Cafe Varenne, Paris, July 8, 1936
At her next meeting with Paul Giroud, Therese was aware of various undercurrents. It had been over a week since their last meeting, the one which had led to a telephone booth, and then to a very pleasant dinner. When they finally parted that night, they had decided to spend a weekend, or at least a whole night, together. It was, they had agreed, so much nicer than a stolen hour in an obscure hotel.
Unfortunately, their busy schedules were making it quite difficult to arrange a little trip together, not to mention the provision of a suitable story for Madame Giroud. And then, Therese knew that both she and Giroud, while sincere in their desire to get together, were more interested in other matters. It wouldn't do to say so openly, but each knew the other well enough to realize it.
In the military area, Therese was glad to see that there had been some progress. Giroud brought up the subject of the army himself.
"I've found out some surprising things. The way the military is always complaining, I had assumed that, apart from the Maginot Line, they were under-funded. In point of fact, we appropriate more money to them than they manage to spend almost every year."
This was a rather sore point for Therese. She knew of no large organization in any country at any time in history which, while perpetually arguing for more money, spent, in some years, as little as forty per cent of the amount appropriated. It reflected incompetence, of course. But even incompetents generally managed to spend what was given to them. And then to argue for more the next year! One might imgagine a bizarre eccentric doing such a thing, but no one could be less a bizarre eccentric than General Gamelin and his officers.
To Therese, the financial behavior of the French army constituted one of the wonders of the world, much greater than, for example, the great waterfalls. And yet here was a man, a member of the chamber no less, who hadn't been aware of its existence right under his nose. Moreover, Giroud, far from being ashamed of his previous ignorance, now expected to be congratulated for his cleverness in finding out something that was a matter of public record! Therese didn't go so far as to act surprised by what her companion said, but she replied smoothly,
"Yes. The army has a problem, but it's not a financial problem."
Giroud looked puzzled, as if he had never heard of a problem which wasn't a financial problem. Therese hesitated a minute before supplying enlightenment.
"The army's problem is that young Frenchmen don't want to fight. To the extent that they can, they evade service. Most of them are eventually forced into the army, but they then give the impression that they intend to lay down their arms in the face of the enemy."
Therese had made her little speech coolly, and with a minimum of gesture. It nevertheless had its effect even on a political intellectual whose memories of military service, entirely in peacetime, were seldom recalled. But, still, the army had apparently gotten through to him enough so that he was now a little shocked.
"Surely they wouldn't do that! They may talk that way, but if the Germans really invaded,..."
"Your service must have been in about 1920 wasn't it?"
"Yes, but ..."
"You were in a victorious army. It was full of young men who were disappointed at having missed the war."
"I assure you, I had no such thoughts."
"No, but a lot did. It gave the army a certain tone. My father had lots of enthusiasts in his command. Things are very different now."
Giroud rubbed his eyes and said nothing. Therese asked,
"What makes you so sure that the young men who say they'll lay down their arms won't do exactly that?"
"Their non-coms will shoot them if they don't fight."
"A sergeant can shoot a few men in a platoon who rebel. If eighty per cent rebel, it'll be the sergeant and the officers who are shot. Except that non-coms and officers in that position generally know better than to force the issue. Remember, we had mutinies in 1917. And those troops had started out with a morale much higher than obtains at present. Ask the officers. They're under no illusions."
Finally, Giroud replied,
"If it's as you say, I don't see what anyone can do, much less the leaders of the Radical Party."
"I've been talking with my father. The situation is bad, but not hopeless. At a deeper level, the reason for the disaffection is that everyone thinks of warfare as trench warfare. The young men aren't fools. I don't blame them for not wanting to be trapped in trenches and slaughtered. What happened the last time has become part of our national consciousness."
"The Maginot line ought to be an improvement over the trenches."
"It is. The soldiers in it feel much safer behind tons of steel and concrete. They're one of two groups with good morale."
"Who are the others?"
"The Senegalese and other colonial troops. Perhaps, coming from more primitive cultures, they don't mind being killed. Or perhaps it's because they're Moslems. I don't know. Anyhow, there aren't enough of them to make a decisive difference.
