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Remember June 1944.

IT was shortly after lunch on 10 June 1944, four days after D-Day. The people of Oradour-sur-Glane were returning to work. Hubert Desourteaux was at work on a car in his garage. Chez Janine old ladies were arriving for their haircuts. The numerous tailors of the village were starting up their Singer sewing machines and Dr. Jacques Desourteaux's car rolled in for his afternoon visit, stopping by the Champ de Foire, the village green.

On the surface, it was a typical afternoon in a small, French country town. What was to happen over the next few hours would change Oradour-sur-Glane forever and it would take its place in history as the scene for one of the worst Nazi atrocities.

The evil Nazi cancer had spread throughout Europe and France had become an occupied country. But to the people of Oradour it made little difference; few had ever seen a German soldier, and the Maquis, the French Resistance, kept clear of their village.

Around 2.00 p.m. that afternoon, a German armoured car emerged through the dust of the high street, followed by six more and ten lorries, stopping at intervals up the road. Battle-dressed SS soldiers jumped smartly out and, as the village drum rumbled, the confused and slightly alarmed people of Oradour-sur-Glane were rounded up and assembled on the Champ de Foire, the village green.

In the village schools, the teachers, hearing the drum, commanded the children to file out promptly, not wanting to keep the Germans waiting. As the school-children marched off, their wooden clogs clattering along the road, one little boy, an evacuee, slipped off through the fields, mindful of the Germans he had seen in action at his home-town in Lorraine near the German border. The seven-year-old Roger Godwin was the only child out of all two hundred and forty-seven school-children to survive that day.

Back at the Champ de Foire, the people had been split into two groups on either side of the village square, women and children on one side, the men on the other, cautioned that they would be shot if any turned around. The women and children were parted from the men and led to the church, where they thought surely they would be safe; they worried not for themselves but for their menfolk left behind.

At a request for hostages, the Mayor, Dr. Paul Desourteaux, offered himself and his four sons, but the call for hostages was merely procedure and all the men remained on the Champ de Foire as soldiers searched the village for something of obvious importance to them, known only as 'prohibited merchandise'. They drifted up the main street and down several side roads, ransacking each building they came to, killing any occupants who had defied the call to the Champ de Foire and, finally, setting fires to conceal the evidence. At one stage, they were interrupted by an unfortunate party of seven cyclists passing through and a group of women and children on an afternoon walk -- they were all quickly marched off to join the rest of the inhabitants and, later, to join in their unhappy fate.

An hour later, their search complete, the soldiers divided the men into seven groups and took them off to seven different locations -- two garages, three barns, a shed and a wine merchants'.

It took only a matter of seconds for the raucous, raking machine-gun fire to bring down around two hundred men grouped in their respective buildings. As the men lay in a pile of dead and dying carnage, the soldiers casually heaped on straw and set the buildings alight, the sickly sweet stench of burning flesh pervading the summer air. Out of this nightmare only five men escaped with their lives -- M. Borie, M. Broussadier, Jean Dartbout, Robert Hebras and M. Roby. As the first shots rang out, they threw themselves to the ground and lay motionless. Then, as the fire began to take hold, they carefully extracted themselves from underneath their dead friends and crept first to the edges of the buildings and then out into the surrounding gardens and fields.

From the cool, dank interior of the church, the women and children heard the muffled sound of the automatic weapons but could only guess at what was happening. After hours of imprisonment within their church, the doors were finally opened -- but only to allow the entry of two young soldiers. They proceeded straight to the altar where they dropped and lit the smoke bomb they were carrying before rushing out and again locking the doors.

There was an explosion and thick, acrid smoke permeated through the church. Their nightmare was just beginning as the women and children panicked, desperately trying to escape asphyxiation. Under the pressure of hundreds of hurling bodies, the church doors burst open, the lock flying off. Immediately, terrifying gunfire blasted through the open doors and the windows, sinking into the stone walls. A murderous hail of cold metal ricocheted around.

As the thick heap of corpses on the church floor lay bleeding, the occasional movement or moan was detected. With unerring efficiency, the soldiers gathered up chairs, benches and more straw on top of the bodies, some writhing as they felt the weight of the wood sinking into their lacerated flesh. Then they lit this pyre and left their remaining victims to die in the ferocious, unsparing flames.

In this unspeakable inferno, nearly five hundred women and children died horribly, only one woman, Mme. Rouffanche, escaping -- by climbing up and leaping the ten foot drop from the altar windows.

