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- 15 February 2004
D-Day was a short day for some.
The occurrences related here are scarcely known in this country. I learned of them in the course of my work in Normandy.
It is generally believed that D-Day was welcomed by the French population. In fact, many, perhaps most, French civilians were less than enthusiastic. They feared that the invasion might fail and that the Germans would take revenge. Max Hastings points out that Norman civilians had had to live with the consequences of the Canadian failure at Dieppe. In fact, the Germans were so surprised by the willingness of French civilians at Dieppe to co-operate in putting out fires and clearing damage that they released fifteen hundred prisoners of war held since 1940. Hitler himself made a contribution to the costs of reconstruction. (CHABROL, Claude. L' oeil de Vichy. Film. Produced for the B.B.C. as The eye of Vichy. 1994.)
German propaganda naturally made the best of the opportunity although the fact that Allied leaflets had warned the French not to expose themselves to German reprisals was not mentioned. (ATKIN, Ronald. Dieppe 1942. London 1980. 261-263.)
The German reaction to D-Day, however, brought to pass what the French and the Allies had feared at Dieppe. On 5-6 June the bombardments of Caen, aerial and naval, and the intense anti-aircraft fire, allowed nobody to sleep. The Caen Maison d' Arrêt was full of prisoners hoping for a hit on the prison to give them some slight chance of escape. At St-Lô, the prison was hit. Forty-two résistant prisoners were buried under the ruins.
The early German assessment of the scope of the Allied operations led them to believe that Caen might be surrounded by the evening of D-Day. A decision had to made about the fate of the prisoners. The contingency plan was to withdraw Gestapo (German and French) and SD personnel to Alençon immediately, removing with them prisoners who were subject to the terroristic Nacht und Nebel, 'Night and Fog', decree. These were political prisoners, men and women, who were to be made literally to disappear, without trace, when the time came to liquidate them. Their fate was to be unknown to their friends and relations. The remaining prisoners in Caen were to be held until other arrangements could be made. In the last resort they might even be set free.
The NN prisoners had had no trials but many showed the effects of 'interrogation'. A prisoner, Paul Verchère, who came very close to being shot before it was decided that he had not been sufficiently 'interrogated', even though he had already suffered a broken leg, is the source for much of what follows.
After negotiations between the military and security services during the morning, interrupted by heavy air-raids, it was clear that the Wehrmacht would not provide transport for the move to Alençon. It was feared also that a convoy might not have got through, given the intense activity of the Allied fighter-bombers. The fear was ill-founded since, in the event, columns of troops of 21st Panzer Division moved northwards up the Falaise road without much trouble on 6 June. Starting at eight in the morning, they passed through Caen itself and were in place for a counter-attack at four-thirty in the afternoon. (HASTINGS, Max. Overlord. London, 1984. 132-3.)
At Caen, Gestapo and SD men began to burn the dossiers and archives. The decision was made in the late morning to carry out Nacht und Nebel killings that day and Harald Heyns, 'Bernhard' during his period at Alençon, was in executive charge although it is unlikely that he made the decision. The truth about his rôle will never be fully known since he disappeared after the war. The list of those to be killed was drawn up. An attack by waves of Liberator bombers beginning at 13.15 delayed the operation but by 14.00 all was ready. That day, in the centre of Caen, the SD caused more than eighty people to be shot. None of them had had any sort of trial, even by the relaxed standards of the time and place.
The atrocity, what happened cannot be called executions, was perpetrated in the Maison d' Arrêt in the afternoon and evening of 6 June. German army personnel could not be called on for firing squads so prison guards, supervised by three SD men in plain clothes, did the shooting. Some of the guards may have been Russian, former P.O.W.s enlisted in the German army. The SD men are said not to have taken an active part.
The victims were gathered in a courtyard surrounded by high walls. Deprived of any legal process they were slaughtered like cattle. The first fifty or so, as far as can be ascertained, were pushed through a door into a smaller courtyard in groups of ten in a manner which recalls the description by Vercors in La marche à l' étoile. ('VERCORS' (Jean Bruller), Le silence de la mer. Paris (Librairie Genéréle Française), 1994. 123-161. The scene is also a brilliant evocation of the co-operation of the French police and the German authorities.)
In the small courtyard the victims were sprayed with fire from machine-pistols. No single shots were heard which might have been the coups de grace for those who had merely been wounded. The lucky ones died quickly, the unlucky were left to die of whatever wounds they had incurred. Later, during the evening, a large number of single shots were heard. The current interpretation of this is that the remaining prisoners, thirty-five or more, were shot in the back of the neck, each with a single bullet.
