Paris 1944, and French citizens are cowering in their homes and businesses, fearful of the soldiers who will show no mercy, who will steal, assault, rape and murder without compunction.
But it’s not Nazis that they are afraid of, it’s former American GIs… deserters, who roamed the streets in highly organised gangs.
It’s a fascinating and little known fact that in the weeks and months following the liberation of Paris, the city was hit by a wave of crime and violence like something out of Prohibition era America.
Up to 50,000 American and 100,000 British soldiers deserted during World War II, and in a new book, The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, Charles Glass lifts the lid on one of the most violent and shameless episodes in American military history.
Between June, 1944 and April, 1945 the US Army investigated over 7,900 cases of criminal activity. Forty-four per cent of these were crimes of violence, including rape, manslaughter and murder. Another Forty per cent of crime involved theft of US supplies. The remaining twelve per cent were robberies, burglaries and acts of riot.
In short, Paris at this time was a free-for-all in which the forces of law and order were stretched to their absolute limit. Deserters used their combat training – and their uniforms – to assist them in their raids on arms depots and to hijack vehicles.
According to Glass, some deserters had fought until they lost faith in their commanders. With others, it was pure fear that drove them to flee. They had reached the tipping point and chose disgrace rather than the grave.
Then there was the other kind of deserter – the one who saw those times as an opportunity to make money, stealing and selling the military supplies that their comrades at the front desperately needed.
Private Alfred T Whitehead, a farm boy from Tennessee, was one of this breed. His story reveals an interesting insight into the actions of one particular type of deserter.
Whitehead fought at Normandy and claims to have stormed the beaches on the D-Day landings and been in continuous combat up to December 30. In the process he earned the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, Combat Infantry Badge and Distinguished Unit Citation.
After suffering an illness, he was invalided out to Paris. Upon his recovery, Whithead was sent to the 94th Reinforcement Battalion, a replacement depot in Fontainebleau.
Bored by is new posting, he deserted and quickly moved into life as a criminal in the Paris underworld – and into one of the many gangs of ex-soldiers terrorizing Paris.
Led by an ex-paratrooper sergeant, raids were planned like military operations. Whitehead later admitted, ‘we stole trucks, sold whatever they carried, and used the trucks to rob warehouses of the goods in them.’
The gang used combat tactics, hijacked goods, attacking civilians and military targets indiscriminately. They robbed crates of alcohol, hijacked jeeps and raided private houses. They stole petrol, cigarettes, liquor and weapons. And there seemed to be nobody able to stop them as their crime wave even spread into neighbouring Belgium
Such was their ‘success’ that Whithead estimated that after just six months his own share of the plunder ran to an astonishing $100,000.
Whitehead’s luck eventually ran out and he was captured, court martialled and dishonourably discharged, serving time at the Delta Disciplinary Training Barracks in the south of France and, when repatriated to the States, in federal penitentiaries in New Jersey before his release.
Whitehead’s fascinating story is just one of many in Charles Glass’s book, which opens a window into a hidden world… a world in which deserters eschewed the dangers of the frontline in favour of a more lucrative but equally vicious life of brutal crime. This time, though, they weren’t attacking the Nazis, it was their erstwhile comrades and the beleagured citizens of war-ravaged Paris who suffered.