The clouds had gathered over Oradour-sur-Glane on the morning of 10 June 1944, and rain threatened. At la Grange de Boeil, a hamlet nearby, Denise Bardet rose in the farmhouse she shared with her younger brother Camille and their mother Louise, a widow. It was a Saturday, and Denise’s 24th birthday. She would be spending it teaching at Oradour’s girls’ school but planned to pedal the short journey home for a brief celebratory lunch with her mother. In the centre of the village, another resident named Odette Bouillière was sorting through what had been brought into the local post office. Odette lived in the upstairs flat overlooking Oradour’s own small tram station. Her mother was staying with her for the weekend, as was her 12-year-old nephew, Robert.


By mid-morning, the early summer warmth had burnt away the rainclouds. Weekend visitors from the nearby city of Limoges had arrived by tram, and as was the norm, everybody settled down for the customary long lunch. Minds turned to what the afternoon might hold.

The people at their tables in the lower part of the village, near the river, were the first to hear a low rumble coming from the direction of Limoges and St-Victurnien. Villagers went into the street to watch as a procession of German vehicles carrying around a hundred men crossed the bridge spanning the river Glane.

As they passed, the soldiers surveyed the shops and houses along Oradour’s main street. Shutters closed while shopkeepers and curious onlookers gazed on in a mix of confusion, fear and curiosity at the strange convoy which wound its way uphill, leaving the lower village with its market hall and church behind it.

Robert Hébras, who worked in Limoges and was used to seeing Germans every day, reassured his friends that this would be no more than an identity check. Many others, however, had not seen a German soldier since the beginning of the occupation.

Nobody in the village knew that a perimeter had already been established which took in all the nearest hamlets and farms. A round up was moving inwards. Whether native to Oradour or not, everybody was taken to the main market square, known as the Champ de Foire. The schools were emptied, and the children told to walk in lines led by their teachers.

A seven-year-old boy named Roger Godfrin, who was a refugee from Alsace-Lorraine, took the opportunity to run away. All the others were made to wait with their teachers. Denise Bardet, an avid reader who had privately written about her love of German literature but abhorred what the Nazis had done to their country, looked after her class.

Very few people thought to hide because of the calm way the operation was conducted. Those who did hide had reason to do so. The danger of being deported to work in Germany, for example, deterred several younger men from going to the round-up. Some feared arrest because of their communist pasts. Several families had come to Oradour, a place deemed safe, because they were Jewish. One 15-year-old girl, Sarah Jakobowicz, who had only been there for just over a week, hid under a bed.

No identity checks were carried out, but there was a long wait. The mayor, Paul Desourteaux, who had already offered up himself and his family as hostages, was told that the village would be thoroughly searched for weapons, which it was claimed had been hidden there by the Resistance. Most of those in earshot were confident that nothing would be found, but this did not prevent the cries of anguish as the crowds were separated. The women and children were taken to the village’s ancient church.

Then the men were put into groups before being led off to barns and outbuildings. Everybody waited nervously.

The Oradour-sur-Glane massacre: what happened?

After an hour or so of waiting, a noise that sounded like an explosion – possibly the discharging of a cannon – filled the air. It was a signal. Immediately, the soldiers who had been guarding the groups of men opened fire. People fell one on top of another. Those still breathing were stepped on to be delivered the coup de grace. The bodies of the dead and dying were then covered with wood and phosphorous and set alight. Buildings all around the village were set ablaze.

Inside the tiny, overcrowded church guarded by sentries, the women and children could only guess at what was happening outside. A box that had been brought inside by two soldiers began to billow black smoke, causing asphyxiation and panic. Then the doors opened, and soldiers fired inside. One woman, a grandmother called Marguerite Rouffanche, could only look on as one of her daughters was shot through the neck. She and several others managed to force open the door to the sacristy, where they hid as church furniture and other combustibles were thrown onto stacked bodies and set alight. Below the sacristy an outside door was opened, and the downstairs store was set ablaze. As the floor collapsed, Marguerite saw her other daughter – clinging to her baby – fall into the furnace below.

