Home Entertainment The forgotten SS D-Day massacre: Injured US paratroopers bayoneted in a pond,...

The forgotten SS D-Day massacre: Injured US paratroopers bayoneted in a pond, two priests shot and an 80-year-old woman slaughtered in her bed. We must never forget the price we paid to free Europe from the Nazis, writes PATRICK BISHOP

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The Waffen-SS troops were in the mood for revenge. Hundreds of their comrades had been killed or injured in the course of a pitched battle for control of the French village of Graignes in June 1944 and, after entering it at dawn, they proceeded to engage in an orgy of death and destruction.

After coming across a group of wounded American soldiers being treated in the village church, they took five of the casualties to a shallow pond behind the local cafe.

There, they systematically stabbed them to death with bayonets and threw the bodies into the water, turning it red with blood.

Allied paratroopers land in Normandy on June 6, 1944 after soldiers stormed French beaches in D-Day operations

Allied paratroopers land in Normandy on June 6, 1944 after soldiers stormed French beaches in D-Day operations

As veterans, politicians and officials gather in Normandy to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the liberation of France, the story of Graignes is a potent reminder of the evil the Allies were battling.

I first came across it when I bought an old farmhouse a few miles away at Montmartin as a holiday home for the family. As a military historian, I was naturally interested in local stories of the war.

Every year, around the D-Day anniversary the area seemed to slip into a time warp.

The surrounding lanes filled up with vintage jeeps, crammed with enthusiasts wearing authentic US uniforms, some of the thousands of re-enactors who flock to Normandy for the event.

The mood was celebratory and there was no hint of the dark deeds that accompanied the liberation.

From afar, Graignes looked like any other nondescript local village. Anyone chancing upon it today, perched above water meadows bursting with life and birdsong, will find it hard to imagine the horrors that were perpetrated there not so very long ago.

But a visit to the ruins of the old church, now preserved as a monument to the victims of the Waffen-SS, chills the blood even on the sunniest summer day.

The story began with a blunder. Early in the morning of June 6, 1944, thousands of US paratroopers and glider-borne troops were due to descend on Normandy to secure the terrain behind the Channel beaches to the north, where a huge armada would land the main invasion force at dawn.

But the area was whipped by high winds and pilots were disoriented by anti- aircraft fire, with the result that some of the paras landed 18 miles south-east of their intended drop zone. It was the worst mis-drop of any US airborne unit on D-Day and was to have horrifying consequences for the men involved.

At first, the locals were happy to see them. Indeed, when the first bedraggled band of American paratroopers arrived at Graignes that summer’s day 80 years ago, they were welcomed with a combination of jubilation and relief by its inhabitants.

To the people of Graignes, which sits in marshland 15 miles behind the D-Day landing beaches, it seemed that the four-year trauma of German occupation was over.

But their euphoria was short-lived. In the days that followed, the villagers and their saviours endured a terrifying ordeal which culminated in the massacre of soldiers and civilians alike by the SS.

Twelve-year-old Marthe Rigault was woken in the early hours by the sound of aircraft engines overhead and went downstairs to find her parents welcoming an American soldier to the family farmhouse with a cup of coffee.

By dawn, dozens more men of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment had gathered at the farm, just outside the village.

‘They said, “Don’t be afraid, we’re your friends”,’ recalls Marthe, now a lively and charming 92-year-old, who lives in a whitewashed, blue-shuttered cottage in nearby Carentan. ‘We thought we had been liberated. We were overjoyed. We didn’t know it that morning but it would be a month before Graignes was set free.’

By the end of the following day, 182 stranded American troops had assembled in the village to regroup and work out what to do next. Later, they were joined by still more stray soldiers, among them 21-year-old Flight Sergeant Stanley Black, of the Royal Australian Air Force, who had baled out when his bomber was hit over Caen. Rather than wander the countryside in a bid to link up with the main force, they decided to sit tight and defend themselves as best they could while waiting for their comrades pushing inland to relieve them.

The ruined church steeple in Graignes, Normandy, which now serves as a monument to the victims of the Waffen SS

The ruined church steeple in Graignes, Normandy, which now serves as a monument to the victims of the Waffen SS

It was a risky decision but all the options were bad. As paratroopers, their arrival was intended to catch the enemy by surprise and so they were lightly armed and, at the outset, had only the weapons they carried.

