Inquest on Aachen

On 27 October, 1944 my uncle John Alldridge reported from Aaachen for the Manchester Evening News. Six days previously, Aachen had become the first German city to be captured by the Western Allies. – Jerry F

Jerry F, Going Postal
Soldiers of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Aachen, 1944.
Soldiers of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment,
US Army
Public domain

This is Germany. . . .

A starving dog slinks cut of a deserted alley and scrapes desperately at a pile of garbage which an upturned dustbin has spewed across the street. A smashed guitar crunches under our jeep wheels. Two naked wax dummies, fallen from some shattered shop window, lie simpering in the gutter.

A mournful wind blows through the empty, broken city. It stirs the torn curtains that trail from blind windows like white flags of surrender. It plays a tune of despair among the festoons of dangling telephone wires. It slams doors, swinging crazily on twisted hinges.

This is Germany….

There has been fighting in the offices of the Politisches Tageblatt. The editor’s chair lies on its side and rifle butts have smashed open the filing cabinets. Photographs of Hitler reviewing his all-conquering Wehrmacht lie torn and trampled. The windows of the machine room are scarred and splintered, and bullets have torn holes in the rubber rollers of the presses.

Stacked ready for distribution is the last edition of the Polittsches Tageblatt. The last edition is dated September 11, 1944. It carries a defiant headline, “In this crisis we must not think of retreat. We must stand together.” But on September 12 the city of Aachen was evacuated.

In Herr Josef Oddenhausen’s grocer’s shop in the Alexanderstrasse a handful of Germans have tried to make a last stand. Blood smears the marble slab of Herr Josef’s counter. To make a parapet for his machine gun, Flieger Hans Jolk, who joined the Luftwaffe only to die among boxes of preserved eggs and cases of margarine in a German side street, piled up jars of gooseberries and tins of beef.

Flieger Hans was 22. A packet of letters, left behind, tell his whole story. He was born in Breslau. He has a wife and one child. (“Dearest Frea, whatever happens now I shall soon be home. . .”)

The end for Aachen came with terrible suddenness. In half an hour a city of 156,000 people died. In Herr Zimmen’s bierkeller his customers did not even have time to pick up their hats before fleeing. Green-corded Homburgs hang still beside high-peaked officers’ caps.

In the Berliner Kreditbank (though the vaults had long since been emptied) the ledgers lie open, the last entries smudged. One clerk left his lunch behind him, cheese sandwiches now green with mildew.

The news reached Frau Engelmann in her third floor flat just after breakfast. The table is still laid, the saucepans crusted with stale food. In the bedroom the beds are unmade. Children’s clothing is set out to dry round a cold stove.

Frau Engelmann was writing a letter, “Dear Helen, if things get any worse – though that hardly seems possible – may I bring Will to stay with you in Berlin? . . . ”

This is Germany on a Sunday morning. But no church bells ring in Aachen. It is three weeks since a service was held in the many churches of this ancient city. The cathedral which holds the tomb of Charlemagne is battered and empty. Stained glass hangs like torn wallpaper. I remember Coventry and am suddenly savagely glad.

My driver taps my arm. Coming towards us, picking his way through broken bricks and gaping shell craters, is a priest on a bicycle. He is the first human being we have seen in two hours. He passes us but apparently does not see us. His face is frozen so that it seems carved from marble. His hair is thick with brick-dust. His cassock is stained with plaster. He leans his bicycle carefully against the steps and, walking like an automaton, enters the cathedral.

We have brought a guide book with us, but the street plan of the city is useless. We might as well be in one of the valleys of the moon.

From the Bahnhof-Platz we reach the broad tree-lined Hindenburg-Strasse, which leads to the Theater-Platz. Some infuriated giant seems to have cleared the trees of the Hindenburg-Strasse and if it leads anywhere now it is to a small mountain of rubble which might have been once the Theater-Platz.

The Frederich Wilhelm-Platz is a favourite rendezvous for the drinkers of the waters in the evening. The Frederich Wilhelm-Platz is now a favourite rendezvous of lean, famished cats and plump, indolent rats.

