We are at the grave of Henri Salmide in the Cimetière Protestant of Bordeaux. According to the inscription, he “singlehandedly and on hi...

Henri Salmide: the local (German) hero who saved the port of Bordeaux

We are at the grave of Henri Salmide in the Cimetière Protestant of Bordeaux. According to the inscription, he “singlehandedly and on his own initiative saved the port of Bordeaux on August 22nd 1944”. So who was this local hero?

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)
In November of that year, Stahlschmidt returned to Germany to follow a four-month course that would see him become a qualified explosives and bomb-disposal expert. He was one of the most proficient trainees and therefore eligible to choose where he would be stationed. Unsurprisingly, he picked Bordeaux, returning to the city (and to Henriette) early in 1942. He was subsequently put in charge of inspecting weapons throughout the region and of coordinating the activities of a number of storage hangars in central Bordeaux.

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.
Stahlschmidt knew that the operation was too late in the day for the Germans, whose cause was already lost. He had informed an acquaintance in the Résistance, a schoolteacher named Dupuy, about the operation, but Dupuy had "neither the men nor the weapons" to hamper the plans. Stahlschmidt knew full well he would be held responsible for destroying the port and so chose to disobey the orders. Four days before the scheduled operation, at 8:00pm on August 22nd, he therefore entered the bunker, carefully ignited the fuse on some strategically-positioned dynamite, and swiftly made his way on bike to the Jardin Public. At 8:30pm, the bunker exploded, causing the deaths of 13 sentries and two members of the Gestapo, who were on site having already had their doubts about Stahlschmidt's allegiances. Buildings at the end of Rue Raze were severely damaged, but the city had been saved.

The immediate aftermath: the bunker is no more and collateral damage on the waterfront
(source: Centre Jean Moulin exhibit/Archives Municipales de Bordeaux).
Stahlschmidt instantly became a wanted man on the run. Shortly beyond the Jardin Public, his bicycle derailed though, putting paid to his plans of cycling to Dupuy's home in Le Bouscat. He therefore continued his escape on foot and was taken in by rugby-players the Moga brothers (fellow Résistant friends of Dupuy), at 100 Cours d’Yser, and remained there in hiding until the Libération of Bordeaux on August 28th. He was then arrested by the French and held as a prisoner of war in Saint-Médard-en-Jalles, where he volunteered to work as mine clearer and became an instructor at the Gironde de-mining centre. Back in Germany, his mother was executed by gunfire and his brother was imprisoned in retaliation for the Rue Raze explosion.

Cours de l'Yser today, looking down towards Marché des Capucins and Saint-Michel church.
Stahlshmidt hid inside the white house to the right.
In March 1946, Stahlschmidt was cleared and granted the necessary paperwork to return to Germany, where he had instantly been struck from the list of naval personnel regarded as eligible for a pension.
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.
By the time of his death on February 23rd 2010, his status as a heroic figure had been cemented by regular media coverage, including a substantial Sud Ouest piece which recounted his sole trip back to his hometown of Dortmund in 2001. When he died, reports of his wartime exploits were covered by publications as diverse as the UK’s Daily Mail and the New York Times.

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.

    • Rue Raze bunker; Moga house where Stahlschmidt hid, 100, Cours de l'Yser; Henri Salmide's grave, Cimetière Protestant, Rue Judaïque, Bordeaux.

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