That old film Casablanca was on last night. If ever a film was made at the right time this was it. Set in Casablanca Morocco in 1940 it is primarily a love story. When you watch it today, few, I think, have the background knowledge that even the most casual person would have had when the film premiered in November 1942. It was still dark days in America. Millions of families had sons and daughters in the armed services. Already the telegrams were arriving at front doors all over the country.
The Nazi’s had overrun France and Belgium in the summer of 1940. The continent of Europe, Eastern Europe and Much of Asia was in the hands of the Axis. The Wermacht was driving across north Africa towards Egypt. Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, The Philippines were gone. Shanghai, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies were in Japanese hands and they were driving South through the Solomon Islands toward Australia. Britain was stoically enduring the Blitz. Hope was in very short supply. Unlike today, no one knew the future.
This story of an American that risked his citizenship and his life to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil war. A refugee in Paris right before the Nazi’s rolled. A woman whose husband had been imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Bohemia and was thought to be dead. Add a menagerie of expatriates, Sascha, the Russian bartender infatuated with Yvonne, a French refugee who had left Nazi-occupied Europe. Señor Ferrari the unctuous, unscrupulous man of all that is duplicitous. Captain Louis Renault the Prefect of police always looking out for the main chance though with a wink and a nod. Major Heinrich Strasser the SS commander, thoroughly Nazi, evil, cold and thoroughly deadly.
In the final scene as Rick and Louis stroll off into the foggy darkness, the frenchman with his impish grin and gallic swagger, Rick, with his side to side stroll trailing the smoke from his ever present Gauloise, the credits role and you are left with the thought, where did they go?
The Jeep with the Free French cross of Lorraine on the hood rolled slowly up the Rue Buffon and gradually came to a stop.
“Don’t touch the brakes Sam, They screech like a cat with his tail in the door,” the officer in the passenger seat quietly spoke, “Don’t want to draw any attention from the Krauts.”
” Yessir Mister Rick, I hear you,” said the driver in his unique deep south accent, “I ain’t fixin’ to get shot just yet.”
The slim Captain in the uniform wearing the French blue and yellow shoulder patch of General Leclerc’s 2nd Division slid out of his seat and walked back to the armored personnel carrier. As he passed the second jeep in line he said to the soldier manning the .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the back seat,
“Keep an eye on the Jardin de Plantes there,” the captain said as he pointed left. “Who knows what might be in there.”
“Oui, mon Captain.”
“And corporal, remember there are two of our boys in there. don’t be too quick on the trigger”
“Certainement.” The Caporal said, taking a long pull on his Sweet Caporal and then pinching it out and putting the butt in his pocket,
“Alors, I will not shoot the americain Shirlee, Ma raison d’être, n’est-ce pas?”
Captain Blaine smiled, “Je suis d’accord.”
The Captain approached the personnel carrier, stepping up on the running board to speak to the Major in the front.
“Louis, lets wait here, Sergeant Shannon and Corporal Fluerot are pushing through the gardens to try and snoop out any activity along the river. We should be careful here, we might be the first unit to reach the Seine.”
I agree Ricky, “It’d be unfortunate to be shot now, we’ve come such a long way from Casablanca and Brazzaville, eh?” The trim little Major replied.
He slipped down from his seat, turning back to grab his carbine, he said,
“Lets walk up to the jardin de plantes vivaces, Shannon should be back soon.” He snapped of the safety on his M-1 and started for the gate.
The two officers walked along the side of the Galerie de Botanique towards the Allee de Justieu, turning left into the trees. Waiting for the Sargent, Major Renault reached into his blouse and offered a crushed pack of Gaulois to Captain Blaine.
“Thanks Louis,” he said, slipping the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and leaning down to the proffered match. Captain Blaine leaned back against a tree blowing smoke upward, he slumped slightly, plainly weary.
“You know Louis, we’re a long way from June 1940. Morocco, Algeria, Libya and the desert, chasing the krauts all the way. It makes those nights in Casablanca seem like a dream, doesn’t it?”
The little Major looked down, fingered his smoke, rolled it between his fingers and replied,
“D’accord Ricky, it does, I think of those nights often. Ils etaient de bons moments. Perhaps again some day.”
