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Legendary antifascist - resistant, deportee, partisan, "Silver Star" award

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Francis in arms in the streets of Ettelbruck during the first Liberation

Frankie Hansen, was a young Luxembourger, who, like so many of his generation, was spurred into action by fascism and the occupation of his country by Nazi Germany, and so joined the armed resistance. The exceptional journey of this young resistance fighter, who was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo for his participation in the general strike of August 1942 against the Occupation, began when he was jailed in a concentration camp in Hinzert, Germany.

After a long journey through different prisons in Nazi Germany and occupied Poland, he was deported and imprisoned for almost two years in a SS camp near Lublin. His return began with a miraculous escape wearing the uniform of a German junior officer whom he had overpowered with his naked hands in the chaos created by the advancing Red Army.

After an incredible odyssey of a month through the heavily bombed landscapes of Poland and Nazi Germany, sneaking through the multiple checkpoints, he managed to reach his home town a short while before it was liberated for the first time by the US Army, on 11 September 1944.

Together with other youngsters, who had survived the camps or had come back from exile, he formed a guerrilla group operating along the Siegfried line, held by the Wehrmacht to protect the Third Reich in Germany.

When he met his first American soldiers, he volunteered to fight with the 8th Division of the US Army adopting the identity of an American GI killed in action. He was sent to the front near Aachen at the end of November 1944, where he distinguished himself many times during the fierce battles fought in the Hürtgen forest, on German territory.

During the offensive to capture Cologne, in the middle of February 1945, he swam across the Roer in the middle of the night and under enemy fire, in order to clear a mined bridge which was of crucial importance for the river crossing the following day. For this action he received the American “Silver Star”, awarded for the first time to a foreign civilian exceptionally enrolled in the US Army for his merits in combat.

The following weeks and months Frankie Hansen continued his advance on German territory with the famous 8th Division. He took part in the heavy fighting in the Ruhr region after crossing the Roer, and finally reached and crossed the Elbe on the first of May 1945, 10 days before the end of the war.

Resistance and Arrest

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Francis Hansen at the age of 18

Francis Hansen is born on 21 May 1922 in Diekirch, Luxembourg. He is still under eighteen on 10 May 1940, when the Wehrmacht invades his country.

In 1941 he joins the local resistance network of LVL (Lëtzebuerger Volleks-Légion) in the towns of Ettelbruck and Diekirch. Before long he assumed a leadership position in this group and became responsible for the coordination between the two sections.

Towards the end of August or beginning of September 1942 his life took a dramatic turn. The introduction of forced conscription by the Nazis, with the aim to recruit young Luxembourgers for the Eastern Front, provoked a large protest movement in the country and many opposed the conscription.

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His membership card of the local amateur football club. Note that the Occupation authorities have deleted all French words and replaced them with their German equivalent.

The Resistance calls for a general strike against forced conscription ! This mobilisation – unprecedented in occupied Europe until that moment – was the first important achievement of the Resistance in Luxembourg. Francis Hansen takes part in the organisation of the general strike handing out leaflets in the towns and villages of North Luxembourg.

In the printing shop of Diekirch, where he is employed as an apprentice typesetter, he motivates his colleagues to join the strike. At the same time he wrecks the printing machines used to print propaganda material for the Occupation authorities. His employer denounces him to the Gestapo.

The next morning at dawn, on the first of September 1942, he is arrested by the Gestapo in his family home. He is transferred to the Villa Conter, in Diekirch, for a first interrogation.

The same night he is transferred to the Grund prison, in Luxembourg city, where he is submitted to a first “tough” interrogation. Between 50 and 60 strikers are emprisoned in the same prison, after the arrests of the organizers of the general strike. Twentyfour strikers are executed to set an example.

One week later he is transferred to the Gestapo Headquarters, at Villa Pauly . A Gestapo officer called Hartmann tries first to bring young Francis to « reason », pressing him to collaborate. Francis’s adamant refusal to join the Wehrmacht and to betray the members of his network brought about a U-turn in his interrogators attitude. After letting him stand for hours facing the wall, two of his torturers begin to beat him furiously with their rubber clubs, until he loses consciousness. Faced with the prisoner’s stubbornness, one of his brutal Gestapo interrogators, in a sudden access of anger, kicks him in the face, smashing all the teeth of his lower left jaw. His whole body is full of wounds and swellings. He urinates with difficulty and violent pains. More dead than alive, Francis passes the next days in his cell, without receiving any care. After the fourth interrogation, the Gestapo, unable to break his intransigence, decides to send him to the Hinzert concentration camp.

