Thursday, June 11, 2015

Agent Pearl Witherington, Gen. George Patton, and the way to win a war.

Guest post by John Atwood.
For my wife’s first book, Women Heroes of World War II, to help her develop her chapter on Pearl Witherington, I had to read Pearl’s French memoir, Pauline.  (And I read through it many times in the limited role I had in helping with Code Name Pauline.)  So I am one of a small number of English-speaking people in the world who first learned about this admirable woman in French, before a translation was available in English. 

My French was fairly rusty at the time I first began to read, so it was slow going and hard work.  But, as anyone who has ever done that can testify, being slowed down in such a fashion can sometimes make the reading more rewarding.  At least, there is a certain elation you feel when you crack the code and grasp the simplest sentence.  And this prevented a glib, shallow gloss-over of her story.  Things slowed down to almost real time, allowing opportunity for much reflection and visualization.

And when it comes to World War II, visualization is something for which I had developed a knack.  The topic had been a fascination for me since I was a child.  I grew up in the shadow of the war.  My father served in the Pacific Theater.  My friends father’s had also served; they were all heroes to us. My brother and I re-enacted what we understood about the fighting as kids. 

Because my grandfather had also served in World War I, I was certain I would also end up in the Army.  But it never actually happened.  My generation’s war was—how can I say it—a somewhat different story.  I was no draft dodger—my four years of college outlasted the Vietnam War—but I couldn’t believe in Vietnam well enough to leave school and volunteer. 

But like many who didn’t go, I have always been tortured by the questions: “Could I have handled it?”, “How would I have reacted under fire?” etc.

During the 1980’s driven by such questions and also wanting to try to understand my father’s generation and times, I started reading everything I could get my hands on about World War II.  I had been an undergraduate History major and had taken upper level courses on the War, but this post education curiosity gave me to opportunity to dig in real deep, and I went at it with a passion.  I wanted to get a sense of what it would have been like at D-Day, Pelilieu, Iwo Jima, etc., part of that almost suicidal scenario of going up against fixed machine gun emplacements and pre-calculated mortar fire.

Thus predisposed, as I carefully worked my way through Pauline, I noticed from the headings that I was coming to a major event in Pearl’s career, the Battle of Les Souches.  Pearl had come to France with training in weapons and demolition, and was noted by her trainers as “the best shot we have had so far”.  The early part of her career had been the less glamorous (but no less dangerous) role as a courier, but I couldn’t wait for the chapter on Les Souches so I could read about Pearl in action.

But this is what I found when I got to the point where the German’s attacked:

I threw on my clothes, picked up my bag and the cocoa tin where the money was kept.  As I climbed down the ladder from the attic, German bullets were whizzing past my ears.  At the bottom, I jumped on my bike and cycled to the château’s outhouses where the weapons we had just received were stocked.  They hadn’t even been cleaned yet and were still covered in grease.  Never mind, I hastily loaded the guns and put detonators in the hand grenades. 

One of the chaps rushed up to me and told me to leave as quickly as possible, the Germans were approaching.  They had gotten out of their trucks and were advancing in extended order across the plain towards the château.  I dropped everything and ran to La Barraque, a farm which was about a mile from the château . . . I didn’t want to be caught in a house.  I fled into a wheat-field . . .  I had a revolver.  I decided that if arrested it would be better if I weren’t carrying any weapons, so I buried it. . .  All day long I remained hidden in the field.  
What?  I thought.  Did I translate that right?  Pearl Witherington, trained fighter, great shot, weapons expert, didn’t stand and fight to the death, didn’t even hold on to her pistol, but fled into a wheat field with a cocoa tin full of money?  Nope, there it was: « j’ai pris…le boite de cacao ou il y avait l’argent.  Je me suis enfuie dans le champ de blé. »   That certainly wasn’t what I had expected to read.  

And I didn’t get it at first.  It took me a while to get my head around it.  But eventually, I came to understand, and in understanding, gained my own personal admiration for her innate intelligence and sense of focus.

