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THE NORMANDY AMERICAN HEROES BLOG

WORLD WAR TWO, NORMANDY AND MORE

2nd SS PANZER DIVISION DAS REICH IN FRANCE

Posted by Rodolphe Passera on Jul 22, 2020 9:05:37 AM

Created in 1925 the Schutzstaffel  became a huge militia to serve the Nazi party, a real state in the state. Those fighting divisions had the nickname of “fireman of the frontline”. The 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" was one of the 38 Waffen SS Divisions of the 3rd Reich.  

Contrary to the Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS had better equipment, were better trained, better fed, better paid and took orders just from only one person, the Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. The number two of the Nazi regime. Himmler was also Hitler’s right hand man. The soldiers of the Waffen SS are the most decorated of the 3rd Reich. 69 Iron Cross were given to soldiers of the 2nd SS Panzer Division  "Das Reich" who fought well in France and the Soviet Union. 

Heinrich Bernhard Lammerding was in charge of the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich". He was a former engineer born in 1905. He was an experienced SS soldier, a war criminal who led special forces in Belarus and the Baltic States. Smart, ambitious and without qualm, Lammerding participated in all the battles which preceded the Soviet Union invasion set off on the 22nd of  June 1941. 

In June 1944 the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" was based in Montauban in the south of France. After many feat of arms on the Eastern front, the veterans were taking a leave. 15000 men were located in camps and barracks near the Garonne river up to the city of Toulouse. Officers, sub-officers stayed in requisitioned houses where the locals had no choice but to lodge and feed them.

In the morning of the 6th of June 1944, the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" received an alarmist message from German Headquarters: "Invasion from our enemy started at daybreak. Take measures to move immediately”. At daybreak on the 8th of June, the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich"  finally left the city of Montauban to head off to Normandy. 

On its way to Normandy, the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" crossed the departments of  “La Dordogne”, and “Le Limousin”. The Free French Fighters there had received orders from the Special Operation Executive (British Intelligence Service which helped the French Resistance from its headquarters in London) to slow down as much as possible the progression of the 2nd SS Panzer Division  "Das Reich" in reaching Normandy.

The French Resistance could count on more or less 20000 members of the Maquis ready to fight. Some of them were part of the "Secret Gaullist Army" and others of the Communist FTP (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans).

On the night of the 7th to the 8th of June 1944, Philippe Liewer a Jewish resistant, Robert Maloubier a young radio operator, Jean Claude Guiet and Violette Szabo were dropped in the “Limousin” country. 

When they arrived in Tulle, they discovered that the city had been liberated by the Free French Fighters of the Communists FTP. At daybreak, on the 8th of June, the Free French Fighters left the city without realising that the 2nd SS Panzer Division  "Das Reich"  was advancing towards them with huge columns of tanks.

At the city of Cahors, the Das Reich Division decided to split up its division in three parts to take different routes. It had received orders to clean out the zones which it was about to cross of groups of resistance and resistance strongpoints. The 1st Battalion of the Der Führer Regiment took the crossroads while the Headquarters continued on the road to Limoges. Around 7500 armed and experienced Waffen SS and thousands of vehicles opened the road to Tulle. Its progression was slowed down by the tanks and Panzers that the Wehrmacht refused to transport by railroad. Few of these were loaded on wagons at Montauban and Brive-La-Gaillarde train stations to be transported to Normandy. 

Along the countryside roads, the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" passed ghost villages. The Waffen SS hadn't had left good souvenirs! At Montpezat-de-Quercy on the 2nd of May 1944, the Das Reich’s soldiers had killed 15 civilians in reprisal of the railroad Toulouse- Paris sabotage. On the 11th and 12th of May 1944 in the city of Figeac, assisted by the Gestapo, they had broken into twenty or so hamlets, arrested almost 800 people in 2 days, burned and looted all the farms. 

The commander of the 1st Battalion Der Führer, Adolf Diekmann was in charge in protecting the left flank of the division. The Free French Fighters made roadblocks along the roads waiting for the enemy. As they arrived in the Dordogne country, the Das Reich Division was under resistance "terrorist" attacks. Diekmann’s men were attacked at Grojélac, many  Free French Fighters were killed during the battle. At Rouffiac, Diekmann faced a new group of resistance located at the entrance of the village. They killed 16 Free French Fighters as a reprisal. Their bodies were sprayed with gasoline, then burned down. Among the victims, were women and children. Diekmann knew he has nothing to fear from his superiors. Punitive operations were covered up by his hierarchy and were actually recommended!

