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This is the eleventh in an ongoing series of posts on real-life Monuments Men. Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher. See related posts on Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, Walter J. Huchthausen, Seymour J. Pomrenze, Mason Hammond, Edith Standen, Karol Estreicher, S. Lane Faison, Sir Hilary Jenkinson, Walter Horn and Douglas Cooper.
The newly released movie, The Monuments Men, has focused great attention on the Monuments Men (and women) and their work during and after World War II. Of course the movie cannot tell the story of the over 300 individuals involved in Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) work, so focuses on three: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland, played by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett respectively. Beginning in December 2013, I thought it would be illustrative to discuss some of the lesser known individuals, and thus started a series of blog posts. I enlisted my colleague Dr. Sylvia Naylor to write some of them.
This post focuses on British Major Ronald Edmond Balfour and is the 11th in the series of posts on the Monuments Men.
Ronald Edmond Balfour was born in England into a wealthy military family in 1904. He excelled at Eton and won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, where he was awarded a “double first” in history and theology. He became a lecturer in history and a Fellow at King’s College, where he began amassing one of the largest personal collections of books in Great Britain, some 8,000 by the time war broke out in 1939. That year, the unmarried, bespectacled and mustached academic joined the French desk at the Ministry of Information. Less than a year later he enlisted in the British Army, passed through the Officer Cadet Training Unit and became a 2nd Lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1940. He was promoted to captain in 1941 and joined the Recruiting Branch of the War Office.
In 1944, after Geoffrey Webb, Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge, was appointed to head the SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) organization, Balfour was recruited to become one of the Monuments Men. By April 1 he was on Webb’s staff helping to make plans for MFA&A operations after the landings in France in June. In the early planning for the invasion of the Continent, Webb thought that United States Capt. L. Bancel LaFarge and Balfour should be with the first group, as he believed they would make a good impression on all sorts and conditions of soldiers. He wrote on April 26 that although they may have missed the practical training and final polish they could have received at the Eastbourne training center, he thought LaFarge’s experience in Sicily and Balfour’s service in the army “and more important, their native mother wit and savvy will in some degree compensate for this.”
By the end of May Balfour had been assigned as a Monuments Man with the 21st Army Group, command by General Sir Bernard Montgomery, and initially composed of by the First U.S. Army and the British Second Army. Webb’s recommendation for officer personnel for the Normandy landings resulted in LaFarge, Balfour, and British Maj. Lord Methuen reporting with the British forces under the 21st Army Group; and the assignment of Lt. George L. Stout, USNR, Squadron Leader J. E. Dixon-Spain (RAF) and American Capt. Robert Posey with the United States Forces under the 21st Army Group. After the Normandy landings on June 6, and when sufficient American forces had landed, their own 12th Army Group was activated on September 1, under General Omar Bradley, and the 21st Army Group was left with the British Second Army and the newly activated First Canadian Army.
Balfour arrived in France in August. Before heading off to combat Balfour made the compelling case for the importance of the task confronting the Monuments Men in a speech he planned to deliver to his men. He said: “No age lives entirely alone; every civilisation is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it.”
His detachment on August 30, as a major, to the First Canadian Army, to be its MFA&A Officer, was delayed by crowded roads, poor transport and destroyed bridges. He arrived in Rouen on September 9 and made his first report, carefully recording the city’s damage from the German air bombardment in 1940, the Allied bombardment in 1944 and the retreating Germans. From Rouen, Balfour moved on to join up with the First Canadian Army in Belgium.
He arrived in Bruges, just days too late to have hoped to prevent the evacuating Nazis from stealing Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and 11 artworks from the Church of Notre Dame. He did, however, manage to persuade the Allies to avoid bombing the Church of St. Katharina in Hoogstraeten, a municipality located in the Belgian province of Antwerp.
At the end of September, Balfour reported to Webb that “For the past five weeks movement has been entirely dependent on hitch-hiking or the chance of a vehicle going in the right direction. This is necessarily uncertain and time-wasting.” He noted that he was supposed to get a vehicle in October and he did indeed get a truck, on October 2, but it developed mechanical problems, and in mid-October Balfour reported the truck was out of commission most of the time.
