Key Point: The ruins and their meager contents remain frozen in time, at the moment of the village’s destruction.
Upon visiting Oradour-sur-Glane, one finds a quiet, rural French village where the populace carries on about its business much like in any commune in France. However, there are two Oradour-sur-Glanes, and one of them, while quiet, is not peaceful. The original Oradour retains all of the scars of the atrocity committed there on June 10, 1944.
The French region of Limousin had been a hotbed of communist resistance to German occupation since the organization of the first guerrilla bands, or maquis, in the spring of 1942. Young men attempting to avoid deportation to Germany as forced labor swelled the ranks of militant resistors. The communist strategy was to use every opportunity to inflict damage on the Germans or the French that supported them. As the anticipated Allied invasion of the European continent grew near, attacks and reprisals increased in frequency and ferocity.
Das Reich’s Reprisals After D-Day
Although only 38 years old, Brigadeführer (brigadier general) Heinz Lammerding was appointed commander of the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich,” somewhat because of his friendship with SS chieftain Heinrich Himmler. Trained as an engineer, he was an early convert to Nazism and became an SS member in 1935. During Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union begun in June 1941, he had participated in the destruction of entire villages that had been accused of harboring partisans.
Stationed in the south of France, Das Reich had been rebuilding after losses suffered in Russia. Although most of the unit’s troops were 17- or 18-year-old boys, the core officers and NCOs were experienced fighters from the Eastern Front. After the Allies had landed their armies on the coast of Normandy, the German high command (OKW) struggled with the question of how best to respond while maintaining control of the interior. There was little argument that additional forces would be required to repel the invasion, but Army Group G headquarters in Toulouse was receiving reports of uprisings throughout central and southern France. An OKW signal stated: “It is necessary to use intimidating measures against the inhabitants. It is necessary to break the spirit of the population by making examples.” The division received orders to prepare to move north.
Emboldened by the invasion and having received arms and instructions from Allied planners, the French Resistance erupted in armed revolt, determined to delay the movement of German forces. Roadside trees were dropped across highways, telephone cables cut, bridges blown, and small German detachments ambushed. Uncoordinated bands of fighters skirmished with 2nd SS Panzer units as they moved toward Limoges, inflicting some German casualties while suffering losses due to lack of discipline and heavy weapons.
On June 7, in an all-out maquis assault on the German garrison town of Tulle, the Germans suffered 97 casualties including 37 dead in two days of street fighting. The resistance went as far as to declare the city of 21,000 liberated from German forces. The Tulle uprising was put down by men of Das Reich Reconnaissance Battalion No 2. On June 9, a group of 99 suspected members of the resistance were hanged from the town’s balconies and lamp posts; 149 were deported to Dachau, and of those only 38 survived the war.
On that same evening, Sturmbannführer (major) Helmut Kämpfe, commander of the division’s Battalion No. 3, was returning to his main force in Limoges accompanied only by his chauffeur after putting down a similar uprising in the town of Guéret. Their car was stopped by maquis near La Bussière, 24 kilometers northeast of the city; the chauffeur was shot and Kämpfe taken prisoner. Later that night, the resistance sabotaged a section of railroad track and viaduct in St.-Junien. While the passengers and 10 German soldiers were walking around the damaged section, two of the soldiers were shot.
The Germans applied the antiterrorist technique they had learned fighting the partisans in Russia—instant and indiscriminant reprisal. Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann (sometimes incorrectly referred to as Otto Dickmann), a close personal friend of Kämpfe, led men of the SS Der Führer Regiment’s Battalion No. 1 against the town of Oradour-sur-Glane to exact punishment. What happened next raised Oradour to the level of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, a town that had been wiped out in reprisal for the assassination of high-ranking SS officer Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942, in the annals of World War II crimes against civilians.
The Town of Oradour-sur-Glane
In 1944, Oradour-sur-Glane was a thriving market town, thriving as much as it could in occupied France, but its inhabitants seldom suffered from want, as Oradour had a reputation for abundant food provided by the lush countryside’s numerous farms. Consequently, the town was overflowing with civilian evacuees, including Spaniards who had fled fascism and found the town after defeat in the Spanish Civil War. A few Alsatians who had been evacuated from the French province at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 chose to stay rather than reenter territory claimed as part of the Third Reich. French citizens from Lorraine who had fled their homes before the Germans closed the border found shelter among their countrymen. A few Jews living under assumed names hid among the locals. They all had sought safety in the heart of rural France.
Although the town’s normal population was about 330, on this peaceful Saturday, June 10, 1944, its population had risen to 650. An antiquated, one-track tram line operated between Limoges and St.-Junien, passing through the length of the town from its station near the Mairie and down the hill to the stop on the opposite side of the town by the river. Saturday shoppers crowded the few operational cars to complete their weekly search for produce. Even though it was Saturday, schoolchildren from the countryside were in town for a planned health inspection. Adults joined them as they awaited the distribution of the tobacco ration. There was little concern in Oradour, as it garrisoned no troops, hid no guns, had no history of resistance, and generally played no part in the war.
Rounding Up the Town’s Citizens
At approximately 1:30 pm, a 180-man detachment from the 3rd Company, commanded by Hauptsturmführer (captain) Otto Kahn, appeared from the direction of Limoges and searched the isolated farm buildings lying to the south of the town. They gathered up the civilians as they moved north after setting fire to their homes and barns. One such patrol came upon the tenant farm of Jean Rouffanche and his 47-year-old wife, Marguerite. Along with their extended family of two children, a grandchild, and a grandmother, they were herded along with others into Oradour.
Some minutes later, a convoy of trucks, halftracks, and cars crossed the Glane bridge and rode up Rue Emile Desourteaux, the town’s main street. The Germans debouched and rapidly sealed the town. At first, most local people were only interested in enjoying their noon meal, as the town had a history of being left alone by the German authorities and few incidents had occurred in the area. However, several refugee Jewish families did take alarm; the Pinéde family, lodging in the Hotel Avril, hid their three children in a closet under the hotel stairway. Several young men wishing to avoid forced labor in Germany also hid in various buildings or escaped through the fields.
Dr. Jean Desourteaux was the town’s mayor as well as its doctor, as was his father before him. His son was also a doctor, and the Desourteaux family was the most prominent in the town. Sturmbannführer Diekmann ordered the mayor to the Champ de Foire, or marketplace, where he demanded that all the town residents present themselves for an identity check. Random reviews of identification papers were a standard activity of occupation. No threats had been received and none given. However, the first sense of alarm ran through the assembling townspeople as the SS set up machine guns in the market.
Military trucks carrying people from the outlying communities arrived in the market square. Troops spread through the town, pounding on doors, searching buildings, and hurrying the dawdlers along. As the crowd in the market grew, people were talking and milling about, but the actual check of identity papers was slow to start.
Dr. Jacques Desourteaux returned from visiting a patient and parked his automobile near the marketplace. Escorted by an SS man, he joined the conversation between his father and Hauptsturmführer Kahn, who was using a French-speaking SS soldier as interpreter. Kahn demanded 30 hostages; Dr. Desourteaux refused but offered himself and his four sons.
Then a few isolated gunshots were heard. Some of those attempting to escape the town had been sighted and killed. The mayor and some citizens tried to keep the crowd calm. Soldiers started to separate the men from the women and children. Other soldiers began to demand the locations of arms or ammunition illegally stored in the town. To simplify the search process, the women and children, totaling approximately 400, were led to the church, where they could supposedly wait in comfort. The men were ordered to sit in three rows facing the north wall of the fairground, where they were asked to give up any unauthorized weapons. One old and properly registered hunting gun was declared but ignored.