Slate, Rossin and I began our career as collectors of German mines by going to a school conducted by Engineer troops, who have had some experience in mine removal. We study and handle all the various mines used by the Germans; these include not only mines and material of German manufacture but also materiel captured from the French, Belgians, Dutch, Czechs, Poles, Russians, Italians and British. We study their fuses, igniters, and safety gadgets, and learn how they are most often booby-trapped. We become proficient in the use of the mine detector, an instrument so sensitive to the presence of metal that it will pick up an old horseshoe nail buried a foot under the ground.
When, in the opinion of the engineers we have attained sufficient prowess with the mine detector that we may be trusted in the vicinity of a live mine, we go to the great German mine fields near Carteret. During the first two days we clear fields some distance from the beach, which are intended as bivouac areas for newly arrived troops. No sooner do we tune the detectors and begin to sweep the first field than the detectors set up an angry buzzing like a nest of angry rattlesnakes; the indicator needles flick over to the danger point, and we halt in place, frozen like bird dogs at the point. In awestruck whispers we summon the probers; stealthily they advance and probe gingerly in the danger area with their bayonets. Slate's bayonet rasps on something metallic, and he turns pale. Cautiously he exhumes the metallic body. Is it a Teller Mine? No. Is it an S-Mine, or even an ancient Belgian Box Mine? No.
It is a very rusty horseshoe, dating from the 16th century. Somewhat frustrated, we resume sweeping. At the end of two days we have swept several fields, and have found two Teller Mines, 653 horseshoes of varying size and state of disintegration, two million nails, one cow-bell, three cans of C Ration hash discarded and decently buried by some fastidious doughboy, and approximately nine tons of Flak fragments. The knees of our pants are worn and muddy and the blades of our bayonets are shiny from much prodding and probing in the rocky Norman soil. Our nerves are frayed, our tempers short, and our enthusiasm at low ebb. We argue that this area was never mined by the Germans, that they never had any intention of doing so, and that the two mines we did find were probably buried by some German private who was tired of carrying them around.
Rain Transforms Area
The engineers are sympathetic and anxious to oblige. Next morning amid one of those fine refreshing Normandy showers, which transforms our bivouac area into a shallow lake and impresses us a new with the high capillarity and sponge-like qualities of our GI raincoats-we break camp and move to the beach. There, the engineers tell us, we will find beaucoup mines.
We pull into the new bivouac area near the beach. The rain has stopped falling, and the sun half heartedly attempts to penetrate the low scudding clouds. We pitch pup-tents and stow our gear inside, then look about for wood with which to build a fire. There is wood immediately available, but it is of course wet and like most French wood possesses great inherent non-inflammable properties. None of us have been Boy Scouts and we are unable to get a fire going. I have exhausted two boxes of matches when I hear a quiet voice at my elbow: "Messieurs. Permettez moi…."
He is old, this Frenchman, tall and with a long sad face, and has a gray drooping moustache. He produces what appears to be a handful of dry pine shavings; these he arranges on the ground. Over them he sprinkles twigs which he breaks from the nearest hedgerow and in a moment returns with a bundle of faggots, miraculously dry. He borrows a match from me, carefully ignites the shavings, and in a few seconds we have a fire. We warm our hands and press cigarettes upon the old Frenchman. These he accepts gracefully; he lights one and smokes it appreciatively in deep lungfuls. We have come, he asks hopefully, to remove the mines? That is good. Good. The mines have been very bad. Only yesterday, he says, a cow belonging to Le Maire was so indiscreet as to step upon a mine and be blown up, Pouf! Like that. And only three weeks ago the daughter of M. Girondin, the baker, had the misfortune to detonate a mine while driving her father's sheep from the pasture. Ah, the dirty Boche, even after the Americans have driven him from the soil of France, his accursed mines remain to pollute the soil and to maim children and cattle… Sadly, the old man regards the remaining eighth inch of cigarette, and tosses it into the fire.
My friends are thirsty, as always, and the sea breeze is cool. He shrugs and smiles sadly. Cognac? "Ah, Messierus…you do not know the Boche. What he has not drunk he has carried away. There is no cognac in the village." If, however, we would like some cider …? We would. The old Frenchman mounts an ancient bicycle and pedals away down the road. In a few minutes he returns, carrying an old leather knapsack containing four bottles of cider. We reward him with cigarettes, chocolate, and soap. I remember that in France bottles are precious and unobtainable; how may I return these bottles, I ask the old Frenchman. Taking my arm, he leads me to a gap in the hedgerow, and points down the road. I see the spire of a church, and the red roofs of a village. The old Frenchman explains: as one approaches the church one perceives a street on the left; his is the third house on the left side of this street, and there is a large iron gate. In case I am unable to find the house, I may ask anyone in the village to lead me to the house of M. Gustaf. I thank him for the cider, we shake hands warmly, and he rides away on the ancient bicycle.
