The Fighting in Normandy
The end of Das Reich has an element of nemesis.
Having escaped the Maquis, only to be decimated by the RAF as it moved out of Resistance country near Poitiers, it was to re-enter the war against the Allies at St-Lô on 26 June. This was eighteen days following its departure from Montauban having spent eight days in the area meticulously camouflaging their vehicles and generally lying-low. St-Lô was described by Weidinger as a ‘no-man’s-land’ having been totally destroyed by Allied air attacks.
Then, on 26 June, Das Reich signalled: ‘Enemy – English 11th Armoured Division has crossed the Odon... is pushing deep into the front of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler-Jugend ...’ The clash of giants had begun.
It is impossible here to adequately trace their total involvement in the battle of Normandy nor their subsequent actions until the fall of Germany. In Normandy they moved from St-Lô into annihilation battles at Villers-Bocage and Noyers, south east of Caen, where Diekmann was reported killed on 30 June. Here Das Reich was reporting ‘hurricane force’ artillery fire and they were pulled back, with 40% losses, to Jurques on 2 July.
Saturation Allied air dominance hinders movement in Normandy.
Das Reich officers and men captured at Notre Dame de Cenilly 28 July, 1944, by elements of the US 2nd Armored Division. They are believed to be from the Deutschland Regiment.
Das Reich panzer ace SS-Oberscharführer Ernst Barkmann who destroyed thirteen Sherman tanks in Normandy in his Panther. He was not involved in the ‘Lammerding Pacifications’. He survived the war.
Transferred to the Cotentin Peninsula, at Le-Haye-du-Puits, then south to Mortain, by 17 August they were to enter the Falaise Pocket. Here the Der Führer was to report: ‘Pocket opened near Champesoult... units streaming east out of the pocket’. The following figures must tell the story:
Smashed men and equipment caught in the Falaise Pocket. The way to Paris was open to the Allies and the Germans were streaming back through France along the ‘Corridor of Death’.
Amongst those who got away were two Commanding Generals and over 300 senior officers who came out on foot with the soldiers. They called it ‘the Stalingrad of Normandy’. Das Reich escaped through the ‘Corridor of Death’ at Mont-Ormel to the south of Champesoult. In the Battle of Normandy, an estimated 63,179 Germans were to die; 20,845 British; 13,797 Americans; and 5,007 Canadians, as well as French and Polish soldiers.
Germany, The Ardennes, Hungary, Vienna and Prague
Of its subsequent retreats and counter-attacks through France to Germany’s WESTWALL in early September the reader must study elsewhere. They were to enter the Ardennes Offensive on 23 December but in spite of initial successes by 17 January they were pulled out with losses running to about 35% of combat strength plus another 10% due to frostbite. They returned to Germany until early February when they moved to Hungary to fight the Red Army; withdrawn again to defend the Reich under the so-called Führer Order they participated in the defence of Vienna; and retreated to Prague where they fought their last battle on 8 May 1945.
The end nears for these men of Das Reich.
Commander of Der Führer Regiment Otto Weiddinger (facing camera) consults with fellow officers in Austria in 1945. Uppermost on their minds would likely be their fate should they be taken captive by the Russians.
Eventually from the Der Führer headquarters came their final orders: ‘Mission accomplished... surrender to the Americans... signing off. Long live Germany’.
Surrender And Captivity
Marching out of Prague on 9 May they were met by an unknown German General and a Czech Colonel. Here they were ordered to hand over their weapons. The war chests were emptied and the men paid out. At the end of the day they entered the town of Rokyczany and captivity.
Later they were transferred to the former concentration camp of Flossenburg in Germany (‘everyone breathed a sigh of relief: the danger of a handover to Russia was gone!’), others to Regensburg, then to Landshut and finally to the Regensburg Civilian Internee Camp. By the second half of 1947 the final release of its inmates began. But, more was to come.
Numbers of SS were collected in the former concentration camp of Dachau by a French Commission. These were later transferred to France and on 18 November 1947, arrived in Bordeaux. Two years later, in 1950, the actual interrogations began in connection with the attrocity at Oradour. The upshot of the several trials that were held may be summarised: 1951 and 1953, two death sentences commuted, all other sentences amnestied except that of the Alsatian Unterscharführer (Sergeant) Boos. In East Berlin in 1983 Obersturmführer
(Lieutenant) Barth was sentenced to life imprisonment. For the Tulle hangings, only three accused were available: all found guilty, they were set free after a few months in 1952. Lammerding, sentenced to death in absentia, died in his bed in 1971.