Somehow, Marguerite found an escape route through one of the windows behind the altar. She could not help a woman called Henriette Joyeux, who tried to pass her baby. Both died, and Marguerite was shot and assumed dead. The heat of the inferno in the church was such that the bell in the church tower melted and fell.

As smoke rose, panic set in all around the district. Worried parents of children who attended school in Oradour, but lived in hamlets outside the perimeter, were at first reassured that the children were safe. When some tried to go to the village to find their sons or daughters, they too were shot.

How many people died during the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre?

In total, 643 people died. Two hundred and five children were killed, and only one – Roger Godfrin –survived because he followed the advice of his parents, who had told him to run whenever he saw German soldiers.

Denise Bardet died in the church with her class while her mother back at the farm waited for her. Post mistress Odette Bouillière died, as did her mother and 12-year-old nephew.

The burned corpse of Sarah Jakobowicz was later discovered under the bed that had served as her hiding place before the flames and smoke had consumed her.

Who committed the atrocity at Oradour-sur-Glane – and did they face justice?

It was quickly established that the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion, Der Führer Regiment – part of the SS Panzer Division Das Reich – had been responsible for the massacre. Yet, few of the perpetrators would be punished.

The battalion’s leader, SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, would be killed in Normandy two weeks later, while a French military tribunal held in 1953 failed to achieve lasting justice. Although 22 suspects were brought to Bordeaux to stand trial, only two – Georg Réne Boos and Karl Lenz – were sentenced to death. The remaining 18 men were either cleared, deemed too mentally unfit to stand trial, or sentenced to hard labour.

Yet, the story didn’t end there. Thirteen of the soldiers were found to have been forced conscripts from Alsace-Lorraine, and had their sentences quickly and controversially overturned by the French parliament.

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In fact, all of the convicted men were able to walk free by 1958, including Boos and Lenz, who were pardoned before their death sentences could be carried out. And there were a further 44 men identified by the authorities as having been present during the massacre, but who could not be extradited owing to the complex reconciliation politics of postwar Europe.

Das Reich’s overall commander, SS-Brigadeführer Heinz Lammerding, was sentenced to death in absentia, but went on to live a full life as a successful businessman in Düsseldorf.

The fact that the SS was capable of carrying out such an atrocity is itself not surprising. Built on a racist, extremist ideology that viewed its victims as less than human, its men had committed countless war crimes across the eastern front in the months leading up to the massacre.

Why was there a massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane?

But what drove the SS to commit such an act in a country that was supposed to be collaborating with Nazi Germany? And why, out of all the villages in west-central France, was Oradour-sur-Glane selected as a target?

Before answering such questions, it is necessary to understand just how much France had changed in the space of four years.

During the late 1930s, the country had been ruled by a broadly socialist coalition, the Front Populaire, and was politically volatile. It had believed itself to be militarily strong, yet the country would be crushed by Nazi advances in May 1940, with almost every village losing men to PoW camps.

Marshal Philippe Pétain was voted full powers to take stewardship of the ailing nation, and his negotiations with Adolf Hitler would see it divided into two main zones. It was decided that a new government in the town of Vichy would govern both, but whereas the northern and western zone was to be fully occupied, those living in the southern and eastern zone were to be left ‘free’ to administer themselves.

Oradour-sur-Glane, which fell within the free, unoccupied zone, was a bourg – a large central village that served a wider parish of hamlets and farms. In 1911, it had benefited from the installation of an electric tram line to Limoges, which enabled city-dwellers to swim or fish in the crystal waters of the Glane. Its country fairs and regular musical evenings and balls were always well attended, and its hotels and restaurants well-respected.

But with war came refugees, and defeat brought restrictions imposed by the Vichy regime. Music and theatre ground to a halt, partly due to Vichy orders, but mostly because resources had become stretched. With the coming of the new government there also came requisitions to support the German war effort.

France came under full German control in November 1942, when the Allies landed in north Africa and the Nazi regime tightened its stranglehold over its occupied territories.

