The Monuments Men in March 1945: Ronald Balfour and Walker Hancock

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher

March 1945 would be a busy and eventful time for the Monuments Men officers, as the Allied armies advanced into Germany.  This was especially true for two of them: Ronald Balfour and Walker Hancock.

During combat operations in February 1945, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) officer, British Maj. Ronald E. Balfour, serving with the First Canadian Army, 21st Army Group, 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.

In a report, filed March 3, 1945, he 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.”  On that same day he wrote Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, in charge of the Monuments Men, that:

 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. [1]

Meanwhile, during the first ten days of March, Bonn and Cologne were captured and the American forces poured across the Remagen Bridge.  Capt. Walker Hancock, MFA&A officer with the First United States Army and Lt. George Stout, USNR, MFA&A officer with the 12th Army Group visited Cologne on March 12.  A preliminary survey of the monuments of Cologne disclosed that approximately 75 percent were destroyed. With the exception of the Cathedral the destruction included nearly all of the famous churches and museums of the city.  They found that Cathedral had received some bomb damage and that much of its contents, including the stain glass windows, were preserved in a special air-raid shelter under the north tower. They also learned that Cathedral Treasury had been removed to the east of the Rhine.  They learned from Dr. Robert Grosche, Dean of the Cathedral, the location of depositories of works of art from all important Cologne churches. He also learned that at Siegen was the largest depository for Rhineland church property and that a very large part of a mine in that city had been prepared especially for the protection of works of art and that complete inventories were said to be in possession of Count Franz Wolff von Metternich, the provincial Konservator[2], and of his assistant, Herr Weyres and Fraulein Dr. Adenauer; the latter of whom it was said served as a curator for the mine depository at Siegen.  It was believed that at Bonn he could find in the office of Denkmalpfege[3] of the Rhine Province Metternich and his assistant.  Hancock then went to Bonn in mid-March to obtain information about repositories of cultural property.  There he learned that Metternich was in Westphalia, east of the Rhine, still behind the German lines, and Herr Weyres was in Bad Godesbeg. Hancock finally tracked down Weyres, an architect, who, though having no documents with him, said he remembered all the more important repositories and could help him located them on Hancock’s map.[4]

Weyres’ information indicated that the rich art treasures of Rhineland cities had been taken to many places, including a large number of castles and monasteries.  The ancient manuscripts and incunabula of the Archbishop of Cologne were placed in the vaults under the monastery of Steinfeld, the church of which had been restored some years before by Weyres himself.  According to Hancock, “hardly a Wasserburg [moated castle] in the Rhine Province or Westphalia did not now shelter some portion of the cultural or artistic heritage of Europe’s besieged civilization.”[5]  Weyres provided complete information about the works of art that were stored in a tunnel known as a copper mine under Siegen’s old citadel.  There were two entrances leading from opposite sides of the hill. The entrance nearer to the vaulted storage room was in the Huttenweg across from a factory that supplied the heat that regulated the humidity in the mine.[6]

From March 17 to 23, Hancock visited Aachen, surveying the situation and taking photographs.  On March 24 he visited the Abbey of Maria Laach (some 60 miles southeast of Aachen) splendid example of the Romanesque style, which contained a depository in the southwest tower.  On March 28 Hancock visited Racing Ring Hotel at Nürburg, where 300,000 volumes of the University of Bonn were stored. Rooms not used for storage of books were, he found, occupied by displaced persons and thing were “in great disorder.”  The books, none in cases, had suffered slightly from dampness and the weight of the large stacks in which they were piled. The following day, March 29, Hancock visited Schloss Satzvey, owned by Count Metternich. He talked to Countess Metternich. He found two rooms in the main house contained a number of statues from Cologne, also large collection of furniture, some from Cologne. He found two large statues were in the cellar.[7]

In late March Hancock, with a wealth of information about repositories in the First Army area found that its three corps were on the opposite bank of the Rhine within a few hours’ drive of each other.  He pinpointed on a map of each corps area the important repositories within, or likely to come within, the path of each, and set off on March 27 to visit the three headquarters to deliver the maps.  The three G-5s, he would later write, showed themselves eager to do all within their power to ensure the protection of the places, and instructions to the combat units were sent out the same day, and later visits by Hancock to some of the repositories showed that prompt action had indeed taken to protect them.[8] But this would not be the case with other repositories. Hancock wrote, of all the places he later inspected, almost none were without the guard of “Off Limits” warnings. He opined that “if personnel had been available to follow up and continue this course of action throughout the vast army area untold losses might have been avoided.”[9]  He wrote on April 1, that while guards may be posted during the combat phase and the period immediately following, it is manifestly impossible to maintain them long in situations such as the present one. Depositories in monasteries or other religious institutions, where member of the clergy were present, he believed, were relatively safe, and guards could be removed from these shortly after battle has past. On the other hand, collections stored in castles were in continuous danger.  Guards should be maintained in the neighborhood wherever possible. Posting “Off Limits” he observed was of questionable value as protection against itinerant looters, though the greater danger, that of military occupation, could at times be avoided by this means.[10]