Giroud took a sip of his wine and spoke, more in amusement than concern.
"Isn't it funny that the only people who are willing to fight for France are those who have no real reason for doing so?"
"It's interesting. I think it's because a soldier's morale doesn't have much to do with national goals. What matters is whether he thinks the man next to him will run or stand and fight."
"In that case, my dear Therese, the prospects aren't good. You'd have to take each of a million men and convince him that, despite all appearances, he can rely on the others."
"We obviously can't do that. Nor can we again fight the Germans in the same way. But we can create smaller effective forces which might be capable of decisive blows."
"I've heard of parachute troops. You fly them over enemy lines and drop them on the other side. They can then capture the enemy headquarters and supply bases."
Therese found this piece of military naivite rather embarrassing. Giroud might have begun to take an interest in the army, but he had a long way to go. Moreover, even if it were feasible to use parachute troops against the Germans, the French General Staff could never have been convinced of it. The incompetence of that staff was another fact of life of which her companion seemed blissfully unaware.
Therese replied evasively and encouragingly. She didn't think that this was the time to break it to her friend that the French army actually faced far greater difficulties than he had imagined. Giroud, she was sure, would simply give up. Leon Blum, by contrast, was made of much sterner stuff. But he couldn't do it alone. He needed the support of that part of the Radical Party that Giroud could bring him.
There was also a still deeper point which Therese had never discussed,
and couldn't discuss, with anyone. Not even with Blum. Indeed, if it should
ever come out that he had been present at such a discussion, he would be
destroyed instantly. This was something of which Giroud mustn't be allowed
the slightest inkling. For the moment, she would arrange for Giroud to
meet with her father and a young friend.
The scene in the living room would normally have embarrassed Therese. Papers were spread everywhere, and on the floor were a whole series of odd-looking objects arranged in rows. If Therese's husband had created anything like this scene in her own home, she would have had the whole thing thrown into the garbage cans. It surprised her a little that her mother tolerated it on the part of her father.
On the other hand, the apartment her parents had moved into on their retirement would hardly have looked better if it had been neat. Old-fashioned and dark, it was overcrowded with furniture and bric-a-brac. The good pieces were obscured by all sorts of heavy old lumps of furnishings, never fashionable, that had taken the fancy of one Brossard or another. It was, Therese had once complained to her mother, what one would have expected of the station master's parlor in the rear of a railway station. Under anything like ordinary circumstances, Therese would never have dreamed of taking Paul Giroud there.
As they entered, General Brossard was actually on his hands and knees, studying an arrangement of red, blue and yellow squares of paper spread out in front of him. Standing at a sideboard, doing calculations, was the young Armand Saveuse. Madame Brossard, showing them in, gestured petulantly as if there were no point in attempting to perform introductions. She instead called to a maid for coffee and retired noisily to the recesses of the flat.
It took a moment before the two inhabitants of the room realized that they had visitors. In those few seconds Therese saw that she had been correct in introducing Armand to her father. They might be separated by sone fifty years of age, but they had obviously become co-conspirators.
General Brossard, because of his position on the floor, might briefly have been mistaken for a gentleman who has entered his second childhood, and is re-acquainting himself with the primary colors. However, such an impression vanished when he looked up sternly with white hair and moustaches glowing. There was in his expression the implication that the real work was to be done on the floor, work that shouldn't be interrupted by idle spectators.
Therese, of course, was used to senior officers who fought past and future battles on the floor. She hoped that Giroud understood. Since most of the chairs had been piled on top of one another to make room, she motioned Giroud to the one remaining one. She herself sank to the floor in what she took to be an attractive position with her yellow silk skirt spread on the russet carpet. She did nothing to conceal either her pretty knees or the delicate and expensive lace of her slip.
It was only then that Armand noticed them. Largely under Therese's instruction, he had emerged as something of a dandy. Moreover, even at his tender age, there was an appropriate air of slightly dissolute elegance. Therese was pleased with her creation.
