Saturday, March 23, 2024

May 1944: Arthur gets an armband, and blows up a bridge (deleted chapter)

Sometimes when there are gaps in the research, an author has to make some guesses, and in this case, I guessed really, really wrong.  

At the time, I hadn't been able to find any info on where Grandpa's FFI unit got their armbands, so I made 3 guesses:

  1. I thought maybe they sewed them in-house. 
  2. Maybe their commanding officer, Dr. Jean Planas, designed the armband himself.  How cool would that be?
  3. Sometimes, I placed events (when I didn't know the date) to fill up thin parts of the novel, so I depicted the armbands in May, during the lead-up to D-Day.

Now, here's the real story about the armbands. Contrary to my previous assumptions, they weren't made in-house or designed by Dr. Jean Planas. In fact, there were two designs, one from London, and one from Algeria. Grandpa's armband is the Algerian design, and they were delivered to the FFI units several weeks after D-Day.  Some FFI units did resort to sewing their own armbands when there weren't enough to go around, but these were usually the simpler design that came from London. There's no evidence to suggest that Grandpa's unit was involved in this DIY armband production.

Source: Museum of the Resistance in Ligne
A pack of undistributed armbands packed for airdrop

I also am pretty sure that got Grandpa's role in the bridge-blowing mission wrong. It's true that the FFIs were tasked with causing chaos on D-Day by destroying bridges and cutting off communication lines. But did he personally participate in blowing up a bridge? 

Well, no, I really don't think he did.  He never said as much in his writings or oral testimony, and when he discussed it at all, he described it as being a task that his unit was responsible for, and nowhere does he say, "I blew up a bridge," or even, "I helped blow up a bridge."

But because I assumed he had, I wrote a chapter in which he did blow up a bridge.  

And when I read Dr. Michel Planas's history of their FFI unit, and read a bit more about D-Day, I realized I had also gotten the timing wrong—the bridge was destroyed on the night of June 5-6, 1944 (not in May).

Here's how Dr. Michel Planas described it in 1955, and I tend to think he got it right - the date makes sense, and while he wasn't present, his father and older brother were:

The Plan Vert had started on the night of June 5 to 6 ... Its objectives: RN 7 between FIANCEY and PORTES, the Voulte bridge.

A group commanded by my father assisted by Richard ... had left to adjust the explosive charges which would blow up the culvert of the PARIS-MARSEILLE railway line, a few tens of meters from the hamlet of LA PAILLASSE where there was a small German garrison...

While the group is at work, a German sentry guarding the railway approaches to piss against a haystack where four of ours were hidden to cover the plastic [explosive] handlers with their weapons. A 20-minute pencil [detonator] is set up and the group's return is uneventful.

Not only that, there is a story there.  Even though Michel wasn't there, he tells the story, and it feels ... personal, somehow.  My grandfather on the other hand, didn't include blowing up a bridge as part of a story.  There are no details that suggest that he was there:

I have omitted to write that on the 6th of June, the D-day, especially appointed groups blew up railroad bridges all over France. Our company blew up a bridge at Portes-lés-Valence. The traffic was stopped everywhere. After a few days, Germans repaired the damage. 
-- Yellow Legal Pad Stories, 1974


     I started working for the Secret Army just prior to January 1st, 1944. And the job consisted of blowing up bridges, and transformers feeding manufacturing plants which worked for the German armed forces, and the … And to the telephone lines, telegraph lines, etcetera. So it was one activity. 

     All right, so twenty-four hours before the landing, we got a personal message which was the same to ALL underground, all over France. We all understood this message, meaning that this message was a verse of a French poet, Verlaine … But the message meant: We are landing within the twenty four hours. They didn’t – we didn’t know where they would land. Pas-de-Calais, or elsewhere. But, the landing is imminent; will happen within 24 hours. 

     They let us know because the meaning for us was: sever ALL German communications, blow ALL the bridges, all the telephone lines, stop and engage German troops EVERYWHERE, so they couldn’t move for twenty … that’s why they let us know. 

--Oral Testimony, 1988

After I read Michel Planas's account, and then re-read Grandpa's stories, I realized that there was no evidence Arthur had taken part in bridge demolition, that I'd probably made an incorrect assumption.  So, I cut the chapter entirely.    But it was a fun chapter, so I'm re-printing it here in all its erroneous glory.

