"Border area in the West stays loyal to the Führer, Kevelaer does its´ duty". Newspaper headline 4th September 1939
Kevelaer was not directly involved at the start of the war and somehow remained untouched until March 1944. Of course, soldiers were recruited for the war effort and air raid shelters were constructed, but other than that, Kevelaer remained in "peace".
From 30th March 1944 the allied bombers (known to the local population as Terrorbombers) started bombing the railway between Weeze and Kevelaer. A few months later a radio message arriving at Geldern stated : "...There could be bombings on civilians without warning." Neither flak, nor fighter interceptors could stop this threat. By January 1945 the attacks had intensified working in concert with the allied ground advance to clear the west bank of the Rhine.
In January and February 1945, Kevelaer was bombed three times, killing a total of 12 people and injuring many more. Places hit were Weezerstraße, the Kapellenplatz, Marienstraße and Twistedenerstraße. Each time the little bridge over the Niers near Schravelen was a target, but never hit!
I remember the bombing only too well. I was only 17 years old when I saw a dead body for the first time – it was our local merchant. We found him dead in his house on Weezerstraße. Some of the bombs were not very effective in these days of January and February. They only destroyed windows etc. and not the buildings, because the ground was too muddy. But the air threat was not the only problem for Kevelaer. We also had to content with the Allied Army towards the end of February. "Jungvolk" and "Hitlerjugend" came to Kevelaer to build defensive walls and anti-tank ditches. Posters were published proclaiming:
"For one week the male population of the work-district has laboured with spades and picks to protect our homeland....I call all men and women to help in our defence." Signed by the Kreisleiter.
The West Bank of the Niers became a "red zone". Women and children, the old and sick were evacuated, although they did not want to leave their homes. The Reichskommissar Schlessmann ordered men between the age of 16 and 60 to remain in Kevelaer and help with the town´s defence. Most evacuated people went to Winnekendonk, as did my mother.
A few days later Winnekendonk was hit in an air attack. Worried about my mother, my father and I managed to go there and we found her in the cellar of a house that had been totally destroyed. We took her back to Kevelaer and hid her in an air raid shelter which my father had built in our garden. We had to be very careful as the police were checking to see if there were people still left to be evacuated. During the battle for Winnekendonk the British artillery used the watertower and the "Basilika" chruch in Kevelaer as "markers". German engineers were going to destroy these buildings so that the British would have no aiming point, but with the battle in its´ last stages, nothing came of the plan.
The Basilika in Kevelaer
My father wanted to buy a caravan and horse to move away from home and the fighting, but I was able to talk him out of this idea by telling him that the end could not be far away. I did not know what was to happen a few days later. On the morning of the 3rd March 1945 I woke up to find myself surrounded by English soldiers. The war was over, at least for my family and me.
Armed with machine guns mounted on a pram the soldiers made their way through Kevelaer – the first town they had found which was reasonably intact. Soon the people of Kevelaer put out the white flags and tried to adapt to the new situation. A camp for displaced persons, mainly Dutch, French and Italian was set up. They were housed in tents, hotels and churches and my job was to find plates and cutlery for them. I remember one morning I went into a bombed hotel which had a bowling club. Hearing shots I was curious to find out what was going on. Two English soldiers were enjoying themselves playing "bowls" in their own way – namely firing pistols at the pins!
The Amsterdamerstraße in Kevelaer. On the right the "Hotel zur Krone" which housed the unusual bowling game.
Everyone struggled to survive the lack of food. There was only one baker supplying the camp and the whole of Kevelaer. The magic word at the time was "organisieren", to organise, which meant using any means possible to get hold of essentials. Money had lost all its´ value and everything was paid for in cigarettes ( preferably American Lucky Strikes or English Navy Cut ), alcohol ( Schnapps, which we made ourselves ) and chocolate. But still the people stood together and as in all small communities, everyone helped one another as far as they could.
The people of Kevelaer had survived with only two months of the war to run. People returned to their homes and started rebuilding what was left. Life could begin again.