This article originally appeared in the May 1999 issue ofThe Bulge Bugle, a publication of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. It is reproduced here with permission.
It was a hot and steamy evening in Boston, Massachusetts when I met her flight from Luxembourg at Logan Airport. The hour and a half ride to the cool shores of Cape Cod at Hyannis by car was a delightful respite as we arrived to meet and join for another reception with Tilly ‘s Boyfriends at the annual reunion of the Bulge Veterans in September of 1996. I was delighted with the thought that for a little while I was the best and only Boyfriend of Tilly Kimmes-Hansen.
John E. McAuliffe
On September 10, 1944, the tanks of the 5th Armored Division crossed into Luxembourg from the region of Sedan, France and liberated the town of Petange. The two Combat Commands, CCA and CCB were destined for Luxembourg City and Mersch respectively. The people of Petange, aware that the Americans were approaching, were not surprised to see German soldiers herding cattle, horses, and pigs along the Rue d’Althus; the young Americans themselves were not aware that they were restoring liberty to a nation that had suffered greatly under a reign of terror for four long years. It was on May 10. 1940, that the Nazis invaded neutral Luxembourg, and tried to adjust the borders of the Grand Duchy and introduced the notorious nationality survey, followed by the conscription into the German army of all Luxembourg men born in the years 1920-1924. Protest demonstrations and widespread strikes were called throughout the whole country with the Nazis on the verge of despair. Imprisonment, deportation, and concentration camps were in order for Luxembourghers, who walked off their jobs in devotion to the homeland. Others were executed following barbarity and torture.
In the town of Steinsel, just north of Luxembourg City, a 27 year old teacher. Tilly Hansen, was lucky to be home from her teaching job in a German school in a relativity quiet area. She had been one of the teachers deported. Her future husband-to-be was also deported and conscripted into the German army against his wishes. Among the priests and seminarians taken to Germany was Tilly’s younger brother Joseph, who was imprisoned at Trier. But on that glorious day of September 10, she joined with thousands as “unbridled joy and frenetic jubilation” broke out among a people who had been oppressed for years. They hugged, shouted, sang, laughed, and wept with joyful excitement.
It was Sunday, and as Tilly and the congregation left church, they could hear the bells on the Luxembourg City Cathedral in the distance announcing that the Americans had come. The townspeople ran home and brought baskets of fruit, flowers, cakes, bisquits, and other offerings to greet the Americans entering the town of Steinsel. With the church bells ringing and the people cheering and throwing flowers, Tilly was lifted up on the lead tank to read her prepared speech in English to the liberators. They hugged the tankmen who quickly drove on across the river, as more tanks were coming behind them.
Born on November 3, 1916, in a farmhouse in Steinsel, Tilly was the eighth of eleven children. She never met her first three siblings, since they died during World War I, as medicines and doctors were scarce in those days. But all the children did well in school. Two married farmers in nearby towns; one sister went off to Paris to become a nursery-maid to a wealthy family. Tilly attended the strict Catholic Sister’s boarding school in Luxembourg City, where home visits were allowed on the church feast days. But the discipline paid off as she mastered three languages: French, German, and English, graduating at the age of 15. Upon graduation from college, she took special courses at night school and received her certificate for proficiency in the English language.
At the invitation of her uncle, her father’s brother who had immigrated to America, she had the promise of a teacher’s job. But that was quickly thwarted when the Nazis came. During her teaching days in Germany, she had to wear a pin, “Heim ins Reich.” No French was spoken and no prayers were allowed. In a short time hundreds of Luxembourg citizens sat in prison for “crimes against Nazis.” Anticipating the arrival of the Nazis in 1940, both Prince Jean and Prince Felix fled the country and remained in England during the occupation. On liberation day, Prince Jean, who later became the Grand Duchy, appeared among the jubilant crowd in the uniform of a lieutenant in the Irish Guards. Life in Luxembourg returned to normal. A provisional police force was formed. American officers worked together with the administration of the capital city. Tilly Hansen was home for good and soon her two brothers arrived-one in a US Army jeep-each with a long story to tell. Like so many of their countrymen, their tales of hardship and suffering were meshed with stories of heroism. Tilly was soon appointed to teach in Rumelange, a town on the French border in the south.
One morning, Tilly was awakened by a neighbor in the same house, telling her the Germans were back. It was December 17, the day after the big German breakthrough into the Ardennes area, which extended from Monchau to Echternach. She hurried home to Steinsel. When she learned that the attack was confined to Luxembourg north of Ettlebruk, she returned to Rumelange. She was in contact with American officers at the restaurant where she ate, and was asked by the officers of the advanced special service to accompany them to Bad Tonistein, Germany, where they set up a German government.
As an interpreter, she and other Luxembourgers staffed the office in the castle where General von Rundstedt once had had his headquarters. It was while working here with the new provisional German government that she met and visited with Konrad Adenauer, who later became the first German prime minister, or president, of West Germany. As Tilly relates, “he loved Luxembourg and tried to excuse the Nazi-idiots.” On V-E Day, May 8, she joined many GIs at a huge casino at Bad Neuenahr, where they were introduced to General Patton. “He hugged all us Luxembourgers and we thanked him for our liberation.”
Shortly after, Tilly received word from home that there were nine teacher’s positions available in Luxembourg. She left the CIC group and in September 1946, began teaching in Goetzange. It was here at a carnival ball she met a “good-looking” gendarm, Roger Kimmes, whom she would marry in 1950.
