Martha Gellhorn & Major General James Gavin: A Love Story of World War II

1944–45 Holland -Berlin

Martha Gellhorn first saw Major General James Gavin, the Commanding Officer of the 82nd Airborne Division, in September 1944, during the Market Garden operation in Holland, just outside the small town of Nijmegen. She was travelling with the British XXX Corps waiting to link up with the British airborne divisions, who’d dropped on Arnhem a couple of days earlier.

Operation Market Garden was a bold and audacious attempt to get behind German lines and capture the vital bridges across the Rhine, with the American airborne’s job that of creating a path over which the British armour and infantry could pass. It was a plan that nearly worked too. What the British, and the Americans for that matter, had not counted on was a German SS Panzer Division resting just outside Arnhem.

The lightly-armed British airborne (see Sir Richard Attenborough’s film, A Bridge Too Far, to get a feel of the operation) held out against fierce, highly trained and well equipped German troops for three days, with thousands of men killed and wounded.

Throughout it all Martha Gellhorn kept her head down in various ditches to the south of Arnhem, sharing rations and cigarettes with the men of the British XXX Corps, and those of the 82nd and 101st American Airborne Divisions, who’d risked their lives taking bridge after bridge in an attempt to get to the British troops under siege. Martha also spotted the commander of the 82nd, the 36 year old, and very handsome, General James Gavin, as he passed in his Jeep. Martha was smitten. It’s not known if Gavin spotted Martha or not, either way their lives were about to collide; although they didn’t meet again until the winter of 1944 just outside the village of Sissons, three miles from Reims.

Martha, in a not dissimilar fashion as Hemingway, always did her own thing and one night joined a couple of GIs out on patrol. Later she was found, notebook in hand, and without any form of accreditation, helplessly wandering around looking for somewhere to sleep. She was arrested, naturally under protest, and taken to Gavin’s tent.

When James Gavin and Martha came face to face there was an instant rapport, with Martha admitting straight away she didn’t have any paperwork that allowed her into that particular theatre of war; she went even further and told Gavin she didn’t care either. Gavin’s response was to laugh and tell Martha she obviously had a natural talent for living off the land, and would make a good guerrilla fighter. There was also an immediate physical attraction, and according to Caroline Moorehead, Martha’s biographer, there was something curious “…about the pupils of Gavin’s eyes, which seemed to grow larger while she was talking to him. It gave her a physical shock, as if he had touched her.” Gavin told Martha she was free to go, and that he would forget he’d ever seen her. Before leaving Martha gave Gavin her Paris address — the Hotel Lincoln.

James Maurice Gavin was born on March 22nd, 1907, in New York, and was the son of a newly arrived, unwed Irishwoman. Soon after his birth he was placed in a New York City orphanage. Within a year he was adopted by Mary and Martin Gavin, a Pennsylvania coal-mining couple. The young James Gavin soon learned the discipline, and hard work, of the Pennsylvanian coal fields; work and discipline that would pay real dividends throughout his long life. Gavin joined the US Army at the age of 17 and was soon selected for officer training at West Point. After graduating from the West Point Academy in 1929 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry. He quickly progressed through the US Army, becoming an officer paratrooper in 1941, and then the Commanding Officer the 505th Parachute Infantry, which, in 1942 — after the US had declared war — became part of the newly instigated 82nd Airborne.

The 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army was founded originally as the 82nd Infantry Division in August 1917, and as its members came from all of the 48 States it was called the All American Division, and earned its now famous double A sleeve badge. The Division fought three major campaigns during the latter months of the First World War, but in the early 1920s the Division was disbanded and ceased to exist for the next 20 years. In March 1942, three months after America’s declaration of war, the 82nd Infantry Division was re-activated under the command of Omar Bradley who brought together three of the US Army’s best generals, Mathew Ridgway, Maxwell Taylor, and James Gavin, to lead the Division.