We can now follow the main Das Reich protagonists into oblivion.
General Lammerding, as already noted, died in retirement on 14 January 1971, in his Bavarian home at Greiling and was buried, 19 January, in the North Cemetery at Düsseldorf. Two hundred ex-SS, including Colonel Weidinger, attended the funeral. Major Stückler became a main-stay of the Waffen SS Old Comrades Association and its bulletin, Der Freiwillige.
Adolf Diekmann is buried at Marigny, France. He was killed in action 29 June 1944.
On 17 April 1959, the last returnee from France was, after fourteen years of captivity, given a new start in life with a three week holiday in the Tyrol with a former comrade. Colonel Weidinger became a prolific historian of the Waffen SS and died in January 1990. His widow graciously gave me her authority to quote from his book Comrades to the End, (a book, incidentally, banned in France). Kämpfe and Diekmann we have traced as far as possible. Kahn ‘disappeared’ in the Normandy inferno. Barth was condemned to life imprisonment in East Berlin in 1983. For Barth, Oradour was a totally normal activity and he could make no sense of the accusations: he had previously participated in the massacre of 476 victims at Lidice in Czechoslovakia on 10 June 1943. His main regret in prison was that he was deprived of seeing his grandchildren. He was eventually released in 1997 due to ill health, his age (76) and his repentance.
Of the post-war trials special mention must be made of those at Bordeaux in 1947, 1951 and 1953 and the Natzweiler trials at Wuppertal in May 1946 and March 1947.
In 1947, sixty men of Das Reich were collected from Dachau by a French Commission under Captain Tretnel. By 18 November the former Commander of the Der Führer was also delivered to the military jail in Bordeaux. After accusing him of the Tulle atrocity, the court waited for a year, the investigating judge, Captain Lesieur, ‘uncertain as to how to go about investigating such a complex case’. Then, in 1948, it was announced that many of the accused could go home with a non lieu (dropping of the case) but nothing happened.
Later the Lex Oradour was passed. This meant that anyone could be considered as a perpetrator even if he was only a member at the same time in the same area as a unit accused of war crimes. Additionally, the burden of proof was passed to the accused. A strip of land approximately thirty kilometers wide of the march route was designated the trial area. Two years later, in 1950, the actual interrogations began, batches of the accused being delivered to Bordeaux from the prison in Périgeux. In the spring of 1951 the majority of the cases were dropped and the 1951 trial concentrated on fifty accused. The verdict: ‘Tous acquittés!’.
The next day the ex SS men travelled back via Paris, where they went sight-seeing, to Tuttlingen where they received their French release papers. A few more trials followed in Bordeaux: all but a handful were found ‘Not guilty’ and were returned to Germany. By 1959, everyone was home. In German eyes this was a complete vindication of their innocence, an innocence confirmed by a French court. In 1953, the thirteen Alsatian members of Das Reich, involved directly with Oradour, went on trial along with the eight remaining German SS. On the evening before the verdict all the Alsatians were amnestised by the French Government in the name of national reunification. Five of the Germans were immediately repatriated; two were condemned to hard labour; one was proven to be mentally ill and was transferred to hospital.
Indignation exploded throughout France: a protest march in Limoges counted 50,000 people. In Oradour, the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur were removed from the Town Hall and the cemetery respectively and returned to the Government in Paris. Two boards, one listing the Alsatians and the part they were reported to have taken in the massacre, the other a list of the 319 Parliamentary Deputies, along with their supporting Senators, who had voted the amnesty, were put on display at the entrance to the ruins and remained there until 1966.
Entrance to Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp in Alsace. Built by the Germans, after the war it was used to house those suspected of war crimes.
New Oradour, a town of some 2,000 people, has sprung up alongside the ruins of the old. A visit to the Church of St Martin is recommended. Here you will see one of the rare, surviving statues from the old church. Also in Oradour, a great Centre de la Mémoire has been built to help clarify the events at Oradour for the many who visit there each summer.