On the 9th of June, the city of Tulle was under German control. During the night, with the help of the French militia, the Reconnaissance Battalion, 500 armed men with around 100 automatic machine guns and an armored car squadron, retook the city from the Free French Fighters without any real difficulty.

The citizens of Tulle discovered a message nailed up on doors, walls etc. : “Citizens of Tulle, forty German soldiers have been killed the most horrible way by communist "terrorist" groups. For fighters of Le Maquis and those who helped them, there is only one sentence, death by hanging”.

As a reprisal, men aged 16 to 60 were woken up from their beds and gathered in the factory weapons yard. Walter Schmald, a member of the Gestapo and Heinrich Wulf, the Das Reich Reconnaissance Commander were in charge of the executions.

In the morning, Pierre Trouillé the country Prefect negotiated with the SS for the liberation of the hostages. He obtained the liberation of the men who were vital to run the city. As for the chaplain of Tulle, Father Jean Espinasse, he never gave up negotiating the lives of the hostages with Walter Schmald. He succeeded saving a few of them. At noon they were about 600 waiting for their fate. The Nazi hanged people all day long. Soldiers who were having a beer in a restaurant were watching the hangings and enjoying it. One SS soldier even drew the hangings as a souvenir… 

After having obtained the liberation of a few hostages, Trouillet tried to convince the SS soldiers to stop the massacre. Schmald replied: "We hanged more than 100000 men at Kharkov and Kiev, so as you can see for us it’s nothing”. The Das Reich officers, all veterans of the Eastern front, redid at Tulle the same horrors as at Kiev, Minsk or Kharkov.

At 19:00 hours, after 99 hangings, Schmald ended the executions, for the simple reason they ran out of ropes! 500 men were forced to watch the hangings. Some were put in jail in Limoges and the others were deported to Dachau Concentration camp (Germany). Victims were aged between 17 and 47. Students, insurers, hairdressers, typographers, milkmen, plumbers, accountants, engineers, and two members of the French Resistance.

46 miles from Tulle, the command car of the 3rd Battalion of the Der Führer Regiment was found along the road without its passenger. Helmut Kämpfe, a SS hero, friend of the Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, who simply disappeared without leaving a trace! Roads and hedgerows were inspected meticulously. Diekmann suspected the FTP soldiers of Georges Guingouin to have kidnapped Kämpfe. Captured the day before by the FTP,  Lieutenant Gerlach of the Das Reich suddenly reappeared. He said that he had escaped from the village where the Free French Fighters had set up their base and that here were chances for a weapon dump to be found there. Lieutenant Gerlach had also heard that an SS officer could be there as a prisoner.

Even though the information given by Lieutenant Gerlach didn't give the precise whereabouts of Helmut Kämpfe, it was the village of Oradour-sur-Glane that Adolf Diekmann identified on the headquarters map.

Otto Kahn the Commander of the 3rd Company, and his subordinate Heinz Barth were in charge of the operations. Barth had joined the Waffen SS at the age of 18 after been trained in the Hitler Youth. Barth was a veteran of the war against Soviet soldiers. Before being enlisted in the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" he had been with the infamous 3rd SS Panzer Division "Totenkopf", the SS with a death skull.

 

On June 10th, 1944, Diekmann and his men find themselves at the entrance of Oradour-sur-Glane village, locals are occupied with their usual tasks, not suspecting the horror to come.

 

Robert Hébras and Marguerite Rouffanche are two of the five survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane massacre.

Robert Hébras aged 94 years old nowadays remembers “I was on annual leave at my parents' place when the Germans arrived. Around 2 pm, the Germans arrived with armored cars, and ordered us to go to the market square. I went, with my mother, and two sisters…..they separated the women and children from the group. Children under 14 went with their mothers. The oldest went with the men because the Germans considered them as adults. I was 19 years old so I went in the men's group…. all men were together, we didn’t think about what was coming. We only thought about the next soccer game! They made us get up, at this time I had a comrade who was Alsatian, he understood German, and told me “ Be careful they are about to shoot” He didn’t finish his sentence that the Germans were already starting to shoot at us. When they ended, they were looking around the dead bodies to see if someone was alive, when they would see someone move they would finish him. They fired with machine pistols, machine guns in the group. I was wounded, they covered us with haystacks which were in the barn and set it afire.

