As of today, the 4th of September 2020, 95 years old Robert Hébras born June 29, 1925, is the last of the six survivors of the massacre that took place at Oradour-sur-Glane in the Haute-Vienne department the 10th of June 1944.
He was only 19 years old, he lost his mother, two of his sisters among the 642 inhabitants of his village. They were machine gunned or burned down alive by the 2nd Das Reich SS Panzer Division. Today the village is a martyr village.
In 1944, life is nice and easy at Oradour-sur-Glane, people live at the rhythm of the bells of the church, the sound of the rooster at sunrise, of the blacksmith continuous muffled beating sound of his hammer and anvil, of the wine producer cleaning up his barrels, of the cows passing thru in the main street heading off to the fields, the kids running around in the streets….Robert lives close by; every morning he is awaken by these surrounding noises.
World War II? The villagers are not too concerned even though 168 men of the village were sent to the frontline in 1939 of which 4 were KIA and 50 or so became POW’s.
True, as of 1940 they have a shortage of butter, coffee, sugar, they use melted lard to cook with and if they are lucky, on Good Friday they can eat cod but overall that’s pretty much all they suffer of the war. Life continues in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane like everywhere else in France but that will soon change.
In June 1944, not one villager had ever seen a soldier of the Wehrmacht.
At that time, Robert is still a kid, a 19-year-old kid born in 1925 at Oradour-sur-Glane. Most of his school friends are peasants but not him. His father works as an electrician for the tramway company. He has two older sister and a younger one, his family is not rich, but they lack of nothing. In 1944, Robert works for a local garage in Limoges where he goes everyday taking the tramway.
A kid, a kid who in just one day will become against his will a man.
June 6th, 1944 – D-Day, the villagers of Oradour-sur-Glane hear of the landing in Normandy on the radio.
It gives hope to the population of the village, but for the rest, no one warned them of what was coming up!
- No one warned them that from the south of France, the soon to be infamous 2nd Das Reich SS Panzer Division was heading as fast as possible North to Normandy!
- No one warned them that it had for mission to annihilate the French Resistance of the Limousin region.
- No one warned them that the day before, they had murdered 99 civilians in the village of Tulle by hanging most of them from the lamppost, balconies…
- No one warned them that the next step in the horror would be to wipe out entirely a village…their village, Oradour-sur-Glane!
- No one knew that at 14:00 hours, June 10, 1944 the village would be totally surrounded by the 2nd Das Reich SS Panzer Division!
- Yes no one knew….
The day before, June 9th, 1944 Robert leaves his work at the usual hour, his boss tells him not to bother to come back the next day: “Hey Robert take the day off tomorrow” This comes as a surprise for Robert but maybe his boss wants to celebrate discreetly the D-Day landing in Normandy? All this to say that Robert shouldn’t have been in Oradour-sur-Glane the next day, June 10.
He takes the tramway at the train station of Limoges, everything is quiet in the city, no movements of troops…. the day is beautiful and heads back to Oradour-sur-Glane.
The next day, Saturday the 10th of June 1944, his father gets up early and tells his son that he has to go to Saint-Victurnien (8 km distance) and won’t be back until later in the day. He asks him: “Robert, I promised the next-door neighbor to set up an electrical socket, can you do it for me?” Robert replies: “Of course I can” and heads off to the neighbor.
At 14:00 hours precisely Robert is standing in front of his house with one of his best friends, Martial Brissaud, they have a chat of the upcoming football match and the fact that their goalkeeper won’t be there!
All the sudden they see two halftracks, two trucks filled with Waffen SS Soldiers armed to the teeth. They drive thru the village, both Robert and Martial think they are heading off to the frontline in Normandy but Martial sixth sense warns him! “Robert, I’m off, I’m not staying here”. “Common” says Robert “they ain’t going to eat you!”
Oradour-sur-Glane market square
The two half-tracks turn around, take the main street. The Waffen SS get out of the trucks and two walked along both sides of the street ordering the families in each out to get out: “Schnell, geh raus…vous sortir, vite”
The villagers do what they were told without any hesitation, heading off to the market square of the village. Why hesitate? They have nothing to hide, they did nothing wrong....
That being said some didn’t want to obey. For example, Roger an 8-year-old kid living near Robert’s home, his mother repeatedly told him: “When you see a German, run”, that’s exactly what he did just like the fabric merchant who closed his boutique and disappeared! Just like the kids of the tanner, Jacqueline, André & Francine, while the rest of the family joined the other villagers…. As for Robert, how naïve! Even though his mother had told him to leave, he decided to stay. Why should he run when he has nothing to be blamed for? He wasn’t the only one who refused to run, the Mayor and the village schoolteacher also decided to head off to the market square.
