A Minister Visits
Viv didn’t tell Jean Marie that he was the partial model for an article about a gallant French fighter pilot that would appear shortly in an American mass magazine. His ego didn’t need that. Besides, with a different name and the revisions Barbara was making to Liz’ writing, he might not recognize the man even if he were learn English and see the piece.
It was back to flying as usual, but the improvements were only marginal. There was only so much that one could do with the Hawks, and most of the pilots weren’t really enthusiasts. It was said that fighter pilots went up either to kill or be killed, and there weren’t many real killers.
Despite all of the colonel’s efforts, there was now only a minimal AA defense for the field. There just wasn’t much light AA in the whole country. Still, the few machine guns might be able to put a bullet in the cooling system of a 109. That might slow down the assault by a fraction of a single percentage point.
More worrisome was the inability to find a rear area landing field to escape the initial German assault, probably at dawn on the opening day of the offensive. It was here that the socialist elements of the government, which were usually more anti-Nazi than the others, were a detriment.
A tenet of French socialism insisted that localities, particularly rural ones, should be independent of the central government, and should be as much like communes as possible. Some people would grow the food, others mind and school the children, and others guard the community against enemies, foreign and domestic. It was thus considered that the squadron ‘belonged’ to the community around Suippes, and would guard it against the Luftwaffe. On this view, it would be unthinkable for the guardians to flee to the rear in a time of crisis.
It was, of course, the worst possible military doctrine. The forces in each locality would be defeated in detail while the neighboring forces waited to defend their own areas. They, then, would be defeated in turn, one at a time. Colonel Muret, a socialist himself, was unable to successfully rebut these views, deeply routed in ideology in a country in which all parties thought that everything had to be based on first principles. As Viv said to him, “The only remaining thing would be to guess when the attack is coming, take off, and gain altitude. Since the attack will presumably come at sunrise from the east, we’ll have to take off in darkness, get high and do a big circle to get east so as to come out of the sun ourselves.”
The colonel replied, “And, if we guess wrong, and have to land to refuel?”
“Our aircraft will probably be destroyed on the ground. It’ll be strictly a matter of luck.”
If they guessed right, they would at least attack under favorable circumstances, perhaps getting into clouds afterwards. If they guessed wrong, the pilots might be huddled in slit trenches while their aircraft were destroyed. Their ladies would then be happy.
The colonel replied, “A lucky chance is better than no chance.”
As Ivan had always said, Barbara grasped things more quickly than people realized. She said, “I think the ladies almost all have the image of their men climbing blindly to meet hordes of enemies waiting for them in the sun.”
“They can be assured that we have no intention of doing that. Our plan would put us in the most favorable position prior to the attack. The Hawk’s one advantage is its superior range, and we could stay in that position for a couple of hours.”
“Then, too, it’s pretty clear that Hitler will invade Poland first. After that, almost anything might happen.”
Viv was pretty sure that France would be next, but it was easy to agree with Barbara, particularly in what she might say to a bunch of very anxious young women.
At this time, rumors kept coming through of an undeclared war between the Soviets and the Japanese at the border between Manchuria and Mongolia. It was of particular interest to Viv because it featured her old friends, the I-16s, against the Japanese lightweight fighters. Since both sides refused to acknowledge the conflict, it was hard to get any detailed information, and even to know who was winning. Colonel Muret said, “We do know that the Japanese fighters have only two light machine guns. Even if they manage to win the air battles, they won’t have any recognizable effect on ground operations.”
“I’m afraid, with our light armament, we won’t do much better.”
“No. We can only shoot up supply columns. It’s the Germans and, probably, the British who can really attack infantry, artillery, and, in some cases, tanks.”
It was, Viv thought, at least interesting to be at that point in history at which air power was about to become dominant, probably in the next year or two.
The next event was the visit, in early August, of the French air minister, Guy la Chambre. He was doing an inspection of the various units, although it was pretty clear to Viv, and almost everyone else, that he wouldn’t be able to do much about any weaknesses that he discovered. Colonel Muret explained, “He’s actually quite a good man. He and his predecessor, Pierre Cot, have done everything they could to supply us with decent aircraft. They’ve been stymied, both by the scarcity of funds for defense, and by the fact that the army has grabbed most of the money, leaving very little for the air force.”
This, Viv gathered, was mostly the doing of the chief of the combined services, General Gamelin, the one who believed that competing air forces would quickly destroy one another and have no remaining effect on the war. It remained unclear why he thought that the French and German air forces would destroy each other, as opposed to the latter destroying the former. As far as Viv could make out, the civilian ministers who, in theory, could give orders to the generals, really couldn’t. And, then, some of the ministers, unlike Cot and La Chambre, hadn’t even tried.
The arrival of the minister was still an event. The trash was cleared away, everyone put on his best uniform, and a delegation was formed to greet the visitor. In fact, this particular visitor was quite an interesting one. He had fought one of the last duels in France against a fanatic lawyer who had slapped his face, an act full of symbolism. La Chambre, a man about forty and an expert fencer, had immediately broken through the lawyer’s guard with his saber and stabbed him in the arm holding his sword, thus ending the duel.
Much more recently, La Chambre had married a French idol, the singer Cora Mardue. She was accompanying him on his tour, sometimes singing for the men. It was as if, not being able to provide planes, they were instead spreading some Gallic glamour around.