It is considered certain that no fewer than eighty-five died but the number may be as high as a hundred. There is no complete list. About seventy names have been deduced but the identities of the others, fifteen to thirty of them, have never been discovered. They may have included résistants from other regions as well as Allied airmen and agents. Some may have been unknown except for their code-names.
No prison records survived. The security services destroyed them all. They carefully removed and destroyed all the personal effects of the dead. The bodies may have been buried within the walls for a time but no trace of them has ever been found. There is anecdotal evidence that bodies were dug up and taken away to be incinerated by prisoners who were then subjected themselves to 'Nacht und Nebel' but this cannot be confirmed. The Caen prisoners, as was the intention of the decree, truly disappeared into 'Night and Fog'.(RUFFIN, Raymond. Résistance Normande et Jour-J. Paris, 1994. 232-267.)
Experienced operatives of Raoul Hervé's Caen Gestapo who had captured and 'interrogated' many of the NN prisoners made their way to Alençon where they provided experienced and brutal reinforcement for the fight against the Orne résistants. The most important was Gilbert Bertaux, 22. A mechanic by trade, he had become an intelligence agent for the Germans in 1941. He then served briefly in the German navy before returning to Caen at the end of 1943. There he worked for the Calvados Gestapo. He also worked at Dieppe before finally fetching up in Alençon with Jardin's Alençon group. Bertaux was distinguished from his fellow Gestapistes by his cruelty.
Jean Perrein, 44, and his son, Henri, 18, from Colombelles, an industrial suburb of Caen, were members of the M.S.R. and the P.P.F. ( French Fascist organisations) who began their service in the Orne as intelligence gatherers, acting, for example, as spies in a factory. They then became guards in the Château des Ducs before being sent into the field. Another 18 year old, Emile Chapron, also joined the Orne Gestapo after service with Hervé.
Two of the Caen Gestapistes were put on the trail of André Mazeline ('Marsouin'), a primary school teacher and leader of the A.S., who was in overall command of the resistance forces in the Orne Département from 17 June. Mazeline had barely escaped from the well-planned German/Collabo attack at Lignières only four days earlier and had had to leave his bicycle behind. His adjutant was Nöel of the F.T.P. The arrangement was agreed at a meeting held hastily in a quarry at Francheville because the Germans and French Gestapistes were known to be on the heels of almost all the resistance leaders.
Mazeline established his command post in the tiny village of La Perdrière, near Francheville. On 20 June, the regional military commander, General Allard, arrived to make an inspection and hold a conference with the objective of re-establishing the command structure of the Resistance after the recent disasters. From what followed it has to be presumed that the Gestapo, in hot pursuit of both Allard and Mazeline, was very well-informed.
Two young men were observed as they rode to the edge of La Perdrière and parked their bicycles against the window of the little Carrefour (crossroads) café and grocery shop. They went in for a drink. The incidents of the previous weeks had ensured that security was very thorough and the visitors were carefully scrutinised by maquis security men who were present in force. Their faces were new but a résistant recognised the bicycle Mazeline had left at Lignières. A squad of armed men arrested the pair, Jean Laronche, 28, and Joseph Martine, 20.
Their cover story was that they were from a Caen Resistance group which had been broken up. They were looking to join a group in the Orne. The bicycle had been stolen in Alençon. A search showed that they was carrying three pistols and receipts for pay from the Gestapo, Martine's in the name of Dourdine. General Allard convened a court-martial in the café. They were convicted of being Gestapo informers and shot that evening. (RUFFIN, Raymond. Le prix de la liberté. Paris, 1995. 105.)
Of the other Caen Gestapistes Chapron, the youngest, distinguished for having beaten a prisoner to death with the butt of his pistol, and the Perreins were tried and shot in 1945. Bertaux followed in 1946, convicted on fifteen counts of murder. None of these, however, was indicted for the Caen shootings. (LECOUTURIER, Yves. Normandie Gestapo. Caen, 1997. 90-91.) The trail was so thoroughly covered that nobody at all was punished specifically for the massacre. (HASTINGS, Overlord, 95.)
Kaltenbrunner, who as head of the RSHA controlled the SD, Sipo, Kripo, Gestapo and entire concentration and extermination camp systems, was ultimately responsible for the administration of Nacht und Nebel. He was tried at Nuremberg and hanged. Caen was not mentioned in his indictments.
RSHA - Reich Central Security Department
SD - SS Security Service
Gestapo - Secret State Police
Sipo - Security Police
Kripo - Criminal Police
It is impossible to draw tidy demarcation lines but the order in the Glossary is the hierarchy. Kaltenbrunner, like his predecessor, Heydrich, reported to the Reichsführer SS, Heinrich Himmler.
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