Category 1, Uncategorised • 27 January 2024

Lee Miller and the Mermaid (Part 1)

Follow Lee Miller's footsteps through the liberation of Denmark, as written by her granddaughter Ami Bouhassane.

When Lee Miller arrived in Denmark she needed to learn to relax her mindset from war to peace. She had driven through Germany with her eyes and mouth set to a rigid line ‘encased in a wall of hate and disgust’[i]. She was no stranger to thinking outside of the box or even transforming herself, but as she drove across the border she had not anticipated the joy and relief of discovering the Danish people, their attitudes to life and the way in which they had defied the Nazis.

Lee Miller was a mistress of reinvention throughout her life and had already undergone several by the time she arrived at Denmark. Her pass she presented at the border would reveal that she was an accredited war correspondent with the United States army in the service of Vogue Magazine but gives few clues as to her previous forms as a model, muse, Surrealist, fashion photographer and of course hints at nothing of what she was to become.

As 1943 is often seen to be the turning point year for Denmark in WWII it was also for Lee in her career and signifies another re-invention. A frequent misconception about Lee Miller during the war is that she was a correspondent throughout, however her US War Correspondents card was not issued until the 30th December 1942.  Until that point she was heavily restricted from photographing military subjects but 1943 saw her use her pass to obtain access to photograph the women’s war effort in Britain in more depth. She covered the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women’s Land Army and the Auxiliary Territorial Service’s (ATS) Searchlight Battery. Some of these photographs were published in Vogue but she usually took more than needed for her brief because the subject interested her so much. Lee left Britain to cover the war in Europe shortly after D-Day in June 1944.

Women war correspondents with the US army had different terms to the men, principally that they were not allowed to cover combat and were required to report from safe zones. Her first article ‘Normandy Nurses’ was to cover the casualty clearing hospitals near Bricqueville, Normandy. Her next assignment in St Malo was supposed to be of a similar format, however when she got there a battle was still raging. The only journalist in the area Lee violated her terms and for the first time went under fire to cover the combat. After serving time under house arrest and being released just in time to catch the liberation of Paris she went on to re-connect with the US 83rd Division she’d been with in St Malo, covering them and other divisions as they pushed forward. After covering the liberation of Luxembourg, writing about the Alsace campaign where soldiers stamped feet even though they were too numb to feel the cold[i] during the fierce winter battles in Alsace around Neuf Brisach, she went on to the Russian link-up at Torgau and then through Aachen into Germany.

By the 1st of May when the German forces started to abandon Denmark Lee was in Hitler’s apartment in Munich. The day before she had been at the liberation of the concentration camp Dachau photographing the horror of that place. The skeletal dead piled up because the crematorium had run out of coal and seeing with her own eyes some of the prisoners die before her because they were too weak to survive the excitement of their liberation. Afterwards she drove to Munich and in his flat she took a bath in Hitler’s tub, defiling his personal private space with the filth from the camp, photographing herself in her anger and disgust. In Paris she had found many of her artist friends were missing and now she knew the fate that had befallen them.

In 1942, Lee Miller gained accreditation as a war correspondent. Lee had begun to feel frustrated with her fashion work at Vogue, wanting to do more to aid the war effort. She'd befriended several journalists, including the Time Life photographer David. E. Scherman, and noted how easily they seemed to access cigarettes, kleenex and scotch - luxuries in wartime Britain. And rumour had it that a large-scale allied invasion might be on the cards, and Lee didn't want to miss out on the biggest story of the war. It was Scherman who suggested she apply for accreditation to the US forces as a war correspondent. By any reasoning, this was an extraordinary moment in what was already an extraordinary life.

On the 4th May London announced that German troops had surrendered in Denmark following the British landing in Jutland, and that evening had entered Copenhagen, Lee was with Regiment Commander Col. John Heintges and the 7th Infantry of the 3rd Division[i] as they took the town of Berchtesgaden next to Hilter’s mountainside stronghold of Obersalzburg. That evening Lee with two American GI’s and LIFE magazine photographer David E. Scherman slipped ahead of the front lines to witness with her camera Hilter’s Berghof in flames on the hillside, set alight by the SS troopers who were supposed to have remained to protect it. David E. Scherman described it as the ‘funeral pyre of the third Reich’. They stayed on in Berchtesgaden to document the official taking of the Berghof with the French army that arrived on the 5th May. By this time Lee had photographed the suicided Wehrmacht officer Gen.

Von Kastner at Goering’s Luftwaffe headquarters on the nearby estate of Schönau am Königssee. By the 7th May Lee was based in a school house in Rosenheim typing up her dispatches to send to Vogue when she heard that that Germany had officially surrendered to the Allies. The following day she started her journey towards Denmark stopping to record the surreal looking camouflage shrouded sculptures at Schloss Kleissheim in Salzburg, Austria and also to record civilians on the German side of the border.

