The Monuments Men in April 1945: Siegen, Finally

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park

On March 31, 1945, the 12th Army Group reported that probably the most important repository in the area immediately ahead of the forces under its command was at or near Siegen, some fifty miles east of Cologne. It noted that information about this repository suggested that it may be an elaborate installation with large holdings from German collections and some loot taken by the Germans in occupied countries.

Indeed, as has been seen in previous blog posts regarding the Monuments Men, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) specialist officers had been for quite some time aware of the Siegen copper mine repository. They awaited the opportunity to place it under control and facilitate the disposition of its contents.

On April 1, the U.S. 8th Infantry Division began an attack of Siegen. Within days Siegen would be taken. The first question asked of the then burgomaster of Siegen by the American officer in command of the troops entering the city was “Where are the paintings?”

Captain Walker Kirtland Hancock, the MFA&A officer with the First U.S. Army at the end of March, learned that American troops were preparing to assault the German forces and occupy the whole town. He had Lt. George Stout, USNR, the MFA&A officer with the 12th Army Group (former chief of conservation at Harvard’s Fogg Museum and considered America’s greatest expert on the techniques of packing and transporting), come from Verdun to his headquarters at Bad Godesberg (five miles south of Bonn) to help him explore the repository at Siegen. On April 2, as they were leaving, Hancock received a call from the Civil Affairs Detachment at Aachen requesting that he take Vicar Stephany of the Cathedral of Aachen to Siegen. The Bishop of Aachen had urged that he be sent to ascertain the condition of the cathedral treasure which was hidden in the mine. They met up with the Vicar in Bonn and then their trip was made by a roundabout route, on the only road not under constant shellfire. As they reached Siegen there were still pockets of resistance in the surrounding hills and intermittent small arms fire was audible.

Siegen they found had been solidly bombed for three months and for the preceding fortnight battle had raged in the streets. The debris in the streets made it impossible to drive to the entrance of the mine. They left their jeep and proceeded on foot through the mostly empty and desolate town to the mine entrance which was on a hillside. There they were greeted by people packed together having sought shelter in the mine. As they proceeded deeper into the mine more people were found hiding. As they moved down the passage they were greeted by sulphurous fumes and hot temperatures. The atmosphere was heavy with moisture and water dripped from the ceiling in several places, and the floor was wet. Eventually, after more than a quarter of a mile, they came to a locked door. When they knocked on it they were greeted by a man who knew the vicar and let them in. From there they continued down a passageway that led into another, and were greeted by people who appeared to be the guardians of the treasures. A mechanically secured door was opened and revealed a room that had been walled and vaulted with brick and floored with concrete, the size being about 200 x 30 x 12 feet. Inside were wooden racks, filled with paintings and sculpture that were crowded into every bit of available space in a long brick-vaulted gallery that was divided into fourteen bays. Using lamps for light, they could discern more than four hundred paintings, perhaps as many as five or six hundred. There were works by Cezanne, Cranach, Delacroix, Fragonard, Gauguin, Hals, Lochner, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rubens (whose birthplace was Siegen), Van Dyck, and Van Gogh. There were also stacks of cases from the museums of Bonn, Cologne, Wuppertal, Essen, and Munster.  Other cases contained church treasure from Essen, Cologne, and Siegburg. There were six cases containing the treasure of the Aachen Cathedral and the Cathedral Metz treasure. Herr Etzkorn, the guardian, told them that the ex-Oberburgermeister of Aachen had tried in mid-March to have the cases removed, but there had been insurmountable difficulties at the last minute before the battle in extricating from the mine the immense, heavy cases containing the wrought gold and silver shrines in which reposed the relics of Charlemagne and the robe of the Virgin. The Aachen cases also contained the beaten-silver bust of Charlemagne which contained part of the Emperor’s skull; the 10th century processional cross of Lothair; a great ancient cameo of Augustus; a 12th century gold and enamel shrine of St. Heribert of Deutz; and various other Gothic reliquaries and medieval vessels. They also saw forty boxes from the Beethoven house in Bonn, one of which contained the manuscript of the Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony. The area also contained the great wooden doors, ca.1065, carved with scenes from the life and death of Christ, from the mid-11th century Romanesque church of St. Maria im Kapitol in Cologne.    

