In a Ruined State
Background to the 10th of June
Tuesday 6th June 1944: "D-Day"
Sunday 11th to Thursday 29th June 1944
Background to the 10th of June, is my account of those events immediately prior to and leading up to, the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. It is based on the data published on this website and other sources as mentioned in the narrative.
What must be born in mind when reading this account of the events of June 1944, is that you the reader are living in the 21st Century, looking back through the eyes of hindsight and also very probably through those of one of the victor nations of W.W.II. In order to understand how and why people thought and acted as they did 60 years ago, you must accept that their lives were coloured by the events and emotions of their day. They did not necessarily perceive that which seems unreasonable today, as being so then.
Following the Normandy landings, the majority of allied ground based combatants in Europe only experienced warfare for the 11 months from D-Day to the German surrender in May 1945. The Germans and in this case especially the veterans of Das Reich had been fighting continuously since 1 September 1939. By 10th June 1944 they had been under arms for nearly 5 years. There was something of a, 'seen that before, done that before' attitude about the German forces. Perhaps this made them less likely to spend any time agonising about the rights and wrongs of a particular case and more likely to get the job done quickly so as to move on to the next task. The longer one fights, the duller the senses become: sad but true.
It is easy in times of peace, when one is not in any personal danger, to imagine how nobly one would have behaved (or would like to have behaved) during the war years. Many civilians in the occupied areas found themselves living in an impossible situation. If they took up arms against the invader, they risked the loss of all possessions and death for themselves and their families. If they refused to help the Resistance, they risked the same fate from their own countrymen. If they simply got on with their lives and tried to stay uninvolved, they risked being either robbed by the Resistance when they needed supplies, or being punished by the occupier in reprisal actions for something in which they had played no part. Living in an occupied country has never been easy, comfortable, or good for the consciences of the people involved.
As has been previously described in Chapter 3, Das Reich had been moved piecemeal from Russia to southern France over a period of several months. During its time in France, the Division was re-equipped, re-armed and re-staffed, so as to return it to its operational complement of men and material. On D-Day, 6th June 1944, this process was still not fully complete and some sections of the Division were short of men, materials and especially training.
Das Reich in early 1944 was a shadow of its previous self. The German and Austrian all volunteer Division of the early war years was by now made up by men from some 15 different ethnic groups, many of whom were conscripts. Tragically, there were many soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine (especially Alsace) in the Division. Men who until June 1940 had been French and now found themselves regarded as part of a German occupying army in what they had been brought up to regard as being their own country. This confusion of national identity was reflected in a rising desertion rate, something previously unheard of in a first-rate SS-Panzer Division such as Das Reich.
It was the lack of training for the newer members of the Division that caused considerable concern amongst the veterans. It took time to both train and instil the necessary sense of comradeship into the men; particularly amongst the conscripts. This was especially so now that the Division had members from so many different European countries within its ranks. It was to this end that Lammerding arranged a Fellowship Camp, in much the same way as today's large corporations set up Team Building Exercises, so as to help bond his disparate forces into one effective unit. Much training was arranged in the field by means of using experienced officers and NCO's to pass on their knowledge to the newer members. Additionally, practical training was given by means of anti-partisan patrols in the surrounding area. In the months before D-Day many such patrols were mounted as training exercises, both in response to Resistance provoked action and as a result of intelligence activity. It is obvious that these anti-Resistance sweeps were primarily of training benefit to the Panzer grenadier, rather than the armoured units of Das Reich. In the context of what happened at Oradour, it must be remembered that the Der Führer Regiment was a Panzer grenadier unit which had been taking part in this anti-terrorist activity, see: SS-Panzer Division organisation.
In late May, Commander-in-Chief West, Field Marshal of the Luftwaffe, Hugo Sperrle had wanted to organise large-scale anti-partisan sweeps in the Dordogne departmental area using both Das Reich Division and the 17th SS-Division Götz von Berlichingen. This had been thwarted by the Divisional commanders on the grounds that they had insufficient transport and fuel to mount such a large operation over a 50 miles radius of their quartering area. As things turned out, Sperrle was to get his way a little later than he had originally wanted. Sperrle was a Nazi zealot and had published a series of orders detailing the harsh methods that were to be used in combating the menace of the Resistance; these orders were passed on to all troops in France not just the SS, see: Sperrle orders and Marsoulas.
In June 1944 all of Germany and her allies knew that the war was not going well for them, yet there was little or no feeling of defeatism amongst the troops. There was however a feeling of grim determination to get the job done and perhaps this in its turn led to some sense of urgency and desperation. The effect of these somewhat mixed emotions was perhaps to make the soldiers on the ground rather less caring of the indigenous population than in earlier years. They were a nuisance, got in the way, did not co-operate as well as they should have done and above all they harboured the Resistance: in fact were members of it in some cases.
No regular soldier of any army in any age has ever cared much for partisans. It is hard enough for a man to go into battle against a clearly identifiable enemy wearing a distinguishing uniform. When the enemy is indistinguishable from the normal civilian population, there are bound to be difficulties. If you are the soldier, dressed in your uniform and thus standing out obviously for what you are, you are not going to enjoy being attacked by someone who has previously passed you by in the street with a smile, only then to shoot you in the back.
In the occupied territories the uniformed soldier is always going to feel like first prize at a coconut-shy and one effect of this throughout history has always been to make partisan warfare crueller than regular warfare. It always seems impossible afterwards to determine just who began the atrocities, the regular troops or the partisans, but once they start then each act becomes the justification for the next. Having said that, in France in 1944 the Germans behaved with a lot more restraint than they had previously done in, for example Russia, or Poland or indeed any of the occupied eastern territories. However ghastly Oradour was, it was a rare event in France, whereas in Russia it had been routine practice to destroy villages on the basis of partisan activity, both real and suspected.
Tuesday 6th June 1944: "D-Day"
The proper title of this day was: Operation Overlord, the day of the beginning of the largest amphibious wartime operation in all of history. It lit the fuse that led directly to the disaster at Oradour-sur-Glane. It would be wrong of course to lay any blame for what happened at Oradour at the door of the planners of The Second Front, but without the Normandy Landings, the massacre of 10th June would never have happened.
