December 6, 2015

Memories of Gartrop Castle and Solving the Mystery of an Old Photograph

The Baron Von Gartrop Castle near Huenxe, Germany

The following information was provided by Howard Wynn, son of O. G. Wynn, Jr., in the hopes of capturing and sharing his father's memories of Gartrop Castle during World War II and the search which began in 2006 to locate the castle and uncover the mystery of an old photograph.

Information on O. G. Wynn, Jr. and how he came to be at Gartrop Castle during World War II can be found in an earlier post, Military Monday - O. G. Wynn, Jr.

Sergeant Major O. G. Wynn, Jr.
Wesel had been bombed out and the German soldiers had left the town to position themselves in the country side.  Some of them were hiding in a farmhouse by a railroad track near the edge of the field.

Sergeant Major Wynn saw them firing at him and his fellow soldiers and directed small arms fire at the doors and windows of the house.  That fire cowered the Germans while the Americans ran down a narrow trail and found cover behind the railroad embankment.

The German army retreated and the American command assigned Sergeant Major Wynn the occupation of Gartrop Castle, near the town of Huenxe, which was about the size of Natchez and only a few miles from Wesel.

Life settled down as much as it would immediately after combat, and Colonel T. S. Gunby, originally from Monroe and now part of the occupation, took a few pictures one afternoon with his camera.  Colonel Gunby took many pictures during the war, most of them done in a hurry, and none of them developed until he came back to the United States because there were few operating film laboratories in Europe while the war was going on.

Both soldiers became friends during the war.  They came home and restarted their lives in different parts of the country.  Sometime during the late '40s or early '50s, Gunby got around to developing all of his old rolls of film.  He sent Wynn some pictures of the castle that they had occupied.  Some pictures showed the castle itself, some showed details of the castle.  One picture showed a little girl with some ponies.  Wynn put the pictures in a safe place and life went on.

Eventually World War II passed into history and years put the memories of the pictures into perspective. Finally, in the year 2006, the family started asking questions.  Who lived in the castle?  Who was the little girl?  What were the people in that area of Germany like?

Wynn's son knew enough German to find out.  Working together, he and his son began searching for the castle and the little girl who had walked the ponies around it so long ago.  What would they find?

After some looking at declassified military documents from the time, they located the railroad track.  This map from the World War II era showed a bend in the track and where glider number 3 landed.  They used Google internet satellite maps to find the field where the glider landed.  Wynn studied the satellite photo. He looked at the map.  The field was still an open field.  He saw the farmhouse, still there after over sixty years, turned in the same position that it was in relation to the railroad track.  The trail still led to the track through the woods.  The railroad bed still showed the same turn in the track.  He had found the place where his glider had landed.

The next part of the job was finding the castle.  He had remembered the castle's name--Gartrop Castle. Was it still there?  Was the little girl with the ponies still living there as an older person?

Wynn and his son went back to the internet.  They were on the local level now, and all of their work had to be done in German.  Slowly they collected a series of articles in German that related a rather sad outcome for Castle Gartrop, as its name would be phrased in Germany.  Life around the castle had changed and the agricultural economy that had supported it and its owners no longer existed.

The castle was abandoned at the time they found it, and the residents of Huenxe feared that the landmark would deteriorate to a point past restoration.  During that time someone had bought the castle, hoping to restore it.  There was now a website for the castle, but they could not get in touch with a real person. Finally, they searched the Town of Huenxe's website.  In an obscure corner of a back page the site listed a small office, the Bureau of Landmark Preservation.  They composed a German language email and sent it off.

