Politics In Khaki
Communiques, liberation, reinforcements and Ralston all carried their own special kind of fireworks
COL. DICK MALONE
Fireworks Behind the Front
ONE of my major worries before D-Day was the text of the official communique announcing the assault. In the Italian campaign there had been an unpleasant incident when the first communique simply referred to “British Troops” in connection with the landing. Although Canadian troops were in the first assault waves on that occasion, the fact could not be mentioned in the press the first few days because the communique did not specify Canadians. The Canadian authorities were very put out over this, and before the matter could be set to rights Prime Minister King had to appeal personally to Roosevelt and Churchill. The British adopted an air of injured innocence and protested
This article Is an extract from Col. Malone’s forthcoming book, “Missing From The Record.” Collins, Toronto.
that surely the word “British” included Canadians also, as we were part of the Empire. As I had been appointed Chief Canadian Public Relations Officer in the field I was anxious to avoid any repetition of this when the Normandy show went in. Accordingly I broached the subject well in advance. I asked that I be shown the advance text of the D-Day communique. I managed to get a copy and found, as suspected, that it read: “General Eisenhower announces that British and American Troops have effected a landing . . .”
Since Canadians were to form a large part of the assault troops, I said their nationality should be mentioned specifically. There was a slight argument, but when I indicated I was prepared to follow the matter up to the top if necessary I was assured that it would be fixed up.
As a further precaution, I wrote an official letter recording my understanding of the agreement.
Should there be any doubt that the word Canadian would be included, I requested that I be informed at once, as I must be in a position to assure our Prime Minister during his coming visit to England. The reply assured me Canada would be adequately referred to in the first announcement.
Two days before D-Day I thought—surely they would not sell me out? At the risk of making a complete nuisance of myself I went to Army Group Headquarters to check once more. I was told everything had been taken care of, but I was not shown a copy of the official communique. I went to Pat Saunders, British chief censor, and asked for a copy. The communique now simply said, “Allies.” Not that I could object to this, but a separate press guidance would be issued to read: “General Eisenhower announces that American, British and Empire troops effected a landing . . .”
There was no other Empire formation taking part except the Canadians and it would be just as simple to use the word Canadian in place of Empire. Had it not been that I had repeatedly encountered such practices in many of my dealings with the British, I might have been disposed to dismiss this example as the result of mere thoughtlessness.
There was now no time to deal with the matter diplomatically. I reminded Pat Saunders that formations of only three nations were going in on the initial assault, that Canada was one of them, and indicated that unless I was given complete assurance immediately that the word “Canada” would be used I would cable Ottawa.
Pat smiled and said, “Well, accidents can happen. It will at least get done quickly this way,” and taking his pencil he crossed out the word Empire and wrote in Canada. “You have my word,” he said, “this is the text I shall put on the wire, but don’t say anything further about it till afterward.” On no occasion had Pat Saunders ever let me down, and he didn’t this time.
Liberation of Paris
A FEW details of how a small Canadian group of correspondents got into Paris are worth recording. When the entry into Paris appeared imminent I had packed off a small convoy to set up a little press camp in the Third American Army area. This entailed a long circular drive back through Caen, Bayeaux, Avranches, Laval, and up past Le Mans. I was delayed on the other front for a few days but by driving all one night joined the group on what I expected to be the great day. Our small party pushed on up to Chartres. The American column ahead was still being delayed by German resistance, and that night reports over Radio Paris indicated that the Maquis had risen in the city, were fighting the enemy in the rear, and had liberated a few sections of the city. For a while we feared that we would miss the show.
The next morning came reports that a French armored column, under General Leclerc, was driving into Paris from the south. It was only a rumor, but our group raced up this route and as we went we gathered reports that the French tanks were fighting ahead and that there was sniping and local actions on either flank. The Germans were reported to be holding the bridges over the Seine. It would be ridiculous to attempt staying the night in the outskirts of Paris with German patrols still active behind us. The built-up area we were in was a likely spot for snipers.