It must not be thought that Operation Overlord was a complete surprise to the German forces, for they knew perfectly well that the allies were planning to attack, the signs were obvious for all to see. In the context of Oradour, the increased number of parachute drops to the Resistance before D-Day and the increased number of, messages personnels broadcast by the BBC, meant only one thing to the occupying troops in France; trouble was on its way. The messages personnels, were simple, usually one line 'personal messages' ostensibly sent by French people living in Britain, to friends and family in France. Many of them were indeed harmless, but others were pre-arranged code words used to activate Resistance activity. In the weeks preceding the invasion, the Resistance, especially the FTP had increased their attacks on various targets such as railway lines, bridges and telephone lines. Beginning in early May the messages indicated that the invasion was not far off and from the start of June, that it could be expected within days. On the night of 5th June the word was broadcast that the next day was to be, D-Day (the D did not stand for anything other than, "Day"). That night the Resistance rose to carry out a myriad acts of sabotage all over France, in order to delay and confuse the German forces as much as possible.
It should be appreciated that resistance activity in an occupied country is never going to defeat the invader by itself. Resistance has considerable nuisance, irritation and disruption value, but it is never on its own going to inflict a military defeat on a well-armed and disciplined army. The thought that the poorly armed, widely dispersed and relatively undisciplined French Resistance could ever inflict serious harm on the likes of Das Reich is ludicrous. But what they could do and do well, was create an unholy mess. Being relatively 'invisible' and widespread, the Resistance could tie down a disproportionately large number of troops in suppressing their activities. According to normal military thinking, a ratio of 10:1 is needed to keep resistance activity to a minimum, i.e. 10 soldiers for every resistant. This is very expensive for the invader to maintain over a long time period and it implies that about 2000 Resistance fighters could keep Das Reich fully occupied if they were led intelligently. It also means that the patience of the occupying body can become sorely tried and that in itself can lead to extensive reprisals.
When the allied landings in Normandy began, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW (High Command of the Armed Forces) was unsure as to whether this was indeed the true location of the invasion, or a feint to draw attention away from the real invasion site. This uncertainty was due in large part to the brilliant allied campaign of deception, which included dummy radio traffic from non-existent army groups in southern England.
Nevertheless in the early morning of the 6th, OKW passed on the news to all troops who might become involved and in particular to the Das Reich Division, which was quartered around Montauban in southern France. The Division Headquarters in its turn signalled at about 10:00 to all its component units, including the Der Führer Regiment, "Come to march readiness" (Otto Weidinger in, Tulle and Oradour a Franco German Tragedy). This was not an order to begin to move, just a wake-up call, so as to get ready to march as and when and where directed. Now began a time of little sleep and much activity for the officers and men of Das Reich.
Wednesday 7th June 1944:
March preparations were finalised and the Division prepared to move off on the road to Normandy, over 400 miles to the north. They had a nasty shock coming in that when they routinely asked for rail transport to move their heavy tracked vehicles, it was refused. The reason was sabotage. Resistance personnel led by an SOE agent called Tony Brooks had located the flatcars used to transport Das Reich's tanks and had filled the axle bearings with carborundum paste. This action, plus the cutting of rail links all over France from the 6th June onwards, greatly reduced the capacity of the rail transport system.
It is normal practice for armies to move their tracked vehicles by rail, as this is a much faster and reliable means of transport than driving them long distances over roads. Caterpillar tracks do not fare well on hard surfaces, they are at their best over soft ground and even then not for hundreds of miles at a time. There was obviously going to be a significant maintenance problem en-route to Normandy.
Late at night, Das Reich received its orders to reassemble in the Limoges-Tulle area by evening on the 8th June. It seems that the Commander-in-Chief West, Hugo Sperrle wanted to put into practice at least a limited version of his earlier plan to use the Division as an anti-partisan force. The local garrison troops were it seems in some cases, rather ineffectual in controlling the Resistance and the Panzer grenadiers of the SS were thought capable of doing a quick and thorough job.
The Divisional march plan was to head north in two main columns; the Der Führer Regiment was part of the left-hand group that was to travel via Cahors, Souillac and Brive la Gaillarde. The right-hand group (which included the tanks) was to travel through Figeac, Beaulieu and Tulle before combining their route with the others at Uzerche: see March Map. It must be realised that to move a unit the size of Das Reich, meant that the Division was strung out over a considerable distance and that it took an appreciable time to pass any given point on the march. Quite apart from complying with Sperrle's anti-partisan wishes, the Division spread itself out over several roads simply for ease of travel and so that the tracked vehicles (which moved rather slowly) could travel over the most suitable roads without the damage that they caused to the surface hindering the rest of the Division.
Thursday 8th June 1944:
It was during the day that the Allied High Command broadcast what the Germans felt to be a one-sided declaration, in that they stated (to the Germans) that all members of the Resistance were to be accorded combatant status. From the German point of view they therefore felt that they could expect the Resistance to wear distinguishing uniforms, to openly carry weapons and to abide by the Hague Convention in respect of the treatment of prisoners. Stadler, the Der Führer commander declared that he would indeed regard any Resistance fighters who abided by these conditions as true combatants and not guerrillas. Probably he was being sarcastic, but he did have a fair point.
In the light of the above paragraph there is a degree of irony in that following the tragic events of 11th September 2001 in New York, America went to war against terrorism. For terrorist, read non-uniformed fighters belonging to no national army. By mid-January 2002 the first of the captured terrorists were being incarcerated in the American base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There has been much controversy over the American announcement that these people will not be treated as prisoners of war under the terms of the Geneva Convention on Land Warfare. If America had a point in asking for the French Resistance to be accorded combatant status in 1944, what about the Taliban in 2002?
From about 08:00 in the morning Das Reich moved off with the 15th motor cycle company of Der Führer in the lead and at first encountered no difficulties. Then after a lengthy midday halt the march resumed. As the troops moved through the towns they were greeted with relief by the local garrisons who had felt themselves isolated and threatened ever since the invasion began. At Cahors the march split into two as previously described.