One at least had to grant that on this day they were hopelessly out- numbered.  American’s have been schooled in “remember the Alamo” notions of heroic last stands by an outnumbered few.  But even that accomplished a strategic purpose —a ragtag bunch was holding up Santa Ana’s army until Sam Houston could get the real Texas army trained for battle.  At the Battle of Les Souches, there was nothing like that in play.  The Wehrmacht troops that attacked were a local force, not the ones heading for Normandy.  There was no one here to “hold up”.  Nor was there any strategic point, fort or field that needed defending to the last.  The Resistance did not fight like that, their approach was more fluid. 

But the much larger reason for Pearl’s action was her whole take on what she was about.  Unlike my preoccupation—and I dare say what might be the preoccupation of many people—the last thing on her mind was any consideration of how she would perform in battle.  She had no point to prove, no “investors” to answer to, no critics to watch out for.  She was free to follow a very pure game plan.

As Code Name Pauline relates, Pearl had succeeded in escaping Nazi-occupied France at the end of 1940.  She was comfortably ensconced in war- related work in London.  But her mind rankled with the images of the Nazi’s imposing their whole shtick on Paris.  Through the auspices of the SOE, she was sent to do a job, as she put it, and that job was conceived by the entire maquis as one thing: “to chuck the Germans out.  Full top.”  It was this motivation that brought her to that critical day at Les Souches. 

But in order to function, to continue the fight, one crucial kind of resource was required—money.  It is easy to think of the Resistance as being a kind of volunteer organization, held together by ideology and sacrifice.  And while that was certainly true, there were some pragmatic considerations as well.  Most of the young men involved were fugitives from the STO—the obligatory work service.  Able-bodied men were ‘drafted’ to work for the Nazi’s, sometimes even shipped to Germany or other areas.  Young men who refused had one alternative—to go into hiding, to go off the grid, to go into “the sticks”, the French word for which was “le maquis”. 

Of course, being off the grid meant severe limitations on the ability to earn an income or purchase necessary sustenance.  Some might have been rugged individualists with the skills to fend for themselves and live off the land.  But most needed some means of support. 

Pearl knew there were many young men in hiding in the rural area of France where she was working, most of them quite ready to join with her in the fight to rid France of the detestable Nazi infestation, especially since the Allies had now landed.  But she also knew necessity would force them to join themselves with someone who could pay them, especially if these men had families depending on them. 

From the point of view of living to fight another day, she knew the chateau was expendable, as were the weapons she had.  She could find another base of operations, as her story reveals.  She could eventually reestablished contact with London, and obtain more weapons, explosives, etc.  But in the short run, were she to keep her network together, she would need to be able to pay the men.
As I thought on Pearl’s choices at Les Souches, I was reminded of that speech that General George Patton had given, the one delivered by George C Scott as Patton at the opening of the 1970 movie.  “No _(soldier)_ ever won a war by dying for his country…”  That phrase kept going through my mind as I considered what Pearl had done on that day.  I wondered if the similarity were only in that one phrase, or if it might extend throughout the speech or if even there might be a lot of similarity between their two characters.

The speech continues: “he won it by making the other poor dumb _____ die for his country.”  When I saw the speech in the movie, back in 1970, I was not favorably impressed.  It was delivered in what seemed a dour tone, with an appeal that I characterized as American macho exceptionalism: Americans love a winner, every American loves to be a winner, kill all the cowards, etc.  Patton seemed a bullet-headed bigot, which assessment seemed to be supported by his slapping of a soldier suffering from battle fatigue.  But, as we all know, movie portrayals can be quite unreliable: virtues can be magnified, as can be faults, in either way to the point of caricature.  Patton admitted he used bluster and profanity to get his men’s attention and to make his points stick. 

