Ernest Hemingway likened the New Orleans built LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicles & Personnel) to "damned iron bathtubs" as his own LCVP - commanded by a young US Navy Lieutenant, Robert Anderson - headed relentlessly toward the increasingly smoke-shrouded Omaha Beach as a deadly assortment of high-explosive shells (fired from the guns of the old First World War battleships Texas, Arkansas, and Nevada) screamed overhead.
As Hemingway observed the beach activity through his field-glasses the pain in his head was excruciating. It was his own fault, he knew that, but to have gone back into hospital to have the fifty-seven stitches removed, as the doctor advised, would have meant missing the invasion.
And as he watched the almost continuous explosions of shells from the battleships hitting the German positions Hemingway vowed never again to take a car ride in a blacked-out London, especially with someone whose driving skills had proven to be inferior to their drinking skills. When the 1937 Humber Super Snipe ploughed into a huge steel water tank Hemingway had gone head first into the windscreen.
To try and ease the pain in his badly damaged head Hemingway took another slug of brandy
from a battered hip flask, then vomited violently over the side of the LCVP. Okay, doc, he thought, you're right, don't mix pain-killers with booze.
Only when he'd finished retching did he look again at the GIs, who knew well enough what was in store for them. Most of them just looked down at their feet, some prayed, other read letters from wives or girlfriends for the hundredth time, all of them carried packs weighing over 100 pounds, all of them were afraid.
Suddenly two German shells exploded alongside the hull of the LCVP, with the huge plumes of water soaking everyone on board.
Hemingway shouted to Anderson, and pointed:
" Bob, you're too far to the right, the church is over there, look. Bring her round to the left, Dog Green Sector is there."
Another couple of rounds came in close.
Anderson yelled to his Coxswain, Frank Currier of Saugus, Massachusetts:
" Get her the hell round and outta here, Frank. For Chrissakes get her outta here before we're all dead meat!"
As their LCVP lurched to starboard, then turned and ploughed back along its own wake, with the massive 225hp engine roaring and shaking at full-throttle, Hemingway knew this was unlike anything he'd ever witnessed in Italy, Greece, or Spain.
A much calmer Anderson then put his hand on Currier's shoulder.
" Okay, Frank, bring her round again and then aim straight in between the church and that wooded inlet to your left."
Frank Currier did as he was bid and pointed the LCVP like a missile, opened up the throttle and went straight in. They hit the rise of the beach at speed with the ramp crashing down immediately.
Officers and NCOs started barking orders as murderous MG38 and MG42 German machine-gun fire ripped into the GIs trying to disembark, with many wounded and dead before they could move an inch. Many clambered over the sides of the LCVP to an almost certain death by drowning - dragged under by their heavy back packs.
Hemingway couldn't believe his eyes. Omaha Beach was a bloody shambles, with hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of dead and dying everywhere. There was no cover. Where were the bomb craters that were meant to give some sort of cover. Young Americans were being slaughtered before Hemingway's eyes. For the first time in his life he felt utterly helpless. He couldn't even go ashore and help as young Anderson had strict instructions that under no circumstances was he to allow Hemingway off the LCVP. All the novelist could do now was help pull one or two of the wounded back on board as the LCVP reversed rapidly away from the beach, its ramp closing slowly like the bloodied mouth of a huge whale.
Toward evening, as Frank Currier once more headed the LCVP back toward their designated sector of Dog Green, Hemingway could at last see exhausted US infantry making their way off the beach and up the bluffs behind, "...the fight gone, just slowly, laboriously, as though they were carrying the world on their shoulders. Men were climbing, they were not firing, they were just moving slowly, going the other way from home." It was the beginning of the end of the worst day in the history of the American Army for nearly a century.
When an exhausted Hemingway returned to his room at the Dorchester Hotel in London late that night ( how many GIs would have loved to do that) he typed out what he had witnessed. But he would have to wait another forty-days before he managed to get ashore at Normandy.
While he waited Hemingway flew with the RAF on several bombing missions, nearly missed being blown to pieces by a V1 rocket. He also became increasingly angry that his estranged wife, the journalist Martha Gellhorn, had managed to get ashore at Omaha Beach in the early hours of the 7th June.
On the 18th of July he finally managed to get ashore with one of Patton's armoured divisions; and what Hemingway witnessed on that July morning was very different from the shambles and slaughter of the 6th June.