Left hand side of the march route: see March Map
Adolf Diekmann's 1st Battalion was by now on the D704 heading towards the Dordogne. As the afternoon wore on, the SS noticed a change, in that civilians seemed to have disappeared from along the route. At about 16:00 (or maybe a little earlier) the lead troops came under fire from a small group of Resistance fighters as they approached the bridge over the Dordogne at Groléjac, see: memorial and bridge. The contest was brief and very one sided, the Resistance, with about 15 men of middle age, armed with bolt-action rifles and shotguns were no match for the Panzer grenadiers of Der Führer. Using automatic weapons, superior numbers and training the SS managed to outflank and then kill 7 of the defenders (the rest escaped) at no loss of life to themselves.
This action by the Resistance shows the limits of what untrained and poorly equipped men can achieve when in combat with disciplined, well trained and well equipped soldiers. The men of the Resistance were unquestionably brave and are all deserving of the memorial bought with their blood, but they achieved very little from a military point of view.
At about 16:30 and just over the bridge, in the hamlet of Carsac the SS met another group of 5 Resistance men in a lorry. One man fled, the others were shot dead, see: memorial. Diekmann's men now briefly continued into Sarlat before swinging east along the D703 towards Souillac.
Whilst driving down the D703 at about 17:00 the SS encountered a large roadblock at Rouffillac and in the exchange of fire took some casualties themselves. The Resistance lost two men and unfortunately a fair number of civilian casualties also occurred, see: memorial (When I visited Rouffillac in May 2000, the ladies in the tourist information office told me that they had been waiting for over two years for ex-Resistance members to supply them with more details of this incident). At approximately 18:30 Diekmann's men reached Souillac and turned north onto the N20. Souillac was a known centre of Resistance where previous attacks had taken place on members of the German armed forces. There is a memorial there to the dead of the Resistance and it is possible that there was some trouble on the 8th June, but whether it involved Diekmann's men or not I do not know, see: memorial.
During the time that Diekmann was marching over the D704 and D703 the main part of the Left hand group was travelling straight up the N20. The Regimental commander, Standartenführer Sylvester Stadler was in the lead vehicle group on the road, an unusual position for such an officer. This had been caused by the reconnaissance group being delayed in starting and it was not long before Stadler had cause to regret his impatience in not waiting for them. As he approached the village of Cressensac the column came under fire from Resistance men hidden in the buildings and surrounding countryside. Stadler had to take cover and wait for the heavy vehicles of his reconnaissance troop to catch him up and blast aside the opposition. In the course of this action the church spire was hit by a 75mm cannon shell, see: memorial and church.
A short distance after Cressensac and about 5 miles south of Brive, Stadler's men again encountered the Resistance, this time at the hamlet of Noailles (on the present day D920). There was another exchange of fire and 6 Resistance men were killed, one of whom was Albert Lelorain, who had only just joined the Resistance after defecting from the Vichy forces earlier that day, see: memorial.
Finally at around 19:00 the lead members of the group reached Brive-la-Gaillarde (Brive the Bold), the rest of the Division following on until late in the night. It was at this time that Stadler was informed of the serious situation at Tulle and was ordered to send the Aufkläungsabteilung (Armoured Reconnaissance Detachment) to the aid of the 3rd Battalion of the 95th Security Regiment being besieged there.
The Aufkläungsabteilung under Sturmbannführer Heinrich Wulf, left Brive on the N89 and drove the 15 miles to Tulle, arriving on the outskirts at about 21:00. Due to the hilly nature of the terrain and the town being in a deep valley the light was starting to fade as the SS drove into town to relive the besieged garrison. The attacking force of (mostly) FTP Resistance had succeeded in coming close to defeating the Germans and forcing their surrender, but they withdrew promptly on the arrival of Wulf's men.
To the minds of the SS there had to be a severe reprisal for the attempt to take Tulle, especially in view of the barbaric treatment meted out to some of the German prisoners from the 95th Security Regiment. During the course of the attack on the town, some troops who had surrendered had been treated abominably by the Resistance (genitalia cut off, bodies being dragged behind vehicles etc). It was for this reason, not so much the attack itself, that the reprisals were to be carried out. Naturally the SS would have preferred to execute genuine Resistance fighters. However since they did not wear uniforms, or carry any other forms of identification and did not volunteer their membership; other means had to be used to sort the wheat from the chaff. As a starting point all the young men that could be found were rounded up and assembled under armed guard in the GIAT factory courtyard.
Meanwhile, after a short rest stop, the lead group (III Battalion) of Der Führer left Brive at around 20:00 and continued on to Limoges, clearing several undefended roadblocks on the way and no doubt expecting further attacks at every stop. Eventually the lead elements of the Regiment reached the city at around 02:00 on the morning of the 9th June. Not much rest and a tiring journey was had by all, but worse was to come.
Note: It is impossible for me at the time of writing to be absolutely certain that all the above incidents happened in the exact sequence as described. For example, it is obvious from looking at a map, that Noailles comes after Cressensac on the road to Brive, what is not so obvious, is whether the attacks took place in that order, or the other way round.
Right hand side of the march route: see March Map
After the march split into two at Cahors, those units on the right hand route (mostly the heavy armour of the Division) travelled first to Figeac via the D653 and then to the St. Céréarea on the N140 (where they stopped for the night) before heading north up the D940 towards Tulle early the next morning.
An infantry group, which had received information regarding a meeting of the Resistance, turned off the main road and went to investigate. They had travelled on up the N140 until just south of Gramat, before turning off onto minor roads leading to Gabaudet. When they arrived at the hamlet in the early evening they surprised a large group of FFI Resistance members who had gathered to discuss the Invasion and what they could do to help. In the following fight many of them were killed and some captured. see: picture.
The location of Gabaudet was so much off the direct line of march that this was obviously an intelligence led operation on the part of the Germans, i.e. the meeting of the FFI was betrayed to them by collaborators. This yet again highlights the sad fact that many French people actively sided with the German forces against their own countrymen, either by being members of the Milice, or for personal reasons of greed or spite. As a further example of Milice activity see the memorial at La Roche-Jago in Brittany. In this latter case no Germans were directly involved, it was Frenchmen killing Frenchmen for the benefit of the German armed forces.
