely ill. While examining her in the presence of his Scottish assistant, Dr Monteith, he said, ‘Very bad, very bad.’ The key was to persuade the camp’s chief physician, Dr von Weber, that she was not faking. ‘He’s a brute,’ Dr Lévy explained, ‘a regular Prussian, but he knows absolutely nothing about a woman’s insides and he asked for my diagnosis.’ When von Weber examined Drue, she wrote, ‘He treated me politely, but he treated Dr. Lévy, because he was a Jew, as if he were some kind of reptile. It was hard to keep my temper in his presence, but I did, for I would lose everything if I lost that.’ They told von Weber that Drue needed X-ray treatments, which were not available in the camp. But von Weber wanted to operate and insisted she remain for more observation.

Jean Fraysse, Drue’s friend and Resistance commander, came all the way across France from Barbizon to visit her at Vittel. Tired from a long journey that he made without papers and in constant danger of arrest, Fraysse sobbed when he saw how ill Drue looked. In the visitors’ room, which was part of the censor’s office at the edge of Frontstalag 194, he demanded of a German officer, ‘What have you done with this woman?’ The officer was Captain Landhauser’s deputy, Damasky, whom Drue called ‘the blond German who had been polite to us when we entered the camp’. Damasky had not known until that moment that Drue was ill. He asked her, ‘Is this your sweetheart?’ When she said he was, Damasky offered to leave them alone for twenty minutes, adding, ‘But you must pass no notes to each other.’ When they were alone, Drue begged Jean to stop crying. He must not give the Germans the satisfaction of seeing his grief. ‘He blamed himself for getting me into this situation by permitting me to remain in France,’ Drue wrote. He told her that all the ‘good people’ in Barbizon, by which he meant those who hated the Nazis, missed her. Many friends were pleading for her release. Georges Hilaire, secretary general for administration in Pierre Laval’s cabinet, had written to the Gestapo in Paris to assure them that Drue was not involved in politics. Jean had asked Serge Lifar, the Russian ballet choreographer popular with the Germans, to appeal to Marshal Goering for her. Another friend had contacted Count Joseph von Ledebur, a friend of Charles Bedaux’s, to expedite Drue’s release. Jean urged Drue to feign illness so convincingly that she would be hospitalized. Just then, Damasky returned and asked Jean whether he had a pass to be in Vittel.

Jean admitted that he didn’t. ‘I can understand,’ Damasky said, ‘what one will do when one is in love.’ Damasky did not arrest Jean and allowed him to leave the camp. Drue, walking back to her hotel, stopped beside a tree and wept. An Englishwoman put her arms around Drue and said, ‘Darlin’, it’s awfully nice to have someone who loves you enough to come to see you. You shouldn’t be sad about that. He’s a very handsome man.’

The camp dentist, Dr Rolland, who was related to some of Drue’s friends in Barbizon, was trying to convince von Weber to send her to Paris. If that failed, he said, the superior of hospital sisters, Mother Mary de la Providence, would take her out of Vittel in a nun’s habit. Sylvia Beach had already noticed that most of the English nuns were working with the Resistance. Dr Rolland called Dr Lévy, who advised Drue, ‘Have a crise this afternoon in your room, and I will have you brought over to the hospital, but be very careful. I am told that some of the women in your room are Nazi sympathizers.’ He probably meant Noel Murphy and Gladys Delmass, who moved in collaborationist circles in Paris. Drue feigned her crise and was admitted to the hospital. Instead of pills to stop bleeding, she took tablets to increase it, imperilling her health. Sylvia Beach and Sarah Watson, who were still living in the hospital, made frequent visits to her bedside. Drue felt guilty for causing her friends so much worry, but she could not tell them the truth. She lay there for a week, growing steadily more frail. Then, one of the nuns rushed into her room and said, ‘I must get rid of your ash tray and cigarettes, it’s that Prussian brute, and he’s due on the floor today.’ They heard Dr von Weber’s heavy boots in the corridor.

