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Sacrifice Remembered

Taken a few years ago at the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. A reminder for those who question the value or morality of American engagement abroad.


Thomas Jefferson once wrote that "traveling makes a man wiser, but less happy." It's a reminder that travel, at least travel as I practice it, is not just about relaxation and laying on a beach in the sun, drinking margaritas all day and dancing all night. My tours focus on the art, the culture and the history unique to each region in Europe. Each trip is a learning experience, but not everything we learn is happy or easy to digest. Among visits to the Eiffel Tower, the vineyards of Burgundy and the sun-splashed hill towns of Provence I fit in places like Oradour-sur-Glane, scene of one of the greatest tragedies of World War II.

Oradour-sur-Glane sign

In a small valley less than 20 miles from the famous porcelain center of Limoges, Oradour-sur-Glane is surrounded by idyllic countryside. Its hills are covered with well-tended fields, the rolling terrain broken by small river valleys and by patches of oak forest, the source of much of the French oak used in wine barrels.

By early summer of 1944, war had been raging throughout Europe for almost five years. In a small village like Oradour-sur-Glane, it was easy to ignore this. France had succumbed quickly to the German invasion, and for most of the past four years the heavy fighting had all been far to the east, in distant countries nobody from Oradour had ever visited, in towns nobody here had even heard of. Germans seldom passed through Oradour, and the people of the village were content to be left in peace.

But on June 6, 1944 the Allied Forces landed in Normandy, and France was again the center of attention. News of the invasions taking place more than 300 miles to the north drifted in slowly. Disturbingly, the Germans seemed to be holding up well. In response to the invasion, large numbers of German troops began moving up from rearward positions in southern France to drive the Allied Forces back into the sea.

Main Street, Oradour-sur-Glane

French Resistance fighters, who in the past had been no more troubling to the Germans than flies to a bull, took this opportunity to launch attacks on the moving German troops, as well as sabotaging train lines, bridges, and communications points. On June 10, 1944, a regiment of soldiers from the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich was sent to the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. German command believed that the village was being used as a Resistance base, and this regiment was given orders to search the village.

Under the command of Sturmbahnführer Adolf Diekmann, the 180-man unit arrived in the village shortly before 14:00, while most people in the village where in the middle of their midday meal. The troops moved quickly to seal off all of the roads in and out of the village to prevent any entry and exit. Diekmann called for the mayor, and gave the order that all inhabitants of the village were to assemble at the fairgrounds for an identity check.

Fairgrounds, Oradour-sur-Glane

By 15:00 nearly 650 citizens of Oradour were assembled on the fairgrounds. The SS troops had set up machine guns on tripods, as a normal precaution against the superior numbers of townspeople. While it may have been natural for the people of Oradour to feel uneasy, the soldiers repeatedly told them this was just an identity check, so no one seemed overly alarmed. Occasionally, isolated gun shots rang out in the distance. That was more alarming.

Quiet conversations rippled through the crowd. The baker, Maurice Compain, asked that he be allowed to tend to his ovens, as he had bread baking, but the soldiers told him they would take care of it. While he doubted this, there was nothing he could do, and he returned to the assembled crowd.

At this point the SS began separating the women and children from the men, and fear among the citizens greatly increased. To allay this, they were told that the Germans had information that there was a cache of weapons, ammunition and other illegal items hidden in the town. It was better if the women and children waited in the church while the town was searched. Several hundred women and children were marched to the church and locked inside. The men were divided into six groups, and taken to various barns or garages around the town.

At around 16:00, soldiers carried a large wooden box into the church. Fuses dangling out of the sides were lit, and the box exploded with a ferocious bang. Choking smoke filled the inside of the building, and the pews began to burn. With the inside of the church in complete pandemonium, Marguerite Rouffanche made her way to the sacristy at the rear of the church, and sat next to her daughter on a step to escape the smoke.