On November 29, four days after advancing into Holland, Balfour fractured his ankle in a traffic accident. He was driving back to his headquarters from a visit to Dixon-Spain, at the Second British Army, when the accident happened. He was taken to a hospital in Eindhoven where he dexterously outmaneuvered the doctor by refusing to be shipped home. Instead they flew him to Brussels for medical treatment. On November 30, Balfour wrote LaFarge a brief note from Eindhoven about the accident. After receiving the note on December 4, LaFarge rushed to 21st Army Group to tell them the news, which they had not heard. He then called on British Major Paul Baillie Reynolds, who told him that he had got the news from Balfour himself two days previously, that he had unsuccessfully sought to telephone LaFarge, and that Ronald was in the General Hospital in Brussels. LaFarge then rushed to Brussels and found Balfour in a very good mood. He told LaFarge that he thought he may be about again in a few weeks and that he believed that he might be able to do work at Army headquarters in a month or so, during which time he would be preparing his chief for the German venture, which was “still a long way off as concerns his own formation.” He remained hospitalized during the Battle of the Bulge and did not return to duty for two months.
In February 1945, Balfour was back in action as the 21st Army Group attacked the Siegfried Line. During combat operations that month, Balfour, in several German cities, helped to recover and protect archival collections. At Goch he successfully persuaded Canadian commanders not to destroy the 14th century stone entrance gate as they attempted to enter the town. While in Goch he also found the abandoned archives from the Collegiate Church of Cleve, which he transferred to a monastery in Spyck for safekeeping.
His last report, filed March 3, 1945, described his work in the church in Cleve: “Fragments of two large 16th century retables of carved and painted wood have been collected and removed to safety. Parish archives found in a blasted safe and strewn over the floor of the wrecked sacristy have also been removed for safekeeping.”
In his last letter, to Webb, dated March 3, he wrote:
It was a splendid week for my job – certainly the best since I came over. On the one hand there is the tragedy of real destruction, much of it completely unnecessary; on the other the comforting feeling of having done something solid myself.
There are no civilian officials to annoy one; the cares of quick decisions are left to oneself. Added to that, is the excitement of being right in the firing line. I met a battalion of my Regiment one day and ate my sandwiches with them at RHQ less than a mile from the front and I was actually sitting in a building when it was hit by a shell.
The plundering is awful. Not only every house is forced open and searched but also every safe and every cupboard. All that I can do is to try and rescue as much as possible and put up signs of warning. We did that in Kalkar but I do not know whether they actually had any effect.
In the meantime I’ve spent several days arranging the staff I’ve collected. What I did with the Goch archives would make the archivists’ hair stand on end, but I saved them from complete destruction.
And my storage place in Cleves [Cleve] wouldn’t be exactly approved of by Washington as it’s an attic in a building occupied by troops and refugees. The house is without proper protection and shells fall ceaselessly in the neighbourhood but it’s the only building in the town that still has a roof, doors and windows. There’s a local monk there (the only civilian who’s allowed to move freely round the town) in whose charge I can leave the things when I go.
If all goes well, I hope to be back at my headquarters next week as I’ve got a good deal of long-term work to do there. I’ve also got most of my luggage in Holland. I’m afraid I’ll never see it again. Yours very sincerely Ronald.
He did not live to see his luggage again. Balfour was killed by a shell burst in Cleve on March 10 while he and some other men were attempting to rescue pieces of a medieval altarpiece to safety. He was buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, near Cleve.
Paying tribute to him, Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, Adviser to the War Office on Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, said:
It is a great and unexpected blow. He was so cheerfully delighted at being at the front and was killed when actually engaged in saving some of those works of art, which he loved so much.
He had done wonderfully good work, as those who knew him knew he would do. He leaves a gap in our service, which no one will be able to fill so well. The whole field of art history has suffered a tragic loss.
Balfour left his papers and library to King’s College. To honor his feats and passion to culture, that college named an archive room after him. In the mid-1950s, Goch dedicated an archive room in his honor. And on the 50th anniversary of the reconstruction of the 105-metre tower of the Church of St. Katharina in Hoogstraeten, the municipality held an exhibition in “grateful commemoration of Major Ronald Edmond Balfour.”
For information about Balfour’s activities see File: CAD 000.4 (3-25-43) (1), Sec. 3, Security Classified General Correspondence, 1943-July 1949, General Records, Civil Affairs Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165; Subject File Aug 1943-1945, Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331; and, General Records, 1938-1948, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”) OMGUS Headquarters Relating to the Central Collecting Points, Property Division, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 15 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).