The long voyage

Hinzert, Cologne, Hanover, Berlin, Poznan, Warsaw, Lublin

Hinzert

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On 18 September 1942 he is imprisoned in the Hinzert concentration camp. He is interrogated once more about the organization and the leaders of the strike. In spite of his young age, the SS define him as the leader of his neigbourhood. He is harassed and mistreated all the time. At various occasions he is beaten to unconsciousness and his physical condition deteriorates by the day. After receiving a blow in his back by the rifle of an SS guardian, he suffers from high fever due to a kidney infection. After three weeks in the infirmary, his situation has not improved at all.

On 13 January 1943 the prisoners are moved to an unknown destination, suspecting they might be heading for Poland. Francis begins his long deportation journey in a pitiful state, close to death. From time to time his fever rises to 41 C°, he loses more than 20 kilos and weighs no more than 45 kilos.

Cologne „Klingelpütz“

Starting its journey from Trier, the transport’s first destination is the infamous Klingelpütz prison in Cologne: the news terrorizes the Luxembourgers, as they know the reputation of this prison as an execution site, especially for German opponents. During WW II 21 prisoners from Luxembourg condemned to death are executed there. Three German co-prisoners, who joined the convoy in Trier, are shot there upon their arrival.

Hanover

On January 18th 1943 the journey continues in cell train cars towards Hanover. The prisoners are haunted by the fear they will be sent to the concentration camp Sachsenhausen , established in 1936 for political prisoners, and situated 35 kilometers north of Berlin. But finally they are divided in four groups and directed towards the Berlin prison of Alexanderplatz, surnamed Die Rote Burg.

Berlin "Die Rote Burg"

On January 29th, the group of deportees from Luxembourg arrives in Berlin. In the "Roter Alex" prison they are informed that they will be sent to Lublin, in Poland. Francis writes a letter home on toilet paper. One of his co-prisoners manages to get it out of the prison and the letter will eventually reach his parents. « Courage, my dear parents. We have great solidarity… During these last months I have gained such experience that I am ready to face any possible situation. «  Letter of 30.1. 1943.

Poznan

The next day, his group is chained and escorted by the police to the cell car that will bring them to Posen (Poznan), where they will stay in transit in the "Wilhemsplatz 12" prison until the 5th of February. Victor Abens and Christian Scholl, the eldest among a group of twelve other prisoners from Luxembourg, belong to this transport.

Warsaw-Danilowiczowska

On 6 February 1943, Francis and his group of prisoners arrive at the Warsaw prison, situated at Danilowiczowska road, no 7, where more than a thousand prisoners are gathered under inhuman conditions. Most of them are Polish and Jewish political prisoners.

The prison of Danilowiczowska road is located in the vicinity of the Great Synagogue and of the ghetto of Warsaw. Francis is imprisoned there during the period just after 18 January 1943, an important date for the Jewish resistance, which had just made its first appearance in the ghetto. It is preparing the armed uprising against the razzias organised by the Nazis, in order to liquidate the forty to fifty thousand remaining Jews and send them to different concentration camps, especially to Treblinka.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising will begin on 19 April 1943, on the eve of Passover, the Jewish Eastern holiday, when the last surviving Jews, about a thousand men and women, will rise up in arms against the Nazis. In this critical moment, enduring the polar temperatures of the Polish winter and barely dressed with the short-sleeved shirt he was wearing on the day of his arrest, the previous summer, Francis passes about ten days under terrible circumstances in this Warsaw prison. His health deteriorates dangerously, with a fever mounting up to 41 C°, due to a virus or bacterial infection, known as “Russian fever”.

Lublin

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Lublin Castle

Around the 15th of February 1943 the group leaves Warsaw for Lublin. Devastated by his illness, Francis walks towards the waiting trucks leaning on his comrades: if he falls down, he may be shot. The trucks bring them to Lublin, under the watching eye of Polish collaborators.