Friday 9th June 1944:
Dawn (around 05:00 local time) showed the Division strung out over a considerable distance of French countryside, the lead units of Der Führer were in Limoges, the Aufkläungsabteilung was at Tulle and the heavy Panzer tracked vehicles were still well south of the Dordogne in the St. Céré area.
It was at some time during the morning that Standartenführer Sylvester Stadler commanding officer of Der Führer ordered Karl Gerlach Orderly Officer of the Assault Gun Detachment to find and prepare billets nearby for the men of his unit. He cautioned Gerlach that there were partisans operating in the vicinity and that he would need to take care. Gerlach set off with 5 of his men in three cars and soon found some suitable billets in Nieul, but not sufficient for his purposes, so he set off again to explore, "the neighbouring communities". He had not been doing this for very long, when he became separated from the other two cars and then he and his driver were abducted by members of the resistance who were driving a lorry.
Gerlach and his driver had an eventful time, during which they were driven around the countryside in their captors lorry and spent some time standing bound with ropes on the main street of what according to Gerlach was Oradour-sur-Glane. Eventually, after much discussion between members of the resistance the two men were taken by lorry to what both Gerlach and his driver realised was to be their place of execution. By means of good luck and the onset of darkness Gerlach, but not his driver managed to escape and make his way back to Limoges, where he arrived in the early hours of Saturday 10th June. He reported to Stadler, who told him to get some rest as they had a long march ahead of them and also about another man who had been kidnapped, "an officer named Kämpfe, who had not yet returned and was probably dead", see: Gerlach's report (this incident will be discussed further below).
Right hand side of the march route: see March Map
As the Panzer units approached Bretenoux on the south bank of the Cère at about 06:30 in the morning they were fired upon and a fight began. There were some 26 Resistance fighters, led by an Alsatian named, Sergeant Frederick Holtzmann and they managed to delay the Germans for some 3 hours. Holtzmann and 19 others were killed before the SS could carry on over the bridge towards Tulle, see: bridge and memorial. This action says something about the state of confused loyalties that existed in France at this time. Holtzmann was an Alsatian (with a German surname), so in the eyes of the Germans he would have been a traitor, firing on his own countrymen (some of whom were also Alsatians). After the war France, once again re-united with Alsace, awarded Holtzmann a posthumous Médaille Militaire.
Shortly after crossing the Cère and 5 miles north of the river, the Division ran into more Resistance forces at the village of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne where again they defended the bridge (over the Dordogne) against the SS, see: bridge and memorial. One Frenchman was killed but after crossing the bridge, the way lay open to Tulle, where the lead units arrived later that afternoon.
Note: these troops arrived at Tulle after the fight by the Aufkläungsabteilung to re-take the town from the Resistance had been concluded and they played no part in that skirmish.
Early in the morning the SS assembled all their suspects in the courtyard of the arms factory and began to examine them so as to weed out the "gang" members; as they called the Resistance. The main difficulty facing the SS as already mentioned was how to determine who was a member of the Resistance and who was not. It was not at all clear if any of the Resistance had been delayed in the town and had been captured, or whether they had all escaped as Wulf's men arrived. There followed a somewhat arbitrary sifting process, based on such things as how clean a man's shoes were (dirty, muddy shoes implied a member of the Resistance). Eventually the SS had some 120 Resistance suspects and a larger number of other persons.
The members of the Resistance were to be hung and not shot, as this was thought to be a more humiliating punishment. Only two of the men were unquestionably from the Resistance as they had been captured by the SS and their involvement was not in any doubt. However it is not known how many, if any, of those other 120 men had any involvement, either in the attack on the garrison, or in the treatment of the surrendered men of the 95th Security Regiment the previous day. A notice was printed and widely distributed proclaiming:
The notice was signed with the words, "The General Commanding the German troops", there was no specific name mentioned. After the war in 1951, the French tried Lammerding who had been, "The General Commanding", in his absence and condemned him to death for the hangings. Lammerding always protested his non-involvement, saying that if he had personally ordered the executions, he would have signed the order with his name. His logic was that the officer who had the notice printed (believed to be Sturmbannführer Albert Stuckler) was simply quoting his authority for the action.
Lammerding would have undoubtedly approved the hangings, his protest was over the unfairness of saying that he ordered them when, (according to him) he had not. What is certain is that he took no punitive action against any members of the Division following the incident. Lammerding also gave as his alibi the story that he had not visited Tulle until after the hangings because he had been in the town of Uzerche conducting a hanging of his own. He had spent the night of the 7th June in the town and was roused by his men on the morning of the 8th, who had captured some members of the Resistance. One of the captured Frenchmen was undoubtedly a Resistance fighter who had been at Tulle and Lammerding had him hanged on the spot, the others being deported to Germany. The memorial at Uzerche does not specifically mention this detail, but rather lists all those who died fighting the occupiers, see: picture.
At about 16:00 the SS began the grim task of hanging their 'Resistants' from lampposts and balconies, see: picture. After 99 had been hung there was a ludicrous halt to the proceedings, caused by the Germans running out of rope. The time was now around 19:00 and the SS decided to call a halt to the killings, the remainder would be spared. The last of the 'Resistants' were deported to Germany as slave labour, the whole event being commemorated by a monument in what is today called the Quartier des Martyrs (Martyrs Quarter), see: picture. The bodies of the dead were cut down and not thrown into the river, which would have been a health hazard, but buried on the outskirts of town, see: picture.
The left hand side of the march route.
The Division's command centre was to be in Limoges itself for the duration of its stay. Adolf Diekmann's Battalion did not reach there until late morning after, "encountering numerous obstacles and following a tiring journey". Diekmann himself, "made a harried and overtaxed impression" (Otto Weidinger). He was sent off to find quarters in St. Junien, about 17 miles to the west, see: map. This would mean that Diekmann and his men would not get any real rest until late afternoon at the earliest and probably not before the evening. It must be appreciated that soldiers were not put up in formal hotel type accommodation, but normally billeted with local families in their homes throughout the area. The standard of accommodation, food and warmth of their reception varied enormously. Some soldiers must inevitably have found themselves living with actual members of the Resistance, which must have placed something of a strain on the French people concerned. The other parts of the Division were allocated quarters all around the city and its surrounding towns. In particular, the Assault Gun Battalion orderly officer, Obersturmführer Karl Gerlach was sent to find billets in the Nieul area, about 5 miles to the north-west; he was to have an eventful time, see: Gerlach's report.
