The story of Oradour-sur-Glane on 10th June 1944
Please note that if you have only read this Summary, you will have missed much important detail. As this page is intended to be self-contained, there are few links from it to other pages on the website. For the full story of what happened at Oradour-sur-Glane on the 10th June 1944, the factors that led up to the massacre and what happened later see: In a Ruined State on this website.
Towards the end of the Second World War, in a peaceful part of France, there took place the war crime of a particularly horrible murder of 642 men, women and children.
On the 10th of June 1944, a group of soldiers from the Der Führer regiment of the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich entered and then surrounded the small village of Oradour-sur-Glane, near to the city of Limoges.
At first, they told the Mayor, Jean Desourteaux, that there was to be an identity check and that everyone must go to the Champ de Foire (fairground) whilst this took place. After rounding up all the inhabitants that they could find, the SS then changed their story from that of an identity check, to one of searching for hidden arms and explosives. The soldiers then said that whilst they searched for the arms, the women and children must wait in the church and the men in nearby barns.
The women and children were marched off to the church, the children being encouraged by the soldiers to sing as they went. After they had left, the men were divided into six groups and led off to different barns in the village under armed guard. When the people were all safely shut away the SS began to kill them all.
A large gas bomb, seemingly made out of smoke-screen grenades and intended to asphyxiate the occupants, was placed in the church, but it did not work properly when it went off and so the SS had to use machine guns and hand grenades to disable and kill the women and children. After they had subdued all the occupants of the church, the soldiers piled wood on the bodies, many of whom were still alive and set it on fire.
Only one person managed to escape alive from the church and that was Madame Rouffanche. She saw her younger daughter who was sitting next to her killed by a bullet as they attempted to find shelter in the vestry. Madame Rouffanche then ran to the altar end of the church where she found a stepladder used to light the candles. Placing the ladder behind the altar she climbed up and threw herself through a window and out onto the ground some 10 feet below. As she picked herself up, a woman holding her baby tried to follow, but they were seen by the soldiers and both woman and child were killed. In spite of being shot and wounded five times, Madame Rouffanche escaped round the back of the church and dug herself into the earth between some rows of peas, where she remained hidden until late the next day.
At the same time that the gas bomb exploded in the church, the SS fired their machine guns into the men crowded in the barns. They deliberately fired low, so that many of the men were badly wounded but not killed. The soldiers then piled wood and straw on the bodies and set it alight, many of the men thus burned to death, unable to move because of their injuries. Six men did manage to escape from Madame Laudy's barn, but one of them was seen and shot dead, the other 5 all wounded, got away under cover of darkness.
Whilst these killings were taking place, the soldiers searched the village for any people who had evaded the initial roundup and killed them where they found them. One old invalid man was burned to death in his bed and a baby was baked to death in the local bakery ovens, other people were killed and their bodies thrown down a well. People who attempted to enter the village to see what was going on were shot dead. A local tram which arrived during the killings was emptied of passengers, who after several terrifying minutes were let go in peace.
After killing all the villagers that they could find, the soldiers set the whole village on fire and early the next day, laden with booty stolen from the houses, they left.
The soldiers then journeyed on up through France to Normandy and joined the rest of the German army in attempting to throw the allied invasion back into the sea. Many of them, including Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, who had led the attack on Oradour-sur-Glane, were killed in the Normandy battles.
What has fascinated people ever since the 10th of June 1944, is why did the SS act as they did? Why did they turn up at Oradour that day and without mentioning anything to the inhabitants, kill them all? That a few people survived the attack was not due to any lack of zeal on the part of the SS, but why did they do it?
There had never been any obvious Resistance activity in the village, the Germans had never been attacked by the inhabitents and after the killings were over the SS left without saying why they had done it to anyone at all. If the attack had been a reprisal for some violence towards the German forces, it would be normal for the Germans to say (loudly) to all the local population, 'that's what you get when you help the Resistance, let that be a lesson to you all'. But they did not, they just left without saying a word.
To understand the reason why, we must go back to the end of the First World War in 1918. After Germany was defeated, the allies, mainly France, made her pay a very heavy price for the war and this led to very strong feelings of resentment. There was much hardship within Germany in the years between the end of the war in 1918 and the 1930's and this enabled a young Austrian called Adolf Hitler to become the ruler of the country in 1933. Hitler led the Nazi party, which was an extremely violent and racist group, with the express intention of restoring Germany's prestige by winning back all her losses and making the country strong and internationally respected.
The Nazi party vigorously persecuted all groups that they did not like, such as the communists and especially, the Jews. As a result of their violent nature and the attacks upon them by other parties the Nazis created a special group of soldiers called the, Schutzstaffel, or SS (the name means, Protection Squad) to act as the bodyguards of the party leaders. These men were chosen to be armed guards of the Nazi movement and to be totally loyal to Hitler and his party; they were 'political soldiers'.