During the visit they found that great damage had been caused by the dampness in the mine. The heating system, designed to reduce the humidity, had been operated from the adjacent factory which had been destroyed by bombing. Many of the pictures and polychromed statues were coated with mold, and they noticed some flaking of paint from the wooden panels. After the inspection they returned to Bad Godesberg by way of Bonn, where they dropped off the vicar, where he was to find transportation back to Aachen. At this point Hancock and Stout could do little about the dampness in the mine nor find more suitable storage areas. Hancock would soon be off to Marburg where he would establish the first Central Collecting Point and Stout would be involved in the excavation of the contents of the Merkers Mine.

The 12th Army Group reported on April 19 that the First U.S. Army uncovered in tunnels of a mine under Siegen the most important repository of works of art known to exist in Western Germany. On April 28 the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) issued a similarly worded report.

On May 1 the Commanding Officer of Military Government Detachment H2E3 informed the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5, 75th Infantry Division, that the mine at Siegen had art treasures from Aachen, Cologne, Bonn, Essen, Munster, Metz, and other places. There were, he noted, about 500 paintings, many by noted artists; many wooden sculptures; the original score of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony; and many gold items. Additionally the repository contained the doors of the St. Maria im Kapitol in Cologne; a gold copy of the Charlemagne statue in Aix-La-Chappelle; and, the golden reliquary built to hold Charlemagne’s forearm bones. He indicated that storage area had no electric or steam heat to keep the dampness away from the valuable paintings. He reported that there were a technical expert from the Museum of Aachen and his assistant present to oversee things and that a guard was being maintained by two members of the German police force and a guard maintained by the 440th Anti-Aircraft Artillery (Automatic Weapons) Battalion, attached to the 75th Infantry Division. On May 3 the Detachment H2E3 commander sent the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5 Section, 75th Infantry Division a report on contents in at Siegen. He noted that the art treasures were under the care of Capt. Barrett of the British Army, who requested that a SHAEF MFA&A officer visit the site and supervise the removal of these treasures, as they were rotting due to the lack of steam heat and electricity. Immediately the 75th Infantry Division requested XVI Corps send a MFA&A specialist officer to Siegen. The XVI corps quickly forwarded the request to the Ninth U.S. Army for such action it deemed necessary.

Shortly before VE-Day (May 8) 2nd Lt. Lamont Moore, MFA&A officer, Ninth U.S. Army received a telegram at Ninth U.S. Army headquarters stating that Siegen was his headache. On May 9, Captain Everett Parker Lesley, Jr., MFA&A Specialist Officer, Fifteenth U.S. Army, was informed by Stout that arrangements were being made for the movement of the repository at Siegen. Atmospheric and security conditions at the repository made the movements of the objects imperatively necessary. On May 10 the Commanding General XVI Corps requested removal of the Siegen holdings to more suitable housing. The Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5, Ninth U.S. Army asked for Stout’s technical aid in evacuating the repository at Siegen. Stout on May 14 was ordered on temporary duty to Ninth U.S. Army. He left the 12th Army Group on May 16.

In the meantime, on May 15, Capt. Lesley reported that the first plan, of removing the endangered contents of the Siegen mine repository to the fortress at Ehrenbreitstein (on the east bank of the Rhine opposite the town of Koblenz), was abandoned because it would have been very difficult to arrange for the movement and billeting of civilian experts qualified to look after the objects from one administrative area to another.

After inspecting the Siegen repository Stout drew up an evacuation procedure and an estimate of requirements: transport, personnel, and additional equipment such as electric wiring and loading platforms. Details were discussed with Military Government officers, 75th Infantry Division and 291st Infantry Regiment officers, and with the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5, XVI Corps. Tentative arrangements were made through G-5, Fifteenth U.S. Army to provide suitable housing for the works near Bonn. Verbal authorization of transport and procurement of other necessary means for the removal was given by Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5, Ninth U.S. Army.  Stout left Siegen on May 19, hastened by instructions to proceed to headquarters of the Third U.S. Army for temporary duty to inspect German art repositories in the area of that headquarters, especially that at Alt Aussee, Austria.

By May 20, a supposedly well-designed and equipped bunker at Bonn that had been identified by Capt. Lesley was approved by the Fifteenth U.S. Army as a new repository for the Siegen treasures. The bunker had not yet been inspected (and when it was it was found unsuitable) and in the days following, Moore had determined that the roads from Siegen to Bonn were in such bad condition that it seemed unwise to subject the treasures to the excessive vibration unavoidable on either route to Bonn. The evacuation of Siegen was momentarily at a standstill.