The Waffen SS started burning down the houses while the villagers assembled on the market square, to say the least, a bit worried surrounded by a dozen soldiers who didn’t seem stressed nor nervous at all.
The villagers have no reason to fear the worse and yet, at the four corners of the fairground the soldiers positioned four machine guns aimed at the crowd, but the villagers took no notice of it.
Looking around Robert sees the baker, the butcher, the farmers in their working clothes, the priest wearing his tunic, the mothers holding in their arms their children. More people keep coming in from the surrounding hamlets, transported in trucks. The Waffen SS Soldiers unload them and drive off to pick up some more.
All of the sudden, Robert shouts out: “Denise” He just saw his youngest 9 years old sister amid the girls of her school. She’s terrorized.
A bit later the baker walks out to a sentinel: “Sorry to bother you but I’m going to have to go back to my bakery and check up on my pastries in the oven before they burn…” The soldier replies: “Don’t worry, we will take care of it”. This situation lasts about one hour or so when all the sudden: “The men on this side, the women on the other side”. The teacher wants to keep with her the trysomic student she has: “Kein problem…pas de problème Madame” says the soldier.
Normandy American Heroes knows, while continuing to read this, that you are going to find this amazing that no one in the village tried anything but it's the reality!
Separating the men from the women and children goes out without any problem nor incident. They simply don't question the order nor resist. Why should they?
Oradour-sur-Glane martyr village map
#1 Chai Denis
#2 Forge Beaulieu
#3 Market Square
#4 Garage Desourteaux
#5 Grange Laudy
#6 Grange Milord
#8 Grange Bouchoule
The women and children leave first under the threat of the Waffen SS soldiers weapons. Robert looks out for his Mum and sisters in the crowd. He sees them looking at him, he can see they are totally terrified… terrified for him he thinks, not for themselves?
As for Robert and the others, the Waffen SS soldiers order them to line up in three rows, face to the wall.
If the villagers had known that the day before the 2nd Das Reich SS Panzer Division had hanged 99 men in the main street of Tulle, they would have run! But they didn’t know; with the war there are no news, and to not know means the men follow the orders of the Waffen SS soldiers without arguing. The “prisoners” put themselves well aligned, in rows of three, facing the wall.
One officer then asks: “Who is the Mayor of the Village?” The Mayor Desourteaux takes one step forward. “Choose some hostage, Mr. Mayor” says the officer. Courageous he designates himself; the villagers see him escorted by two Waffen SS heading off toward the town hall.
Of the six survivors, no one has ever known what the Mayor Desourteaux had said to the enemy? They came back a few minutes later and the officer said: “We know that you are hiding weapons here in the village, we are going to search for them, in each house. Anyone who is not concerned will be released after the search”.
Robert as the other men know they are no weapons hidden in the village, except for a few old hunting rifles! At that moment everyone believes things are going to end well, that it’s just a stupid mistake. Some are already in a hurry of going back to their work, milk their cows, feed their flock! So, while facing the wall waiting, the men become less and less nervous, some decide to sit down on the sidewalk. The Waffen SS soldiers guarding them start to chat together, some are laughing when all the sudden... an officer divides the men in four groups.
Robert at that point convinces himself that they are probably dividing the men so as to avoid any escape while they search the houses…that the nightmare will soon end!
They take the first group of 25 men or so to Le Chai Denis #1 (note: Léon Denis was a producer and seller of wine) along with the Mayor Desourteaux. He will be found later with two bullets in the heart.
In the group of Robert’, 50 men or so, are taken to La Grange Laudy #5 (barn). When the men enter the barn, it’s filled with carriages, so the older men move them while the younger ones like Robert sit in the hay…and they wait.
The Waffen SS start cleaning up the front of the barn, five of them sweeping the ground! As Robert would testify in 1953, if they had known what had happened at Tulle, they would have tried something, more so outnumbering them 10 to 1 but at that moment, they remained quiet.
They remained quiet even when, once the sweeping was completed, the Waffen SS soldiers started to deploy a few machine guns at the front of the barn. Robert and the others didn't really pay attention any to them, why should they, they are not guilty, so why worry?
Just after, a Waffen SS soldier goes toward the group: “Get up…Schnell” He then goes back to the entrance of the barn and then the prisoners hear a detonation in the village, it’s the signal! The machine guns open up, firing with rage at the men, they without exception all fell as one.