This was an orderly disembarkation of thousands of troops - mostly new arrivals from US
training camps - with each front line fighting soldier backed up by hundreds of cooks, medics, mechanics, doctors, clerks, typists, code-breakers, intelligence units, POW units, drivers, MPs, wireless-operators, and the battlefield clean-up groups. Dozens of landing craft disgorged artillery pieces, tanks, Jeeps, bull-dozers, more tanks, fuel trucks,trucks carrying tents and field kitchens, trucks carrying ammunition,field hospitals, more tanks, collapsible boats, trucks carrying spare parts for the tanks and for the trucks, more trucks carrying food, new uniforms,wireless and communications gear, field showers and laundry units;anything and everything an army on the move needs, especially an army that was to advance across France, Holland, Luxembourg and into Germany,and form part of a much larger army that was under the overall command of the British general, Bernard Law Montgomery, a man Patton hated to the very core of his heart.
And as the first of the troops of Patton's huge 3rd Army stepped onto the sands of Normandy the Three Star General himself, decked-out in a new neatly pressed uniform, topped by a shiny black ceremonial helmet,suddenly appeared and made an impromptu speech standing on the hood of his Jeep.
“Men, I'm here to fight beside you. I am going personally to shoot that paper-hanging goddamned son-of-a-bitch just like I would a snake.”
Hemingway knew that if the battle for Europe was Patton's single biggest military opportunity since 1916, it was Hemingway's too. The difference was that Patton had his orders, Hemingway did not, other than to follow the strict rules that war correspondents did not carry arms.
A few days later Ernest Hemingway lay in bed unable to sleep, with the pain in his throat, and the dreadfully gritty soreness of his increasingly weak eyes ( aggravated by the dust kicked-up by the tanks), making it almost impossible for him to do anything, least of all write.
On top of that he'd nearly come to blows with the Brazilian journalist Nemo Canaberro Lucas, who not only drank Hemingway's whisky without asking, but kept on criticising Hemingway's work and challenging him daily to fist fights. Hemingway knew he couldn't stay with the armoured division, he simply couldn't cope with the dust the tanks and vehicles threw up; he was also afraid he might end up killing Lucas, which would be a blessing to all concerned, but not worth the price. He knew he had to find a different unit, or face not reporting the war at all.
On the 24th July Hemingway appeared at the divisional press camp of the so called Ivy League Division of the Third Army and asked to see its commander General Raymond O. Barton.
The general had been known as 'Tubby' ever since his West Point days and was a thick set, tough old soldier, who sported a military moustache and suffered a troublesome ulcer. Barton wasn't at all pleased to see Hemingway and didn't want him around on the eve of a major operation to break out of the Normandy hedgerows. As a consequence Barton handed Hemingway over to Captain Marcus Stevenson, a divisional public relations officer who looked like a Texas Ranger, with an accent to match.
Stevenson had served as ADC to the late General Theodore Roosevelt Jr, and he considered it his duty to find Hemingway a suitable place from which to operate. On the 28th July, three days after Barton's break-out, Stevenson took Hemingway to meet the commander of the 22nd Infantry Regiment in a small farmhouse near Le Mesnil-Herman.
The OC of the 22nd, Colonel Charles Trueman 'Buck' Lanham was busy in the front room of the house when Stevenson and Hemingway appeared. Lanham had received several garbled messages to the effect that a new officer,called Collier, was to be assigned to his staff. He was in a bad mood.
When the six foot Hemingway shouldered his way through the doorway of Lanham's HQ the 42 year old West Pointer from Washington DC barked:
“Are you Collier?”
“ No, sir,” came Hemingway's polite reply, “my name is Hemingway.”
“ Ernest, no doubt?”
“ Yes, sir, my name is Ernest, and I'm with 'Collier's Weekly'.”
Lanham then burst into laughter, lit another Lucky Strike, and poured Hemingway a cup of coffee.
Later in the morning Lanham briefed his new arrival on the day's forthcoming perations,and was impressed with Hemingway's command of all things military, and how, in the words of Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker, the novelist: '...built in battle sense, and an almost professional instinct for terrain.' Lanham later testified that Hemingway's questions were intelligent and his manners quietly deferential. The discussion went so well in fact that Lanham asked his visitor to stay for a late lunch.
