An excerpt from
Instructions for American Servicemen
in France during World War II
by Rick Atkinson
Amid the mountains of war materiel accumulating in southern England in the spring of 1944 were crates of a slender, highly classified book intended to give Allied soldiers a sense of the country they would soon overrun. One million copies of what was then titled A Pocket Guide to France, and has been retitled Instructions for American Servicemen in France during World War II for this edition, had been requested by the War Department in a top secret message, making the little volume among the most ambitious publishing ventures of World War II. As explained in a cable from Washington to the headquarters of General Dwight D. Eisenhower in London, the book was intended “to give a general idea of the country concerned, to serve as a guide to behavior in relation to the civil population, and to contain a suitable, concise vocabulary.”
The “A.B.C. Booklets,” as they were originally called, had a curious history. “What is being done in War Department to provide guides to countries of Europe?” a cable from London to Washington asked on December 17, 1943. “Many inquiries received.” The reply came a day later, from Lieutenant General Brehon B. Somervell, the Army’s chief logistician, to Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee, who served as Eisenhower’s supply chief:
Short guides series now in preparation… . Includes manuscripts for Norway, Yugoslavia, France, Greece, Albania, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Rumania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Germany. Written by civilian and OSS [Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency] experts, cleared by War Department agencies. Order of preparation determined priority… . Classified secret until distributed.
The highest priority was assigned to the guide, for it was on the beaches of Normandy that the Allied high command had agreed to launch Operation Overlord, the invasion of western Europe that would result in the final defeat of Nazi Germany. Initial printings would be made in England, to avoid security breaches in shipping so many books overseas, and then distributed to the troops aboard their invasion ships.
By mid-January 1944, Eisenhower’s staff had begun to chafe at delays in receiving the manuscripts from which the guide would be printed. “When can arrival be expected of first copies?” a message to Washington asked on January 13. Another query followed a week later: “information requested when first finished manuscripts may be expected.” The reply from the War Department on January 20 advised, “manuscripts of short guides to France, Holland, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg … dispatched 17 January by courier pouch to chief of psychological warfare branch [in] your theater for clearance.”
By early February, something clearly had gone awry. “Regarding guides to countries of Europe,” Lee cabled Somervell on February 4. “What were article numbers given them by Army Courier Service in Foreign Mail Room Washington for pouch dispatched 17th Jan 44? … Copies of guides not received to date. Many inquiries regarding them.”
The snafu came clear in Somervell’s reply from Washington the following day. “These manuscripts were dispatched originally 15 January and were returned here unopened because erroneously addressed to Major General Robert H. McClure instead of correctly addressed to Brigadier General Robert A. McClure.” The well-traveled documents were again dispatched, and placed in the hands of the proper McClure on February 9. Printing began soon after, and stacks of books joined the fifty thousand vehicles, four hundred and fifty thousand tons of ammunition, and countless sticks of chewing gum—to combat seasickness—accumulated for Overlord.
Like the vehicles and the ammo, the guide did its part to win the war. Soldiers were proselytized on the need to liberate France and the worthiness of the French to be liberated. Neither assertion was necessarily obvious to most GIs. France in 1940 had made a separate peace with the invading Germans, and the first enemies fought by American troops across the Atlantic were French soldiers and sailors in Morocco and Algeria during the North African invasion of November 1942. That was to be forgiven, if not quite forgotten, since many Frenchmen had since thrown in their lot with the Allied cause. “We are friends of the French and they are friends of ours,” the guide instructs. “The Germans are our enemies and we are theirs.”
If sometimes extraneous—did Private Smith really need to know that one hectoliter equals twenty-two gallons?—and occasionally patronizing of both GIs and Frenchmen—“Normandy looks rather like Ohio”—the guide evinces generosity, respect, and affection for suffering France. The liberators were told, accurately in this instance, to expect “a big welcome from the French. Americans are popular in France.” Extracting France from German occupation had a flinty, practical purpose: “the enemy will be deprived of coal, steel, manpower, machinery, food, bases, seacoast and a long list of other essentials which have enabled him to carry on the war at the expense of the French.”
Certainly the guide had its quirks, including a penchant for stereotype. The French were said to be “mentally quick,” “economical,” “realistic,” and “individualists.” They are “good talkers and magnificent cooks,” but “they have little curiosity.” Residents of Marseilles “are southern, turbulent and hot-headed.” In an assertion that would seem especially suspect in a nation that championed the shrinking work week, the guide asserted, “respect for work is a profound principle in France.”
Any GI inclined to bring home a French bride was advised that when the time came to ship out for home, “there will be no government transportation available for a wife.” If facile, the advice tendered was sensible for any occupation army, then or now: “No bragging about anything. No belittling either. Be generous; it won’t hurt… . Let us remember our likenesses, not our differences.”
After four years of military occupation, and with two million Frenchmen held in Germany as war prisoners or slave laborers, “the French may not be able to be proud of how things look now so don’t rub it in,” the guide advises. In the event, the France discovered by the invading armies would indeed be despoiled, if not before the invasion then during and after. Some nine hundred thousand French buildings had been damaged or ruined in World War I; that number would double in World War II, including two hundred thousand buildings demolished in Normandy alone.
The beginning of the end of France’s subjugation began, famously, with eighteen thousand American and British paratroopers jumping into the Norman countryside before dawn on D-day. By midnight, more than one hundred and fifty thousand Allied troops were ashore, escorted by an armada that included six battleships, twenty-three cruisers, and eighty destroyers. The struggle for Normandy would prove to be “one terrible blood-letting,” as the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel observed, but by mid-August, GIs had reached the Loire at Nantes.
Eisenhower had intended to bypass Paris but changed his mind to exploit both the propaganda value of capturing the capital and to exploit the growing insurrection by Resistance fighters. On the morning of August 24, a French tank force entered the city from the south, greeted by delirious Parisians and German diehards at their barricades. Church bells pealed, snipers sniped, and at 2 p.m. on August 25 the German commander surrendered the city. In the ten weeks after D-day, at least fifty thousand Germans were killed, with two hundred thousand others captured and an estimated twelve hundred tanks lost.
One by one the cities fell: Lyon, Avignon, Boulogne. A Franco-American force of ninety-four thousand men landed on France’s southern Mediterranean coast between Toulon and Cannes in Operation Dragoon; within a day they were twenty miles inland, and eventually extended the Allied front into Alsace.
Hitler ordered his occupation armies to retreat. The Allied drive would stall, temporarily stymied by stiffening German defenses, troublesome terrain, the obliteration of the French rail system, and shortages of fuel and ports. In December 1944, a final, futile German counteroffensive in the Belgian Ardennes and in Alsace led to the biggest battle on the western front, known as the Bulge. But by the end of 1944, the German thrust had spent itself; the end of the war in Europe was but five months away.
By January 1, 1945, 3.7 million Allied soldiers had come ashore in western Europe, disposed in three army groups, nine armies, twenty corps, and seventy-three divisions, two-thirds of them American. Allied casualties by this time totaled more than a half million, including 55,184 dead GIs.
France was free. As the little guide had predicted, “France will be liberated from the Nazi mob and the Allied armies will be that much nearer Victory.”