Straddling the great River Rhine in all its majestic beauty the western German city of Cologne is, at a glance, a perfectly preserved example of a city from the Middle Ages.
With its ornate architecture, the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town, and beautiful age-old churches, all topped off by the powerful cathedral, the Kölner Dom that dominates the cityscape, is it easy to be tricked into feeling that you have stepped back to the 1200s when construction first got underway on the medieval pile.
But walk past any of the numerous tourist shops selling all manner of trinkets along the main thoroughfare of the Komodienstrase and you’ll see these giant black and white ‘postcards’ that depict the city as it looked at the end of the Second Word War and you realise that a mere 70 years ago it simply did not exist.
Because apart from the badly damaged Dom, much of the rest of the city was reduced to a sea of rubble. Even the iconic Hohenzollern Bridge (the Hohenzollernbrücke), that connects the city over the Rhine was smashed in two and lay with its back broken in the middle of the fast-flowing river.
An early target in the RAF Bomber Command’s air war over the Third Reich, Cologne, as one of the largest cities in the industrial heartland of the Ruhr, soon became one of the most heavily-bombed urban areas in Germany. The air raid sirens first sounded in May 1940 but it was another two years before the attacks reached a horrifying crescendo with the first ever 1,000 bomber raid on the night of May 31, 1942.
Cologne at the end of the war
Codenamed Operation Millennium, the massive attack utterly destroyed the city, with over 12,000 buildings either wiped off the map or badly damaged.
The rest of the city was systematically pulverised as the war dragged on but thanks to dedicated German rebuilding and patience (some of the reconstruction work carried on well into the 1990s) today there appears to be nothing to remind the visitor of the utter destruction of what had been one of the great classical cities of Europe.
It is quite extraordinary to walk along the streets of this teeming metropolis with its 10 million plus inhabitants and compare the images on those postcards with the amazing city of today.
It has become one of the more rewarding city breaks on the continent and boasts over two million tourists every year with many of them attracted by its busy nightlife. With hundreds and hundreds of bars, restaurants, and pubs, principally gathered around the famous beer halls of the Alter Markt, Cologne is a city teeming with life and excitement.
After a day spent taking in the many sights a walk across the Hohenzollernbrücke that spans the Rhine as the sun set was one of the highlights.
The ‘Locking Bridge’
Called the ‘Locking Bridge’ the entire structure is covered in tens of thousands of engraved locks left there by lovers from all over the world as a symbol of their love.
And the Dom itself, one of the most visited landmarks in Germany, is a jaw-dropping spectacle that would require hours to fully take in its magnificent splendour.
But even though I could have spent days exploring Cologne the city really was just a great jumping off point for other parts of western Germany where several fascinating locations exist for the history buff.
On my second day in the city I struck out for one that will be familiar to anybody who has ever loved a classic World War Two movie of a Saturday afternoon.
‘The Bride at Remagan’, starring George Segal and Robert Vaughn, was a staple in our family home when I was growing up. The 1969 movie tells the story of the daring crossing of the Rhine over the last remaining bridge at Remagan during the closing stages of the war.
It depicts cigar chewing Yanks taking the bridge in the face of fanatical German resistance and as much as it is a brilliant movie, the real story is even more amazing.
On the afternoon of March 7, 1945, a small American patrol advancing to the Rhine, the last great natural barrier to Nazi Germany, discovered to their astonishment that the Ludendorff railway bridge at Remagan was still standing.
The towers are all that’s left of the Lundendorff Bridge
The Germans has destroyed most of the other bridges to delay the Allied advance over the Rhine, so the capture of the bridge at Remagan that was carried out by a few men under the command of a young Lieutenant, Karl H Timmerman, was a huge coup.
Even though the Germans attempted to blow it up in the faces of the Americans as they stormed across, they failed and the bridge was soon captured.
For 10 days the bridge stood before it finally collapsed on March 17 after months of aircraft bombing, direct artillery hits, near misses, and deliberate demolition attempts. But by that time over 25,000 troops and thousands of vehicles had streamed over, enabling the Americans to secure a significant bridgehead on the other side of the Rhine.
The sudden capture of a bridge across the Rhine was front page news in American newspapers and was hailed as a feat of arms by the US supreme commander General Eisenhower, who said the bridge was worth its weight in gold. It is still widely believed today that its capture quickened the end of the war.
Today only the squat black towers that guarded the entrance to the bridge on both banks exist as the bridge itself was never rebuilt
Located inside one of the towers on the eastern bank is a small but impressive museum that displays rusted helmets and weapons, photos, maps and a huge unexploded German bomb that was dredged up from the river in the 1970s, all relics of the viciousness of the fighting.
From inside the tower you can clearly see the opposing towers just a few hundred metres away on the other bank and watch as colossal barge ships slip serenely past on the river below.
