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". . . You will report to Commander U. S. Naval Forces in Europe wherever he may be. . . ."
— Standard phrase in all orders to U. S. Naval Personnel reporting to XII Fleet for duty
The people of London did not need to be told about the war. The thin newspapers could report, "Slight enemy air activity occurred over portions of southeastern England last night." The measured tones of the British Broadcasting commentator with the Home and Forces nine o'clock news could say, "Scattered enemy air activity occurred last night over portions of London." But the people knew, and they liked the understatement — if one had to talk about it at all.
In the morning light when they came upon a familiar building split apart, with only one wall standing, they could see where the stair had run along the wall, where the smoke-stained kitchen had been. All that had once been people p20 living — ordinary, peaceful people — all that had surrounded that living was there now for anyone to see.
People knew there would come a time to strike back, that it was for this time to come that they had endured these nights. That it was for this reason coal and warmth were scarce, that they had food which could only give a passing appeasement to accumulated hunger.
They knew these planes in the clouds overhead came from enemy-held France, the France so bitterly evacuated at Dunkirk. They knew the counter stroke would take them back across the Channel and again to the shores of France.
And somehow, for all of them, what was going to happen centered on that brick building at the corner of Grosvenor Square.
Even though it was wartime, the dustmen of Westminster still occasionally appeared to sweep the streets of the West End of London in their broad-brimmed hats. They knew what Number Twenty represented. By September, 1943, the clippies on the Oxford Street bus knew, when they shouted importantly to their passengers to make way as an American naval officer struggled through the crowd to get off at South Audley Street and walk down the two blocks to Twenty Grosvenor Square.
There were girls in uniform who tended the barrage balloon in the now unkempt corner of the Square beyond the privet hedge border that had run jagged •ten or twelve feet in the air. They were familiar with the American station wagons marked USN that used a cinder patch in the square as a car park.
The small trickle of American naval and military men entering and leaving this building was a symbol. They p21 were in the minds of people in London the forerunners of many men. Americans had been here in uniform since the days of Admiral Ghormley and Pearl Harbor. Then they were very few. Now, after the invasion of North Africa in 1942, in the days of Admiral Stark, more were there.
At noon they came out in knots of twos and threes and strolled toward the senior officers' mess in the Old Sassoon House down by Park Lane. They walked casually, as men from Texas and Iowa and Vermont will walk.
But still there was a tenseness, a purpose that centered in that building.
These men were the visible, tangible part of those hundreds of planners who were dealing with the greatest problem civilization had offered, the problem of one day crossing the English Channel to France and landing there an army that could crack Hitler's fortress of Europe.
There could be no march on Berlin from Africa or even Sicily — great as these first distant victories were. The final thing would be closer, fiercer and with the whole mass of the British Empire and the powerful North American continent behind it. It would move across that narrow strip of water where so much that was history had moved before.
And so these men who now entered and left Number Twenty with their relaxed gait, their naval bridge coats often unbuttoned, were the forerunners. They represented the people behind them in so many offices, around so many planning tables, who must find out how for the others who would come.
A cabby, leaning out of his ancient tall taxi, could tell you that the great invasion would come from England and go to France, as surely as he could tell you the location of p22 Marble Arch. And when he had an occasional passenger for Number Twenty, he would always draw up at the curb with an extra flourish.
The building, Number Twenty, itself was faced with faded pink Georgian brick. White trim outlined the windows and the cornice. Before the Commander U. S. Naval Forces in Europe had set his flag there, it had been a luxury block of Mayfair flats. The only external change was the loose rolls of barbed wire spread carefully around the base of the building and the sentry at the door. The neighboring apartment house, Number Eighteen, similar in façade, had been joined to Number Twenty. Here in these two buildings Americans toiled over the Problem.
Oh, there were other addresses in London — Norfolk House by St. James, Richmond Terrace, Admiralty Bank Block, Bryanston Square and many others where men in uniform came and went. But Number Twenty took on some of the symbolic quality of the Admiralty, of Buckingham, and Ten Downing Street. People passed by in Grosvenor Square with the same kind of quiet benediction in their smiles as they looked up.
