Three individuals play a decisive role here: the disappearance of Sturmbannführer (Major) Helmut Kämpfe in the hands of the Resistance; the abduction and escape of Obersturmführer (Lieutenant) Karl Gerlach; and Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, with his Der Führer Ist Battalion, preparative to the massacre at Oradour.
The Disappearance of Kämpfe
There are many diverse opinions on one of the most controversial events associated with Das Reich – the disappearance of the popular commander of the armoured battalion. We can trace the outlines from the official SS history. On 9 June, Helmut Kämpfe was ordered to Guéret with his IIIrd Armoured Battalion in order to liberate the German garrison there which was encircled by the Maquis. Following the action in Guéret, on the evening of 9/10 June, the unit’s Medical Officer, Muller, reported ‘Kämpfe has fallen into the hands of the terrorists’. He had last seen him at about 8.00 pm when Kämpfe had passed him ‘driving alone in his Talbot’, (according to others, a Peugeot, both cars having been requisitioned from the same owner in Limoges) and had waved vigorously and then accelerated away. Twenty minutes later, Muller was to find the car empty, its engine still running, its doors open, on the road at the edge of a wood. An empty submachine-gun magazine lay under the car. There was no sign of a fight nor traces of blood. The neighbouring woods were combed without result and Muller drove on to report the incident to Command HQ in Limoges. Kämpfe was never seen again by the Germans.
We now pick up the Maquis account. As Kämpfe approached a road junction at the hamlet of La Bussière he slowed down and stopped in response to an on-coming vehicle’s flashed headlights (on the D941, between Sauviat and St-Leonard). He found himself surrounded by a ring of armed men, Sergeant Jean Canou’s FTP.
Capture of Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe 9 June 1944
Personnel carrier, Sd Kfz 251 C, belonging to Das Reich of the type used in the massacre near Pontarion (D60) after the fighting in Guerét.
More local, on-the-ground, information completes the history, enabling the visitor to retrace Kämpfe’s movements.
A first-hand oral account was obtained in 1997 by a regional historian, Yves Soulignac:
Kämpfe was held prisoner in a Maquis camp near the village of Cheissoux. He had been stopped in his car between 8.30 and 9.00 o’clock in the evening... at the place known as La Bussière between Sauviat and Saint-Leonard [the D941]. He was arrested by the section of Sergeant Canou.’
Canou was quick to realise the importance of his capture.
More evidence was obtained in 1998 from another witness who prefers to remain anonymous. Standing at his farmhouse door, wearing clogs as many of the farmers hereabouts still do, he gave us first hand information concerning the abduction. It was information which did not surface at the Bordeaux trial, neither has it figured in any of the many histories since.
The sunken lane at Cheissoux, near the Maquis camp.
According to this account Kämpfe was preceded by two motor-cycle outriders. They, having passed La Bussière, continued on towards Saint Leonard. A moment later and Canou and his men turned out of La Bussière and, seeing the on-coming Talbot, flashed their lights in a stop signal. Kämpfe stopped and was immediately surrounded. He was unarmed, not even carrying a pistol. He was very relaxed and laughing, fully confident of the immediate arrival of the column behind him and the return of the outriders who would soon make short work of the terrorists. Instead, he was bundled into the lorry and driven off ‘up a narrow dirt road’.
For the visitor wishing to retrace these events he should start at the bridge at Brignac, a few kilometers to the north west of Saint Leonard, where the D124 crosses the River Vienne(1).
Canou was returning from blowing this bridge. He drove back to camp by the winding roads used by the locals, travelling north east and actually passing Bas Soleil, Philippe de Vomécourt’s château(2). From here the route lay through Lajoumard, Cadillat, past Maisonneuf and then through lanes not now very suitable for traffic to La Vigne and La Bussière(3). At that time the farm here belonged to Pierre Malaquise, who was summarily shot, along with Pierre Mon Just, when they were unable to provide information concerning the whereabouts of the missing officer. Their monument marks the spot. The old farmhouse, which was ransacked, stands just behind the new house, now owned by a Dutchman M van Rooy who was, in his youth, employed by the de Vomécourts at Bas Soleil. (If you appreciate cider you will be well rewarded here).