When the Germans started shooting, Robert was lucky being at the back of the barn behind the others. He thought at first that they were shooting in the air and like the others he ducked down. At that point he was laying down on the ground, his arm above his head as if this would be of any use! Bodies are on top of him and he feels a warm liquid pouring on him: ”Oh my God, it’s blood!” Robert was wounded at the head, on the left side of his chest and the thigh but overall, he’s fine, his wounds are superficial. He was saved by the others, by the bodies of the others piling on top of him as he fell to the ground.
Of course, as you may have guessed, the Waffen SS soldiers know that not everyone is dead, so they walk along the corpse, identify the ones who moan in pain and/or are still moving, and they finish them off.
During what seemed hours but actually was minutes, Robert is under the corpses, silent not moving; the Waffen SS soldiers by some miracle don’t see him. The Waffen SS soldiers then take stacks of hay and wood and cover the bodies before leaving the barn.
A bit later, Robert hears a villager crying out: “The bastards, they have cut off my other leg”. Robert recognizes the voice, it’s a veteran of the First World War who had lost a leg during combat! Others cry out and call their wives, children…Robert doesn’t move at all! He tells himself: “They couldn’t have dare kill everyone? That’s not conceivable! This is a nightmare…”
When all the sudden, Robert hears footsteps; the Waffen SS soldiers came back to lit up the hay and wood at the entrance of the barn!
“You got to do something, get the hell out, run for it, you don’t want to die like this!” are the mixed-up thoughts going thru the mind of Robert.
There isn’t too much smoke, but the heat is unbearable. Robert’s hair is starting to roast! He sees a door, opens it and damn it, it’s a dead end! He goes back in the barn, sees another door which leads to another barn. Looking both left and right, no Waffen SS soldier to be seen, they are gone. Robert runs and hides in a pork stable… he can hear the Waffen SS shooting everywhere when, at one point, he hears some muffled voices speaking in the local patois (dialect). Robert manages to identify where the sound comes from and meet up with four survivors:
- Mathieu Borie
- Clément Broussaudier
- Jean-Marcel Darthout
- Yvon Roby
Robert, Yvon, Jean-Marcel, Mathieu and Clément find themselves surrounded and cornered by the flames in a dead end. They just can’t stay there and burn alive! Seeing what seems a worm-eaten wooden board, the men attack it with their knives and succeed in making a breach which takes them in another barn! From then on, they move from one barn to another using their knives to break through. This takes them hours with the fire following them as they move on trying to escape the flames. It hot like hell, the five are thirsty… at one point two Waffen SS enter the barn where they are, they are less than 3 feet from them! They lit up a stack of hay and leave without seeing them. The horror is that Yvon Roby and Clément Broussaudier had just climbed up in the cellar and are trapped. It’s too late, they will burn alive.
Robert is now with Mathieu Borie and Jean-Marcel Darthout, wounded, the sole survivors. They manage to reach the last barn of the street which opens up on the market square. They look around and see that some sentries are positioned, they have no choice but to wait.
Around 19:00 hours the square is clear, the sentries left in the direction of the cemetery behind the market square.
Mathieu Borie is the first to leave the barn, crosses the square and waits for Robert and Jean-Marcel who, being wounded, has difficulties to move. Both wait, patiently, silently. At one-point Robert asks Jean-Marcel: “Can I do something for you?” Jean-Marcel: “No, Robert, you can’t do nothing”
They can’t just stay there, the fire is getting closer and closer, Robert goes for it and runs thru the market square to Mathieu in a desperate fight for his life. Once on the other side of the square they wave on to Jean-Marcel to come but he stays put and hides behind a bush.
With Mathieu, Robert heads off to the cemetery, cross it, hide in the nearby forest and from there they watch their village burn down.
They make it to the hamlet of Theineix where they see the locals watching Oradour-sur-Glane burning down. They tell them what they went thru and ask them if they have anything to drink. They are so thirsty! A woman gives them a bottle of wine.
Mathieu wants to make it back to the hamlet where his mother lives. As for Robert, he decides to get the hell out, use the off beaten trails, avoid the roads and get as far away as possible. He walks till 22:30 hours until he is totally exhausted making it to the hamlet of Martinerie (D-80, 7 km or so from Oradour-sur-Glane).
There he sees a light shining out of a window and bangs on it. The lady asks: “Where are you coming from?” Robert replies: “I’m from Oradour, the Germans… they killed all the men”. She replies: “All the men, but what did you do to have them attack you?” “Nothing… I don’t know!” says Robert and all the sudden a miracle occurs, he sees in the house, terrified, the children of the tanner. Jacqueline, Francis and André the handicapped kid who had run away just before the Waffen SS succeeded in totally surrendering the village, they are hiding in the house!
