Authors: The New Yorker Magazine
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At six o’clock that evening, I went to another Anglo-American press conference at the Hôtel Continental. We were told that the Ministry of Information was planning to provide us with safe-conduct passes to use in case we left Paris. That made us suspect that the government would move very soon. Then M. Comert told us that Jean Provoust, who had just been appointed Minister of Information, wanted to talk to all the American correspondents. M. Provoust, the dynamic publisher of
, received us in his office with the factitious cordiality of a newspaper owner about to ask his staff to take a pay cut. He said that he didn’t want the United States to think the situation was hopeless. “From a military standpoint,” he said, “it is improving steadily. Disregard reports of the government quitting Paris. We will have many more chats in this room.” John Lloyd, of the Associated Press, who was president of the Anglo-American Press Association, waited to see Provoust after the talk and invited him to be guest of honor at a luncheon the correspondents were having the next Wednesday. The Minister said he would be charmed, and then hurried away.
On my way home I saw a number of garbage trucks parked in the middle of the streets to balk airplane landings. Evidently Paris would be defended. I didn’t think, after Provoust’s talk, that I would have to leave Paris immediately, but the situation looked so bad that I decided to begin getting my passport in order.
Early the next morning, Monday, June 10th, I set out in a taxi—which the porter had taken two hours to find for me—to go to the Spanish Consulate General to obtain a transit visa. This was easy to get if you
already had the Portuguese visa, and luckily I already had one which was good for a year. My taxi-driver came from Lorraine, where, he said, people knew what patriotism meant. He had fought the other war, four years of it. The country needed men like Poincaré, a Lorrainer, now. “The politicians have sold us out,” he said. “And that Leopold,” he shouted, “there is a fellow they should have got onto long ago!” Now, he expected, the Germans would come to Paris. But it would be defended, like Madrid. “They will come here, the animals,” he said, “but they will leave plenty of feathers! Imagine a tank trying to upset the building of the Crédit Lyonnais! Big buildings are the best defence against those machines.” He did not know that the real-estate men would never encourage such an unprofitable use of their property. “Even ten centimes on the franc is something,” the rich men were already telling one another, “when one has a great many francs.”
From the Spanish Consulate I went to the Prefecture of Police, where I asked for a visa which would permit me to leave France. A woman police official, a sort of chief clerk, said, “Leave your passport and come back for it in not less than four days.” “But by that time, Madame,” I said, “the Germans may be here and the Prefecture may not exist.” Naturally, I didn’t leave the passport, but I was foolish to question the permanency of the Prefecture. The French civil servants are the one class unaffected by revolution or conquest. The Germans were to come, as it turned out, but the Prefecture was to stay open, its personnel and routine unchanged. Its great accumulation of information about individual Frenchmen, so useful for the apprehension of patriots and the blackmailing of politicians, was to be at the disposal of the Germans as it had been at Philippe-Egalité’s and Napoleon the Little’s and Stavisky’s. The well-fed young
were to continue on the same beats, unaffected by the end of the war they had never had to fight in. Yesterday the Prefecture had obeyed the orders of M. Mandel, who hated Germans. Now it would obey Herr Abetz, who hated Jews. Change of administration.
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Afterward I stopped at the Crillon bar, where I met a Canadian general I knew. “The French still have a fine chance,” he said. “I am leaving for Tours as soon as I finish this sandwich.” I walked over to the Continental to see if M. Comert had any fresh news. As I arrived at the foot of the staircase leading to Comert’s office, I met another correspondent on his way out. “If you’re going up to the Ministry,” he said, “don’t bother. The
government left Paris this morning.” Then he began to chuckle. “You remember when John Lloyd stopped Provoust last night and invited him to the Wednesday luncheon?” he asked. Yes, I remembered. “Well,” he said, “Provoust was in a hurry because he was leaving for Tours in a few minutes.” I said maybe we had better leave too, and we did.