Hemingway stayed with the 22nd Infantry as they headed south through La Denisiere and Villabaudon, Hambye, and St-Pois, clearing up any lingering pockets of German resistance, before sweeping north toward Paris. Sleeping rough in forests, and in Barns - and sleeping well – Hemingway had never felt better. He wrote to Mary Welsh that, 'Life was jolly, full of shooting and fighting over small hills, along dusty roads, in and out of wheat fields, with burned-out enemy tanks, wrecked Kraftwagens, captured 88s, and the dead from both sides.'
On the 31st of July,1944, at Villebaudon, Hemingway acquired a captured German motorcycle and sidecar, and a driver - courtesy of Barton – called Pelkey.
Private Archie Pelkey, known as 'Red', was a 29 year old cigar-chewing grade school drop-out from Potsdam, New York. He had red hair and sharp blue eyes, and a broken front tooth. He'd already done two stints in the regular army before the war and hated military discipline. Hemingway ignored military discipline completely, which suited Pelkey down to the ground.
The morning of August 3rd 1944 was clear and warm as Hemingway and Pelkey – on their motorcycle combination - approached the northern outskirts of the market town of Villedieu-les-Poêles, known locally as the City of Stoves. Both Pelkey and Hemingway were armed, with the sidecar full of grenades.
US troopers from the 22nd Infantry were already heavily engaged in trying to take the town, with fierce house to house fighting. Shells were coming in from both German and US artillery and many of the town's buildings were on fire. German snipers were active, and as US Army medics tried to give aid to the wounded and dying were themselves being killed.
Into this mayhem rode Pelkey and Hemingway as if on the set of a World War II movie from the 1960s - think of Telly Savalas as Hemingway and Peter Falk as Pelkey and you'll get my drift.
Our intrepid duo - with shells exploding around them - pulled up alongside some locals sheltering behind a burned-out car. Pelkey switched off the engine and Hemingway asked, in perfect French, if there were any Germans close by. The locals might have easily suggested that the question was evidently ridiculous, but no, they were polite and said yes, they'd seen a squad of SS (if true part of the 9th SS Division who were defending the town) dive into a cellar of a house a couple of streets away.
Hemingway convinced one of the locals to guide him and Pelkey to the house, and arming himself and Pelkey with grenades, followed the terrified guide to the house. Hemingway then yelled down the cellar steps in bad German:
“Kommen outen mit den hands hoch!” There was no reply.
Hemingway repeated his command, “Come out with your hands up!” No reply.
He shouted again. Still nothing happened. Hemingway then pulled the pins from three hand grenades, waited a moment, and then bounced the grenades down the cellar steps.
“ Divide these amongst yourselves!” he yelled.
It's not clear if there were any SS in that cellar, and Hemingway never went down to find out, but afterwards boasted that he'd “ Killed plenty of Nazis.”
If the above incident is true, and most historians seem to think it is, Hemingway had already decided - less than two weeks after arriving in France - that he was not, in the words of military historian, Charles Whiting, prepared to “...abide by the rules of land warfare which prohibited war correspondents from bearing arms in combat.”
After this incident - and thinking Hemingway to be an American general - the Mayor of Villedieu-les-Poêles presented Ernest and Red with several bottles of champagne for helping to rid his town of the Germans. Many toasts were made and a good deal of the champagne drunk. And as Hemingway and Pelkey were loading the remaining few bottles into the sidecar, Colonel Lanham pulled up alongside them in his Jeep.
“ What in God's name are you doing here, Ernie, this is no place for a goddam war correspondent?”
Hemingway told him he thought it the very best place for a correspondent to be, then explained what had happened in the house. A very “...whiskery, dead eyed” Lanham then exploded with a string of colourful expletives and lit a Lucky Strike. Hemingway just put on his helpless schoolboy look and smiled.
After the grenade incident in Villedieu-les-Poêles Hemingway boasted openly about his ' military exploits'. Soon every correspondent working in the European theatre of war was familiar with 'Colonel' Hemingway's adventures. Resentment began to build.
But the adventures of Hemingway and Pelkey continued, and a few days after the grenade incident they were out on their motorcycle combination again trying to locate Lanham's new HQ (this time with Hemingway stuffed into the sidecar, and photographer Robert Capa sitting behind Pelkey) when they came under fire from a German 57mm anti-tank gun. Pelkey pulled hard on the brakes and as the motorcycle began to overturn the three men dived headlong for the nearest ditch as anti-tank shells, and machine gun fire, slammed repeatedly into the stricken machine. Hemingway landed badly, hitting his already injured head on a concealed rock. For several hours the three of them pretended to be dead as German patrols criss-crossed the road. Only with the coming of darkness did the three venture from their ditch and make their way back to the American lines
For several nights afterwards Hemingway couldn't sleep, hearing the slowly, constantly repeating whine and crunch of those damn anti-tank shells, each one hitting and tearing into the motorcycle combination in a vicious burning of white deadly phosphorous, and the constant demonic metallic clatter of the firing mechanism of two MG -38 machine guns, with every firing pin's smacksnap followed by the insane, utterly insane tacktacktacktacktacktacktacktacktacktack of the detonation caps of their 800 rounds per minutes. It was the sound of D-Day, of Omaha beach. It was the sound of death approaching at nearly 1000 miles an hour. Hemingway needed a break.