Although quality of life in Oradour-sur-Glane continued to suffer, it was easier to get fresh food than in the cities, and like any rural village, it remained a good place to lie low and avoid detection. As Allied bombs fell on urban areas, it also became a haven for town-based parents to send their children, especially if they already had relations there.

But the changing nature of the war meant a growth in opposition to the Vichy regime, which seemed to be aligning itself more and more with Hitler’s Germany. A German drive to requisition French men to replace the workforce in the Reich led to a significant rise in people joining the rural Resistance movement, the maquis, with many others hiding out in the countryside.

Known as réfractaires (recusants), there were several such men in Oradour by June 1944, as well as escaped prisoners of war. Compared to other villages, however, maquis activity remained low. Many locals continued to believe in Pétain, and city dwellers carried on visiting at weekends. Prior to the massacre, 10 June had been a busy day in the bourg.

But if the village was not a haven of Resistance, how and why did it become the subject of such an atrocity? It might be argued that it was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Shortly after the D-Day landings of 6 June, the SS Panzer Division Das Reich received an order from German High Command, instructing it to carry out a “brutal and lasting strike” that would deter civilians from helping the Resistance. The division had recently returned from the eastern front, where such extreme violence had been commonplace, and it would continue its campaign of terror by hanging 99 maquisards in Tulle, some 70 miles south-east of Oradour-sur-Glane.

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Whatever form the “brutal and lasting strike” was to take, it would need to be carried out quickly, and in a location that didn’t hinder the division’s progress to Normandy, where it was being sent to fight against the Allies.

On 8 June, SS-Brigadeführer Heinz Lammerding had taken a train to Saint-Junien, nine miles south of Oradour, where maquis leaders had clashed with Wehrmacht soldiers after pre-emptively trying to ‘liberate’ the town following news of the Normandy landings. But it quickly became clear to Lammerding that Saint-Junien was not a suitable choice for the action. The area was too big to surround, and its maquis would likely fight back – the very thing he wished to avoid. Thus, the commander’s attentions instead turned to Oradour. Its isolated nature and lack of Resistance marked it out as an easy target, and – with the assistance of Vichy paramilitaries – it was quickly earmarked for destruction.

The 'wrong Oradour' theory

To aid the atrocity, misinformation was used even as the operation was being carried out. Most of the soldiers did not know why they were doing what they were doing, and had been given only patchy stories of Resistance in the village.

Meanwhile, there were erroneous suggestions that a close friend of SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, Major Helmut Kämpfe, had been kidnapped by maquisards in the vicinity of the village, when he was actually being held at a completely different location.

One story that began circulating straight away and continues to be cited to this day is that the ‘wrong’ Oradour had been chosen. According to this theory, Das Reich’s intended target had been a larger village named Oradour-sur-Vayres, where the maquis had been active. However, this theory would have required a barely believable navigational error, given that Oradour-sur-Vayres was 25 miles to the south-west. The expert map-readers of the SS would never have made such a mistake.

By attempting to shift responsibility to the Resistance, the SS involved could claim the massacre had been a reprisal – just as they continued to do in the aftermath of the war. At their 1953 military tribunal, the surviving suspects closed ranks and claimed that the people of Oradour had been harbouring maquisards and weapons, and that various atrocities against German soldiers had been committed in or near the village – all allegations for which not a shred of evidence was found.

However, the truth would finally come out in 1983 when SS-Untersturmführer Heinz Barth became the first senior commander to face trial for the massacre. Standing in front of a judge in East Berlin, the veteran claimed he was surprised that a handful of people in the village had managed to escape. “I was quite shocked,” he told the courtroom, quite impassively, “because we left on the principle that, as far as we knew, there were no survivors.”


Barth admitted openly what was already known: that the decision had been made to wipe the village from the face of the Earth, regardless of who they found there. The problem for Das Reich was that there had been survivors, some of whom were present when Barth was handed a life sentence for his part in the destruction of Oradour-


Robert PikeHistorian

Robert Pike is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University, studying the Resistance in occupied France. His books include Silent Village: The Life and Death of Oradour-sur-Glane (The History Press, 2021)