George Clooney’s character in The Monuments Men steals the headlines, but a Belfast soldier got there first.
The wartime experiences of Cregagh man Teddy Dixon, 93, were already quite remarkable before he found himself in an Austrian salt mine – surrounded by thousands of priceless artworks looted from Europe’s major museums and art collectors.
Just 10 days earlier he had fought his way through Bavaria to the gates of Dachau concentration camp and was one of the first outsiders to see the full horror of the Holocaust.
When his unit reached the Salzburg region of Austria on May 9, 1945, they were shocked to encounter Hitler’s deputy, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, on his way to surrender to American forces. Teddy’s story is even more remarkable given that he had only been drafted into the US Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division from his home in Belfast in June 1944.
His parents had moved from Northern Ireland to New York before he was born, but had returned in time for their son to begin primary school.
When the threat from the Luftwaffe began to impact on his home city, the then-bakery worker volunteered as an Air Raid Precautions officer and was dodging bombs during the Belfast Blitz of 1941.
However, following the D-Day landings in June 1944, the US government issued draft notices to citizens living abroad and Teddy’s call-up papers arrived in the post.
Now, seven decades after Goering assembled his illicit art collection, the Hollywood elite have finally acknowledged one of the greatest untold stories of World War Two.
Teddy will be a VIP guest of the Movie House on Belfast’s Dublin Road tonight for the film’s opening night.
“My son Jackie in Washington has seen the film and he said it’s very good – he told me to watch out for it. I was surprised when he told me as I didn’t know about it, but he said it’s definitely based on the facts. He didn’t say how they’ve shown the artworks actually being discovered so I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself,” he said.
Following Goering’s detention, news of the treasure trove – one of the largest art collections assembled in Europe – soon reached the ears of his captors. Sgt Teddy Dixon was one of those dispatched to investigate the claims.
His mission was a race against time as local miners had apparently been ordered to detonate charges under the trains full of stolen art before it could be recovered.
The hoard included paintings by Michelangelo, Vermeer and Van Eyck.
“It turned out there was stuff hidden in two or three different salt mines,” he said.
“When the Military Police took over the Hallein salt mines where I was stationed they brought all the artworks out and put them on trucks.
“There were MPs everywhere making sure we weren’t getting near any of it and it was all taken to Salzburg castle under heavy guard.
“It was unbelievable that all these artworks were in trains down in the salt mines.”
It took around 80 trucks to transport the treasures to the castle. The Monuments Men opens in cinema across Northern Ireland tonight.
The film is based on the work of over 300 art experts from 13 nations who worked to retrieve and preserve stolen artworks before returning them to their rightful owners.
Dachua provided more abiding memories than recovering artworks
Although Teddy Dixon is pleased to have played a role in saving thousands of priceless artworks, the liberation of thousands of starving men, women and children from Dachau remains a more abiding memory.
As his unit advanced through Bavaria they had no idea of the horrors that lay ahead – unaware their next objective town contained the now notorious death camp.
As he explained: “We were getting close to the concentration camp and encountered a fair bit of resistance. We lost a few colleagues the night before and took more casualties on the day but we shot quite a few SS men who were guarding the camp.
“I was one of the first 12 soldiers to enter the gates of Dachau camp on April 29 and I can still see the bodies in my mind’s eye to this day. The dead were lying everywhere and the smell was indescribable. There were bodies all over the place and dozens of railway carriages filled with the corpses of starvation victims.
“We found one man who had been left for dead in a carriage but was still alive and we got him some medical attention. We gave our rations to as many of those who could eat but it was too late for several who died in front of our eyes.”
Sixty years to the day after he first entered Dachau, in 2005 Teddy returned with a BBC film crew to record his memories.
“It was like going into Hell,” he recalled outside the gates of the preserved camp.
In recognition of his efforts to liberate Dachau, Teddy has been thanked in person by the Queen on behalf of the nation.
“The Queen had survivors and liberators of the concentration camps at St James’s Palace three years ago.
“Somebody told her I was an American soldier from Northern Ireland and she wanted to know all about it. We were treated really well,” he said.
Teddy’s adventures didn’t end on VE day, and he remained in Austria hunting down war criminals.
Just a few weeks after the war ended he was granted home leave and found himself in Paris for the first Bastille Day celebrations since liberation from the Germans.
“That was a brilliant party and the place was going mad.”
Although it was a day to remember, Teddy recalls with a wry smile that it wasn’t his first choice venue: “I had wanted to get home for the Twelfth,” he said.