GENERAL ARTICLES

THE HAUNTED RUINS OF EUROPE

The spectres of famine and despair vie with the spirit of the little man along the trail of armed victory. Maclean's managing editor reports from the scene

W. A. IRWIN May 15 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

THE HAUNTED RUINS OF EUROPE

The spectres of famine and despair vie with the spirit of the little man along the trail of armed victory. Maclean's managing editor reports from the scene

W. A. IRWIN May 15 1945

THE HAUNTED RUINS OF EUROPE

The spectres of famine and despair vie with the spirit of the little man along the trail of armed victory. Maclean's managing editor reports from the scene

W. A. IRWIN

LONDON (By Cable)—Two months in Britain and on the fringe of liberated Europe have convinced this reporter that the peace is going to be as hard to win as the war, if not harder.

As I write Allied armor is roaring through western Germany. The flowering almonds are blooming at Kew, and for eight days running neither rocket nor V-bomb have smitten that well-known locality, “Southern England.” Victory is in the air and the people of this battered but dauntless city, for the first time since the war began, sense—almost incredulously —the end of their long ordeal.

Democracy’s cause in Europe is on the eve of triumphant military vindication. And yet, as Nazi tyranny totters to a terrible and almost terrifying doom, it becomes increasingly clear that democracy’s cause in Europe is still contronted by one of the gravest crises in modern history.

Europe needs food and there is not enough food. Europe needs shelter and there is not enough shelter. Europe needs clothing and there is not enough clothing. Europe needs transport and transport still marches to war. Europe needs security and, having experienced the insensate forces loosed by this war, wonders if security is a mirage.

Europe needs faith—and Europe doubts.

Not that the picture is all dark. Far from it. Shining through the crazy kaleidoscope that is this war’s aftermath is the astonishing capacity of the little people everywhere to endure unimaginable disaster.

You meet them in London: the room waiter of your hotel, immaculate and aloof in starched shirt and black tie. It takes him days to unbend but he does: “Yes, it did get pretty bad in our borough. We had

41 V-bombs. My sister and her baby just disappeared in one of them. All we found was some bits of hair. Will you have breakfast as usual in the morning, sir?”

Or the gay and charming girl theatrical publicity agent. No sign of suffering there. But you’re wrong. She’s been bombed out three times. “Yes, I was badly hurt in one of them. Mother was killed. I was buried 16 hours. I still jump if somebody drops a teacup.”

Or the suave and polished Chelsea doctor who collects jade and rare prints. He won the O.B.E. Why? He spent two hours one night sawing off the head of a dead bomb victim so that he could amputate the leg of a survivor and get him out from under a girder. He had room only to lie on his side and use one arm. The building was on fire above him and, as he worked, firemen had to douse the doctor wdth water to keep his clothing from burning.

You meet them on the scene of a rocket incident in a working-class district in Southern England. It’s not many hours since death descended from the heavens without warning. Along High Street white-aproned clerks are sweeping up shattered glass as if it were all in the day’s work. Shoppers swarm in the windowless stores. Around the corner a block-wide scar marks the centre of the explosion. A few hours ago that rubble was 14 homes. Now workmen turn over the debris for a second time, still looking for the missing. A soldier and his sister tug futilely at their bed clothing sticking from a pile of bricks. Their mother’s body has not been found.

Everywhere lies a sickly white coating of plaster

dust; its acrid smell hangs heavy in the air. (When a blast drives it into your skin it takes days to get it out.) Radiating from that scrofulous blotch are long lines of battered houses—hundreds of them. Those close in are hopelessly smashed; farther out 200 workmen are even now patching and mending, covering roofs with tarpaulins and filling in empty window spaces. (There are 14,000 houses in this municipality —10,000 have been damaged.) Mobile canteens, ambulances, utility repair men, civil defense men and billeting officers—everywhere you look somebody is trying to set something to rights, with that curious unemotional deliberateness which seems so typically English.

You enter one of those houses with the bashed-in fronts. The front parlor is a madman’s clutter of broken possessions but the family carries on in a midget dining room and kitchen. Two older girls tell how it happened. They laugh. Even the three-yearold has a smile for the stranger. “Yesterday,” says the mother, “we was tidying up all noice for our boy from Malta.” And she adds wistfully, “Bit of a mess now, it is. But ’e’s lucky, ’e is. Been away three years and one of the first to get leave.”