Bakery, Oradour-sur-Glane

Soldiers outside fired machine gun bursts inside, tossed in a few hand grenades, and then began throwing wood, chairs, and straw inside to feed the flames. Mrs. Rouffanche’s daughter was shot and killed next to her, but Mrs. Rouffanche was only wounded and managed to hide behind the altar. When a cloud of smoke hid the altar from view, she seized the chance to jump through one of the already broken windows. She buried herself under leaves and grass in a garden near the church and remained hidden until 17:00 the next day. She was the only person from the church to survive the day.

In other parts of town, at some pre-determined signal (probably the explosion of the box in the church), machine guns opened fire at each of the barns and garages where the men were being held. Because the guns were mounted on tripods, low to the ground, most of the men were shot in the legs and lay bleeding, badly wounded, but not dead. After a few minutes the guns fell silent. Soldiers entered the sheds and shot any men who were still moving, then piled wood and straw on top of the bodies, set fire and left.

In one location, the Laudy’s barn, six men were still alive and able to move. After the soldiers had left, the men dragged themselves into a small courtyard at the rear of the barn, made a hole in a stone wall (one of them was a master mason) and crawled through to the other side, where they were able to hide in rabbit hutches until dark. Five of them eventually escaped, while the sixth was shot and killed on the outskirts of town. After the mass killings, small bands of SS troops moved through the village, systematically looting and burning every single building, and shooting any one they found hiding. A small garrison remained in the town overnight, and left the next morning.

In addition to the women and children killed in the church, and the men who were executed in the barns and garages around town, 52 bodies were found, individually or in small groups, on the streets of the village. These were probably people who had hidden when the Germans first arrived and were later discovered. In all, 642 people were brutally murdered in the space of a few hours. From Oradour the 2nd Panzer Division continued it’s push northward, arriving in Normandy as early as June 15. Sturmbahnführer Adolf Diekmann was killed on June 29 by shrapnel from a shell that struck him in the head. It’s reported that he left the bunker without his helmet in the middle of an air bombardment. Of the regiment that took part in the Oradour killings, over half of them died in Normandy.

Village Scene, Oradour-sur-Glane

The lingering question: why Oradour? One possible answer lies in confusion over two towns and two pieces of information. On June 9, Sturmbahnführer Helmut Kämpfe, a personal friend of Adolf Diekmann’s, was taken prisoner by the French Resistance and executed near Limoges within a few hours of his being taken prisoner. On the same day another officer, Karl Gerlach, was taken prisoner along with his driver and taken to Oradour-sur-Vayres, a town about 35 miles southwest of Oradour-sur-Glane. The driver was shot, but Gerlach managed to escape, sending word to SS-Panzer command that he had been held at Oradour-sur-Glane, confusing the names of the two towns.

Diekmann received word that an unnamed German officer (who he assumed to be Kämpfe, but in fact was Gerlach) was being held at Oradour-sur-Glane. Later he learned that Kämpfe had been executed, and he may have gone to Oradour with the intention of exacting revenge for his dead friend. This is all conjecture, as nobody involved in the Oradour massacre ever explained why they did it, and most of those in command where killed in Normandy within a month of the massacre.

After the war, the government of France decided to leave the village of Oradour-sur-Glane as a memorial to those who died, and as a stark reminder of the true costs of war. It’s estimated that more than 30 million civilians died in World War II. Today Oradour stands exactly as it was on June 10, 1944, the streets eerily quiet, as if everyone has just gotten up in the middle of lunch and disappeared.

Not a dry eye: a visit to Normandy

Mention the word Normandy to most Americans, and they instantly think of D-Day. This momentous struggle that took place more than 65 years ago has left an indelible mark on the region. Concrete bunkers, war memorials and cross-filled cemeteries litter the countryside.

