Oradour-sur-Glane - The Martyred Village
Back in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front party was defeated in second round of the French Presidential elections, I read an article in a daily newspaper that outlined the suffering that could follow the rise of right wing extremism. Oradour-sur-Glane was the village near Limoges, France, in which 642 inhabitants were murdered by the Nazi SS soldiers during the second world war.
SS commander Adolph Rudolf Reinhold DiekmannClick thumbnail to view full-size
How and Why did this happen?
After the Allies landed on the beaches in Normandy on 6th June 1944, the German units in France were put on high alert. On the 8th of June 1944 the 2nd SS Panzer division "Das Reich" began to advance to the Normandy invasion front to help repel the allies, from their base just north of Toulouse in southern France. This was a journey of some 450 miles. Almost a soon as they began the journey north, they were constantly under attack by the Resistance, who had increased their activity. Although the Resistance couldn't cause any serious damage to the convoy, what they did do was slow them down and this in turn made the commanders angry enough to take reprisals, this amounted to shooting or hanging civilians. When they arrived in Tulle, they were just in time to save the German garrison stationed there from capture by the Resistance. Apparently the partisans blew up a railway bridge at St-Junien just 10 miles from Oradour, and several German officers and troops were mutilated and killed.so the SS rounded up all the men they could find, then after questioning them 120 were selected to be hung from lampposts as a warning. Ironically after 99 had been hung, the soldiers ran out of rope, so the rest were deported to Germany as slave labour.On the morning of 10th June Diekmann left his temporary HQ at St-Junien to attend a meeting in Limoges, where he found out about an unnamed captured German officer he assumed to be his friend Helmut Kampfe who was being held in nearby Oradour, a quiet little village where there was no partisan activity. He then requested and was given permission to go and rescue him.
The VillageClick thumbnail to view full-size
A Survivors account
There are only 2 living survivors of the terrible massacre. Robert Habras was only 19 years old when he escaped death in a village barn.He lost his mother and 2 sisters, they were killed in the church. It all started with the arrival of the Germans, who, it was rumoured that were just checking identity cards. All the villagers were gathered together on the village green, and then divided up into 2 groups, men on one side and women and children on the other.As the women and children were marched off to the church, the Germans encouraged the children to sing. They felt that nothing bad would happen to them in God's house, so they calmly waited. Meanwhile the soldiers searched the village for any remaining civilians. They then divided the men into several smaller groups and led them to 3 barns, two garages, a warehouse and a hanger, then the ordeal began.
It was around 4 o'clock that an explosion rocked the village. From inside the church the women could hear the rattle of machine guns as the men were all simultaneously massacred in the various locations. Survivors reported that the soldiers deliberately fired at the men's legs first, so that they were just badly wounded. Then the soldiers piled straw and wood on them and set it alight, thus many burned to death as they were unable to move. Remarkably 5 wounded men escaped because they feigned death at the start of the shooting, and lay under the corpses until they could no longer stand the heat,.They then left the barn and hid in some bushes until after dark when they made their escape. The women and children met a similar fate. The large gas bomb that was placed in the church to asphyxiate them all didn't work properly so the SS had to use machine-guns and hand grenades to disable and put them to death. Madame Rouffranche escaped alive from the church by climbing a ladder and throwing herself from a window 10 feet from the ground. Despite being shot 5 times she escaped to the back of the church where she hid beneath the earth in the vegetable plot until the next day. While the killings were taking place the solders resumed their search for any who were missed in the initial round up, and killed them wherever they were found. One old man was burned to death in his bed, and a baby was baked to death in the local baker's oven, several other villagers were killed and their bodies thrown down a well. Strange as it may seem when a local tram arrived during this killing spree, the passengers were allowed to leave in peace.After killing everyone they could, they looted all the houses and set the town on fire, before they left the following morning.
The Retreat and the Trial
The soldiers continued up country towards Normandy and joined the rest of the German army to help repel the Allied invasion. Many of them including Adolf Dickmann who had led the attack on Oradour-sur-Glane, were killed in the Normandy battles.
During January and February 1953 only 23 men were tried by the French courts for their part in the massacre. they were all members of the Der Fuhrer regiment of DasReiche Division who survived the war. The highest rank was a Sergeant. Of the 21 men, 14 came from Alsace now a French province, but in 1940, after the French had surrendered, it was taken over by Germany. Although being conscripted into the German army, to the French, these man were considered to be French and thus traitors.
Between the end of the war and the end of 1952, 13 of these men had been free. One man had become a police Inspector, another had won the Croix de Guerre,(France's highest military medal for valour) whist fighting with the French army in present day Vietnam. The 7 German defendants had been interred in POW camps from 1945 until the trial started.
The trial was beset with difficulties, and in the end just 2 defendants were given death sentences, the rest were sentenced to between 8 and 12 years in prison. Needless to say these verdicts were considered too harsh by the people of Alsace, and too lenient by to people of Oradour. Protests and demonstrations for the men's release followed in Alsace, and quite soon after the trial had ended all 21 men were released.
When Das Reiche SS 2nd Panzer division left Oradour-sur-Glane, on their journey north, they passed through Mortain in Lower Normandy, just 30 minutes from where I live. There is a local beauty spot here, a waterfall named "La Grande Cascade" and we often visit here and walk by the little river and on through the countryside to "La Peite Cascade" the smaller waterfall, it's a popular walk. While researching this hub, I came across a photograph of one of Das Reiche's vehicles parked by the side of the main road through Mortain, in the place where I park my car when visiting the waterfalls. How bizarre is that?
If you decide to pay a visit to Oradour, don't miss a visit to the underground museum where you can hear the story and see the 12 minute film. Don't be put off if you don't speak French, there is an English translation.
I must mention Michael Williams who has taken great care to expand on the massacre at Oradour and would advise all to visit his web site for a more in-depth account. It's www.oradour.info/
For an account from the German perspective I suggest that you check out the web site www.dasreich.ca/
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