Outside, on the street, you talk to a 12-year-old schoolgirl whose head is swathed in bandages. Shyly she admits she’d gone back to school that morning, injuries, bandaged head and all. You think of your own youngsters and you want to cry, not because of the disaster and suffering, but because of an overwhelming awareness of the guts and glory that are the attributes of your fellow man.

And this awareness persists as you move, through the backwash of war, from country to country. It persists in Holland, where neither near-starvation nor merciless tyranny were able to break the spirit of a stubborn breed. In Antwerp, where V-bomb and rocket have worked terrible havoc. In all the towns and cities of the West which have had to endure slaughter from on high.

Yes, life does go on and economies do exhibit astonishing powers of recovery after disaster.

Nevertheless, I repeat: democracy’s cause in Western Europe faces one of its gravest crises in modern history.

Consider the case of Suzette. Suzette is a Parisienne,

dark, petite. She was Continued on page 51

Continued from page 11

secretary of a correspondent I met in Paris. The war was hard on Suzette and she got tuberculosis. Last January, when Paris was practically without fuel, she decided to go to her father’s home in Brittany. Once there she discovered it in ruins so she decided to return to Paris. It took her days to get a permit for train travel. She finally rode to Paris with 28 other people in an unheated compartment meant for eight. The journey took 12 hours, and three women fainted on the way.

In Paris her doctor told Suzette she must go to a sanitarium in the south of France if she wanted to live. She tried to get another rail permit to travel but failed. Ultimately the correspondent got her a lift with an American general driving south and she did get to the sanitarium in the Pyrenees. But a few days before I met him my correspondent friend had received a letter from Suzette in which she said she must get back to Paris because the only food at the sanitarium was bread and dried bean soup.

Superficially Paris itself seems little damaged. Some of the industrial suburbs were bombed but the Paris the tourist knows remains almost untouched and as beautiful as ever. There are no taxis and no buses run in the city proper. The Metro operates, but half its stations are closed to save fuel. Opera, theatres and night clubs are jammed full. The boulevards still try to put on a brave show, though the women’s fantastically ugly hat and hair styles suggest that all is not well in the home of style.

And neither it is, for the simple brutal fact is that in the eighth month of liberation Paris has not enough to eat, to wear, to burn, or to operate its factories. And what is true of Paris is true of much of France and to a greater or lesser degree, varying with local circumstances, of Belgium and Holland.

A reasonably good food ration runs about 2,500 to 2,600 calories per person a day. Two thousand calories is usually accepted as a minimum below which health cannot be maintained for any considerable period. Southern Holland came out from under German occupation on a ration of 700 calories; in February it was up to 1,775. In March Belgium’s was 1,555. In February the ration for France was 1,220 after skidding from 1,730 last October and 1,400 in December.

Britain’s ration is 2,900 calories a day; Canada’s and the United States’ about 3,400.

Food—an Explosive Issue

Do you wonder that food is front page news in Europe, that it is political tinder now and is almost certain to become political dynamite in the months to come? Thus far both the French and Belgians say they bear no ill will toward their more favored Allies and they are thankful for such supplies as the military have been able to release to them. Winning the war, they say, must come first, but it’s not easy to wait patiently when you know that:

Infant mortality in France is up 40% above the pre-war rate.

Typhoid in France has doubled and diphtheria has trebled.

Tuberculosis in Paris has gone up 48%.

The meat ration has been reduced to less than two ounces a week in Paris— and chances are you don’t get it.

The soap ration is less than one ounce a month.

The egg ration is one every three months—if you can get it.

Coffee, even in the form of roasted acorns, is almost unobtainable.

Salt is one dollar a pound.

And it does not make it any easier when you know that if you had money you could buy almost anything on the black market, at prices which are utterly fantastic. For instance, if you are in Paris and know the ropes you can buy: butter at $8 to $10 a pound; eggs at $4.30 a dozen; pork at $3.50 a pound; coffee at $25 a pound; tea at $30; gasoline at $9 a gallon; cigarettes at $3 for 20; a pair of shoes with wooden soles for $50; a woollen dress for $160 and a man’s suit for $220.

