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Where only six survived the Nazi massacre

The Martyr Village of Oradour-sur-Glane

The remains of Oradour-sur-Glane preserved as a memento
(Photo: Wikipedia)

On June 6, 1944, Allied troops landed in Normandy and began the liberation of France. German commanders quickly realized that groups of the French Resistance could aid the invasion by carrying out acts of sabotage, slowing down German reinforcements headed for Normandy. They stepped up their efforts to stamp out resistance through merciless retaliation against French freedom fighters.
One unit involved in these efforts was the battle-hardened 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich", a veteran of the Eastern front with a history of atrocities committed against civilians. The division was on its way north, but their progress was hampered by local Resistance efforts. Men from the division have hanged 99 men in the town of Tulle in central France on the 9th of June as one act of reprisal; but they gained even greater infamy through their actions the next day.

A Tiger tank from the 2nd SS Panzer Division in Normandy in 1944
(Photo: ww2-weapons.com)
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One particular officer of the division, SS-Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe, was captured by Communist guerillas on the 9th and killed the next day, allegedly by being burned alive. The Germans received news of his capture, and probably of his death, the same day, and a personal friend of his, SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, was placed in charge of the reprisal. Diekmann was a true admirer of National Socialism and used to train new recruits at the SS training facility for future SS leaders in Bad Tölz and fought already in Poland in 1939 among the ranks of the SS “Germania” regiment. We don't really know why Diekmann chose Oradour-sur-Glane as the target for the reprisal, but one particular theory claims that the Germans were acting on the reports of informants, and have accidentally confused the place with another village, Oradour-sur-Vayres, located some 15 miles / 24 km away. Beside the similar name, the two villages were of a very similar size and population, they had similar natural environments, and a similar road layout. It's possible that the Germans actually intended to destroy Oradour-sur-Vayres and simply went to the wrong village because of misunderstood directions.

Helmut Kämpfe, whose death sparked the massacre
(Photo: Wikipedia)

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It is certain that Diekmann's forces soon showed up in the unsuspecting village on halftracks and trucks. The locals (and six others who just happened to be bicycling through the village) were quickly rounded up under the pretense of searching the village for weapons, and the women and children were separated from the men. The former were ushered into the local church building, while the latter were told to empty a nearby barn of the carriages stored inside and then go in. While some of the SS troops looted the village, others have set up machine guns around the two buildings in preparation of the massacre.

Adolf Diekmann, the SS officer responsible for the massacre, with his son
(Photo: ww2gravestone.com)

When the order was given, an incendiary device was placed either next to the church or inside it, and then detonated. Women and children trying to get out through the doors and the windows were machine gunned down. Meanwhile, soldiers around the men's barn opened up with their own machine guns, aiming them at leg height to render the victims inside unable to walk. Once the firing ceased, SS men went inside, covered the wounded in straw, and set the barn on fire. Later that night, when the killings ended, the village was partially razed.

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A September 1944 photograph of the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

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There were only a few survivors. Some fifteen to twenty residents fled the village at the first sight of the Germans, and either six or seven more managed to escape the slaughter after it began. Two women and a child escaped the church through the rear window of the sacristy. All three were hit by bullets, but one of them, 47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche, made it to the bushes and hid overnight. A few of the men also escaped. Five were miraculously protected from machine gun fire by the bodies of others standing near them, and they used their knives to break through the rotting wooden wall of the barn into the adjacent one. Two of the five were trapped in a burning cellar while hiding from Germans who peeked inside the other barn, and a third man was wounded and could not follow the others. 19-year-old Robert Hébras and his friend, Mathieu Borie, eventually reached the edge of the village and disappeared into the night. Hébras, 96 years old today, is the last survivor of the massacre.

A 2019 photograph of Robert Hébras, the last living survivor, at the site of the massacre
(Photo: France 3 Limousin)

642 were murdered that day: 245 women, 190 men, and 207 children. Seven of them were Jewish refugees hiding in the village. The war in Western Europe was generally less brutal than the Eastern Front, and the events at Oradour-sur-Glane even outraged some of the Nazis. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, General Walter Gleiniger and the Vichy government all voiced their protests, and Diekmann's superior, SS-Standardenführer Sylvester Stadler, decided that an investigation was warranted. The investigation ended in early 1945 and concluded that Diekmann's actions were justified. Diekmann, however, could no longer rejoice at the news. He died in action against Allied forces in Normandy in Noyers-Bocage near Caen on June 29, along with many of the soldiers present at the massacre. He is buried at the La Cambe German war cemetery not far from Omaha Beach.

Diekmann’s grave at the La Cambe German war cemetery
(Photo: Author’s own)

Post-war trials of surviving perpetrators never went very far. Many of the participants were living in East Germany, and the Communist government there refused to cooperate in bringing them to justice. Some were French nationals forcefully drafted in the SS against their will, and were not punished. Only two war criminals implicated in the atrocity were eventually executed, and five more faced prison sentence.

Sylvester Stadler, the Nazi who ordered an investigation into the massacre, in Russia
(Photo: Wikipedia)

After the war, French Head of State, Charles de Gaulle, decided that the destroyed village should not be rebuilt, but instead preserved as a "Martyr Village" similar to other sites that were destroyed in World War One. A new village of the same name was built next to the remains, while the ruins remain a permanent memorial and museum.

Aerial photo of the remains of the village
(Photo: The National WWII Museum New Orleans)

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