“ Would you mind, general, just a few days away?”
“ Hell no, Hem, wish I could join you.” Was General Barton's reply.
The Hôtel de la Mère Poularde, at Mont-St Michel - just a few miles to the east of St Malo - sits on the hilltop of a peninsular that is cut off by high tides twice a day. It was an ideal bolt hole from the fighting, and Hemingway took along one of his favourite books, Henry Adams' classic 'Mont-Saint-Michel and Charters', which Adams, the great-grandson, and grandson, of two American presidents, had written when he stayed there in 1902. But of course Hemingway didn't go to be alone and read, no, he persuaded Barton to allow a good proportion of the accredited press corps to go with him.
The group consisted of photographer Bob Capa, Ira Wolfert of the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA); Lael Tucker Wertenbaker of Time; Helen Kirkpatrick of The Chicago Daily News; A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker; CBS reporter Charles Collingwood, and Hemingway's new friend, Bill Walton, who also worked for Time, and had parachuted into Normandy with the American Airborne.
Everything started off well enough. Liebling, who was something of a gourmet, was put in charge of the cuisine, with Hemingway choosing the daily wines from Madame Chevalier's extensive cellar, which the middle-aged proprietor of the hotel and her husband had kept hidden from the Germans throughout the war.
The lunches were long, with Hemingway always heading the table and dominating any discussion. Helen Kirkpatrick described him as being “...good company, amusing, yet dogmatic and holding forth always on strategy.”
Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers' thought that Hemingway's fascination with military matters was “..not objective and analytical,” but the obsession of a writer who wanted to be a field officer.
A couple of days into the holiday, and just after the liberation of Rennes - a few miles to the south west of Mont-St Michel – Collingwood and Wertenbaker discovered a joke shop and brought back “...half the gadgets and booby-trapped Ernest's dinner plate with plastic nasties, and even gave him a left-handed corkscrew...” which drove him to distraction. They even put a very realistic looking rubber worm into Liebling's dish of stewed pears. But the old columnist was made of stern puritan stuff and simply picked up the worm, placed it on the side of his dish without comment, and went on eating and discussing the finer points of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.
It wasn't all holiday of course, with the correspondents trundling off each morning to find the front line, gather details on the progress of the war, to then return to the hotel where they would write-up their stories, get them censored, and then wire them off to their publications back in the States. It was like reporting on a local game of football.
Hemingway didn't do much reporting, but was keen to find Buck Lanham's HQ and catch up with his new friend. When he finally did so, in a beautiful old Norman castle, the Château Lingeard, perched on the top of a hill from which, on a clear day could be seen the island of Jersey, he was invited to stay for a special dinner to celebrate the Colonel's twentieth wedding anniversary, with a menu that included roast goose.
Hemingway was tempted but felt uneasy and nervous. He turned down the invitation and made his way back to Mont-St Michel. Later that evening, as the correspondents were having dinner, heavy artillery fire could be heard in the distance, and as they all gathered beneath the monastery walls on top of the hill they could clearly see the Château Lingeard under bombardment.
The following day they all heard the news that the German's had broken through the Mortain gap in a counter-offensive to try and re-take Avranches and that Lanham's HQ had come under heavy artillery fire with several of Lanham's officers killed and many more badly injured, including Lanham himself. Sometime later, when Hemingway, caught up with Lanham, the Colonel asked Hemingway why he hadn't stayed for the anniversary dinner. Hemingway answered that “..the place stank of death.”
Toward the end of the correspondents short holiday Hemingway, who'd just finished writing a profile of General Barton for Collier's, asked the young Charles Collingwood to read it and let him know what he thought.