In spite of his poor health, Francis notes that in the streets Polish citizens defy the guardians to give the prisoners a piece of bread, a cigarette and even a cup of hot tea. He learns to appreciate the courage of the Polish population and of the members of the Polish Resistance.

With all the hardships of the journey, he does not succumb to the disease.

The prisoners arrive at the prison of «Lublin Castle» before dark. Here the German Occupation Authorities of Poland imprisoned up to 80,000 persons during the period 1939-1945. Most of them were members of the Polish Resistance.

At "Lublin Castle", Francis passes some days between life and death. Here as well the sanitary conditions are awful, the already weakened prisoners from Luxembourg suffer from bugs and dysentery. The majority of their co-prisoners, Polish political prisoners, will never see freedom again.

For Francis, the purulent state of his teeth and the open wounds on his jaw and back are less worrying than his high fever. During a roll call intended to single out dying prisoners from the infirmary, his comrades help him to stand up. Only half conscious, he looks up, gathering his last forces, and begins to sing a song by Tino Rossi to amuse the SS … pretending he is well alive. In this way he saved his life, because the SS killed on the spot with an air injection those they considered « dying ».

In the infirmary, a co-prisoner from Luxembourg helps Francis. A prayer session is organized by his friends to assist him. But with the help of a Jewish dentist, his destiny takes a different turn ! Using gold from a ring and other jewels that escaped the control by the SS commando that arrested him, this prisoner manages to make some new teeth for Francis. These golden teeth will stay with him for a long time after the war and remind him of this generous Jewish dentist, assassinated by the SS a short while afterwards…

SS-Sonderlager Dobrowicza (Lublin)

Internment from February 1943 to July 1944

Francis and his group are interned at the SS-Sonderlager Dobrowicza (Lublin) not very far from Lublin town. Dobrowicza is a forced labour camp, under the command of the SS and the Head of Police of Lublin district. The conditions of detention are less severe than in the extermination camp of Majdanek. By chance the deportees are assigned to a closed area, looking more like a farm than like a prison. Surveillance here is less strict than in a classical concentration camp (KZ). The prisoners have to carry out forced labour activities, such as digging for road construction.

Soon Francis is recognized by his comrades as a leader, in spite of his young age (he is the youngest in the group of deportees from Luxembourg). His health is getting better. Francis knows how to cure the hunger and lack of calories threatening his group by bold and well calculated actions. While unloading a truck he « diverts » a sack with 50 kilos of noodles, which then finds its way to the prisoners’ kitchen.

One night the garden kept by the SS is plundered and its artificial pond emptied of its trouts. He is brave and takes risks, putting his life constantly at danger : he gets out of the camp through the piping system, at times bringing back potatos from his nocturnal visits to the partizans or to Polish peasants. By the same way he also manages to deliver non censored messages.

His most spectacular tour de force is undoubtedly the elimination of a german shepherd dog trained to attack prisoners, and whose favorite game was to snap at their heels. One day, after working at it patiently for months, Francis manages to make the dog come up to the empty surveillance tower and pushes him over the wall. The SS who found the dog with a broken neck wondered how on earth the dog could have climbed up the two-storey ladder of the surveillance tower.

On another occasion, Francis snatches a camera from the office of the SS, lends it to Christian Scholl to take pictures from their life in the camp, and then puts it back.

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Christian Scholl and Francis Hansen​

But good luck did not always come his way ! During one of his forays out of the camp, the alarm system was activated and he had to hide himself for hours among the excrements in the pit latrine.

Moreover, a letter sent out secretly from the camp reaches the wife of a prisoner in Luxemburg. She complains with the local Gestapo about the internment conditions and the Gestapo officer immediately informs the camp authorities in Poland about the existence of such a message. The SS align the prisoners for hours demanding them to denounce the culprit, under penalty of severe collective punishments.

Francis, the youngest among the prisoners from Luxembourg and the most sportif, takes up responsibility for the letter and delivers himself to the SS, who beat and flog him ferociously in front of the other prisoners.