TAGS 21st Army Group
, Bernard Montgomery
, First U.S. Army
, Geoffrey Webb
, Greg Bradsher
, L. Bancel LaFarge
, looted art
, Monuments Men
, Omar Bradley
, Robert Posey
, Ronald Balfour
, Siegfried Line
, Sir Leonard Woolley
, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces
Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher and Dr. Sylvia Naylor.
The movie The Monuments Men has generated great interest in the subject of the protection of cultural property during World War II and raised the issue of how far commanders should go in protecting cultural property in instances of risk to the lives of their troops.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, first as the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces Headquarters, in 1943, and then as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in 1944, weighed in on the subject in orders that were issued under his name.
From early November to late December 1943, the American forces fought to overcome the German defenses of the Bernhardt/Reinhard Line. During that time, the Fifth U.S. Army sustained 16,000 casualties, and the Italian town of San Pietro was completely destroyed. By late December the Fifth Army paused to regroup before it took on the formidable Gustav Line defenses. It was at this time Eisenhower issued his letter order (below) regarding the protection of cultural property.
Letter, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief, AFH to All Commanders, Subject: Historic Monuments, December 29, 1943, File: CAD 000.4 (3-25-43) (1), Sec. 2, Security Classified General Correspondence, 1943-July 1949, General Records, Civil Affairs Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165.
Then Eisenhower left the Theater to go to England to command the Overlord operations, namely, the landings on the French coast. By the end of May 1944 most of the planning for D-Day had been accomplished. Before the landings took place, however, Eisenhower issued another instruction regarding the protection of cultural property on May 26, 1944:
Memorandum, Dwight D. Eisenhower, General, U.S. Army to G.O.C. in Chief, 21 Army Group; Commanding General, 1st U.S. Army Group; Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force; and Air C-in-C, Allied Expeditionary Force, Subject: Preservation of Historical Monuments, May 26, 1944, File: 751,Numeric File Aug 1943-July 1945, Records of the Secretariat, Records of the G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331.
In this document Eisenhower referenced Cassino. This was the German position on the Gustav Line at Monte Cassino, topped by a medieval abbey. In January 1944 the U.S. Fifth Army attacked this position and was thrown back. Convinced that the German were using the abbey as an observation point, in February the Allies sent 200 bombers to destroy the abbey. Indian troops then unsuccessfully attacked the German position. So British General Harold Alexander in March had some 500 bombers lay waste to Cassino itself. A follow-up attack failed. It was not until May that a massive Allied ground attack was able to break through the Gustav Line. Polish forces on May 18 reached the summit of Monte Cassino and seized what was left of the abbey.
On both documents, General Eisenhower stresses the importance of the cultural heritage to the entire civilization. The historical buildings and monuments symbolize the growth and development of our civilization. They are not more important than human life; however, they are something worth fighting to protect.
TAGS Allied Expeditionary Force
, Allied Force Headquarters
, Bernhardt/Reinhard Line
, cultural property
, Dwight D. Eisenhower
, Fifth U.S. Army
, Greg Bradsher
, Gustav Line
, looted art
, Monte Cassino
, San Pietro
, Sylvia Naylor
, World War II
This is the tenth in a series of posts on real-life Monuments Men. Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher. See related posts on Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, Walter J. Huchthausen, Seymour J. Pomrenze, Mason Hammond, Edith Standen, Karol Estreicher, S. Lane Faison, Sir Hilary Jenkinson, and Walter Horn.
The forthcoming movie, The Monuments Men, has focused great attention on the Monuments Men (and women) and their work during and after World War II. Of course the movie cannot tell the story of the over 300 individuals involved in Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) work, so focuses on three: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland, played by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett respectively. Over the past two months, I discussed some of the lesser known individuals.
This post focuses on Douglas Cooper of the Royal Air Force, and is the tenth in the series of blogs on the Monuments Men.
Arthur William Douglas Cooper was born to an extremely wealthy family in London on February 20, 1911. He was educated at Cambridge, Marburg and the Sorbonne, and at the age of twenty-one came into an inheritance of £100,000. After a short stint as an art dealer in London in 1933, he pursued a career as an art historian and collector. By 1939 he had amassed a collection of 137 cubist works primarily focused on the works of four avant-garde artists: Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso.