Transcription/Translation of email sent to the Bureau of Landmark Preservation:
Dear Dr. Blumrath:
I was excited to see the pictures of Gartrop Castle that my son uploaded from the internet. They reminded me of my wartime involvement with the castle in 1945 from about May 10 until June 15.
At that time I was serving in Division Artillery Headquarters of the 17th Airborne Division. Around May 10 our headquarters occupied the castle for location of our command post.  We had a brigadier general, a colonel and eight or ten other officers, and six or eight enlisted men. I served as Division Artillery Sergeant Major.
I do not know if any army units preceded us in occupying the castle.  There was a good deal of furniture in the building.  The walls of the main entrance hall contained dozens of deer horns, and there was a mounted boar hanging by one foot near the stairway.  There were paintings of ancestors hanging in appropriate places.  In the big hall stood two small brass muzzle loading cannons, three or four feet long, probably used for celebrations of some sort.
In the hall there were two large picture albums showing many views of the inside and outside of the buildings and grounds.  The inside was well furnished, and the outside was beautifully planted with flowers and shrubs.
On the grounds while we were there were several peacocks, some chickens, ducks and geese. In the stable was an ornate carriage and stalls for four horses.  Pictures on the wall showed four dapple gray horses.  We were told that the army had confiscated the horses.
While we were there we participated in the military government of the area, mostly watching after and helping repatriate about 20,000 Russians in the area.  Most of them, I think, came to Germany to work before the war.   
An old Russian couple and their granddaughter, 12-14 years old, lived in living quarters above the stable.  The old couple at first did not want to go back to Russia on the trains we were sending.  Our chaplain convinced them that it was the best thing to do.  They left, taking the granddaughter with them.  We soon found out that the train they were on was the last one that we would send.  Word had reached the President of the U. S. that the returnees were being sent to Siberia, possibly because the Russian government did not want these people bringing back ideas from foreign countries.
The granddaughter had become sort of a pet among the men.  She seemed to like riding her bicycle near us to hear the whistles and calls this would cause.  We all mourned her possible fate in Russia.
There was a lady who was living nearby who we assumed was the owner of the castle.  We called her the baroness.  She had a daughter (at least we assumed) about 14 or 15 who came on the grounds occasionally to tend to her four small miniature horses, sometimes hitching all four to a small wagon she had.
The water mill on the grounds was still in operation at that time, tended by a man whose quarters were in the mill building.  The small stream operating the mill did not have capacity to operate all day.  A pond had been formed upstream a bit with a gate in the damn.  When the pond was full, the gate was opened and the mill wheel connected to a generator supplied electricity to the castle.  When the mill shut down, a gasoline powered generator supplied electricity.
In the pictures uploaded from the internet there is one of the small chapel building located some distance from the castle grounds.  The picture shows the chapel apparently restored.  We saw it as somewhat dilapidated, with a rather large hole excavated under one side.  We thought the hole to do with an attempt to bury some valuables.
On the front lawn was a tall flagpole made of rough tree trunks.  We raised our flag on it.
I liked to fish, and had some fishing tackle in one of my bags.  The water in the moat looked tempting, so I got out my short rod and tried my luck.  I caught several nice pike while there. From upper story windows you could see an enormous fish, as big as a horse.  We never knew what it was.
While we were at the castle, the officers were quartered in and ate in the castle.  The kitchen was in the basement and they set up dining facilities down there.  The enlisted men were quartered in nearby houses.  Another sergeant and I stayed in the farmhouse right behind the castle.
While we were there I do not recall any of our people doing any damage or taking anything out. Our Colonel was very strict about this.  One of the men in my section spilled a bottle of drawing ink on the marble floor in the big hall.  We could not remove the stain with any material we had.  I wonder if that stain is still there.  It is on the left side entering the room from the main entrance.
I remember seeing on one of the walls, I think it was in the basement, a framed drawing in heavy lines of what seemed to be the first floor plan.  The drawing was, if I remember correctly, dated in the 1400s.  This leads me to think that the beginning of the castle was maybe 200 years earlier than the 1670 on the plaque over the front entrance.
I am glad to hear that the castle has been restored.  I will always remember it as part of my time in Germany.
Pictures sent with email

This was the summer of 2006.  German people take a mandatory month's vacation, and the head of the little office was gone.  Wynn and his son received an email in English a few days later from the teenage son of the civil servant who was covering the office while the chief official vacationed.  The email explained the situation about the vacation and apologized at having to ask a student to write in English.  It was then that the pair of researchers knew that they had found a friend.

Hans-Juergen, the head of the bureau, returned from his time off to find a long email from a former American soldier about the castle with some very old black and white pictures attached to it.  He quickly emailed the Wynns in German.  He thought he knew who the little girl was!

Hans-Juergen sent Wynn a big box of books and pictures about the area to help him catch up on then and now.  And at the bottom of this box was a letter typed on the long paper that European people used for correspondence.

Letter from Hans-Juergen

Transcription/Translation of the letter from Hans-Juergen to O. G. Wynn, Jr.:

An inquiry from the USA have we previously not received and therefore your letter was a surprise, and gave us great joy.

I have sent you some photos and information about Huenxe and Castle Gartrop and hope you and your family enjoy it.

I have inquired at the office of Freiherrn Egbert-Constantin von Nagell, the former owner of the castle as to whether or not he knows who the little girl with the ponies is, so far I have not heard an answer. Should I hear from him, I will let you know.

The family von Nagell sold the castle a few years ago, and the present owner is Herr Dr. Peter Blumrath.

I personally had my 60th birthday a few weeks ago, and I would like to use this occasion to thank you in the name of my family because as a younger man, you and your comrades, with great sacrifice of life, freed our land from the dictator.

It is also my great privilege to thank you and the American people that you sent C.A.R.E. packages with needed food to the German people, and to me along with that.

Hans-Juergen later spoke with Freiherrn Egbert-Constantin von Nagell and the baron told him, he would like very much to see the pictures.  Soon the pictures arrived in his office.  And yes, these pictures were of his younger sister, Mariatta.  Unfortunately, however, she had died of asthma a few months after the picture was taken.

Mariatta von Nagell

Editor's notes:

Special thanks to Howard Wynn for providing the above information and photographs and for allowing me to share this on my blog.  

The following 2014 video will take you on an aerial tour of what was once known as Castle Gartrop.  The castle is now known as Schloss Gartrop.

1 comment:

  1. What a great story! I especially enjoyed the video. It's great that it was restored.