In the afternoon we begin clearing the minefield along the beach. The terrain is mostly rolling marshland with high grass, until we reach the sand dunes which rise two or three hundred yards from the sea. From these the sand slopes gradually to the surf. The first belt of the German minefield lies near the road which runs into the village. Engineers have previously located the edges of the field, and have strung white tape to mark it. We are assigned a lane to clear, tune our detectors, and go to work at once.
This first belt consists entirely of Belgian box-mines, which are comparatively easy to neutralize. They are laid out in a methodical pattern, and in may cases have not been well camouflaged. As long as we proceed with reasonable caution it is not dangerous work. At the end of the first afternoon's work we feel tired, but not particularly glamorous.
After chow I collect the empty bottles, Slate, Rossin, and my friend Deaner who is 1st Sergeant of Headquarters Battery, and we slip through the hedgerow to visit M. Gustaf. We stroll down the road between twin rows of poplars, enjoying our after-supper cigarettes, and before we reach the church in the village we meet M. Gustaf. He has come to meet us, he explains, because he fears we might be unable to find his house. He guides us down the narrow street, through the iron gate, and into his house.
The house is old-centuries old-with thick stone walls and small windows. We go into a small room containing a huge fireplace, a table, a cupboard, and a cream separator. A small fire burns on the hearth, and Madame Gustaf is pouring milk into the separator. M. Gustaf introduces us, and we present Madame with a small gift of soap, which sends the good woman into ecstasies. They have had no soap for two years.
Rossin and I insist on turning the handle of the cream separator for Madame, in spite of her laughing protests. Then M. Gustaf returns from the cellar, carrying a large pitcher; he brings glasses from the cupboard, and Rossin and I graciously relinquish the handle of the cream separator. The cider is cool, creamy, and delicious. With the aid of my indispensable pocket Hugo, M. Gustaf and I carry on a conversation. We speak very slowly and carefully, and at such times as my accent becomes too baffling, or he uses a word with which I am not familiar, we write the phrases in my notebook and fall back on Hugo. This procedure works surprisingly well. M. Gustaf tells how the Germans came to the village, how they took what they wanted without recourse to formal requisition, how they took the young men to work in their factories, and how they attempted to break the spirit of the French…not too successfully. M. Gustaf two sons had both escaped the Germans; Charles, the elder, having been with the Free French in Africa from the beginning, and Georges, the younger, having run away and joined the Maquis the moment he received orders from the German Kommandantur to report for work in Germany. Georges had hidden in the forests with the Maquis for a year and a half, and on D-Day had guided the paratroopers who took Carentan. M. Gustaf goes to another room and brings out a sheaf of papers for me to read; they are various edicts, orders, and directives from the German Kommandantur, the French translation typed out neatly beneath the signed German order. My German being considerably better than my French, I am able to read these orders, and from their tone I deduce that the old Kommandantur had been gradually working himself into a state of apoplexy because of the uncooperative attitude of these Norman peasants. Particularly, there was a matter of a door in a building occupied by German troops; a ten month campaign to have this door repaired by the village carpenter so that it would remain closed on windy nights had evidently resulted in bitter failure.
Chuckling, M. Gustaf replenishes the pitcher for the third time. Georges, he says, will be home on Saturday evening; he is employed as an interpreter at the American hospital at Bonneville. If we could come again on Saturday evening, M. Gustaf would like us to meet Georges, who speaks fluent English. I assure him that we will return if possible.
M. Gustaf brings out the family photographs; first the photograph of himself and Madame taken on their wedding day; then Charles, in the uniform of a Lieutenant of Spahis; Georges, a very serious young student; and last an old photograph, made in 1913, of M. Gustaf himself as a trooper in a Curiassier regiment. He is proud of his service in the war of 1914-18; he brings out the plumed casque he wore, the steel breastplates, the long sabre, and the spurs and bridle he used. He explains, as we admire these relics, that he had been at much trouble to hide them from the Boche.
At about 2200 Madame makes coffee, M. Gustaf produces a small bottle of cognac, and we have coffee and cognac, which is not nearly so terrible as it sounds. Actually, the two blend well, and immediately produce a great wave of internal warmth which extends to the toes. We smoke a good night cigarette with M. Gustaf, then take our leave, promising to return on Saturday evening and meet Georges.