At the outbreak of World War II he joined an ambulance unit in Paris and earned the Médaille Militaire for his work moving the wounded to safety in Bordeaux. Back in England he joined Royal Air Force Intelligence and was sent to Cairo to interview prisoners of war. He also interrogated prisoners of war at Malta.
By the late spring of 1944, Cooper had joined the MFA&A Section of the Operations Branch, G-5 Division of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) and was serving with the German Country Unit, under Major Mason Hammond, developing policies and procedures for use in Germany. He also became involved with intelligence matters as it related to German looting of cultural property. In the latter part of August Cooper, recently promoted to Squadron Leader (equivalent of a major in the Army), was reassigned to the Control Commission for Germany (British Element), headed by Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, who also served as Adviser on Art and Archaeology to the War Office. In his new capacity Cooper worked closely with the Americans serving with the MFA&A Section (headed by Hammond) of the newly established United States Group Control Commission (USGCC) as well as with the SHAEF MFA&A personnel, as the respective organizations did their planning, research, and investigation necessary for the accomplishing their missions in occupied Germany.
In January 1945, Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, the head of the SHAEF MFA&A operations, asked Cooper and Hammond to come to SHAEF headquarters at Versailles to discuss the MFA&A organization to be set up in Germany by Webb, as well as the relevant plans and information he expected from Cooper’s and Hammond’s units, and the intelligence needs of all MFA&A branches and possible means of satisfying them. They left England on January 24 and arrived that night at Versailles. During the next ten days, with the exception of three days (January 28-30), spent in traveling and conferring with Monuments Man George Stout at HQ 12th Army Group headquarters at Verdun, Cooper and Hammond spent all their time in the Paris area. In their meeting with Stout they discussed the development of civil administration for monuments and collections in Germany under Military Government; development of data on German civil personnel; exchange of information on German repositories; and, means of conveying documentary information from the field to higher headquarters. Cooper and Hammond had similar conversations with Webb and other MFA&A personnel. While Hammond returned to England, Cooper stayed a couple of weeks longer.
On one of his forays into Paris Cooper was able to review the records of the Paris offices of Schenker International Transport, a large German transport company that specialized in transporting works of art. The company was used by several German buyers, and it enjoyed a close relation with the German embassy in Paris, which used it to warehouse, pack, and transport confiscated art to Germany. His April 5, 1945 report on the Schenker files provides evidence of art transactions that took place between January 1941 and July 1942; descriptions of artworks sent off to Germany; lists of German buyers and the works they bought; and, the names of the French dealers involved, and the dates of the transactions. This information would prove invaluable to the Monuments Men after the war.
In February Cooper went to Switzerland to represent both the MFA&A and the French Recuperation Commission to obtain intelligence on the Swiss art trade. He traveled to Switzerland with the cover title of Technical Adviser to the British Trade Delegation, which was then negotiating with the Swiss regarding German-Swiss economic relations and German assets. During his time in Switzerland he tried to piece together the movement of looted artworks into and out of Switzerland, and documented his findings in a report dated March 22, 1945. From Switzerland Cooper proceeded to Italy and then returned to England.
On March 26 Woolley resigned his position as Director of the MFA&A Section, Control Commission for Germany (British Element), and Cooper immediately replaced him, in the capacity of Acting Director. During the remainder of the war Cooper would play in an important role in cooperating with SHAEF MFA&A, the USGCC, the Office of Strategic Services, the Roberts Commission (American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas), and other organizations in making plans to deal with the post-hostilities phase of MFA&A work and intelligence matters connected with MFA&A operations. Frequently his discussions involved the exploitation of captured documents; interrogations of enemy personnel; and, the development of lists and catalogs of missing works of art.
After World War II, he settled in France and spent the next forty years as an art critic of modern art, writer of a catalogue raisonné on Paul Gauguin (never completed), and author of monographs and catalogues on 19th century artists such as Degas, van Gogh and Renoir, as well as the cubist masters. He passed away on April 1, 1984.
Much of Cooper’s MFA&A career can be followed in the Subject File Aug 1943-1945 (Entry 55B), Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 331; Security Classified General Correspondence, 1943-July 1949 (Entry 463), General Records, Civil Affairs Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165; and, the Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, Record Group 239; and, the Douglas Cooper Papers at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California.