It was unusual to see a person write standing up, but Armand, with one foot forward and his jacket open, looked as if he did it often. He could have passed for a pale tubercular poet of the last century, in the act of penning a few lines to the forbidden mistress who would never be quite his.
Judging by the papers he produced, this poet lisped, not in numbers, but in differential equations. Therese also suspected strongly that he was concerned less with love than with the trajectories of artillery shells. In any case, having seen them, he came forward, rather shyly, with a forelock straggling down over his sallow face. When Therese introduced him to Paul Giroud, Armand bowed silently. There was a definite diffidence in his demeanor, but also an obvious confidence. It occurred to Therese that he might have more underlying self-confidence than the much more urbane Giroud. Indeed, the fact that one tended to compare the two men, despite the disparity in their ages, said a good deal for the younger one.
The whole exercise on the floor, and on the sheaves of paper, represented what General Brossard called "a bomber trap to be operated by less than valiant troops." As he explained it,
"We know that the Germans will attack us with a strong air force. It will seek to knock out our communications. Then, there'll be a tank corps which will penetrate deep behind our lines."
General Brossard smiled as he described the likely effect of the German attack. Airfields and railways would be bombed all over eastern France. Within a week or two the Armee de l'Air would be withdrawn to more secure bases, ones from which they could take no part in the action. The railways would be disrupted, and would soon fail to supply the front with the vast quantities of munitions that are required in war.
The German tanks, probably penetrating the front in parallel lines, might easily reach points a hundred kilometers behind the front. Much of the French Army would find itself cut off. The Maginot Line might well be attacked from the rear. General Brossard acted as if any right- thinking and patriotic Frenchman would welcome this scenario. He even winked at Armand, who nodded with satisfaction. The general concluded,
"This is what the Germans hope to do. It's a quite reasonable expectation."
Therese, by long experience, knew better than to be the naive one, and to sound dismayed at such a prospect. It was Giroud who took the bait.
"But that's terrible, Isn't there anything that can be done?"
The general rose and reached down a chair for himself, but not one for Therese, before replying in a tone of gentle remonstration.
"Is it so terrible? We'll lose very few men. The tanks which penetrate our lines will kill very few French soldiers. They'll reach areas where there won't be any."
Therese, knowing how her father loved paradox, did not want him to completely mystify Giroud. She therefore pointed out,
"Surely, we don't want to be left defenseless in the air."
Her father spread his hands reasonably.
"Since the Luftwaffe is far ahead of our air force, they'll begin by shooting down some of our fighters. I'm fairly certain that the bulk of our air force will then be withdrawn beyond their range very quickly. The Germans can then bomb the deserted airfields and put holes in the runways. That won't then matter much."
"But you just pointed out that their bombers will destroy our railway system."
"I said they would try to. In fact, they'll do little damage. Railway bridges are notoriously hard to hit, and the tracks elsewhere are notoriously easy to repair."
The general paused, seemingly enjoying the look of confusion on the faces of his visitors. He then explained,
"Warfare is very much a matter of psychology. The tanks will kill almost no one, but most of the army will panic at the idea of having tanks in its rear. Rumors will multiply. Tanks will be reported everywhere. Men will desert their positions."
General Brossard looked fixedly at Giroud. Seemingly convinced that he understood, the former continued.
"It'll be the same with attacks from the air. When the bombers come, trains will be abandoned by their crews. Repair crews won't be properly organized. Dispatchers, not sure which lines are under attack, will hesitate to dispatch any trains at all. It takes surprisingly little panic to bring a rail network to a complete halt. When the Germans take it over, they'll find that most of the bomb damage can be put right in a few hours. As with the tanks, most of the actual damage will have been in the minds of men."
Paul Giroud seemed to be struggling with these concepts, not sure how seriously to take the general. He replied.
"All this seems unlikely in view of history. Our troops didn't panic or revolt in the 1914 attack. I can't think of any case where an army simply fell apart in the ways that you describe."
"There have been cases. It happens most often when troops suddenly encounter a new offensive weapon, and it seems to them that they have no defense against it. In 1914 the new weapon was the machine gun. But both sides had it. In any case, it was a defensive weapon. It didn't make you want to run. You wanted only to dig into the ground. And that's how the war turned out."
