When the Allies landed in France on June 6, 1944, the 2nd SS Panzer Division— Das Reich —under the command of SS-Brigade–führer Heinz Lammerding was reconstituting and re-equipping around the southern French town of Valence, nearly 60 miles northeast of Toulouse. In reaction to the D-Day landings the German High Command ordered Das Reich to move north toward Normandy. But the Allied air interdiction campaign had completely neutralized the French rail network, forcing the division to move by road. Along the way it came under constant harassing attacks by the French resistance, known as the Maquis, which on June 7 and 8 managed to kill or wound some 40 German troops in the village of Tulle. In retribution for each German casualty, Das Reich soldiers hanged three male citizens of Tulle—120 men in all. They were just warming up.
By June 10 elements of Das Reich had advanced only about 190 miles, to the vicinity of Limoges. Early that morning SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, commander of 1st Battalion, 4th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment, reported to SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Weidinger the Maquis had captured a German officer. According to information supplied by the Milice—Vichy France’s collaborationist paramilitary police—the Maquis had taken SS-Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe, commander of the regiment’s 3rd Battalion, and were supposedly holding him in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.
Later that day Diekmann’s battalion moved into Oradour-sur-Glane, possibly mistaking it for nearby Oradour-sur-Vayres. Once they had surrounded Oradour-sur-Glane, the Waffen-SS troops herded startled residents into the village square on the pretext of checking identity papers. They then separated the men from the women and children, forcing the former into six barns and sheds and the latter into the village church. The Germans opened fire on the barns with machine guns, purposely aiming low to injure but not kill. Once all the men were down, the Waffen-SS troops poured fuel over their victims and set the structures on fire. They then set fire to the church, tossed in hand grenades and shot down any of the women and children who tried to escape. For good measure the Waffen-SS looted and torched what was left of the village.
Six hundred forty-two French civilians died that day in Oradour-sur-Glane—190 men, 247 women and 205 children. Six of the victims were not even village residents but had the misfortune of riding past on their bicycles when the Germans started their sweep. Only about 20 villagers managed to survive, having fled when the German troops arrived. Marguerite Rouffanche, 47 at the time, was the sole survivor from the church. She, another woman and a child managed to slip out of the sacristy window at the rear of the building. All three were shot as they tried to run away. The child and the other woman died, but a wounded Rouffanche managed to hide beneath bushes behind the church until rescued the following day.
The 2nd SS Panzer Division kept moving north. It took the division 15 days to reach Normandy, arriving in time to support a counteroffensive against the American breakout at Saint-Lô. Diekmann was killed in the fighting on June 29. Das Reich was later instrumental in holding open the Falaise Pocket long enough for tens of thousands of German troops to escape and fight another day.
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. Lammerding 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. Weidinger, acquitted in a previous trial, appeared as a witness for the defense. On February 11 the court convicted 20 of the defendants and sentenced them to prison. However, French authorities soon granted the Alsatians amnesty, and within five years the German defendants had all been released.
After the war General Charles de Gaulle visited the ghost village and declared it a national monument [www.oradour.org] in its ruined state. Builders raised a new Oradour-sur-Glane immediately northwest of the massacre site. On Sept. 4, 2013, German President Joachim Gauck, accompanied by French President François Hollande, visited Oradour-sur-Glane. He was the first German president to have toured the ruins, site of one of the worst wartime atrocities committed on French soil.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.