From the window of a doctor’s house in the Leopold-Strasse, still miraculously undamaged, a cheerful voice hails us. It belongs to Major Alen G Clark, of Westport, Connecticut. For the moment Major Clark represents the Allied Military Government in Aachen. His clerk at this moment is running up the Stars and Stripes.

“Come inside,” he says. We shake hands with him in the Herr Doktor’s consulting room, still hung with grim family portraits in gloomy oils.

We find that the Major has a superhuman job on his shoulders. He is responsible for law and order in this ghost city. He must seal up the banks and warehouses, patrol the streets, protect private property. “It’s like trying to clean up hell,” he says.

While we are talking an M.P. brings in a terrified little German civilian, who is in such a state of collapse that he almost falls at our feet. He tells us that he has been living in his cellar for a week, too afraid to come up and see what was happening to his home.

In a German barracks in a northern suburb there are corralled some 5,000 of these refugees. When the Germans ordered the evacuation of the city on September 12 almost 150,000 citizens left at once. But a small minority chose to stay behind. This minority has presented the Allied Military Government with its first problem – and its first experiment in occupied Germany.

Take the imaginary case of Herr Wilhelm Brunn, who has been living in an air-raid shelter with his wife and family of three since the official evacuation. One morning the firing overhead ceases and Herr Brunn pokes his cautious head out. He sees an American truck coming up the street

Nervously he waves his handkerchief. The truck stops and, without ceremony, pulls him and his family over the tailboard.

A few minutes later a very apprehensive Brunn is telling an Allied Civil Affairs officer all about himself – his age, occupation, place of birth. He protests he is not, and never has been, a member of the Party. The officer says cynically, “OK,” and passes him over to the doctor. The family Brunn, having satisfied the doctor that they are suffering from no contagious diseases, now has a few words with the Counter Intelligence Corps, who satisfy themselves that here is no dangerous Nazi. The Brunns, still chastened but feeling a little more optimistic, now go to see the billeting officer.

The billeting officer speaks fluent German. Crisply he tells Wilhelm Brunn that he and his family will be accommodated in the barracks until such time as Aachen can once more be opened to civilians. On no account will he be allowed to return until that time. He will be responsible for the good behaviour of his family to the Room Master.

The Room Master in turn answers to the House Master. All House Masters are responsible to the Camp Master, himself a German and a former official of the governmental district of Aachen. This is the kind of subordinated authority which Herr Bruan has been accustomed to under Hitler, and so he agrees quite naturally to abide by it.

If Herr Briton is a tradesman he can volunteer for work inside the camp – and there is plenty of work to be done. There was fighting in this huge modern barracks, and only two days ago, while the camp was full of refugees, it was shelled heavily for two hours by German artillery. Of course, he gets no pay for this work.

Herr Brunn and family will sleep in double-decker bunks in a room which they will share with two other families. Instinctively, like so many of his fellow citizens, he will plead to be allowed a ground-floor room. He is so used to air raids.

Feeding this small army of refugees is the biggest problem. Only a very small amount of food may be issued to Germans from American Army sources. Several tons of food has been transferred from German warehouses and more has been requisitioned from German farms in the neighbourhood.

The Germans get two meals a day, a morning meal which consists of coffee and biscuits and another meal in the afternoon of hot stew. That is all.

The meals are prepared in a community kitchen by the refugees themselves. In the rooms you will find housewives cooking a thin soup made from turnips and potatoes dug with bare hands from the deserted barrack allotments.

For the main part the Germans loiter about the camp, blank-eyed, subdued, talking in whispers. They are almost all middle-aged folk and children. The children play as children will anywhere, but their parents are obsessed with their own private worries. I saw no children begging for sweets, and I saw no American soldiers giving away cigarettes.

Through an interpreter, Doktor Johann Schwartz (that is not his name, but it will do), a thin-faced, long-haired lawyer who claims to be a victim of Nazi persecution, I talked to a typical German and his wife – let us call them the Josef Winkellmans, Josef Winkellman is a grocer. He served for four years in the Guards Regiment during the last war. He claims, too, that he is not a Nazi.

