Who were the real monuments men of the Second World War?

In 2014, Matt Damon and George Clooney played Allied officers charged with saving historic artefacts in the Second World War. Nigel Pollard explores the challenges faced by their real-life counterparts...

The Ghent Altarpiece. (Image by Getty Images)

On 10 March 1945, as Allied armies advanced into Germany, a middle-aged British major was struggling to supervise the transportation of treasures and relics from the Christus-König (or Christ the King) church in Kleve. Situated in the north-west of the country, the district – perhaps best known in Britain as Cleves, the home of Henry VIII’s fourth wife – had been hit hard by the war. Some 90 per cent of its buildings had been damaged by bombing, including the church, and even now the city lay within range of artillery fire as fighting raged on nearby.


The major was Ronald Balfour, a historian and fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. With the situation at the church now critical, Balfour had spent several days collecting items from the church for safekeeping. Using nothing but a handcart, the artefacts – including fragments of 16th-century painted altarpieces – were then taken to the district’s railway station in order to be temporarily evacuated by train. As he and his German civilian helpers approached the station, however, a shell burst nearby. Balfour was killed, hit in the spine by shrapnel.

The Monuments Men. (Photo by filmz.ru)

It may seem unlikely to find an academic on the front line, but Balfour was also one of the ‘monuments men’, an officer of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) Section. The organisation had initially been set up in 1943 to deal with the situation in the Italian colonial territory of Cyrenaica in Libya. Occupied in 1941 by forces of the British empire, the territory was recaptured by Italian and German troops before returning to British control in 1942. The Italians claimed that the remains of the great ancient cities of the region – Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Cyrene – had been vandalised by occupying Allied troops, and published a propaganda leaflet featuring largely falsified or misleading photographs of the damage.

In response, the British appointed Sir Leonard Woolley, the renowned excavator of Ur in Iraq, to investigate the claims and take measures to prevent future damage. Among the British personnel in reoccupied Cyrenaica were two Royal Artillery officers with prewar archaeological experience, who took responsibility for protecting the antiquities in the region: Lieutenant-Colonel Mortimer Wheeler, already known in archaeological circles for his pioneering excavations of Iron Age and Roman sites in Britain, and Major John Ward-Perkins, who had worked with Wheeler before the war.

The work of these officers formed the template, and laid the foundation, for the MFAA’s early years. Despite including leading figures from US museums, all on active duty – including art conservation specialist George L Stout and Metropolitan Museum of Art curator James Rorimer – the organisation didn’t prove particularly effective initially. This was perhaps understandable, given the pressures of war and the lack of influence and resources afforded to monuments officers. However, by July 1943, the nucleus of an Anglo-American monuments protection organisation had already started to form.

Art attack

An early example of the kind of challenge that these fledgling ‘monuments men’ would face came in the Allied bombardment of the Italian town of Pompeii in August and September 1943. Declassified wartime intelligence reports on the raids make it clear that the target had been the road and rail system around Pompei, rather than the modern town or the nearby remains of the Roman settlement of Pompeii. However, the bombing was hardly precise by modern standards and much of the ordnance hit the modern town, wounding and killing civilians and destroying buildings. More than 160 bombs hit ancient Pompeii, meanwhile, causing substantial damage.

A crowd gathers to watch the witnesses arrive for the trial of John George Haigh, the 'acid bath murderer', in Lewes, East Sussex, July 1949. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Contemporary records kept by the site’s technical staff document 91 separate instances of damage, while documents drawn up after the war single out as particularly significant the destruction of the on-site museum – the Antiquarium – along with part of its collections. They also detail damage to homes including the House of Epidius Rufus, which took a direct hit to the atrium that demolished its contents and facade, and the second-century BC residence known as the House of the Faun, described in a 1944 issue of the archaeological journal Antiquity as “the most unfortunate single loss” at Pompeii.

Although it is possible that liaison between monuments officers and Allied air forces would have prevented some of the damage done to Pompeii, the urgency of the situation meant that some damage was probably inevitable. Mid-September had been a critical time for the survival of the Salerno beachhead: a German counter-attack had almost overrun the shallow Allied foothold on the coast of mainland Italy and defeat would have been a disaster. Such was the urgency of the situation that a desperate all-out air effort was launched to stop the transportation system carrying more German troops and their supplies to the beachhead. The inherent inaccuracy of aerial bombardment, and the strategy of total war, was to remain a challenge throughout the conflict: historic buildings and their precious contents were wrecked by Allied bombing in Italy, France, Germany and the Low Countries. Indeed, bombers caused an estimated 95 per cent of all of the damage that the Allies inflicted on monuments.