Also, this chapter was cut very early on and was never revised, and is little more than a rough-draft. 

Arthur gets an armband and blows up a bridge

--Mid May, 1944--

     On her next visit, Jeanne brought blue, white, red, and black fabric, buckles, thread, and a rubber stamp with ink. Arthur had been listening to the BBC to prepare his daily summary of the news when she arrived, but he heard her come in. She always brought interesting news, so he stood in the doorway of the office, with his headphones on, still listening, as he watched to see who she would talk to.  Usually, it was Dr. Planas, but sometimes it was Arthur.  

    This time, it was neither. Instead, she went to the company seamstress, whose workshop was in one end of the main room, just on the other side of the office wall. Jeanne spent a few minutes talking with the seamstress and the two men who knew how to sew as Dr. Planas looked on.  

    The seamstress sketched something on a piece of paper, pointed to it, and talked as Dr. Planas and the others listened. Dr. Planas nodded.  Then she took her tape measure and measured several men’s arms.

    They were making armbands.

    The seamstress got a straight edge and began making a pattern, which she cut out and handed to the two men, and they got to work cutting pieces of fabric.  When the pieces were cut, she started assembling them on the old treadle sewing machine.  The armband only took her a few minutes to make, and when she held it up for Dr. Planas’s final approval, Arthur could see that it was a small rectangle of fabric 20 or 25 centimeters long by about 10 centimeters tall.  One side was blue, the other was red, and separating them was a white diamond.  A black Cross of Lorraine was in the center of the diamond.  There were straps on each end. A small buckle was affixed to the end of one.  

    Dr. Planas smiled and nodded.  The men got started cutting many additional pieces, making hundreds of them this time, not just one

    The seamstress flipped the completed armband over, inked the rubber stamp, and stamped something on the back.  Then she handed it to Dr. Planas. He wrote something on the back, then strapped it to his left upper arm.  

    The American, General Eisenhower and his staff had gone on the BBC to explain that the armband was a uniform and that anyone caught wearing it should be treated as any other soldier.  But, their unit had heard through Jeanne and others returning home from leave, that the Germans and the Milice considered the Resistance to be civilians, and therefore terrorists. Instead of imprisoning them as prisoners of war, they were summarily executed.  Shot immediately.

    Should we have gone into hiding again?

    No. He wanted to fight rather than flee this time. He hoped that by fighting the Nazis, he helped raise Liliane’s and Roma’s and his own chances of surviving, that they might defeat the enemy before the enemy caught up with them.  Because the Germans — with their efficiency and cleverness and determination — would someday catch up with them. 

    Therefore, they needed to be defeated before that happened.  He finally understood why Paul joined the RAF. He hoped his brother was alive. It had been three years since he’d last heard from him.

    Three days later, Arthur got his own armband.  Someone had already written 2nd Battalion, 4th Company on the back, and he wrote his own codename “Biscuit” there as well.  

    Two things happened in the third week of May.  

    The first was that three non-commissioned officers from the French army joined their company. They had escaped from the prisoner of war camps, and joined the Resistance.  All such trained soldiers were being dispersed among the Resistance units, to help train the civilians to be soldiers as best they could. Now, Dr. Planas was no longer the only experienced soldier in their unit.  He set them to training the men, and leading the detachments that would soon be going out.

    The second thing that happened was that the Allies broadcast a message to Arthur’s company to put Plan Vert into effect, to disrupt the rail system. They needed to begin making it difficult for the Nazis to send troops to where the invasion was going to be.  Dr. Planas didn’t know where the invasion was going to be, but he guessed it would be in the north of France.  

    There was to be no airdrop that night, so Arthur and his team were assigned to be part of a detachment that would destroy a rail bridge near Valence.  

    The non-com, who was codenamed Puppy (Arthur decided it must have been an ironic decision) would be leading the mission, demonstrating how to use the plastic explosives.

    Puppy held up a long thin tube, a little thicker than a pencil. “This is a number ten pencil detonator.” He pointed to a package of putty sitting on a table nearby. “That is plastique.  It is very stable, and you do not need to handle it especially carefully.”

    “How do you use them?” André asked.