A slight rustling along the alee caused the men to slip behind the trees and bring their weapons up. Sergeant Shirley Shannon appeared like a wraith from the nearby trees, the officers sighed with relief and stepped out to take his report.
“We saw nothing in the jardin or across the river Sir, Doesn’t mean they’re not there though. Caporal Fluerot is still back there keeping an eye out. What would you like to do?”
“What do you think Louis?”
“Lets roll up to the Boulevard de I’Hopital, from there we can see the Pont d’Austerlitz and get a good look across the Seine. We haven’t seen any Krauts yet and that worries me.” “
Shirley, he said, “Go collect the Caporal and meet us at Place Valhubert. Be careful and stay back in the trees, Eh? Watch for any movement in the windows across the river, could be snipers.”
Sergeant Shannon and Corporal Fluerot disappeared into the trees, silent as wraiths the way experienced combat soldiers move. Sliding quietly on the balls of their feet as if feeling for danger under the earth. Shirley Shannon had grown up in the sweet little valley of Arroyo Grande, a farm boy, he was descended from the hollers of West Virginia, learning to hunt almost before he could talk. He could read the ground and all around it as if it were a classic book. Fourteen generations of backwoodsmen had cured the man like a good ham, lean and crusty, sweet too if you ever saw the inside. So tough on the outside, phlegmatic, almost wordless, he led his men by example, his only goal, to get them through to the end. Like many soldiers, war was the thing that brought out his selflessness and nobility. Perhaps not apparent until you saw him tending to his flock on the field. He was that rare thing, a veteran soldier, a killer, who taught his charges how to stay alive.
Move slowly, be quiet, don’t walk in front of doorways, shut up, Don’t smoke on patrol, take care of your weapons, watch the veterans, keep your eyes open and your head on a swivel, quiet does not mean the enemy is not there, always be prepared for a fight, the first shot is the most effective, kill the Krauts and get the hell home.
They all, those that had survived the two years, remembered how it was in Tunisia. Inexperienced but brave to a fault they learned their lessons the hard way. The German Africa Corps kicked the crap out of them. Vastly more experienced, the Wermacht taught them lessons that could only be learned on the ground. The cost in men was terrible, but slowly, but surely they learned how to pay off the debt those young men left in graves in Tunisia, Sicily and the Italian mountains had left them. Morals, ethics and pity had to be put away until some other time.
Rick watched the trees, focused on nothing, wondering how it was that two young guys, one from Steubenville, Ohio and one from Arroyo Grande, California had managed to survive seven years of almost constant combat and still be standing.
“You know Louis, Shirley Shannon has been with me since we met on that cattle boat in 1938. Hit it off on the way to Spain to join the Republicans and fight Franco. Every day seems like some kind of miracle. Wonder how much luck is left in that tank, Eh?”
Louis took a deep drag on his Gaulois, “C’est La Guerre Ricky, C’est La Guerre.” he said through a cloud of smoke.
Returning to their vehicles Rick and Louis shook hands,
“Almost there, eh Ricky?
“Right Louis, lets move.”
Jumping into his seat, Captain Blaine said, “Low gear Sam, lets creep up to the end of the street and see if anybody notices.”
“Yessir boss,” The driver said.
Dropping the jeep into low gear and letting out the clutch, he slid the little truck up the Rue followed by the column spread out about thirty yards apart. Stopping just short of the tree line both officers climbed down, motioning the rest of their troops to get out of their vehicles.
“Lets move up,” the captain signaled.
He moved his arm behind his back to let his soldiers know what he wanted. Then putting a finger to his lips for silence he slowly and carefully began moving forward. Spreading out, the column moved toward the Boulevard. The Port D’Austerlitz slowly came into sight. The advancing French patrol, though you could hardly call it French, there being few Frenchmen in it, was made up of Spanish civil war veterans who had fled Franco’s army in 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil war. There was also a sprinkling of American and British soldiers of fortune. Many of the soldiers were from the western desert of Arabic Africa. They called themselves Maghrebis and were descendants of a mix of Roman Africans, Carthaginians, Berbers and the Moors who had once ruled all of Northern Africa and Spain. Some of them had been at war literally their entire lives. Captain Blaine and Major Renault knew this. Leading fighters such as these is why they had the most dangerous job of poking what they thought would be a German hornets nest. Sergeant Shannon said the Krauts were like chewing on hornets.