Collingwood has described himself as being “...a very young and very brash war correspondent in those days,” who really thought Hemingway wanted his opinion. It had been a long and boozy lunch as usual and Collingwood quickly read Hemingway's piece, which was called 'The General'. When Collingwood had finished reading, and with all the correspondents looking at him, and with Hemingway at least expecting a respectful response, Collingwood drunkenly blurted-out:
“ Well, Papa, it sounds like a parody of Ernest Hemingway to me.”
There was total silence in the room until Hemingway spoke.
“ Collingwood, I suggest you pack your bags and leave.”
Collingwood and Hemingway didn't speak again for ten years.
The holiday was over. The next business was the taking of Paris.
A week after the holiday - this time in a commandeered jeep, and on official reconnaissance business for Lanham - Hemingway and Pelkey found themselves on the outskirts of the town of Maintenon, some twenty miles south west of Paris. Here they located the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the 5th Division of the US Army resting in a patch of woodland. Hemingway asked a young lieutenant what news he had of any advancement toward Paris. The young officer knew very little - although he'd heard rumours and directed Hemingway to a regimental outpost near Épernon, just a few kilometres from Rambouillet.
When Pelkey and Hemingway reached Épernon they encountered a bunch of irregular French fighters, under the command of a tired looking man called Tahon Marceau. This '..fierce looking bunch' of young men were stripped to the waist in the August heat and armed with Sten guns, grenades, and captured Luger pistols. Marceau assured Hemingway that the Germans had abandoned Rambouillet before dawn that morning, but warned that the Germans had left trees blocking the roads, with minefields and booby traps everywhere.
It was obvious to Hemingway that Marceau's small band of irregular troops were in desperate need of leadership. Marceau himself seemed exhausted and without any clear idea of what he should be doing, or where he should be doing it. It may also have been the case that the French irregulars thought Hemingway to be an American officer, which is quite understandable if Hemingway had removed his correspondents insignia from his tunic, or, because of the heat, was in shirtsleeves, and many photographs from the period do show Hemingway in shirtsleeves, and without insignia. Whatever the reason Hemingway and Pelkey accompanied the irregulars back along the road toward Rambouillet.
When they reached the outskirts they discovered that the stories the irregulars had told them were true. Dozens of large plain trees had been felled at regular intervals to block the main road into the town. And just beyond the first couple of trees were the ghastly remains of an ambushed US army patrol. As the irregulars began to go through the bloody wreckage Pelkey stopped them and pointed out thin taught wires extending from the vehicles to several seemingly destroyed German tanks concealed in the deep ditches on the eastern side of the road. Tripping those wires would have brought down deadly fire. It was a master class in booby trap technology and one that had to be cleared before the advancing Americans could move into Rambouillet.
It was at this point that Hemingway and Pelkey, and their newly acquired band of French irregulars, found Irving Krieger.
Thirty three year old Lieutenant Irving Krieger, of the 2nd Infantry Regiment's anti-tank platoon, was about to start digging his six-pounder anti-tank guns into road side positionswhen he was approached by Pelkey and Hemingway. Krieger immediately came under Hemingway's spell.
With the arrival of the blisteringly efficient Irving Krieger, Hemingway 'ordered' his French irregulars - now dressed in the bloodstained fatigues of dead GIs - to patrol Rambouillet itself and find out for sure that the Germans had left, and what their dispositions were on the
other side of town. And as this motley collection of what officially became known as the F.F.I. ( French Forces of the Interior) 'prowled' the streets of that little town - a few miles to the south west of Versailles - New Jersey born Krieger and his men began the systematic clearance of the mines, the booby-traps, and the felled trees.
With the return of the irregulars from their patrol, who reported that the Germans had indeed left the town but were, according to some of the locals, still within easy striking distance - with at least fifteen Tiger tanks at their disposal -, Hemingway decided he didn't want to spend the night in Rambouilett with only lightly armed irregulars and Krieger's small force. So Hemingway set off for the 2nd Infantry positions to try and procure some machine guns and grenades to 'defend Rambouillet.' Naturally enough his request was refused out of hand by General 'Red' Irwin, who enquired of Hemingway:
“ What in God's name did a war correspondent want with machine guns and grenades, even if your name is Ernest Hemingway?”
The night of the 19th - 20th August 1944 was a long one in Rambouillet but not unpleasant, with Hemingway making his HQ at the Hôtel du Grand Veneur, a grey three storied structure with a slate roof and a splendid rustic weathercock. Behind the building there were extensive orchards – with beehives - that stretched away into the lush and deceptively peaceful French countryside. But more importantly for Hemingway the hotel had a fine wine cellar and an excellent chef.