Gerlach was abducted by the Resistance at about 11:00 on the 9th June and barely escaped with his life (his driver was killed) and after a most difficult time arrived back in Limoges on the following morning at about 07:00. Gerlach's report is quite vague as to actual timings and so the figures above are my own estimates based on his testimony and other data. The main point about this incident is that he claimed to have spent part of his captivity being held in Oradour-sur-Glane. Whilst there he saw many French people, both men and women dressed in uniform and formed the impression that the whole village seemed to be a Resistance stronghold.
The commander of Der Führer Battalion III, Helmut Kämpfe was sent to the town of Guéret in order to relive the garrison there which was reported to have been attacked by the Resistance on the 7th June and the entire German forces captured. On the 8th June an attempt by a regular (non-SS) army unit to re-take the town had been beaten off by the FTP who were now in control. At about mid-morning on the 9th June, outside the town (on the N141), Kämpfe's men ran into some Resistance people driving a couple of lorries. There was an exchange of fire and the Germans discovered that they had killed and wounded some of their own people who were been transported by the Resistance after their capture in Guéret.
When the SS finally arrived at the town they found that the situation had been resolved for them earlier that day by the regular army, who with air support had driven off the Resistance. After making arrangements for the treatment of various wounded soldiers and civilians, Kämpfe ordered his Battalion to head back to Limoges.
What followed next is hard to believe in view of the happenings of the last couple of days; Kämpfe drove on ahead of his Battalion and was soon out of sight. What led such an experienced officer to take so great a risk and travel alone in what he knew to be hostile territory is not known. The stated reasons are that he wanted to personally thank the mayor of a village for having a damaged bridge repaired (Otto Weidinger) or that he was in a hurry to return to Headquarters (Max Hastings). Neither of these explanations seem plausible by themselves, as neither seems urgent enough to persuade Kämpfe to take the risk that he did. However, in spite of the danger, both the Germans and the French agree that Kämpfe did drive on ahead of his men, either alone, or with a driver, or with two motorcycle escorts (depending on who you believe). For some further information see the section on Kämpfe in Chapter 3: The Lost Boys.
Whatever the reason that he did it, Kämpfe did drive on ahead of his troops and at about 21:00 and 15 miles or so short of Limoges, on the N141 he met a lorry full of FTP Resistance fighters led by Sergeant Jean Canou. These men were returning to their base after blowing up the rail bridge at Brignac, 5 miles to the west. Remarkably Kämpfe stopped his car and Canou's men first surrounded and then abducted him without a shot being fired. As the lorry driver was the only member of the group that could drive, Canou had to leave Kämpfe's car behind on the road, where it was shortly discovered by his following men. The lorry was quickly turned off the main road and made its way to the local Resistance base at Cheissoux, where as Canou stated later at Bordeaux in 1953, he handed Kämpfe over to his "chief", see: map. This chief was never identified by name at the trial but is believed to be none other than Georges Guingouin, the head of the FTP in the Limoges area and after the war the (communist) Mayor of Limoges. For further details refer back to, Chapter 4, A House Divided.
There is an important point to consider in respect of where Kämpfe was actually captured by the Resistance. Otto Weidinger quotes the location as being, "In the vicinity of La Bussiére in the commune St. Léonard-de-Noblat", there is however a problem with this specific location, in that it does not exist. There is no place called La Bussiére near to St. Léonard, there is a tiny hamlet called La Boissière at about the correct distance, but this is close to the D979 not the N141. The N141 is the direct route between Limoges and Guéret, to have used the D979 would have meant both Kämpfe and his men making a significant detour from the N141 at Bourganeuf. Then onto the D940 through Peyrat and then at Eymoutiers onto the D 979, for no apparently good reason at the end of a long and tiring day. Other accounts have Canou saying that they turned off the main road towards Moisanne, but there is no place with that spelling in France, however there is a Moissannes off the N141 at about the right distance from St. Léonard. I think that the confusion and uncertainty shown here is due to nothing more than sloppy research into the correct spelling of location names and is of no real significance as to the truth of what happened.
The most visible and obvious location for the kidnap is the spot marked by a large stone memorial on the N141 near to the tiny hamlet of Vialleville, see: memorial. This memorial is relatively new and is close to the turn-off to the hamlet of Moissannes on the opposite side of the N141. A point to consider is that heading towards St. Léonard past this location, the road is quite straight for just on 2½ miles. According to at least one writer, Kämpfe had two motorcycle escorts riding in front of his car and it is most unlikely that they would have failed to notice his absence had he been stopped. The present day N141 is truly straight until just before it enters the town and one can see along the whole 2½ mile stretch.
The SS were furious at what they quite correctly deduced as being Kämpfe's kidnap and even though it was getting dark they immediately began a search for him in the surrounding countryside. The news of the kidnap was relayed back to Limoges and was quickly passed around the rest of the Division. Additionally the local Limoges Milice and Gestapo were asked to co-operate in finding out any information as to Kämpfe's whereabouts. It was obvious from the circumstances of the event that there had not been any plan to kidnap him and that the incident was as a result of Kämpfe's impetuousness; but that did not lessen the sense of urgency or anger felt within the SS.
Soldiers searched up and down side roads off the N141 and at one point shot two local men who could not convince them of their non-involvement. I do not think that either of these unfortunate people had anything to do with the kidnap, or were even in the Resistance, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, see: memorial.
During the night, Kämpfe's papers were found by a motorcycle patrol in the streets of Limoges. The supposition was that he must have been driven through the city and managed to throw his personal papers out of the vehicle as a sign that he was still alive and to give some clue as to his whereabouts.
Because the Division was spread out over a considerable distance in hilly country, communications between its various sections were difficult. Sturmbannführer Otto Weidinger was ordered to travel from Limoges to Tulle with news about Kämpfe's kidnap and other Divisional information. He left Limoges with a motorcycle escort between 23:00 and 24:00 and arrived at Tulle at 03:00 on the morning of the 10th June having had a completely uneventful journey. After briefing the Divisional staff and learning from them of the events at Tulle, Weidinger returned to Limoges, arriving back after another uneventful journey at 06:00.
