Against All Odds – Survival at Oradour-sur-Glane
Prior to D-Day, the Allies conducted a large-scale deception campaign designed to mislead the German High Command as to the location of the imminent invasion of Europe. The purpose was to make the Germans believe the invasion would occur at Pas-de-Calais rather than at Normandy. The plan worked perfectly. A large number of German divisions were moved to the port of Pas-de-Calais, including units from the Normandy region.
Caught with their pants down, the German High Command was stunned to learn on the morning of June 6, 1944, some 156,000 American, British and Canadian forces had landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the coast of France’s Normandy region. At first most high-ranking German officers clung to the notion it was a diversion and that the actual invasion would still occur at Pas-de-Calais. Slow to react, it took a few days before the German High Command realized they had been deceived and ordered divisions to Normandy in an effort to stop the Allies from advancing. One division was the 2nd SS Panzer Division (Das Reich).
Nearly 440 miles southeast near the French town of Valence the division moved north to Normandy. With French rail network nearly destroyed by strategic Allied bombing, the division was forced to move by road. Along its rush north, it came under constant harassing attacks by the French resistance (Maquis) which over several days managed to kill or wound some 40 German troops near the village of Tulle. In retribution for each German casualty, Das Reich soldiers hanged three male citizens of Tulle – 120 men in all.
By June 10 elements of Das Reich had advanced only about 190 miles when word came down that the Maquis had captured a German officer.
According to the Vichy French collaborationists the Maquis had taken SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Helmet Kampfem and was holding him in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.
Later that day SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Adolf Diekmann, commander of 1st Battalion, 4th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment, moved into Oradour-sur-Glane, possibly mistaken it for nearby Oradour-sur-Vayres. His aim was exacting revenge and teaching the French a lesson for supporting the French Resistance movement. They assembled all of the townspeople in the central square under the guise of having their identity papers checked. In addition to all of the local residents who were present on that day, the SS also ensnared six young people who did not live there but had the great misfortune of just having ridden through town on a bicycle trip when the Germans arrived.
The women and children were separated from the men and locked inside the village church. The men were taken to six barns where the SS had already moved machine guns into place.
The Nazis shot the men in their legs to prolong the agony. Once all the men in the barns were immobile, the structures were doused with fuel and set on fire. 190 men perished there. Six were able to escape.
wounds. She crawled to some bushes behind the church and lay bleeding all night until she was rescued the following morning.
She was hospitalized for over a year; but her psychic wounds never fully healed. She grieved and held vigil for her loved ones and her village for the rest of her life. She died in 1988.
Among those to escape death in the burning barns was Robert Hebras. His mother Marie and two sisters, Georgette, 22, and nine-year-old Denise were not so fortunate. They were among those brutally murdered at the church.
Although he lives in another Village, Hebra sometimes visits the remains of what had once been Oradour-sur-Glane.
Walking through the ruins, tears in his aged eyes, the 87-year-old remembers the warm, thriving little community that was his village…before the Nazis and their trucks came.
He said he was not concerned when the Germans rounded everyone up but after putting him in a barn he realized what might be going on. That is when the Germans began firing their machine guns. “Men in front of me just started falling. I got caught by several bullets but I survived because those in front of me got the full impact,” he said. “I was so lucky. Four of us remained completely still under piles of bodies. One man tried to get away before they had gone, he was shot dead.”
Hebras crawled out of the back of the barn as it was engulfed by fire and hid in the woods with burnt hair and a burnt left arm. When he felt it was safe he ran through the woods and took shelter with a relative who lived six miles away. There he was reunited with his father who had been out of the village working on a farm.
During the night of the massacre, the village was looted and torched.
In the following days, relatives of the dead were permitted to recover the charred bodies and bury them. The village was left as a ghost town in the aftermath of the massacre, and burnt-out cars and ruined buildings serve as a solemn reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
In 1953 a military tribunal in Bordeaux heard the case against 21 lower-ranking Waffen-SS troops who had been at Oradour-sur-Glane, 14 of whom were actually Alsatians. The 2nd SS Panzer Division’s commander, SS-Brigadefuhrer HeinzLammerding, was tried for the massacres at both Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane, convicted and sentenced to death in absentia but West Germany never extradited him. The court convicted 20 of the defendant and sentenced them to prison. French authorities soon granted the Alsatians amnesty and within five years the German defendants were also released.
Today, the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane are preserved as a memorial to the dead, and to acknowledge similar events that were perpetrated around Europe during the Second World War.