Everybody in my group is eager to see Omaha Beach, but I leave that for last and allow the suspense to build. I start our day with a stop at the German Military Cemetery at La Cambe. Originally an American burial ground established in the first days of the invasion, it was a holding place for those killed in action from every side. War is a messy business, and somebody has to clean up afterwards. That's an aspect few have even considered. La Cambe became the German cemetery after the war, when the American bodies were relocated to the American Cemetery at Colleville.

Small black crosses huddle together in groups, while flat stones mark the grave sites, usually with two soldiers per grave. In all, more than 21,000 German soldiers found their final resting place here. The number of unknown soldiers makes clear just how hectic and disorganized the German retreat was, as they seldom had time to bury their dead. Open remains and hastily dug graves in the fields just inland from the beaches continue to be found to this day, the most recent in April 2009.

While Hollywood has done a good job of portraying the German soldier as a ruthless killer, the very personification of evil, the truth is often more difficult. Take Rifleman Walter Kus here. I don't know Walter's story, but I can read the dates of his birth and death (written European style -- DD.MM.YY). Born July 30, 1926. Died July 29, 1944

As the Soviets pushed forward on the Eastern Front, grinding German soldiers into the snow and mud, Germany became increasingly desperate for new recruits. They stretched the age limits on both the high and low ends, pulling fathers out of homes and kids out of what little school was left. Many of the soldiers posted here, on the Atlantic Wall at Normandy, were raw recruits with little or no real military training. I can imagine that Walter Kus, on the day before his 18th birthday, would have rather been just about any where else.

From the German Cemetery at La Cambe we move just a few miles down the road to the Pointe du Hoc. This scarred piece of land, situated on a point of land between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, has been left essentially as it looked after June 8, 1944. The terrain rolls and bucks with huge bomb craters. Several concrete bunkers are still intact.

A critical observation and defensive position for the Germans, the Pointe was subjected to heavy aerial bombing in the days before the invasion, yet intelligence suggested that the bunkers were too strong to have been completely destroyed. The guns of the Pointe du Hoc, sitting on a cliff hundreds of feet above the beach and capable of wreaking havoc on both Utah and Omaha, would need to taken by ground assault.

Capturing the Pointe, and taking out the German heavy artillery placed there, became the special mission of 225 American Rangers. Using medieval siege tactics -- rope, grappling hooks and ladders -- the Rangers assaulted the cliff under enemy fire just prior to the main landings. The 225 Rangers suffered 135 casualties before securing the cliff top. When the Pointe was finally captured, the Rangers discovered that the big guns had been moved inland several days earlier to protect them from the bombing.

A few miles down the road from Pointe du Hoc we come to a wide gully, where a modern paved road makes it easy for us to access a beach that 65 years ago was so difficult, a beach thousands of Americans fought and died to secure. After leaving the group a little time to walk and reflect on the beach, we head up for our last stop of the day, the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

American Cemetery, Colleville

Situated on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery is located on the site of the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery. Established by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944, this was the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II. After the war, this land was given by France to the US as sovereign territory.

Covering more than 170 acres, the cemetery contains the graves of 9,387 American military dead, most of whom lost their lives between June 6 and August 20, 1944. Inscribed on a wall are the names of 1,557 soldiers who were never found. While the sight of 10,000 crosses and stars of David is overwhelming, it’s important to realize that they represent less than 25% of those Americans who died here. Only those who’s families requested that their remains be buried at Omaha Beach are here, the rest were returned to the US for burial.

My tour group members return to the van wiping their eyes. Young and old, male and female, interested in military history or not, no one leaves Colleville unmoved. The ride home to the hotel is always quiet.

Remembering D-Day

This afternoon I'm boarding a plane for London, getting ready for my next round of tours. Looking at the date on my tickets, I realized that today is another famous date in history: today is June 6, the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. This video is a beautifully done look at the course of the invasion, with images that mix historic footage with modern looks at many of the memorials, museums and other sights of Normandy today. Once you click on the English version and are taken to the "movie theater," it takes a few minutes for the video to load and start playing, so if you just get a little black screen -- be patient, it'll start up eventually.

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