Then, Francis remembers what he saw with his own eyes happening to Albert Wingert, a prisoner from Luxembourg at the Hinzert camp, who had bravely challenged the famous sadist torturer Ivan the Terrible. Having learnt his lesson, at each flogging Francis jumped back, filling his torturer with pride about his physical force…

In spite of the harsh beating, his health is improving. He takes on some weight and his athletic and trained body makes an impression on the SS. They even set him as an example by exposing his naked body. His past experience as a football player offers him the opportunity to play with the team of the Russian prisoners against the SS.

From 1944 onwards Francis is often called up at the Gestapo Headquarters of Lublin, where he is employed at the SS furniture store…

The odyssey of the return to Luxembourg

At the end of June, the Eastern Front is smashed and the families of the SS begin to flee to Germany. The Russian offensive on Lublin begins on 18 July 1944. The Russians break through the German defences. The next day Soviet airplanes attack the German positions, while the ground forces rapidly shattered the front line of defence of the German Army. Soviet tanks reach the suburbs of Lublin. The town is surrounded on the 23rd of July. German troops are panicking.

On the 21st of July Francis is working at the Headquarters of the Security Police ("Sicherheitspolizei"). Taking advantage of the chaos provoked by the arrival of retreating Wehrmacht troops, he manages to enter the forbidden zone and goes to the deserted officers mess. Bowls of hot soup served on the table are waiting for the masters. Excited by the imminent demise of the masters’ power, he takes the bowl and throws it away over the handrails of the cast iron stairs on the first floor.

Alarmed by the noise, a junior officer attacks him. After a short fight, Francis « neutralizes » the Nazi officer, takes hold of his uniform and removes the insignia. He fills a sack with four bottles of Schnaps, catches up with the fleeing German convoys, exchanges one of the bottles for a seat and climbs upon a truck. While leaving, he remarks a number of hanged men in the area of the neighbouring camp. The convoy crosses the bridge over the Vistula river just before its explosion and then takes the road for the town of Radom. Francis had the good luck to be spared the treatment of ordinary prisoners. In fact, hundreds of prisoners at Lublin Castle are murdered just before the Soviet invasion. Probably Francis owes his good luck to SS-Obersturmbannführer Koschig. Francis, who wants to return to Luxembourg, takes advantage of the help offered by this German officer. In 1943 Koschig who served at the security police of Luxembourg had been transferred to the post of administrative inspector in Lublin. Having lost any illusions about a victory of Nazi Germany in the war, he was worried about his family. In Radom, he gives Francis a number of letters for his wife, who remained in Luxembourg, and a certificate with official heading, proving his employment as a car-washer under the authoriy of the SD in Lublin.

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Koschig's certificate
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The renewed Koschig certificate

This is the only document owned by the escaped prisoner to face the dangerous return journey during the debacle of the German Army. But this document without a photograph is not worth much, as there is no real official document to prove his identity. This makeshift certificate is renewed twice, the last time in Częstochowa (Czenstochau), from 21 août to 30 August.

To return home, he has to fend for himself. While in Warsaw the uprising of the Polish Resistance reaches a climax only to be crushed a bit later, Francis does not dare to go out without his Wehrmacht uniform and pretends to be a recruit from Luxembourg. In Częstochowa, pushed by hunger, he risks his life by going to army canteens, where he risks more than once to be arrested at any moment and shot as a deserter. He finds some support at the famous monastery of Częstochowa : the church authorities hide him for some days, give him some money and an image of the Black Madonna, to protect him during his return journey. This image was kept by his mother until her death.

He is caught by the military police, together with many other roaming soldiers, during a regrouping operation to reorganize the troops and he is reassigned to a combat unit to be sent to the nearby Eastern Front.

At the railway station of Częstochowa, a crossing point of trains heading East and West, he manages to join a group of Wehrmacht soldiers aboard a train going West. At a checkpoint he jumps from the train to board another one. His last bottle of alcohol helps to ease the tension and to gain the sympathy of the suspicious soldiery.

At the end of August, Francis arrives at the railway station of Wroclaw (Breslau). A police officer returning from the East Front orders him to carry his two elegant light brown leather suitcases. Mingling with the crowd, Francis disappears. He hides in the lavatory, puts on civilian clothes and hides the uniform in the flush tank.

Traveling on other trains he finally reaches Cologne, and then Trier. From that point on, he avoids the main road to escape any checkpoints and walks for 40 km along the railway track up to Ettelbruck. He finds shelter at the home of a befriended peasant family in Feulen, a village close to Ettelbruck.