Hancock traveled to Siegen on May 23, arriving there at 6pm. Moore was already there. Over dinner they discussed the possible courses of action. Humidity in the mine had already caused so much damage that the restorer of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum (Cologne), who had come to inspect the art works, estimated that ten men would require ten years to remedy it. They were aware Lesley had identified a bunker at Bonn to receive the works of art, and a working party had been ordered out to unload them. But there were good bunkers above ground in Siegen itself.  They believed if the paintings and other objects were to be moved it should be to a place where there would be light to arrest the mold and room for the restorers to begin their preservation treatment. Above-ground storage in Siegen seemed the best course of action. They called Headquarters and cancelled the order for twenty trucks which were to have come the following day to take the treasures to Bonn. That evening, MFA&A Lieutenant Steve Kovalyak arrived from Weimar to help with evacuation activity. Kovalyak had worked with Hancock and Stout earlier that month in the evacuation of the treasures found at Bernterode.

The following morning, May 24, Hancock, Moore and Kovalyak visited the mine. They met with Etzkorn, the custodian whom they had met six weeks previously; two men from the Wallraf-Richartz Museum; Colonel Stone, in command of the occupying American unit; the engineer officers; and British Military Government officers, then in the process of taking over the administration of the area. They learned that there could be no electric power in that part of the city for a long time to come. Portable generators powerful enough to provide anything more than lighting were unobtainable. No heating or ventilating system could possibly be contrived under the circumstances. Thus installing electric fans as a temporary fix was not possible. They then made the rounds of the bunkers above ground, and found an acceptable one which, however, had entrances too small to admit the larger objects. By dusk they were perplexed about what to do.  Obviously, they believed, the paintings would have to be moved without further delay-somewhere, almost anywhere. But they had given up their transport. Late that evening, Stone told them that somehow 19 trucks with French drivers had arrived to carry art. According to Hancock, the possibility of quickly moving the paintings had unexpectedly reappeared. They believed that at worst they could use the trucks to carry the art to the bunkers above ground in Siegen. Four of them could take the objects that were too large to go through the entrances directly back to Aachen and Cologne where the battered cathedrals would still provide shelter. They determined the largest cases could all be disposed of in one trip. They consisted of the Aachen cathedral treasure, treasures from Cologne churches and the great oak doors from St. Maria im Kapitol. Once they were moved it would be easier to move the other items, provided they could find the men to help them.

On the morning of May 25, Stone informed them that he had received a message that the trucks were to be used for the transportation of displaced persons. Hancock still believed that at least four of the trucks could be used for the art movement, and on this assumption, he had electric lights strung in the mine and a small generator set at the entrance. A work crew of civilians was commandeered and after lunch Hancock had them carry the heavy cases to the entrance preparatory to leaving. He sent Kovalyak to get four trucks. By 5pm, when the civilian labor had to be released, no trucks had arrived. As Hancock dismissed the workmen four trucks drove up.  Against rules of the local military authorities, Hancock put the civilians to work loading the great cases. They worked willingly enough, but only half the cargo was aboard the trucks when the problem of the evening meal had to be faced, so he sent them back to their families, and did not plan on disobeying the rules to have them work at night.There were still two trucks to load. Unless an early start could be made the following morning, Saturday, the weekend would delay them three days- too long to tie up military transport for any reason- especially in view of their questionable right to the use of this transport in the first place. So Hancock turned to Kovalyak to find help for the loading. He returned with the entire Siegen police force, which finished the load. They took advantage of the convoy to Cologne and Aachen to add to the cargo at the last minute some boxes from the Schnütgen Museum of Cologne and a set of modern copies of crowns and other regalia of the ancient Holy Roman Empire.

Their hurried decision and impromptu preparations had not sufficiently allowed for one very essential item of the arrangements. Aachen and Cologne were then in the Fifteenth U. S. Army area. Correct procedure required clearance with the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5, of that Army before anything could be brought in from another army. Hancock believed weeks would have been required to get clearance by mail through normal army channels. During the evening of May 25, they attempted to make contact with the Fifteenth U.S. Army headquarters. “We decided,” Hancock later wrote, “there could not now be any turning back and that our departure would take place in the morning despite the consequences.”

