The Ingrid Pitt column: Cities in dust

Ingrid recalls the tale of a French village whose population was reduced from 642 to 2 in one infernal night…

I’d just spent ten days in the South of France, six days at the Cannes Film Festival and the last four at the Monaco Grand Prix, and was heading for Calais and the ferry to Dover. I’d done about a hundred miles when the thought of Oradour floated into my mind. Oradour sur Glane. I had promised myself that the next time I was in France I would do my best to pay the little village near Limoges a visit. Was this the time? I was motoring north, right of centre, through France and Oradour was definitely way off to the left. On the far side of the Massif Central. I stopped at a petrol station and pulled out the Michelin. Limoges was only a few inches away. Hang a left at Lyons and I’d be on my way. I set out westward determined to take in Oradour, maybe a sweep through Poitiers and still be in Calais for the last ferry of the day and at home sipping cocoa before the witching hour.

I was experiencing a little brake fade that necessitated a slow pace and a lot of gear changing. Even so I arrived at the entrance to Oradour in the late afternoon. I was surprised to find the village deserted – not even a gatekeeper to answer questions.

On 10th June 1944, four days after the Allies landed in Normandy, one of the worst atrocities of WWll occurred. In three blood and fire seared hours the idyllic village of Oradour Sur Glane was turned into a War Memorial. What happened there that sunny afternoon is still in dispute. Even the name of the Officer in charge of the massacre of innocent men, women and children is uncertain. Some records name him as Major Otto, or Adolph, Diekmann.

The 2nd Waffen-SS Division Das Reich had been ordered by Hitler to stay out of trouble in the south until the true aims of the invading forces in the north had been ascertained. Das Reich had been reinforced with Alsatians (the human kind) and Hitler Youth following the pasting it had taken in Russia. They were not a happy band of brothers. The Maquis, the French Resistance Force, had been told by the Allies that part of the invasion would be a simultaneous drop of parachute troops in the Dordogne accompanied by an armoury of weapons.

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In an excess of zeal the Maquisards went on a murder rampage and slaughtered and mutilated 62 German soldiers. Unfortunately the rumoured paratroop invasion was a bit of misinformation by the Allies to keep the Germans on the hop. The following day the Germans were back in force and rounded up the members of the Maquis who hadn’t the good sense to leave. The Frenchmen were hung on lamp posts along the streets and Boulevards of Limoges.

The Germans were ordered to move up to the front line. In the general bustle, on an isolated road, Lt. Colonel Kampfe, a close friend of Diekmann, became separated from his convoy. When his absence was notice the convoy turned back to find him. It found his burned out car but no trace of the Colonel. Then 1st Lt. Gerlach turned up at headquarters in his underpants. He claimed he had been captured by the Maquisard, had his clothes stripped from his back and, together with his driver, taken into the forest to be shot. He heard a couple of his captors talking about a German Officer who was to be ritually burned alive on the following day. Garlic was able to escape and return to the convoy. It was assumed that the officer spoken about was Kampfe. Brigadier Heinz Lammerding sent Diekmann with a patrol to Oradour to try and recover him.

After the war the village was never rebuilt. It is still the way the Germans left it. None of the houses have roofs or windows. Looking through the gaping holes it is possible to catch a glimpse of the sort of life the villagers led before the German trucks roared into the main street at 8.00am on that bright Summer’s day 60 years ago. 642 men, women and children were about to start what appeared to be a typical day in the life of the village.

When the Germans left that evening the population had been reduced to 2.

The grey clad troops rounded up the villagers and corralled them on the village green. Diekmann addressed them from the back of his armoured staff car. He told them that if they handed over Colonel Kampfe immediately he was authorised to pay a ransom of 40,000 francs. The Maire tried to explain that they would if they could but they weren’t holding Kampfe – so they couldn’t. Diekmann instantly ordered the separation of the people into two groups. Women and children in one, men in the other. The women were locked in the little Roman Catholic church. The men were incarcerated in three barns.

Deskman ordered his men to pile straw and timber around the church. He then set up machine guns facing the exits. He gave the signal for the flame to be put to the tinder and within minutes the church was ablaze. As the women tried to break out they were hit by a hail of bullets from the machine guns. The screams from the burning women and children were only silenced by the roof caving in. In the tower the heat melted the bronze bell that had called the villagers to prayer for a hundred years.

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Only one woman escaped. Mme Rouffanche. Badly burned and wounded she managed to break out of a window and hide in the bushes behind the church. Diekmann now turned his murderous attention to the men. He ordered the barns to be set alight. The men tried to break out and were mercilessly shot down by the waiting troops. When Deskman was satisfied that the village had been destroyed he ordered his troops to prepare a feast with the food and wine gathered from the houses. It was a truly Dantean scene as the troops caroused the night away by the light of the fires from the burning buildings.

In the morning the troops were gone.

Deskman did not survive the villagers for long. He was officially killed in action in Normandy 19 days later but it was generally acknowledged that, unable to live with the atrocities he had ordered, he committed suicide.

In the street, not far from the church, a small saloon stands, red with rust and sagging with age. A baby’s pram is not far away. A notice on it says that the baby was burned to death by the heat of a burning house. Looking through the glassless windows it was an eerie sensation to see rotting furniture, a sewing machine still waiting for the machinist to return, bicycles and all the trappings of a working household now fast metamorphosing into dust.

Outside the church a monument has been erected listing the names of the villagers who died that afternoon. I went down to the little river that runs beside the village. It was a beautiful spot and galaxies from the memory of horror on display only a few yards away. I sat and wondered what was true and what was propaganda. Was Diekmann there as a crazy avenger of his friend Kampfe? Could the charges listed against him be substantiated? Or was there just one moment of panic and madness that turn a routine, if brutal, search of the village into a nightmare?

There is a theory that the fire in the church might have been instigated by the Maquis in a propaganda attempt to ignite the wrath of the largely complacent Frenchmen in the area. It is said that the Maquis had already hidden bombs in the church. While the troops were searching and burning the village a Maquisard was able to get into the church and detonate the cache.

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Another scenario paints a totally different reason for the burning of the village. It is to do with gold. A couple of days before, on 8th July, a convoy carrying treasure ‘liberated’ by the Germans was ambushed and all the troops murdered. Only one of the ambushers survived. When he searched the lorries he found two of them loaded with gold. He couldn’t believe his luck and spent the rest of the night hiding the treasure trove. It was the gold the Germans had in mind when they pulled into the village of Oradour sur Glane. The story of the gold and its liberator and what happened after the war is fascinating but too complex to go into here. But it would account for a lot of what happened that afternoon.

And what happened to Lt. Colonel Kampfe whose disappearance started the whole debacle? It seems that Lt. Gerlach’s information about where his superior officer was to be ritually executed by burning alive was flawed. It actually happened not at Oradour sur Glane but in a village a little farther north – Breuilaufa.

Roger Godfrin, an 8 year old refugee from Alsace, watched the holocaust from his hiding place on the edge of the village. He had learned the hard way not to trust the Germans.

I left the remains of the little village as the sun was setting. A more tranquil spot couldn’t be imagined. During the whole of the ninety minutes or so I had spent there I hadn’t seen another human being or a sound which might signal movement nearby. I can’t even remember there being any bird song. I didn’t make Calais that evening but holed up in a roadside motel. I didn’t sleep much.

Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.