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The disappearing war criminal of Château de Grangues

Chateau de Grangues, Calvados, postcard

Our postcard is impossible to match as this is a private residence, however the story of the Château de Grangues does not need a matching photograph, just to be remembered.

The Château is set discretely back from the road in parkland, just a few kilometres from the seaside town of Cabourg. Although very close to the open countryside behind the D-Day beaches, here the landscape is hilly, with wooded valleys separated by small patterns of fields and orchards.  In the early hours of 6 June 1944, this sudden shift in terrain would have a devastating impact.

Private - Chateau de Grangues
Private – Chateau de Grangues

The Château de Grangues

When war broke out the Château was lived in by Comte and Comtesse Rene de Noblet d’Anglure and their two children Joselyn and Prisca.  Rene was mayor of Grangues and by the time the German army occupied Normandy in 1942 he was leader of the local Red Cross.

When a unit of the German 744th Grenadier Regiment of the 711th Division occupied the Château and grounds, the Comte, his family, their Nanny Mrs Gauthie, and a dozen staff from across the estate were forced to live in the basement.  The family Nanny was an Irish lady, not young she had cared for two generations of the family and was helped by Thérèse Mallet, the daughter of a local farmer.

The Germans were dismissive of the family, giving them no special treatment and keeping them mostly closeted in the basement.  Defences were dug around the Château and the farmworkers tasked with plating sturdy poles into open fields around nearby Ranville, to damage any Allied planes or gliders that might think of landing.

The German officer’s horses were looked after by a middle ranking unexceptional soldier who had seen a small amount of action in Russia.  If Stabsfeldwebel Hermann Veiseler had any defining characteristics it was an unquestioning desire to gain the approval of his superiors.

Paratroopers of 6th Airborne Division, including members of the Parachute Ambulance units, enjoy a last cigarette with RAF aircrew before boarding their transport June 1944
Paratroopers of 6th Airborne Division, including members of the Parachute Ambulance units, enjoy a last cigarette with RAF aircrew before boarding their transport June 1944

Preparations for D-Day

On the other side of the channel during the evening of 5 June 1944, men of 591 Parachute squadron, Royal Engineers, were driven from their base outside Oxford to RAF Fairford.  On the airfield, Stirling aircraft and gliders had been painted overnight with black and white identification stripes, ready for a vital top secret mission.

The men were given a final briefing; they were to be flown into Northern France and prepare the ground for invasion by destroying enemy defences.  Take-off was planned for 11.37pm and at 10.45pm they were given their kit.  Lieutenant John Searle Shinner would later recall that he wore and carried:

Underwear, string vest, shirt, battledress, camouflage scarf, airborne smock beret, 1lb of gelignite, two No.36 grenades, .45 Colt automatic (gun) and ammunition, shell dressing and morphia tubes, code list, escape kit (magnetic “compass” fly buttons and silk maps sewn into linings of clothes) emergency rations, fighting knife, compass map, jumping jacket, helmet, mae west, parachute and a leg kit bag containing two small packs, a map board and a Sten gun. Others carried more than this.”

Their primary objective was to demolish the poles dug into fields now designated landing zones by the Allies and for this explosives in cycle inner tubes were wrapped around their middles. The mission was dangerous, but in retrospect their equipment would make it doubly so. As Lieutenant Shinner said “we tried to carry too much”.

Photo three Stirling bombers
Three Stirling bombers

Minutes to midnight 5 June 1944

Winds had delayed the mission by one day but as predicted had dropped around 10pm on the 5 June.  The men were packed into their aircraft and flown with no incidence over the channel.

As Lieutenant Shinner’s plane approached France the wireless operator went to investigate an intercom failure between the rear gunner and the cockpit.  For vital minutes the navigator was receiving no estimates of their position or of any drift away from the target.

