The local hero was in fact a German, born Heinz Stahlschmidt in Dortmund on November 13th 1919. His father, a plumber, died in 1937. His elder brother had taken up studies but the family couldn’t afford to bankroll a second student, so with the outbreak of war in 1939 Heinz volunteered for the German navy. His military career got off to a bad start though: in April 1940, he was on board the battleship Blücher when it sank off Oslo in Norway. In June 1940, a fishing boat he was on which had been converted into a coastal patrol vessel also sank. And in September 1940, he was on a frigate carrying troops which was torpedoed between Denmark and Norway. Stahlschmidt managed to swim back to the coast but 560 men died.
Now suffering from ill health and possibly sensing that his place was not at sea, Stahlschmidt requested to be transferred to a position on dry land. And so it was that, in April 1941, he ended up in Bordeaux, where he worked as a naval mechanic. Stahlschmidt settled in well, soon making friends, and frequenting a young local girl, Henriette Buisson.
|The 21-year-old Stahlschmidt |
pictured in 1940 (source:
Centre Jean Moulin exhibit)
Things would change forever though in August 1944. Post the D-Day landings, Allied forces were making headway throughout France and the Germans had no option other than to retreat. But in Bordeaux the decision had been made to not leave quietly. A plan was conceived to plant bombs every 50 metres over a 10-kilometre stretch of the waterfront and the city’s bridges. The detonators, explosives, plungers, timers and hardware necessary for the operation had been stocked in a bunker on the waterfront near Rue Raze. The operation – which after a few changes had been planned for the night of August 26th-27th – would have cost an estimated 3,000 lives and entirely destroyed the city’s port infrastructure. The person in charge of rolling out the operation was Heinz Stahlschmidt.
|The scene today where Rue Raze meets the waterfront.|
|The immediate aftermath: the bunker is no more and collateral damage on the waterfront |
(source: Centre Jean Moulin exhibit/Archives Municipales de Bordeaux).
|Cours de l'Yser today, looking down towards Marché des Capucins and Saint-Michel church. |
Stahlshmidt hid inside the white house to the right.
|Receiving the Légion d'Honneur in 2000,|
alongside wife Henriette
(source: Dossiers Histoquiz)
The following year, he returned to Bordeaux, married his long-time sweetheart Henriette and became a French citizen. From then on he became known as Henri Salmide, quietly working for the port fire brigade for 30 years until retiring in November 1969. His subsequent pension was to be particularly modest.
Over the following years, Salmide did his best to seek recognition (and possibly supplementary compensation) from the French state for his August 1944 heroics, but to no avail. He became so frustrated by the lack of support (and the number of letters that went unanswered) that in January 1983 he wrote to France’s President Mitterrand to complain, returning his voters’ card to show how disillusioned he had become with the system.
This state of play would continue for another ten years, until the Sud Ouest journalist Christian Seguin investigated the case and featured the story in the newspaper. Salmide’s secret was out and in May 1995 he was awarded the “médaille de la Ville de Bordeaux” by a reportedly unenthused Mayor Chaban-Delmas. In December 2000, he was awarded France’s Légion d’Honneur.
|Even war heroes use Dyno labels. |
The doorbell outside the couple's
home on Rue Mandron in Bordeaux.
Back in Bordeaux, the port authority gave Henri Salmide’s name to its head office building in 2012, and a street is set to follow in the months to come. Recognition may therefore have been long-overdue, but the city is at least belatedly catching up. At the time of writing, Henriette is still alive and no doubt enjoying this new state of affairs. Meanwhile "Heinz Salmide" (as he himself chose to be referred to on his headstone) can rest in peace in the knowledge that Bordeaux is now forever indebted to him for disobeying orders on August 22nd 1944.
- Find them on the Invisible Bordeaux map:
- Rue Raze bunker; Moga house where Stahlschmidt hid, 100, Cours de l'Yser; Henri Salmide's grave, Cimetière Protestant, Rue Judaïque, Bordeaux.