June 9, 1944: The Facts

1. The historical context

The 2nd Division Das Reich, coming from the Eastern Front, where for three years it spread terror through a true methodology of massacre and barbarism, (1) arrived in France at the beginning of 1944. Now under the command of General Heinz Bernhard Lammerding, (2) after long months of combat and significant losses on the Eastern Front, it established its quarters in the Montauban region to regroup and reorganize by integrating men of all nationalities who needed to be trained and “Nazified”.

It is in this spirit that Himmler, Hitler’s right-hand man, came to Montauban on April 11, 1944, to galvanize the troops. But alongside the ideological and military training of these soldiers, the Das Reich receives orders from the German High Command to cleanse the region of its “terrorists,” meaning the highly active resistance fighters in the Southwest and Center-West of France. Between May and July 1944, the men of the Das Reich undertake numerous expeditions from their barracks to flush out the Resistance fighters.

Despite the imminent landing, and according to received orders, quickly joining Normandy is not a priority for the Das Reich. The priority is the massacre of civilians in accordance with the orders of June 5 and 8, 1944. The deportations and shootings of numerous civilians show that the aim is to terrorize the population, particularly to deter them from joining the resistance.

For this purpose, the methods employed are the same as those on the Eastern Front: summary executions, hangings, looting, arson, massive roundups under the guise of deceptive identity checks. (3) In total, 124 locations of atrocities committed by the Das Reich in the Greater Southwest have been documented for the period between May 1 and July 16, 1944.

Faced with the continued atrocities of the fanatical SS of the Das Reich, and in response to instructions received from London following the landing, the internal Resistance intensifies its guerrilla actions. Thus, in this context, in Tulle, on June 7 around 1 pm, after an exchange of fire between the FTP (Francs Tireurs Partisans) maquis and German soldiers, some of the latter entered the station and ruthlessly hunted down 19 railway workers, whom they cowardly murdered. 18 were killed… one survivor named Leblanc, who threw himself voluntarily to the ground a split second before his comrades were hit by the German shooters.

On the same day around 4 pm, other resistance fighters attacked the Teachers’ Training College to dislodge the German garrison stationed there along with several members of the Gestapo.

The battle raged on both sides, but it wasn’t until the following day around 3 pm, when the intensity of the FTP’s gunfire and bombardments finally set fire to the attic of the building, which spread to the floors, forcing the garrison to surrender, resulting in numerous casualties (40) and many enemy wounded who were nevertheless evacuated to the city hospital for treatment.

The successful mission carried out by the FTP, celebrated by the jubilant residents of Tulle, led them to believe that Tulle was liberated. Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived. On the same June 8, around 9 pm, two detachments of the Das Reich division arrived—one from Lot via the Beaulieu road, the other from Brive via the RN 89, which bordered what would become the Field of Martyrs.

They entered Tulle firing from all sides, surprising the FTP and AS maquis who were unaware of the progression and route of the German division in Corrèze. (5) The SS elements composing these detachments cordoned off the main access roads, instantly isolating the city from any external contact, forcing the resistance fighters in place, who couldn’t fight against armored vehicles, to retreat hastily.

The Horror and Tragedy of June 9, 1944, in Tulle

The next day, June 9, 1944, at the break of dawn, the SS embarked on a massive roundup throughout the city, which continued until late morning.

Nearly 3,000 men aged 18 to 60, apprehended mostly in their homes under the false pretense of “follow us for ID check,” were brought to Souilhac Square facing the Tulle Weapons Factory (MAT).

Around 9 am, the hostages are brought in small groups into the MAT compound and divided; one column to the right, one column to the left. However, for some hostages, who were picked up here or there in either of the two columns, they are harshly instructed by an SS officer, a member of the Gestapo named Walter Schmald, to join a third column, the one in the middle. (6) This sinister individual, with a disturbing demeanor, selects at his whim or mood, certain men whom he points out with a threatening “you!” to join the middle line. This dubious maneuver continues until around 3:30 pm, during which interventions, negotiations, and transfers from one column to another take place under the intrigued and anxious gaze of the hostages.

The unjustified sentence is handed down. 120 unfortunate young men, too young to die, must be chosen. They are isolated and left in ignorance of the fate awaiting them, often at the hands of their very young executioners. As Walter Schmald completes his ominous mission, Commander Kowatsch, one of the highest-ranking officers present in Lammerding’s absence, disregards the promises made earlier in the morning to the local authorities. Around 4 pm, he orders that posters (7) be put up in the city and that the municipal loudspeaker broadcast the nature of the reprisals. It is only through ultimate and tragic supplications between the representatives of the city, along with Father Espinasse, and the aforementioned SS authorities, that 21 hostages will escape the final torment, reducing the number from 120 to 99 martyrs.

La tragédie du 9 Juin 1944 à Tulle
6 : Walter Schmald
07 affiche tulle. photo 7
7: Tulle Poster

It is around 5:00 pm when the “reprieved” hostages, gathered in Souilhac Square by the Waffen SS, are forced to become powerless spectators of a premeditated and carefully orchestrated tragedy. With fear, they see ropes hanging from the balconies of the surrounding streets as well as from the lampposts of the Pont Neuf, since renamed the Martyrs’ Bridge. (8)

Emotions reach their peak as the condemned, in groups of ten, hands tied behind their backs, are relentlessly pushed towards the path of sacrifice by increasingly excited soldiers. On the gallows, as the nooses approach, attempts at survival occur. All were doomed to fail. (9)

Meanwhile, SS officers and many soldiers had seated themselves in the shade of the chestnut trees at the Tivoli café, located facing Souilhac Square. They were toasting with bottles stolen from the locals, to the sound of music played by a gramophone, while Paula Geissler, known as “the bitch,” a member of the Gestapo who spoke French fluently, was flirting with Brenner, the German director of the Tulle Arms Factory, acting as his interpreter.

In the poster they had made to inform the population about the hangings, the SS had specified that the bodies would then be “thrown into the river” (the Corrèze), without burial.

The Prefecture services, Dr. Ménantaud, the departmental director of health, and Colonel Monteil, delegate of the Red Cross, immediately begin discussions with the Germans who, after tough negotiations, agree to the burial of the bodies but impose that a mass grave be dug at the Cueille household waste disposal site located outside the city. (10) The corpses must be buried promptly and anonymously, without any identification permitted. On the French side, there is a strong desire to give a certain respectful ritual to the burial of the victims. Prefect Trouillé personally travels to the Cueille site, while Father Espinasse obtains a permit allowing him to utter some prayers at the time of the burial. (11)

The “Feldgendarmes” unload the bodies from the trucks, inflicting further violence on the corpses by pulling them by their feet and throwing them to the ground. Under the supervision of a large SS cordon, the young people from the youth camps dig two trenches and then place the bodies side by side in rows of ten, burying them covered with quicklime and soil.

Around 10 pm, disturbed by German laughter and songs, a minute of silence is observed by the Prefect, his secretary general, supplemented by the prayers of Father Espinasse. They leave the scene, while the young people from the youth camps will not complete these painful burials until around 11 pm.

11 Abbe Espinasse photo 11
11: Father Espinasse

3. Post-June 9th

On the following day, June 10, approximately 500 reprieved hostages, who spent the night in the MAT workshops, once again undergo arbitrary selections by Kowatsch, assisted by the “zealous pervert” Walter Schmald. About 200 of them will be able to reunite with their families.

There remain 311 who harbor, in vain, the hope of liberation. Loaded onto trucks gathered in the MAT courtyard, these 311 hostages are crammed in groups of about 30 per truck, headed for Limoges for a final selection before the deportation of some of them to Germany and the sinister extermination camps.

The final selection in Limoges will take place on June 11 and 12. Those released will return to Tulle on June 12. 149 will not have this chance and will endure the death train and the horrors of concentration camps. 101 will never return. (12 and 13)

The German presence persisted in Tulle until mid-August 1944. They prevented the population from commemorating their martyrs by prohibiting the exhumation of the victims’ bodies for a new and dignified burial. It was only from August 17, 1944, the date of Tulle’s liberation through the surrender of the occupying forces, that the exhumation of the corpses buried in the Cueille waste disposal site, which would become the High Place of Memory and Commemoration of Cueille, could be envisaged. The exhumations lasted for a week and were completed by mid-October 1944. (14) The bodies, which were stuck together and in poor condition, were separated from each other to be placed in individual coffins.

On October 31, 1944, the eve of All Saints’ Day, the families of the Martyrs organized a ceremony marking the end of the exhumations, allowing for the delivery of the coffins to them. (15)

Following this, a fence was erected to delineate the area within which the two mass graves were located, identified by two white crosses. (16)