Francis asks Robert if he knows what happened in Oradour? “Yes, they killed all the men”. Francis: “What about the women, the children?” Robert: “I think they spared them…”
Robert actually has no idea but is trying to convince himself that the Waffen SS soldiers spared their lives, certain that he will soon see his Mum and sisters? He doesn’t know at that precise moment what happened in the church of the village.
Jacqueline, during that time, cleans up Robert’s wounds with local brandy. He finally falls asleep right there on the floor of the house. “What went thru his mind when he fell asleep that frightful night, I dare not to think of it, it must have been horrific”: Rudy Passera - Normandy American Heroes
The next day, it’s a really weird sensation for Robert who doesn’t feel crushed down at all by what happened the previous day as he is alive!
He tells himself that his Dad must be alive as well as he had left Oradour-sur-Glane in the morning for Saint-Victurnien? More so he doesn’t worry yet for his Mum and sisters as he is still convinced that they are safe and sound. "They were surely evacuated with the other women and children so as not to be confronted to the massacre of the men of the village?" “That’s probably it”, Robert thinks… ”Where could they be right now? Maybe at my sister’s Odette's home?”. It’s just a few kilometers from Oradour-sur-Glane in the village of le Pouyol. He tells himself: “That’s where they must be”. So, he tells the children of the tanner to come with him, they walk thru the fields, avoid the roads, Robert carrying the little André on his back.
When they make it to le Pouyol, Robert finds his Dad and sister Odette who knew he was alive thanks to a survivor of the massacre who had told them, but… they know nothing of what has happened at Oradour-sur-Glane, nothing…
His Dad asks him: “You say they ordered you to round up on the market square and they then separated the men from the women and children?”. At that moment, both Robert, his father and sister want to continue to believe that the women and children have been spared by the evilness of the 2nd Das Reich SS Panzer Division.
Around 20:30 hours Robert’s father decides to go to the village and sees for himself. He takes a bicycle, makes it to the church (#7) and there he sees the corpse, the charred bodies of the children and women still burning! At that point, he is desperately alone among the still burning village amid the dead…totally stunned and heartbroken by what he just witnessed!
When he finally finds the strength to make it back to le Pouyol village, Robert’s father tries to reassure himself: “They can’t all be dead in the church, that can’t be true”
The following day, Robert’s father goes out in all the nearby fields looking for his wife and daughters, to no avail, he can’t find them. Why? There was only one, only one female survivor of the church massacre… their previous neighbor, Marguerite Rouffanche.
Many times, after the war, Marguerite told Robert what had happened in the church. The terror of these women, those mothers holding their child in their arms while two young Waffen SS soldiers set up a box in the nave of the church around 16:00 hours…and the explosion that followed. And just after the Waffen SS shooting while the church was burning down, locked up so as to stop anyone from escaping the flames.
Robert didn’t have any desire of vengeance; he was more disheartened than revolted deciding to join the Maquis of the French Resistance at the end of June 1944. This was not premeditated as he said, it just happened. Probably more the desire to join a family than being a patriot?
After the war, just like the survivors of the concentration camps, Robert felt guilty of having survived the massacre and thus decided to lay low and not to talk about it.
During his whole career, working in a garage, Robert never said a word. He never wanted to present himself as a survivor of the horror that took place at Oradour-sur-Glane, today a martyr village. Until 1953 few people knew the story of Robert but then came the trial of Bordeaux where he was asked to testify as a witness against 21 Waffen SS soldiers being tried there, without their uniforms, dressed up in suits. Two only, two… were sentenced to death! The others were sentenced 5 to 12 years in prison but a few days later, in the name of the reconciliation between France and Germany, pardoned and walked free.
For Robert as the public, it was simply terrible, tragic, not acceptable…
There was a second trial in East Berlin in 1983 to judge Lieutenant Heinz Barth who had participated in the massacre, ordering the Waffen SS soldiers to open up fire in the barn. Again, Robert wanted to testify and was able to ask at one-point Heinz Barth: “Why, why the shooting?” Heinz Barth laconic answer was: “I simply followed orders, nothing more”. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
A few years ago, the granddaughter of Robert, Agathe entered 6th grade, she didn’t tell her Grandfather but had chosen to learn German as a second language! He later said he didn’t hold it against her, he was fine with her decision.
Before passing away, he hopes that his story, even after his death, will enable the people to continue to live in peace.