Giroud, having recovered his balance, made a point in reply.
"Coming back to the present time, we also have tanks and airplanes. Our troops shouldn't panic at the sight of them."
"Our airplanes aren't as good, and tanks aren't the best defense against tanks. They're slow, and it takes a minor miracle to bring them into contact with the enemy tanks."
General Brossard here held up his hand to silence Giroud as the latter began to speak. The general continued,
"You're laboring under a more basic misapprehension, sir. It's a fallacy to think that the defender, in this case, France, should use the same weapons as the attacker. Airplanes and tanks are both highly vulnerable, and can be most efficiently destroyed by entirely different weapons. If our soldiers become convinced that we have those weapons, they won't panic and desert."
There was now a gesture to Armand, who came forward and pointed to the floor. He spoke quickly and quietly.
"As regards aircraft, we plan to take advantage of the fact that they'll feel compelled to attack railway bridges with their dive bombers. In order to have any reasonable chance of success, the bombers will have to fly directly along the line and then time their dive to release directly in front of the bridge. The release altitude cannot be more that 800 meters, and will probably be much less."
On the floor was a mock-up of a bridge with a number of variously colored paper discs placed around it. The yellow ones represented helium-filled barrage balloons, while the blue were heavy anti-aircraft guns and the red discs were light rapid-fire AA guns. The balloons were all grouped at one end of the bridge. Armand explained,
"Since the dive bomber must release just short of the bridge while still in its dive, the parabola of its pullout will take it close to the ground well beyond the bridge. If it attempts to bomb toward the balloons the plane will have its wings sliced off by the criss-crossing cables. So the planes can attack only from one direction."
Here General Brossard broke in.
"If we had balloons at both ends, we'd force them to attack with ineffective level bombing techniques. But we want to tempt them to come in low so that we can get them."
The balloons would be set high enough so that the bombers would have to skim right over them just before they released. The AA guns, many of them sited so that the bombers would have to dive directly at them, could then fire right over the balloons.
The heavy guns, firing shells that exploded at pre- determined altitudes, would be arranged in timed batteries. The first guns would fire shells that exploded at, say, 4000 meters, when the bombers were beginning their dives. The next guns, firing a second or two later, would be set for a slightly lower altitude, and so on. A chain of deadly explosions would thus follow the bombers down. An observer with a telephone, a mile off to the side, would be able to direct the alteration of the firing sequence so as to keep it right on the bombers. Armand then explained the remaining stages of the defense.
"Since the cables to the balloons will be on electric winches, we can move them when we wish. Just before the bombers get to the balloons, we'll move them forward, perhaps twenty or thirty meters. The pilots may not even be conscious of this movement, or they may attribute it to the wind. It won't be enough to endanger them, but it'll throw their aim off at the moment of release. It'll also be just then that light AA fire opens up from all directions. Just beyond the bridge, we'll have a special train of flat cars with more light AA's crammed on them. The bombers will, by that time, be extremely close to the ground. Moreover, the pilots normally black out for a few seconds at that point, and can't take evasive action. The train should be able to shoot down a good many pilots before they ever come to."
Armand seemed to consider this more a matter of mathematics than warfare. Indeed, given certain assumptions about the accuracy of gunfire under various conditions, he had arrived at probabilities for each bomber's being shot down at various points. As it turned out, the probability that a bomber in the middle of the stream would be shot down, either before or after bombing, was .728. General Brossard remarked,
"Of course, we wouldn't want to actually shoot down 73 per cent of the attackers. If we did, they'd stop dive bombing bridges. It's again a matter of psychology. They must lose no more than 30 per cent of their planes in any given attack. They must also get some hits on the bridges."
He again waved to Armand. The latter continued,
"If a bridge is actually knocked down into the river, it takes almost as long to repair it as to build a new bridge. But, if it remains in position, damaged members can be replaced relatively easily."
