|There were so many ‘crimes of the century’ committed in the 20th Century that it is hard to point a finger at the worst atrocity. What happened in the tiny village in France in 1944 takes a lot of beating.|
I’d just spent ten days in the South of France, six days at the Cannes Film Festival and the last four at the Monaco Grand Prix, and was heading for Calais and the ferry to Dover. I’d done about a hundred miles when the thought of Oradour floated into my mind. Oradour sur Glane. I had promised myself that the next time I was in France I would do my best to pay the little village near Limoges a visit. Was this the time? I was motoring north, right of centre, through France and Oradour was definitely way off to the left. On the far side of the Massif Central in fact. I stopped at a petrol station and pulled out the Michelin. Limoges was only a few inches away. Hang a left at Lyons and I’d be on my way. I set out westward determined to take in Oradour, maybe a sweep through Poitiers and still be in Calais for the last ferry of the day. The Massif turned out to be not that massive. At a ‘comfort break’ I found that it was still pretty primitive though. I hadn’t seen the footprints and hole in the ground for a long time although the configuration used to be pretty standard in some of the less swish places. I was also experiencing a little brake fade which necessitated a slow pace and a lot of gear changing. Even so I arrived at the entrance to Oradour in the late afternoon. I was surprised to find the village deserted – not even a gate keeper to answer questions.
And there were a lot of questions. On 10th June 1944, four days after the Allies landed in Normandy, one of the worst atrocities of WWll occurred. In three blood and fire seared hours the idyllic village was turned into a War Memorial. What happened there that sunny afternoon is still in dispute. Even the name of the Officer in charge of the massacre of innocent men, women and children is uncertain. Some records name him as Major Otto Dickmann. On his gravestone in La Cambre Cemetery in Northern France he is called Adolf Diekmann. It is suggested that at his preliminary Court Martial his first name was confused with his aide, Otto Khan. If this basic piece of information can cause doubt the harvest of stories and propaganda surrounding the tragedy cannot be easily verified.
The 2nd Waffen-SS Division Das Reich had been ordered by Hitler himself to stay out of trouble in the south until the true aims of the invading forces had been ascertained. Das Reich had been reinforced with Alsatians (the human kind) and Hitler Youth following the pasting they had taken in Russia. They were not a happy band of brothers. While the muttering went on between the Fuehrer and his Generals about the best way to use the Division the eye was momentarily taken off the ball. The Maquis, the French Resistance Force, had been told by the Allies that part of the invasion would be a simultaneous drop of parachute troops in the Dordogne area and they would be receiving a massive drop of weapons. The Maquis in Tulle decided to preempt the invasion by capturing the garrison post of Tulle. In an excess of zeal the Maquisards went on a murder rampage and murdered and mutilated 62 German soldiers. Unfortunately they had squeezed the trigger too soon. The rumoured paratroop invasion was a bit of misinformation to keep the Germans on the hop. The following day the Germans were back in force and rounded up the members of the Maquis who hadn’t the good sense to leave. This inspired a counter orgy and the Frenchmen were hung on lamp posts and slaughtered regardless of their part in the previous day’s short-lived coup.
The Germans, once they had the order to move up to the front line, were more interested in leaving than wreaking more vengeance. In the general bustle, on an isolated road, Lt. Colonel Kampfe, a close friend of Diekmann, became separated from a convoy he was with. When his absence was notice the convoy turned back to find him. They found his burned out car but no trace of the Colonel. Then 1st Lt. Gerlach turned up at headquarters in his underpants. He claimed he had been captured by the Maquisard, had his clothes stripped from his back and together with his driver, taken into the forest to be shot. During the trip he heard a couple of the men talking about the German Officer who had been captured and was scheduled to be ritually burned alive on the following day. Gerlach managed to get a look at a sign post at the side of the road which pointed to Oradour sur Glane. As Gerlach and his driver were dragged from the truck Gerlach’s driver put up a fight. This distracted the guards momentarily and Gerlach was able to escape. It was assumed that the officer spoken about was Kampfe. Brigadier Heinz Lammerding sent Diekmann with a patrol to Oradour to try and recover his friend and to offer inducements to the villagers to give their captive up. Force was only to be used as a last resort.
Walking along the main street into the village it was hard to believe the stories of the atrocities carried out there. There was plenty of evidence After the war the village was never rebuilt. It was still the way the Germans left it. None of the houses had roofs or windows. They had all gone in the orgy of arson the soldiers had indulged in as they searched for weapons and members of the Maquis. Looking through the windows it was possible to catch a glimpse of what sort of life the villagers led before the German trucks roared into the main street at 8.00am on that bright Summer’s day 60 years ago. 642 men, women and children were about to start what appeared to be a typical day in the life of the village. When the Germans left that evening the population had been reduced to 2.