    “I’m getting to that.  First, affix the plastique to whatever you are going to blow up.  Next, you take the pencil detonator, and crush this end — there is a glass vial of acid inside — with pliers or stomp on it. That releases the acid, which begins corroding a wire holding back a striker.”

    “What kind of acid?” Arthur asked.

    “Cupric chloride,” he answered. “Check the inspection hole. If it’s unobstructed, remove the safety strip, jam the end of the detonator into the plastique, and get out.”

    “What happens? How does it work?” André asked.

    “When the wire breaks from the acid, it releases a spring-loaded striker, which hits the percussion cap and ignites it. That is what causes the explosion.”

    “How long do we have?” Arthur asked.

    Puppy held up a pack of the pencil detonators. “These cause an explosion in about 10 minutes.”

    “About?” André asked.

    “What if the inspection hole is obstructed?” Marcel said at the same time.

    “Yes, plus or minus a minute or perhaps two. The times aren’t exact and are influenced by temperatures and other conditions. Obstructed means the striker wire has already broken, and the striker is resting against the safety strip, obstructing the inspection hole. Discard it, and get another.”

    They hiked in silence to the bridge. When they got there, Puppy sent them to scout the area, ensuring there was no one nearby to interfere, then divided them into three groups. A group was assigned to each end of the bridge, and the third - comprised of men who could swim, were to set charges in the center of the bridge at the water line.  Arthur could swim, so he was assigned to the center group. Andre was going to set the charges just above the waterline.  They crept down the slope, to the water’s edge. 

    Arthur and André took off their boots and socks, tied them together, and hung them around their necks.  They waded out to the center of the bridge. Fortunately, the water was only waist-deep, and slow-moving.  

    Marcel and one other man remained on the side of the river, with their Stens at ready.

    “Where should I place this?” André whispered.

    “On this beam.” Arthur quietly smacked the beam in question. “It’s the main support.  Place it on the inside, so the blast can hopefully get the main support beam on the other side,” Arthur replied.  

    Arthur held the detonators while Andre placed the putty against the support beam and secured it with a cloth strap. Arthur whistled, and he heard Marcel repeat it. That told the other two teams to arm their explosives. They wanted the two on the ends to explode first, then the center one to go off just after. Arthur and André waited.  

    A moment later, Arthur heard a whistle.  “Now,” he whispered and handed André a detonator.

    Andre squeezed the end with pliers — they could hear the crunch of glass.  He then held it up so it was silhouetted against the crescent moon as he peered through the inspection hole.  “It’s good,” he muttered.  

    André jammed the business end of the detonator into the plastic, then wiggled the metal tube so that it was also held securely by the cloth strap.

    Arthur and André crept out of the river, and walked barefoot to a safe distance, then sat and put their boots back on.  The rest of the detachment joined them, and Puppy helped Arthur up.  

    The detachment walked along the river bottom until a bend in the river provided cover from the explosion.  

    Puppy glanced at his watch. “Let’s see if Biscuit the engineer picked the right support beam,” he said grinning.

    Arthur felt his eyebrows go up. “I didn’t pick the wrong one. But what would happen if I did?”

    “The blast weakens the supports and the bridge doesn’t collapse until a train is on it.” Puppy shrugged. “Either way, it’s a success.”

    “What if someone is aboard the train?” 

    “If German soldiers are aboard, all the better.”

    “What if there are civilians?” Arthur asked.

    “Collateral damage.” Puppy didn’t smile. 

    Arthur decided it was better to take the bridges down without harming anyone.  He didn’t care (much) if Wehrmacht soldiers died, but the idea of harming innocent people in a country that had sheltered him didn’t sit well.

    They stood waiting and those with watches watched the minute hands by moonlight. Arthur had to carefully tilt his watch to catch enough light to read it.  Eight minutes after Arthur waded from the river, the first charge exploded, followed very quickly by another.  One minute after that, the charge at the waterline exploded.  Arthur peaked around the bend and grinned when he saw the bridge collapse into the river.  He drew back when debris from the third explosion began raining down.  

    “That will take them some time to rebuild,” Puppy commented. “It should still be down whenever the Allies invade us.”

    They began the long hike back to headquarters, and Arthur smiled the whole way. Blowing up bridges was fun. 


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