The greater part of the German western defensive line, the ‘Siegfried Line’, lay in densely wooded and mountainous regions. However part of it ran through the town of Aachen in west Germany and it was here that the US Army encountered some of its bloodiest urban fighting of the war. The battle in and around Aachen lasted from the 2nd to the 21st October.
Much of the civilian population had been evacuated but by no means all. Marianne Schmetz, 17 years old in 1944, recalls the situation in the town during the battle:
My father told me: Write it all down, you are good at it – and today, I am glad to have this diary from the time of the occupation time. My parents, my three siblings, my uncle’s family with five children and three grandparents in all, we lived in my parent’s house at the factory site, at some distance from the residential area Aachen-Forst (now Philipsstraße) – in the middle of the combat zone.
A cousin had got an induction order – what should we do? My uncle and my father said: ‘the boy stays here; he will not be used as cannon-fodder’. Of course, it was dangerous for him and for all of us! But my father trusted in us kids and always said: ‘We have to survive this war and when the Americans come, we will be doing better here than anywhere else.’
That is what happened then. Constant bombardments – we only lived in the cellar, more or less, and we listened to the radio – enemy radio channels – always having a globe with us to keep ourselves informed about the course of the war. During the days, we cleared away the rubble as much as possible and we patched the damages caused by the bombardments at night. The Americans came closer and closer and so did the ground fighting. And we were in the middle of the no-man’s-land. Wehrmacht artillery fire on the one side and the Americans from the other. Even though we got used to, there was danger at any time.
The Americans were there yet – we could see them in their positions. Once – we were petrified with horror – a black American soldier looked through a hatch straight into our air-raid shelter where we stayed most of the time. Fright and fear! I shouted: ‘Do not shoot. I’m alone!’ Minutes of anxiety… But we have not been harmed – whoosh, and he was gone.
Unfortunately, that was not all. Terrible things happened: Three Americans came to search the house for German soldiers. They were most friendly and polite. The commanding officer, a young, handsome, adorable boy… Yes, I was young! And then the unthinkable: they combed through the house and the factory… but they did not find anything, of course. The situation eased. They stayed for a while to discuss the situation.
The officer stood at the window, talked to his fellow, took off his helmet and lighted a cigarette. Our eyes glued to his face. Then a shot was fired…, he toppled and died instantly. Incredible! Just in front of us. We have been shocked! What would happen now? Gunfight? Retaliation against us?
None of this. When the situation seemed safe, the comrades recovered the body. They kept friendly and polite, something which was beyond our comprehension. One of them even thanked ‘the lady’ as they called my mother. They acted so correctly – we had got used to each other, we showed mutual respect and we had even nearly made friends with each other. We didn’t feel threatened by the Americans at any time, to the contrary!
One more occurrence from these times… It might have had devastating consequences: a German soldier penetrated into our house, ran upstairs and fired a volley from our windows to the American positions. Utter horror on our part. Heaven helped us, if the attacked would have answered in the same way. They did not. Two defenseless families were seriously threatened.
It also happened that you came under yourself: One day I was sitting in the tram, when an English low-flying aircraft started to fire at it. People rushed out in a terrible panic, getting into safety. It was a lucky escape! Back home safely. My mother was so relieved each time.
One day, heating and electricity failed. We used candles. Then water failed as well. Fortunately, an old neighbor had advised us to stock water: tubs, kettles, buckets were filled… They have saved our lives. So did the help of other people. I will never forget: an old man from the neighborhood always brought our bread – he dared to come every day!
I did not experience the end of the battles and the actual surrender directly. We have been a good way off the city. Therefore, the situation remained fuzzy for a while. But the moment when it all became clear was the liberation for us.
Up to the present day – although many people might not understand – I am infinitely grateful to the American soldiers for having liberated us from dictatorship and for helping us with the reconstruction!
For more German perspectives on the Battle for Aachen see FreeAachen44, available in German and English.