In the officer’s suitcase, he finds a Leica camera containing a film with photos taken at the East Front.

Liberation of the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg

Vianden militia

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The partisans of Vianden. Francis is the second from the right

Back in Ettelbrück, he joins a group of rebels and deserters from the Wehrmacht, who managed to arm themselves and carry out surprise attacks against the routed German Army.

On 10 September 1944, at dawn, units of the 5th Armoured Division of the US Army liberate the southern part of Luxembourg ; the next day American troops advance towards the North and the East. The units of the 5th US Armoured Division, flanked by units of the 28th Infantry Division, liberate the country, village after village.

On the same day, the 11th of September, while the victorious American troops enter the city, Francis’s brother guides a number of scouts to a hill top from where they attack a German convoy with deadly artillery fire.

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The two brothers Pierre and Francis Hansen
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Francis in arms in the streets of Ettelbruck during the first Liberation

Francis takes part in the arrest of collaborators and then joins a partisan group, known as the « Militia ». This group is led by Victor Abens, a man from the small border town of Vianden and former co-prisoner of Francis at the Lublin camp.

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Victor Abens and Francis Hansen
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Francis with another partisan in Vianden
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Francis and partisan comrades in Vianden

The small town of Vianden is separated from Germany by a river dominated by a high cliff, a natural border and a point of great strategic interest.

Situated on no man’s land, Vianden is empty, abandoned by its population. The American Army is at some distance, a few miles behind.

The Militia partisans go on forays into German territory along the Siegfried line. Counting about thirty men, the group intercepts German patrols, catches prisoners whom they hand over to the US Army and gather intelligence about the movements of the German Army, entrenched on the hilltop on the other side of the river.

Through these operations Francis becomes befriended with Milard O. Engen, a young lieutenant of the 8th Division, who helps him join the American Army as a volunteer on the first of November 1944. He adopts the identity of private Gordon Bayes, from Houston, Texas, killed in action.

The hell of Hürtgen and the crossing of the Roer

The first Battalion of the 28th Regiment of the 8th Infantry Division enters Luxembourg on the first October, after bitter fighting in Normandy, and establishes its headquarters out of reach of the German artillery. It keeps these positions for three weeks, carrying out operations on the Siegfried line.

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Frankie Hansen decorated with Purple Heart
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American armored tanks in Hürtgenwald 

Establishing friendly relations with the GI’s of Company A, Francis takes the opportunity to improve his English. His perfect knowledge of the German language, his insights into the enemy’s psychology and above all his deep motivation to bring an end to Nazi domination, made him into an ideal recruit for the American Army.

Hardly three weeks later, the « unofficial » soldier Francis Hansen, whose name is now Americanised into Frankie, is transferred by truck, together with the 8th Division, to the front of Hürtgen forest, an isolated bridgehead on German territory.

At their arrival, the GI’s of the 8th Division realize the poor state and the low morals of the troops, which have been trying for three weeks to break through the enemy front line, suffering thousands of human losses.

On 19 November 1944, the Battalion takes position following for several miles a narrow pathway cleared of mines. The path is under continuous artillery fire and can be used only at night. A GI steps on a mine and this is followed by mortar fire that will cost the lives of four members of the US HQ.

Frankie learns that the first survival rule in the « death forest », as it is called by the Germans, is not to step away even for an inch from the cleared pathway. The battlefield of Hürtgen forest is full of hundreds of thousands invisible landmines, often attached by strings to tree trunks, exploding at the slightest contact.

Invisible enemies are waiting for them, hidden in fortified positions, with machine gun nests covered in concrete and camouflaged artillery. The Americans are unable to take advantage of their predominance in armoured vehicles and other heavy weaponry, in their attempt to advance in the middle of winter on this inaccessible territory. The US air force is grounded.

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Hürtgenwald, after the fighting
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Hürtgenwald, mines
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Hürtgenwald, the survivors

The American foot soldiers are desperately outgunned by the Germans and are exposed to continuous enemy fire in temporary trenches which they dug out in a hurry. For twelve days and twelve nights thirty thousand bombshells pour down on them - with an average daily rate of 3000.

