The following article outlines an examination of the Oradour events using German sources.


by Marc Rikmenspoel

The events at Tulle and Oradour in the French Dordogne province in early June 1944 have long been considered a black mark against the 2. SS-Panzer Division Das Reich, and against the German forces as a whole. The case against them is widely told, but the German version of these events is barely known. The French version is based largely on the testimony and accounts of Communist Party members. Sometimes these were not even French citizens, but Spaniards in exile after their Civil War, Poles in exile from Poland, or Soviet citizens who fled from service in German units. These stories were told at a time when emotions still ran high from the Second World War. This renders their accounts suspect, and, in all fairness, they should be balanced against the admittedly self-interested German version of the events.

The Sperrle Orders were issued by Luftwaffe Field Marshall Hugo Sperrle on February 3, 1944. These ordered harsh reprisals to terrorist attacks, and tasked officers with placing the welfare of their men ahead of that of the civilian population. It was hoped that prompt, ruthless measures would spare lives in the long run. (1, 27-28)

Das Reich understood that it was to help pacify the Dordogne, and would be fighting civilians in conjunction with other German formations and the French Milice. Division members were prepared to carry out countermeasures in response to terrorist attacks. The main body of the division set out to the north from its assembly area near Bordeaux at 8:00 hours on June 8, with plans to reach its destination in the Tulle-Limoges area that evening. SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 4 Der Fuehrer commander SS-Standartenfuehrer Sylvester Stadler commanded the vanguard. SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 3 Deutschland commander SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Guenther-Eberhard Wisliceny commanded those elements of Das Reich that were not yet fully mobile, and remained near Bordeaux. (1, 9-12)

As the march progressed, the vanguard received reports of Maquis activity. Local German town and village commanders had set up roadblocks and checkpoints along the roads. The first resistance was met late in the afternoon when French civilians manned a roadblock and fired at the lead motorcycle platoon of 15./Der Fuehrer. They were quickly scattered. Brive, at the southernmost edge of the assembly area, was reached at 18:30 hours. There the Division command group came forward, and joined the town commander. This man was in contact with LXVI Reserve Army Corps headquarters, to whom Das Reich commander SS-Brigadefuehrer Heinz Lammerding was scheduled to report. Lammerding did report, and was informed that III./95. Security Regiment was surrounded in Tulle by Maquis forces. Lammerding was ordered to free the unit. (1,12)

The Das Reich recon unit, SS-Panzer Aufklarungs Abteilung 2, was sent towards Tulle under its commander SS-Sturmbannfuehrer Heinrich Wulf. It was fired upon briefly, half way to Tulle. It reached Tulle at 21:00 hours, and secured the town in heavy fighting. Nine men of the unit were killed in action, while the III./95 was rescued. The Das Reich command group established itself in Tulle. (1, 12-13)

In the meantime, the main body of Der Fuehrer reached Limoges. They were warmly greeted by the garrison, since the town had been isolated, though not attacked, by Maquis for the past two days. Der Fuehrer headquarters was established in Limoges, and elements of the regiment spread out to occupy surrounding towns and villages during June 9. (1, 13)

In the early morning hours of June 10 the O1 (orderly officer) of SS-Panzerjaeger Abteilung 2 (the Das Reich antitank unit), SS-Obersturmfuehrer Gerlach, arrived in Limoges. He was exhausted, and clad only in his underwear. He had been sent out with six other men in three cars to find billets for his unit north of Limoges on the morning of June 9. His car had pulled ahead of the others, and was stopped by Maquis. He and his driver were taken prisoner, and had their clothing torn off. They were driven away in a French truck to be interrogated by a Maquis commander. Gerlach saw a sign announcing the town he was brought to as Oradour-sur-Glane. He was taken out of the truck in the town, and confronted with many armed civilians, including women. Soon, he was put back in the truck, and driven several kilometers into the country for execution. After being taken out of the truck again, Gerlach’s driver resisted strongly. Gerlach used the opportunity to make a break, and was successful. Hours later he arrived in Limoges, and reported the Maquis activity in Oradour. (1, 14-17)