The lorry carrying the captured SS officer turned down the road marked Vernon(4). This led to the Moulards and Champnétery on the D13 for Cheissoux(5). The Maquis camp was located at Cheissoux and it was here that Kämpfe was held prisoner while news of his important capture was passed by Sgt. Canou to Lt. Robert Fourneau at Guingouin’s headquarters.
The road at La Bussière down which Sergeant Canou drove to his head-on meeting with Kämpfe’s Talbot. Farm on the left was owned by Pierre Malaquise.
The Germans instigated a vigorous search for Kämpfe. The SS ordered up a reinforcement of Waffen SS troops which, directed by the Milice from Limoges, began to scour the countryside. At the same time they entered into negotiations with the Resistance through an intermediary who was being held at Limoges prison. The man was called Laudoueneix who was a civilian involved in the resistance work but was not an actual maquisard (a person known as a ‘légal’). For the liberation of Kämpfe, Guingouin proposed that the Germans release fifty maquisards being held at Limoges by the Gestapo. While the negotiations were underway Guingouin received two communiques: First, that thirty-one maquisard prisoners had been massacred, some of them having been crushed to death under the tracked vehicles belonging to the 3rd Armoured Battalion commanded by Kämpfe. This attrocity had taken place at Poteau de Combeauvert following the SS action to ‘pacify’ the town of Guérèt. Second, that on the 10 June civilians, men, women and children at the village of Oradour had been murdered by the Das Reich. Guingouin ordered the immediate execution of Kämpfe and another German soldier prisoner. The were both buried close to where they were shot.
Road to Vernon, car in position occupied by Canou’s vehicle with captured SS officer Kämpfe.
The ‘Eisenhower’ Resistance memorial at Vialleville.
There is a monument to the capture of Kämpfe further up the D941 towards Bourganeuf, at the bend in the road by Vialleville. Kämpfe was the highest ranking and most decorated SS officer ever to fall into the hands of the Resistance ‘the hero of the Das Reich Division’ and a close friend of Lammerding. On the monument is a quote by General Dwight Eisenhower praising the Resistance for causing a 48-hour delay of Das Reich during this period.
The pigsty at Cheissoux used as a prison for Kämpfe. It has now been demolished.
Without becoming too entangled in the supposed mystery surrounding his fate, mention must be made of his apparent grave in the German Military Cemetery of Berneuil, about 100 kilometers north of Bordeaux. Here, tomb No 176, Block 1 bears the inscription: Helmut Kämpfe Stubf 31.7.09 + 10.6.44. One may well ask how it could be that Kämpfe’s grave could have supposedly moved so far from the spot where he was secretly buried by the maquis. The reasons advanced by Weindinger to justify the grave marker at the German Military Cemetery at Berneuil can only be described as a caricature of disinformation.
A section of the copse at Cheissoux where Kämpfe’s body and that of another German prisoner were probably buried.
The gravestone, in the German Military Cemetery at Berneuil, falsely indicating that Kämpfe’s remains are buried there.
Opposite above, shows the pigsty in which Kämpfe was held but which has subsequently been demolished and replaced by a modern addition to the house. Opposite below, shows a section of the copse where two Germans were almost certainly buried. However, people living in the vicinity claim to have no knowledge whatsoever as to the precise location. Their main concern seems to be the continued interest of the SS Comrades Association in their possibly retrieving the remains of their former comrade. On this matter the German Embassy also remains silent. The official site of Kämpfe’s burial is at Berneuil.
