Casualties of Peace: The 1945 Aßling Train Collision
Aßling (“ß” is a sharp double-s-sound) is a small town (population in 2019: 4529, Population in 1946: 1926) in the far south of Germany, located in southern Bavaria just 37km/23mi southeast of Munich and 15km/9mi north of Bad Aibling (both measurements in linear distance).
The town lies on the Munich-Rosenheim Railway, a 64.9km/40mi double-tracked electrified main line running diagonally through southern Bavaria. Opened in October 1871 and expanded to double-track configuration in 1894 the line was constructed to help in handling increased traffic between Germany and Austria as the single-tracked Mangfall Valley Railway (“Mangfalltalbahn”) was already exceeding its capacity just 14 years after being completed. The new line was also shorter and easier to navigate as its steepest gradients were flatter than those on the Mangfalltalbahn. The line survived the first world war intact (but seeing far less use due to shortages in material and personel) and was electrified by 1927. Going into the second world war the main use became military trains, transporting soldiers and materials towards eastern Europe. Suffering heavy damage in the later years of the war the US Army started rebuilding it in late 1944, seeing its practical connection and capacity. On the 18th of May 1945 the first train ran on the repaired line, ten days after Germany had surrendered.
The trains involved
The US Army had maintained a prison camp for captured soldiers in Bad Aibling, holding around 70 thousand prisoners by the end of the war. Now, with Germany surrendered and the war in Europe over, the Army started sending the former soldiers home. 1200 of the captured Germans are put on a train in mid-July 1945 meant to be taken to Hannover in central Germany via Munich. The Army is using whatever rolling stock neither the Germans nor the Allies destroyed, most of the passenger train consists of old wooden passenger and (allegedly also) freight cars. Each of the cars carries around 40 people, mostly Germans with a few Americans as guards. Pulling the train is a DR series E75 locomotive (note that “DR” refers to “Deutsche Reichsbahn”, the national railways (independently) of both the 3rd Reich and later GDR). Introduced in 1927 the E75 is a 6-axle multipurpose electric locomotive weighting 106.2 metric tons at 15.38m/50.45ft long. Powering the centered 4 axles through two motors the boxy locomotive can reach 70kph/43.5mph.
Following behind the passenger train was a freight train carrying 50 American M4 “Sherman” tanks (each weighting 30.3 metric tons) on several flatbed cars. Pulling the heavy (1515 metric tons for the cargo alone) freight train was a DR E94 electric freight locomotive. Introduced in 1940 the “German Crocodile” (named for its visual similarity to the Swiss Ce 6/8 locomotive) the 18.6m/61ft long locomotive had been developed to pull heavy freight trains even in mountainous terrain, being capable of pulling 2000 metric tons on level ground and still 1000 metric tons at 16 Promille incline. Putting out 3300kw/4425hp by means of six motors (one for each axle) the 121 metric ton locomotive is capable of reaching 90kph/56mph.
In the evening hours on the 16th of July 1945 a DR E75 is pulling a train full of German prisoners of war towards Munich. At 9pm the train has just left the town of Aßling behind, heading north into the woods. Visibility is poor, strong rain worsening the lack of light at the time of day. A bombing raid in April had severely damaged the electrical system at Aßling station, the automatic block system and radio didn’t work and trains were dispatched one by one based on phone conversations between dispatchers. Working at Aßling station was an officer from the US Army, largely improvising operations with his American and German coworkers in the surrounding signal boxes. The prisoners on the train don’t care about any of that, they survived the war and the prison camp and just want to go home. When the Germans were taken prisoner the Americans removed any insignia or medals from their clothes, leaving them in indistinguishable gray clothing.
Shortly after 9pm the locomotive suffers an engine failure and breaks down, coming to a stop at Kilometer 43, 2km/1.25mi outside the next town. The dispatcher at Aßling forgets to inquire about the arrival of the passenger train at Oberelkofen and just clears the waiting freight train for departure. With signals and block system out of service this dooms the trains. The freight train roars out of the station, quickly picking up speed despite the heavy train. At 9:30pm the E94 strikes the rear car of the stopped passenger train just 1.3km/4270ft outside Aßling station. The heavy train obliterates the rear cars with a deafening crash, throwing pieces of steel, wood and people all over the place. The wooden construction of the car offers next to no resistance to the freight train, 8 cars get torn apart or compressed before the freight train is derailed and misses the remaining cars. 105 people (reports go from 95 to 110) are killed, among them one of the American guards, over 100 more are injured.
Mister Köppen, one of the survivors, later recalls that it took some time for someone to check on them. The Americans who had been on the train went from car to car, asking for both the dead and medics among the prisoners. Köppen said in an interview in 2015 that he, like many other survivors, was reluctant to leave the train and go help in the rescue and recovery, worrying about his backpack, his sole possession, to be stolen in the chaos. He eventually climbs out of the train and is faced with a horrific sight, standing in a sea of debris littered with blood and not always complete dead bodies.The site is scarcely illuminated as survivors line dead bodies up on the embankments to either side of the tracks. Another survivor, Mister Bauer, can’t help but see a tragic irony. The soldiers, some quite young, survived the war and prison camp only to die gruesomely on their way home.
It takes time for responders to arrive, some local residents bring a kitchen table from a nearby house down to the tracks. Mister Bauer, then ten years old, remembers cycling to the site in the early morning hours and seeing men performing surgeries on the kitchen table with little more than pocket knifes. Bauer recalls trying to hide among the trees, resisting the urge to take a closer look at the carnage. Looking back in a recent interview he sees the hiding as unimportant, saying that no one would probably have bothered to chase him off. In the early morning hours most survivors have been taken away, a proper passenger train is arranged to take uninjured survivors from Munich to their destination. The recovery and identification, made difficult by the unmarked uniforms, continues into the day. A nearby barn is turned into a morgue, workers load the largely complete and identified bodies into coffins in automated motions, taking swigs from bottles of alcohol in between. Miss Pfeiffer, another witness, assumes that they probably couldn’t do it without the alcohol. The funeral doesn’t happen until a week after the accident, Aßling ran out of coffins in the aftermath of the accident. At the funeral some of the children, among them Bauer and Donath, see the lids on some coffins move. At the time they think of the dead rising, or maybe someone having been buried alive. In reality, the scary sight likely came from the hot weather causing gasses to expand. The ceremony is scarcely attended, maybe that’s why a lot of children of the surrounding towns are told to attend. 96 of the victims are burried at Oberelkofen at a soldier’s graveyard, 93 of which could be identified. The remaining were transported to their hometowns. The graveyard receives a memorial for the accident in 1967.
The investigation places sole blame on the American working at Aßling station, he shouldn’t have dispatched the freight train without knowing if passenger train had reached the next station. At the time train breakdowns were common, be it due to damage to the infrastructure or technical failures of the rolling stock. The line is soon repaired along with the signaling-system, in the chaos following the end of the war the accident soon fades into obscurity. Despite the war not ending until Japan’s surrender in September 1945 some sources consider the victims of the accident peacetime casualties, as Germany had surrendered and was no longer at war with anyone.
Shortly after the accident a local signalman erects a concrete cross at the site of the accident, it’s later replaced with an identical copy (removing signs of wear and age) and can still be visited today. Its inscription lists 96 victims, it’s possible that those were the immediate victims with higher counts including initial survivors.
In 2020, the 75th anniversary of the tragedy, an official memorial service was hosted at the soldiers’ graveyard in Oberelkofen. Due to current events the public had to be excluded from the service, with a video of it being created and published instead, showing the proceedings as well as listing the victims (there is no English language version of it available):