The Brussels black market is even more fantastic than that of Paris. There, for three months, ration tickets were practically useless and almost everybody lived on the black market. That is now changed but, as an undersecretary of state said, “Monsieur, if you have the money you can buy anything, anything at all, in Brussels.”

But you do pay. I know one chap who was invited to a dinner in Brussels that ran the gamut from oysters through several meat courses, including roast turkey, and lasted eight hours. It cost 30,000 francs for 12, roughly, $62 a plate. I met another who took two friends to a black market lunch in Paris and paid a bill of $140. One morning I went into a flower shop in Paris with a friend who wanted to pay his respects to his dinner hostess of the night before. A potted azalea in full bloom caught his eye. At home it might have been worth $4. Here it was 5,000 francs, roughly, $100. My friend settled for a rather frowsy basket of carnations at $30. That night it cost us $24 to travel four miles in an ancient one-horse cab which was the only available transport after the subway shut down.

Some Luxuries Abound

You soon learn not to be startled at any contrast, no matter how incongruous. Glassware, fine pottery, exquisite lace such as we haven’t seen in Canada in years, even orchids, sell at fairly reasonable prices in Brussels because there’s a plentiful supply and no means of export. But talk to our ambassador, Hon. W. F. A. Turgeon, and you soon discover one of his principal worries is where his next meal is coming from.

In Paris there’s plenty of jewellery for sale at fabulous prices. You can even buy real silk, say a simple little blouse at $40. But last year France produced only 48,000 sheets where normally she produces 40 millions; less than a million and a half suits of women’s underwear where normally she produces 28 millions. The reason? Her textile mills were able to get only one tenth their normal supply of fibres.

Paris in March had almost a normal bread ration but out at the abattoirs by La Port Villette you discovered that the previous week’s run of cattle was 50 head where normally it is 15,000. And yet in Normandy in midwinter, where there was almost no bread, they were butchering milk cows because there was no feed for them. You see there was no beet pulp available from local sugar factories because there was no coal for the factories because there was no transport for the coal.

All of which is part of the crisis brew which stews across the Channel.

The prime cause of the dislocation, of course, is the priority which prosecution of the war has over everything else. Military transport is magnificent. Military supply is magnificent. The sight and sound of convoys thundering toward the Wesel triangle during the

buildup for the Rhine crossing is something I’ll never forget.

Our armies have worked marvels in engineering repairs to battered rail and road systems. But these repairs are primarily for the benefit of our armies and not of civilian economies through which they happen to be operating.

The shortage of shipping is atiother major cause of difficulty and this has been aggravated by the fact that the war schedule went awry. It is now believed that Allied planning was based on the premise that the war with Germany would end last November and that pressure on Atlantic shipping would begin to ease as pressure in the Pacific began to move toward its peak. Instead, both operations roared into high together, and the strain on shipping became more intense than ever.

The Belgian Government., for instance, says that if it could get 10 shiploads of general food cargo a month and the use of one ship to bring fats and edible oils from the Congo it could maintain a daily food ration of

2.000 calories. Belgium still has ships in the Allied pool but at the time of writing she had not been able to get her 10 ships a month.

France, too, needs imports, both of food—particularly fats—and of raw materials, but her problem at the moment is primarily one of internal dislocation resulting from the chaotic state of transport and lack of really effective control over food production and collection.

France came through liberation with 3,100 rail and highway bridges destroyed. I’m told that in the 300 miles between the Marne and the Rhine there is not a single major bridge or viaduct which has not been blown up. Before the war France had 19,000 locomotives. Now, by Herculean effort, she has got

6.000 into working order but of these our armies are using 2,400. That leaves civilians a little less than a fifth of the number they had before the war. France now has only 200,000 freight cars, as against half a million before the war, and of these our armies are using half.

But when it comes to destruction one has to go to Germany to see what it really means. True, Britain has had some half million houses destroyed or made useless and another four millions damaged; and London, behind the façade of the West End, is a grievously wounded city.