In the light of day on June 9, Das Reich took stock of the situation in Tulle. Forty men of III./95 were discovered dead near a school. They showed signs of execution, and local civilians reported the men had been killed after dropping their weapons and surrendering. Only an SD officer with them had a pistol in his hand. Most of the bodies were mutilated, some had had their genitals cut off and stuffed into their mouths. Others had been covered with excrement. One man had holes in his heels with a rope through them, and a ruined face, indicating that he had been tied to the back of a truck and driven around. Other bodies were found around town, bringing the total German dead to 64. The III./95 had reported 80 missing, meaning several were unaccounted for. And 9 more Germans died in rescuing the garrison, as mentioned before. (1, 18-19)

All civilian men found in Tulle were gathered in the yard of the local ammunition factory. The operation was directed by Das Reich 1c (third general staff officer, responsible for intelligence) SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer Aurel Kowatsch. He was aided by the Mayor of Tulle, local officials, and the manager of the factory in selecting all non-residents and suspicious individuals. The remaining men were released. From the suspects 120 men were selected for execution as guerrillas by SD official Walter. A number were released because of their youth, and then the remaining 98 were executed, at the direction of Kowatsch, by the Pioneer platoon of SS-Panzer Aufklarungs Abteilung 2. Since the suspects were not soldiers, and since they fought in violation of the Hague Convention, the executions were by means of hanging instead of the shooting. Additionally, it was hoped that the many dead bodies hanging in plain site would deter future Maquis attacks. (1, 19-21)

Also on June 9, Das Reich’s SPW (armored personnel carrier) abteilung, III./Der Fuehrer, was ordered by LXVI Reserve Army Corps to reoccupy the town of Gueret, 60 km from its present billeting area. Gueret had been captured by Maquis on June 7, and a German Army attack from the east on June 8 had failed to retake it. Now III./DF approached from the west. It accidentally skirmished with the German Army unit, which had just recaptured the town, and suffered several wounded. These were sent back towards Limoges in two SPW, which were overtaken on the way by III./DF commander SS-Sturmbannfuehrer Helmut Kaempfe alone at the wheel of his command car. He was driving ahead to meet with the mayor of a town along the route. A few minutes later the two SPW found Kaempfe’s car, deserted and still running. Kaempfe was gone, with no sign of a fight. The main body of III./DF left Gueret in Army hands and followed Kaempfe and the SPW back towards its billets. Upon reaching the car, it searched the surrounding area without finding any trace of Kaempfe or his apparent captors. (1, 21-23)

The two medical SPW arrived during the night in Limoges and reported Kaempfe’s disappearance. SS-Sturmbannfuehrer Otto Weidinger, serving in Der Fuehrer regimental headquarters, was sent back to Tulle to report the occurrence, with a motorcycle platoon as escort. The terrain was too broken up to allow radio communication. At about this time, Weidinger learned later, 62 additional Germans had been killed by the Maquis near Naves, 10 km south of Tulle. This brought the total German deaths in the area to at least 126, plus the nine SS men killed retaking Tulle.

In the early morning of June 10 Kaempfe’s identity papers were found in one of the main streets of Limoges. They seemed to indicate that Kaempfe had been driven through Limoges during the night. Later that morning I./DF commander SS-Sturmbannfuehrer Adolf Diekmann reported to regimental headquarters in Limoges from his billeting area in St. Junien, west of town. Two civilians had come to him, stating that a high ranking German officer was being held prisoner by the Maquis in Oradour-sur-Glane. The officer was to be ceremoniously executed and burned that evening by the staff of the Maquis headquarters there, in front of the people of the town, the majority of whom were cooperating with the partisans. Similar information had been gained by the SD office in Limoges from its agents, and it had reported this to Stadler just before Diekmann arrived. (1, 25)

Diekmann requested permission to drive with one of his companies to Oradour to try to free his friend, Kaempfe. Stadler agreed, stipulating that Diekmann was to negotiate for Kaempfe’s release if at all possible. He was only to occupy the town and use force as a last resort. He could take hostages to trade for Kaempfe if the officer could not be recovered otherwise. Stadler wanted Kaempfe kept alive, and was willing to take unusually lenient measures to make sure of this, because Kaempfe was his friend, an outstanding officer, and a valuable SPW specialist. Gerlach helped Diekmann interpret the maps of the area. (1, 25-26)