TAGS Arthur William Douglas Cooper
, Control Commission for Germany
, Douglas Cooper
, French Recuperation Commission
, Greg Bradsher
, looted art
, Mason Hammond
, Monuments Men
, Roberts Commission
, Schenker International Transport
, Sir Leonard Woolley
This is the ninth in an ongoing series of posts on real-life Monuments Men. Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher. See related posts on Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, Walter J. Huchthausen, Seymour J. Pomrenze, Mason Hammond, Edith Standen, Karol Estreicher, S. Lane Faison, and Sir Hilary Jenkinson.
The forthcoming movie, The Monuments Men, has focused great attention on the Monuments Men (and women) and their work during and after World War II. Of course the movie cannot tell the story of the over 300 individuals involved in Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) work, so focuses on three: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland, played by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett respectively. Over the course of the next two months, I thought it would be illustrative to discuss some of the lesser known individuals.
This post focuses on art historian Walter Horn, and is the ninth in the series of blogs on the Monuments Men.
Monuments Man Bernard Taper said at a conference in 1995, that “My story is not as heroic or as glamorous as those of the earlier Monuments people, whom I look on as legendary figures, truly chivalric in their courage, enterprise, and dedication to a cause. One such was my predecessor as art-intelligence officer, Lieutenant Walter Horn…”
Walter William Horn was born January 18, 1908, in Waldangelloch, Germany (in rural Baden), and grew up in Heidelberg, attending the university there, and in Berlin and Hamburg studying art history. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Hamburg in 1933. Horn, opposed to National Socialism, left Germany in 1934 to serve as a research associate at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, Italy. He emigrated to the United States in 1938, and joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, first as a visiting lecturer and a year later given a permanent position as the first art historian in the University of California system. Horn specialized in medieval architecture and sculpture, and he devoted much of his career to the study of vernacular architecture.
Horn was naturalized in 1943 and that same year he joined the United States Army. In late 1944, Horn, then a lieutenant, was in England interrogating prisoners of war. On January 2, 1945, Douglas Cooper with the MFA&A Branch, British Control Commission for Germany, wrote Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, Adviser, MFA&A, G-5, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) that Horn would be invaluable for MFA&A work in Germany. Cooper observed that “He is both a good scholar and a very nice man. He knows many of the museum people and of course is fluent in German.” This was not to be at the time, for Horn would soon be in General George S. Patton’s Third United States Army, interrogating prisoners of war. He was then assigned to SHAEF to work as an Intelligence Officer.
On July 20, 1945, Horn joined MFA&A Branch, United States Group Control Council, as a fine arts intelligence officer. He was assigned temporary duty to Nuremberg that date to locate the Imperial Crown Jewels and Coronation Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire (dated from the 8th through the 14th centuries) that were thought to have been hidden in Nuremberg. Indeed, the Nazis had hidden them to serve as a rallying symbol for a future Nazi resistance movement. After many interrogations and much sleuthing, Horn, on August 7 recovered from a hidden room in an underground bunker in Nuremberg the missing items.
Then Horn was off to Munich Central Collecting Point, where at the end of August, he arranged to have established an Art Document Center, in which all documents, correspondence, records and card files pertaining to works of art would be united and made available for study and research. He arranged for the center to be administered under the joint auspices of the collecting point and the Intelligence Unit (to which he had just been assigned as chief), MFA&A Sub-section, G-5 Division, United States Forces European Theater (USFET).
Horn’s next assignment involved the restitution of cultural property to the Czechoslovakian government. On October 2 General Eisenhower, not wanting to delay restitutions until a formal program was established, authorized, as soon as possible, a token restitution to Czechoslovakia of stolen cultural objects. Already, on September 29 USFET, anticipating Eisenhower’s wishes, had issued instructions that a token restitution of stolen cultural materials to Czechoslovakia be made on or about October 9, and that restitution would take place at Schloss Banz, in Bavaria. The famous fourteenth century altarpiece by the Master of Hohenfurt found in the Alt Aussee Salt Mine in Austria and moved to the Munich Central Collecting Point, and approximately 18 cases of objects from the Army Museum, Prague, at Schloss Banz, were to be assembled by that date ready for transfer of custody receipt at Schloss Banz. Within a few days Horn left for Schloss Banz to effect the transfer of the looted works to accredited representatives of the Czechoslovakian government. Two military officers from the Czech Ministry of National Defense came to USFET Headquarters and the MFA&A unit arranged for them to proceed from there to Schloss Banz, where they were met by Horn. While the Czech officers were en route, Capt. Edwin Rae at Third U. S. Army was directed to arrange for the delivery of the Hohenfurth panels to Schloss Banz. He designated Lt. Cmdr. Hamilton Coulter to transport them from Munich, which he did on October 8. This joint operation was successfully carried out.