On Saturday May 26 the convoy got an early start. They took along a guard in a weapons carrier supplied by Col. Stone. Kovalyak and Etzkorn came with Hancock, but Moore was left behind to struggle with arrangements for the next move. Their trip was halted several times at towns where there were military units that might have telephonic communications with the Fifteenth U.S. Army, but despite these efforts no contact was made and they arrived at Cologne at 2pm. The officers of the Military Government detachment expressed no interest in shrines and Romanesque doors. Their only suggestion was that if they would wait until Monday they might be able to get some help for unloading through the Burgomaster’s office. Hancock had his group drive to in front of the Cathedral, the only building within sight that was completely standing. It contained a bunker where the Cologne treasures could be safely stored. Meanwhile Kovalyak rounded up some local men and boys to help. Hancock did not ask him how he had done it nor remind him of the warning they had received against impressing civilians into work on weekends. The items were unloaded. At dusk they headed out to Aachen, some forty miles away. There they had no trouble finding volunteers to handle the heavy cases, and they were soon installed in the safety of the Hubertus Chapel of the Cathedral.

“Report on the Evacuation of the Repository in Siegen, Germany” describes the items moved to Cologne and Aachen on May 26, 1945. General Records, 1946 – 1948, RG 260 (NAID 1560051)

A month later a report indicated that the move had been made in an irregular manner by a local official without proper authority. Fortunately, no repercussions were forthcoming. By the time the report was made, Hancock had removed the remaining items from Siegen to the Marburg Central Collecting Point.

Among the textual records used in writing this blog were ones from the following files:

    • ETO-Monthly Reports for May and June [AMG-159], Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Branch (MF&A) Field Reports, 1943-1946, (NAID 1537270) Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (The Roberts Commission), RG 239 (Roll 72 of NARA Microfilm Publication M-1944).
    • 312.1 Miscellaneous Correspondence, RD&R Division USGCC 1945, General Correspondence (Central Files), 1944-1949 (NAID 6923852) Records of the Economic Division, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260.
    • Reports: Weekly Summary reports, May 1945-May 1947, General Records, 1945-1952 (NAID 2431774) Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, 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-1947).
    • Public Archives: Siegen Depot, Records Relating to the Status of Monuments, Museums, and Archives, 1945-1950 (NAID 2435815) Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 62 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1947).
    • AMG 214 MFA&A: General Correspondence, Subject Files, Aug. 1943-1945 (NAID 612714) 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.
    • AMG 292, 12 Army GP, Subject Files, Aug. 1943-1945 (NAID 612714) 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.
    • 17.16, Jackets 10 and 11, Historical Report-12th Army Group-May 1945, Numeric-Subject Operations File, 1944 – 1945 (NAID 611522) 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.

Additionally, the following published sources were used:

    • Walter Hancock, “Experiences of a Monuments Officer in Germany,” College Art Journal (vol. V. No. 4, May 1946), pp. 289-293, 300-306.
    • 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), pp. 129-130.
    • Thomas C. Howe, Jr., Salt Mines and Castles, (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1946), pp. 118-119.

4 thoughts on “The Monuments Men in April 1945: Siegen, Finally

  1. This is great stuff to have, very much appreciate the work and encourage you and others to continue with it!

  2. Dr. White, Thank you very much for the kind words. NARA’s records tell many interesting tales, including those regarding the Monuments Men. Greg

  3. RE: Understanding NAZI Art Theft and the Siegen Mine

    Am just about to order and then edit my month-long set of photographs from a month-long on site project, “Following the Monuments Men: from Shrivenham and Normandy through Siegen and Austria.” We visited Normandy, Paris, Bruge, Ghent and then – with the help of a wonderful graduate student in American Studies ( no less )- at Siegen, located the not-very-available opening to the mine (now sealed) along a roadside. Proceeded afterwards and upwards to the top of a rise which, we were told, had an opening – downwards-to the several containment shafts themselves. There was an explanatory plaque nearby and on a kind of rise further on, could see Siegen below and other interesting features of the area relating to WW2 in general and the art repository in particular. Unlike Merkers and Altaussee, there’s no commercial development of the site and, it appears, not much notice in the area.

    Regret we were unable to photograph all the relevant sites…this time. In any event, when the images are up on Smugmug, will send along a URL. Once again, many thanks again for all these well-written and well-documented articles. Hope at some point to find the time to go back and download the previous ones; they would make a valuable collection for certain. We have many former colleagues and friends in the DC area, hope to visit the Archives in the near future.

    All the best, George White (Boston)
    15 October 2015

Comments are closed.