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Politics In Khaki
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While I was debating, a French civilian came up to me and in very bad English asked what part of Canada L came from. He then explained that he was a Canadian soldier from the last war who had married a French girl and settled in the country at the end of the war. He had almost forgotten how to speak English. He told me in very exact detail what the situation was in the city and how the battle was going. I asked him where he had got his facts. “Oh,” he replied, “I was talking to a chap on the telephone a few minutes ago who called me from the centre of the city.” “Is the telephone system still working?” “Oh yes,” he said, “the Germans have forgotten to cut it.”
1 went to a nearby shop. As my friend had forecast, I had no difficulty in calling up the Scribe Hotel. When 1 explained who I was, the man at the other end of the line dashed off'and produced a Monsieur Regamey, agent general for the Canadian National Railways, who had lived in Paris through the war. He was so surprised to hear a Canadian voice over the wire he could hardly talk.
Although there was still fighting going on around the Opera just a block from the hotel, Regamey said the hotel itself was free of Germans. If we could get in as far as the Scribe, he said, we would be quite safe for the night, hut he couldn’t advise us how to get across the river. Was it wise to risk the safety of the party, trying to get into the city that night for a story? We could not stay where we were. Matthew Halton of CBC came over and 1 told him the situation. Taking up the telephone Halton called information. He asked to be connected with the headquarters
of the underground army. A few seconds later Matt was jabbering French to the Maquis. He asked if it was possible to get into the city. Imagine our surprise when he was told to stay where we were. They would send out a guide who knew a safe route across the river.
Less than an hour later a large civilian car came roaring down the road with a charming young French girl riding on the running hoard. In her right hand she carried a .45 automatic and on her arm was a brassard showing the Cross of Lorraine . . . the symbol of the Maquis. We had expected a much more sinister figure, a furtive gent with a heard, perhaps, at least something more like a brigand than this lovely young girl wearing a pretty white silk blouse and her make-up in the latest style. This girl was to prove a great assistance to the Canadian group in the; next few days, and while 1 recall that her first name was Christiane, her last name has slipped my memory.
Christiane was not only willing to guide us through to the Scribe hut also told us that she was a friend of my Monsieur Regamey and was in (lie same Maquis detachment as M. Regamey’s son.
After twisting down a few side streets in pursuit of Christiane’s car, and avoiding corners where the snipers were ! shooting it out with the Maquis, we | arrived at the Scribe. M. Regamey was waiting to receive us and dragged us through the wildly excited spectators into the cocktail lounge, where lu: announced it was open house. Regamey helped the waiters drag out cases of champagne.
I fought my way through the crowd to the front desk and asked for the i manager. Behind the desk I spotted i
the smiling face of an English press officer. By some means of his own he had managed to get into the city as well and had reached our prearranged rendezvous at the Scribe. A few i minutes were taken up with the man! ager while l signed a requisition form taking over the hotel and instructing that a censors’ office, transmission room and copy room should be established without delay.
My next move was to get our signal sergeant, Brown, to hook up his portable wireless set on the roof of the hotel and try to get London. 1 rounded up half a dozen Canadian correspondents and told each to hang out a story. Again luck was with us, as by nine o’clock that night we had been able to make contact with London and five of the Canadian stories got through. Again we had been able to get a beat and file the first dispatches direct from Paris. I am told an English or American correspondent had been able to work his way partly into the city earlier in the afternoon, but he had not been able to file his story out of Paris, but had to motor all the way back to Chartres in order to find a wireless set or plane to transmit his copy.
There was little if any food available in the hotel, but before going to bed we shared a few packages of K rations with Christiane and a few of her fellow members of 1 he Maquis. Some sporadicfighting and sniping went on in the street outside most of the night, but we had our first stories out, so, locking my I door, I went to sleep that night without a care in the world. We had beaten the official liberation by one day.
Nazis’ Last Stand
An incident of some interest occurred two days later. 1 had been busy most of the time working with John Reading, an American colonel, in organizing a joint Allied press centre in the Scribe hotel. Since Paris would shortly become an American centre, 1 agreed to turn my requisition on the Scribe hotel over to Reading, for correspondents were now flocking into the city.