In 1946 Horn, having attained the rank of captain, returned to the United States, and resumed his professorship at the University of California at Berkeley. He would serve as chair of that university’s Department of Art History until his retirement in 1974. He died on December 26, 1995.
Much of Horn’s career is documented in the Subject File Aug 1943-1945, Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 331, and the various collections that comprise the Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”) of Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.), Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260.
Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.
In the forthcoming movie The Monuments Men there will be a scene of Monuments Men entering the salt mine at Merkers, Thuringia, Germany in April 1945, and beholding German and looted gold, concentration camp victims’ gold teeth, and fabulous artwork. The scene looks something like this:
Capture of Germany’s Gold
ReichsBank wealth, SS loot, and Berlin Museum paintings that were removed from Berlin to a salt mine vault located in Merkers, Germany. The 3rd U.S. Army discovered the gold and other treasure in April 1945.
Of course the movie version takes liberties with what actually happened, as documented in the record holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration. What follows is a brief overview of what actually happened as documented in those records, focusing on the artworks. For a more detailed account see “Nazi Gold: The Merkers Mine Treasure” in Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration.
To protect Germany’s art treasures, the Reichminister for Education decided in March 1945 to ship them to mines for safekeeping. The first shipment took place on March 16, when forty-five cases of art from the Kaiser-Friedrichs Museum were shipped from Berlin to an unworked salt mine in Hesse, with shafts at Heimboldshausen and Ransbach. The mine is about fifteen miles west of the salt mine at Merkers, ten miles west of Vacha. Dr. Paul Ortwin Rave, curator of the German State Museum in Berlin as well an assistant director of the National Galleries in Berlin, who had been sent with the shipment, found that the mine was unsuitable for a deposit, and therefore it was decided that subsequent shipments would go to the salt mine at Merkers. The Merkers mine complex included more than 35 miles of tunnels and a dozen entrances. Between March 20 and March 31 the Germans transported one-fourth of the major holdings of fourteen of the principal Prussian state museums to Merkers. Rave was ordered to stay at Merkers and watch over the collection.
Late on the evening of March 22, elements of Lt. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army crossed the Rhine, and soon thereafter his whole army crossed the river and drove into the heart of Germany. Advancing northeast from Frankfurt, elements of the Third Army cut into the future Soviet Zone and advanced on Gotha. Just before noon on April 4, the village of Merkers fell to the Third Battalion of the 358th Infantry Regiment, Ninetieth Infantry Division, Third Army.
By noon on April 6 a story had reached Lt. Col. William A. Russell the Ninetieth Infantry Division’s G-5 (civilian affairs) officer that there was gold and other valuables in a mine at Merkers. He proceeded to the mine, where interviews with displaced persons in the area confirmed the story. They told him that works of art were also stored in the mine and that Dr. Rave was present to care for the paintings. Russell then confronted mine officials with this information, and they stated they knew that gold and valuable art were stored in the mine and that other mines in the area were likewise used for storing valuables. Russell learned from a German bank official that that the gold in the mine constituted the entire reserve of the Reichsbank in Berlin and Rave told him he was in Merkers to care for paintings stored in the mine.
With this information, Russell requested that the 712th Tank Battalion be ordered to proceed to Merkers to guard the entrances to the mine. Elements of the Ninetieth Division Military Police were also deployed about the entrances, and arrangements were made for generation of power and electricity at the mine so that the shafts could be entered for examination the next morning. Later that afternoon, after it was learned that there were at least five possible entrances to the mine at Merkers and that one tank battalion would not be sufficient to guard them all, Russell requested reinforcements. That evening Maj. Gen. Herbert L. Earnest, the Ninetieth Infantry Division’s commanding general, called the 357th Infantry Regiment then at Leimbach and ordered that its First Battalion proceed to Merkers to relieve the Ninetieth Division Military Police and reinforce the 712th Tank Battalion.