Crossing the border at Flensburg, we believe Lee Miller arrived in Denmark on the 17th or 18th of May, approximately 10 days  after Churchill announced to Britain that the war in Europe had officially ended. To get there she had driven over 1,000 km from Rosenheim, through a war-torn Germany. She was uncertain and curious as to what she would find, as Denmark had declined to take up the fight and had initially been thought to be cooperating with the Germans. Later it began to be seen as an ally due to its resistance during the later years of the war. Any lingering suspicions Lee may have harboured quickly dispelled and soon she was completely absorbed by the ‘distracting excitement and the [infectious] holiday atmosphere the Danes carry with them’. Whilst she writes about the columns of surrendered Germans as she arrives she also remarks on other details like there being no slums and how ‘the Danes are crazy about gardens’ and ‘are ashamed of being so well fed, while others are starving [..] although they had sneaked thousands of tons to Norway by smugglers routes”[ii].

The more she looks the more she becomes touched by this society and intrigued into finding out about all aspects of Denmark.  For a woman who is thought to be the only allied female correspondent to have covered combat during WWII, witnessing soldiers she’d been chatting with dead in ditches a few hours later, and who had been at the liberation of the concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald, Denmark seems like the ray of hope and truth that she needed.  Lee had become cynical and weary as the war had continued and as she saw corruption slowly grow had a deep intolerance of sham. The more she found out about the Danes swindling and freeze out of the Nazis the more engaged with Denmark she became.

In an account, written shortly after his return, British private Raymond Hutchings from 8th parachute battalion which had been sent to Denmark to help supervise the German surrender, was also gripped by the country. Arriving the on the 8th of May , he recalled that the Danish resistance had done most of the fighting work ‘with the co-operation of virtually the whole population which was solidly behind them’.[i] Though we do not know if they met, Lee references the British parachute battalion and even photographed some of them in Denmark as well as writing about a ‘block of British Parachutists with red Beret tucked into shoulder strap’[ii] attending the special performance by the Royal Corps de Ballet at the Royal Theatre on the day the Russians visited Copenhagen.. A British paratrooper she did write about by name was Lance Corporal Tom Smitch. Before the war he’d been a professional cartoonist, and in the army his artistic skills were re-deployed into map drawing. In Denmark she notes that he became very popular with his skilled cartoons of the British that were published every day by the Danish papers. Lee herself was quite surprised at the amount of celebrity attention that she got from the Danish press, remarking that ‘there has been almost as much in the newspapers about me as Montgomery and I’m interviewed by the press here more than I work myself.’[iii]the Danish press interviewed me on all sorts of subjects such as American, which I haven’t seen for eleven years, fashions I haven’t noticed since Normandy, except for the first Paris collections and whether I really approve of trousers and uniforms for women, I am wearing myself. Mostly they wanted to know about Germany and Hitler and Eva Braun and England.[iv] She welcomed their unhurried style and friendly invitations to lunch, sharing or sources of information and private leads, which was quite different to the cutthroat hurry of the press she was used to. Intrigued to find out the ingenious and varied ways Danish editors had evaded attempts of the German propaganda machine she also found out about the underground news service that was run by several men from different large papers publishing, amongst other things, Information the only daily news sheet. This contained reports that ‘monitored the allied broadcasts and gave news of the struggles of other countries. […] It is a very uncompromising paper and hopes to stay that way.’[v]

On arriving Lee would have prioritised finding out first-hand what had really been going on in the Danish resistance against the Germans. She was soon to discover that there were networks and coping strategies set up throughout the country. The large nationalised  organisations had protected their interests and quietly falsified their official reports and accounts. Farms on paper were shown to have much less produce such as milk which could not be checked on because all buying and selling was done by cooperatives. This meant the excess could be used for other means in the interests of Denmark and its allies but also that the Germans could not deal with any farmers directly to create a black market. While all was pleasant on the surface the Danes also created a great ‘freeze out’ against the Germans socially. Whatever they could do to make life less easy or pleasant for their German occupiers they would. They denied them quick and efficient vehicle repairs, made no effort to be inclusive of them, or isolated their children at school. It was enough to condemn them to be miserable but nothing they could pinpoint as a significant cause.

Lee was touched by the grace and understanding of the Danes with regards to provisions. Usually untrusting and cynical, she felt their wish to do what they could to help was genuine. She noticed the compassion shown from being as economic as they could with their fuel to welcoming further rationing and often asking her if she had ways to assist them to get food to those that needed it in England due to being very much aware of their abundance of food in comparison to the rest of the Allies.

[i] Raymond Hutchings, June 1945,, WW2 peoples war, Contributed by Nicholas Hutchings, article IDA4000320, 3rd May 2005

[ii] Lee Miller (Copenhagen) to Audrey Withers (British Vogue, London), Caption sheet, written 1st June, stamped received 13th June 1945

[iii] Lee Miller (Copenhagen) to Audrey Withers (British Vogue, London), Caption sheet, written 1st June, stamped received 13th June 1945

[iv] Lee Miller (Copenhagen) to Audrey Withers (British Vogue, London), Unpublished Manuscript KOBENHAVN XK199 1571 4 1703, Denmark third section continued, stamped 15th June 1945, p 3

[v] Lee Miller (Copenhagen) to Audrey Withers (British Vogue, London), Unpublished Manuscript KOBENHAVN XK199 1571 4 1703, Denmark third section continued, stamped 15th June 1945, p 5

Written by Ami Bouhassane in Category 1 , Uncategorised
27 January 2024

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