On 2 May Lammerding received a coveted decoration, the Ritterkreuz or Knight’s Cross for having, on the Russian front,’ led a detachment of the Das Reich Division in a rapid movement to stop the Russians breaking through at Jampol.’ There was a celebration in the officers’ mess at Montauban with copious champagne and the singing of SS songs. That same day, a series of atrocities in the south west was attributed to the Das Reich Division.

Before the division’s arrival in the south, the Brehmer Division and the 76th Brigade known as the Jesser (the names were of the commanding officers) had been in action against the Resistance. But their components were weak, each comprising one or two SS police regiments, which included Russians who had been given the choice of fighting with the Germans or going to a concentration camp. Their efforts were insignificant compared with those of the Das Reich Division.

The crimes committed by Das Reich usually followed a scenario. the men involved had been specially trained for ruthless acts of vengeance against civilians wherever they were suspected of aiding or sympathising with the ‘terrorists.’ It is possible, however, that some of the atrocities attributed to Das Reich were committed by units of the Wehrmacht, who could be equally ruthless.

The usual Das Reich practice was:

· (1) To surround a chosen village.

· (2) To occupy the principal offices, – the mairie, the police station, etc.

· (3) To assemble the population, together with people living in the neighbourhood, using the town crier to announce the order.

Then came the killing, looting and burning. In one case they shut the women and children in the church but they were later released. It is certain that Lammerding was aware of and approved these measures. On 2 May a detachment of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Regiment stationed at Caussade entered the village of Montpezat-de-Quercy. The battalion commander, Major Tetsch, led a number of tanks and other tracked vehicles through the village under the nervous gaze of the people. It was not the first time the SS had come their way but it soon became apparent that this was a different, more menacing visit.

The convoy stopped outside the mairie and the mayor was seized and marched away. Meanwhile the convoy divided into groups which called at farms in the neighbourhood. With loud cries the SS forced the inhabitants to leave the buildings to which they set fire. In all, about a dozen farms around the village were destroyed. The village people were assembled in the main square before soldiers armed with machine-guns and rifles. The SS looted and burnt a number of large houses. At one house they killed M Bonnet, an elderly man, and his granddaughter, aged 2, and threw their bodies into the fire. The presbytery, which contained valuable antiques and books, was destroyed and the parish priest Father Schap,was arrested. He was made to stand facing a wall with his hands up while an NCO poked the muzzle of a machine-gun into his back. An officer ordered him to reveal where arms were hidden in the village. The priest protested that there was no arms cache that he knew of and he was released, terrified.

When the SS eventually left the village they took twenty-two men with them. They were brutally beaten and deported. Four people had been killed. It was not until some time later that the villagers learnt that there had been a skirmish between the SS and some maquisards about two kilometres away, which may have been the reason for the raid.

From the middle of May, the Gestapo at Montauban and its detachment at Cahors gathered information about the Resistance in the Department of Lot. They had the assistance of fifteen Frenchmen, of whom one had spent several weeks with the maquis in the Cabrerets region. At the beginning of May, Lieutenant Muller of the Gestapo believed he had sufficient information for a drive against the Maquis in Lot, with the help of the Das Reich Division. Eight places were pinpointed for action. They included the villages of Blars, Cabrerets, Lauzés, Terrou, Latronquière and Gramat where, it was reported, there was a large number of maquis with caches of arms, vehicles and even an American tanker with 18,000 litres of fuel. In fact, it was alleged that the ‘terrorists’ controlled the region under a helpless gendarmerie. It was believed that the villagers supported the ‘terrorists’ and if this were true all the men would be rounded up and sent to a concentration camp.


German firing squad in operation in Poland.

This large-scale operation, involving the Gestapo and the SS, was launched on the evening of 10 May. During the night a detachment moving from Caussade was joined by men of the headquarters of the division at Montauban. Another group, composed of members of the 1st Battalion of the Der Führer Regiment, had Adolf Diekmann as the commander. They had been stationed at Valence d’Agen. They were joined by other groups from the regiment and the two columns converged at the village of Le Bourg, north of Figéac. Between 4 and 7 a.m., the SS descended on the suspect villages where they searched in vain for the nests of maquis and caches of arms and vehicles.