When Matt Halton suggested I go ; with Christiane and himself to witness an impromptu parade on the Champs 1 Elysées and the arrival of General de Gaulle at the Arc de Triomphe, I was glad to have an excuse to get away from the madhouse for a few hours. Climbing in one of our station wagons we foolishly tried to drive down the Champs Elysées. Any thought of driving through the crowded streets, however, soon had to be forgotten. We did manage to edge the car through a I few crowded blocks, but the French civilians were so wildly excited that for a minute it seemed that both the car and ourselves would be swamped in the jostling laughing throng. They clambered up on to the car roof, which began to cave in. Locking the car up we continued our way on foot.
As we made our way toward the ! Place de la Concorde we heard the rattle of machine gun fire from a nearby roof top. In another second members of the Maquis mingling with ; the crowds on the street had begun to ! return the fire with pistols and tommy guns.
At the corner where we stood five people were shot down, most of them women, and the mass began to panic in the face of thLs last desperate gesture by the group of Germans trapped on the roofs. We flattened ourselves against the wall of a nearby building and then, while flu* French ! tanks parked in the square turned their , guns on the roof tops, we worked our i way toward the massive door of the ■ large public building which shielded us. i 1 kicked on the doer until it was
opened a few inches by a French Marine guard inside. With the assistance of Halton we grabbed Christiane from the crowd and forced our way through the half-open door, which the guard slammed after us.
It was the Ministry of Marine building, and inside a French corporal was dashing about issuing grenades and arms to a dozen or more excited Marines. I asked the corporal where his officer was and we were directed up the large marble stairway in the main hall. Thinking we might be of some help, and at the same time wishing to obtain a safe view of the show, the three of us started up the stairs. Halfway up, where the stairs curved around past some enormous windows, we were once again greeted by machine gun bullets coming in the window from outside. We flattened out on the staircase and tried to compress our bodies below a six-inch steel baseboard.
Then, before we could move, additional firing broke out below us. This time it was the Marines below shooting up the well of the stairway. This was joined a second later by deafening blasts from a small mortar, which, for some unexplained reason, was also being fired inside the building. It was impossible to determine just whom everyone was firing at, but it was quite clear that the people outside were directing their attention against the snipers on the roof of the building in which we had sought shelter. When they had seen us running up the stairs they had fired through the windows at u.s.
We could not remain where we were, as shots continued to rip through the windows every few seconds, but 1 was greatly concerned about the possible actions of the excited French Marines down in the hall if we attempted to rush
back down. Just behind us there was a bend in the staircase, which formed an alcove for a small marble statue. Working our way crablike on our stomachs down to this small alcove, we were at last able to stand up and squeeze our bodies together into the shelter of the corner.
1 turned to look at Christiane, and asked if she was all right. To my surprise this gallant young lady of the .45 automatic, who had shown great bravery in the past few days, had lost every drop of color from her cheeks. Her hands were shaking and her face looked like chalk. To appear nonchalant during the din I offered her a cigarette, but she could not hold it between her lips.
Matt agreed that we should remain where we were for the moment, but asked what should we do if the Germans on the roof suddenly decided to escape and came rushing down the stairs from above. We agreed that if anyone attempted to run down the stairs it would he either Germans or collaborators trying to escape. As Matt was unarmed, it was therefore decided that 1 should use my pistol and shoot the first person attempting to descend.
Seldom have I felt in such a stupid position. With my pistol drawn, and hiding with a pretty blonde behind a marble statue, I was preparing to shoot anyone who appeared at the head of the stairs. For several minutes the firing continued. Then I noticed a man in civilian clothes coming down the stairs toward us. I had quite made up my mind to fire at once in such a circumstance, but for some unexplained reason I merely stood pointing my pistol at him and let him come down. I did nothing. With my gun still pointing at him, the man slowly walked down
past us. Matt turned on me furiously and asked, “Why didn’t you shoot?” I had no answer for him, 1 couldn’t even explain it myself. I might have at least halted him and asked his identity, but to shoot a man in this way seemed impossible. When the firing ciied down outside I said: “Come on, let’s get out of here and get Christiane a drink.”
On our way to the Scribe we learned that a few minutes earlier several shots had been fired at General de Gaulle as he visited Notre Dame.