On the morning of April 7 military personnel interrogated civilians to obtain information on storage of Reich property in the mine. Also that morning, new entrances to this mine and to other nearby mines were found by the Americans at Leimbach, Ransbach, and Springen. Guards were immediately placed at these entrances. Later that morning, General Earnest directed that a company of the First Battalion of the 357th Infantry Regiment be posted to guard the main entrance of the Merkers mine. This company was reinforced with tanks from the 712th Tank Battalion, tank destroyers from the 773d Tank Destroyer Battalion, and Jeeps mounting machine guns for antiaircraft defense. Reinforced rifle companies were also ordered to guard entrances at Kaiseroda and Dietlas. Around 11 a.m. another entrance to the mine was found at Statinfsfeld by the First Battalion. Accordingly, a tank destroyer company was dispatched to guard this entrance.
At 10 a.m. Russell, the assistant division commander, and two other Ninetieth Infantry Division officers, Signal Corps photographers, Rave, and German mining officials entered the mine. The elevator took them to the bottom of the main shaft twenty-one hundred feet beneath the surface
Meanwhile the Ninetieth Infantry Division was continuing on the offensive and needed all of its forces. So at 5 p.m. the 357th Infantry Regiment was ordered to move out and join up with the division’s other units, with the exception of the First Battalion, which was to pass to division control and to continue guarding the mine, and Third Battalion guards were to be relieved by elements of the First Battalion. By that evening three companies of the First Battalion were guarding the entrances at Merkers, Kaiseroda, Leimbach, Springen, and Dietlas, with the assistance of one platoon of heavy machine guns and two sections of light tanks. The Merkers, Dietlas, and Kaiseroda factory areas were guarded by a perimeter defense, and special guards were placed on essential operating installations such as electric plants, transformers, and elevator mechanisms.
While the treasure was being reviewed on April 8, in other tunnels Americans found an enormous number of artworks. Late that day, Capt. Robert Posey, a Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) officer with the Third Army, his assistant PFC Lincoln Kirsten, and Major Perera, of G-5, Third Army, arrived to inspect the artworks and the gold and currency. Robert M. Edsel, in his The Monuments Men (2009) described their inspection:
Slowly, Posey and Kirstein began to realize just how much was hidden in the Merkers mines. Crated sculptures, hastily packed, with photographs clipped from museum catalogues to show what was inside. Ancient Egyptian papyri in metal cases, which the salt in the mine had reduced to the consistency of wet cardboard. There was no time to examine the priceless antiquities inside, for in other rooms there were ancient Greek and Roman decorative works, Byzantine mosaics, Islamic rugs, leather and buckram portfolio boxes. Hidden in an inconspicuous side room, they found the original woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer’s famous Apocalypse series of 1498. And then more crates of paintings—a Rubens, a Goya, a Cranach packed together with minor works.
Posey, Kirsten, and Perera then set out for the Third Army headquarters at Frankfurt, arriving there at 10 p.m. Shortly thereafter they made their report to Lt. Col. Tupper Barrett, G-5, 12th Army Group. Word was passed up the chain of command.
A painting by the french impressionist Edouard Manet, titled “Wintergarden”, discovered in the vault at Merkers. 4/25/45. RG 111-SC-203453-5
Col. Bernard D. Bernstein, deputy chief, Financial Branch, G-5 Division of SHAEF, was then placed in charge of the Merkers operation. After inspections of the mine regarding the gold and currency, and trips back to Frankfurt, on April 11 Bernstein returned to Merkers, and that morning, he and Rave made an inspection of the art treasures. Later that day Lt. George Stout, USNR, MFA&A Officer, G-5, 12th Army Group, and the SHAEF MFA&A chief, British Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, reported for duty, with the expectation that they would handle the art matters. After Posey’s earlier visit to Merkers, he had notified Webb of the treasure and recommended Stout, former chief of conservation at Harvard’s Fogg Museum and considered America’s greatest expert on the techniques of packing and transporting, be sent to the mine to provide technical guidance. Webb and Stout arrived at Merkers only to find that they needed Bernstein’s permission to see the art. Bernstein showed them his letter from Third Army’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Hobart Gay authorizing him to decide who went into the mine and the need for XII Corps Commander Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy’s permission for Allied personnel to inspect the mine. Bernstein agreed to let Stout view the works of art, but he denied Webb access.
