Anne Olivier Bell, the last surviving British member of the Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) unit
It was the most unlikely crack military unit ever put together, with an equally improbable mission.
The Fine Arts and Archives unit (MFAA), known as the Monuments Men, were the most cultured and eclectic Allied force of World War II, led by a Cambridge professor, Geoffrey Webb, with art historians, museum curators, critics and connoisseurs among their number.
Douglas Cooper, a wealthy art collector, was famous for his love of fine wines.
World renowned archaeologist Sir Leonard Wooley was once a close friend of Lawrence of Arabia.
Teddy Croft-Murray had a portly girth that betrayed his fondness for the finer things in life.
Next month their tale is the subject of a new drama, The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett.
But Hollywood, not for the first time, stands accused of playing fast and loose with the facts, diminishing the extent of the British MFAA’s efforts while exaggerating those of the U.S.
Today only one British member of the MFAA remains – a woman. Anne Olivier Bell, 97, was well qualified for the work.
She studied art history at the Courtauld Institute in London, where she had attended lectures by Anthony Blunt and worked in its Conway Library. She was recruited into the MFAA in late 1945, given the rank of major and stationed in Bünde, Westphalia.
‘They were lovely men, and I was very fond of them,’ says Olivier Bell. ‘We had excellent people and without their efforts a lot of European art and culture might have been lost forever.’
By the time Allied forces swept into the Nazi heartland of southern Germany and Austria, it was estimated that Hitler’s forces had squirrelled away more than 3.75 million cultural items – ransacked and looted from museums, galleries and private residences – and scattered them for ‘safekeeping’ across thousands of secret locations, including salt mines deep underground.
The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney and Hugh Bonneville, is released next month. But Hollywood, not for the first time, stands accused of playing fast and loose with the facts
The MFAA’s task was to protect Europe’s art and architectural treasures from destruction during the Allied bombardment and, once the Third Reich had collapsed, help recover the billions of pounds worth of paintings and sculptures that had been stolen and hidden by the Nazis.
It was very much an international concern, with 345 volunteers representing 17 countries. They were given a uniform, an officer rank – and a designated area of Europe to look after.
For the June 1944 invasion, seven British and eight American MFAA accompanied many of the most advanced fighting forces.
Battle-hardened troops dubbed this motley crew of ageing academics the ‘Aged Military Gentlemen on Tour’, as they came under the control of Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories (AMGOT).
Nevertheless, it was dangerous and immensely demanding work for these volunteers, and one of the British contingent, Ronald Balfour, was killed in an artillery explosion.
Balfour had been entrusted with inspecting hundreds of key sites across northern France, Belgium and Germany. His work was considered so important that a street was named in his honour.
A U.S. serviceman rifles through art treasures at a former Luftwaffe barracks
But despite being one of only two fatalities in the MFAA, he does not figure as a character in Clooney’s new film. Only one token Brit appears, played by Downton’s Hugh Bonneville – and he’s not Balfour.
Tensions between the Allies emerged early after D-Day with the Americans determined not to let the British gain access to an incredible treasure trove they had stumbled upon.
At a salt mine near the town of Merkers, they discovered a huge cache of looted art, along with 8,000 gold bars, 2,000 bags of gold coins and 2.76 million in reichsmarks.
General Patton had issued the order that he wanted ‘no damn Limeys’ in the mine. Even Geoffrey Webb was barred entry.
‘I can understand why the film focuses on the American story because the really exciting discoveries were made in the American zone,’ says Olivier Bell.
‘But the British Monuments Men did very good work, too. I do hope that is not forgotten because of this film.’
Pauline Churcher, the daughter of British Monuments Man Major Paul Baillie-Reynolds, says, ‘Well, of course the Americans won the war and recovered all the art.
'They captured Burma as well, according to Hollywood. If you say something often enough they start to believe it.’
'I can understand why the film focuses on the American story because the really exciting discoveries were made in the American zone. But the British Monuments Men did very good work, too,' said Olivier Bell
The situation escalated after the war when the MFAA moved from protection and accidental discovery to the painstaking work of recovering all the lost art, identifying its rightful owner and, where possible, returning it.
This was where Olivier Bell became involved, co-ordinating the work of the officers in the British zone and returning many of the treasures herself.
President Truman’s envoy, however, together with Eisenhower’s deputy General Lucius Clay, made little attempt to conceal their view that recovered art should be viewed as potential compensation for America.
British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin protested, but Clay went ahead and exported 202 of the very best paintings, including 15 Rembrandts, to the U.S. on the grounds of ‘safety’.
Webb and his aging comrades risked being court-martialled when they signed a joint declaration denouncing the decision.
It would be years before the paintings were eventually returned – after a substantial exhibition in the U.S. – but by then the Americans abandoned plans to use European art as compensation.
‘I think the Americans felt they could collect all the things they found,’ says Popham Bell.
‘They wanted to benefit from what they found. But they were discouraged.’
U.S. troops load a truck with paintings and sculptures discovered in a cave
The Monuments Men had their origins in the British campaign in North Africa.
After the decisive battle of El Alamein in 1943, Lt Col Eric Mortimer Wheeler, a dapper Terry Thomas lookalike, reached the sprawling remains of Leptis Magna, once a great Roman port, and raised concerns about British forces being let loose over the ruins.
Before invading Sicily, the U.S. and Britain agreed to send two officers to the island to take care of monuments and in late 1943 this was formalised, and the MFAA came into being.
Members warned advancing troops of landmarks and would perform emergency restorations when needed. U.S. General Mark Clark would bitterly complain that the war in Italy was fought in a ‘goddam museum’.
Simon Enthoven, whose father Capt Roderick was a Monuments Man, questions whether the Americans have meddled with history.
‘My father did not talk about the MFAA much, but he did say he did three things.
'First, he was the first into Pisa when the roof collapsed on the Camposanto next to the leaning tower.
'He made sure that tarpaulins were put in place to protect the frescoes. Yet the Americans claimed that someone else did that.
Udo Kroschwald as Goring in The Monuments Men
‘Second, he was sent to recover the bronze Cosimo statue and restore it to its rightful place outside the Uffizi gallery in Florence. It had been hidden in some woods and my father went to get it with some GIs.
'On the way back into the city, the crowds came out cheering because it was a symbol of the city. But in the American books they claimed someone else did this. I do not know who is telling the truth.
'Finally, poor old Pa had to discourage General Mark Clark, who was a great party-giver, from throwing parties in what were often delicate and valuable buildings.’
Enthoven adds: ‘The MFAA officers were experienced, often elderly, officers who had to deal with superior ranks who were much younger. It was a very tricky balance.
'Ultimately, everyone agreed that life was the most important thing, but it wasn’t necessary to bulldoze or destroy beautiful things.’
Olivier Bell worked with the MFAA until 1947; her diaries are currently held by the Imperial War Museum.
She later switched from art to literary matters, editing the diaries of her husband’s aunt, Virginia Woolf. She was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List.
‘My work on the diaries was very important to me, but because I am the last English person alive who worked for the MFAA I will probably be better remembered for that.
‘I am proud of the Monuments Men, because it was important work to save the cultural heritage of Europe. Their work should not be forgotten.’
‘The Monuments Men’ is released on February 14