Mine Belt Found
Next day we finish the belt of Belgian mines, and work half-way across the marsh without encountering anything save a few birds and marsh hares. Then we find a belt of Teller mines. The belt is three mines deep, the mines are placed with beautiful geometric precision, and every third one is booby-trapped. We neutralize them and proceed toward the sand dunes a few hundred yards ahead. There, near the crest of the dunes, we find the last belt of mines. We cut lanes through this belt, work through, and weep the beach. No mines there. I pause for a moment on top a sand dune, break out my field glasses, and look out to sea. There, a few miles to the west lies the isle of Guernsey, where two German divisions are bottled up. Without planes, with only a few small boats, and with dwindling stores or food and ammunition, they sit out the war. To attempt to occupy the islands by force would be a considerable undertaking, would divert troops and materiel badly needed elsewhere, and so these two German divisions are left to their own devices, under the watchful eye of the RAF and the Royal Navy. The day is clear enough so that I can make out the green of meadows, haystacks, and the roofs of a few buildings. But no Germans. I return to my mine detector and we continue neutralization of the minefield.
On Saturday evening at about 1900 Slate, Rossin, Deaner and I return to M. Gustaf's house in the village. M. Gustaf greets us warmly, and proudly introduces his son Georges, a slight, thin-faced youth with a surprising shock of black hair and deep-set very blue eyes. He greets us in English, to the intense delight of his father and mother. His English is, I regret to state, not much better than my French. When later in the evening we reach an impasse in which he is at a loss for the correct English work and I for the French, we reach simultaneously into our pockets and bring forth identical pocket volumes of M. Hugo's excellent dictionary; the only difference between them is that Georges' copy shows evidence of much more use.
We have a fine conversation: Georges proudly shows me the typed order from the German Kommandantur to appear at the office of the district Naval Surgeon for physical examination preparatory to going to Germany as a laborer. He tells me a little of his life with the Maquis and how they worked with the paratroopers in the first days of the invasion. He marvels at the toughness of the paratroopers, at their ferocity in battle, and recounts with gusto and appropriate gestures how the paratroopers dealt wit German sniper. "My friend," he says, "it is very good for the French people to see so many dead Germans. Very good for us. For there were those of us who had forgotten that Germans could be killed."
Georges is curious as to our attitude toward the Germans: do we desire to see the Germans punished for their crimes? Will America be willing to occupy a portion of Germany for a time in order to see that the peace is kept? Will France be given a share in the occupation?
I reply that I am neither a politician nor a diplomat, but that in my opinion the Germans will be taken care of adequately. Yes, I think we will probably be willing to help police Germany for a while and that France will most certainly share in the occupation. But, I add, the immediate problem at hand is killing Germans, not occupying their country; I and my three friends are artillerymen and this latter business is more in our line than worrying about what is going to happen after the war.
Georges then wishes to know if the politicians in America are as despicable as those who weakened France before the war. I reply that we have our politicians also, and admit that they are sometimes troublesome but that they add color to the national scene provide a subject for conversation in otherwise dull times-such as the seasons of the year when we cannot enjoy football and baseball-and that they do a very thorough job of spending the taxpayer's money. Georges shakes his head; it is very difficult to comprehend the attitude of the Americans-we are overly serious about love, for instance, yet we worry not at all about politics.
Now in France he says, we take our politics seriously. In America you have only the two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. Or is it only the Democrats? (I hasten to assure him that a few Republicans remain hidden in the tall grass.) But here in France we have the Republicans, and the Anti-Republicans; we have the Democrats and the Anti-Democrats; the Royalists and the Anti-Royalists; the Communists and the Anti-Communists; the Socialists and the Anti-Socialists; the Agriculturists and the Anti-Agriculturists. Members of different parties do not speak to one another, nor sit at the same table in a café. And none of the politicians are any good. France is an unhappy country.
Old M. Gustaf winks at me and produces a bottle of excellent old white wine. Only five bottles left he explains sadly and these because they have been carefully hidden from the Boche. We sip the wine slowly and with appreciation. At 2200 we four Americans produce small parting gifts for the Gustafs, shake hands solemnly and go back to our pup-tents.
Next day we finish our duty with the engineers and go back to the battery. There we find many rumors afloat. The strongest is that we are shoving off for the front very soon. But the most important thing to us at the moment is that the battery is again eating B rations. No more hash for a while, we hope.
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* Much thanks to Rob Floerke, son of Vernon Floerke for contributing this series by Paul Gawthrop, discovered in his dad's Wartime scrapbooks.