Von Weber came into my room. I had no make-up on, my hair was hanging down, and I looked as wan and pathetic as possible. Dr. Lévy and Dr. Pigache, who accompanied von Weber on his rounds, stood at the foot of my bed, while the German sat down beside me and took my hand.

‘I hear, ma fille,’ he said, ‘that things do not go well.’

I left my hand in his and said, ‘No, not at all well, Herr Doktor.’

‘I still say you should have an operation,’ he insisted.

Drue said she would recover with X-ray therapy from her doctor in Paris. Ever the actress, she ‘squeezed a few tears’. Von Weber ordered the sister to bring him rubber gloves and Vaseline. ‘I was thoroughly scared now and loathed the idea of his touching me,’ Drue wrote. ‘I had a crise and put on a scene like a virgin. Dr. Lévy came around to the side of my bed and said, “Don’t be frightened, the Herr Doktor is merely going to examine you, and it will be over very quickly.”’ Von Weber conducted the examination, kicking Dr Lévy out of his way, but Drue was bleeding too much for him to make a diagnosis. Sylvia Beach and Sarah Watson feared she might die. Drue wrote, ‘Dr. Lévy was worried, not only about me, but about his family, of whom he had had no news. He took to walking up and down the corridors of the hospital most of the night, the sisters told me, and they were afraid he would lose his sanity.’

As winter set in, some of Drue’s friends from the Hôtel Central made regular visits to see her and to enjoy the central heating their rooms lacked. One was Noel Murphy. When Dr Lévy saw her in Drue’s room, he left. Noel said, ‘I think it’s a disgrace to have you, an American woman, taken care of by that Jew! I loathe the man!’ To protect herself and Dr Lévy, Drue did not respond.

On 8 November, Dr Rolland ran into Drue’s room. ‘The Americans have landed in North Africa!’ He beamed. Sylvia Beach and Sarah Watson rushed in as well, and they held a small celebration. Outside in the corridor, Dr Lévy was singing.

Just before midnight on 7 November, the BBC broadcast a message to North Africa, ‘Allo Robert, Franklin arrivé.’ In Algiers, Robert Murphy understood. Franklin Roosevelt was at last committing the American army to battle. ‘So, for two hours before American forces were supposed to enter Algiers,’ Murphy wrote, ‘I signaled full speed ahead for our local operation. Our resistance groups began to seize key points in Algiers, taking over quietly and with little opposition.’ Of the 540 young men who seized Algiers’ government that night, 450 were Algerian and French Jews. A. J. Liebling, the New Yorker correspondent who met the résistants afterwards, wrote that they ‘seized the telegraph office, the municipal power plant, the Préfecture of Police, and other nerve centres, and arrested the ranking army officers who were not in on the plot and Admiral Darlan himself’. After the American invasion force missed its 1 a.m. deadline to enter Algiers, Vichy soldiers took back the buildings held by the résistants. ‘The troops outnumbered them and had artillery,’ Liebling wrote. ‘After a resistance during which several of their number had been killed, the pro-Allied civilians had surrendered. They had held Darlan for four hours, and it is easy to understand how much their attack had served to distract attention from our landing.’ But where, the pro-Allied French wondered, had the Americans landed?

Charles Bedaux was in a deep sleep at the Hôtel Aletti. His Medinal tablets, combined with noise-blocking wax in his ears, left him impervious to events. His third-floor suite had been commandeered that day by a Wehrmacht general on the Armistice Commission, forcing Bedaux into a room on the second floor that he had to share with a German named Captain Wurmann. Charles Emile recalled knocking on his father’s door to inform him of the invasion. He and his father went up to room 305, where Pierre-Jérôme Ullmann and Georges Rimailho were staying, for a better view. Before dawn, a hotel waiter saw Charles Bedaux drinking brandy on the balcony with Captain Wurmann, while tracer bullets passed overhead. The French Resistance passed on a report to the Americans about Bedaux’s valedictory drink with the German officer.

