This is a year for commemorations in France. The most obvious is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I on 4th August. It’s also the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings and the eventual liberation of France. The first French town to be liberated was actually Ajaccio in Corsica, on 9th September 1943, followed rapidly by the rest of the island. Other French towns had to wait until 1944, including Montauban, our préfecture.
Montauban was in the zone libre until November 1942, when the occupying German forces breached the boundary. The Wehrmacht marched into the town on 11th November – a symbolic date, marking the armistice during the previous world war. They quickly seized strategic points around Montauban and the townspeople settled down to almost two years of occupation.
Tension mounted in May and early June 1944 in anticipation of the Allied invasion. Most of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich was stationed in the town from April 1944 but stayed for only a couple of months, when it was summoned to northern France following the Normandy landings.
The history of Das Reich’s destructive northward journey is well documented and the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin remain as a testament. Less well-known are other places through which Das Reich passed on the way, such as Dunes, north of Montauban, where 30 of the villagers were executed.
The Allied landing on the south coast of France on 15th August was the turning point. The Milice and the Gestapo left Montauban on 16th August, followed by the German troops on the morning of the 19th, having received the order to retreat to the northwest. But the locals’ celebrations were cut short by the news that an SS column was heading for the town. In fact, it was a 400-strong troop of non-German auxiliaries, led by a few German soldiers, on their way to Toulouse from Cahors.
The column arrived at Montauban but encountered dogged resistance. Fierce skirmishes took place around the road junction now known as Le Rond, to the north of the town centre. As a result, the column diverted to Negrepelisse to the east.
History seen through the lens of distance
The 19th August 1944 has come to symbolise the liberation of Montauban, but the events took place over several days and the official liberating forces didn’t actually arrive until 24th August. The definitive liberation was finally celebrated on 3rd September.
We always try to make history neat and digestible. The liberation of France wasn’t a well-ordered sequence of events. It was a tale of factional conflicts, vicious vengeance and reprisals – not always justified – and near anarchy in places, alongside the jubilation of freedom from occupation.
Feelings run deep and people who lived through those times down here still don’t want to talk about them. Accusations that x or y was a collaborator during the war are still muttered behind hands. We have learned to be very sensitive about how, or if, we broach the subject.
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