SEPTEMBER 14, 1940 (ON THE BLITZ)
started in earnest yesterday—Saturday—with the first big raids on London. It is as yet too early to report on the full extent of the damage, which has certainly been considerable, especially in the dwelling-house sections of the East End. Observers of the Spanish War methods of terrorizing civilian populations have frequently remarked that in Spain the heaviest bombardments were directed on working-class districts—structurally more vulnerable and emotionally more prone to panic than less crowded areas of a city. The job of providing homeless and frightened people with shelter and food is one which workers have apparently tackled heroically. They are probably going to have increasingly and tragically frequent opportunities for practice. The figure of four hundred killed, which has just been announced, may well mount higher in future bulletins, in the same way that the figure of raiders brought down was given as five in last evening’s reports but by this morning, with fuller information coming in all the time, had totalled eighty-eight.
Those who were weekending in the country guessed the magnitude of the attack from the constant roar of aircraft passing invisibly high up in a cloudless blue sky. At dusk, a red glow could be seen in the direction of London, but it died down as the stars and the searchlights came out, and again waves of bombers passed overhead at intervals of about ten minutes. In between waves, one could hear the distant racket of the anti-aircraft guns picking up the raiders which had just gone by, and at the same time one half heard, half sensed the unmistakable throbbing of the next waves of engines coming nearer over the quiet woods and villages.
This morning it was difficult to get a call through to London, probably because so many anxious people in the country were ringing up to find out what had happened and to try to get in touch with members of their families who were in town. Further big attacks were expected today, but the attitude of those who were returning to the city was sensible and courageous. “Let them send plenty. There will be more for the boys to bring down” was a typical comment.
Up to yesterday, the raids on London had not been developed beyond a point which indicated that they were merely reconnaissance or training flights to accustom enemy pilots to night work over the capital. Sirens had become tiresome interruptions which Londoners learned to expect at fairly regular intervals during the day, roughly coinciding with the morning and evening traffic rush and with the lunch hour. Unless shooting accompanied the alarms, they were ignored, as far as possible, except by especially nervous individuals. The dislocation of office and factory work schedules was more or less remedied by the posting of spotters on rooftops to give the warning when things really become dangerous locally. Until that warning comes, workers have been getting on with the job, sirens or no sirens. No part of the Premier’s speech last week was better received, by the way, than his statement that the whole of the air-raid-warning system is to be drastically revised and a new ruling concerning it announced in the near future; what he described as “these prolonged banshee howlings” are apparently more alarming to a great many people than an actual bombardment.
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Life in a bombed city means adapting oneself in all kinds of ways all the time. Londoners are now learning the lessons, long ago familiar to those living on the much-visited southeast coast, of getting to bed early and shifting their sleeping quarters down to the ground floor. (After recent raids on the suburbs it was noticeable that in all the little houses damaged by anything short of a direct hit people on the upper floors had suffered most, and that in surprisingly many cases those on the ground floor had escaped injury entirely.) Theatres are meeting the threat to their business by starting evening performances earlier, thus giving audiences a chance to get home before the big nighttime show warms up. The actual getting home is likely to be difficult, because the transportation services have not yet worked out a satisfactory formula for carrying on during raids. The busmen’s union tells drivers to use their own discretion,
and the London transportation board’s orders are that buses are to go on running unless a raid develops “in the immediate vicinity.” The drivers grumble that it would take a five-hundred-pounder in the immediate vicinity to be heard above the din of their own engines.
The calm behavior of the average individual continues to be amazing. Commuting suburbanites, who up to yesterday had experienced worse bombardments than people living in central London, placidly brag to fellow-passengers on the morning trains about the size of bomb craters in their neighborhoods, as in a more peaceful summer they would have bragged about their roses and squash.
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Earlier in the week, the first anniversary of the declaration of war passed peacefully and found Britons in a state of encouragement which less than three months ago would have seemed downright fantastic. The Anglo-American agreement was a birthday present that was received with tremendous satisfaction. Officially, it was greeted as “the most conspicuous demonstration that has yet been given of the general American desire to afford the utmost help, compatible with neutrality, to a cause now recognized as vital to the future of the United States.” Ordinary comment was less solemn, but no less grateful. The successful conclusion of the agreement, combined with the superb work of the R.A.F. and the significant new spirit in the French colonies, has been responsible for a big increase in public confidence which reacted favorably on that sensitive plant, the stock market. In spite of the dark times ahead, it is believed that better things are coming into sight beyond them.