Vichy French troops arrested not only the agents who had seized government buildings, but Murphy himself. ‘By that time,’ Murphy remembered, ‘I was experiencing grave doubts, owing to the non-appearance of American soldiers or any word from the “vice consuls” posted on the assigned beaches to receive our troops and guide them into the city.’ The Royal Navy, blaming navigational errors, had landed the troops at the wrong beaches. This delayed American entry into Algiers by thirteen hours, when Admiral Darlan agreed to a ceasefire. Murphy suspected the diversion had been deliberate, because the British distrusted the French Resistance units whom Murphy had informed of the landing sites.

Nothing about Operation Torch had gone according to plan. General Giraud, whom Murphy was relying on to persuade his fellow officers not to resist, was still in Gibraltar with Eisenhower. A British destroyer steamed into the port of Algiers, accidentally blowing up petrol reservoirs, and retreated without disembarking any American troops. The British failed to deliver the weapons Murphy had promised the Resistance. One of the OSS vice-consuls, Donald Coster, was under arrest in Scotland, and the other eleven waited uselessly on the landing beaches as guides for troops who never arrived at the assigned rendezvous points. Yet Operation Torch, which Murphy admitted had been ‘a partial bluff’, worked. ‘Only a few hours after the first American and British troops hit the beaches near Algiers,’ Murphy wrote, ‘two of the highest-ranking French officers in Africa had personally arranged a local ceasefire, and this had been imposed almost without incident. They also had tentatively promised to arrange similar cease-fires throughout French Africa.’

With Algeria and Morocco in American hands, the politicking began among French officers–Generals de Gaulle and Giraud and Admiral Darlan–for control of the liberated French territory. The crucial consideration for the French was that they retain sovereignty in North Africa, which ruled out an American military government. The Americans lacked local expertise and had no personnel who spoke Arabic or Berber and only a few who knew French. The administration continued as before, with Vichy officials governing the Arab and Berber inhabitants. Commerce resumed, and Charles Bedaux saw no reason to abandon the pipeline. It would be just as useful to the Free French and the Americans as it would have been to Vichy and the Germans. When the battle ended, the first thing Bedaux did was to lobby Robert Murphy to give his scheme the full support of the American government.

The Allied invasion of Algeria and Morocco was not the only good news that Drue Tartière received in her Vittel hospital bed on 8 November. Later that afternoon, Dr von Weber told her, ‘I am sending word to Berlin that I think it advisable you be sent to Paris.’ He would discharge her in three or four weeks. ‘Aren’t you happy?’ ‘Not especially, ’ she said. When he asked her why not, she responded, ‘Well, I am sorry for you, because now you are kaput.’

Dr. Lévy and Dr. Pigache, who were standing at the foot of the bed, looked as if they would collapse. The red-haired English sister giggled. Von Weber looked at me in surprise and answered, ‘That’s where you make a big mistake. This war has just reached its normal plane, and it can go on now for five years.’

When von Weber left, the red-haired nun said, ‘Five years, the old fool.’ Dr Lévy reprimanded Drue for taunting the Prussian and reminded her, ‘He is a very dangerous man.’ Lévy protected Drue, putting blood-soaked rags in her bed before von Weber’s visits.

A few nights later, Drue and the other patients in the hospital heard the thunder of engines streaking across the sky. When the internees realized that RAF bomber squadrons were flying over Vittel on their way to targets in Germany, they turned on all the lights in their hotels, waved to the planes overhead and cheered wildly. From the British women’s rooms came the strident singing of ‘God Save the King’. Prison guards shouted and fired into the air to make the women turn out the lights and be quiet. The English and American internees hurled pots and pans down at the Germans while cheering the bombardiers. In the hospital’s corridor, Dr Monteith danced a Highland fling with Mother Mary de la Providence. Dr Lévy was also celebrating, until he saw Drue rushing around in her nightgown. He ordered her back to bed. If Dr von Weber saw her on her feet, she would never get to Paris. Finally, the Germans turned off the electricity, and the women went to bed. But, at one o’clock in the morning, the planes cruised overhead on their way home. The women celebrated again. ‘We were sadder now, though,’ Drue wrote, ‘for we were wondering how many of the planes were missing.’

The camp commandant, Captain Landhauser, cut the women’s rations, denied them electricity and revoked their visitors’ privileges.

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