During the day the SD office put a captured Maquis officer at Stadler’s disposal. The man was released so that he could bring his comrades an offer. If Kaempfe was released unharmed, 30 additional captured Maquisards and 40,000 Francs would be turned over to the Maquis as ransom. The released man called once to say he had not yet met up with those holding Kaempfe; he was never heard from again. Afterwards, the Germans concluded that Kaempfe must have already been dead when the officer did establish contact with his fellows. (1, 29-30)

Diekmann reported back to Stadler late in the afternoon of June 10. He said he had driven with his 3./DF under SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer Kahn to Oradour-sur-Glane. There he had met resistance from Maquis, including the town’s population. Murdered German Army soldiers had been found in the town after it had been occupied. Weapons and ammunition had been found in many of the houses. All the men in Oradour, about 180, had been rounded up and shot. The houses containing munitions had been burned down, with the flames eventually spreading to the church. It had burned down accompanied by violent explosions. No captive hostages had been brought back, and Kaempfe had not been found. Stadler was furious about this report, since it did not comply with his orders. He promised to bring court-martial proceedings against Diekmann, and later did so. (1, 31-32)

Diekmann was obviously distraught about the whole affair. He sought and found death in Normandy soon after Das Reich arrived there later that June. Between the testimony gathered by Das Reich’s judiciary branch for the court-martial, and that obtained at the French sponsored Oradour trial in 1953, a more complete picture of events emerged.

At the edge of Oradour 3./DF had found a German ambulance with two medics and four wounded men. The driver and the other medic had been chained to the steering wheel, and then they and the wounded had been burned alive. To establish order in the town Diekmann had the population gathered. The women and children had been placed in the church while the houses were searched. The men were kept under guard in some stables. Munitions were found in many houses, which was yet more evidence of collaboration with the Maquis. Several houses had been burned down when the church suddenly, without warning, had blown up. Diekmann concluded he was under attack, and had the men shot. This may actually have been a moral crime, and it went against Stadler’s orders, but it fit within the Sperrle orders. This was the only part of the Tulle-Oradour incidents that was a crime, and Diekmann obviously felt himself guilty. He had concluded that Kaempfe was dead and that hostages were useless. Survivors were pulled from the rubble of the church, and then Diekmann mounted up his men and drove off. (1, 36-38)

An alternate version some Germans offered was that once the men and women were separated, Diekmann gave the mayor of Oradour half and hour to secure Kaempfe’s release. If this was not done, all the men would be shot. When the time expired with no sign of the mayor, or of Kaempfe, the men were indeed shot. (2, 6-7)

This leaves the question of what happened at the church. It is worth mentioning that 3./DF was a normal panzergrenadier truck-borne infantry company. It did not possess specialized weapons for demolition work, and, in light of its expected mission, was not assigned any from regimental units. The Limousin Society for the Study of History and Architecture made a survey of the church in 1924. It recorded the solid, stone construction of the building. (3, 4)

The bronze bell of the church melted. Fire is not sufficient for this. Wood burns at 200-400 degrees centigrade, while bronze will not melt at less than 1250 degrees. There was obviously something else at work. Also, the destruction in the church is principally within a circular area under the bell tower. There is damage elsewhere, but the obvious conclusion is that explosives under the bell turned it into a massive hollow charge. After this, fire spread to some other flammable items in the church. Naturally, stone doesn’t burn, and this supports the idea that the destruction must have come from an explosion. (3, 7-11)

The Germans could not have simply set the church on fire, as was later claimed. As mentioned previously, the 3./DF had no specialized weapons available. So why did the explosion occur? Some answers seem to come in the affidavit sworn by retired Bundeswehr Oberstleutnant Eberhard Matthes on November 16, 1980. It reads as follows:

"In addition to numerous private and official visits, in November and December of 1963 I was at the French training area of La Courtine in my official capacity as an officer of the Bundeswehr, and in the summer of 1964 I spent some time with my family in southwest France (Massif Central).