Gavin’s 505th Parachute Infantry soon began to turn the old 82nd Infantry Division into a fully fledged Parachute Division, and in August 1942 it was re-named the 82nd Airborne — the first Airborne Division in the US Army — under the overall leadership General Mathew Ridgway.

As World War II progressed Gavin led assaults on Sicily, and Salerno Bay, Italy, in 1943, reaching the rank of brigadier general. On the opening night of D-Day, 5th — 6th June, 1944, Gavin led the parachute assault section of his Division as they jumped into Normandy and took the town of Sainte-Mare-Eglise, at the same time guarding the river crossings on the flank of the Utah Beach landings. Gavin soon became known as the “Jumpin’ General”. By September 1944 Gavin had been made a major general — the youngest major general (36 years old) in the US Army since Armstrong Custer — and again jumped with his troops into battle in Holland where, landing hard against a brick wall fractured part of his spine. Gavin refused medical help and led his men into battle. It was just outside Arnhem that Martha first saw him.

James Gavin was a handsome man — portrayed in the film, The Longest Day, by Robert Ryan — who was too old for the part — and in Sir Richard Attenborough’s fine film, A Bridge Too Far, by Ryan O’ Neal, who was perfect.

In March 1945 Major General James Gavin, who was slowly becoming infatuated with Martha Gellhorn, finally — after three attempts — tracked her down at the Hotel Lincoln, where a tempestuous love affair began.

Well, a tempestuous love affair would have started at the Hotel Lincoln if Gavin had been able to get there, but the pressures of the continuing advance into Germany — and the 82nd always seemed to be in the front line — killed any hopes he might have had of such a delicious rendezvous. Instead, Gavin sent his private aircraft to Paris, with one of his executive officers, who, once he’d found Martha in the bar of the Lincoln, instructed her that he had an order from the CO of the 82nd Airborne demanding her immediate presence at his temporary HQ on the west bank of the Rhine.

As can be imagined Martha didn’t appreciate being summoned in such a cursory fashion, resenting the fact that she was no doubt expected to jump into bed with the glamorous young general and then be flown back to Orly to await his next command. Martha looked at the executive officer, a young, eager colonel.

“ Go tell your general to find himself a nice German girl who can tag along anytime he likes.”

The young colonel, a Methodist preacher back home, maintained his dignity, and continued with his assignment.

“ I can’t do that, ma’am. You see this piece of paper is an official order, in triplicate, requesting your presence, as a correspondent attached to the military, at Major General James M. Gavin’s headquarters so that you can be briefed on the next stage of the offensive. You are not really in a position to refuse unless of course you feel your work over here is complete, in which case I have orders to put you on the next plane, or boat, leaving for the States. Is that clear, ma’am?”

Martha nodded, and now realised, perhaps for the first time, that Gavin could, if he chose, make things very difficult for her future as a correspondent — she also realised the order was no more than a ruse, and that, in its own way was both rather charming, and an example of his obvious power, and tenacity — and Martha had to admit she was fascinated by the man, and, if she was completely honest with herself, the idea of sharing his bed was not such an unattractive proposition as all that.

“ Okay, Colonel, take me to your leader.”

“ Yes, ma’am.”

The meeting between Martha and James Gavin, just a couple of hours later, started off a bit scratchily, with Martha telling Gavin she had never much liked generals and resented being collected like a package to be pushed into bed. Gavin greeted this feisty opening statement with his customary laughter, which broke the thickening ice. The Major General from Dooleyville, not far from Mt Carmel, Pennsylvania, then poured one of the best journalists from St Louis, or anywhere else for that matter, a rather good dry martini, lit two cigarettes, and passing one to Martha, asked what she would like for dinner. The choice wasn’t brilliant, he told her, but he’d heard the steak was rather good, and the wine, a bottle of claret he’d been saving for a special occasion, even better. Martha gave in and enjoyed a superb meal served by a young black orderly with a smile full of gold teeth. After two glasses of wine Martha spilled out all her pent up emotions about Hemingway, and how very much she missed the Finca, the only home she had ever really had.