Back at the Scribe, just as we were reaching out for our drinks, a swarthy young man darted in the door of the cocktail lounge. He glanced quickly around and strode over to our table.
1 was unable to catch the few words of French he spoke to Christiane. Then, to my amazement, he took off his jacket and threw it on the floor. His next action was to remove his tie and throw it into a far corner with a dramatic motion. Then, seizing Christiane’s large handbag, he opened it and took out her pistol.
Matt and I sat stupidly in our seats at his weird performance, and before we could make any objection this young friend of Christiane’s grabbed her double cognac and, knocking it back with one grand gulp, dashed out the door, his shirt collar open and the automatic in hand. This was too much . . . we had to get back to reality. 1 jumped up from my chair, but Christiane reached out to restrain me. While I asked her what the nonsense was all about, we heard the sound of several shots out on the street.
A few seconds later the young man reappeared. The automatic was still in ¡ his hand but he offered no explanation as he politely placed the weapon back in Christiane’s handbag. Paying no attention to Matt or myself he then put on his tie and jacket, reached out ' for Matt’s drink, tossed it off with a | grand gesture, bowed and left the room.
“It is nothing,” said Christiane. “He j is a comrade of mine in the Maquis. ¡ He saw a German disguised in civilian , clothes out on the street, and my friend j did not have a gun with him, so he j came in to borrow mine . . . that is j all.” I looked at Matt, who started to ! babble something about the soul of : France being reborn or other such j nonsense.
The dream was lasting too long, j Finishing my drink, 1 told them the big city was too much for me. My job here was finished. 1 would leave the next morning and try to get back through from Trun to Falaise. At least 1 would know whom we were supposed to be fighting there. I am still wondering why the Maquis man had to undress to kill a German.
Mission to Italy
During his visit with General Montgomery in England not long before D-Day, Prime Minister Mackenzie King is reported to have expressed the view that the Canadian Army’s reinforcement problem at that time was not causing him any worry. Apparently the Prime Minister shared the general view of the Allied Governments that the war would likely be over within three months after D-Day.
Substantial reinforcement pools had been built up in the Mediterranean some months earlier to sustain the ■ Canadian Corps in Italy, and the : figures of holdings in reinforcement depots for the European force made it appear that they would suffice. Estimates were based on expected casualty rates according to percentages determined during earlier campaigns.
Three flaws in these calculations showed up later. First, the estimated ¡
j percentages of expected casualties were badly out. Due to the nature of the fighting around and after Caen the casualties in infantry were much higher than expected.
Secondly, due to the involved system by which reinforcements had to be fed through a chain of holding units in England and Canada, together with the salvage stream for hospitals and the personnel completing various courses and schools, it was next to impossible to find out just what the total holdings were for the various aims at any one time.
The third flaw in Canada’s reinforcement calculations was that the Government was playing the odds too closely in its gamble on a short campaign.
As the three months’ period after D-Day drew to a close with the end still not in sight, Col. Ralston, then Minister of National Defense, became more and more uneasy over the dwindling reinforcement stream.
The official returns to the Department of National Defense still indicated that the total reinforcements overseas were adequate, but Ralston had become suspicious and no longer trusted official reports.
When the British air-borne attempt to cross the Rhine at Arnhem failed, and it became apparent that the war would carry on into the winter, Ralston felt he must get the story out first hand.
Telling the Prime Minister of his fears, he made plans to leave at once for Italy. His decision to visit Italy first was based on the possibility that some of the reinforcements earmarked for that campaign might be safely diverted to help out in western Europe. Before leaving he told the Prime Minister that if he found the situation as bad as he suspected it would mean only one thing—compulsory overseas service.
Within a matter of days Col. Ralston arrived at the group of reinforcement units in Italy. Brigadier Eric Haldenby -—like Ralston, a veteran of the previous war—was in charge of the group and is credited with breaking the full story to Ralston. In reply to Ralston’s questions, Haldenby is reported to have asked the minister whether he wished to have the truth or merely a report to back up the Government’s stand.