Otto Weidinger has an important part to tell in this story, as not only was he the fourth and final commander of the Der Führer Regiment, he later became both its and Das Reich's historian and chronicler. During the time from 6th to 13th June however, he had no specific responsibilities and was in the role of an observer, gathering information about the Regiment for familiarisation purposes. It was only after Sylvester Stadler's promotion on 14th June that Weidinger had any authority over the Der Führer when he was promoted to be its commanding officer. He held this post until the German surrender on 8th May 1945 and in the eyes of the Regiment's veterans he continued to hold it until the last of its members was released from captivity by the French, on 17th April 1959 (see: Comrades to the End by Otto Weidinger).
Saturday 10th June 1944:
The kidnapped Karl Gerlach arrived back at the Regimental command post in Limoges at about 07:00, dressed only in his underwear and reported to Sylvester Stadler what had happened to him, see: Gerlach's report. Stadler told him to get some rest, as they would be moving off north again as soon as the situation allowed.
There is an interesting point here, which has not previously been raised in other accounts of the happenings at Oradour, and that is, what action did the SS take when Gerlach was initially reported missing the day before? From his own report he was searching for billets in the Nieul area with four other men in two additional cars. At some point these other men must have come to the conclusion that he had been abducted along with his driver and initiated a search. Also no mention has ever been made as to what happened to Gerlach's car, was it left at the scene, like Kämpfe's, or driven away by the Resistance? I do not know the answers to these questions, Weidinger has not mentioned the points and the matters were not raised at the Bordeaux trial in 1953.
Another incident, which must only have served to increase the feeling of paranoia that the Division as a whole was feeling, was the capture that morning of a British agent. Men of the Division were out in force looking for signs of the missing Kämpfe, when at around 10:00, near the village of Salon-la-Tour (6 miles north of Uzerche and just to the east of the N20) they saw a car coming towards them. It stopped and three people got out and ran, one of them was captured. It was Violette Szabo an SOE agent. She was captured, interrogated and sent back to Germany, where she was eventually shot early in 1945, at Ravensbruck concentration camp.
Since leaving their base on 6th June, the Division as a whole had suffered from a catalogue of misfortune, mechanical breakdown, sabotage, and attacks by the Resistance along the whole route. The number of causalities caused by the Resistance was in total quite small; some give the numbers as being around 35 killed between 6th and 10th June inclusive. However it was not the number that was important as the frequency and audacity of the attacks by the Resistance. They had a nuisance value out of all proportion to their absolute military value. As has been mentioned before, the Resistance was never going to inflict a military defeat on the German armed forces, but they did have a considerable irritation factor. A good analogy is that of a man being bothered by ants, the insects can do no real damage, but they can certainly spoil a picnic.
The officers and men of the Division had by the morning of the 10th June, experienced a most difficult journey from the start of the march in the Montauban area and on the road up north to Limoges. The junior officers, such as the Battalion commanders, had not been able to get much rest. In particular Adolf Diekmann had to fight his way through what was supposed to be allied and friendly territory. All the time, reports were coming in of attacks and sabotage upon both the Germans forces in general and units of Das Reich in particular. If the Germans had been a spent and broken force in southern France that June, then the Resistance could have behaved as they did with relative impunity, hounding them at every step. But they were not, as Tulle showed on the 9th and Oradour was to show on the 10th.
It should be appreciated that all the members of Das Reich were kept informed as a matter of course of the events that had occurred on the march to date. It must also be remembered that Adolf Diekmann had both joined the SS in the Signals Battalion of the original Verfungstruppe (Special Forces) and also had for some time been an instructor in signals at the Bad Tölz officer school. Diekmann therefore was a person who had both the training and experience to be able to keep himself informed as to the latest news, especially by the use of radio. Thus on the morning of the 10th June, he could be reasonably expected to be as well informed of recent events that had affected the Division as anybody could be.
From about 10:00 in the morning the events leading to the tragedy that was to become Oradour-sur-Glane, rapidly drew together and from around midday, made disaster inevitable.
Otto Weidinger gives the following account in, Tulle and Oradour a Franco-German Tragedy and with some minor variations in, Comrades to the End:
It must be remembered that it is claimed (by Otto Weidinger) that Diekmann did not know that it was Kämpfe who had been kidnapped at the time he first arrived at headquarters. The Milice had not given him a name and so Diekmann was unaware of exactly who was involved, or even if he was from Das Reich (the captive could have been any member of the German armed forces).
On hearing of the kidnap of Helmut Kämpfe the evening before, Diekmann became of the opinion that the, "high-ranking German officer" could be none other than Kämpfe, who was a close friend of his and he requested Stadler's permission to launch a rescue mission. Stadler immediately agreed and in turn informed him of Gerlach's experiences during the previous night. Since Gerlach was still at Regimental Headquarters, Diekmann went to see him for a first hand account of his adventures.
Before he set off on his mission, Stadler impressed upon the newly promoted Diekmann (see: promotion request see: assessment) the need to bring back Resistance leaders as hostages if Kämpfe could not be found. Stadler's thinking was that these hostages could be used in any negotiations to free their man if he was not actually in Oradour-sur-Glane when Diekmann arrived.
Weidinger in his books repeatedly makes the point that there was no possibility of confusion between the name of Oradour-sur-Glane and that of Oradour-sur-Vayres some 16 miles to the south-west. This was due to Diekmann (via the Milice in St. Junien), Gerlach (first hand experience) and the SD (in Limoges) all independently coming up with the same name of Oradour-sur-Glane as a Resistance base, but see, Chapter 7, An Explanation for the Massacre, for more discussion on this important subject.
Diekmann did not immediately drive to Oradour-sur-Glane, but returned to St. Junien and there with the help of the two Milice informers and Oberscharführer Joachim Kleist, a Gestapo officer based in Limoges, planned how they were to deal with the situation. In his various writings Weidinger most emphatically states again and again, that at no time did either Brigadeführer Lammerding, or Standartenführer Stadler (both of whom survived the war) ever give Diekmann orders to destroy the village; no matter what he found. See Otto Kahn's statement made at Dortmund in 1962 for more explanation on this important point. In this statement Kahn says that Diekmann told him that he had received orders "from the Regiment" to attack and burn the village, but at no time did Diekmann mention the name of the person who had given him the order; see Chapter 7 for more discussion about this matter.