Night-time journey into hell

As described by Lieutenant Shinner:

“We were to jump at 0100hrs, and our last two minutes’ flight would be overland. Three minutes to go, and leaning over to a porthole I could see surf and a strip of sand. Red light on! Then, someone on the beach picked up a handful of pebbles and threw them against the fuselage. Then another and another- only they were not pebbles they were flak.

“One bit nicked my right arm- it didn’t hurt, but felt a bit numb. The sky seemed to be full of vivid flashes and orange streaks. Suddenly there was a flash and a burst of flame inside the aircraft, astern of where I stood. In a matter of seconds the whole of the inside of the aircraft was blazing. Each of the sappers had been carrying 5lb sausages of plastic explosive and one poor chap had his hit, and it burned fiercely.

“Five or Six of us at the forward end of the fire were forced forward, towards the main spar by the flames. I felt the flames singeing my face and yelled to someone to get the escape hatch off to let out the suffocating smoke. I told one of the sappers to go forward to the radio cabin to find out what the situation was. He contacted one of the crew, but obviously things were badly wrong up there, because they passed the order to jump and then immediately cancelled it. In any case we could not have got past the blaze between us and the exit hole.”

“Almost immediately after this the nose dipped, there was a horrendous rending and crashing and I had the sensation that we were being rolled over and over. It seemed to go on for an awfully long time.

“When all the movement stopped I became aware of something (fuel?) swilling over my face and that there was a fierce fire burning in the forward part of the aircraft a few feet away. I also realized that I couldn’t move of my own accord because I was hanging upside down, by one leg on my static line, which had become entangled with the roof of the aircraft. If I didn’t do something I was going to cook in the immediate future. Again my luck was in, and the urgent action required was taken by another survivor who came staggering my way. I shouted to him to cut me loose and in two seconds his fighting knife had done the job and we were both on our feet.

“We only had a few feet to walk because just behind where I had been hung up, the fuselage was broken off and there was a pile of wreckage and dead and injured men. We couldn’t see any sign of the tail! The two of us set about getting some of the injured out. As far as I could tell – I was pretty dazed and shaken – there were four of us on our feet, three or four men alive but badly injured and the others dead. The front part of the aircraft was a raging furnace and there was obviously nothing to be done for the aircrew there.”

The Stirling’s tail was broken off as they crashed and the fuselage quickly disintegrated as it slid 100 meters through an orchard, stopping in a small meadow. As tracer fire and explosions went off around them, they pulled the few survivors from the wreckage.

Captured

A short distance away a fire marked the crash site of another off-course plane. They would later discover it carried 25 men including parachutists from the 7th Battalion the Parachute Regiment and 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment. None survived.

Injured but able to walk, Lieutenant Shinner and his corporal assumed they were just south of the designated drop zone. But they could not work out their location and what they were seeing made little sense; this was not the open country they had expected.  Then they saw two German soldiers in the next field – just as the Germans spotted them.  A German patrol was coming up the lane behind them and Lieutenant Shinner fired his .45 Colt. But his arm was near useless and he fired high above their heads. Outnumbered they put their hands up.

They were marched to the local German Company Headquarters at Château de Grangues. Here all of their equipment except a few first aid items were removed.  Both were locked in the stables.  Shortly afterwards a German officer arrived by car and Lieutenant Shinner was taken away for interrogation.

Crashed Horsa glider near Hiesville, 6 June 1944
Crashed Horsa glider near Hiesville, 6 June 1944

Horsa gliders crash at Grangues

Soon after the planes in the early hours of 6 June 1944 came the Horsa gliders. While some landed to liberate Pegasus Bridge, others were faced with marshland, rivers and to the east, hill country.  Four were off-course and headed for Château de Grangues were they crashed, the survivors quickly rounded up by German patrols.  Glider pilot Staff Sergeant Duncan Wright barely had time to register that his co-pilot was dead before he was marched to the Château and locked in the stable block with the other survivors.

