In Britain the Allies were actively debating the need to destroy railway lines in France, in advance of the invasion. Isolating the Normandy area would hinder the movement of German reinforcements. The move was initially opposed by Churchill – who feared the scale of French casualties that would inevitably result from such raids. Also included in the plans were orders for the French Resistance to conduct sabotage operations against railway lines.
Whether or not they received orders from Britain, some members of the French Resistance were active already. The main line between Lille and Brussels was an obvious target. On the night of the 1st April bombs destroyed the line near the small village of Ascq, close to the Belgian border. Unfortunately they did so just as the 12th SS Panzer ‘Hitlerjugend’ Division was on the route, causing them delays, although there were no casualties on the train.
There were no considerations of ‘innocent civilians’ amongst these troops. Anyone who got in their way or hindered them was a target. Reprisals against local residents, even if they had not been involved in the sabotage, were intended to deter the saboteurs from further acts.
The Mayor of Ascq, Mr. Delebart was caught up in the events:
I left the housee … I was headed for the crossing of rue Marceau. There was great excitement and a lot of soldiers, I tried to find out what was going on. One of the soldiers took me to an officer he called the commander: I wanted to know from the Germans if anything had happened in Ascq. Not knowing the language, I could not understand and asked if one of his soldiers was an interpreter.
A soldier stepped forward and translated for me the words of the officer. I was far from supposing that a tragedy was unfolding. I learned through the interpreter that an attack had been committed on the road and their train was derailed and the engine destroyed.
They held the local people responsible for this – as a common act of sabotage and – accordingly fifty people were to be shot, including a group of about thirty who were on the right hand side. They were guarded by German soldiers and were to be executed by firing squad immediately.
That’s when I raised a violent protest at their actions – the population had nothing to do with what had happened and that they were innocent. I was extremely angry at this point. But the interpreter was hitting me on the shoulder and said that the officer had ordered: “You too, Mr. Mayor, you will be shot.” And then I received a tremendous kick in the kidneys and they pushed me into the group of civilians who were awaiting execution.
The little procession set off surrounded by soldiers who spared nothing in the way of rifle butts or kicking: all along the way we came across corpses. After walking along the bottom side of the railway line for about two hundred metres, the command to halt was given to us. The soldiers made us face the train line, arms raised.
I had the impression that the final moment had come, and they would shoot us in the back, we stayed in this position four to five minutes, that’s when whistles sounded …
We we were then told to go home as soon as possible, then it was a race across the fields to return to our homes . [...]
See ‘Crimes Hitlériens, Ascq, Le Vercors’, Louis Jacob, collection Libération, Editions Mellottée (Paris), 1946
In total 70 men were shot beside the railway tracks and a further 16 in the village itself. Later the Gestapo apprehended 6 men who were alleged to have carried out the railway sabotage and they were subsequently executed as well. The massacre saw the largest wartime protest by the French population, 60,000 people went on strike in Lille and 20,000 attended the funerals in Ascq.
After the war a number of men from the Hitlerjugend Division were convicted of the crime by a French Military Tribunal and sentenced to death. The sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and the men eventually released. Obersturmführer Walter Hauck, the man regarded as chiefly responsible, was released in 1957. He never faced charges of committing very similar crimes in the Czechoslovak town of Leskovice in 1945, because a German court refused to extradite him. He died in 2006 at the age of 88.