A Dubious Victory
A Farmhouse west of Suresnes, May 16, 1940
General Brossard had come out of retirement to act as Inspector of the Military Railway Directorate. The command, consisting largely of artillery trains and supporting railwaymen, was scattered geographically in a way that other formations of comparable size wouldn't have been. One of General Brossard's principal duties was to travel to the various formations in the command. Since he was one of the designers of the whole scheme, he also, in the relatively informal command structure, had considerable local authority wherever he happened to be.
It also happened that the artillery train covering the defile west of Suresnes was commanded by a former subordinate of General Brossard during the previous war. While the general was empowered to give orders in the circumstances, he felt that it would be a breach of military courtesy to do so. After all, the only troops in the area were under the command of his old friend, Colonel Fouquet, and they surely didn't need an additional commander on top of the gallant and capable officer appointed to lead them.
The general therefore avoided even the appearance of giving orders, and contented himself with the making of a few casual suggestions in informal conversation with the colonel. These were, in every case, followed to the letter.
General Brossard, so punctilious in his relations with his subordinates, felt no compunctions about giving orders to his daughter. Ironically, while Colonel Fouquet treated the general's suggestions as if they were orders, Therese treated his orders as if they were suggestions.
What made it worse was that she had tagging along behind her a civilian politician and mere popinjay, Paul Giroud. Over the general's strenuous objections, she had insisted on positioning herself with the forward artillery spotters. They were hidden in a farmhouse on a hill on the north side of the Aisne, and had a view of the entire valley. When the general pointed out that they would be within a few hundred meters of large German forces on the road below, not to mention the ensuing artillery fire, he found a ready listener in Giroud. But Therese was headstrong.
When squads of German soldiers began to search the hill, Therese did wonder if her father had been right. While she would have been insulted if anyone had suggested that she could pass herself off as a peasant woman, she was preparing to do just that when she wondered how she could justify the presence of a half dozen French soldiers hiding in the attic of her farmhouse. Fortunately, the Germans seemed to have no interest in farmhouses, and passed right by as they returned to the river.
Immediately afterwards, when the guns opened up, they had an excellent view of the action. Giroud was appalled by the loss of life. Therese replied matter-of-factly,
"They'd do the same thing to our men if they had the chance. They may yet."
The action lasted only a fairly brief time, and the spotters then attempted to count the number of tanks and other vehicles destroyed. This was virtually impossible to do. They had been so close together that the burning and exploding tanks had merged together in a ribbon of fire the length of the valley. If there hadn't been a brisk breeze blowing the smoke off to the southeast, not even that would have been visible. The spotters finally gave up and began to load the truck that had been sent to pick them up.
As they were having a last look around, Therese noticed something rippling the high grass. Upon inspection, it turned out to be a man, a German officer in the black uniform of the tank corps. He was barely crawling along. Or not crawling, really, but pushing himself ever so slowly up the hill on his back. It was fascinating in an awful sort of way.
It reminded Therese of a pigeon with no legs she had once seen. It had moved along by scraping and fluttering its wings against the ground. The pigeon had taken no notice of her, or even of some potentially hostile small boys. This creature, whether or not he noticed her, seemed as little interested. He was still inching his way along, his bare blonde head occasionally visible as it parted the grass. He showed no signs of pain. On the contrary, he looked to have coolly and confidently undertaken a journey of no small distance in this unorthodox and ungainly fashion. Therese couldn't imagine where he might think he was going.
At this moment, Paul Giroud came up to tell Therese that they were ready to leave. When he saw the German, he gave a choking sound, and staggered backward over the uneven ground. Therese, looking at Giroud, realized that the action had been a great strain for him, and that this was the final straw. With fashionable hat and gloves, he looked exactly what he was: A man who should be in a cafe discussing literature, or, at most, making political gestures with his hands. Giroud's face had an expression Therese had never seen on it before.
Alarmed, she reached for his arm, but he tore it out of her grasp. He then ran to the officer and stamped his foot down on the man's face. Giroud then aimed a kick at the German's head, but missed. Therese had a momentary glimpse of Giroud, one foot almost as high as his head, before he lost his balance and fell. She, regaining the power of motion, reached Giroud, now on all fours, just as he was clawing at the German's eyes. She tried unsuccessfully to drag her friend off, but was helped by two soldiers who had rushed up.
