Monday, June 9, 2014

Hitler's Armoured State Coach - Canada's Greatest War Trophy

Hitler Limo - Canadian War Museum

In the autumn of 1945 ships began arriving in Canada loaded with war booty from Europe. Our soldiers smuggled home the obvious souvenirs ... Schmeisser machine pistols and Lugers, but our technical intelligence personnel filled cargo holds with tanks, artillery pieces, radar systems, jet engines and even V2 rockets. We missed out on the really sexy stuff -  Hitler loot.  The Americans, the British and the Russian had over-run his command posts and private residences, and so Canadian troops were denied some some of the most coveted war trophies.   And yet in the end, thanks to a savvy collector with an eye for undervalued artifacts, our national collection now includes one of the most iconic artifacts of the Third Reich - one of the Reich Fuehrer's armoured limousines -  prominent in most of the news reels which documented Nazi state events.

The Canadian War Museum acquired a Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering "staff car" in 1969 in exchange for a federal gift tax receipt. (All Canadian museum's may use tax receipts to acquire art and artifacts.)  Though thrilled to have the car, from the beginning the Museum harboured doubt that the Mercedes had been used by Goering. The provenance had been established by the U.S. Army at the time it was landed at the Port of Boston and introduced to the American news media.  That was how the C.W.M. displayed it, and from year of acquisition it became the favourite of museum visitors. 

Armoured limousine frequently used by Adolph Hitler, seized by U.S. Forces in 1945
A Mercedes 'Staatskarosse' or State Coach built by Daimler-Benz for Adolph Hitler.
This example was captured by men of the 20th Armoured Division on May 4, 1945.
Used briefly as transport by an American general, the car had its engine replaced
but arrived in the U.S. relatively intact. Arrows indicate bullet damaged glass and a
white star painted atop the convertible roof that helped authenticate the war trophy.

Closeup - shattered glass on Hitler's Mercedes limousine - Boston Harbour 1945
One of the myths perpetuated  for decades was that the armoured glass on the car
was damaged by testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Photo's taken at Boston in
August 1945 documented the fact that damage occurred prior to leaving Germany.

Several armoured limousines and staff cars, vehicles issued by the state to Adolph Hitler and Hermann Goering, were captured by men of the 20th Armoured Division and the 101st Airborne Division in early 1945.  Most young American males were, and are "car crazy," so it was quite natural that they would seize prestige automobiles wherever found. The "Goering car" was found loaded on a rail flatcar and before abandonment someone put a burst or two into it, ruining the armoured glass on the front passenger side and leaving bullets embedded here and there. From the beginning this car, a model known as a Grosser Mercedes  770 W  150, was mis-attributed to Goering,  senior military leader and second in state authority.  Moreover, as Hitler was dead and burned, while Goering had been captured, the latter was frequently in the news and his personal property was equally newsworthy.  When it off-loaded in Boston a local paper, THE DAILY GLOBE, ran the crude headline "Goering's Auto Bullet Proof to protect Fat Marshal's Hide".   Such digs were very common in 1945, but to be fair, had the table been turned and the Wehrmacht overrun Washington,  German headlines might have read "Roosevelt's Limo   armoured to protect his crippled ass".  Hate cuts both ways.

Two Nazi vehicles were used to sell U.S. War Bonds in 1945, but in the rush
to parade the trophies across America, one car was attributed to the wrong
German leader... and as a result in 1956 a Canadian collector ultimately scooped 
up one of Adolph Hitler's armoured state coaches for less than $6,000.  

"Goering's car" was given the royal treatment, including another coat of paint, and the men who captured it were rewarded with some plum duty.  They were assigned to accompany two "bullet proof" Nazi  (several had been captured including everything in the garages under Hitler's mountain retreat) on a cross country blitz to sell U.S. War Bonds.  The following year "Goering's car" was used in a recruiting campaign and then suddenly the U.S. Army had no further use for it. The Mercedes fell into the custody of the Property Disposal Office which put it into storage for nearly ten years. In 1956 a Montreal car collector saw a notice that the vehicle was up for public auction and he acquired it for $2,725. Fortunately his $5,000 of restoration efforts were careful to maintain the integrity of the artifact. For example he opted to leave the shattered glass in place and the car's odometer was left pegged  where it jammed in May of 1945.