Roger had been forced into the German army in 1940, and was wounded on the Russian front. He had finally found his way back to Luxembourg at the end of the war by train, on foot, and by wearing his uniform, evading the retreating Germans. As a gendarm, or state policeman, he was obliged to change his jurisdiction after 10 years.
After 14 years, Tilly and Roger moved to the Northern Ardennes area of Heiderscheld, where Tilly taught American children in the government school. The children were the dependents of employees of Goodyear and DuPont de Nemours companies located in Luxembourg. She also began teaching English courses at a nun’s boarding school for girls in Ettlebruck. During the next 14 years of teaching, she and her husband Roger moved to Mersch and eventually built a new house in her native town of Steinsel.
She loved teaching English. It was during these years that she met a young gendarm who was a friend of Camille Kohn, who were all influential in founding CEBA, the Center for the Study of the Battle of the Ardennes. Thus began a new chapter in the life of Tilly Kimmes-Hansen. It would lead to her fulfillment years after she had retired from the teaching profession. As her husband Roger told her before he died from cancer in 1988, “You must stay in CEBA otherwise you will always feel dull.” He knew of her love for the veterans and how she liked to form receptions for their return to Luxembourg where they fought during the war.
With her job as secretary for CEBA she got to know all the mayors of the Ardennes. It wasn’t long before they had erected 24 memorials to the veterans, divisions, and units that had fought in Luxembourg, as well as the CEBA museum at Clervaux Castle, one of the best and most complete museums in Europe.
Because of her fluency in speaking and writing English, Tilly was approached to write to the Pentagon in Washington, DC to get the names of the units involved in the great battle. This led to her meeting with the military historian, Charles B. MacDonald, author of A Time for Trumpets, and Hal Ryder, a former officer who now owned the Galaxy Tour Agency in Pennsylvania.
Now began the influx of the GIs making what the Belgians and Luxembourgers affectionately referred to as “the comeback” visits. They came alone or with their wives, in groups, with the division associations, or the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. Whether alone or in groups, everyone was treated the same. They were greeted by President Camille Kohn, by Tilly, or with Jean Milmeister, the researcher-historian of CEBA. They were received in the towns where they fought with honor and tribute, and at the Clervaux statue and castle where they were presented with the medal of the Liberation of Luxembourg, and a certificate of appreciation by Jean Milmeister.
Getting to know the many GIs, Tilly would now be invited to the US to attend the many division association reunions. She first came to the US in 1968, when she and Roger visited his brother’s family in Indiana, and all 32 of his cousins in the midwest. It was a wonderful reunion after visiting Washington, DC, Niagara Falls, Greenfield Village, and Ford Village in Detroit, Michigan. In all, Tilly made 17 trips to the US, mostly combined with CEBA as the guest of the division associations.
For example, seven times she was the guest of the 80th Division which liberated 30 villages in Luxembourg, five times with the 6th Armored Division in Louisville, her favorite, which liberated many villages in cooperation with other units; the 5th, 90th, 35th, 28th Divisions, the 707th TK BN, and also the 26th Division which liberated 30 towns and villages, including Wiltz and Clervaux on January 25, 1945.
In all, there were 19 divisions which served in Luxembourg between September 1944, and February 1945, including the 4th, 87th, 67th, 8th, 83rd, 94th Divisions, and the 4th, 5th, 9th, 10th, 11th Armored Divisions, and the 17th Airborne Division, as well as those mentioned above. If Tilly did not visit these divisions in the US, she was there with the members of CEBA to greet them at the Clervaux Castle.
The men of the 80th Division Association have honored Tilly with a portrait painting outlined with the fleur de lis, and “Surrounded by Her Boyfriends,” the insignia of the 19 divisions and the 1st and 3rd Army patches which served in Luxembourg. Over 500 photos were printed. The original painting, 20 inches in length and under glass, hangs in her personal home museum.
In Orlando, she was presented with the Key to the City. Many framed certificates and pictures grace her walls, including one of the Four Chaplains, one with Major General Robert W Grow, Commander of the 6th Armored Division, a citation from Ambassador Constantinou, medals from generals, and an Eisenhower jacket, which was a gift from the 26th Yankee Division. Another honor was from the Elmwood, Pennsylvania Rotary Club.
Tilly Kimmes-Hansen was well known in her town of Steinsel from before the liberation and that Sunday she climbed atop the first tank to read her welcome speech of thanks to the American soldiers. Her smiling face and cheerful countenance at future receptions for the returning GIs soon became as prominent as the Clervaux GI, which is the most photographed statue in Luxembourg. Her warm, hearty laugh could be heard across the ocean to the American shores and beyond. Little Luxembourg, a country no larger than the state of Rhode Island, not only had produced a gracious hostess and a friend of the GI soldier, but one with a heart as big as the state of Texas. The little farm girl who played with her older sister Agnes, in the lovely green valley and meadows in peacetime before the arrival of the Nazis, had lived through five years of occupation and terror. In her middle adult years she had undergone several operations which would deny her the possibility of raising a family. Now, in her twilight years she still lives in her native Steinsel, but with memories of the new family of GIs she has adopted. She is “Surrounded by Her Boyfriends,” the Liberators of Luxembourg.
Little Luxembourg, a country no larger than the state of Rhode island produced a gracious hostess and a friend of the GI soldier with a heart as big as the state of Texas.
We’re sad to report that Tilly Kimmes-Hansen passed away on April 23, 2005.