Mahgrebi soldiers, WWII
It was no secret that General Dietrich von Choltitz had personal orders from Hitler to defend Paris to the last and then destroy the city. The Allied didn’t know that he commanded only about 20,000 troops and that most of these were poorly trained and conscripted from territories overrun by the Wermacht early in the war. There were Poles, Romanians Serbs and Russian in the German army. They might not be fighting for the Fuehrer or Duetchland but they would fight to stay alive. As Captain Blaine will tell you, a bullet fired has no friends and you can be killed by the most unskilled and unmotivated of soldiers.
Following Sergeant Shannon, the Captain crept up to the corner of the building that housed the Museum d’histoire naturelle and lying prone behind some shrubs, slipped his binoculars out of their case and slowly began to glass the buildings on the opposite side of the Seine. All the troops following spread out and went to ground, waiting. The Captain motioned the Major forward. Lying very still they spent 20 minutes carefully observing everything up and down the Quai Henri IV. The Major, Captain and Sergeant Shannon talked quietly among themselves, mapping out the order for crossing the Pont d’Austerlitz. Major Renault then retreated and called his other Sergeants and squad leaders forward and began to explain what they were to do.
“Sergeant Berthaud, send a runner back and tell the tank commanders to slowly bring up two of the M-4’s and stop when I signal, “comprenez vous?
The runner turned and sprinted back along the line of vehicles until he come to the first two Shermans. He slipped around its rear and pulled out the telephone and called the tank commander who was buttoned up in the turret. The tanks soon moved out with the characteristic squeaking rasp of the bogie wheels on the tread dogs. It moved up toward the head of the line. The Doggies inched out of her way. A Sherman was practically blind and smashed a soldier beyond recognition if he was in the way. Major Renault waved them on as they passed, noting the names painted on the sides, “Asesino” and “Guadalajara.” The dark eyed Spanish tank commanders saluted as they rumbled past. Major Renault noted the emblem of the Free French painted on the hull of each tank and the division patch for the 2nd armored, “Hell on Wheels” stitched on each commanders shoulder. He wondered if, in his lifetime he would ever again know men such as these. Some had been with him since he had driven into Brazzaville in 1940, he and the former saloon keeper Rick Blaine driving a stolen German staff car. He, the Vichy French Prefect of Police in Casablanca at the wheel. Both men fleeing murder charges after the killing of SS Hauptman Heinrich Strasser. A good killing he thought, no regrets there and after four years of killing, barely a footnote to anyone but himself and Ricky.
The tanks took up position on either side of the Rue Buffon, swiveling their 75mm main guns to cover the approaches to the Pont. Captain Blaine quickly formed two patrols of Magrebhi, explaining that they were to cross the bridge in a rush, one squad on each side. They would be covered by rifleman, the machine gunners and the tanks.
“Do it in a rush,” He said, “Don’t give any Krauts over there a minute to react.”
“Nem sayidi, dabit.” the Moroc sergeant replied, loosening his Koummya dagger in its sheath, “It is a good day sir, for slicing ‘Alemagne throats. He flashed a wicked smile that never reached his eyes.
“Jayid,” the Captain said with a nod, “Move out. Naql.”
The soldiers took up their positions on either side of the Pont d’Austerlitz and at the Captains hand signal they broke into a crouching run. As soon as they did, chips of stone erupted from the stonework of the bridge, followed almost instantly by the distinctive cracking sound of a Gewehr 41 rifle. Several riflemen instantly began pointing to an upper floor window in the Institut Medico building on the right of the bridge where the shots came from.
Captain Blaine ran to the “Asesino ” leapt up onto the sponson and pointed out the window to the commander who briefly spoke into his Mic,
“30 degrees right, Up 5, load HE, fire for effect.”
The tank turret ground around to the right, elevating its gun as it did.
“Fire,” he said and the tank leapt sideways with the explosion, sending up a cloud of dust from the blast wave. Its track slipping sideways on the pave with a characteristic metallic squeak. In a split second an eruption of brickwork, glass and wood on the second floor left the building looking like it had some of its teeth knocked out. The rifle went silent.