In 1974, during  the commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of D-Day, the C.W.M.  put two of Hitler's paintings on display, but nothing fired the imagination of the public like "the Goering staff car" which the museum did not even believe had belonged to Hermann Goering. Also that year the museum provided pictures and text for an article in the British magazine AFTER THE BATTLE.  Entitled "Hermann Goering's Mercedes Benz" the piece repeated several of the myths and errors which museum staff had never even believed. Still, serious investigation of the artifact was put off by one excuse after another but finally in 1980 staff got serious, and the first thing they did was remove the paint which had obscured the original registration plate, which bore a number issued to Berlin, and it was not a military registration.  It could not have been issued to the Luftwaffe.  

Ludwig Kosche was the librarian at the Canadian War Museum and he also had an M.A. in History. He was also German and certainly the man to finally solve the mystery.  The car had been delivered to the Reich Chancellory in 1940 and it was for Hitler's use.  Kosche accomplished in a few short months what the curators and staff historians had failed to do in the preceding decade, and in so doing he transformed a popular exhibit into the Museum's most popular display item. While we Canadian's honour our heroes, the truth is that  a medal group issued to a Victoria Cross recipient can never attract as much attention as one of the sleek "chariots" Hitler often stood erect in as he passed before his people or his troops.

Hitler's Armoured Car - booklet distributed at War Bond rallies, 1948

AFTER THE BATTLE is one of my favourite history magazines and clearly it is well regarded by the staff of our national war museum.  No sooner had Ludwig Kosche completed his research than he submitted a highly detailed article which completely recants all that had been provided by a C.W.M. staffer in 1974.   True, there were a few outstanding mysteries, such as the current whereabouts of two other armoured limousines which were imported into the U.S. in 1945, but the file on the museum's acquisition was finally complete.

The Story of a Car - by Ludwig Kosche, AFTER THE BATTLE No. 35, 1982
The research article written by Ludwig Kosche, and published in 
AFTER THE BATTLE  No. 35, 1982 provided conclusive evidence linking
the armoured Mercedes limo to the Reich Chancellory and Adolph Hitler.

The armoured "Grosser" Mercedes-Benz limousine was just one of eight delivered for Adolph Hitler's personal use, but it witnessed some incredibly significant events, all itemized in the Kosche article.  It is undeniably Canada's greatest war trophy, and this opinion has been tested in the court of public opinion. When historian Jack Granatstein  was named Director General of the Museum in 1998 he was interviewed by CBC Television. When the interviewer, an Ottawa local, was queried about his own knowledge of the C.W.M. he admitted the Hitler car was the only artifact he could remember.

Jack Granatstein was still a York University lecturer, when in 1994 he was asked to appear on CBC Television coverage of the 50th Anniversary of D-Day.  He was also chosen for VE Day special coverage in 1995.  From that point on he cultivated a media persona and was seen regularly on national broadcasts. He re-appeared on CBC not only for the 60th and 65th veterans anniversaries  but became a daily fixture on television screens during the unprecedented and exhausting Somalia Inquiry  and throughout the period of Canada's involvement in the Iraq War.

Two years after taking the helm at the War Museum, Granatstein floated the idea of the C.W.M. selling the Hitler vehicle and using the proceeds to build a new museum facility. He "guessed" the car might fetch $20 million at auction. According to a report in the OTTAWA CITIZEN the Director's intentions were noble. "Adolph Hitler's bulletproof Mercedes limousine should be removed from Canada's War Museum because it glorifies the evils of Nazism and sends the wrong message to visitors, says the museum's chief." (Feb. 2, 2000) Granatstein had a further worry, which was described as "a horrible dilemma".  "If we put it up at auction, we can't control who buys it. This car would be such a powerful icon for a neo-Nazi or extreme group. If it fell into the wrong hands, we would feel very foolish, and worse. The possible consequences are frightening."

In the end the C.W.M. got to keep all of Hitler's mojo for itself. The neo-Nazis, if they existed, never ever had a chance of offering their $$millions for the Mercedes, because a vocal Canadian public wanted to keep our prize war trophy.  The outcry was so intense  that only one week later Granatstein was forced to backtrack because, it was reported, "selling the car would fly in the face of public opinion".   The CBC News report further stated - "The car has been the most popular exhibit at the museum for 30 years."

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