The speech in question was given several times to the Third Army before the Allied invasion of Normandy, to gatherings of soldiers most of whom were going into battle for the first time.   No doubt many of them were in contemplation of “the question”: Am I ready to die for my country?  I began to wonder if, rather than attempting “macho motivation”, he was not using bluster as a tactic to shake his green troops out of the trap of such thinking.  And in that, perhaps he was doing them a kindness.  The full text of the speech supports this notion—and is notably more jocular than that rendered by George C. Scott—though I suppose only soldiers who actually heard it can confirm.

“No man ever won a war by dying…he won the war by making…”.  Translation into the head of a soldier: “your country didn’t send you here to die, it sent you here to push a malicious conqueror back over the border into their own country and to bring to an end their terrorizing of the world. You are here to do a job, soldier.  Some may die, or be wounded, and some won’t.  Since there is not much anyone can do to influence that, there is really not much point in thinking about it.  What you can do, however, is do your utmost to fulfill the errand you are on.”

MRD Foot, the noted British expert on the SOE, stated in a Foreward that he wrote for the English translation of Pauline, “I have never met anyone braver than Pearl.”  I came across this after I had finished my reading of Pauline, and wondered how he meant that.  One thinks of bravery as some kind of shining, substantial thing in the soul, a ‘virtue’ in the sense Plato would describe it, that makes a person transcendent, able to face down danger and death.  While Pearl was certainly admirable, I wasn’t sure I was seeing that kind of transcendence in her story.

But when I thought of this episode in the wheat field, and reflected on the rest of her story, I wondered if that kind of bravery isn’t a myth.  Patton himself said:

One of the bravest men I saw in the African campaign was on a telegraph pole in the midst of furious fire. . . I … asked him what…he was doing….'Fixing the wire, sir.' 'Isn't it a little unhealthy up there right now?' I asked. 'Yes sir, but this … wire has got to be fixed.' I asked, 'Don't those planes strafing the road bother you?' And he answered, 'No sir, but you sure as hell do.' Now, there was a real soldier. … A man who devoted all he had to his duty, no matter how great the odds, no matter how seemingly insignificant his duty appeared at the time

I don’t think Pearl would have agreed that she was brave, in the transcendent sense.  She herself said, “I don’t consider I did anything extraordinary… I did it because it had to be done.”  Pearl’s bravery may simply have existed because her sense of her errand was so strong that it overwhelmed anything else—survival, suffering, reputation, whatever.  Her particular ‘virtue’ may have been an uncanny ability to silence all other voices in her soul but that of her mission.  

I found this an outlook I greatly admired and envied.  I was glad it had not been me faced with the decision of what to do as the Germans were upon them at Les Souches—I  would have made a complete mess of things.  But since having this realization, well, something you admire is something you carry with you.   And while I’ve not yet come to point of excusing Patton’s slapping of a soldier, I now suspect that “old blood and guts” may have been trying to do nothing more than to help his troops overcome their understandable fear on the brink of battle.

One final parallel between them comes to mind.  At the beginning of the 1970 movie, Patton is shown arriving at Allied Headquarters in North Africa, rather displeased with the condition of American discipline.  At one point he stumbles over and awakens a man curled up on the floor of the hallway, asleep.  When questioned as to what he thought he was doing there, the soldier replies, “Trying to get some sleep, sir.”  On hearing this Patton replies, “Well, get back down there, son.  You’re the only ______ in this headquarters who knows what he is trying to do!” 

Pearl Witherington definitely knew what she was trying to do.  Her network recovered rapidly from the attack at Les Souches.   Pearl kept them well supplied with arms and explosives, as well as a nearby Communist (FTP) network.  Unlike many other networks, they were not undermined by security breaches, not discovered by the Germans due to taking foolish risks nor did they suffer unnecessary casualties due to rash attacks.  She kept them on track, surviving, functioning, doing their job.  As an SOE operative, she had one of the highest records for successful supply drops in all of Europe.  She helped make sure that it was the other guys who did more dying for their country, and thus helped win a war.  

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