The nest morning, still smarting from Irwin's refusal of arms, and probably in an effort to regain some self-respect, Hemingwayset off with Krieger and Pelkey to reconnoitre the dangerous Versailles road. After a short drive they pulled up outside Marie Antoinette's Royal Hunting Lodge in the grounds of the former summer residence for French presidents, the Chateau de Rambouillet. According to Krieger, Hemingway was really fired-up and wanted to carry on to Versailles and then Paris. But Krieger argued hard, and convincingly, against it, saying that Hemingway would need all his men, and indeed more arms, to safely reach the capitol. In the end Hemingway agreed, and after a look around the grounds, they then headed back to Rambouillet.
Krieger freely admitted that he came under the famous Hemingway spell. He also reasoned that if he broke away from the writer at Rambouillet he could explain away his and his men's presence in a town ten miles away from where they should have been. But to head for Paris with a war correspondent who was breaking all the rules would have meant untold danger for his men and a court martial for him. Krieger said his farewells, gathered together his men and equipment and headed back to the 2nd Infantry positions and some pretty tough explaining.
After Krieger's departure Hemingway returned to the 2nd Infantry positions and again asked for machine guns and grenades - he wisely kept well clear of Irwin - saying they were replacements needed for the 5th Reconnaissance Troop. He was given as much as he could cram into his Jeep.
A couple of hours later Colonel David Bruce of the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA) arrived in Rambouillet.
Bruce was a tough no nonsense intelligence officer who used whatever information came his way. And he needed information badly about German troop dispositions around the south western approaches to Paris. It was vital that Bruce ensured the triumphant entry of General Leclerc's 2nd French Armoured Division into the city of light was as trouble free as possible. For Bruce Hemingway was a godsend. And because Hemingway's son Jack was also working for the O.S.S. Hemingway welcomed Bruce like a member of his own family.
In a letter written after the war - reproduced in Jeffrey Meyers' excellent biography of Hemingway - Bruce praises highly Hemingway's work as an unofficial intelligence officer, describing how the novelist had established a rather imperfect, yet functioning counter-espionage system in Rambouillet and that he had interrogated to good effect some suspected German agents and sympathizers. Hemingway may also have saved the lives of several of those sympathizers by getting them jobs in the hotel where he could keep an eye on them, before leaving them in the protective custody of the advancing Allies.
Bruce also states in his letter that Hemingway did not carry arms, which is an obvious contradiction of at least one photograph of Hemingway taken just outside Rambouillet (with freshly harvested cornfields in the background) that shows Hemingway clearly sporting side-arms. Bruce concludes his letter by saying how much he admires Hemingway, not only as an artist and friend, “...but as a cool, resourceful, imaginative, military tactician.”
The Hôtel du Grand Veneur soon began to fill with other war correspondents, photographers and film makers, including director Colonel George Stevens, and his crew, the reporter and novelist Irwin Shaw - who, until quite recently had been Mary Welsh's lover - along with several others, including the tall Chicagoan and veteran reporter Bruce Grant, who complained one night in the crowded dining room about the difficulty he'd had getting a room because of 'General' Hemingway and his fighting men. Hemingway was not going to allow anyone to disparage the F.F.I like that, and told Grant that his men deserved a bed more than he did. Grant objected with some choice language, followed by Hemingway punching Grant in the jaw. Grant, who was in his late fifties, but tough, retaliated, with both men falling to the floor in a flurry of kicking and punching. Only when the diminutive photographer Harry Harris, of the Associated Press, came between them did the fight stop. Then, according to Harris, Hemingway went outside and called out for Grant to join him and finish the fight. Grant refused to go. Hemingway kept on shouting. According to columnist, Andy Rooney, who was sharing a table with Grant, he “...could never take Hemingway seriously after that. I'd always liked him as a writer, but this was such a schoolboy thing.”
On the 23rd August reports were coming in that Paris was wide open.
When General de Gaulle and Leclerc met in the Chateau de Rambouillet on the evening of Wednesday August 23rd, 1944, they knew time was not on their side, and that if they failed to move swiftly enough the growing insurrection between the different resistance groups in Paris, fuelled by the communists, could lead to all out civil war.
On the morning of the 24th August the drive to liberate Paris began. It was a wet day and the initial progress was slow, but Hemingway decided to try and get to Paris ahead of the French general. Consequently Hemingway, Pelkey, and his band of merry men set out to beat the French general by taking back roads, but it didn't work out when the Hemingway group came across heavy German resistance and found it necessary to turn back and re-join Leclerc's 2nd French Armoured.