Gavin was a good listener, and only after Martha had told him virtually everything about herself did he briefly describe his background, and his life in the army, which, he said, had been his family for nearly twenty years. During the evening Gavin soon realised that Martha understood intimately what he called the “madness and the miracle of war.”

After dinner the two of them relaxed in front of an old iron stove, drank brandy, and listened to a scratchy old recording of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto Gavin had found in a bombed out house in Holland. And as Gavin listened to the music he knew this opinionated and sensual woman sitting opposite him, with her eyes closed as she listened to the piano-playing genius of Edwin Fischer, could be a friend as well as a lover. And as Martha absorbed the Beethoven she knew she had found a man like no other in her life. She was captivated by his modesty and vast knowledge of military matters. She also liked the way he smelled. When the music finished they looked at each other, and then went to bed.

Thereafter Martha and James spent as much time as they could together, and when they were not together Gavin wrote Martha long, loving, letters. Martha responded with letters outlining everything, and everyone she met, including old mutual friends such as Bob Capa. Martha even sent Gavin books she thought he should read, including Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love; but no Hemingway. When they were together they read to each other, and played gin rummy in bed. Martha had at last found someone she could relate to, and a sexual partner who satisfied her. Gavin’s staff also noticed that his private quarters now had pictures on the walls, and the odd rug or two, plus vases containing grasses, or pieces of broken branches — all down to Martha.

One day toward the end of January, 1945, Martha was heading for the front line deep into Germany, when she unexpectedly came across Gavin and his 82nd dug in much further east than when she had last been with them. She was thrilled, and happily moved into Gavin’s HQ (inevitably an old farm house) for the night. The general explained to Martha that the 82nd had been ordered to act as decoys to draw away the main German opposition and allow the inexperienced American infantry to get behind the German lines and push forward, leaving the 82nd to clean up. He explained that it was a dangerous, and deadly, assignment — as all the recent assignments had been — and that many deaths could be expected if the German’s thought the 82nd where the main American force, which was the idea of course.

And the German’s did bump into the 82nd early the following morning resulting in a deadly fire fight that lasted for several hours. But with Gavin’s men calling in heavy artillery fire, and fighter bomber support, the two German divisions attacking them were effectively destroyed. But it came at the cost of many hundreds of casualties within the ranks of the 82nd. When Martha heard that many of the men she had come to know and admire had been killed she turned on Gavin and accused him of needlessly putting his men’s lives at risk. They argued fiercely until Gavin — who was himself deeply affected by the losses — stopped the argument by ordering Martha taken to her room where she was to be held under arrest until she calmed down.

Martha soon realised what a fool she had been and asked to be taken to Gavin to apologise, realising that her experiences — intimate, and wide as they were — of the madness, the miracle, and the realities of real warfare were, compared to Gavin’s, still extremely limited, especially when it meant deliberately putting the lives of your own men at risk for the greater strategic good. Gavin asked her never to speak of the episode again.

By early May the war at an end the precise status of Germany had to be determined, and even the Yalta conference had left things rather vague other than to say that the country would be governed by the Allies, and that Berlin itself would lie within the Soviet area of control. But things didn’t quite work out that way with Soviet, American, and British zones quickly set up.

Although the heaps of dead had been cleared away, and anything of value looted, the city was little more than a huge heap of rubble as a result of the months of heavy shelling and bombing. The water mains were leaking in over three thousand places, and there was little or no food to be had, with prostitution — male and female — rife.

Major General James Gavin, who now controlled the American sector, was quickly given a tour of his domain, introduced to his Russian counterpart who saluted him and gave him vodka. Gavin saluted back, took another slug of vodka, and then went off to meet Bob Capa at one of the few bars still standing to drink Armagnac and take a look at some of the photographs Capa had been taking of the terrified Berliners.