Wuppertal, May 1946
The Natzweiler Trial was the upshot of Vera Atkins’ single-minded hunt for the missing F Section SOE agents after the war. She had combined forces with Captain Yurka Galazine, a young British officer of White Russian and English descent, and Major Bill Barkworth, SAS’s Intelligence Officer. They worked under the aegis of the Political Warfare Department of SHAEF and their hunt started at Natzweiler camp. Amongst the records there they came across some drawings signed, B J Stonehouse. Temporarily commissioned into the WAAF and attached to the War Crimes Investigation Unit in the British Zone, Vera Atkins moved from Natzweiler back to England where she made contact with Odette Sanson, recently returned from Ravensbrück, and Brian Stonehouse, recently returned from Dachau. Stonehouse was a witness to the execution of four women F Section agents at Natzweiler. Meanwhile, Barkworth was on the trail of missing SAS troops, executed by the Germans in the Vosges. Following up the trail in Germany, Vera Atkins was able to interrogate several SS responsible for the three camps. Finally, at the trial, the grim evidence came out and law, if not justice, was observed.
Wuppertal, March 1947
For the SAS, the priority was to discover the fate of the men of the BULBASKET Mission. Again, a long haul led Barkworth to giving evidence in March 1947 against Generals Blumentritt and Gallenkamp, Colonel Koestlin, Captain Schönig, Lieutenant Deter and Doctors Tönshoff, Hesterberg and Weber in the case of the unlawful killing of thirty-one SAS in and near the Forest of Verrières, 3 July 1944. Four were acquitted but Gallenkamp and Hersterberg were sentenced to death by hanging. Following appeal, Gallenkamp was finally released in 1952 and Hesterberg was set free. The fate of Koestlin is unclear from the files.
Thirty-one SAS of BULBASKET are buried in Rom Communal Cemetery near the Forest of Saint-Sauvant where they were executed. Lieutenant T W N Stephens’ tomb is in the vault of the Mangier and de Montjon family in the cemetery at Verrières. Fine memorials have been erected at La Castourade in the Verrières Forest and at Saint-Sauvant. In September 1998, seven ex-SAS, under Major Schofield, returned to pay homage, accompanied by a large group of ex-Maquis. Once again the Tricolour and the Union Jack flew together under an autumn sky.
Any list of French heroes and heroines of the Resistance in the ten SOE Circuit areas must be incomplete and invidious. I have therefore confined my selection to those names included in the Circuit chiefs’ reports and Maurice Buckmaster’s fact finding JUDEX Mission.
In the PIMENTO area, first reference must go to Tony Brooks’ crucial contact, CHARLES (later ROBERT) the SNCF Trade Unionist who put ALPHONSE in touch with the cheminots. Pierre and Madame, Bloch; Max Hymans (later Minister of Civil Aviation); Gaston Gusin, Vichy administrator but actually an SIS agent; and Michel Comte, Garage des Pyrénées, Montauban.
In WHEELWRIGHT, Roger Larribeau, Mayor of Castelnau-sur-L’Auvignon; BERGERET, actually Maurice Loupias, Sub-Prefect of Bergerac; Maurice Parisot, Commandant Battalion d’Armagnac; Aldo Molesini, wood merchant; Antoine Merchez, garage owner; J Novarini, Italian peasant; B Alessandri, saboteur.
In FOOTMAN, Henri Collignon, Groups Vény; Jean-Jacques Chapou (FTP, Lot and Corrèze); Commandant Cavallier, Groups Vény (Tarn); the Verhlac family, cheese manufacturers; Captain and Madame Jean Veilliac; Georges Bru; and Pierre and Odette Bach of the ‘stray dogs home’ in Figeac.
In STATIONER, the Néraud family, the father dying in Buchenwald, the mother in Ravensbrück, only the daughter, Collette, returning; Jacques Hirsch, safe house and couriers; Georges Audouard of the Terrasson Maquis; M Delord, Maquis organiser; Raymond Reinier, safe house, wireless transmission, parachutages.
In his book Jacques Poirier lists no fewer than fifty specially mentioned Resistants in AUTHOR/DIGGER. Here we may mention: Maurice Arnouilh; Madeleine Bleygeat; Charles Brouilhet, THE BOLSHEVIK, and his wife, Marguerite; André Gaucher (MARTIAL); Marius Guédin, Armée Secrète, Corrèze; Paul and Georgette Lachaud; Abbé Marchadoux, parish priest of Sarlat; Colonel Robert Poirier; and René Vaujour, Armée Secrète, Corrèze.