Lerclerc's division pushed on but came under heavy concentrated fire from well dug in German positions. When the French had finally finished off that particular German obstruction with some well placed artillery shells, Hemingway and Pelkey set off again to liberate Paris. They got no further than a café called the Clair de Lune, just a few miles short of Versailles.
They could have ignored it and continued on to Paris of course, but that wasn't Hemingway's style.
Inside the café they came across the official American Army Historian, Lt Col. Sam Marshall, who was a square jawed newspaperman from Detroit. His driver, Lt John Westover, was a professional soldier who had no time for the unprofessional antics of Hemingway and Pelkey - and had little respect for Marshall either - and recalled how Hemingway burst into the café in his now typically bombastic way.
“ Got a drink, Marshall?”
“ No, Ernie.”
Westover couldn't help but interrupt.
“ But, Colonel, you've a fifth of Scotch in your back pack out in the Jeep.”
“ Is that so, Lieutenant? Well you go risk your goddam neck and fetch it then.”
While Westover was fetching the Scotch (and there was quite a fire fight going on outside) Marshall introduced a young Spanish girl by the name of Elena to Hemingway. She was the girlfriend of one of Hem's French irregulars and had recently arrived from Bilbao. Although she had bad teeth and even worse dress sense (she wore a torn old dress, army boots that were too big for her, a battered old trilby hat, plus a couple of ammunition belts and a string of grenades) Hemingway did find her attractive, and if some reports are to believed he quickly became her lover.
The fire fight going on outside the café was the French 2nd Armoured coming under heavy, accurate, and concentrated German fire, which once again stalled Leclerc's advance. Only when additional French tanks, and more units of infantry, were brought forward to deal with the determined Germans did the advance continue. Like Patton, many press observers (and
a few thousand troops) wondered what things would be like when the German Army was actually defending Germany.
By late afternoon Hemingway and the 2nd Armoured was less than five kilometres from the Seine and were being greeted every kilometre of the way by a population almost hysterical with joy, which slowed up the advance considerably - this was a common occurrence during the allied advance of 1944, and something the planners never really took into consideration. By nightfall, with the French and Germans exchanging artillery fire across the Longchamps race track, Hemingway and his very merry band were drinking everything the locals offered them, and as Bruce later pointed out, “...it was a drinking fest that would have destroyed the constitution of a normal man.”
By noon on the following day, Friday 25th August, the French 2nd Armoured were waiting to cross the Seine.
Hemingway, Pelkey, and his group of thoroughly drunk irregulars decided to get into Paris first and “...without being shot.”
While Hemingway was trying to get to the centre of the French capital, with the ugly Spanish girl sitting on his lap, the American top brass had become increasingly agitated at the time it was taking Leclerc to get his army into the city.
Patton had also had enough of Leclerc and the delays he'd caused his beloved Third Army. After consultation with General Omar Bradley, the commander of the American land armies, Patton ordered the remainder of the Third to turn north into Belgium. Bradley then ordered Hemingway's old friend Tubby Barton, and his battered 4th Division to assist Leclerc with his advance into Paris.
For Barton the order came out of the blue - he didn't even have maps of the area, or of Paris. Barton was also ordered to get his men into neckties too - things they'd last worn back in England - ready for the triumphal march. As far as Barton was concerned the whole thing was turning into a French farce.
For Hemingway and his crew, who had just passed an exploding German ammunition dump (which reminded Pelkey of the 4th of July) the whole world seemed to be taking on a surreal edge, and it soon became clear to Bruce that Hemingway didn't care if he lived or died, that all he wanted was to be with this mad crew of irregulars.
In the early afternoon of the 25th August 1944, with the French 2nd Armoured, and the American 4th at last across the Seine, Hemingway's unofficial 'intelligence and reconnaissance' unit, that now included Colonel Marshall Westover, and of course Colonel Bruce of the O.S.S. (which gave it a certain legitimacy), stopped in a large square near the Bois de Boulogne to check their bearings, and where they immediately came under rifle fire from snipers in one of the surrounding buildings. Hemingway and Bruce decided to check things out, and as they started to race across the square toward the buildings on the northern side an artillery shell screamed in and brought down a large chestnut tree in a showering of broken branches. Marshall, Westover, Pelkey and the Spanish girl, Elena, took cover behind the fallen tree, and as they did so French tanks and half-tracks entered the square peppering the buildings on all four sides with heavy machine gun fire. As the tanks and half-tracks left the square and headed for the Champs Elysees, Westover
noticed Hemingway crouching on the balcony of one of the buildings on the north side shouting down to them in French. The Spanish girl understood what Hemingway was shouting and translated his words to Westover:
“ We have to get out, he says, and quickly. There are Germans in the building behind us, and the French are bringing up more artillery to deal with them, we must make our way to the far side of the square now.”
