Our local Médiathèque (library) is a hive of literary activity. In addition to the literary festival that takes place every October, there’s a series of author talks throughout the year. On Saturday, we heard Adrian Weale, a former UK army officer turned military historian, talk about his researches into the German SS (Schutzstaffel). His session was particularly interesting because it included insights into a piece of local history: the mutiny by Croatian and Bosnian SS conscripts in Villefranche-de-Rouergue in September 1943.
From thugs to fighting force
I had heard of this event, but knew relatively little about it. Adrian Weale started by describing the genesis and development of the SS in interwar Germany. Postwar mythology has turned the SS into some kind of elite fighting force, but it wasn’t really like that. Basically, they started as thugs recruited as bodyguards for Nazi party speakers. Himmler developed the SS as a military force alongside the Wehrmacht, with the main criterion that recruits must be able to trace their Aryan roots back to 1750.
However, after Hitler’s misbegotten invasion of Russia in 1941 and the resulting haemorrhage of manpower, anyone who could hold a gun was enlisted and the criteria were relaxed. The occupied territories were favourite recruiting grounds. Among them were parts of the occupied Balkans.
Thousands of young Croats, many of them Moslems, were rounded up and sent for training before being deployed to active service. A thousand of them were sent to Villefranche-de-Rouergue in preparation for what the Germans feared would be a possible Allied invasion in the south of France. Among them were some of Tito’s partisans, who had infiltrated the ranks of the recruits.
Relations between the German officers and the conscripts quickly soured, partly due to the poor treatment of the latter. The Communist partisans took advantage of this. On 17th September 1943, a dozen or so Croats overran the Hôtel Moderne (now a bank), where the German officers were billeted. They were led by four ringleaders, who somewhat unrealistically planned to get down to the south coast and then across to Italy to fight with the Allies. They announced that they were taking over, killed five German officers and effectively “liberated” the town for a few hours.
One German officer escaped and raised the alarm. Villefranche was quickly surrounded by German soldiers from Rodez and other local garrisons and pitched battles took place in the streets. Not all of the troops had taken part in the mutiny, and a division imam persuaded many to remain on the German side, so it quickly fizzled out.
The chances of getting out of the town were almost non-existent, but a few of the mutineers managed it, including one of the ringleaders, who then joined the maquis. The rest were killed or captured and then tortured and shot or sent to concentration camps. Sources differ as to the numbers who died.
The spot where they were executed on the edge of the town is known as “Le champ des martyrs Croates” (the field of the Croatian martyrs). A memorial now stands there.
Happily, the townspeople escaped mass reprisals, although some of them did help the mutineers. Arrests of Villefranchois were made, but the Mayor, Louis Fontanges, managed to get them released, persuading the Germans that they had nothing to do with the mutiny. He was briefly arrested himself.
Anxious that this incident might spark off other mutinies, Himmler tried to suppress it. However, Radio London got to know and broadcast the news a few weeks later. According to my researches, a similar mutiny took place in 1944 in Rodez by Soviet soldiers who had been forcibly conscripted.
Some people claim that Villefranche was the first occupied French town to be liberated, albeit fleetingly. Actually, unless you only count the French mainland, that isn’t accurate. It was Ajaccio in Corsica, on 9th September 1943, after which the rest of the island was liberated. Corsica is French and was occupied by Italian forces and then by German troops as well towards the end of the occupation.
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