And then silence......The lives of six hundred and forty-two innocent souls had been totally and brutally destroyed.

But these were not their final victims. The dozen or so survivors have had to live the rest of their lives with the massacre of their friends and family etched indelibly in their memories. It is unimaginable how much they have suffered.

For the rest of that night, the SS soldiers celebrated at the home of the wealthy M. Dupic, enjoying the good food and fine wines he had stocked up but would not now be needing. Early in the morning, as swiftly as they had descended on Oradour, the cars and lorries trundled out to continue their journey north to Normandy, to meet the Allied invasion.

What had they been searching for? What was so valuable that it had led them into slaughtering an entire town of nearly six hundred and fifty men, women and children? For years, this remained a mystery. Shortly after the massacre local figures put it down as pure German barbarism, one priest saying, 'There exist misdeeds that are beyond explanation, crimes that cannot be excused'. So was this just a spontaneous burst of psychotic cruelty or was there more to it than the foul sight which met the eye?

It wasn't until thirty-eight years later that the truth, which had lain dormant for so long, finally began to escape. Robin Mackness, an entrepreneur, by a strange turn of events became only the second man alive to know the real story behind Oradour. His silence in the face of the French Customs cost him twenty-one months unjustly imprisoned in France but this was the time he needed to prepare his book, Oradour: Massacre and Aftermath, which was to tell the world this story, as Raoul Denis (pseudonym) told it to him.

The night before the massacre of June 10, a smaller massacre had taken place. Raoul Denis, a maquisard (a French Resistance operative) had led an attack on a key bridge and section of road in the hope that it would delay the Germans' advance to Normandy. As Raoul and his six men made their way up a small, country hill on their way to the target, they heard the fearful sound of a convoy of vehicles coming up behind them. Scrambling for cover into the damp ditches on either side of the road, Raoul ordered his young soldiers to ignore the convoy and save their weaponry for the targets at Nieul. After months of waiting, the six of them had no intention of letting the Boche escape and, to Raoul's horror, he glimpsed one of his men leaping to his feet as the trucks passed -- and then pandemonium broke out, Gammon grenades exploding, shrapnel flying and the hysterical cackle of Sten guns. Then, as soon as it had begun, Raoul was left standing alone -- all the soldiers, both German and French either dead or mortally wounded. Quick to check no more enemy soldiers had taken cover in the back of the main truck, Raoul lobbed in a grenade, waiting momentarily for the explosion and then climbed up over the tail-gate. No soldiers, just a few charred filing cabinets. As he carefully prised the lid off one, he couldn't believe the reality of his situation -- it was the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere and he was in the middle of a battle scene, more Germans sure to arrive any second, and here was half-a-ton of gold. This was his amazing predicament, the only solution to bury the gold in a nearby field and hope to reclaim it later.

As Raoul finished his task around 6.00 a.m., June 10, General Lammerding and Major Dickmann were consecutively woken from their sleep with news of the ambush. It is impossible to imagine the rage that they both must have felt over the loss of their gold, for it was theirs -- they had looted it over the duration of the war and had no intention of declaring it to the Fatherland. Obviously, they had to recapture it immediately before news spread to German High Command. Where to start? -- again obvious, the nearest town -- Oradour-sur-Glane.

So this was the horrific truth -- six hundred and forty-two people were murdered in the most obscene manner possible, all because of the greed of just two men. They were never brought to justice for any of their heinous war crimes. General Heinz Lammerding died in the comfort of his bed in 1971, of cancer. Major Otto Dickmann was killed, more fittingly, by a shell splinter less than three weeks after his appalling conduct at Oradour.

Four other soldiers played leading parts in the massacre, although for sadistic reasons rather than monetary ones. Lieutenant Knug died when the grenade he was throwing through the church windows brought a chunk of masonry down, crushing his skull. Captain Kahn went into hiding just a month after Oradour and has now completely disappeared. Sergeant Boos was sentenced to death, which was then commuted to life imprisonment in France after the war. NCO Heinz Barth was also sentenced to life imprisonment when justice finally caught up with him in his own country, Germany.

Oradour remains, deserted and lonely, as a permanent reminder of Man's inhumanity to Man.

James Elkins is a freelance photo-journalist who lives in France.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Title Annotation:murder at Oradour-sur-Glane
Author:Elkins, James
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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