Shortly before the visit, Viv was informed that La Chambre was a friend of William Bullitt. That was no surprise. They were both social lions in Paris, and must have met at many gatherings. However, Bullitt had told the Minister about the Bolskys, suggesting that he meet with them. Consequently, Barbara and Viv were included in the reception committee.
Viv and Colonel Muret weren’t sure whether the minister was aware of the extent of Viv’s involvement with the squadron, and she was thus to wear a dress. Barbara, by this time an expert in French mores, had them both properly outfitted to meet, not only the minister, but his famous wife.
They were all in position for the arrival. To Viv’s horror, a Bloch 200 bomber lumbered into sight. She knew it from Spain. A slab-sided monstrosity with a glassed in nose, its most conspicuous feature was its fixed landing gear, two big wheels enclosed in enormous spats. Since it had a crew of six, it was known in Spain as a ‘collective coffin.’ With a speed comparable to that of a Walrus, it was, in theory, supposed to fly over Germany and keep in the air long enough to drop bombs. Viv wondered if someone like Werner Molders or Adolph Galland would be able to restrain his laughter long enough to shoot it down.
It seemed to take forever for the aircraft to actually reach the field. But, then, with its big wheels and slow speed, it hardly mattered whether it landed on the air strip or a farmer’s field. She did, however, remark to the pained-looking Colonel Muret that it spoke well for the minister that he went around in an old bomber, as opposed to a luxurious passenger aircraft.
The pilot had evidently seen them, and taxied right up. The engines back-fired and the brakes squealed alarmingly, but the bomber stopped a few yards from the reception committee.
Cora Madou, older than her husband and about Barbara’s age, rivaled Barbara in her ability to look younger. With an odd, almost triangular face, her general demeanor and style converted what might have been a deficit to an individuating asset. Her skirt lifted in the breeze as she came down the steps, but no one minded that. Her husband, with a bit of a movie-star look, was smiling broadly as they were greeted.
That evening, Cora Madou gave a little recital with her husband at the piano in the squadron lounge. She really sang beautifully, not in an operatic style, but in a way that suited the traditional songs of the countryside. Afterwards, she and the minister mixed with the audience, the latter eventually ending up with Viv. It turned out that he knew exactly what she had been doing. Smiling, he remarked, “I suppose I really shouldn’t permit it, but, in these times, there are almost no hard and fast rules.”
“I do think I’m accomplishing something, nothing huge, but perhaps enough to make some difference.”
“Yes. Slowing down the inevitable. Unlike some of my colleagues, I do think that’s worth doing. France has been defeated before, but, when it comes back, it will be able to claim something resembling honor if it has put up a fight.”
“Some of our English friends are very much concerned with honor. I’m not so much. I just think of what needs to be done in the immediate future.”
“Perhaps that is more American. Incidentally, I’m the one responsible for buying the American Hawk fighters. I know they aren’t very good, but I had to do something.”
Viv, catching a note of desperation, replied, “They can be effective if used properly.”
She did think of saying something about the possibility of an airstrip in a safe area, but sensed that there was no chance of it. In any case, La Chambre had something else on his mind. “Your stepmother is beautiful and charming.”
“So is your wife. I loved the performance.”
“Oh yes. Well, the fact is that the marriage seems to be running its course. We’re both public figures, and we find ourselves pulled in very different directions. Not to mention some different attitudes concerning the imminent war.”
Viv was willing to talk about Barbara, but had to be careful. La Chambre was a man who would have tempted most women, but, as far as Viv knew, it had never even occurred to Barbara to have an affair. She tried to convey that with a subtlety that didn’t come naturally to her, and he replied, “And, of course, your loyalty is to your father. I understand that. I also gather that you, he, and your sister are closely bonded in view of your Russian background in a very different country.”
“Liz and I are more American than Russian, Ivan is mostly Russian, and Barbara, despite being American, has picked up more Russian tendencies than you might guess.”
“A tight and impenetrable group, each adjusting to the others. I can only admire it from a distance.”
Viv took that to mean that he wasn’t going to try to seduce Barbara. She was happy about that, but, as she retired to a corner with her glass of wine, it amused her to imagine what it would be like for Barbara to have an affair with someone like La Chambre. It might start at a tea table, but how in the world would he get her out of her dress?
After the festivities had ended, and they were back at their rooming house, Viv sat with Barbara in the lounge over tea. She was curious as to whether Barbara knew that she had been a person of interest to the minister, and, not having Liz’ ability to probe gently, she asked outright. Barbara replied, “Oh yes. That happens from time to time, but it’s a tradition among the women of our family to never let such things go very far.”
That rather amused Viv. Barbara hadn’t said anything about loyalty to Ivan, but only that such things were not done in her tradition. Then, surprisingly, she added, “I think I was of more interest to Madame Cora.”
“By God, Barbara, that must be miles outside your family traditions.”
“Not entirely so. One of my aunts was presumably in love with another woman, but there was so much privacy in the large houses, that one never really knew.”
“Well, Cora is fascinating, quite apart from her wonderful singing. If that is her bent, she must find partners rather easily.”
“It might be quite natural in France. The relations between men and women are so stylized, as if carried out according to script, that something less constrained might be found in another direction.”
Viv herself had never felt inclined to what Barbara termed ‘another direction,’ but she could see what Barbara meant. After a moment, she remarked, “If the minister and his wife do come upon a lady more receptive than yourself, they might find themselves invading her bedroom at the same time.”
“That would be a farce worthy of Moliere.”
“Yes. It’s beginning to look as if the whole defense of France may degenerate into a farce.”