Following our visit to the district archive, lunch at the Restaurant Zagreb in the Bitburg Fußgängerzone (pedestrian zone), and a bit of sightseeing we met up at our bus. On the way back to Luxembourg we stopped in Irrel to see the Katzenkopf bunker (Panzerwerk Katzenkopf) which houses the Westwallmuseum.
The Katzenkopf bunker is the second largest of its kind and the northernmost along the former Siegfried Line which can still be visited.
Germany began planning the construction of the Westwall, better known as the Siegfried Line by the Allies, along its western border in 1936. The line stretched from Kleve on the border to the Netherlands to Weil am Rhein on the border to Switzerland. More than 22,000 forts, bunkers, and pillboxes were planned along the 630 km (390 miles) line. From 1937 to 1939 two bunkers were built in Irrel: the Katzenkopf and the Nimsberg. Constructed on hills opposite each other with Irrel lying in the valley below, they guarded the main road from Cologne to the city of Luxembourg.
Following World War II, during the French occupation, the above-ground section of the bunker was blown up and the remains were bulldozed into a heap. In 1976 the volunteer fire department of Irrel began excavation of the site and restoration and preservation of the bunker. To date, the members of the fire department have worked 75,000 hours voluntarily on the site. Work is still being done inside the bunker during the winter months when the museum is closed to visitors.
Opened to visitors in 1979 the fortification is a B-Werke, the only accessible in Germany, with exterior walls of 2-meter thick reinforced concrete (B neu). Originally it had been planned with a B construction thickness of 1.5 meters. Three levels are accessible to visitors on Sundays and public holidays from April until the beginning of October.
Our guided tour began on the outside where our guide Mr. Geisen explained the strategic location of the Katzenkopf and the Nimsberg bunkers. On the upright concrete slab which remains of the former roof is a memorial for the 4,000 dead and missing soldiers of the 39th Fusilier-Regiment of Dusseldorf.
Our guide stressed that the bunker and museum are not meant to glorify the Nazi cause. The motto of the site is:
Once an instrument of war, today a reminder for peace.
The artillery and infantry watch-turrets which can be seen on top of the bunker were used for the all-round observation. The bunker itself and its immediate area could be defended by several firing positions.
After showing us the watch-turrets on the outside our guide took us inside the bunker. Our tour had been arranged by appointment, the ticket office at the entrance was not manned, and our guide was the only responsible person at the location. Therefore as a precaution, he locked us in. This was more of a safety measure for persons using the hiking paths which pass by the bunker. An unlocked door might invite unwanted guests who would inadvertently be locked in at the end of our tour. Following this explanation, Mr. Geisen began telling us about the workings of the complex which housed a crew of 84 men on 4 floors.
The two upper floors were originally divided into 45 rooms of various sizes. They included troop quarters, lavatories, ammunition and gunnery rooms, canteen, kitchen, cold storage chamber, telephone control and radio station, guard rooms, and a first-aid station which was outfitted to perform any type of operation needed.
Electricity was produced by two diesel-engine generators for heating and lighting. Electric motors were also used for the ventilation system.
On the fourth floor, the lowest level, are two large galleries totaling 138 meters in length. Photographs and weapons of the period line the walls of these tunnels. One leads a room with a water pump installed over a 180-meter deep well and the other to the remote gun-turret.
At the end of the tunnel which leads to the room with the water pump, one can see where work had been interrupted. Due to the early outbreak of World War II, the construction of a tunnel between the two bunkers in Irrel as well as an elevator shaft between the tunnel and a railroad tunnel below was not finished. The elevator shaft would have been used to transport provisions into the bunkers and soldiers in and out of them without being seen.
The atmosphere in the bunker was a cool 10° C (50° F) and very damp. Coming back up the four flights of stairs from the lowest level to the entrance, we were relieved to be back on the outside. We’d been in the bunker less than two hours. We’d felt the dampness and were able to imagine the cramped quarters as our group of 18 gathered in a room outfitted for 18 men. With the bed frames down there was standing room only. We saw photos of the streets of Irrel where nearly every house had been seriously damaged or destroyed. We can only hope to never have to live under similar conditions. The members of the Freiwillige Feuerwehr Irrel have succeeded in turning an instrument of war into a reminder for peace.