At Cabrerets, at about 4 a.m., the detachment of the 1st Battalion killed a Spanish farmhand and arrested the farmer and his domestic on the grounds that they had cared for wounded maquisards. They looted several farms and burnt one, for no apparent reason.

Lauzès was surrounded, the police were disarmed and the phone lines cut. All the men were assembled in the square while houses were looted. There was some random shooting and two women were killed during a tour of nearby farms. They were Mme Moncontré, aged 50, and her daughter Berthe (20) who were tending their sheep. A bit farther on, M Lalo (66) was shot while working in his garden. No word was spoken before the soldiers fired. Then, to their enormous relief, the men who had been lined up in the square were allowed to go after a brief examination of their papers.

The procedure was the same at Orneac. The men were assembled while houses were ransacked. The men were released, apart from the mayor and two others who were taken away.

At Blars it was a different story, after the village had been looted the SS took twenty-one people away with them.

Cardillac was visited twice. The SS rounded up the men at 7 a.m. Two young men who tried to run away were shot, women working in the fields were fired on, one being killed and another badly wounded. The next day another troop arrived and the men were again rounded up.

At Sagnac an SS officer ordered the mayor to produce a list of Jews and strangers in the town. There were none. However, all the men, except those over 60, were assembled. The SS took away about eighty of them, of whom half were later released while the rest were deported. There was random shooting in the village and two women were killed.

After the customary round-up at Saint-Céré, some men were beaten. Twenty-four inhabitants, including four women, were arrested and deported.

The worst incidents occurred on 12 May in the hamlet of Niel. The SS burst into the house of M and Mme Gratacap. They were at table with their five children. Without a word of explanation, they took the parents into a neighbouring wood and shot them.

At Garrigue the Carrayou family, with their three children, were working in a field near their home when the SS arrived. Without any apparent motive, they killed them all. Two other people in the same hamlet were shot.

The SS arrived at Saint-Félix in the afternoon. They ransacked several houses in the fading hope of’ finding the elusive arms cache. M Rives (53) was shot and they took eight people to Figéac where they shut them in a cave for the night. Their guards fired into the obscurity from time to time and the prisoners had to back into crevices to avoid being hit. However, one of them, a M Barrie, was killed. The next day two of the older people were released and the other five deported. They never returned.

At Latronquière the toll was one killed and eighty deported. The hamlet of Groscassan was completely destroyed by fire. Death and destruction were suffered by other hamlets and some cases of rape were reported. All the people taken during this operation were removed to Figéac and then to Montauban where they were put in some barracks which had been converted into a prison. They were people of various ages, including priests, policemen and two women. During their imprisonment two young men were removed and shot and others were tortured. Eventually, for no apparent reason, the SS released several dozen prisoners and deported the rest. The massive operation to ‘purge’ the Lot of its maquis with their weapons ended with none of the objectives achieved.

The random shooting in the exercise was probably carried out by young soldiers, often uneducated and only partly trained, who were given sophisticated weapons to ‘play with’ and may have been excited by what they could do by simply squeezing a trigger. If they killed in error a reprimand was highly unlikely and they soon became immune to the sight of bleeding corpses for whom they had been responsible. If there was no actual motive for the killings they could invent one, such as ‘they supported the terrorists’ but it is unlikely that they were ever called upon to account for their random killings. It has also to be remembered that fear was involved. They were not only afraid of displaying anything but strict obedience to order, but although the superiority of the SS was evident they suffered casualties by snipers and ambushes in May 1944. In fact, about twenty men died at the hands of the ‘terrorists’ and there was considerable loss of vehicles and other material.


Funeral of Das Reich soldiers killed in operations against the maquis at Guéret, June 1944.

Shortly afterwards, the Gestapo were informed that various units of resistance were to be found in the Dordogne and Lot-et-Garonne. The Das Reich Division was again called upon to help. The 1st Battalion of the Der Fûhrer Regiment was nominated for the job by the regimental commander. On 21 May, four companies of the battalion under Captains Kahn, Scholtz, Schwartz and Rosenstock, moved to Fumel in the north, accompanied by the Gestapo. The four companies divided, each covering a different area. Diekmann with other officers of the battalion and the Gestapo, set up their headquarters in a hotel near the village of Gavaudun. They kept in radio contact with the company commanders. This time they were lucky. A small arms cache was found in the house of M Abouty at Devillac. He was stripped and hung by his feet while the SS beat him until he was unconscious. Then he was loaded into a truck bound for Cahors. It is assumed that he died on the way and was dumped because he never arrived.