In a letter to Martha, Gavin wrote:

“ I have been entrusted with the care of 887,000 very hungry, but rather docile Krauts, and have to find 600 tons of food every day to feed them. I’m wonderfully excited about the whole goddam thing. At last we, and hopefully the Russians too, are doing humanity some permanent good. But God how I love and miss you. Darling, I love you I love you I love you. It is a good love now. It is sturdy, dependable and solid. Something one can count on.”

In September Martha joined Gavin and was given a room in the staff quarters of the 82nd Airborne HQ. The official reason given for the preferential treatment was that she was writing a feature on Gavin’s leadership qualities for the Saturday Evening Post. Over more steaks and wine, served by the ever present, and ever helpful gold-toothed orderly, the two of them resumed their old routine of making love into the early hours then playing gin rummy, and reading to each other, and talking about the war. They laughed a great deal and criticised their political, and military leadership.

They also talked a lot about living together, even about getting married, about having a dog, and a cat, and children.

During the day Martha patrolled — as she called it — the streets of Berlin and watched as a gang of German women — with dyed blond hair — dug out dead bodies from a flooded underground railway. But Martha had, since Dauchau, lost interest in the dead, especially ordinary German dead. She visited hospitals and recorded that there were 30 cases of malnutrition out of 960 patients. She didn’t care. Martha ruminated on the idea that Germany should become an American colony because they could never become a democracy on their own. She also forecast a Russian-American war, remembering how willingly captured German troops had offered to join the American Army so they could fight the Russians. Martha also notes in her diary that she danced with Gavin for nine hours one night — remembering as she danced the time she danced with Hemingway, who was no dancer, at the Floridita — and then made love for another two hours with darling James (Martha now considered Hemingway to have been no great lover), and Martha was, by all accounts, very hard to please sexually. They were happy, desperate, insane times when everything felt right and wrong and then right again, with the smell of millions of dead still in the air, even if that was only in the mind.

One day Martha strolled into the Alexandraplatz, which was the centre of the Berlin black market — and somewhere Gavin had forbidden all Americans to go — to try and sell a dirty, creased old suit belonging to Bob Capa (who was being held captive at the Ritz Hotel in Paris because he couldn’t pay his hotel bill, and gambling debts) when she met her old friend Freddy Keller, who’d been in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, who bought Capa’s suit for the exact amount of the photographer’s debts.

When Gavin’s Berlin command came to an end, early in 1946, he asked Martha to join him in America and become his wife. Martha thought about it but then decided she couldn’t face a life of living in army married quarters and politely refused Gavin’s offer, although she knew she loved him as she had loved no one else.

She also realised it was going to be hard to live without a war to go to, in the same way Hemingway had found it hard after 1918. Martha also knew she had to find another war, and another Gavin. It was a theme she returned to again and again in her conversations, her diary, and her published writings. I guess she also realised she would probably spend the rest of her life — with other Gavins coming and going — alone.

In November 1945 Martha travelled to Nuremberg to cover the war crimes trials.

After leaving Berlin James Gavin was appointed chief of staff of the US 5th Army, then chief of staff of all Allied forces in southern Europe, and then Commanding General of the US 7th Corps in West Germany. In the 1950s he headed the US Army’s research department and became a strong opponent of the defence policies of his old boss, President Eisenhower, that relied so heavily on nuclear weapons. Gavin retired from the army in 1958, serving as US Ambassador in France from 1961–63.

Gavin became a prominent critic of the US involvement in Vietnam, and wrote three books on warfare. He died in 1990, and in the forty five years since his love affair with Martha he seldom, if ever, mentioned her name.

Gavin was one of the finest soldiers America has ever produced.

Note: Although based on fact I have used a certain amount of creative licence

Bibliography: Martha Gellhorn — The Face of War (Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1959); Caroline Moorehead — Martha Gellhorn: A Life (Chatto & Windus, London, 2003);

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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