April 16 and 17, 1945: Düsseldorf‘s saviors – in the last second

70 years ago the “Rhineland Action” was carried out by the Düsseldorf resistance group around Karl August Wiedenhofen against the Nazi regime. Their goal was to surrender the city of Düsseldorf to the US troops on April 17, 1945, without further combat and to protect the city and people from further death and destruction.

The situation in April 1945

Since the end of February 1945, Düsseldorf was 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 the Düsseldorf population were 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 Gerresheim district of Düsseldorf. The architect Odenthal acted out of 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 again.

Standing from left to right: Aloys Odenthal, Ernst Klein, Josef Lauxtermann. Seated from left to right: Dr. August Wiedenhofen, Dr. Karl Müller

Standing from left to right: Aloys Odenthal, Ernst Klein, Josef Lauxtermann. Seated from left to right: Dr. August Wiedenhofen, Dr. Karl Müller

1943 contact was made via Müller with the resistance group around attorney Karl August Wiedenhofen in Düsseldorf city. The group included the 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, the 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 “Rhineland Action”

Due to the intensifying situation in Düsseldorf it was decided on 15 February 1945 to take action and to prepare 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 battle group and of Volkssturm men. The first meeting with Jürgens only took place two days prior to the action.

From left to right: Oberstleutnant Franz Jürgens, Theodor Andresen, Theodor Winkens

From left to right: Oberstleutnant Franz Jürgens, Theodor Andresen, Theodor Winkens

Implementation of the action was discussed on April 15: the Nazi leadership of the police should be neutralized. The building contractor Theodor Andresen and half Jewish student Hermann Weill also joined the group.

Düsseldorf police chief, SS Brigade Commander August Korreng.

Düsseldorf police chief, SS Brigade Commander August Korreng.

On April 16, Odenthal, Wiedenhofen, Knab, Müller and Andresen met with Jürgens at the police headquarters. Captain Gehrke, the deputy of Jürgens, 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 at the police headquarters. Jürgens took over 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, the 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 over to the Americans.

From left to right: Dr. Dr. Otto Goetsch, Hermann Weil, Joseph Knab, Karl Kleppe.

From left to right: Dr. Dr. Otto Goetsch, Hermann Weil, Joseph Knab, Karl Kleppe.

In the afternoon of April 16, 1945, August Wiedenhofen and Aloys Odenthal reached American lines at Mettmann. They were able, after long negotiations, to surrender the city to American 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.

Permit for Aloys Odenthal and Dr. August Wiedenhofen

Permit for Aloys Odenthal and Dr. August Wiedenhofen

On April 17, the US forces marched into Düsseldorf, without any significant combat. Odenthal and Wiedenhofen rode on the US tanks, leading them to the police headquarter.

American troops entering Düsseldorf on April 17, 1945

American troops entering Düsseldorf on April 17, 1945

That same night, April 17, Jürgens, Andresen, Kleppe, Knab and Weill faced a drumhead court-martial for war treason and were convicted to death and shot in the yard of the vocational school Färberstraße. Gehrke was acquitted. The bodies were buried, but exhumed and autopsied a short time later on June 1, 1945. On the bodies of Knab and Andresen severe abuse was verified.

The execution squad that carried out the shooting of Jürgens was led by Heinrich Gesell, district first lieutenant of the Schutzpolizei, who Jürgens knew from duty. Although it was customary to tie to persons to be executed to a pole and to blindfold them,
Jürgens rejected both. Lieutenant Colonel Franz Jürgens died with the words:

“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 after them. 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.

Newspaper article of Aprl 16, 2015.

Newspaper article of Aprl 16, 2015.

© 2015, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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