Armand had diagrams and calculations. It turned out that, if certain key structural members were duplicated by others running parallel some distance away, the probability of the bridge's destruction would be reduced by a factor of four under the most likely set of circumstances. General Brossard summed up,
"It's a game we're proposing to the Germans. Railway bridges are the most vital objectives they can go for with their planes. The destruction of the majority of them would almost automatically defeat our army. We give them a chance at those bridges, and we allow them some hits. Their pilots will exaggerate them, as all pilots do. That will give them hope. In return, we exact a heavy price. But it's one that, in view of the importance of the objectives, they'll keep paying. There's only one thing that they won't understand. That we control the rules of the game, and that we can change them whenever we wish."
"How will our men feel about this game? Won't the gunners run when the bombers scream down on them?"
"Most of the AA gunners will be in positions that are well dug in and sand-bagged. Their guns will have armored shields. They'll know exactly what to expect. Best of all, they'll see a good many enemy planes shot down before they get close enough to seem threatening. And they'll also know that the balloons will be moved to protect them at the last minute. It'll take some nerve to hang in there and shoot straight, but nothing like what it takes to withstand a bayonet attack. Nor will it be like being shelled in the trenches. The frightening thing there is that one thinks it will go on indefinitely until one is hit. A bombing attack ends relatively quickly."
"The men most at risk will actually be the ones on the train beyond the bridge. They'll have less protection and, because of our balloon movement, most of the bombs are likely to fall beyond the bridge. But they'll begin with a false sense of security because they'll be some distance from the target itself. They probably won't be told about the balloon movement."
General Brossard nodded sagely at this suggestion whose implications, thankfully, seemed to be lost on Giroud. Knowing that her father and Armand could go on indefinitely in this vein, Therese was afraid that Giroud would get overtaxed. He might, for that matter, already think that the other two were crazy. She therefore took this opportunity to change the subject, as if she had been bored by the military conversation. By the time that they left, she had managed to draw out her father and Armand sufficiently on other subjects to show that they were sane and civilized.
Later, at a cafe down the street, Therese asked Giroud what he thought of the whole episode. He replied,
"I hardly know what to think. Your father and that young man, Armand, are obviously highly intelligent. But, whether they're right or not, I have no idea. Where did you find Armand, incidentally?"
It didn't surprise Therese that Giroud was more interested in the people he had met than in their ideas. She replied,
"He's the son of a friend. He got thrown out of his lycee, basically because he works only on what interests him, and won't tolerate fools. But it's really quite easy to stimulate his interest. He doesn't have a lot of blind spots and prejudices. His only bias is to reduce things to numbers whenever possible."
"So you took him around to meet your father. It's funny to see them working together like that. Did you choose Armand's clothes?"
Therese was amused to go from the entirely masculine world of her father and Armand to the quite feminine intuitions of Paul Giroud. While the latter was decidedly heterosexual, it was often possible to talk with him as if he were another woman.
"Armand's father threw him out of the house, and he's been living with us ever since. He's really just a boy, but with an adult brain. He's entirely cut off from young people his own age, so I thought we might as well treat him as an adult.
"Helping your father combat the plans of the German General Staff certainly amounts to doing that."
"Incidentally, Hitler helps us in that area. Insteaad of keeping his new weapons and plans secret, he trots them out in order to intimidate potential enemies. So we know that the attack will hinge on airplanes and tanks. The tanks will break through, and the rest of the army, which is more dependent than ours on horses, will follow very slowly. German generals are encouraged to write articles explaining how it'll be done. We need only read them."
"So the initiative is really ours. We know how they'll attack, but they don't know how we'll defend and counter- attack."
"To a degree. Of course, the attitudes of our generals are hardly secret, nor are the capabilities of our forces."
"I don't see how the Germans could anticipate the kind of tactics your father has in mind."
Therese, delighted at this statement, replied,
"His secret is to use only the most traditional weapons and equipment, things like artillery and railways, in new ways. That can be done without upsetting a very conservative and unimaginative high command. It could also give the Germans a real surprise."
"I'm still not sure our generals will accept such tactics. The idea of engaging the enemy in a game and shooting down fewer planes than you can sounds more radical than anything even the Germans have in mind."