Reich a Huge Bomb Crater

But it is the madmen who invented total war who have come closest to reaping total destruction.

Cleve, former northern anchor of the Siegfried Line, is a fair, if minor, sample. In a city somewhat smaller than Oshawa I doubt if there’s a habitable building—certainly I saw none. Here and there the drunken skeleton of a house still stands, with its contents spilling obscenely into the street. But most of it, having been blasted flat, just isn’t there any more.

And all this, I was told, happened in one night, most of it in 45 minutes of concentrated bombing.

For a larger sample take a look at Cologne. I wasn’t there but I’ve seen motion pictures and stills of it and I’ve talked to men who have been there. Once it was a city about the size of Toronto. Now it looks as if a jagged-edged scythe had swept across the city, slicing off the tops of all its buildings so that their contents ran out as honey runs out of sliced honeycomb. All that’s left is that gaunt and empty comb, mile after mile of it, with the cathedral still standing miraculously at its centre. Of the original

700.000 or 800,000 inhabitants only

100.000 remain in a belt of more or less habitable buildings around the city’s rim. The rest have fled—or died.

And so it is all across the great cities of Europe, from Antwerp to Stalingrad, from Leningrad and Warsaw to Belgrade and Budapest. The Ruhr, industrial heart of the Continent, is literally in ruins.

The significance of what’s happening in Germany is only now beginning to be dimly realized. Over great areas the very elements, not only of material civilization but of political order and social cohesion, are disappearing before our eyes. And all around the economic and political crater that yesterday was Hitler’s Reich lies an area of blast and dilapidation that in greater or less degree comprises almost the entire Continent.

Nothing like this has happened before in all the wars of Europe’s history.

On the walls of battered Rhineland villages through which I drove recently were chalked these slogans, in letters two feet high: “Better Death Than Tyranny”; “We Believe in Victory”; “Command Us, Führer. We Will Follow.”

Theirs has been the death; ours the victory. But we still have to translate victory into peace. And it won’t be easy.

The Two Worlds

Two sharply contrasting scenes leap vividly to my mind’s eye. The first is in Bedburg, Germany, on a miserable raw rainy March day. Here, concentrated in grounds and buildings of Germany’s second largest lunatic asylum, are 10,000 German civilians, men, women and children. Not far away, in a casualty clearing station, Canadian wounded gasp for life as blood plasma from their homeland brings them succor. The Germans are a docile lot of Herrenvolk. Here two women slosh through mud with a great soup kettle. Over there 30 men heave on an enormous wagon half

filled with potatoes. They’ve manhandled it in from the country, having no animal or mechanical transport.

It’s a curious sensation to stand on enemy soil and gaze on your enemy in defeat. And frightening, too. For as two of us in uniform walked through street after street, German men doffed their hats and bowed their heads in servile abasement. Even when we ignored them the genuflection continued, and if we so much as flicked an eyelash in their direction some of them would almost grovel. How can you make people like that understand the way a democrat looks at life?

The other scene is at a soccer stadium in the East End of London, down beyond the dock area which took such a terrible beating in the Blitz. Rockets were then still falling on Southern England. The place is packed. The main stand is a bit battered, having lost its roof. Only rusty girders remain, riblike against the sky. Down in the corner near where we stand huge blocks of concrete have been piled higgledy-piggledy by high explosive and out of the corner of your eye you can see a whole row of blasted houses.

But the field’s in perfect shape. West Ham is playing Aldershot and it’s a great day for the home team, which smells a win. The crowd is typical East End—gorblimys on every hand in accents such as Shakespeare never dreamed of — and it is vociferously demonstrative too. As West Ham forwards press an attack that looks like a sure goal it lets out a roar that echoes for blocks around.

There’s the shot! It’s in! No, it isn’t! The Aldershot goalie has made a sensational save, barely managing to top the ball over the bar.

Then, like a drumfire of hail on taut canvas, sounds West Ham’s salute to an opponent’s prowess. No perfunctory handclaps these but whacking strong gorblimy handclaps, which start from the heart.

Somehow or other I can’t help but feel that the gentlemen from West Ham will be a stabilizing factor on the European scene.