He has a son of 16, still at high school. His daughter, aged 22, was killed in an R.A.F. raid at Aachen last year but he vehemently blames Hitler for her death.

Both husband and wife look undernourished. Frau Winkellman showed me her ration books. During August one German’s weekly ration was 250 grammes of meat, 1,800 grammes of bread, 7lb. of potatoes (when there were any to be had), 90 grammes of butter, 50 grammes of lard, 60 grammes of margarine. Children under six got three quarters of a litre of milk. There was no milk for adults.

I give you my questions and their answers exactly as my notebook records them. I leave you to form your own conclusions.

Question: Has Germany lost the war?

Answer (Herr W.): Germany lost the war the day Hitler invaded Poland,

Question: What is your attitude towards the Allies?

Answer (Herr W.): We know that you come as conquerors, but we prefer to think of you as liberators. Every German, in Rhineland Province at any rate, has a bottle of champagne in his cellar to celebrate your coming,

Question: What do you feel about the English?

Answer (Herr W.): We always think of the English as gentlemen. We can expect gentlemanly treatment from them,

Question: And the Russians?

Answer (Herr W.): In Rhine Province we have never thought about the Russians. We know that we can rely on the protection of the English and the Americans,

Question: How did you feel about the bombing of British cities?

Answer (Frau W., tearfully): It was dreadful, dreadful. I used to pray for the poor people of London every night,

Question: What future do you see for Germany?

Answer (Frau W., fiercely): I am ashamed to be a German.

(Herr W.): There is no future for Germany. I suppose we shall be occupied for at least 10 years, The only solution I can see is for Germany to be split up once again into independent states. Here in Rhine Province we are all good Catholics, but there are too many Prussians here. We were happy once when we were a free state ruled by the Archbishops of Trier and Cologne. We must go back 150 years. And we must purge the Rhineland of all but Rhinelanders,

Question: What are we to do with Hitler?

Answer (Frau W., savagely): Just let us settle that. Please give Hitler to the women of Germany.

Is this typical of Germany? Remember, it is the evidence of a few people in one city. One has not the evidence yet to make generalisations.


The British Newspaper Archive (
The British Library Board
© Reach PLC

Note: (Courtesy Wikipedia)

After World War I, Aachen was occupied by the Allies until 1930, along with the rest of German territory west of the Rhine. Aachen was one of the locations involved in the ill-fated Rhenish Republic. On 21 October 1923, an armed mob took over the city hall. Similar actions took place in Mönchen-Gladbach, Duisburg, and Krefeld. This republic lasted only about a year. Aachen was heavily damaged during World War II. According to Jörg Friedrich in The Fire (2008), two Allied air raids on 11 April and 24 May 1944 “radically destroyed” the city. The first killed 1,525, including 212 children, and bombed six hospitals. During the second, 442 aircraft hit two railway stations, killed 207, and left 15,000 homeless. The raids also destroyed Aachen-Eilendorf and Aachen-Burtscheid.

The city and its fortified surroundings were laid siege to from 12 September to 21 October 1944 by the US 1st Infantry Division with the 3rd Armored Division assisting from the south. Around 13 October the US 2nd Armored Division played their part, coming from the north and getting as close as Würselen, while the 30th Infantry Division played a crucial role in completing the encirclement of Aachen on 16 October 1944. With reinforcements from the US 28th Infantry Division the Battle of Aachen continued involving direct assaults through the heavily defended city, which finally forced the German garrison to surrender on 21 October 1944.

Aachen was the first German city to be captured by the Western Allies, and its residents welcomed the soldiers as liberators. What remained of the city was destroyed – in some areas completely – during the fighting, mostly by American artillery fire and demolitions carried out by the Waffen-SS defenders. Damaged buildings included the medieval churches of St. Foillan, St. Paul and St. Nicholas, and the Rathaus (city hall), although Aachen Cathedral was largely unscathed. Only 4,000 inhabitants remained in the city; the rest had followed evacuation orders. Its first Allied-appointed mayor, Franz Oppenhoff, was assassinated by an SS commando unit.

Jerry F 2022