The senior officer, Major Charles Johnston, ordered the men to dig in. Meanwhile, he enlisted the aid of the locals to recover equipment dropped in the fields, which had been flooded by the Germans to form a defensive barrier against the long-awaited invasion.

Marthe went out in the family boat with her father Gustave and older sister Odette to salvage parachutes, weapons and ammunition, which they carried to the Americans in their horse and cart, hidden under straw.

By the end of the day, the paras had five machine guns, two mortars and some anti-tank mines. Major Johnston was confident he had the resources to protect his men and the village.

The Browning machine guns could spit out rounds at a rate of 400 a minute and he placed them to create interlocking fields of fire to hold off any infantry attack. The mortars had a range of nearly two miles and a two-observer team stationed in the church belfry could call down fire on approaching Germans from the platoon stationed next to the cemetery. Meanwhile, the anti-tank mines were laid at all the approaches to Graignes to deter any vehicles.

With only the rations they had baled out with to sustain them, food was going to be a problem. On June 7, the mayor, Alphonse Voydie, called a meeting of some of the 800 inhabitants at the village church and asked for their help.

The response was overwhelming, even though everyone knew full well that if the Germans knew they had been aiding their enemies the penalty was likely to be death.

A woman who ran the local cafe, Germaine Boursier, set up a canteen to feed the new arrivals and soon every soldier was getting two hot meals a day.

Major Johnston ordered his men to maintain a low profile, so as not to alert the Germans. While they waited, they could hear the sound of explosions and gunfire as the Americans struggled to capture the key town of Carentan, only five miles to the north.

But the lanes around Graignes were full of Germans rushing from the south to contain the Allied bridgehead and, on the afternoon of June 10, a German patrol reached the outskirts of the village. A group of paras guarding the approach opened fire, killing four of the enemy. That night, there were more patrols and more clashes. A document found on the body of a dead German officer revealed the identity of the unit the Americans were facing.

They belonged to the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen, named after a medieval German warrior who, when he lost his hand in battle, had an iron one fitted.

This was bad news. The division may have been cobbled together from other units and supplemented by conscripts and foreign volunteers but, in its short history, it had quickly gained a reputation for being one of the most savage and ruthless bodies of men in the German army.

The division’s 38 regiment in the Graignes area numbered up to 2,000 men and was equipped with the 105mm field howitzer and 75mm anti-tank gun. Not only did the Germans massively outgun the paratroopers, but they recognised no rules of war. The following day, June 11, was a Sunday. As it was a quiet morning, Major Johnston felt relaxed enough to authorise his men to attend Mass.

Marthe remembered Sergeant Benton Broussard, a French-speaking Cajun, from Louisiana, coming by to take her and Odette to the church at 10am. Father Albert Leblastier was halfway through the service ‘when a lady arrived and shouted, “Get out of here! The Germans are coming!”’

They rushed to the exit but, outside, a firefight was raging and they were forced back into the church, where they would stay until the early evening.

The paratroopers managed to beat off the first attack, but early that afternoon, the Germans tried again, this time raining down mortar bombs which killed both soldiers and villagers.

The wounded were taken to the church, where they were treated by a team of army medics led by Captain Abraham ‘Bud’ Sophian, and two women from the village, 80-year-old Eugenie Dujardin and Madeleine Pezeril, whose husband was a prisoner of war.

As the hours passed, the situation grew steadily more ominous. The Germans were seen bringing up heavy guns and reinforcements. Major Johnston could not hope to hold out for long and, at 7pm, he returned to the church and explained the situation to the villagers still huddled inside.

‘He climbed on a chair and told us we would have to leave,’ Marthe recalls. ‘He was doing the best he could, but the Germans were everywhere and he was running low on ammunition.’

She and Odette hurried away as the sound of fighting intensified, picking their way through the mines laid on the road as they made their way to the farm.

They got there just in time. The area around the church was now under intense bombardment from the German artillery stationed on high ground a few miles away.

The Americans’ machine guns and mortars provided only a flimsy defence and when the bell tower was smashed by a shell, killing the observers, they no longer knew where to direct their fire. Another round hit Major Johnston’s command post in the boys’ school, killing him and an aide.