Captain Blaine signaled a squad of riflemen to clear the building. The squad of Magrehbi on the right entered a sidewall of the building which they knocked a hole in with a bazooka. No one ever went in a front door, better to shoot yourself than do that. They rolled two grenades inside and quickly followed the blast. A few minutes later they signaled from the second floor window, a smiling Tuareg soldier raised his right hand, giving the signal for all clear.”All clear.” A moment later two lumps of Feldgrau were thrown out the window. Both with their throats cut from ear to ear. No one paid the slightest attention, it had been a long war.
The remaining squad lined out to the left, moving in open formation clearing the buildings fronting the Quai Henri IV as they moved toward The Ile Saint Louis. Once enough of the buildings had been cleared and a perimeter set up, Major Renault ordered the rest of the men and vehicles to cross the Pont. Spaced 30 meters apart the half tracks, tanks, tank destroyers and trucks covered with soldiers rumbled across.
Major Renault called a meeting of officers and non-coms inside the lobby of the building at the corner by the Rue Vieille du Temple.
“Other than the sniper we’ve not seen any Germans in this area.” He said. “What do you think Ricky?”
Captain Blaine said that Caporal Fluerot and his radioman had said that they had heard shooting toward the Hotel Deville but it sounded like small arms only and that he had sent them back up the Quai see if they could find out what was happening. Just then Caporal Fluerot came running down the Quai shouting,
“Major, Major come quick. S il vous plait, you’re not going to believe this.”
Turning on his heel Major Renault followed by Captain Blaine followed the Caporal back down the Quai.
“Qu’Est-ce, que c-est,” the major shouted at the now running Caporal Fluerot. Shouting over his shoulder, the Caporal said,
“Mon Dieu Majuer, c’est impossible.”
The officers followed the caporal down the Quai l’Hotel deville towards the corner of the Rue de Lobau where Sergeant Shannon was crouching and peering around the corner.
“Sirs. he said, you gotta see this,”
He stood and motioned the officers to step out to see what he was looking at.
“There is no danger, I think”
Major Renault and Captain Blaine stepped around the corner and looked in the direction the sergeant was pointing. Down the Rue Lobau’s wide avenue, perhaps 500 feet away at the intersection with the Rue de Rivoli they could see a barricade. Made of chairs, mattresses, boxes, overturned cars and carpets was a group of civilians.
“The barricades of Paris,” Majuer Renault laughed, “I love this city.” he said. “Lets take a stroll Ricky, looks like we’re home.”
They slung their weapons and spread out to make a smaller target and walked up the avenue. They passed two dead Germans both wearing the insignia of the 325th Security Division. Shirley knelt down and rolled over the dead Feldwebel.
“Christ Captain, this kid can’t be more than fourteen,” Shannon said, “Those idiots don’t have enough sense to know when their licked, do they?
“No Shannon, they don’t. We’re going to have to kill them all before its over.” The Captain shook his head in disbelief at what he had just said. “What is the matter with those people?”
As they approached the makeshift wall of junk, the people standing behind it froze, obviously not sure who was approaching them. Making a mistake about which army someone was in could have fatal consequences. Weapons came up. The officers raised their hands and the Majuer said,
“Citoyens, nous sommes libres francais. The Free French Army. Nous apportons les salutations du président Roosevelt.”
The weapons stayed up. Rick glanced at Louis,
“They don’t seem friendly, what gives?”
“It’s been a long time since they’ve seen a friendly army, Ricky.”
They stopped. Just then, from a doorway on the right stepped a girl. She was very young, perhaps 18 or 19. She wore mens shoes with socks rolled down. A pair of black shorts, high waisted with a red and white checked blouse tucked in. She had dark brown hair which looked like it had been cut short with a knife. She topped that with a French Army Forage cap worn rakishly over her right ear. She had a German MP-40 submachine gun slung over her shoulder and pointed directly at Louis and Rick and they had no doubt she knew how to use it. Most astonishingly she wore bright red lipstick.
“Qui etes vous?” She said.