On April 12 Bernstein gave generals Dwight Eisenhower (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, or SHAEF commanding general) Omar Bradley (commanding general of the 12th Army Group), Patton, Eddy, and Brig. Gen. Otto P. Weyland, commander of the XIX Tactical Air Command of the Ninth Air Force, a tour of the mine. After looking at the gold, currency, and SS loot, including gold teeth from concentration camp victims, Bernstein also showed the generals the art treasures.
General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Allied commander, inspects art treasures in the Merkers salt mine. Behind Eisenhower are General Omar N. Bradley (left), and (right) Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. 4/12/45.
Stout on April 12 talked to Rave at the Ransbach mine, who explained that the forty-five cases of art there could not be inspected as the mine elevator was not working. Stout returned to Merkers and made a spot-check of some of the boxes and crates of artwork. He found that in addition to the crated items, some four hundred paintings were lying loose. He had seen enough to know that he needed proper packing materials and that the art constituted great wealth. The next afternoon he returned to Ransbach to prepare the items there for the move. Upon his return to Merkers, Bernstein told him that the art convoy would leave on the sixteenth.
At some point on April 14 Bernstein met with Stout, Lt. Col. Carl L. Morris, G-4, SHAEF, and others to discuss the arrangements for the movement of approximately four hundred tons of art stored in different parts of the Merkers mine. It was agreed that loading would begin at noon on April 16. But the loading would actually begin earlier, for at midnight on the fourteenth, Bernstein ordered Stout to prepare three truckloads of art, which were to be mixed in with the gold to make the loads lighter. Stout, between 2 and 4:30 a.m., complied with Bernstein’s order, complete with an inventory.
Also on the fourteenth, Morris flew to Frankfurt to confer with transportation officers about procuring trucks to be used for the shipment of the art to Frankfurt, where it would be stored in the Reichsbank building. Morris made arrangements on April 15 with the Third Army provost marshal to obtain one hundred POWs to be used in loading the art treasure the next morning. The following morning, Morris flew back to Merkers to assist in the move.
At 8 a.m. on April 15, a platoon of the First Battalion, 357th Infantry Regiment, under the direction of Stout, assisted by 1st Lt. William A. Dunn, Financial Branch, U.S. Group Control Council, started moving the four hundred unpacked pictures. Once the pictures were aboveground, they were placed in an adjacent mine-owned building and wrapped in long German army sheepskin coats Kirsten had found in a neighboring potash mine at Menzengraben. They now awaited arrival of the trucks the next day.
On April 16 at 7 a.m. the convoy arrived. The move commenced once again, under the watchful eye of Morris, who arrived back at Merkers around 9:30 a.m. The move was accomplished by 357th Infantry Regiment personnel, assisted by the one hundred POWs who arrived with an escort of guards later in the day. The move went quickly, in part because some of the art had been moved to the surface the previous day. Besides the Merkers treasures, a few art objects in forty-five cases were removed from the Ransbach mine and added to the convoy. The move was completed at about 8:30 p.m. With this phase of the operation completed, the 357th Infantry Regiment’s Third Battalion took leave of Merkers and rejoined their Ninetieth Infantry Division comrades. The First Battalion would remain at Merkers, under Corps Control, until the treasure’s disposition had taken place.
On April 17, at 8:30 a.m. the art treasure convoy, named TASK FORCE HANSEN, moved out from Merkers, having a sizable military escort and air cover. The convoy consisted of twenty-six ten-ton trucks loaded with art, two loaded with POWs, and two empty for use in the event that a transfer of loads became necessary. The art convoy arrived at Frankfurt at 2:45 p.m., and an hour later the unloading and storing of the artwork began, supervised by Stout, assisted by Dunn and Kirsten. The unloading was completed at 10:30 p.m. Stout’s inventory listed 393 paintings (uncrated), 2,091 print boxes, 1,214 cases, and 140 textiles being moved into the Reichsbank. At 11 p.m. the infantry guard departed, and the POWs were sent on another assignment. Stout, Posey, and Kirsten would then be off on other adventures to identify, protect, and recover cultural property in Germany and Austria. The artworks would remain in Frankfurt and be subsequently sent to the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point.
, Edouard Manet
, General Bradley
, General Eisenhower
, Greg Bradsher
, looted art
, Lt. General Patton
, Merkers Mine
, Monuments Men
, Task Force Hansen
, Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point