The Ruhr is Germany's – nay, Europe's – industrial heartland, at least as far as heavy industry goes. It is vast and dense and scarred. Coal and steel are its bread and butter. The industrialisation started relatively late in comparison to other European regions. But, by the mid-to-late-19th century, the Ruhr had grown enormously to become the largest industrial area on the continent, home to over three million workers. Today, 12 million people live within its cities, making it by far the most densely populated region in Germany.
Because the Ruhr was central to the German economy for much of the 20th century, it was the principal target of the Allies during the Second World War. First, it fell victim to Allied air bombings. The railway yards, oil refineries, iron works and factories of the Ruhr were all targeted. Anything that could damage the German war effort and lessen the country’s industrial might was sought out and identified as a legitimate target. Take out the industry, and you take out the Third Reich’s ability to continue militarising – that was the philosophy. For this reason, the region remained the foremost target of allied bombings in Germany over the course of the war.
The Ruhr was also the main target for all planned and executed non-Soviet Allied land invasions of Germany. Operation Market Garden, the failed attempt by the British, Canadian, American and Polish troops to land in Arnhem and take control of the Rhine there, had as its final aim encirclement of the Ruhr. The Battle of the Bulge in the Belgian Ardennes was fought by the American army with the ultimate strategic goal of capturing the Ruhr.
Capture the Ruhr and Germany would be forced to surrender. With that in mind, the Normandy Landings were launched. Once in France, the Allies pressed on eastwards, towards Germany, towards the Ruhr. Upon making it there – and with the Russians also in Berlin – Germany did surrender. It was May of 1945, and the Ruhr and surrounding area found itself occupied by tens of thousands of Allied troops.
Quickly, Germany was divided into four different occupation zones, with the Ruhr falling within the British zone of occupation, and part of the newly created state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Disagreements between the western powers and the Soviets over the future governance of Germany soon came to the fore, and it looked as if the thousands of troops based around the Ruhr would be forced to remain there on a permanent basis.
And so it came to pass. The Cold War began. For the town of Werl – lying 35 kilometres east of Dortmund, the easternmost extremity of the Ruhr – that meant accepting 18,000 Canadian soldiers as new, permanent residents. As a small town in the rural landscape of the Sauerland, with a population of just 30,000, that was not an insignificant change.
The married Canadian soldiers and their families moved into settlements in the centre of Werl. While, for the unmarried soldiers, two large barracks complexes were built in a nearby forest. The two interconnected barracks went by the names Fort Victoria and Fort Louis. Collectively – and colloquially – they came to be referred to as Victoria Barracks. The infrastructure was vast: two churches, a theatre, a bowling alley, garages, hangars, and accommodation for over 16,000 troops. The site was huge, but mostly hidden from view. Concealed by the forest, the steeple of the larger church poking through the canopy was the only visual reminder of the large Canadian military presence on the edge of the Ruhr. Yet the Canadians let their presence be felt by other means.
Radio CAE, short for Radio Canadian Army Europe, was broadcast from Fort Victoria. Its purpose was to provide local radio to the Canadians troops based in Germany, but it inadvertently became popular among millions of local Germans too. For many, Radio CAE was their first introduction to American Rock and Roll, country and beat music. Once introduced, they were hooked. For 25 years, Radio CAE kept the local Germans up-to-date with the latest music from the American continent.
But on Sunday the 18th of October, 1970, Barclay McMillan, the Radio CAE presenter made his – and the station’s – last announcement. He did so in English, French and then German. Radio CAE was closing. The Canadian troops were returning home. Thank you and goodbye. It was midnight and the Canadian national anthem was broadcast out across the German Ruhr. Then the signal cut out and there was silence.
The barracks did not close though. They were passed from the Canadians to the British, and soldiers of the British Army of the Rhine moved in. They remained at Victoria Barracks for 24 years, before leaving in 1994, following the end of the Cold War. Since then, the abandoned barracks have been at the mercy of the forest. Roots and branches have torn through buildings. Damp has eaten away at the walls. What nature has started, the bulldozers will likely finish. The long-standing plans to demolish the barracks will, most likely, soon be realised. The final reminder of the onetime Canadian military presence in Germany will be swept away forever.