As Elena, Westover, Marshall and Pelkey, moved across the square Hemingway and his irregulars gave them covering fire. Just as the group reached the northern side a French Sherman tank - almost certainly one of Captain Dronne's vehicles from the French 501st Tank Regiment -
trundled back into the square and put six rounds into the unfortunate building that housed the German snipers. As Marshall recalled later, “...a dozen hand-grenades would have done the job just as well, but that would have been poor theatre.”
After leaving the square Hemingway's little army ran into more heavy German resistance. This time, after picking up a Spahi Lieutenant – a member of Leclerc's 1st Spahis Marocians Reconnaissance Regiment – they were directed away from the gun fire, and then, by racing through side streets in the three Jeeps they eventually emerged into the Avenue Foch, just behind the Arc de Triomphe. As the group parked their vehicles they encountered another barrage of heavy fire aimed at a house at the end of the avenue. This time the fire was coming from the French who had been told the house in question was occupied by a 'sinister group of orientals.'
The French were taking no chances and shelled the house without mercy. When Marshall and Hemingway finally made their way inside what was left of the house they found one injured, and very frightened, Tonkinese laundryman who, after hearing the shooting and shelling, had taken refuge in the house. The Americans gave the man a drink, bandaged his wounds, and sent him on his way.
As the group came out of the ruins they found themselves in the middle of a bunch of extremely angry French 'patriots' preparing to shave the heads of several woman accused of consorting with the Germans. Hemingway pulled his gun and told the 'patriots' to scram and leave the women alone. They didn't argue.
It was at this point that the Spahi Lieutenant spotted Elena. He became almost hysterical:
“ Get that woman out of here,” he cried, “get her out.”
He then started screaming at Hemingway and Marshall in French:
“ On fait pas la guerre avec les femmes.” Which, when very roughly translated means: “It is a known fact that wars are not fought with or by women.”
Marshall was having a bad day and by this time was almost beside himself with a pent-up rage that came gushing out.
“ Since when?” roared Marshall, “since when, you no good son-of-bitch? I suggest, young man, you go away and study a little military history. Do you hear me?”
He heard him and left, his red cloak flapping in the wind as he made his way hurriedly toward his regiment's positions on the other side of the Champs Elysees.
Elena took the hint and without a word slipped away. She was never seen again.
Hemingway's group now made their way toward the Arc de Triomphe. A short time later Bruce described the scene:
“ We walked across to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was being guarded by six veterans, standing at attention, and a mutilated ex-soldier, seated in a wheelchair. The French Captain in charge asked us if we wanted to ascend to the roof of the Arc. We did so and were greeted by a squad of Pompiers standing at attention. At the end of the Champs Elysees a vehicle was burning in the Place de la Concorde and behind, in the Tuileries Gardens, it looked as if a tank was on fire. Smoke was issuing from the Grillon Hotel and, across the river, from the Chamber of Deputies. Snipers were firing steadily into the area around the Arc de Triomphe, and French were firing back at them. The view from the top was breathtaking. One saw the golden dome of the Invalides, the green roof of the Madeleine, Sacre-Coeur, and other familiar landmarks. Tanks were firing in various streets. Part of the Arc was under fire from snipers. A shell from a German 88 nicked one of its sides.”
After coming down from the Arc, and with the Champs Elyees free of traffic Hemingway, Bruce and Pelkey drove at high speed down the broad avenue to the Travellers Club where the club president welcomed them with open arms and a bottle of champagne. As they drank a toast to the Americans, and the Free French, and to anyone else they could think off, a German sniper took a pot shot at Hemingway from a building across the road.
When the sniper had finally been dealt with Hemingway and his men moved across the road to one of his old haunts, the Cafe de la Paix, where they had a few more drinks before heading for the Ritz Hotel just a short distance way in the Place Vendome, where Hemingway asked for the best rooms, and fifty dry martini cocktails.
This was not the end of Hemingway's exploits during WWII.