Since so much effort was devoted by the SS, at the time and subsequently (even long after the war), to distance themselves from all responsibility for Oradour, the disappearance of Kämpfe (and his subsequent ‘reappearance’ at Breuilaufa, St Leonard, Limoges and, finally, Berneuil Cemetery) was integral to the plan of disinformation which was concerned with placing the blame for the Oradour attrocity on the Resistance.
Further confusion arose with the abduction of Gerlach by the Maquis, another event we must now follow. To do this we must return to Limoges and go out on the N147 to Nieul.
The Gerlach Affair
On 9 June Obersturmführer (Lieutenant) Karl Gerlach (Special Missions Officer) was ordered to reconnoitre billets in the area near Nieul. There are at least two different versions of his experiences. According to his own account, submitted by him to his lawyer on 21 September, 1951, for the Bordeaux trial in 1953, he mentions that he was disappointed with Nieul and moved on to the next town, probably St Gence. Driving ahead rather too quickly he and his driver outdistanced his other two vehicles with their four men. Finding themselves alone they became nervous and turning around they started back towards Limoges, only to find themselves surrounded by maquisards. Stripped of their uniforms they were driven around the countryside in an apparently haphazard way until Gerlach managed to escape near Breuilaufa in the Monts de Blond. Reaching the railway ‘after several hours’ he struggled down the Bellac-Limoges line and eventually reached the headquarters of Der Führer Regiment the next day. He reported what had happened to himself and his driver and was promptly ordered to bed by Stadler, his Regimental Commander. Moments later he was awakened by Diekmann, his Battalion Commanding Officer, who demanded a complete description of his adventure.
If the Gerlach affair appears to be a side-play to the tragedy of Oradour its importance lies in the use it was put to by the SS in implicating Oradour as a ‘nest of terrorists’. Gerlach claimed, in 1951, to have passed through Oradour as a captive and to have seen there ‘maquis and many curious onlookers... numerous uniformed persons, including women wearing yellow leather jackets and steel helmets’. Another version has them in fauve jackets, that is fawn colour, a colour closer to the usual GMR uniform (Groupes Mobile de Réserve, a para-military Vichy force designed to maintain civil order).
Important also in his statement was his reference to a marker stone inscribed ‘6.5 Kms to Bellac’ near the spot from which he escaped. If this is a true statement it locates his escape point somewhere just north of Blond, on an arc with Virat, some four kilometres to the west of the railway line.
The second version, that of Pascal Maysounave, would seem to place the escape point nearer to Bellac in the Bois du Roi. This route is: Peyrilhac (where he was intercepted by the 4th Regiment FTPF); transferred north to Vaulry in the Monts de Blond; on to Blond itself; then via the D95 and D675 to the Bois du Roi, where he escaped and his driver was shot. From here he reached the railway (about three kilometres) and worked his way back to Limoges.
The incidents in this version are instructive. He was captured and interrogated in Peyrilhac by Madame Marie-Thérèse Pradaud, a sergeant in the FTP who was conducting a group of eight GMR who were joining the Maquis. Amongst them was an Alsatian who spoke German. After interrogation the two Germans were taken north to Vaulry and on to Blond, where Madame Pradaud lived, and finally to the Bois du Roi. In this version, the group never went into or near Oradour. For this action, Madame Paraud received the Croix de Guerre avec étoile.
The church at Peyrilhac near the site of Gerlach’s capture.
This route from Peyrilhac to the Bois du Roi takes us through some bucolic countryside, climbs the Monts de Blond, and can easily end up in our becoming lost. It is not surprising that Gerlach found this a confusing route.
Take the D206 out of Peyrilhac, left onto the D101A for Chamborêt.
Gerlach escaped down an avenue of trees in the Forêt des Bois du Roi where this present-day photograph was taken.
The capture and escape of
9/10 June 1944
Hotel de la Gare, St Junien, Diekmann’s HQ where the details for the massacre at Oradour were finalised.