Other than the Embassy, diagonally across from Number Twenty, and Number Forty-seven opposite, there were few buildings left in the Square that were not shells of walls staring vacantly into the sky, gaping cellars, or the invisibly wounded houses that simply gazed lifelessly through dust-covered windows.
There had to be an invasion, a second front. The Quebec conference in July had settled that. There had to be unconditional surrender to its irresistible force when it came. It would be bloody. There would be a new terror of p23 losing kin and sweethearts. It would be a convulsive upheaval of an outraged humanity, with sweat and pain and dying. But people looked forward to that. It was action, not passive endurance. It meant coming closer to the time men hardly dared think of — peacetime.
The invasion would end this long crumbling at the edges of the certainty that was England. It had to come. Since 1939 there had been ever more patience required, ever new fortitude and sacrifice in the face of one more defeat. There must someday come the time for action, not defense.
Sea gulls soaring above the London barrage balloons told the people anew that ancient belief they all held so instinctively — the way lay across the water. An army one day would fight again in France. War could be won only by armies. But the army must be placed in France across that water.
In September, 1943, one could not forget there was a business which must stop, to which an end must be found. The enemy was not a distant force occupying the opposite coast. The sights and sounds and presence of the enemy fed anew the urgency; the blind, frustrated anger; the need for the great strike.
In the late summer and fall of 1943, enemy planes swept in almost nightly over London. One night the foundations of houses in Chiswick would shake under the blast, the next night Hammersmith, or perhaps again the battered East End of London itself.
People — men, women and children of London — knew the war, not as something they read about, but as a wild beast that turned on them every day.
Perhaps because they had no houses, perhaps for human p24 company and a cup of tea when the raid was on, thousands nightly still crawled into the slatted bunks that lined the Underground stations.
Every man, woman and child knew what they followed the rising and falling wail of the sirens. That undulating sound penetrated through every habitation in the darkened city with chilling dread. The sound of planes was not far behind. Then the distant crump of a bomb on its mark would punctuate the stillness of the waiting city. Marker flares burned brightly overhead and the drone of planes from the clouds increased as the main flight came in.
The people knew what the whistling sound of a nearby bomb was like. They knew the blinding orange flash that followed as a block of houses was ripped apart. Their ears knew well the roar that followed and rose like a wall of solid ground against the sharp cracks of the AA guns: then with the rolling thunder of toppling masonry finally dropped into silence. The choking dust of centuries of living filled the air, the lungs, the clothing. The dust of old plaster, the dust between the floors, the dust under stairs all suddenly vomited up into the whole sky, penetrated everywhere, with perhaps an occasional crash of a single pane of glass falling into the street or the cries of the warden directing the first search party into the heaped‑up ruin.
Against memories of these scenes Number Twenty stood as a symbol of hope.
There was nothing monumental against which to view the Georgian front of this important building. Beyond Number Twenty lay the shops of South Audley Street — a china and glass house, now closed; a news vendor and stationery store; and finally Hyde Park. In another direction were the p25 department stores and the busy shopping thoroughfare of Oxford Street. Again, in the opposite direction, the gentle curve of Mount Street went past the Connaught and into Berkeley Square.
The specific fact which no one could know except the military personnel who went by the sentry, casually returning his salute, and on into the dim corridor of the hall, was that at the middle of the first floor, to the left as one walked down the hall, there was a locked door with another sentry.
Behind that door was the windowless Operations Room of the U. S. Twelfth Fleet. In that room were probably the best materials out of which one could build the paths of reasoning, leading to a strategy that might mean a successful invasion of Europe.
There in this room was one of the clearest pictures available anywhere as to the present and planned resources required for an invasion of Europe.
There in the small hours of the night was usually some of the saltiest, most informed conversation as to when and where an invasion might be attempted and what obstacles barred its way.
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World War II
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Page updated: 9 Feb 22