Those with serious injuries were driven to the German hospital in Pont-l’Evêque, leaving eight prisoners tied up in the stables:

  • Staff Sergeant 15090818 Duncan Frank Wright aged 25 years, “A” Squadron, 1st Wing, Glider Pilot Regiment
  • Corporal 1944972 William Alexander Kelly aged 28 years of 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers
  • Lance Corporal 1878189 Kenneth William Branston aged 20 years of 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers
  • Lance Corporal 882124 Thomas Andrew Fraser aged 24 years of 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers
  • Sapper 14422902 Frank Wolfe aged 22 years of 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers
  • Sapper 14537569 David Henry Wheeler aged 21 years of 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers
  • Sapper 1876309 Peter Guard aged 20 years of 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers
  • Private/Driver 14283438 George Thomson aged 22 years of 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers

Comte Noblet, the Nanny and Thérèse were given limited access to help the prisoners and told not to speak to them, but did what they could.

Horsa glider near Pegasus
Horsa glider near Pegasus

The war crime of Château de Grangues

What happened next was told by French witness Rolland Bertier and confirmed by Captain Rankin who autopsied the bodies for the 1945 inquiry.

Just after 2am on 6th June, the eight soldiers were led from the stables.  They had all been thoroughly searched when captured and had no weapons. Outside they were made to lie on the ground face down.

Stabsfeldwebel Veiseler took his Walther P38 pistol and shot each man just above the waist, one just below the head. They were dead in moments.

Around the Château trenches had been dug for building work. The bodies were thrown in.

In shock, Rolland told the Comte what he had seen. Comte de Noblet challenged Stabsfeldwebel Veiseler, asking him why he shot the unarmed prisoners, in direct contradiction to the Geneva convention.

At first Veiseler said the prisoners had become restless and were planning to escape.  Then he claimed they had hidden weapons.  There is no credible reason, but it is possible he was following a vile directive from Hitler dated 18 October 1942 that demanded all parachutists and saboteurs, whether in uniform or not, be shot.

Shortly afterwards Veiseler spoke to the Comte again. He had impressed his superiors a tale of bravery and cunning and was to be rewarded for his courageous action with the Iron Cross.

Kindness of strangers

Of course the Comte, his family and staff were appalled by Veiseler’s terrible conduct, but it was the Irish Nanny Mrs Gauthie who harnessed up a donkey to a cart and fearlessly took the soldiers away to be buried with respect.  They would later be moved to lie in Ranville cemetery with their comrades.

War criminal in hiding

In 1945 the UN War Crimes Commission took witness statements they deemed ‘credible’ from those at the Château about the appalling events that night.

The Commission also noted a description of Herman Veiseler; very tall, thin with black hair and rather slanted black eyes. But he was never found. There is no record of his death in German army records, his name does not appear in lists of Allied prisoners of war.  He never returned to his home town in Germany.  Normandy was chaos for months after D-Day, was he killed, his body unrecognisable? Or did the war criminal Veiseler take the identity of someone else and simply slip away?

Today

Today all is quiet and peaceful at Grangues. The craters made by planes and bombs in 1944 are softened with grass.  In the village by the church a memorial stands to remember all the 52 Allied soldiers and airmen who died for liberty at Grangues 6 June 1944. They are not forgotten.

Glider troops beside their Horsa glider, which crashed through a stone wall during its landing on 6th Airborne Division's drop zone near Ranville, 6 June 1944
Glider troops beside their Horsa glider, which crashed through a stone wall during its landing on 6th Airborne Division’s drop zone near Ranville, 6 June 1944

Some sources

A Survivors account of the crash at Château de Grangues 6 June 1944 by Lieutenant John Searle Shinner BSc FICE (15 Aug 1920-7 Feb 1999), published in the Royal Engineers Journal 1994.

Interview with Thérèse Mallet, Pegasus Magazine, Winter 2017

The mass murder recorded in the British National Archives

Info on 591 Parachute Squadron from ParaData

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