The German, relieved of his attacker, began creeping along as before. Therese bent over him and summoned up enough German to ask him where he was wounded. The other stopped, looked surprised, and tried to wipe the blood away from his eyes. Therese used her handkerchief to good effect. Giroud had caused only a few cuts, but she apologized for him. The German smiled and replied in passable French, explaining that his leg was broken. Therese replied,
"We'll put a splint on it and take you to a hospital. You'll probably be liberated by your own army soon enough."
With that, she gave instructions to a soldier and set about rescuing Paul Giroud. This proved a more difficult task. He was sitting on the ground, and wouldn't move or speak. She explained that they would have to move. German bombers might turn up at any time. If he didn't move, he would have to be dragged. Finally, he rose wordlessly with her hand on his arm, and allowed himself to be loaded into the front seat of the truck.
The train had remained in position on the theory that, from the air, it was less visible where it was than it would be steaming through the countryside. They would move after dark. In the meantime, there not being much to do, Therese joined her father in the coach which was attached to the rear of the train.
Since the train was pointed south, almost at the end of the track, Therese and her father, on the observation platform of the coach, were looking in the direction they would go. The prospect was of a leafy bower with shrubs and trees overhanging the track so densely as to partially shut out the bright sunlight. There was, lying beside the line, a whole series of branches that the train had broken off on its southward passage. Indeed, once they started, it would be uncomfortable, or even dangerous, to remain on the open platform. For the moment, however, it gave a feeling of security from enemy dive bombers that might be prowling overhead.
Inside the coach, the German was lying in the aisle with his leg splinted, and Giroud was sitting immobile in a seat some distance away, apparently no longer inclined to attack the wounded man. These things were far from Therese's mind as, rather concerned, she listened to her father. General Brossard didn't share Colonel Fouquet's jubilation. The general spoke with considerable concern in his voice.
"I doubt that we'll be able to repeat this. They'll be looking for hidden tracks from now on."
"Won't it slow down their advance if they have to search every hillside?"
"Some, and that's useful. Probably more important than destroying a tank division. After all, they have nine more, most of which have penetrated."
"Is our front completely collapsed?"
"It is in the Ninth Army area. The gap that's opened up can't possibly be closed. They'll even have this road cleared in a few days, and be moving along it."
Both lapsed into silence. Never had the defeat of France seemed so certain as in the moment of this extraordinary victory. A German tank division had been almost totally destroyed, but it seemed to make no difference. The reliable reports from General Brossard's own network showed that the tank breakthrough was spreading uncontrollably.
The enemy could go to Paris if they wished, or anywhere. Most likely, they wouldn't bother with Paris, and would instead trap the French and British armies against the channel coast. When the general spoke again, it was as if he was giving orders to a subordinate - one who could be trusted to act in an intelligent way, but who might not realize the importance of the mission. This time, Therese took him seriously.
"There's a man you must find, an English general named Spears. He has no command, but he'll be at one of the headquarters."
It turned out that General Spears, whom General Brossard knew slightly, had been a British liason officer at Marshal Foch's headquarters in the last war. He was still acting in a similar, though unofficial, capacity as he toured the various command posts. His mission was partly political, and he also kept in touch with the leaders of the government. According to General Brossard, something else was even more important.
"He's a close friend and associate of Winston Churchill. When Churchill gets conflicting information, as he will, he'll turn to his friend for the true picture. And here is the message he must get."
The general stood with his hands on the railing as he looked down the track. He remained with his back to Therese as he spoke.
"Our politicians will claim this as a great victory. Even our generals, who should know better, will say that the tide is turning. All will urge the British to send more men, more tanks, and more airplanes to France. They must do nothing of the sort. Everything they send will be lost. They must preserve everything they can for their own defense. Their turn will come."
General Brossard then turned toward Therese and she nodded. It had been their secret for a long time that France might have to be sacrificed to save England. Only then could England, aided by the United States and perhaps Russia, destroy Hitler. This was, indeed, the secret she had kept so long from Paul Giroud. It looked as if the time had come.
The general concluded,
"When you find General Spears, you must give him this message from me, the victor of Suresnes. France is already defeated. There's no hope. They must get their men out."
General Brossard wrote out and signed a message for General Spears,
but he impressed on Therese the importance of making sure that Spears understood
and believed it. In view of the urgency of this message, it was decided
that Therese wouldn't wait for the train. The truck which had brought them
from the farm, together with two drivers, was put at her disposal. General
Spears might be anywhere between Paris and Belgium.