The SS made blind obedience to orders a virtue and any sign of compassion to their enemies was regarded as a sign of weakness. They were fanatics, who showed no mercy and expected no mercy in return.
Eventually Hitler's aggressive politics proved too much and when he invaded Poland on 1st September 1939, both Britain and France declared war. At first Germany was very successful and quickly conquered Poland and then turned on France, defeating her in June 1940.
France asked for peace terms, which were granted by the Germans. As a result France was divided up into 9 zones, only one of which was allowed to be ruled by Frenchmen, the others were governed by Germany and her allies. After about a year, or so the French Resistance movement came into being and from 1941 up to the end of the war in France in 1944, they were a thorn in the flesh for the German occupiers. The French Resistance was not a single united group, especially in the beginning they were disorganised and very weak. Eventually two main groups were formed; the largest was controlled from London by General Charles de Gaulle and the smaller by the French Communist Party. The communists were called the FTP and they were a ruthless group who during the war years killed many French people whom they suspected of working with the Germans.
The part of France which was allowed to govern itself was called, Vichy France, because its headquarters were at the spa town of Vichy. The Vichy government had its own ruthless and brutal set of guards called the Milice and they were absolutely hated by all members of the Resistance, who regarded them as traitors.
From the defeat of France in 1940 the war was to last for nearly another 5 years, with massive loss of life on all sides, most estimates putting the total number of dead as being around 30 million people, mostly civilians. It may seem strange that more civilians died than did soldiers, but that is the way it was. Many people were killed in air raids on cities and many died of starvation, especially in Russia. The most shameful part of the war and the part that was carried out by the SS was the murder of about 6 million Jews of all nationalities, for no other reason than that they were Jewish.
After the initial easy successes Hitler decided to attack Russia in 1941 and at first things went well for the Germans and then they faltered, were halted and eventually were driven back to Germany. By early 1944, the war was going badly for them and it was about to get even worse as the British, Americans, Canadians and the Free French were getting ready to invade northern France in June of that year.
Towards the end of 1943 the 2nd SS-Panzer Division, Das Reich, was moved from Russia to southern France so that they could be re-equipped and re-train. One of Das Reich's young officers was Adolf Diekmann who had been severely wounded fighting the French in 1940. He had been shot through the lung and had spent several years as an instructor on light duties at the SS-officer training school at Bad Tölz, before going to Russia in the autumn of 1943. Another officer was Diekmann's friend Helmut Kämpfe, who had already spent several years in Russia and had recently won the Knights Cross for his bravery in halting a Russian tank attack.
When the invasion began on 6th June 1944, Das Reich was ordered to move north to Normandy to help the rest of the German army repel the allies and throw them back into the sea.
As soon as the SS began to move north they were attacked by the Resistance. At every step along the way they were ambushed and shot at. The soldiers began to detest the Resistance fighters who never wore uniforms and so could not be identified as the enemy until they started shooting. No soldier has ever liked guerrilla fighters, it is hard enough to face an enemy who is clearly marked, much worse to be shot in the back by a smiling civilian who has just passed you in the street.
The Resistance could not do much serious damage to Das Reich, but they could and did irritate the troops a great deal, in the same way that midges can spoil a picnic.
These attacks continued and then on the 8th of June the FTP Resistance tried to liberate the town of Tulle from the occupying German garrison. In the battle that followed, the FTP came close to capturing all the German troops, but before they could quite finish the job, that evening Das Reich arrived to the rescue. The SS made short work of the undisciplined and poorly armed Resistance fighters, who were soon in full retreat.
When the Germans had secured the town they found that the Resistance had killed and mutilated some surrendered garrison troops, so reprisals were called for. The SS rounded up all the men that they could find and after questioning them briefly, selected 120 of them to be hung from lampposts as a warning to the Resistance and anyone thinking of helping them. There was no proof that these 120 men were actually members of the Resistance, but that did not matter to the SS. After 99 had been hung, the soldiers ran out of rope and so the remainder were not killed on the spot, but deported to Germany as slave labourers.
On the 9th of June Das Reich was asked to help drive the Resistance off from another town garrison that they were attacking. This town was called Guéret and the group that went to its assistance was commanded by Helmut Kämpfe. After driving to the town the SS found that they were not needed and so they decided to return to their new headquarters at Limoges. Kämpfe recklessly decided to drive on ahead of his men and about 10 miles from Limoges he met a lorry carrying some Resistance fighters who kidnapped him. The Resistance men managed to avoid Kämpfe's men and took him to their local headquarters at Cheissoux, from where he seems to have been moved that night to Breuilaufa by way of Limoges. Whilst he was being driven through Limoges Kämpfe managed to throw his personal papers out of the vehicle as a clue to his whereabouts; they were found and handed in to his commanding officer, Sylvester Stadler. It seems that Kämpfe was killed by the Resistance at Breuilaufa either on the night of the 9th or early on the morning of the 10th of June.