As a former participant in the war and regional chairman of the association of repatriated soldiers I was interested in all matters that had to do with reprisals and the shooting of hostages and so on, and consequently I visited Oradour-sur-Glane on both occasions.

Upon my first visit in December 1963, in German Bundeswehr uniform and in a Bundeswehr jeep with a driver, my experiences were as follows:

1) The part of the village that had been destroyed in 1944 had been turned into a kind of open-air museum with a kiosk selling drinks, cigarettes, etc. as well as brochures telling of the happenings in Oradour in June 1944, the latter at an astonishingly low price.

2) Immediately after my arrival the jeep was surrounded by children and also by, for the most part, elderly inhabitants and we were warmly welcomed.

3) When these older inhabitants - in 1963 they would have been between 50 and 60 years old - saw me reading one of the brochures, some of them said I should not believe everything I read. A lot of what had occurred had been different to what the brochures said. I was naturally somewhat perplexed and said that it was bad enough if German soldiers had fired upon women and children in the church that they had set fire to or whilst they were attempting to escape from it.

The answer to this was quite clear and unequivocal: the church had not been set fire to by the Germans in the first place. On the contrary, SS soldiers had risked their own lives to save several women and children from the burning church. Two women in the group around me even said that they themselves had been rescued by German soldiers, otherwise they would not be standing there that day.

4) In the meantime the mayor had arrived, who introduced himself and welcomed me very warmly: I was the first German soldier in uniform to visit Oradour since the war. He was very pleased about this. Politically he was a left-winger, but France and the FRG were allies and friends. One had to accept the past and learn the right lessons from it. And in the war wrong had been done everywhere. I immediately confronted him with what I had heard beforehand from the inhabitants, to which he replied that the Maquis had also done a lot of wrong to German soldiers at that time, for which reason none of the accused Germans in the Oradour trial had been condemned to death and almost all of those who were imprisoned had been released.

5) I can remember one episode very clearly. Near the ruins of the church there was, among other things, an old child’s pram with a sign saying this pram had burnt out with a child in it during the massacre. I believe it was the mayor himself who, upon seeing it, smiled and said that the remains of a pram had indeed been found on that spot, but now that Oradour had become a kind of place of pilgrimage, and the village also profited from the visitors financially, such things had to be renewed every few years.

6) Understandably I had now become very much interested in the Oradour incident. I had an opportunity of talking to French officers, with whom we had a very open and comradely relationship and without any reservations. One high-ranking French officer answered my questions as follows:

‘One of the major reasons for the actions of the Germans in Oradour in June 1944 was no doubt the fact that the advancing Germans had found a

burning or already burnt-out German ambulance right in front of the village. All six persons in the ambulance must have been burnt alive. The

driver and the person beside him were tied to the steering wheel. This was

undoubtedly a deed perpetrated by the Maquis. Entwined with this was the mysterious and agonizing killing, in the same area and at about the same time, of a high-ranking German officer who had fallen into the hands of the

Maquis. In the same situation French troops would also have had to take reprisals, possibly involving the shooting of hostages, as provided for in the

laws and customs for war on land from 1939 through 1945. For these

reasons there are many French soldiers and officers who do not visit Oradour in an official role. And for the same reasons (as far as the officer knew) no official military ceremonies are held in Oradour.’

7) Upon my second - private - visit to Oradour in the summer of 1964 I found further confirmation of what I had been told in that the owner of the kiosk or attendant (also an elderly man), from whom we bought something to drink, answered as follows to my remarks about the brochures: There were a number of witnesses who knew exactly how everything had actually happened in 1944. They had either not been heard at all during the trial, however, or they had to limit themselves to irrelevant details. The accused Germans had also received prison sentences and been released soon afterwards, instead of being sentenced to death, because otherwise some of the witnesses would no doubt have ‘spilled the beans’ and told what really had happened" (1, 38-41)