There were particularly brutal scenes at Fontenelles. The SS arrived au 4 a.m. and broke open a recently built vault in the cemetery, searching for arms. It was empty so they ransacked the church, breaking down the door. Then followed the usual looting. Bicycles, radios, food and linen were among the things loaded into trucks. The soldiers stole all the jewellery they could lay their hands on. As no arms cache was found, the mayor was arrested and all the people were assembled in the village square. Meanwhile the surrounding countryside was scoured and a patrol found two FFI men and a parachuted Canadian NCO in a wood.


Captain (Hauptsturmführer) Kahn (centre) was engaged in committing atrocities against French civilians prior to Oradour. In the front, nursing what appears to be a cat, is Lieutenant (Untersturmführer) Heinz Barth who played a major part in carrying out reprisals.

The captors returned to Fontenelles in triumph with their captives and the three men were brought before Captain Kahn, the commander of the third company. After questioning, the Canadian was separated from the other two who were thrown about, kicked and beaten with cries of ‘terrorists!’ Eventually the battered, bleeding men were taken to a house where ropes had been fixed to beams in the ceiling. The luckless FFI men were suspended by their feet, beaten and allowed to fall on their heads. At mid-day, the men, barely able to walk, almost dragged by their tormentors, were put against a wall with other men, while a squad stood before them, fingering their weapons. Then, as if rehearsed, the church clock started to strike and through the broken door of the church came the sound of organ music played by an SS man. At the same time, a gramophone stolen from a teacher was brought to the square and a record of the Marseillaise was played. The firing squad continued to finger their weapons before the terrified men at the wall. Other SS men consumed stolen food and wine.

There was another sorting out of the people in the square. Men under 16 and over 60 were released, together with the women. Eventually, to their immense relief, the others were told they could go – that is, all except the two maquisards, the Canadian and two brothers, Jean and Maurice Scholtz.

Leaving Fontenelles at about 4 p.m., the SS moved to the east, regrouping around Frayssinat-le-Gélat, a village of about 400 inhabitants. The men were assembled in the square on the orders of Captain Kahn. As usual, there was looting while latecomers were battered with rifle butts. Identity papers were being examined when a shot was fired from a window and a soldier was wounded. Kahn immediately lined up his men with their machine-guns while several of them rushed into the house from which the shot had been fired. They found three women, of whom one, Mme Agathe Pailles, was 80 years old. It seemed that the old woman, scared by the behaviour of the SS, had fired a shotgun at them. The house was set on fire while ropes were fixed to telephone poles near the church. Women and children were brought into the square to witness the hanging of the old woman and her two nieces, whose bodies were flung into their blazing home. Then, for no apparent reason, Mme Yvonne Vidilles was seized by her hair, dragged along the ground and shot with a revolver.

Kahn selected ten men to be lined up against a wall. An interpreter announced that the men were to be executed. The youngest was a youth of 15, Guy Mourgues, whose father begged Kahn to let him embrace him for the last time. Kahn agreed with a grin and the two men were shot with the others. The dead were stripped of their money, watches and rings. A pit was dug for the bodies, the grandfather of the Mourgues youth being ordered to help fill it in.


SS troops arriving in a French village.

The campaign of shooting and destruction of property occupied the majority of the regiments until the end of May. This exasperated the divisional staff who felt that the training progamme should have been completed. Protests were made to Army Group G about the use of frontline soldiers against civilians. Shortage of fuel was also holding up the training. The isolated excursions revealed a lack of co-ordination between the various units and it seemed unlikely that Das Reich could move as a well-organised division when they were called into action.

There was also a shortage or vital transport, particularly of trucks and tractors for the guns. In mid-May the division received thirty-seven Panzer Vs and fifty-five Panzer IVs. The force was also strengthened by thirty Stürmgeschützen – turretless tanks, low on the ground and so difficult to disable with anti-tank weapons.


SS troops begin a search of the houses looking for arms.