In VENTRILOQUIST mention must be made of Octave Chantraine, President of the Fédération Paysanne de l’Indre, crucial in the parachutages around Châteauroux; Charles Rechmann, ex-Army officer; and Stanislav Makowski, captured and tortured to death near Romorantin, 23 August 1944. He is buried in Pornic War Cemetery, Loire-Atlantique, Grave ref 2 AB 17.
French Resistants pay homage to SOE at the SOE F Section Monument at Valençay, 6 May 1997.
SALESMAN 2: Georges Guingouin, FFI Chief, Haute Vienne, elected Mayor of Limoges, 1945; Commandant Huard, Armée Secrète; Captain Rolet, FFI Company Le Desert, battle of Châteauneuf.
FIREMAN: Lieutenant Col Francois, Mouvements Unifiés de la Résistance; Commandant Maldart, MUR; Commandant Melon, FTP.
SHIPWRIGHT: Eugene Deschelette (ELLIPSE); SURCOUF of the Armée Secrète in Indre; M Villeneuve at Montmorillon.
WRESTLER: M & Mme Sabassier; M & Mme Trochet; Commandant Francis Perdiset and Captain Pierre Mercier; and Captains Emile Gouman, Camille Boiziau, Perrot and Vannier.
To put this limited selection of names into some perspective we should recognize that ‘best estimates’ reckon the Resistance numbered around some 125,000/150,000 ‘effectives’ out of a total of some 450,000 throughout France.
Kaltenbrunner, the Nazi chief of Police services in France, in his report of June 1943, estimated 80,000 effectives in the Armée Secrète alone.
According to Henry Michel, in his Histoire de la Résistance of 1950, more than 30,000 Resistants were shot and many more were deported.
Women (and even children in a number of cases) made a very significant contribution to the Resistance and this was acknowledged by the Government when French women were awarded the right to vote after the war for their heroism. As Francis Cammaerts (the outstanding chief of the JOCKEY network in the Bouche-de-Rhone/Hautes-Alpes region) told me, ‘without the women we could have done nothing’.
Of the British agents’ subsequent lives I can only write of the little I know from personal contacts.
Following the order of March, PIMENTO’s Tony Brooks has always been closely involved with all post-war SOE affairs and is a wide ranging source on SOE matters. Sadly, I just missed meeting WHEELWRIGHT’s wonder wireless operator, Yvonne Cormeau, who died while this book was in the writing. FOOTMAN’s George Hiller became a brilliant diplomat and died in Belgium in 1962. His widow, Judith Hiller, has not only been a charming hostess in her home in the Lot but has provided innumerable introductions and insights. Cyril Watney lives in England, Gaston Collins in Paris: both assisted me.
Jacques Poirier’s career in the oil industry took him over half the world. Without his tireless attention to my questions, and the aid of his book, I would have committed many more errors than I might have done. Peter Lake also became a diplomat, in two continents, and his contribution is gratefully acknowledged. Ralph Beauclerc became a successful banker and through mutual friends, the Greigs, provided me with detailed information on his wireless days.
Geoffrey Staunton is commemorated in Limoges, having a street named after him. Violette Szabo, the first British woman to be awarded the George Cross, has a blue commemorative plaque on her home at No 18 Burnley Road, Brixton and her name is included on the FANY memorial at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge. Her year 2000 commemoration in Sussac has been noted.
Brian Stonehouse, whom I met at the Valençay reunion in 1997, died in December 1998 after a distinguished art career. Francis Cammaerts, who lives in France, and Roger Landes, who lives in England, have both been generous with their time and knowledge. Pearl Cornioley is still active in SOE circles and Vera Atkins was, right up to her death 16 June 2000, an outspoken spokeswoman for the agents and their families. She gave me freely of her time both in London and at her country home. I am honoured that she gave me permission to dedicate this book to her.
Daphne Friele, of the Jeds, gave me unlimited access to her Milton Hall archives and our visits to her home in Brittany were always a joy. She now lives in the USA. John Fielding has provided invaluable insights into BULBASKET and Hugh Verity politely corrected my erroneous ideas on how a Lysander landed.
The Spirit of Resistance lives on.