On June 7, the Communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP) guerrillas launched a pre-planned attack on German and milice positions in Tulle. By the 8th, the FTP had liberated the town* … temporarily.
Come the evening of the 8th, the 2nd SS Panzer Division — which had been stationed in southern France but was rumbling north to fortify the German position in the wake of the Allied landing at Normandy — arrived at Tulle and re-occupied the city.
On the morning of the 9th, the Germans went door to door and detained nearly all the men in Tulle over the age of 16, an estimated three to five thousand potential hostages. By the afternoon these had been efficiently culled to 120 semi-random targets for exemplary revenge to cow the populace, people who looked too scruffy to the Germans and didn’t have an alert contact with sufficient pull to exclude them from the pool. The count was determined, as a poster announcing the executions explained, as the multiple of 40 German soldiers estimated lost* during the FTP action.
Throughout the afternoon, that threat was enacted with nooses dangled along lampposts and balconies on the Avenue de la Gare — although not to the full 120 but rather to the odd number of 99. It remains unclear why the hangings stopped early; certainly it was no excess of sentiment on the part of the Panzer division, which had been redeployed to France after giving and getting terrible casualties on the far bloodier eastern front.
“In Russia we got used to hanging. We hanged more than 1,000 at Kharkov and Kiev, this is nothing for us here,” a Sturmbannführer Kowatch remarked to a local official.
And so in batches ten by ten, before an audience of other prisoners and frightened townspeople peeping through shuttered windows and mirthful SS men, the hostages were marched to their makeshift gallows, forced up ladders with rifle-butt blows, and swung off to publicly strangle to death. The avenue’s unwilling gibbets were not suffered to discharge their prey until the evening, when the 99 were hurriedly buried in a mass grave. Afterwards, another 149 were deported en masse to Dachau, most of whom would never return.
The never-repentant commander who ordered the mass execution, Heinz Lammerding, was condemned to death in absentia by a French court; however, West Germany refused extradition demands,** and Lammerding died in 1971 without serving a day in prison.
The 2nd SS Panzer Division proceeded the next day on its northerly route to Oradour-sur-Glane, and there participated in the mass murder of its inhabitants, an atrocity that is much better remembered today than that of Tulle. The journey and operations of this division are the subject of a World War II microhistory titled after the unit’s nickname, Das Reich: The March of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Through France, June 1944.
* The 40-to-50 German dead in Tulle include some summarily executed. For example, nine officers of the SD were shot in a graveyard after capture.
** Lammerding’s comfortable liberty became headline news in the 1960s, which was not long after Israeli commandos had kidnapped the fugitive Nazi Adolf Eichmann. France allegedly mulled such an operation to bring Lammerding to justice.