75 years ago, a Düsseldorf resistance group around Karl August Wiedenhofen carried out the “Action Rhineland.” Their goal was to surrender the city of Düsseldorf to the US troops on April 17, 1945, to prevent further combat and to protect people and city from further death and destruction.
The situation in April 1945
Since the end of February 1945, Düsseldorf was a front-line city. American troops – parts of the 83rd Infantry Division – had occupied the neighboring city of Neuss and the left bank of urban areas of Düsseldorf since early March. Thereupon, the Rhine bridges were dynamited. Karl Friedrich Florian, Gauleiter of the NSDAP and the Reich Defence Commissioner, had issued the “Scorched Earth” order. All supply installations and transport networks were to be blown up and Düsseldorf’s population was ordered to leave the city. Since April 10, 1945 the city was completely enclosed and under constant attack. Since May 1940 allied air attacks killed more than 5000 civilians, damaged about 90 percent and destroyed half of the buildings. On 12 June 1943 the allies deliberately ignited a firestorm.
The group around Wiedenhofen
Since the late 1930s, Aloys Odenthal and Theodor Winkens met for political talks in Düsseldorf‘s Gerresheim district. The architect Odenthal acted from Christian conviction. He had already been interrogated twice for regime-critical statements by the secret police (Geheimpolizei) and threatened with detention in a concentration camp. Winkens, a trained baker and confectioner, working as a clerk at the police headquarters at the time, was married to a Jewess. Because he refused a divorce, he was dismissed in 1937. The lawyer Karl Müller took part in discussions, others left the group.
In 1943 contact was made via Müller with the resistance group around attorney Karl August Wiedenhofen in Düsseldorf city. The group included engineer and businessman Josef Knab, master craftsman Ernst Klein, Josef Lauxtermann and Karl Kleppe. The group met twice a month for consultations, though without planning or conducting actions. Their common goal was the liberation of Germany from National Socialism.
Since the summer of 1944, Deputy Police Commissioner Otto Goetsch was a member of the Wiedenhofen resistance group. Although Goetsch was a high official and member of the NSDAP, he fundamentally opposed National Socialism.
Development and execution of “Action Rhineland”
Due to the intensifying situation in Düsseldorf it was decided on 15 February 1945 to take action by preparing the peaceful surrender of the city to the advancing allied forces. The Schutzpolizei was seen as the only trustworthy armed organization that was able to secure an implementation of this action. Through Josef Knab, contact was made to commander of the Schutzpolizei, Franz Jürgens, who was known to have just recently vehemently rejected to take command of a police combat group and of Volkssturm men. The first meeting with Jürgens took place only two days prior to the action.
Implementation of the action was discussed on April 15: the Nazi leadership of the police forces needed to be neutralized. The building contractor Theodor Andresen and half-Jewish student Hermann Weill also joined the group.
On April 16, Odenthal, Wiedenhofen, Knab, Müller, and Andresen met with Jürgens at the police headquarters. Captain Gehrke, Jürgens’ deputy, was also inaugurated. The action was now named “Rhineland”. The Düsseldorf police chief, SS Brigade Commander August Korreng, was seized and jailed in a cell of the police headquarters. Jürgens took command of the police. Deputy Commissioner Goetsch and Lieutenant Colonel Jürgens issued a permit which legitimated Wiedenhofen as the negotiator for the city of Düsseldorf.
Shortly afterwards the plan was betrayed and Korreng was freed by a combat patrol in the late afternoon. Part of the resistance fighters managed to escape, others were detained while still at the police headquarters. Goetsch was also able to escape and hid at Karl Müller’s place. On April 18, he turned himself in to the Americans.
In the afternoon of April 16, 1945, August Wiedenhofen and Aloys Odenthal reached American lines at Mettmann and after long negotiations succeeded to surrender the city to U.S. troops without further combat: An air attack of 800 bombers, scheduled for April 17 at 1:10 clock, was literally stopped in the last minute.
On April 17, U.S. forces marched into Düsseldorf, without any significant combat. Odenthal and Wiedenhofen rode on the US tanks, leading them to the police headquarter.
That same night, April 17, Jürgens, Andresen, Kleppe, Knab, and Weill faced a drumhead court-martial for war treason and were convicted and shot in the yard of the vocational school on Färberstraße. Gehrke was acquitted. The bodies were buried, but a short time later exhumed and autopsied on June 1, 1945. Sever physical abuse was verified on the bodies of Knab and Andresen.
The execution squad who shot Jürgens was led by Heinrich Gesell, district first lieutenant of the Schutzpolizei, who Jürgens knew from duty. Although it was customary to tie persons to a pole and to blindfold them when executed,
Lieutenant Colonel Franz Jürgens rejected both. His last words were:
“Gesell, greet my wife. Long live Germany!”
After the war
The involved resistance fighters received numerous honors. The executed were buried in graves of honor at the Düsseldorf North Cemetery, the Gerresheimer Waldfriedhof, and the Stoffeler cemetery, memorials were erected and streets and squares named in their honor. Aloys Odenthal, in 1985, received honorary citizenship of Düsseldorf.
On April 17, 2011, the path of liberation was inaugurated by Mayor Dirk Elbers, consisting of six pillars, which are placed along the way taken by Odenthal and Wiedenhofen.
© 2015 – 2020, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.