Vossenack

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The church of Vossenack in ruins
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The route towards Vossenack, exposed to enemy fire for days on end, bends off from the main highway near to the village and then follows a steep path crossing a minefield where the dead bodies of the mine clearers of the 28th Division are still visible. During the time it spent in the Vossenack area, the 1st Battalion received its worst shellings, even worse than on the battlefields of France. During 24 hours more than 5000 shells fall down on the soldiers seeking cover in trenches.

The traumatizing experience of twelve days of continuous artillery fire in trenches full of mud, weaeing wet clothes and without food supplies or reinforcements, listening to the screams of wounded or dying soldiers coming from the next trench without the possibility to do anything to help them, will remain engraved for ever in Frankie’s memory.

During November and December it rains for days on end in Vossenack and the soldiers are forced to sleep in muddy and stinking water. The history of the Company is full of complaints about the lack of combat capable men and tells about attacks and counter-attacks, about men wounded by shrapnel coming in through the openings of the trenches, which are only barely covered by fir tree trunks, and about clashes with enemy patrols.

During many days the men do not have anything to eat and the wounded can only be evacuated during the night along a track exposed to enemy fire. Each evacuation causes new victims.

Frankie is always available, volunteering systematically for scouting forays into enemy territory and takes part in most patrols.

Some companies carry out counter-attacks with less than 40 men. Men unable to walk need to keep their positions, pneumonia is not a sufficient reason to be evacuated.

The most horrific memory of those days remains, however, the pungent smell of the hundreds of decomposing bodies lying among the ruins and the beheaded trees, as well as the stench of mud in the flooded trenches. After weeks of fighting, Vossenack has been reduced to rubble. After twelve days of isolation in the remains of the village, permanently exposed to artillery fire, without fresh food and arms supplies, the soldiers are finally released by the Third Battalion.

This once idyllic village surrounded by thick forests becomes the symbol of the most proving days for the soldiers of the First Battalion. Vossenack, as Ernest Hemingway says, changes hands 23 times.

From an ambush behind the garden wall of the pastor’s house next to the completely destroyed church, Frankie strikes at the enemies with sniper fire. Around this church, German and American soldiers had earlier fought against each other in hand to hand combat and Frankie will always remember the stacked piles of their dead bodies.

On 27 November the Americans are targeted by numerous attacks. Lieutenant-colonel E. Smith takes over the command on 7 December, but only five days later he is killed.

In Vossenack, the Americans suffer twice as many losses as the Wehrmacht.

On 18 December, with the Battalion still at its positions near Vossenack, the Wehrmacht launches the Ardennes offensive, around the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg.

Morale is at its lowest, no reinforcements can be expected anymore and therefore the bridgehead of the 8th Division is even more isolated.

The front near Düren and the breakthrough across the river Roer

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Düren in ruins

On the 7th of February 1945, the First Battalion of the 8th Infantry Division receives orders to abandon its positions in the Hürtgen forest, west of Aachen. After two months of harsh fighting in the « German death forest » and enormous human losses, the men hoped to go on leave, but this expectation is soon crushed. The Battalion is only replaced and takes up positions in the village of Lendersdorf, near Düren, on the west bank of the river Roer. Nevertheless, the men are happy, they believe they managed to escape death, senseless killings, incredible sufferings…

In the meantime, the German offensive in the Ardennes, also called the "offensive von Rundstedt " breaks down. For the American soldiers, the hope for a short break proved wrong. In reality, the Battalion only changed position. Out of the 180 men of the Company who had joined the positions near Vossenack on the 28th November at night, only 17 are still able to fight, most are either dead or wounded. The Division lost 4000 men in combat during the period from November to December alone.

Frankie has become an expert in close combat. Instead of the heavy rifle carried by foot soldiers, he obtained a Thompson pistol-machine-gun, two semi-automatic pistols and hand-grenades. During the nearly daily clashes with enemy patrols he is wounded twice, for which he is rewarded with the starred Purple Heart decoration.