At the beginning of 1944 there were 1,480 prisoners in ‘the best-guarded prison in France’, the prison of Eysses, near Villeneuve-sur-Lot. They were all resistants who had been sentenced by French courts. In February there was a big escape bid at the jail. It failed, Darnand, the head of the militia and Secretary-General of the Départment for the maintenance of order under the Vichy government, visited Eysses and saw the prisoners in their cells. He was assured there would be no reprisals but twelve were taken out and shot when he left. Vichy was afraid that another escape bid might succeed, with the prisoners joining the Resistance, so it was decided to hand them over to the Germans.

On 18 May, thirty-six prisoners regarded as hostages were transported to Blois and handed over to the 1st Battalion of the Der Führer Regiment, under Diekmann. They took the prisoners to the railway station at Penne-d’Agenais, a distance of about seven kilometres. Although most of the men were conveyed in trucks, the party, including a number of sick and elderly men, were marched there and beaten en route to keep up the pace.

One of the sick, a M. Huergas, fainted and was despatched with a bullet in the back of his neck. This was only a sample of what the prisoners of Eysses were to suffer during their deportation. Many died in the concentration camp to which they were sent.

As D-Day approached, Allied bombers attacked the rail network, assisted by sabotaging maquisards. On 1 June maquisards of the Lot attacked the railway centre at Capdenac.

A detachment of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Panzer Regiment patrolled the roads of the Lot. Towards 4 p.m, the SS entered the village of Limogne. It was market day and many people had come in from the surrounding hamlets. There was immediate panic, the brutality of the SS being widely known. Most of the men tried to run away. The soldiers jumped out of the trucks and opened fire and six men were killed. They included Charles Vernhat (17) and Lambert Puel (14). The SS did not linger in the village, to the immense relief of the community. They moved north in the direction of Figéac. During their passage through various villages they fired haphazardly, killing one person at Cardrieu and two at Frontenac. They spent the night at Figéac. The next day they combed the region north of Figéac. At about 6.30 a.m. the tail end of the column was attacked by members of the FFI. A truck was damaged but there were no casualties. The SS immediately set out to pursue the attackers. There were about twenty of them and they quickly disappeared into a wood. The soldiers failed to find any of them. In the afternoon the village of Cambyrat was looted and twenty-nine farms and houses were burnt.

At Saint-Bressou the men were grouped in the square and papers were examined. Houses were looted and set on fire. One man was shot in the street. The SS fired random bursts of machine-gun fire in the surrounding fields and woods and continued northwards. The village of Terrou was almost completely destroyed by fire. The next day, 3 June, two vehicles left Figéac early in the morning, heading for Aurillac. They were carrying eight SS and a woman. She was the wife of Lieutenant Hohne, commander of the lst Company of the SS Pioneer Battalion. For some strange reason he wanted her to be close to him and thought she might enjoy the trip. It was a tragic mistake.

Shortly after leaving Figéac the two vehicles arrived at the bridge of Colombiers. The road then went through a valley which the FFI had used for ambushes and a group of them opened fire on the vehicles. Seven of the nine occupants were killed, including Hohne and his wife. The two who escaped, managed to get back to Figéac to report the incident. A reprisal exercise was immediately organised. Less than an hour later a column of thirty armoured vehicles and a motor-cycle platoon set out for the location of the killings. At the nearest house they flung open the door and tossed a grenade among the inhabitants. A bit farther on two old people, M and Mme Gibrat were shot in their chairs and their farm destroyed.

Arriving at Viazac, the SS fired at the doors and windows. Six men and a woman were taken to the scene of the ambush and shot. The convoy arrived at the hamlet of Cayla at about 11 a.m., firing at both sides of the street. The Lacombe farm was burnt and the farmer killed. His wife and children were wounded. Another farmer, M. Truel, was also shot and his wife and two sons, who had been wounded, were flung into the blazing farm house. The young people of the hamlet fled into the woods, leaving behind two old folk, M Rives and Mme Ganil, who were shot. The Abbé Lacarinière was also shot, together with anyone the convoy happened to pass on the road. Seven men, of between the ages of 20 and 56, were shot in this manner, innocent of what was happening. The village of Bagnac was sprayed with bullets. A workman on the roadside was killed, so, too, was M Heliés, a grower, who was working on his land.

Further killings, lootings and burnings followed without any apparent attempt to find the men responsible for the ambush. None of the victims were questioned before they were shot. In fact, it was not a military exercise but more an operation to terrorize the people in the locality.

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