April 23, 2014

1945. The Devastation in Western Germany

The Liberated and the Conquered
June 14, 1944. Bill Downs, front right. First broadcast from a mobile transmitter on the Normandy beachhead (broadcast live).

Saturday, 3rd March, 1945.

BILL DOWNS. Read to New York in advance on Saturday afternoon.
This report is from the Cologne plain—that part of the Cologne plain marked on your maps as conquered by the United States of America. From now on every bit of Germany taken must be regarded as territory conquered by our and your soldiers.

We're doing all right as conquerors. Conquerors of evil symbolized in Nazi Germany. We brought fire and sword to the swastika—the fire of justice and the sword of righteousness.

The physical cutting of this inbred and inborn thing called Hitlerism from Germany is by necessity a painful process. And traveling through the thirty-two mile deep slice of the Reich which we have captured shakes even the most hardened soldiers. Village after village is in ruins and farm after farm flattened; roads are torn up, bridges blown, and hardly an acre that doesn't have its quota shell and bomb holes. Forests are shattered and even rye fields are shattered.

I talked with a patriotic southerner, a colonel from Atlanta, Georgia, after his first trip through this part of Germany. When he returned he shook his head and sighed. "After this," he said, "I'll always think of General Sherman as a kind old man."

The destruction of this part of western Germany from Aachen to the Erft River is as complete as anything I saw in Russia, on the steppes, at Stalingrad or in the Ukraine or west of Moscow. In a way the damage in western Germany is worse because it's more concentrated. Driving over the shell-pitted roads, you find towns only a mile or two apart. Just as you leave one ruined village up the road you can see the shattered remains of the next town. Now the Germans are beginning to understand the price of war and the cost of defeat. I'm winning a victory on a rising market.

We're in rich farm country here. The country most resembles the corn belt of farmland through southern Indiana and Illinois. As you drive towards the front you can see cows, sheep, and horses wandering over the fields. The fences have been broken by our advance. And once in a farm where there was the unit command post, we were almost run down by a stampede of horses frightened by our artillery.

It's a common sight to see a GI milking a Hereford in the evening and getting a helmet full of her milk for his evening meal.

We liberated scores of French, Polish and Dutch farm workers—men who haven't seen their homes for five years. But it's a funny thing, as glad as they are to see us, they often ask if the cattle will be all right. And sometimes they refuse to be evacuated until they're sure the farm animals will be cared for. One Frenchman explained to me, "After all, horses are not Nazi *******'s and I've got to like them horses after five years. They're about the only things around here that like me."

And as grim as the fighting's been on the Cologne plain, the GI's always manage to get a laugh out of something. An artillery outfit moved up near the town of Elsdorf and found that they had to corral half a dozen horses in pasture before they could begin shooting. Then someone got an idea. A bulldozer was commandeered and it cut a circle of turf around the edges of the field. Some artillerymen volunteered as jockeys and a horse race was staged right there in the middle of the Cologne plain. The betting was heavy with a road plowhorse called Marjorie winning all the heats.

But there's very little to laugh about in western Germany. Approximately ten thousand vehicles have been left behind on the Erft River front alone. It's a familiar sight seeing these refugees plodding along the sides of the roads pushing their belongings along in carts. You've seen pictures of it many times—refugees along the roads of Holland, Greece, Russia, and France. This time the people are Germans, and a lot of them are well dressed. They march to our rear zones in hundreds as each new town is taken. They are allowed to take what clothing and food they can carry. And then they go to camps where military government and counter intelligence officials examine them. Every person is registered and sooner or later they will be examined. It's a tremendous job, but they are the enemy—the defeated.

Control is strict. Perhaps as strict as these same people imposed on the slave labor they had working on their farms in this area. No one was allowed to leave the camp without permission. Shelter is provided in basements of ruined houses or in barns or other buildings that are not needed for the army. In one village there were thirty people living in each of a dozen rooms allotted to civilians. Good shelter is rare in these broken villages. The best accommodation's going to the doughboys—the Germans can have what's left. These Germans are also being fed off the land. Foraging parties are sent out under guard to search for food in the cellars and basements. In one district something like ten thousand cans of home grown fruit and vegetables was collected. Valuable army trucking space is not going to be sacrificed to see the Germans comfortable. American taxpayers are not going to have to pay for feeding the army.

Later when these civilians have returned to their homes—or what's left of their homes—they will keep the roads we're using in good condition. Most of all they are German roads, and we didn't ask to come over here. Germany declared war on us.

Yet we're not doing so badly as conquerors. Everything is for the army—the GI's come first. The Germans who once hoped to conquer the world are not getting a large taste of what it means to be conquered.

Yesterday I talked to a number of German civilians. Their attitude varies. Some were grovelling and fawning, others were non-committal, some immediately began complaining about their rights, and a few, very few, were haughty.

But in talking to them one thing stood out. Not a single one would admit he was a member of the Nazi Party. Only a small percentage of men would admit that they were in the Volksturm until we proved it to them. Not a single boy or girl would admit they ever had anything to do with the Nazi youth movement although membership was compulsory. As a matter of fact, after talking with these civilians, I got the impression that if you asked them about Adolf Hitler, they would look at you curiously and say "Who's that?"

But they know all right and they have a great feeling of guilt about the Nazi party. In their frustration they feel Hitler let them down letting them get defeated this way. And there's a tendency to blame the party members, Nazis who undoubtedly did a lot of overlording even in the smallest villages.

Distrust among non-Nazi Germans for party members is spreading. You can see it. It would be supreme irony and the height of poetic justice if the defeat of Hitler were brought about by his own people whom the Nazis have been pushing around, and right now see the end in sight. It would be betrayed France in reverse.

And from what I've seen in this slice of Germany, such a thing may not be impossible. In several villages the Volksturm has already refused to fight for the party. As our troops advance further into Germany—as our bombs and shells wreak more and more and more destruction—perhaps the German people will, more and more, turn on the Nazis for keeping them in a hopeless war.

But you can depend on the fact that the American army is not going to sit around and see if it will happen. We are going to make it happen or do it ourselves.