The grey clad troops leapt from the lorries and began rounding up the villagers and corralling them in the Fair Ground – the village green. Diekmann addressed the terrified villagers from the back of his armoured staff car. He told them that if they handed over Colonel Kampfe immediately the `Germans would release 30 Maquisards they were holding under sentence of death and in addition pay a ransom of 40,000 francs. The Maire tried to explain that they would if they could but they weren’t holding Kampfe – so they couldn’t. Diekmann instantly ordered the separation of the people into two groups. Women and children in one, men in the other. The women were locked in the little Roman Catholic church.The men in three barns. Guards were mounted as the rest of the troops started searching the village. After searching and looting the houses they torched them. Diekmann tried to get in touch with Headquarters but the reception was bad in the area. He decided to make an example of the village that would send out a message that, just because the Allies had invaded it didn’t mean that the Nazi war machine was finished. He ordered his men to pile straw and timber around the church. He then set up machine guns facing the exits. He gave the signal for the flame to be put to the tinder and within minutes the church was ablaze. As the women tried to break out they were hit by a a hail of bullets from the machine guns. The screams from the burning women and children were only silenced by the roof caving in. In the tower the bronze bell, which had called the villagers to church for a hundred years, was melted by the heat. Only one woman escaped. Mme Rouffanche. Badly burned and wounded she managed to break out of a window and hide in the bushes behind the church. Diekmann now turned his murderous attention to the men. Again he ordered the places where they were held captive to be set alight. The men tried to break out and were mercilessly shot down by the waiting troops. When he was satisfied that the village had been destroyed he ordered his troops to prepare a feast with the food and wine gathered from the houses. It was a truly Dantean scene as the troops caroused the night away by the light of the fires from the burning buildings. In the morning they were gone. On their way to clash with the invading forces. Diekmann did not survive the villagers for long. He was killed in action at Normandy 19 days later. It was generally acknowledged that, unable to live with the atrocities the troops had carried out in his name, he committed suicide.
In the street, not far from the church, a small saloon, owned by the village doctor, stands, red with rust and sagging with age. A baby’s pram is not far away. A notice on it says that the baby was burned to death by the heat of a burning house. Looking through the gaping holes where the windows and doors had once been it was eerie to see rotting furniture, a sewing machine still waiting for the machinist to return, bicycles, skeletal outlines of rust and all the trappings of a working household now fast metamorphosing into dust. Outside the church a monument has been erected listing the names of the villagers that died that afternoon. I went down to the little river which runs beside the village. It was a beautiful spot and galaxies away from the memory of horror on display only a few yards away. I sat and wondered what was true and what was propaganda. Was Diekmann there as a crazy avenger of his friend Kampfe? Could the charges listed against him be substantiated? Or was there just one moment of panic and madness which turn a routine, if brutal, search of the village into a nightmare? There is a theory that the fire in the church might have been instigated by the Maquis in a propaganda attempt to ignite the wrath of the largely complacent Frenchmen in that area and vent it against the Germans. It is said that the Maquis had already hidden bombs and bomb making equipment in the church. While the troops were searching and burning the village a Maquisard was able to get into the church and detonate the cache. The evidence for this is largely forensic. Wood burns at between 200-400 degrees. Bronze melts around 1250 degrees. As the church flammable material was mainly wood there would not have been enough heat to melt the bell. It is also posited that Diekmann was at the other end of the village at the time. When he heard the explosion he assumed that they were under attack and didn’t much fancy having his 180 vengeful prisoners turned loose. In a panic he ordered his men to open fire.
Another scenario paints a totally different reason for the burning of the village. It is to do with gold. A couple of days before , on 8th July, a convoy carrying treasure ‘liberated’ by the Germans was ambushed and all the troops murdered. Some by being tied up in their vehicle and roasted alive. Most of the ambushers were also killed. Only one survived. When he searched the lorries he found two of them loaded with gold. He couldn’t believe his luck and spent the rest of the night hiding the treasure trove. It was the gold, a treasure hunt, the Germans had in mind when they pulled into the village of Oradour sur Glane. The story of the gold and its liberator and what happened after the war is fascinating but too complex to go into here. But it would account for a lot of what happened that afternoon.
And what happened to Lt. Colonel Kampfe whose disappearance started the whole debacle? It seems that Lt. Gerlach’s information about where his superior officer was to be ritually executed by burning alive was flawed. It actually happened not at Oradour sur Glane but in a village a little farther north – Breuilaufa.
Roger Godfrin, an 8 year old refugee from Alsace, watched the holocaust from his hiding place on the edge of the village. He had learned the hard way not to trust the Germans.
I left the remains of the little village as the sun was setting. A more tranquil spot couldn’t be imagined. During the whole of the ninety minutes or so I had spent there I hadn’t seen another human being or a sound which might signal movement nearby. I didn’t make Calais that evening but holed up in a roadside motel. I didn’t sleep much that night.
CSMA Leisure and Motoring – 20/12/04