Jerking the MP_40’s barrel up as she spoke, “Dis-moi maintenant, Tell me now or I shoot. Parlez maintenant, speak now.”
A slow grin spread across Majuer Louis Renault’s round face, his trim mustache twitching, his eyes smiling now,
“Mon Cheri, nous sommes La pour livrer Paris. We are here to liberate Paris, compliments of General Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque, commander of the Free French Forces.”
With that he gave a little bow and smiled again, obviously charmed by the girl.
“Merde” she spat, “We have liberated Paree ourselves with no help from anyone.”
Majuer Renault reached up and pushed his Kepi back on his forehead, looked at Captain Blaine and said,
“Mon Dieu, Ricky, the Boche couldn’t crush French womanhood, certainment?.” “Mes compliment mon cherie, I see that I am corrected, charmant” and with that he removed his kepi with a flourish and bowed deeply.
The girl lowered her gun and broke into a smile that went right to her brown eyes.
“Allow me to introduce myself she said, “Madamoseille Simone Segouin, French Forces of the Interior, FFI.”
With that everyone pressed forward shaking hands, kissing cheeks and in many cases crying, tear streaming,
“We are free, Nous sommes libres, nous sommes libres.
It was suddenly a frenzy of thanksgiving. Simone grabbed Rick by the shoulders and planted her lips on his, leaving a smear of red lipstick, she threw back her head laughing like a little girl and then moved back in holding him as tight as she could.
“Sergeant, Shannon, head back to the column and tell them to come up here to the Rue Lobau, it’s late in the day and this might be a good space to wait out the night before we push on in the morning. It’s a large space and we can set up a perimeter here.”
“Oui, Mon Capitaine, Shannon said and sprinted off.
The officers made arrangements for the soldiers and vehicles. Riflemen were sent into the upper stories of the Hotel deVille and the Mairie de Paris. The rolling artillery was positioned to guard the entrances to the Parvais and the Place Saint Gervais. Finally at 9:30 the officers met with the commanders of the Free French to share Baguettes, cheese and wine and plan for the movement into the center of Paris. Simone said,
“Soon the leaders of the Forces in this sector will arrive here, there has been very hard fighting with the Les Cochons Boches for the past five days but they are finished now, you will see.”
Soon enough a battered Ford truck with FFI painted on the doors and the roof, creaked down the Rue Rivoli, belching black smoke, as it had obviously been converted to run on coal. One fender was crushed and black, likely from a run in with a German potato masher grenade. One side of the split windshield had a bullet hole right in the center. The beat up clunker had been liberated from the Germans or the French army or Henry Ford himself. Their were two men and a woman in the front seat and perhaps a half-dozen more men and women standing the bed, all armed with captured German weapons and even some French which must have been hidden away since 1940. The truck pulled to a stop in front of the barricade and the driver got out. The people in the back jumped down and then very tenderly pulled three bodies from the bed. They were carried into the Hotel deVille and laid carefully on the polished marble floors. The men dressed in all manner of clothes, three piece suits, one in a chefs apron, some of the women in their everyday dresses, their hair up, looked normal except for the older lady who had a German officers Luger pistol on a gun-belt slung low around her waist and another with a Karabiner 98K Mauser slung and what were apparently two Potato Masher grenades nested in her apron. “
At the barricades.
Normal looking people,” Rick observed, “Looking not quite so normal,” he said with a wolfish smile.
“Who were they, the dead?” someone asked.
“A communist from the Vercours, Henri Thierry and two from the City, the Jew, Cohon and the boy, 14, is Pierre Roban. Shot in the back in the Tuileries Jardin. Batards,” the driver spoke and spat on the pave.
The other man in the front and the woman climbed down from the truck, the man joined the officers and the woman embraced Simone. Pulling away, Simone turned towards Rick and Louis and said, may I introduce my commander. The other woman removed her beret, shook out her blond hair and slowly turned to face the two men.
Simone said, “Majuer Renault, Capitain Blaine, puts-je presenter mon commandant, s’il vous plait, Madame Ilsa Lazlo.
Sam the captains driver gasped out loud, “Miss Ilsa.”
“Hello Sam,” She said.
Commander Ilsa Lazlo. Free French Forces of the Interior.