Discovering the remains of the city that was bombed and destroyed over ninety per cent of its entirety
(by David Foster CC BY-ND 2.0, Flickr)
At the dawn of 1945, after the Battle of the Ardennes and the transfer of many divisions to the Eastern Front, the German army in the west was now clearly outnumbered. Therefore, the best operation for the Wehrmacht, the German army, was to fall behind the Rhine and use the river as a barrier. However, Hitler opposed abandoning the Rhineland with the result that the best German units were annihilated in the concentric offensives launched by the Allies between February and March. Thus, towards the end of February 1945, US troops prepared to approach Cologne by exploiting the growing confusion and weakness in the enemy ranks.
On 2 March 1945, the last air raids took place to literally ‘clean up’ and ‘prepare’ the area before the invasion by the US army. This was the last of a total of 262 air raids against the city. As a result of these devastating bombings, more than 90 per cent of the city centre was destroyed; Cologne Cathedral was severely damaged.
Thanks to the success of Operation Lumberjack, after hours of intense infantry and tank battles, the US 1st Army entered the city on 6 March 1945 and took over the western bank of the Rhine.
Right here, at the foot of the cathedral, there was a particular clash between an M26 Pershing heavy tank and a German Panther. The German machine had knocked out an American Sherman tank before it was destroyed by the Pershing a few hours later. This clash was captured on camera, and the destroyed Nazi Panther was “exposed” as a trophy in front of the cathedral for the rest of the war.
The capture of the eastern part of the city, on the other side of the river, took place only a few weeks later. For Cologne, the war ended on 8 May with the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht. The furious fighting and heavy bombing wiped out architectural beauty and artistic refinements inherited from Roman times and, above all, took the smiles off the faces of tens of thousands of inhabitants and soldiers forever. Due to the wear and tear of the war, the population of Cologne dropped from over 772,000 (May 1939) to around 100,000 at the war’s end after the arrival of US troops.
Today, this imposing and magnificent cathedral is one of the few buildings that, although bombed, still stand to be admired.
Despite this large-scale destruction that the city had to endure, today, Cologne still holds special features and beauty to be preserved and promoted. This tour aims to emphasise the resilience that time bestows on the area, and Cologne is a striking example of this rebirth. However, the past and history cannot and must not be forgotten, and this city, like so many, perhaps too many others, teaches us remembrance and respect.
At the foot of the majesty of this Gothic cathedral, we leave with a question: what is left to do so that words are enough to teach and prevent ‘mistakes’ from being repeated?