Marguerite Rouffanche who was also a survivor of Oradour-sur-Glane testifies “ The most annoying moment was when we were separated from each other. They separated us, men from women. My son wouldn’t let me go. They drove us inside the church and men in the barns. We were locked down inside the church, the Germans brought a huge crate. I told someone “ Do you see that ? it’s a bomb.” We are all about to blow up with the church. She told me “ Don't speak about it”. The crate exploded, a smoke came out from it. Smoke asphyxiated us, we didn’t see anything in the church, everyone was crying and screaming. My eldest daughter had lost her newborn baby, she found him but I didn’t know if he was alive or dead. My younger daughter was killed by a bullet from a German outside. As for my eldest daughter, she was probably dead and had burned alive. I managed to jump through the window and escape...

642 people were murdered at Oradour-sur-Glane on that day. This massacre was not only about to avenge the capture of Kämpfe but also to allow Dieckmann to finish the training of his new recruits. These new recruits were from Alsace, Ukraine and Hungary and had never taken part in a single battle. This massacre was the last step of their training, to be part of the Waffen SS, they have to spill blood, the “Part of blood”. 

On their way to Normandy the Das Reich arrived at Tours on the 12th of June but had a problem. Their materials and armored vehicles were completely obsolete. 60% of their tanks and 30% of their half tracks were out of combat. The defective tanks were abandoned between Montauban and Tulle, but the Das Reich still had their Panzers which were loaded on wagons at Montauban but will never make it to Normandy. The French Resistance sabotaged the railroad. 

The Das Reich Division arrived at Saint Lo and was not far away from the Normandy front. Adolf Hitler took command of the operations and decided to break through between the cities of Caumont and Saint Lo. On the 29th of July, four SS Divisions were mobilised to take back Bayeux, and the Das Reich was in the lead.

Lammerding sent the 1st Battalion of the Der Führer Regiment in the frontline to take back Bayeux. The operation was a huge failure. After two days of fighting, the Regiment had lost 600 men. Dieckmann died, decapitated by a Sherman’s shell (he is buried at the German Cemetery of La Cambe near Bayeux and Omaha Beach). Heinz Lammerding, the Das Reich General was wounded during the bombardments and was evacuated from the frontline. Even during the battles, the Das Reich’s soldiers continued to hunt the Free French Fighters!

On the 13th of August 1944, 18 people were killed in the village of Tourouvre in the Orne department. American war prisoners were killed by the Das Reich on the pretext they looked like Jewish.

After the battle of the “Falaise-Chambois Pocket” the German headquarters retreated on the other side of the Seine river, the Das Reich Division went on leave in Germany before taking part in the Battle of the Bulge.

 

After the war, Lammerding had a good life. He created a company which was specialised in construction works, and spent the rest of his life near Dusseldorf. He could be found easily in the telephone directory! He died at the age of 66 in Bavaria on the 13th of January 1971. He was never to be worried, even after many extradition requests, all rejected by the German Federal Authorities.

In 1978, Otto Kahn died in Munich aged 69 without ever answering for his crimes.

In 1953 Heinz Barth, who lost an arm during the battle of Normandy, was sentenced to death by absentia at the Bordeaux trial. In 1983 he was sentenced to life imprisonment by Germany. Barth was released in 1997 in the name of the national reconciliation! He died peacefully in 2007 at Gransee in his native village. 

 

From 1943, some of the German Officers from the Wehrmacht started to plot against Hitler and other started to loose their faith in him. As for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, well known as the Desert Fox, he was in charge of the Atlantic Wall in Western Europe. In June 1944 Adolf Hitler summoned him to meet him at the Wolf Lair - W2 near Soissons (France) to talk about the German counterattack in Normandy. "I have to talk to you about what happened at Oradour-Sur-Glane. I'm asking for the permission to punish the Das Reich which made unacceptable reprisals. This kind of things dishonour the German uniform".  Erwin Rommel  on the 17th of June 1944 

 

Around 15 000 men were enlisted in the Das Reich, only few have answered of their crimes. Some were sentenced to die or to perpetuity, but were amnestied or their years in prison reduced for the national reconciliation or because of the cold war.

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Written by Pierre Fallet, trainee of Normandy American Heroes

Topics: Normandy, World War 2, Nazi, Third Reich, Waffen SS

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