Nice, hilly country starts here on the D5 for Vaulry (Resistance memorial) and finally Blond itself. The probable route from here is via L’Age onto the D675 and right for the Bois du Roi. Although the exact site cannot be identified it was certainly along the road through the woods near Les Tuilières, some three kilometres from the railway. This corresponds with Gerlach having passed a 6.5 Kms marker. Return via Belleix and Méry (defaced memorial of 7 August 1944) to Oradour.
We pick Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann up again at St Junien, a prosperous leather belt and glove making town on the banks of the River Vienne. He had made the Hotel de la Gare his headquarters on 9 June. With him were Kahn, his No 2; Joachim Kleist, a notorious Gestapo officer from Limoges; an interpreter; and four Milicians. He consulted with the local Gestapo officer, a man named Wickers, and several French officials. The next day he returned to Limoges, ‘in an excited state’, and conferred over the disappearance of Gerlach, returning to St Junien by noon. After further discussions with Kleist and the Milice he ordered Kahn’s Company to mobilise and by 1:30 pm the unit was on its way to Oradour.
But before we follow their movements we must immerse ourselves in an Armée Secrète Maquis action which had occurred at St Junien just two days before Diekmann’s arrival in the town. As part of Circuit SALESMAN 2’s Plan Vert, on 7 June the local Maquis had sabotaged the railway viaduct to the west of the town which carried the Limoges to Angoulême main line. The following morning they again took up positions overlooking the viaduct and when the train from Angoulême came to a halt the passengers were obliged to cross the somewhat perilous spans to join a train which had been sent up from Limoges to meet them. Ten German soldiers were among them: two were shot down, five ran back to the train and three ran forwards to the Limoges train. Those who got back to Limoges reported the incident and the next day an armoured train arrived with a German detachment and Obersturmführer Wickers of the Gestapo. This was but one of literally thousands of similar actions but may serve as an example. The Armée Secrète unit had been founded as early as September 1940 and by June 1944 numbered 169 men. On 8 June they followed up the sabotage with the small arms attack described.
The bridge at St Junien from the view of the Germans as they left the stalled train and began crossing the damaged span towards the town where a relief train awaited them. Note, on the right, the balustrade from the original bridge.
Take the D675 south out of St Junien and, after the road bridge, turn right on the D86 for Codille and then first right on an unmarked road until you reach the route de Thonisserie. At the farm at the end of a rutted track you will see the viaduct and, to your right, the remains of the wood where the Maquis took up their positions. Return to the town and, at the difficult road junction by the chapel (drive with caution), turn left and park near the old glove factories which line the river (Quai des Mégisseries). Climb up by the railway embankment and see the ivy-covered piers of the original viaduct with their supports for the old spans. Just away to your left is the wood from which the Maquis opened fire.
The bridge at St Junien today showing the replacement span.
View from the bridge at St Junien seen from the position of the men filing across the damaged span.
We can now set out along the route taken by Diekmann’s unit, leaving from the Hotel de la Gare which, both outside and inside, is little changed since that day. However, it is now closed. Taking the Avenue travelling east we reach the D32 marked St Brice and Aixe-sur-Vienne. Through St Victurnien, under the new N141, over the old N141, you then traverse the little Rivulet Glanet and mount to Bellevue. Stop. This is the place where the column halted and was joined by a second one from Limoges. There is a cross at the side of the road but it is said not to mark any incident associated with the massacre. Climb to the right of the pine trees for a view of Oradour.
Had you been present at the departure of the Germans from St. Junien on 10 June 1944, you would have heard the chilling words of NCO Barth: ‘You are going to see blood flowing today!’ The time was 1:30 pm.
When the Germans reached the ground overlooking Oradour SS-Hauptsturmführer Kahn held a further briefing with his officers and NCOs. Some soldiers were detailed to descend and to begin combing the area in order to conduct anyone they found to Oradour. The bulk of the column moved on down the hill.