Waiting for the great offensive towards Cologne, strategic industrial centre of the Third Reich, the GI´s are quartered in heated caves, in Lendersdorf, a real luxury compared to their previous experience. The river Roer is the last obstacle towards the industrial heart of the Third Reich. While the Roer usually is quiet and slow, it has turned into a wild river, after the dams upstream from Düren were blown up, especially the Schwammenauel Dam. Its waters, on average three meters deep, are coming down over more than 30 metres from side to side with such a violence that crossing it by boat becomes extremely dangerous. The level is rising constantly and the offensive is delayed twice.

The US General Headquarters plans to cross the river on boats after a heavy bombing. The army carries out exercises with rubber boats and the engineering section is building pontoons for foot soldiers and heavy material to be used during the imminent attack.

During the retreat of the Wehrmacht, only a quarter of the Lendersdorf bridge had been destroyed on the American side. The pillars are still standing on the German side, but they are full of heavy explosives. In addition, two airplane bombs of 500 kilos each can be activated at any moment by a cable linking the bridge to a German machine-gun nest which spits fire on the river at the slightest movement.

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 Wehrmacht blows up the Schwammenauel dam

According to the plan, the remaining pillars of the bridge should be saved, in order to allow the US Army to build a construction in steel able to support tanks and artillery. This would free the passage to Cologne and the final battle to control the Ruhr industrial area. The stakes are high.

On February 16, a first attempt to save the bridge ends up in failure. A commando of three volunteers approaches the bridge by night with a rubber boat, but they are discovered and perish…

The next day, two other attempts fail again, the operation amounts to suicide. Again all the men are killed. But there is no minute to lose; a solution has to be found immediately. Frankie volunteers for the operation. Having seen his comrades being killed one after the other, he has figured out a carefully thought out solution. He submits his plan to the commander of the GHQ. The plan is accepted. ​"​Frankie, ​you are crazy​"​, his comrades say to him. But Frankie insists to carry out his plan: he intends to approach the bridge on his own by swimming. He decides to risk it all. General Moore in person, in charge of the 8th Division, tells him "Good luck" and wishes him success with the operation.

Journalists of Stars and Stripes want to interview him, but his mind is elsewhere, he refuses.

On the night of the 18th of February Frankie is prepared for his mission, his body is covered by a thick layer of fat. He carries as his only equipment a dagger and scissors to cut the wires and to disconnect the explosives attached to the bridge. After midnight, twelve of the best men of his company follow a path cleared of mines to approach the river bank, under constant machine-gun fire. Seven of them would lose their lives in the following days…

Frankie prefers to enter the ice-cold water about hundred meters upstream from the bridge and then to drift downstream on the current until the first pillar of the bridge.

His friends wish him once more "Good luck" and throw some branches in the river to cover him. Without any noise, in the middle of the dark night, he drifts towards the bank held by the enemies.

When he touches the fourth pillar, he climbs up and cuts the cables. He does the same at the third, second and first pillar... Just when he finishes the jobs, he notices some movements on the German side. Flare bombs light up the river and machine-gun fire sweeps over the water surface.

Frankie decides not to try to cross the river back to the bank where his comrades are waiting for him, but on the contrary to swim towards the other side held by the enemies. He hides in a bomb crater only a few meters apart from a machine-gun post: he can clearly hear the enemies’ voices.

This move saves his life. He got wounded while cutting the barbed wire. Only after the shooting has died down, he dives several times under the water until he reaches the bank held by the American troops.

As he has forgotten the password (not for the first time), an American soldier shoots at him, but fortunately misses his target.

They bring him back to the camp, where he is received as a hero. The American soldiers can not believe their eyes, they think it is a ghost. They believed him dead.

The unexpected success of the operation is communicated to General Headquarters with flares. Immediately, the Americans start a heavy barrage of artillery fire on enemy positions. The Rhine offensive has started… For this heroic achievement of such a strategic importance, Frankie Hansen, even though he was a foreign civilian, is rewarded with the "Silver Star" decoration in 1947, according to the following resolution of the American Senate :

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Frankie Hansen while receiving  the Silver Star by the General Armstrong at the US Embassy in Luxembourg
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A Summary of Frankie Hansen's citations  and Distinctions
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Frankie Hansen, his wife Betty and his mother Catherine just after receiving the Silver Star award
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Diploma of the Silverstar
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The American decorations of Frankie Hansen (from left to right) Siver Star Medal - Purple Heart - Good Conduct Medal - European - African - Middle - Eastern - Medal Campaign - World War 2 Victory - Army of Occupation Medal
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Frankie, after being decorated with the Silver Star, in front of the American Embassy in 1947

From the crossing of the Roer to the battles of the Ruhr and until the end of the war

At Lendersdorf, the crossing of the Roer in rubber boats turns to disaster. The powerful current turns upside down almost all the boats; only a few manage to reach the other side with their crew and their arms. Still they manage to establish a bridgehead and fortify it the following days.

