We discovered this moment in Caen WW2 history reading the marvelous magazine Patrimone Normand ‘Normandy Heritage’ who have very kindly allowed us to use some of their photographs.
Caen in the spring of 1944
One spring evening in 1944 Colbert Marie, age 17, left his boxing club with friends the Boutrios brothers; Achille and Michel. They all live in the working class Vaucelles area of Caen around the railway station. Colbert is the son of a hard-working man from the Pays d’Auge and the fifth of nine children. He works as a butcher, loves music, sport and a pretty girl with dark hair called Gisele.
It is not long until curfew. As the young men step over railway lines they come across the mechanic Serge Fortier lurking in the shadows. Serge is an unpopular figure; from Vaucelles but not trusted by the Boutrois who take this opportunity to rough him up a little. Serge considers the brothers communists, a crime at this time. Colbert he does not know well but it is clear whose side Colbert is on during the altercation, although he does not take part.
Stirring the hornet’s nest
During the night of April 30 to May 1, 1944 the Resistance manage to derail a locomotive, causing rail chaos around Caen for days. The Germans are furious and intent on finding the perpetrators to making an example of them.
The secret police, Gestapo, assign one of their local French agents Serge Fortier to investigate. For Serge Fortier is a member of the ‘la bande à Hervé’ a sinister group of collaborators. Serge has recruited a bitter team of crony’s from the packed neighbourhood of Vaucelles for whom justice is less important than money and occasional revenge. They enthusiastically compile a list of suspects, people they have known since childhood.
On 15 May 1944 using this information the Gestapo launch an anti-communist hunt across Vaucelles. It will become notorious as the ‘Vaucelles round-up’. They surround a railway worker’s café just a few yards from the station and find many people named on their list. The arrests continue all day and into the night; Achilles Boutrois is arrested at his home, his brother Michel in the street.
Serge and his accomplices search the home of Colbert’s sister Yvette. Seeing Colbert he says “I know you, you are free to go”. Grateful to Serge the family watch as Colbert rushes down the stairs. Unknown to them he emerges onto Branville street into a trap. The Gestapo arrest him. Maurice Arrot, hated brother of Serge Fortier is also arrested. Serge’s revenge is complete.
The prisoners are taken to the Gestapo headquarters on Rue des Jacobins. Colbert is ferociously tortured with ‘nerf de bœuf’ by Serge and his associates. Nerf de bœuf is a tough cane, curved at the end made from dried beef ligament.
When Colbert did not come home the family knew it was likely he was one the many arrested that day. Charged as a communist he was a political prisoner with no rights to visitors. All his mother was allowed to do was take his washing. And this is how she found the message from her son.
Innocence, written in blood
Written in blood on a handkerchief, Colbert scratched a desperate message to his mother. In it he exposed Fortier as his accuser. He begged his mother to find a sympathetic German they knew who may be able to speak for him. Colbert said that thoughts of his beloved Gisele kept him alive. He sent his love to his mother, father and friends. Then “see you soon. I am innocent”.
During the night of 5-6 June the Allies began the bombardments of Caen. Prisoners in Caen’s full ‘Maison d’ Arrêt’ prayed for a bomb to break down the walls and release them. They were not to know that in St-Lô, the prison was hit and 42 résistant prisoners buried under the ruins.
The Germans quickly became convinced that Caen could be surrounded by the evening of D-Day.
A decision had to made about the fate of the political prisoners, the communists and résistance who had networks across the region and threatened German control.
The initial plan was to withdraw the Gestapo and their duplicitous French collaborators with the SD (Sicherheitsdienst , intelligence agency of the SS) and political prisoners south to Alençon. Alençon had a large jail. It was the Gestapo’s intention that when the time came the prisoners would be liquidated; made to disappear, without trace. Their fate would never be known by family and friends. Ordinary prisoners were no threat and could be left behind until other arrangements could be made. In the last resort they might even be set free.
Unwanted political prisoners
None of the Caen political prisoners had a trial, but many showed the effects of ‘interrogation’. A surviving prisoner Paul Verchère came very close to being shot before it was decided that he had not been sufficiently ‘interrogated’ although they had broken his leg. He was able to fill in some of the details about what happened next to the Caen prisoners in Maison d’ Arrêt.
As the invasion intensified it became clear that moving to Alençon would be impossible. In Caen as bombs rained overhead, the Gestapo and SD men began to burn all dossiers and archives. Sometime during the morning the decision was made to liquidate the political prisoners in Caen.
The German commander in Caen at this time was Harald Heyns. He would later claim the order came from his superior in Rouen. A list of those to be killed was drawn up. Executions were held up by a wave of Allied bombers just after 1pm, but by 2pm it was quieter and the pits for the bodies were nearly ready.
Shooting prisoners was apparently not a job for German army personnel so the firing squad was made up of prison guards, supervised by three SD men in plain clothes. Witnesses remember Russian prison guards, ex POWs who had signed up to join their enemies.
The prisoners, including Colbert Marie, were forced into a courtyard surrounded by high walls. In the distance they can hear Allied forces battling south towards them.
In small groups of 5 or 6 they are pushed through a door into a smaller courtyard. On the death list himself, prisoner l’abbé Victor Bousso blesses those he can. Across Maison d’ Arrêt burst of machine gun fire are heard. No single shots. The lucky ones died quickly others are just left. In the early evening over 30 single shots were heard. These are thought to have been executions to the back of the neck.
Estimates say 87 people were murdered but the total number will never be known and could be as high as 100. Just 70 names were later confirmed. Witnesses say résistants from other regions known only by their codenames were in the prison, and a small number of Allied airmen. The youngest, Colbert Marie was 17 the oldest 66.
All evidence destroyed
All records were destroyed, all personal effects removed from the bodies and those bodies have never been found.
The dead were first buried within the prison. Then to ensure no-one would ever know who they were, witnesses say (there is no proof) the bodies were dug up, loaded into trucks and taken away to be incinerated in woods about 20km from Caen.
The hopeless dreams of a broken family
It was not until Caen’s liberation in July 1944 that the prison slaughter became widely known. Colbert’s family hoped his innocence and youth had protected him (perhaps he had been transferred away from Caen?) So they put up posters and sent messages across Normandy hoping for information.
We don’t know how long it was before they realised Colbert was one of those massacred on 6 June. We do know that his voice would be heard from beyond the grave.
After Liberation the handkerchief, written in blood by a tortured child, was one of the strongest pieces of evidence used to have the collaborator and torturer Serge Fortier was arrested. He and a few surviving members of the Hervé gang were shot on 9 May 1946.
Where is Colbert Marie?
Closure for families is still out of reach as although many collaborators and Gestapo were indicted for horrific war crimes, all evidence of the Caen prison massacre on 6 June 1944 was so thoroughly destroyed that no-one has been punished for it. There are no graves for family and friends to to visit and pay their respects.
Colbert’s older brother Kléber still hopes for answers and preserves with immense care a small square of cotton still clearly marked with words written in blood by his younger brother.
Every year a ceremony is held at the gates of the old prison Maison d’Arrêt on 10 rue du Général Duparge, Caen, to pay tribute to the murdered prisoners. A large plaque on the exterior wall states from a speech by Leonard Gille on 1 November 1944:
“To the memory of prisoners shot by the Germans on 6 June 1944.The oppressor believed in killing them they died, but instead he has immortalised them”