It is worth noting that the French themselves attribute the blame for initiating the destruction directly to Lammerding. This is made explicit in the Centre de la Mémoire at Oradour where he is accused of ordering the attack. It is my belief that there is no evidence at all to directly connect Lammerding with the destruction. For whilst he was not a particularly 'nice' man, he was sufficiently pragmatic enough to know that such an action would not show to his personal credit. Especially so in France, where it could not be hidden from view, as would have been the case in Russia.
During the time that Diekmann was in St. Junien planning the rescue mission, Stadler and Weidinger in Limoges were attempting to secure Kämpfe's release by negotiation. To this end Weidinger contacted the head of the Limoges SD, Obersturmbannführer Meier and asked him if he had any Resistance prisoners that could be offered in exchange for the missing Kämpfe. Meier immediately offered to release his most senior prisoner and this man was asked if he was willing to take a message to his leaders concerning the release of Kämpfe. Given that a captured Resistance man's most likely future was a painful interrogation, followed by death, he not surprisingly agreed. The offer that he was to put to his superiors was, release Kämpfe unharmed and the Germans would in their turn release 30 captive Resistance prisoners and in addition pay the sum of 35,000 Reichsmarks (some accounts say 40,000). This amount was not a ransom, for no demand was ever made by the Resistance at any time for money, rather it was intended to show how seriously the SS wanted the safe return of Kämpfe.
If the money had in fact ever been paid, then Stadler would have had to justify this action to his superiors, for as far as I am aware there was no precedent for such an unmilitary act as buying the freedom of an SS officer. The SS would not have liked the idea of their members and especially their senior members being regarded as negotiable currency. This was a very dangerous precedent to set and not one to have undertaken lightly.
The Resistance prisoner was taken to the last sentry post on the outskirts of Limoges (I do not know on which road this was) and released, this would be at about 12:00 midday. He later telephoned during the early evening to say that as yet he had not found his leaders, then nothing more was heard from him. Later, in 1953, during the trial at Bordeaux it was revealed that he had indeed eventually found his chief (believed to be Georges Guingouin) but, "nothing came of it", according to Canou giving evidence at the trial.
An important omission from those giving evidence at Bordeaux was Georges Guingouin, or any other important Resistance leader. The court therefore never heard at first hand what happened to Kämpfe. This question is so obvious and important that one has to ask why they were not summoned to appear? The answer in the case of Guingouin at least, seems to have been that in 1953 he was personally involved in a considerable scandal over his wartime conduct and probably therefore was unwilling, unable, or unwanted.
For details of what happened at Oradour on the afternoon of the 10th June, see: Chapter 2 of In a Ruined State on this website.
It is obvious, but I will state it anyway, by the early evening when the ex-prisoner telephoned to say that he had not yet located his superiors; Oradour-sur-Glane already lay in ruins.
Diekmann arrived back in Limoges at around 17:30 and reported to Stadler as follows:
Stadler did ask Brigadeführer Lammerding for a court martial investigation and one was promised as soon as circumstances permitted, see: Kahn's statement. Eventually this was to take place in Normandy shortly after the Division arrived there and Weidinger had been promoted to lead the Der Führer Regiment following Stadler's leaving to take up command of the Hohenstaufen Division on the 14th June, (this was not a planned promotion, it was as a result of the Hohenstaufen Divisional commander being killed in action).
At some time later that evening Diekmann returned to Oradour taking with him (amongst others) Erwin Dagenhardt, who in 1953 was to be one of the accused at the Bordeaux trial. Dagenhardt it appears had not visited Oradour at all previously that day, as he seems to have been assigned to the motor pool and had spent that morning and afternoon in Limoges. He was the only one of those tried in 1953 who was acquitted, see: Chapter 5 of In a Ruined State. It is possible (but I have no proof) that Diekmann and Dagenhardt were the occupants of the German staff car that was reported as passing through Veyrac that evening, see: Chapter 2 of In a Ruined State.
After all the dramatic events of the day, the night of the 10th June passed quietly in the area occupied by Diekmann's Battalion around St. Junien. In other areas, parts of the Division came under sporadic attack from the Resistance.
Sunday 11th to Thursday 29th June 1944:
During Sunday afternoon, the Division received an order from OKW to continue the March northwards to the invasion front the next day (Monday 12th June). I am not sure what caused this change from Sperrle's original idea of using Das Reich for an anti-Resistance sweep, but it obviously made more military sense to use an SS-Panzer Division in Normandy than chasing shadows of no real military substance in the middle of France.
There was one last small operation carried out on Sunday by part of III Battalion of Der Führer, which acting upon received intelligence, moved against a French Police unit which had changed sides and was hiding in the forest. It was a short-lived fight, the Police had been warned and only a few were captured and a few German prisoners freed.
The time is not absolutely certain, but it seems that it was today, that radio messages were intercepted from, or to, Resistance units saying that in view of the great sacrifices of Tulle and Oradour, all action against the German forces in the south of France must cease. The men of Das Reich did indeed notice a dramatic change in the level of Resistance activity from this day onwards. During the time that Otto Weidinger spent in French prisons prior to his own trial and acquittal in 1951, he heard from members of the French security police that: "the entire French resistance movement had suffered such a shock from Tulle and Oradour that they were incapable of action for weeks" (Comrades to the End).
The March north continued over the following days and the Division found that once they had crossed the Loire, they were compelled to move at night. This was because of the overwhelming power and presence of the allied air force. Fighter aircraft seemed to be everywhere, many being equipped with anti-tank rockets and cannon. The first of these attacks was during the day on the 12th June and in view of their increasing frequency, from the 13th onwards, all movement was carried out during the short summer nights. This must have placed the men of the Division under yet another stress, having to change night into day in order to move, but at least the Resistance attacks had ceased.
I do not know for certain what further action the Division as a whole, or Der Führer in particular carried out in continuing to search for Kämpfe between the morning of 11th and their beginning to march north at 06:00 on Tuesday morning. It is my belief that they did nothing at all, but I have no hard evidence to support this view.