"It won't be put in quite that way. There are also historical analogues. For example, retreating when you don't have to in order to draw the enemy into a trap."
"I suppose so, but I can't quite imagine it's being approved, particularly if they find out that a sixteen year old boy had a major hand in it."
"The general staff will be told only what it needs to know."
Therese let Giroud hang there for a moment. She then said,
"You do agree, don't you, that without something like this we're lost?"
"Oh yes. I have no doubt of that. Without some extraordinary defense, the Germans will cut right through us."
The time had come to take things extremely slowly.
"The little session we just had at my father's may have been somewhat misleading. You may have gotten the impression that what needs to be done is more military than political."
"The tactics are important, of course. And you haven't even heard of the ones for dealing with tanks. But, in the end, both sets of tactics come down to railways. For almost a hundred years wars have been fought with railways as much as with guns, and we plan to make even greater use of them than before. But railways are civilian and lie in the political sector."
"What is it that you want me to do about railways?"
"Well, we already decided to create a civilian agency to buy foreign aircraft engines. We can generalize it and make it an agency for the application of science and technology to defense. Within it, we could create a railway directorate which would develop techniques and cooperate with both railway personnel and army units in training soldiers to use them."
It was out now. There was nothing to do but wait to see how Giroud would take it.
"I know, Therese, that you have been preparing me for this for a long time. I will now ask you a few questions."
The initiative was now truly lost, but there was no help for it. It was Giroud who was closer to actual power. Still, Therese was pretty sure what the questions would be. The first one she had anticipated exactly.
"Is your father to be put in charge of this directorate?"
"Not necessarily. He's happily retired, and has no thirst for power. As long as it's someone receptive to his ideas, he could be a consultant behind the scenes."
Giroud nodded, apparently with satisfaction. He then asked,
"The projects you mentioned seem to involve co-operation with the army, and, to some extent, the air force. But you mentioned the armed forces. Is this directorate supposed to help the navy in some way?"
"Not primarily. But it'll be easier to keep it autonomous from the army if that possibility is left open."
"And you want to keep it autonomous from the army because the army high command is too stupid to use it effectively?"
Again seeming to be satisfied with her answer, Giroud remarked,
"I gather that the idea is to make it all sound traditional, unexceptional, and innocuous. It'll use up some of the money that the army isn't spending. Will it also benefit some politically deserving contractors?"
This last was as much a statement as a question. Therese acquiesced with a gesture. Giroud then summed up,
"Another of your packages, I see. Everyone wins, including France. And you no longer take a cut in such cases?"
"It's hardly necessary."
"Have you approached Leon Blum with this matter?"
This, Therese knew, was the question Giroud really cared about. Had he had it in mind from the beginning? Whether he had or not, it was now time to withhold information, and also to regain the initiative. Knowing that she had to be extremely careful at this point, Therese laughed playfully and replied,
"I see that you've guessed that our little project involves people besides my father, Armand, and myself. In fact, I have a feeling that some of the main ideas are going to come from an entirely different person, someone you would never guess."
"Someone I don't know?"
"I shouldn't think so. He's not French and not in politics. A former German officer who's married to an acquaintance of mine."
Nothing less shocking would have distracted Giroud from the subject of Leon Blum. He did, indeed, look quite alarmed. Therese was quick to reassure him.
"Don't worry. He's now thoroughly American, and as reliable as anyone could be."
Giroud demonstrated his remarkable memory for people.
"You've given me one clue too many! But the wife is surely..."
As Giroud paused, Therese finished his sentence,
"Unreliable. Certainly. But the husband doesn't share his thoughts with her. Anyway, before you make up your mind, have a look at this draft for a speech and see if anything can be done with it."
Therese casually handed over a manuscript which went considerably beyond
the one she had given him the previous week. It, too, had been prepared
more than a month previously, as he probably guessed. Therese then looked
at her watch, and made a motion to go. She remained when she caught an
entirely different look in Giroud's eye. She thought it unlikely that there
would be any more difficult questions. On the contrary, she anticipated
only ones that could be answered with the greatest ease.