After the bombing of Pompeii, the war moved on. Allied forces broke out of the Salerno beachhead and, just two weeks later, on 1 October 1943, entered Naples. The assigned monuments officer, the American Major Paul Gardner, was sidetracked to other duties and didn’t reach the city for another 18 days. It was to prove a costly delay. The University of Naples library was burned by retreating German forces. Meanwhile Allied troops ransacked the university’s scientific collections and occupied the National Museum, with its famous collections from Pompeii, as a store for flammable medical supplies. The historic Royal Palace of Naples was taken over as a club for the Navy, Army and Air Forces Institutes (NAAFI) and necessary repairs to bomb damage only served to adversely affect more of the original fabric of the building. Even when Gardner did arrive, his limited authority, lack of resources and the distractions of other duties meant that there was little that he could do to protect cultural property.

The situation in Naples was eventually brought under control, with an inquiry being held into the organisation’s failures. This led to significant restructuring throughout the spring of 1944, with monuments officers subsequently attached more closely to army headquarters and advance units. The US monuments officer Lieutenant Perry Cott, for example, entered Rome and began work protecting historic sites and assessing damage on the very day on which the city was liberated: 5 June 1944.


The improvements also extended to the way in which vital information was made available. Printed handbooks listing monuments by region were produced and distributed widely among army headquarters, sometimes down to battalion level, while liaison with the air forces was also improved. Guidelines were set out on how to guard museums and historic buildings from looters, as well as the best ways of protecting them from damage by occupying troops.

Even future US president Dwight Eisenhower, then supreme commander in the Mediterranean theatre, weighed in on 29 December 1943 with a general order in which he described Italy as “a country rich in monuments”, noting the Allies were “bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows”  and emphasising that it was a responsibility of Allied commanders to consider the advice of monuments officers when planning and conducting operations. This led MFAA members to have an increasing degree of power, from directly advising army leaders and safeguarding monuments in occupied areas to supervising ‘first-aid’ restoration of damaged structures – and even, as Balfour’s death shows, working in the front line.

Although the MFAA grew in personnel and influence, it never numbered more than a few dozen specialised officers spread throughout Europe. The British contingent tended to consist of men already serving in the armed forces – and, therefore, both accustomed to military organisation and discipline, and capable of commanding respect – but who were typically too old to lead in the field. Among them was Major PK Baillie Reynolds, who had established a reputation as both a classical archaeologist and an inspector of ancient monuments in Britain. His colleagues included John Ward-Perkins who would go on to direct the British School at Rome and whose wartime exploits were mentioned in despatches.

German women carrying children believed to be part of the Lebensborn programme, which aimed to raise the birth rate of blonde-haired, blue-eyed ‘Aryan’ children through interbreeding. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Hitler’s secret archive

As the Allies began to drive the German armies from the occupied territories of western Europe, the ‘monuments men’ increasingly turned their attention to tracking down works of art that had been looted from countries across Europe and taken to the Reich. Some of these were incredibly well hidden, including the Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a fabulously vivid piece of early 15th-century painting executed on 12 wooden panels by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, and the Madonna of Bruges, a marble Madonna and Child made by Michelangelo that German forces looted from the Church of Our Lady in the Belgian city. Both works were discovered by Allied troops in a great German repository of stolen art in a salt mine at Altaussee in Austria.

This repository was established as a place for the collection and storage of artworks for a museum planned for nearby Linz, Hitler’s home town. As the Reich collapsed, however, more and more works of art found their way there, including treasures from the National Archaeological Museum and the Capodimonte Gallery in Naples. Among them were famous Roman bronze statues excavated at Herculaneum, Raphael’s 1516 Madonna of Divine Love and Titian’s painting of Danaë with Eros, completed in 1546.

In April 1945, August Eigruber, the region’s Nazi party leader, began preparing bombs to demolish the repository. Just a month later, on 8 May 1945, US 3rd Army troops liberated Altaussee. Its attached monuments officer, US army captain Robert K Posey – an architect in civilian life – and his assistant, wealthy philanthropist Private First Class Lincoln E Kirstein, rushed some 200 miles through surrendering German troops to investigate.

When they got there, they discovered that the repository had been saved from destruction. Locals – probably the mine director and his foreman – had undertaken a dangerous and elaborate plan to remove Eigruber’s bombs and to seal the mine for safety through the controlled demolition of key tunnels. As a result, although Posey and Kirstein found the entrances obstructed, the art remained safe inside. The mine’s contents – including 6,577 paintings – were carefully extracted and prepared for subsequent repatriation.

When the war in Europe ended, many of the monuments officers returned to their peacetime occupations. Before they did so, however, they produced a series of detailed reports on their experiences, preserving invaluable knowledge about the protection of cultural property in wartime. Sadly this wealth of experience was soon forgotten. The UK, for instance – largely due to historical accident and lack of parliamentary time – remains one of the few major powers not to have ratified the 1954 Hague Convention requiring the protection of cultural property in wartime. With the release of The Monuments Men, we have a unique opportunity to relearn the lessons of its real-life counterparts.

Nigel Pollard is associate professor of ancient history at Swansea University and a board member of the UK National Committee of the Blue Shield, which advocates the protection of cultural sites in conflict zones. For more details, see ancbs.org


This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine