Oradour: Massacre and Aftermath

This is a synopsis of the book of that title by Robin Mackness, published 1988. The introduction is by John Fowles (presumably the British author of that name), and it also claims to be verified by M.R.D.Foot (the historian, former wartime intelligence officer and past Professor of Modern History at Manchester University).

Briefly, it is written in novel form describing events which Mackness claims he personally experienced - although most of the other characters named, apart from the Germans historically acknowledged to have taken part, are identified only by pseudonyms. According to his account the massacre at Oradour was not primarily in revenge for Resistance activity, but a search for gold captured by the SS which had fallen into a single individual's hands almost by accident. In the 1980s that individual attempted to cash in some of the gold via a Swiss bank, aided by Mackness; while doing so the author was caught by French «douaniers» (customs officers) and spent some time in prison.

To make the account less confusing, I have separated the three interleaved timelines. You can read down the columns to follow each individual one, or across the page to follow the order of the book.

Persons identified only by pseudonyms are shown in red here. The name of the Swiss bank involved is also a pseudonym.

Mackness and the Bank
Raoul and the Resistance
The Germans
Robin Mackness was working at the Swiss office of Banque Léman in Lausanne1, a small private bank with many French «frontalier» clients. These are people living near the border who cross into Switzerland each day to work there, many of them in banks and financial services - an arrangement which benefits both countries as well as the workers themselves. Mackness was approached in late 1982 by Jamie Baruch, a colleague at the bank as well as a personal friend, who managed the account of a Frenchman identified only as Raoul. He currently lived somewhere near Toulouse and apparently possessed a substantial amount of gold, which he wanted to move out of France for future security and to convert some of it into ready cash. Raoul had already carried and converted some of the gold on his own account some time before, but now felt that this was too risky and wanted Mackness to help him, carrying the gold from Toulouse to Evian where Baruch would arrange for it to be taken over the border to Switzerland and deposited in Raoul's account at Banque Léman. Since he would only be moving the gold around within France, there was nothing illegal about Mackness's part of the operation, even if the authorities were to discover anything. The amount of gold was said to be twenty kilos - worth about half a million dollars at that time.

Mackness met with Raoul in December of that year in Toulouse. He was reluctant to accept the gold without knowing at least some details of how Raoul came to possess it; he was reluctant to reveal that at first, but at Mackness's insistence told him that it was connected with the SS massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944 and that he was probably the only person alive who knew the real story behind the event.

Raoul Denis and his family were German Jews who had moved from Leipzig to Alsace in 1933 (he was then aged ten) for obvious reasons, changing their names at the same time. They subsequently moved to Valence just a year before the fall of France in 1940. Raoul obviously wanted neither his origins to be revealed, nor to be transported to Germany as part of the «Service Travail Obligatoire» programme, so he went into hiding as part of the Resistance. He proved to be an excellent «maquisard», and by 1944 was well known and trusted by the commanders. In the spring of that year he and others were briefed for an operation to delay the progress of German units through France and towards the Normandy beaches, as would naturally start to happen as soon as the D-Day campaign began.
As soon as the invasion had started, the "Das Reich" Second SS Panzer Division began to move northwards from their headquarters at Montauban.
The «maquisards» followed them for every kilometre of the way: never taking on the Germans in open attack of course, but mining the roads and sabotaging road bridges and railways so making their progress slow and difficult (it eventually arrived in full fighting strength an entire month after D-Day). As part of this campaign, Raoul and a small party of men (in reality, boys of probably no more than sixteen years with bicycles and Sten guns) were to sabotage a railway bridge and road route near St.Junien.
Many of the SS lower ranks at that time were Alsaciens, from that somewhat confused part of what is currently France but which has changed hands between that nation and Germany many times. These had hastily been recruited and trained (ignoring, out of necessity, the once exacting entry standards) to replace the thousands of men that had been lost in the Russian fighting earlier in 1944. General Heinz Lammerding was a survivor of that, who with his officers Major Otto Dickmann4 and Major Helmut Kämpfe had the task of bringing his troops north as quickly as possible to join the battle before it was too late. Along with the men and military equipment was a special truck, which ostensibly held the division's records but which in reality contained a substantial quantity of gold, some of it having been officially issued to Lammerding by the Reichsbank in his capacity as governor of the region and the rest having been captured during searches of towns and villages.

On the 8th June the «maquisards» had captured the town of Tulle in an unusual frontal attack. It was successful, but they were apparently unaware that the SS division was nearby and the town was recaptured the next day. Lammerding's retaliation for this was to hang ninety-nine civilians from lampposts in the town, and deport a further 101 to Germany; from his point of view, this had so far been the only successful operation in their long and frustrating march north.

On the night of the 9th June, Raoul and his six men were heading north on the road between St.Victurnien and Oradour. They had not been expecting any action, but were taking this route in order to get some way ahead of the Germans to rest and to prepare for their next task at Nieul. Just past the hamlet of Les Remejoux, they heard vehicles approaching and hid in the hedge intending to allow whatever was passing to do so. It was the "special" convoy: Lieutenant Walter in his car, the truck carrying the gold and some other captured treasures as well as the division records, and a half-track with ten SS soldiers. Raoul was too sensible to try to attack such a well-armed convoy, but unfortunately his men had no such discretion: against his orders, one of them attacked the car with a grenade so starting a firefight which left all of the French apart from Raoul and all but one of the Germans dead. The lone German escaped, possibly wounded.

Raoul looked inside the truck and found the gold, still packed in boxes but the contents obvious from their weight. Since he was alone on a deserted road and had no transport or any other means of carrying it away, he buried the gold in the forest nearby before burning the bodies and the three vehicles.

Now Mackness was involved in moving some remaining part of Raoul's gold out of France. His trip from Toulouse to Lyon was uneventful, but his car was stopped by «douaniers»2 (customs officers) on the autoroute just outside Lyon3. They searched his car and found the gold; Mackness managed to get away from these three, but was eventually stopped by more armed officers in a village nearby. He was taken into custody where he claims he was questioned and physically abused without access to a lawyer. During his interrogation it was hinted that he had been denounced by an informer; later on it emerged that this was probably a Monique Lacroix, a «frontalier» who had been accused by the «dounaiers» of a trivial technicality and offered the choice of helping them or going to prison herself. He identifies the chief «douanier» involved as Renard, yet again a pseudonym.

Mackness was eventually brought to trial; the evidence produced against him bore little relation to reality and the Swiss parties, including Baruch, had declined to attend or cooperate. The gold was listed as being unidentified, with no mention of five of the bars being Reichsbank issue (which means they would have been marked as such); it is likely that they unofficially enriched the «douaniers» as opposed to being accounted to the state. He and Baruch (in absentia) were each sentenced to eighteen months' prison; in addition there was a fine of eight million francs which in theory was for the bank but in practice would fall on the one imprisoned party - Mackness - that they had. Although this was eventually reduced by appeal to eighty thousand francs, he could not be released until the «douaniers» accepted it and received payment - impossible for the time being.

Major Kämpfe had been kidnapped on 9th June while returning from Guéret after having recaptured it. He was never found again. Patrols searching for him found the single survivor of Raoul's ambush, and also by chance captured Violet Szabo ("Carve Her Name With Pride"), south of Limoges.

From his story, Lammerding and Dickmann concluded that the gold must have been hidden near Oradour - given its location near to the ambush, and also that an SS Lieutenant6 who had been kidnapped but later escaped reported that he had been taken there. He repeated this claim in evidence to the Bordeaux tribunal in 1953, but it conflicts with other historical facts - surviving «maquisards» claimed that there had been no activity in Oradour, and it would have been so unusual in a small village as to invite unwanted comment.

There has been much speculation regarding their selection of Oradour for the search and massacre. It doesn't fit the usual pattern of SS reprisals, especially through being carried out in total secrecy.

Whatever the reason, Dickmann and Captain Otto Kahn went to Oradour the next day (10th June 1944) to search for the gold, the deadline being 8pm that evening. They took an indirect route from Limoges to the village, to first investigate the ambush site. Their troops sealed off the village and ordered the population to assemble for an 'identity check'. They were then taken to the church and barns, and some were interrogated for the location of the gold; presumably they obtained no answers, and all all apart from a few were killed before the barns and church were burned. The remaining village buildings were destroyed in the search for the gold.

There is an account of various cars being spotted and followed that day, although the author doesn't make it obvious who provided this evidence - it could have been from other «maquisards» who were active in the area. Late that day two were spotted at Veyrac, returning in the direction of Limoges. They were alone - the lorries carrying the soldiers went north to join the rest of their unit which by then had moved on to Bellac. One of them was Dickmann, returning to report to Lammerding (who was still at his temporary headquarters in Limoges), but what was the second? Only one car had been observed in the SS convoy on its way to the village, and the only other car in the village belonged to its doctor - if indeed this second car was it, it must have been returned to Oradour afterwards and is still there today.

Raoul collected the gold after the war, used some to start a business and kept the rest somewhere in France. Later he tried to move to Switzerland, but presumably was unsuccessful.
Mackness spent 21 months in Bonneville prison. A friend of his contacted Raoul while he was there, and Raoul said that the value of his lost gold had been refunded by the bank.
As a result of the Oradour massacre, Dickmann was committed for court martial at the instigation of Rommel and the German High Command. Lammerding had to approve, but did not relieve Dickmann of his command as would have been usual. Before he could be brought to trial, Dickmann was killed in fighting on the 30th June 1944 - some suspect it was suicide.

Lammerding was wounded at Falaise during the Normandy campaign. After the war, he returned to Dusseldorf and started an engineering company. He declined to attend the tribunal at Bordeaux set up in 1951 to investigate the Tulle and Oradour killings, and the British (occupying that part of Germany at the time) refused to extradite him because his personal involvement in or ordering of those events was not proven. Lammerding was sentenced to death by that tribunal, in absentia, for his part in the Tulle retaliation. Still safe in Germany, he tried to blame both Tulle and Oradour on Dickmann and a Major Kowatsch (both by now dead) in a libel case in 1965. He died of cancer at Bad Tölz in 1971.

Kahn also disappeared at Falaise, but again survived the war. Mackness later traced him to Sweden, and he agreed to meet the author in Switzerland in 1985. It was not a good meeting: he made no admission of any involvement at either Tulle or Oradour, and expressed no regret or remorse for either.

Of the lower ranks and enlisted men involved at Oradour, 21 Alsaciens and Germans (14 of them now French) appeared before a second tribunal at Bordeaux in 1952. A further 42 were indicted but could not be found. One Alsacien (Sergeant Boos) and one German were sentenced to death; the rest were sentenced to between 5 and 12 years' prison. There was much controversy over this, even more so when a special amnesty eventually freed all the Alsaciens except for Boos, whose sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In protest the inhabitants of the "new" Oradour village (built alongside the old one after the war) handed back the Croix de Guerre and Légion d'Honneur which they had been awarded and erected two unofficial monuments: one with the names of the 319 deputies who had voted for the amnesty, another with the names and addresses of the guilty Alsacien SS men. Both monuments were removed in 1966.

Raoul died of cancer in 1984.
Mackness was still in prison in February 1984. The «douaniers» refused to allow his release, even after the end of his sentence, until not only the fine had been paid but also Mackness was prepared to name his client - the mysterious Raoul. Mackness did not, but was released in September 1984 after the local prosecutor authorised his release under the «contrainte par corps», since Mackness and family were unable to pay the fine and would have been so for the foreseeable future.

Mackness met Baruch after his release; again it was not a constructive meeting, with neither of them being prepared to admit to denouncing the other. Baruch had been fired by the bank. Baruch subsequently refused an offer to check and comment on Mackness's book before publication, and the head of Banque Léman likewise.

From a contact that Mackness had made while in prison, after his release he met with another man then aged about sixty. He confirmed some of Raoul's story, but did not know that the search was for the gold - he thought more likely arms or merchandise - but definitely confirmed that the primary reason for the Oradour operation was a search. Mackness believed that despite having changed his name he had definitely been there at Oradour - he doesn't say whether this was as one of the SS (Germans or Alsaciens) involved, or as a victim who had managed to escape.

Mackness also met with another Frenchman aged about seventy who showed him Major Kämpfe's grave5, about 50km from Oradour. He had buried Kämpfe there himself.

I don't know whether all or indeed any of this is true. In my humble opinion the book was an interesting read, but the story sounds too far-fetched and coincidental. A web search on suitable terms (try this one and ignore the booksellers) will bring up other references to Mackness and Oradour, some involving complicated conspiracies stretching back to the Holy Grail, the Knights Templar and hidden gold in the Pyrenees. You will have to decide for yourself.

Note 1: Mackness gives this amusing account of Swiss officialdom.

At the beginning of 1980 I found myself living and working in Lausanne, and dealing with the excessively practical and efficient Swiss. On day two in my elegant new office I found myself conducting a surreal conversation with the local fire brigade who telephoned to ask me for my father's first name. I tried to explain that he had been dead ten years before realising that the discussion was pointless, so I ended up giving the Christian name of my late father to heaven knows what end.

The saga of my jeep was as typical. Within days of buying it I received an official letter from the capital, which in itself was extraordinary because practically everything in Switzerland is dealt with at local, cantonal level. The letter advised me that if Switzerland went to war then my jeep would be requisitioned. In such an event, I was to take it immediately to the location indicated in the enclosed sealed envelope. Being now under the Official Secrets Act, I was obliged to keep the letter in a secure place. I was also given a train ticket back to Lausanne, which entirely negated the secrecy of the sealed envelope since it indicated from where I would be returning. A windscreen sticker gave me police priority, and because of the probability of civil disturbance in the event of war I was advised to take enough food for three days.

Such thoroughness demanded a response and, against the entreaties of my Swiss secretary, one was duly sent suggesting that since the authorities had a vested interest in my jeep they would surely wish it to be kept in perfect condition for the day when they might need it. I suggested therefore that they pay for its servicing between then and their going to war.

Two days is what it normally takes to receive a reply from Berne. Mine took an unprecedented eight weeks which suggested a decision of presidential proportions. The response was very Swiss and quite logical. In the event of war, the letter said, Switzerland would manage without my jeep.

Note 2: The «douaniers» (customs officers) in France are also responsible for tax and foreign exchange enforcement.

Note 3: Mackness's assumption that he would have been safe inside France was wrong. The «douaniers» can apparently use their considerable powers of investigation and detention not only at the frontiers but also anywhere within a «Zone Franche». This is officially a duty-free trade zone, but as far as the «douaniers» are concerned anyone within or entering one of these can be presumed to be crossing a French border.

The authorities are secretive about the precise definition of a «Zone Franche», but it is reputed to be anywhere within 25km of a border, coast, or international airport or railway station. Mackness reckons that, according to this definition, 94% of the French population is within one and effectively the «douaniers» can use their full powers virtually anywhere.

Note 4: There seems to be some confusion regarding Dickmann's surname and also his first name. Mackness uses "Dickmann" throughout, as does indeed some of the material available at the Oradour village itself as well as a number of other books. However, it has been reported that the correct spelling (from his SS records) is "Diekmann", being either mispronounced or misheard during the Bordeaux tribunals and spread from there. Also according to those records, his first name was "Adolf" as opposed to "Otto": again in reports from the tribunal he may have been confused with Otto Kahn.

Note 5: This sounds impressive, but it may not be significant to the story of Oradour at all. According to the German War Graves Office and www.oradour.info, Kämpfe was originally buried in the Breuilaufa cemetery, only a few kilometres to the north of Oradour. He was moved from there to the German military cemetery at Berneuil, south of Saintes, in 1963. The Frenchman that Mackness met could have been involved in that later move, without having had any connection with the events during the war.

Note 6: Mackness does not name this captured SS Lieutenant, but it was probably Karl Gerlach who was captured by «maquisards» near Nieul on the 9th June and escaped later that night.

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