The situation was hopeless. As darkness fell, Captain Leroy Brummitt, who took over from Major Johnston, ordered his men to pair up and retreat down the high ground around the church to the waterlogged fields below and attempt to join up with the main force at Carentan.

The paras had put up a good fight, killing many Germans, but they too had suffered and – on departing – they left behind 14 wounded, together with Captain Sophian and his two assistants, who elected to stay with their patients.

At dawn, the SS entered the village. When they arrived at the church, Captain Sophian met them with a white flag. Under the terms of the 1929 Geneva Convention – which Germany had signed – the medics and their charges should have been treated as prisoners of war and entitled to protection.

But the SS were in the grip of bloodlust. They divided the wounded and their carers into two groups and five of them were stabbed to death.

The other nine were force-marched over two miles to a field next to the village of Le Mesnil-Angot. First, they were forced to dig holes and kneel before them. Then they were shot through the head and their bodies tipped into the graves. Captain Sophian was murdered separately, along with his two assistants. Their bodies would not be recovered until the following spring.

US soldiers in Graignes with residents who had welcomed them before the SS attacked the village

US soldiers in Graignes with residents who had welcomed them before the SS attacked the village

The SS was not done yet. They rounded up about 40 inhabitants and screamed at them to name those who had helped the Americans. Terrified though they must have been, no one said a word. The Germans then turned their attention to Father Leblastier and another priest, Father Charles Le Barbanchon, who had been recovering from TB when the drama began.

They had a particular animus against them because it was the spotters stationed in their belfry who had been responsible for many of their casualties.

The SS soldiers manhandled them out of the rectory, then shot them dead in the courtyard.

The priests’ housekeepers were shown no mercy either. Eugénie and Madeleine, who had nursed wounded Americans, were shot dead in their beds.

The bodies of all four victims were then dragged to the shell-battered church, where they were covered in gasoline and set on fire.

The resulting blaze was allowed to burn out of control, destroying not only the 12th-century church but also the boys’ school, the cafe and all but two of Graignes’ 200 buildings.

Twenty-six villagers died in the battle for Graignes. Despite the horrific price they had paid for helping their would-be liberators, some of the locals continued to defy the Germans.

The Rigault family hid 21 men, who had been unable to slip away, in their barn. Eventually, they were taken in a flat-bottomed boat by 15-year-old Joseph Folliot to the American lines at Carentan on the night of June 15/16 – the last to get back to the Allied lines. Of the original 182 paratroopers who gathered in Graignes, 150 made it out alive.

According to some accounts, the stand they made and the villagers’ sacrifice was not in vain. Had they not held up the SS division, it could have reached Carentan to stiffen the defences before the arrival of the American 101st Airborne Division, which entered the town on June 10, making the battle even bloodier.

The villagers’ nightmare endured for four more weeks until July 12 when the Americans of the 113th Cavalry Group arrived. The Germans had left two days before. The 17th Panzergrenadier Division fought to the last days of the war, carrying out several more atrocities along the way.

In 1947, the US Army launched an investigation into the Graignes killings but, by then, the perpetrators were dead or had disappeared.

Graignes was rebuilt after the war and there is little trace of the old stone village. It is now best known for its racecourse and school for jockeys.

The neat streets are overlooked by the church tower, which stands as a monument to the massacre, with the names of all the dead inscribed on marble stones set into the walls – including the Australian airman Flt Sgt Black who was killed in the fighting.

For decades, the story of the massacre was forgotten. Then, in the 1980s, survivors of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment began turning up around the time of the D-Day anniversary to thank the villagers for what they had done for them.

Over the years, Marthe’s home has become a place of pilgrimage for the veterans’ descendants.

Time has helped to heal the grim memories of 80 years ago. German visitors have been welcomed to Graignes and there are regular school exchanges. ‘The spirit of reconciliation is essential,’ says Marthe, ‘but there are some things that will always remain.’

Graignes will celebrate the 80th anniversary of D-Day like everyone else. But on July 12, the mayor, Jean-Pierre Guegan, will preside over a separate memorial event to mark the liberation of the village – and its ordeal.

It is a time to rejoice at deliverance, but also to remember the awful reality of the German occupation and the price that was paid to end it. As the mayor says: ‘We must never forget the tragedy that happened here.’

  • Patrick Bishop’s Paris ’44: The Shame And The Glory is published next month.



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