During the day of the 9th June another officer, Karl Gerlach and his driver were kidnapped by the Resistance and according to Gerlach they were taken to Oradour-sur-Glane before being driven off to be killed. Gerlach managed to escape, but not his driver and he eventually managed to make his way back to Limoges to report to Stadler what had happened.
On the morning of the 10th June Diekmann travelled from his temporary headquarters at St. Junien to attend a meeting called by Stadler in Limoges and on arrival said that he had news from the Milice of an unnamed captured German officer being held at Oradour-sur-Glane. This man he now assumed to be Kämpfe and thus he requested permission to go and rescue him. Stadler is said to have agreed and added that if Kämpfe were not to be found, then Diekmann should take 30 or more hostages and hold them prisoner in order to force the Resistance to release him. Diekmann then left for Oradour via St. Junien after he had spoken to Gerlach in order to hear his story at first hand.
As we now know Diekmann did not attempt to take any hostages at all, he went to Oradour-sur-Glane simply to kill everyone. Later that afternoon he reported back to Stadler with the news of what he had done and Stadler is said to have been shocked at his news.
Stadler was supposed to be so upset at what Diekmann had done that he promised to have a Divisional court martial set up to try Diekmann for the crime of killing the women and children. The death of the men was not judged to be worthy of a trial, but that of the women and children was thought to be shocking. However, Diekmann was not relieved of his command, which makes me think that neither Stadler nor Lammerding, the commanding officer of Das Reich, were really very upset over what he had done. In the event Diekmann was killed in action on 29th June before the court could try him. After his death the German authorities let the matter drop and no one was ever tried by the German courts for the massacre.
From January to February 1953 a total of 21 men were tried by the French courts at Bordeaux for their part in the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, they were all members of the Der Führer regiment of Das Reich Division who had survived the war. None of them were officers; the highest rank was that of Sergeant. Of the 21 men, 14 of them came from the French province of Alsace, which had been taken over by the Germans following the French surrender in 1940. In the eyes of the Germans, these men had been German, in the eyes of the French; they were close to being traitors. Members of the Resistance said that they should have refused to take part in the massacre, that they should have helped their fellow countrymen escape and that they were even more guilty than the Germans. The lawyers defending the Alsatians said that with one exception they had been conscripted into the SS, that they had no choice but to obey and if they had refused they would have been shot.
What made the trial unusual is that 13 of the Alsatians had been at liberty before the trial started, one of them had in fact become a police inspector since the end of the war. Another had won the Croix de Guerre, France's highest military medal for valour after the end of the war, whilst fighting with the French army in Indo-China (present day Vietnam). The German defendants had been in prisoner-of-war camps since the end of the war in 1945.
The people of the province of Alsace wanted all the men freed at once whilst the people living in the Oradour area wanted them all executed at once. Obviously not everyone was going to like the verdicts when they were announced.
The trial took place in an atmosphere of bad temper within France and at the end, just two of the defendants were sentenced to death, the rest to prison for between 8 to 12 years. The verdicts produced an uproar in all parts of France, some thought they were much too lenient, others that they were much too harsh. Protests and demonstrations were held in the province of Alsace to assist in gaining the release of their men-folk. In the event all 21 men were released quite soon after the trial had ended.
I originally believed that Gerlach was not taken to Oradour-sur-Glane, but Oradour-sur-Vayres, about 35 miles away to the south. The two villages are very similar in appearance and it would be easy for him to get them confused. More recent evidence suggests that he may have been taken to Peyrilhac and seen a signpost giving him the impression that he was in Oradour-sur-Glane.
Next, I think that when the Milice came to see Diekmann on the morning of 10th June, they told him that an unknown "high-ranking German officer" was being held in Oradour-sur-Glane. Diekmann, who at this time did not know that Kämpfe had been kidnapped went to see Stadler in Limoges for a previously arranged meeting. At Limoges he learned from Stadler about Kämpfe's abduction and on returning to St. Junien, learned from his informants that Kämpfe had been killed.
It is most likely that the Milice got their facts wrong and confused the kidnapping of Gerlach with that of Kämpfe and possibly further confused Oradour-sur-Glane with Oradour-sur-Vayres. Remember that Kämpfe was taken to Breuilaufa and this is just north of Oradour-sur-Glane. He may well have been taken through the village on the way there, or even briefly stopped in Oradour-sur-Glane. It was this involvement which condemned Oradour-sur-Glane to destruction.
Diekmann never asked anyone at Oradour-sur-Glane about Kämpfe, or even mentioned to his men that they were going to look for him. This says to me that Diekmann never expected to find Kämpfe alive and that he believed him already dead. He would never have destroyed Oradour if he thought that he could use hostages to free Kämpfe unharmed.
© Michael Williams: minor revision August