It’s an evocative location and just an hour’s drive away from Cologne, it is well worth a day trip.
My next day’s adventure brought me to a place that had been in my imagination since childhood.
As a very young boy my dad had brought me to an air show in Ireland.
I can’t recall where it was but I distinctly remember seeing an American B-17 bomber that thundered overhead.
It must have been one of the last of these epic aircraft that are still flying today and it made a lifelong impression on me.
The Mohne Dam
The growl of those four engines as it roared over the crowd was thrilling. I distinctly remember feeling the rumbling thunder through my feet as I stood there transfixed.
On the way out of the show I bought a book called ‘The Dambusters’ by Paul Brickhill.
It told the story of the famous raid of 1943, known as ‘Operation Chastise’ that has been the stuff of legend in RAF aviation history ever since.
On the night of 16–17 May, 19 Lancaster bombers of 617 squadron led by 24-year-old wing commander Guy Gibson took off from England for a bombing raid that would prove unique in the annals of aviation history.
Using a specially developed “bouncing bomb” invented and developed by Sir Barnes Wallis, the raiders managed to breach the Möhne and Edersee Dams, causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr valley and of villages in the Eder valley.
Another dam, the Sorpe, was only slightly damaged but two hydroelectric power stations were destroyed and several more were damaged. Several factories and mines were also either damaged or destroyed while an estimated 1,600 civilians, including about 600 Germans and 1,000 mainly Soviet forced-labourers, drowned.
The great Mohen Dam today and after the Dambusters Raid in 1943
Even though the dams were rapidly repaired by the Germans in the months after the raid, the propaganda value of the daring attack proved an immediate boost to the war torn British.
It was an amazing story of how young men, Gibson was 24 remember, carrying out an extremely dangerous operation, managed to succeed despite all the odds and for years and years after reading the book and seeing the film of the same name, I had wanted to visit the dams.
So when I caught my first glimpse of the mighty Mohne dam, as I turned a corner into the valley where it is located just an hour’s drive from Cologne, it was a marvellous sensation.
Nothing in my imagination or in the numerous books and movie could match the real thing standing there vast and silent in the autumn light.
Rising majestically over the waters of the artificial lake the Mohne is an enormous man-made mountain of concrete rising over the valley walls.
Wing Commander Guy Gibson who led the raid at the grand old age of 24!
To stand on the massive concrete structure rebuilt just four months after the raids and imagine the bombers skimming in over the placid lake to this exact point where the bouncing bombs hit, is to bring home the amazing feat of the aircrews that flew their 18 ton bombers at little over 100 feet directly into a barrage of anti-aircraft fire as they closed on their target.
In a recent documentary the BBC described how the “skill and bravery of the pilots who flew at night, at 100ft (30m) or less over enemy territory is breath-taking. They flew so low that one hit the sea, which tore off the underslung bomb, and scooped up seawater into the fuselage, while another was engulfed in flames as it ploughed straight into high voltage electricity cables”.
The moment the Mohne dam is eventually breached is brilliantly captured in the movie which, although the effects are a little dated, captures the daring-do of the pilots and their crews.
Today, the dam is a major tourist attraction in Germany, although for more bucolic reasons as the pristine lakes and beautiful woodlands here are a major attraction in this part of the country.
There is little sense of the destruction once wrought in this peaceful valley although the Germans have dedicated a small plague to their loses in the village of Gunne during the night they refer to as the ‘Die Möhnekatastrophe’.
A replica of a bouncing bomb at the Dambusters Museum in Kessel
A quick stop off at the Sorpe dam that was only slightly damaged in the raid and then it was on to the Edersee Dam located another 100 kilometres to the east, in the Hesse region.
Night was falling as I reached the Edersee, that which was also demolished in the raid but later rebuilt. As I stood in the still moonlight that sparkled over the lake it was just possible to make out the distant passing drone of an aircraft flying high above in the night sky.
How different it must have been on that night over 70 years ago, I reflected, as a deluge washed away all before it in what had been and is now another peaceful German valley.
Not far from the dam itself is the village of Kessel, where there is a small museum dedicated to Operation Chastise. The passionate director of the Dambuster’s Museum, Oliver Koehler, told me not many Germans are interested in the raids although he gets a steady influx of visitors from around the world who come to marvel at his collection of model airplanes and newspaper clippings.
Some of the articles relate how, of the 133 crew who took part in the attack on the dams, 53 died and two were taken prisoner. Gibson, who led the raid and survived, was killed in action two years later, aged 26. Of the other survivors more were killed on other bombing runs before the war’s end, leaving just a handful of aged veterans to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the raid in May 2013.
One of the last of the Dambusters who couldn’t make the celebrations was the New Zealand pilot, Les Munro. Not long after I returned from Germany I learned that Munro had passed away, aged 96, in his sleep.