Only on the 23rd of February the Battalion is ready to attack Düren town, backed by heavy artillery fire. But the invasion of the Ruhr by the American Army turned out to be a real ordeal.

Düren and the nearby villages are nothing but rubble, but the Germans oppose fierce resistance. A mortar shell kills thirty men, among whom there were many of Frankie’s friends.

During the battles of Hürtgen forest, due to the enormous daily losses, the American soldiers were advised not to build too close friendships among each other, because they could so easily lose their friends the next day. But Frankie believed a lot in friendship and had a different opinion…

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GI's in Krauthausen
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Germans surrendering by hundreds

In Steinroth and in Krauthausen, the US Army must conquer factories and houses inch by inch. This nightmarish scenario repeats itself in town after town, in village after village. Although the defeat of the Wehrmacht is beyond any doubt, a number of young fanatic German soldiers resist until the bitter end leading to the rise of casualties on both sides.

German soldiers pretending to surrender become suicide bombers in the midst of a group of GI’s. Child soldiers lay ambushes for American troops.

Tens of thousands of German soldiers surrender to the 8th Division, an indication that the Third Reich approaches its end.

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...and by the hundreds of thousands

Frankie becomes even more useful to the American Army, because he can interrogate prisoners and residents in their own language.

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In Widdig with Engen and two other comrades
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Frankie in Widdig
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In Widdig after the fighting
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Frankie on the jeep

On 23 March, in the town of Widdig, located between Cologne and Bonn, while interrogating civilians, he learns that two German soldiers send radio messages to the other side of the river. Armed with a bazooka, he attacks the house, fires two rockets into the second floor and neutralizes the enemies.

On 29 March, in Steineroth, Frankie and two soldiers of his Battalion crawl through a field towards a machine-gun nest, without any protection. But they are discovered and shot at. Two of Frankie’s companions are wounded, including his friend Merle F. Butler, decorated twice with the Silver Star. Then Frankie attacks the enemy nest, alone, firing with his Thompson. He kills the two guards and catches the machine-gunner.

While on patrol during the battles in Hürtgen forest, Frankie was wounded, but survived due to Merle Butler : his friend had brought him to safety under enemy artillery fire. The son of son ami Merle Butler would be killed during the Vietnam War, nearly 25 years later.

When his Battalion arrives at Essen, a city located in the midst of the industrial area dominated by the Krupp empire, the soldiers take up lodgings for a while in the famous villa Hügel belonging to the Krupp family, in reality a castle located at Bredeney (today part of Essen). Alfried Krupp, a Nazi criminal, member of the SS since 1931 and director of the Krupp empire since 1943, is arrested there and imprisoned by the US Army in 1945. He is the last Krupp in command of the industrial empire founded by his great-grandfather.

Frankie who lives for a while at villa Hügel discovers the luxury of the castle.

After taking a delightful bath in the Krupp bathtub, he remembers, he burns his skin from ultraviolet radiation, trying out a device which was the last word for artificial bronzing owned by these great lords of capitalism…

Strict military discipline was not really Frankie’s cup of tea. Interrogating the inhabitants, he hears about a brewery in the neighbourhood. That gives him an idea. A number of trucks are requisitioned for a « special mission » and the brewer could not but agree… !

And on that night, the First Battalion appreciates this holy and free beer. The stressed and tired soldiers are overcome by a feeling of well-being, a feeling that peace is close…

Frankie Hansen continues his advance on German territory with the famous 8th Division. After taking part in the fierce battles of the Ruhr, he reaches and finally crosses the river Elbe on the first of May 1945, 10 days before the end of the war.

His incredible antifascist Odyssey as member of the Resistance, deportee, partisan and even soldier of the American Army invading Nazi Germany would soon come to an end. And a new life was waiting for him…