The explosion in the church was actually set off by a civilian. This individual is even believed to have shot a civilian while escaping from the church via the vestry, after setting a fuse. (3, 10) Speculation is that a member of the Maquis, perhaps not even a Frenchman, committed the deed in so that the Germans would be blamed. This would presumably cause even more civilians to join the resistance. Instead, the deaths at Tulle and Oradour ended Maquis activity in the Dordogne through the German withdrawal in August. (1, 32 & 47)

In 1969 Otto Weidinger met the former Maquis chief for the Dordogne, Rene Jugie, who called himself Gao, in Paris. Jugie confirmed that Oradour-sur-Glane had indeed been full of weapons and ammunition. It had been the supply center for all the towns and villages in the Dordogne. Any argument that Oradour had been randomly selected for destruction by the Germans thus received another nail in its coffin. (1, 42)

The final part of this tale concerns the Tulle and Oradour trials held in 1951 and 1953 respectively. In the Tulle trial Heinz Lammerding and Aurel Kowatsch were sentenced to death in absentia. SS-Hauptscharfuehrer Otto Hoff, commander of the Pioneer Platoon, received life in prison. Heinrich Wulf received 10 years at hard labor and 10 years where he was forbidden to answer France. Wulf was pardoned and released in May 1952, while Hoff was released in 1953. (1, 48-49)

The Oradour trial resulted in massive unrest in Alsace, which had been reincorporated into France in 1945. Many of the recent replacements for Das Reich, received in the spring of 1944, were Alsatians. The men, in most cases still minors in 1944, had been born as French citizens. In 1945 they again became French citizens, and in 1951 several were put on trial, despite having been decorated for service in the French Army in Indochina. These men were imprisoned separately from the German survivors of 3./Der Fuehrer during the trial, which ran from January 13 to March 12, 1953. The verdicts in the trial sentenced 43 men of 3./DF to death in absentia, largely to placate those parts of the population crying for revenge. A German nco who had been transferred to the Waffen-SS from the Luftwaffe, and an Alsatian nco who had volunteered for the Waffen-SS, were sentenced to death in their presence. The other Germans present received between 8 and 12 years at hard labor. The other Alsatians present, all of whom had been conscripted, received between 4 and 8 years at hard labor, but soon had their sentences suspended. They were released immediately after the trial, to the joy of Alsace. One German was acquitted, while his fellows were released during 1953. The two condemned men soon had their sentences reduced to life in prison. They were released in 1959. (1, 47-48)

The results of the trials show the truth of the incidents. The accused were victims of a witch hunt. They might have received extremely stiff punishment if survivors of the Oradour church had not started to reveal the actual events. Former members of the Maquis also started to tell the true story about these towns, in their case to the Communist press. Alsace was upset over having conscripted Alsatians tried, Germany was upset that the German comrades-in-arms of the Alsatians received harsher sentences. (2,7)

These events led to the pardons and suspended sentences. The French government then made Heinz Lammerding the target of its wrath. It attempted to have Lammerding extradited from West Germany to France to be put on trial for Oradour. In light of the available evidence, the West German government refused to comply. Lammerding died peacefully in West Germany on January 13, 1971, despite having been condemned to death in absentia again by France. (2, 7-8)

In sum, Tulle and Oradour were tragic events. But the only possible crime was the shooting of the men of Oradour without separating Maquis suspects from the rest. The man responsible, Diekmann, essentially committed suicide soon after. The events in Tulle were covered by the Hague Convention. The affair of the church in Oradour was a crime for the Maquis, and blame rests with them. The happenings at Tulle and Oradour have too long been labeled as simple German atrocities, and should no longer give Das Reich a black reputation. It is time for the truth.

Many works dealing with Tulle and Oradour were consulted in preparing this piece. Three sources were noted in the text, they appear below in the order in which they were referred:

1) Tulle and Oradour: A Franco-German Tragedy, by Otto Weidinger, translated by Colin B. Newberry. Privately published, 1985.

2) Oradour-sur-Glane: A "Clear-cut" Atrocity?, by Richard Landwehr, in Siegrunen Magazine, vol. IV, #3 (21 overall), September 1980.

3) Stonecry, The Scream of the Stones: Research in the ruins of the church in Oradour-sur-Glane to verify a war crime, by Pierre Moreau, translated from the French. Privately published, no date.

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