Ralston asked for the truth. The truth was that, far from being in a position to send some of their own reinforcements to western Europe, the two Canadian divisions in Italy were having reinforcement troubles of their ! own. This completely confirmed 1 Ralston’s suspicions, and he cabled Ottawa that he would fly to Brussels i and get the complete story from that ' theatre before returning, but that when he arrived back in Canada he would require an immediate Cabinet meeting.
The receipt of this signal indicated to Ralston’s Cabinet colleagues that overi seas conscription would be needed at j once.
I met Ralston at the airfield on his arrival in Brussels. It had been over a year since our meeting in Italy, and I noticed many changes in him. Much of his sparkle and good humor had disappeared and he could think or talk ! little else but the reinforcement problem. During the next few days the picture he got doubled his concern.
It was apparent that the Canadian Army, assuming it would have only ! normal wastage rates, might squeeze j through for another three months at I the most. But after that, unless the 1 size of our Army was reduced, the ' framework would collapse through lack of support from home.
But the main blow for Ralston was yet to come. During the next few days he learned the operational plan for the
Canadian Army in the immediate fir.ure. At that time—the fall of 1944—there had been no indication of the Germans’ imminent offensive against the Ardennes, and the Canadian Army was to take on the heavy task of clearing the west bank of the Rhine in some five or six weeks’ time. This would undoubtedly call for a very heavy drain on reinforcements, as the casualties for such an undertaking would be enormous. Certainly normal wastage rates would not apply and the heavy call for winter operations would undoubtedly fall once more on the infantry.
The night after Ralston received this disturbing news I was invited to Army headquarters for a small mess dinner that General Crerar was having for the Minister. Seldom have I seen Ralston so preoccupied as during that dinner. He hardly noticed what he was eating, and at times completely lost touch wish the conversation. When the lítale gathering broke up about 10.30, I was putting on my hat and coat preparatory to a drive through to Brussels, when Ralston caught my arm. He suggested l come over to his caravan in the park for a short talk wi:h him before leaving.
There was a single light burning in the blacked-out caravan, and the only source of heat was a small coal-oil heater which smoked away in one comer. To keep warm I kept my trench coat on, but Ralston appeared not to notice the cold and sat perched on the edge of the narrow bunk while we talked. It had been a long time since we had been able to talk quietly together and it was after three in the morning before I got on the road. Ralston was terribly despondent and lonely.
His mind was completely made up-— he would either force the Government to bring in full conscription on his return or he would resign. For months Ralston had been under almost continuous attack in the Canadian papers, who charged him with selling out on his own principles. They had dug up his conscription statements during the last war when he was serving as a battalion commander in action. They
claimed he had been false to his own beliefs.
“I am not very popular at home now,” Ralston told me. I said I knew what was being said by the press and the public, but what appeared to concern Ralston most was that he was at outs with his Cabinet colleagues.
Back in Canada, unknown to Ralston, forces had begun to realign immediately he left for Italy. The outcome of these moves is a matter of history now. Within a short time Ralston was out of the Government; McNaughton replaced him as Minister of National Defense.
On taking office McNaughton had gone on record that he didn’t think conscription was necessary. In a matter of weeks McNaughton was forced to reverse his stand completely, and advised the Government that ; conscription must he made effective at j once. With McNaughton behind them, : together with the terrific pressure from j the press and the public, the Cabinet felt able to take the step. They could now say to Quebec: “We tried to avoid it but they wouldn’t let us.”
McNaughton’s actions came as a dreadful blow to the men overseas. They knew how serious the reinforcement situation was and they couldn't believe their own General McNaughton, the father of the Canadian Army, would take the lead against conscription. His subsequent reversal again left them dumbfounded.
It has been said that McNaughton allowed himself to become involved in | politics and sided with the anticonj scriptionists partly for the purpose of vindicating his earlier loss of command of the Canadian Army. He would wish to turn the tables on Ralston, possibly, but it is hard to believe that McNaughton did not take on the task convinced j that he would be rendering a real j service to his beloved Army—mistaken ■ as this conviction may have been. Certainly in the final picture these two men, Ralston and McNaughton, contributed more than anyone else to the ! formation, training and organizing of the Canadian Army during the war. if ,