The story behind the true events that inspired “Kelly’s Heroes”
“Kelly’s Heroes” is a war film like no other. Set in World War II Europe, the 1970 film shows a group of bad guys who learn of a hiding place with stolen Nazi gold behind enemy lines and set up a mission to get it themselves.
Not only was the gold well behind enemy lines, the Germans were making a major advance against the Allies while supply problems blocked the advance into Europe. The gold was also in a locked bank guarded by a team of Tiger tanks. It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Kelly’s makeshift platoon ends up getting the gold – but it might come as a surprise to learn that the heist is based on reality.
Screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin first found out about the real gold heist in an entry entitled “The Greatest Robbery on Record” in the Guinness World Records book. In the real world, the gold wasn’t just a pile of Nazi loot; it was the German National Gold Reserve.
On February 3, 1945, a massive Allied air raid over Berlin destroyed many important government institutions in the city. Among them was the Reichsbank, where Nazi Germany stored its gold reserves. About 950 B-29 Superfortresses flattened the German capital and exposed the bank’s vault.
Its valuable contents remained intact, but would not survive another raid like the one on February 3rd. The vault contained the German gold reserves as well as the Union plundered from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Albania, Belgium, Italy, Holland and the Soviet Union. In total, there was more than $ 21 billion (in 2021 dollars) in the Deutsche Reichsbank.
Not everything was in Berlin that day, but it was enough that the German government was forced to move the gold to safekeeping in a potash mine in Merkers, Germany. The mine also contained Germany’s paper money reserves, stolen works of art, stolen gold and silver from death camp victims and the looted currencies of other nations.
Then General George Patton’s Third Army launched a surprise attack that broke the Nazi defenses. Before his troops captured Merkers and the money hidden in the mines, the Germans relocated some of the contents, but much of it was captured by the Americans and moved to Frankfurt.
That wasn’t all of Germany’s gold bars, however. The remnants of the Reichsbank reserves were distributed in branches all over Germany. The German south became the warehouse of the remaining Nazi gold, hidden in mines, houses and mountains, to name just a few places. An estimated $ 151 million was sent to Bavaria, particularly to the Alpine health resort of Mittenwald, where he was eventually hidden in a remote mountain hut.
Americans knew the currency and gold were in the area and looked for it. Two German officers took on the task of gradually relocating the reserves secretly and burying them in an area next to a friendly alpine hut. With the help of internees and two German informants, the Americans soon discovered the cache. The gold was buried under a fake tree stump in the mountains near Walchensee and discovered by US Armored Engineers – nine tons of it, 728 bars worth $ 15,000 each. They took the gold to a deposit in the Reichsbank building in Frankfurt.
But there were still 25 boxes with 100 gold bars missing. They were not among the 728 excavated in the mountains. Most of the answers regarding the missing gold came from Sgt. Albert Singleton, provost marshal of the 10th Armored Division in the Mittenwald area after the war.
Singleton’s commanding officer, a Captain Craig, told him that he had received orders that the provost marshal and some former German officers should take a couple of guards and a half-lane into the mountains to find a cargo of gold. Two American intelligence officers from the Office of Strategic Services met them on the road to the pass with two 2.5-ton trucks.
The OSS agents led the group to a stream and a steep incline in the mountains that flattened at a certain point. There they found a trap door that led to a 12 square meter bunker with gold bars. They removed the gold and slid it down the mountain instead of carrying it (to avoid injury). They packed the gold in bags and loaded the bags onto the trucks provided by the OSS.
The next day Singleton received a telegram from division headquarters that the gold had arrived in Munich. It was just another day in the Provost Marshal’s life. He remembers sending his wife a letter describing the gold, along with a photo he took in the bunker. But Singleton vowed that his account and the account of the 728 bars captured are different caches.
In fact, all descriptions of the two gold locations differ, from the slope to the presence of a creek and lack of a path at the Singleton location. Singleton doesn’t even recognize anyone in the photos at the first cache.
And Singleton’s photo not only confirms his memory, it also has no record of the order Capt. Craig to collect the gold. The only physical evidence is the telegram he received after the fact, but the gold that was loaded onto the two OSS trucks was never registered in Munich.
About 25 boxes of gold bars, 1.25 tons, vanished into thin air. It was never recovered and there is no evidence of where it might have gone.
The myth of the missing Nazi gold was actually confused with the original 728 bars that landed in Frankfurt, but the 100 boxes faded from memory as quickly as they were discovered in the mountains. It was not until 1957 that every missing gold came into the public consciousness when it appeared in the book “Guinness World Records” under the heading “Robbery: Biggest Unsolved”. It read:
“The largest robbery on record was the German National Gold Treasure in Bavaria by a combine of US military personnel and German civilians in June 1945. A total of 730 gold bars worth £ 3,528,000 along with six bags of banknotes and 25 boxes of platinum bars and precious stones Disappeared on the transport, but none of those responsible was brought to justice. “
It was this entry that inspired British film and television writer Troy Kennedy Martin to write the screenplay for Kelly’s Heroes.
To learn more about the details of the world’s largest unsolved gold heist, read “Nazi Gold: The Sensational Story of the World’s Greatest Robbery – and the Greatest Criminal Cover-Up” by Ian Sayer and Douglas Botting.
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