Just a few miles to the northeast of Limoges, France, is one of the most poignant and tragically beautiful of all war memorials.
Today, the town of Oradour-sur-Glane has a population of just over two thousand. It is a thriving little city with amenities including a sports complex and a seafood market. The town of Oradour doesn’t have much to recommend it to tourists, except for one thing: the town is not the real Oradour. Any tourists who visit come to see what used to be, not what is.
The “real” Oradour lies about two hundred meters to the southwest of the modern town. The original Oradour is a town frozen in time. If anyone lives there, it is the ghosts of those who perished there on June 10th, 1944.
Four days after the invasion in Normandy, elements of the 2nd Waffen-SS Division “Das Reich” were in the area, heading slowly towards the Allied landings in the north. It would take Das Reich two weeks in total to get to Normandy, a trip which should have taken just a couple of days.
Impeding its way north was the overwhelming Allied air power which attacked virtually anything that moved during the day. The division also had to contend with the lack of functional railroads, which had been damaged by both the Allied Air Forces and the Resistance, not to mention the occasional crude roadblocks and snipers’ bullets from the Resistance.
Also in the area were the Milice (militia), the collaborationist fascist police. Many Frenchmen despised them more than they despised the Nazis. Much of the war in France during the Occupation took place between the Milice and the Resistance, with the Germans watching the two tear themselves apart.
On the morning of June 10th, the 4th Grenadier Regiment of Das Reich, designated “The Führer”, arrived near the town. Milice officers approached and told the SS that the Resistance was holding a Waffen-SS officer hostage in the nearby town of Oradour-sur-Vayres (which lies to the south of Oradour-sur-Glane).
Mistaking the two towns, the regiment marched into Oradour-sur-Glane, and prepared to order the mayor to provide hostages against the Waffen-SS officer’s life. Hostage-taking was an unfortunate and tragic by-product of the Nazi occupation in the West, especially in France, where thousands were killed in reprisal for Resistance action. But somewhere along the line, the men of Das Reich changed their minds.
When the residents of the town assembled in the square, the men were separated from the women. The men were then marched off to barns on the edge of town where machine guns and SS troops were awaiting them. The SS troops opened fire, aiming for the legs of civilians. As the villagers lay on the ground, many still alive, they were doused in fuel before being set alight. 190 men were executed while the SS watched. Six men managed to escape in the chaos – one was later shot and recaptured as he fled down a road.
The women and children, who had been locked in the town church, listened to the sounds of their men being shot. Then the SS placed an incendiary device next to the church. When it exploded, many of those inside met a terrible end. The rest rushed outside where the SS were waiting with machine guns. 247 women and 205 children were casually cut down as they fled. Only one middle-aged woman escaped.
Some of the villagers had run for the woods as soon as the Waffen-SS appeared. Along with the five male survivors and the woman from the church, they made a group of about thirty. The next day, when the SS had left, those survivors returned to bury their neighbors.
Before he fell in combat, SS officer Adolf Diekmann, who had been present, declared that the crimes were done in revenge for the actions of a nearby Resistance cell and the capture and execution of an SS officer. Diekmann was subject of a military inquiry initiated by Rommel, but after his death, the inquiry was ended.
In 1953, a variety of SS men were put on trial in France. Some of these men were Alsatians, from the region on the Franco-German border that had passed back and forth between Germany and France since 1871. They were found guilty, but with Alsace being a French province again, they were released on a technicality after an uproar in Alsace itself.
A small number of Germans, who had been deported from Western Germany, were found guilty, but with the caveat that they were “just following orders”. They were released from jail within five years. The officers in charge were either dead or could not be deported for international political reasons. One SS man was put on trial in 1983 and served fourteen years before being released.
Charles De Gaulle, the post-war leader of France, ordered that Oradour should never be rebuilt. Though a town of the same name exists, the old town is a memorial, left exactly as it was in June, 1944. A large memorial lies to the north of the old town itself, commemorating not only the dead of Oradour, but all of the innocents that died during the war.