On 14th June, Sylvester Stadler was promoted to the command of 9th SS-Panzer Division Hohenstaufen (named after the First Reich which was also known as, Das Stauferreich, see: Notes) and Otto Weidinger was promoted to command Der Führer.
By the 17th June, Der Führer had reached its quartering area to the south-east of St. Lô and there it remained until the 26th June, hidden under camouflage netting. It was during this interlude that the divisional court heard evidence from Diekmann and Kahn as to what had happened at Oradour, see Kahn's statement. It must be remembered that both these men had not been relived of their commands and had kept their positions in the Regiment. I do not have a date for this inquiry but it must have commenced shortly after the Division as a whole reached the Normandy area and before Diekmann was killed on the 29th June, say about the 26th June. Kahn in his statement says that he was interviewed "approximately 5 - 6 days" after the 29th whilst he was still with the Regiment following his first wounding during the night of 29 - 30 June (obviously this date is after Diekmann was killed and Kahn could easily have claimed that he was only following orders). Following Kahn's more serious wounding of 1st August, Das Reich seems to have quietly forgotten the whole business.
It is noteworthy that the Division was not thrown either piecemeal or as a whole straight into the battle to repel the invasion, but had over a week's rest and preparation first.
It was only after the Division had arrived in Normandy that they received a complaint from OKW concerning the events at Oradour and it was during this time that Rommel was supposed to have made his offer to preside over the court martial.
The evidence laid before the divisional court by Diekmann in defence of his action was as follows:
Weidinger also wrote in, Comrades to the End:
With Diekmann's death near Noyers in Normandy on 29th June 1944, followed by Kahn's serious wounding on 1st August (when he lost his left arm), the whole Oradour business could be conveniently dropped. For the Germans, Tulle had never been an issue, so no further investigation was required and they could get on with the serious business of containing the invasion front. With the removal of the two most senior officers involved, there is no evidence that anyone in the German armed forces ever bothered with the case again.
Later: (see: Dramatis Personae for more detail of particular individuals).
After the liberation of France, Oradour became a symbol for many things, war, peace, humanity, inhumanity, courage, cowardice, dictatorship, democracy, in fact for just about all themes and their opposites. It was and still is a very potent name in France, arousing strong emotions mostly concerning the nature of collaboration and resistance.
The decision was taken early on, to preserve Oradour, "in a ruined state" so that future generations would have something to look at in order to remember more effectively. Exactly what they were to remember has never been made explicitly clear, other than the obvious statement that, 'war is a bad thing and should be avoided'. This preservation has naturally led to a degree of artificiality creeping in to the appearance of the ruins. Over the years souvenir hunters have removed many artefacts from the houses. This is usually a pointless activity and typically these souvenirs are not kept, but eventually thrown away. The 'Car of Doctor Desourteaux' has gradually been stripped of engine, wheels, seats, glass etc and is today a thin rusting shell, coated in a wax preservative.
As time rolls on the problems of preservation will become more acute and I can see that a degree of re-building will become necessary in order to preserve the status quo. Looking in the houses at present, one can see objects that have obviously been posed, such as rusty sewing machines stood on ledges, where they did not belong when the house was occupied. This attempt to bring the ruins to an appearance of only just destroyed, is very artificial and is not to be commended.
As a matter of interest, in May 2000 civil engineers had dug up part of the main street in order to repair the drainage system. This remember, in a village that no one had lived in for over 55 years. Eventually Oradour will become like 'Grandfathers axe', he repaired it so often, that eventually the head had been replaced twice and the shaft three times. It takes much time and effort to keep an old ruin looking like a new ruin and gradually, originality is lost forever (see: Rememberig the past for more detail on this point)
Of the survivors of Oradour who were not present on the day, most chose to live either in the new village when it was built, or close by. I do not know how many of them are still alive today. Roger Godfrin who was by far the youngest, passed away at the beginning of 2001, see: picture
Mme Rouffanche died in March 1988 aged 91, see: grave.
The survivors of the Laudy barn were all in their 20's at the time, but by August 2011 only Robert Hébras and Marcel Darthout were still alive.
According to Otto Weidinger, the Der Führer Regiment was 'bled white' about three times over by the war's end. By that he meant that of the approximately 3,500 soldiers that made up the Regiment's full strength, they had a total of over 10,000 men move through the unit, both killed and disabled, between 1939 and 1945. The Division Das Reich as a whole suffered terrible losses in Normandy, Lammerding was himself wounded and had to give up command for a short time. Eventually the remnants of the Division, who ended the war on the eastern front, managed to surrender to the Americans, which according to Weidinger, was a thoroughly unpleasant business.
Of the main characters on the SS side of this story, after the war, Heinrich Lammerding remained free, started a civil engineering business and died of natural causes in 1971.
Otto Weidinger after release from French prison in 1951 (he had been tried by the French on war crimes charges and acquitted on all counts) became the Das Reich Division and Der Führer Regiment historian, he died on the 10th January 1990.
Sylvester Stadler survived the war and was not charged with any war crimes at all, he passed away on 23rd August 1995.
Heinz Barth was 'found', living under his own name at Gransee in East Germany and was put on trial in East Berlin in 1983 for his part in Oradour. Various survivors from Oradour, including Robert Hébras and Marcel Darthout attended as witnesses. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and was released in July 1997 (after German re-unification) on the grounds that he was repentant and had suffered a series of illnesses, he was at this time 76 years old. During his trial he had confirmed that no weapons or explosives had been found in Oradour, also that he had not really known the reason for the attack, nor had he enquired, "In war one acts harshly and with the means available". He died in August 2007 at Gransee, Germany.
Karl Gerlach obviously survived the war, but I do not have any further details.
Otto Kahn survived and was said to have moved to Sweden with his family, but as I now know this was just a smokescreen to deflect attention from his true whereabouts. Otto Weidinger wrote in 1984, "Kahn died some years ago" and as I discovered in May 2006, Kahn died of natural causes in 1977, thus reinforcing Weidinger's reputation for telling the truth in his various writings.
On to Chapter 7 of In a Ruined State
© Michael Williams: 17th February 2001 ... revised
Tuesday, 04 October 2022