In the latter part of March Hancock met with numerous museum and university officials who volunteered information about the existence of 109 repositories of cultural property. This, Hancock, would later write, brought to 230 the number known to exist within the area then assigned to the First Army.[11]   The 12th Army Group reported on March 31 that the total number of repositories known or reported to exist in the area of 12th Army Group up to the Rhine, as of March 28 were 757.  Of the 571 in Germany, it was estimated that 380 were subject to risks of damage and deterioration as a result of occupation.  Many of these, the 12th Army Group believed, would probably have been demolished; in many others occupation could doubtless be rightly authorized.  It observed that the need for advice of specialists in such cases remains and the demands on MFA&A personnel will be great. [12]

Hancock reported on April 1 that it was obvious that the MFA&A officer “is confronted with a hopeless task in the vast area now covered by this army.”  Fortunately, he observed, competent civilian personnel were then available.  He recommended that these trained men should be put promptly to work and given all possible responsibility and freedom of action. He reported that steps had been initiated to appoint the architect Willy Weyres Konservator of the Regierungsbezirk Cologne. Weyres, he wrote, directed the restoration of a number of the most important monuments of the Rhineland, notably the Abbey of Steinfeld and the Cathedral of Limburg. This work was done in a masterful manner. He was Count Metternich’s assistant as Konservator of the Rhein provinz and was better acquainted with the monuments of that region than anyone else now available, He recommended that Weyres should be appointed Konservator of the whole Rhine Province as soon as Military Government regulations permitted.[13]

In some respects, the work of the Monuments Men during the month was challenging and, for some, dangerous, but the month ended, without them finding the mine repository at Siegen nor the vast quantity of cultural property looted by the Germans at other repositories.  That would have to wait till April 1945.

 


[1] The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, Report of The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1946), p. 128.

[2] The Landes- or Provinzialkonservator cooperated with ecclesiastical, municipal, or other local authorities.

[3] The actual supervision and protection of monuments were the responsibility of a Land, Provinz or Reichsgau bureau (Denkmalsfege) usually under the Ministry of a Department of Education, which was also generally in charge of cultural institutions.

[4] Report, Capt. Walker K. Hancock, MFA&A Specialist officer, MFA&A, Area of First United States Army, Semi-Monthly Report, March 16, 1945, File: AMG 294, Army B, 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; Walter Hancock, “Experiences of a Monuments Officer in Germany,” College Art Journal (vol. V. No. 4, May 1946), pp. 287-288.

[5] Walter Hancock, “Experiences of a Monuments Officer in Germany,” College Art Journal (vol. V. No. 4, May 1946), p. 288.

[6] Historical Report, G-5, 12th Army Group April 1945 [April 30, 1945], File 17.16, Jacket 10, Historical Report-12th Army Group-April 1945, Numeric-Subject Operations File 1943-July 1945, Historical Section, Information Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331; Walter Hancock, “Experiences of a Monuments Officer in Germany,” College Art Journal (vol. V. No. 4, May 1946), p. 288.

[7] Report, Capt. Walker K. Hancock, MFA&A Specialist Officer, First U.S. Army, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Area of First United States Army, Semi-Monthly Report, April 1, 1945, File: AMG 294, Army B, 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.

[8] Report, Capt. Walker K. Hancock, MFA&A Specialist Officer, First U.S. Army, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Area of First United States Army, Semi-Monthly Report, April 1, 1945, File: AMG 294, Army B, 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; Walter Hancock, “Experiences of a Monuments Officer in Germany,” College Art Journal (vol. V. No. 4, May 1946), p. 288.

[9] Walter Hancock, “Experiences of a Monuments Officer in Germany,” College Art Journal (vol. V. No. 4, May 1946), p. 289.

[10] Report, Capt. Walker K. Hancock, MFA&A Specialist Officer, First U.S. Army, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Area of First United States Army, Semi-Monthly Report, April 1, 1945, File: AMG 294, Army B, 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.

[11] Walter Hancock, “Experiences of a Monuments Officer in Germany,” College Art Journal (vol. V. No. 4, May 1946), p. 288.

[12] Memorandum, Lt. Col. Walter Sczudlo, Assistant Adjutant General, HQs, 12th Army Group to SHAEF, Attn: Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5, Subject: Monthly Report on Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, March 31, 1945, File: AMG 292, 12 Army GP, 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.

[13] Report, Capt. Walker K. Hancock, MFA&A Specialist Officer, First U.S. Army, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Area of First United States Army, Semi-Monthly Report, April 1, 1945, File: AMG 294, Army B, 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.

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