Located 15 miles northwest of Limoges in central France, the small village of Oradour, although it lay within the German zone of occupation from June 1940, managed to escape the horrors of World War II for the better part of four years. This all changed, however, on 10 June 1944, when Sturmbannführer Otto Dickmann and troops from the 1st Battalion of the 2nd SS Panzer Division (Das Reich) entered the village, slaughtered its inhabitants, and looted and burned its houses and buildings.
Commanded by Obersturmbannführer Heinz Lammerding, Das Reich, one of the original Waffen-SS divisions, had been transferred from the Eastern Front to Montauban in southern France in early 1944. In the immediate aftermath of the Allied Normandy Invasion of 6 June, Das Reich received orders to redeploy to the Normandy Front. As it made its way north, the division came under attack from French Resistance forces and engaged in several firefights. On 9 June, the Resistance captured one of the division's officers, the popular Sturmbannführer Helmut Kampfe. Possibly, the massacre at Oradour was in reprisal for this act.
On entering the village, the panzergrenadiers who made up Das Reich's 1st Battalion forced the startled residents to assemble in the central square. Separating the men from the women and children, the Germans herded the former into barns and the latter into the village church. They then burned both barns and church, tossing in grenades for good measure and gunning down those who tried to flee. After plundering and setting fire to other buildings, the 1st Battalion withdrew. A total of 642 victims, including 207 children, lay dead. Only 7 villagers (5 men, 1 woman, and a child) managed to escape. Das Reich proceeded to the Normandy Front without encountering further Resistance activity.
At war's end, French authorities decided to maintain Oradour-sur-Glane as it had been left by the Das Reich Division, transforming the remnants of the village into a national monument. As for the perpetrators, 7 Germans and 14 Alsatians were tried by a French military court at Bordeaux in 1953. The court found 20 of the defendants guilty and sentenced 2 to death and 18 to imprisonment at hard labor for terms ranging from 5 to 20 years. Amnesties and pardons, however, led to all 20 being freed within 5 years.
Bruce J. DeHart
Farmer, Sarah B. Martyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.; Hastings, Max. Das Reich: Resistance and the March of the 2nd S.S. Panzer Division through France, June 1944. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.; Kruuse, Jens. War for an Afternoon. New York: Pantheon Books, 1968.