An Excerpt from “No Bridges Blown” by William B. Dreux

When William B. Dreux parachuted into France in 1944, the OSS infantry officer had cinematic visions of blood-and-guts heroics, of leading the French Maquis resistance forces in daring missions to blow up key bridges and delay the German advance. This isn’t the glamorized screen-ready account he expected; this is the real story. No Bridges Blown is a story of mistakes, failures, and survival; a story of volunteers and countrymen working together in the French countryside. The only book written by one of the Jedburghs about his wartime experiences, Dreux brings the history of World War II to life with stories of real people amidst a small section of the fighting in France.

From the Foreword, by Benjamin F. Jones

Dreux was a member of the Jedburghs, an Allied unit comprised of special warfare soldiers from the United Kingdom, United States, France, the Netherlands, and Canada. The British Special Operations Executive anticipated the difficulty of replacing their intelligence operatives after the Allies invaded France on D-Day, when the German army and Vichy French police would find greater opportunities to arrest or kill British and French spies. Thus they developed the Jedburgh team concept: its members would parachute behind the German lines, make contact with already existing networks of resistance fighters, replace the recently lost British agents, and maintain operational momentum to conduct an unconventional war in enemy territory. Short of manpower, the British asked the United States to collaborate and contribute soldiers, aircraft, and other resources. After exercising and rehearsing the concept, the British realized native speakers would be critical to success, and so they also asked the French and Dutch to contribute soldiers to the effort. The French took up the offer with zeal as a way to contribute to France’s liberation and as an opportunity to demonstrate to the British and American governments that France maintained its sovereignty. The Jedburgh operation was the first planned guerrilla campaign designed to support a conventional campaign since the period when modern technology had made frequent tactical modifications possible after the campaign was underway.

. . .

But this Allied operational team concept was not to last beyond the war, as it proved too difficult to hold together when the conditions changed and the aims diverged even more. Over and above the typical complexities of combat, resistance leaders were unsure of their orders, their authority, their friends, and their enemies; long-suffering civilians were exhausted by war’s deprivations; a desperate but weakened enemy was comfortable with atrocity; and three nations warred with two nations, one of whom was on both sides. This was the fog that William Dreux and his Jedburgh teammates parachuted into in 1944.

If you enjoy Ernest Hemingway novels, you’ll love Dreux’s writing. The prose is descriptive, clear, blunt, and sophisticated. Hemingway’s character Robert Jordan from For Whom The Bell Tolls seems to be the guide for Dreux in both style, pace, and tone. Jordan’s mission to destroy a bridge during the Spanish Civil War, his empty accomplishment, and the people he meets along the way are clearly something Dreux had in mind as he relates his experiences in France, his futile efforts to comply with his mission’s orders to blow up bridges, and his stoic outlook on the entire experience—which blew up no bridges. The fact that Hemingway was in France along with the OSS in July and August of 1944 could mean that the two collided at some point during the war or after. The odds of that are long, but what is clear is that Dreux read Hemingway: Dreux’s writing evokes the harsh and detached language of one of the twentieth century’s most successful authors.

With American forces currently engaged in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and various African nations, and as the American public wearies of these wars, No Bridges Blown’s re-publication is timely. The dissonance Dreux suffers from—between the ideals and clarity of the mission he set about to do and the reality and complexity he found in France—sounds eerily familiar to us today. It also reminds us that the most lasting aspects of war are the intimate, exhausting, painful, uplifting, and wounding memories. The profound wounds they may leave on the memory of those who participate can be salved by being, as Dreux was, on the winning side. Since 1945 American soldiers like him have not had such victories to help them heal; only friendships with one another have done that. Recently, the U. S. Army revived Jedburgh teams to be liaisons to guerrilla groups, but while they remain a means to link to foreign forces, they do not include allies because the complexities are far too difficult to manage. In the author of No Bridges Blown we have a new friend, or perhaps a wise grandfather, from Hemingway’s generation, to teach us all these things, while providing us a wonderful adventure to enjoy.

This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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