The life and dramatic death of a farmer who was saved by the SS

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The Independent Online

The extraordinary characters that once adorned our small constellation of villages in the Norman hills are vanishing. Maybe, like rare butterflies, they cannot adapt to the creeping tide of suburbanisation. Year by year, the pale peach bungalows advance southwards from Caen. Little by little, the authentic colour of the countryside is washed away.

Bernard Gosselin was a charming, gentle, intelligent man, whose life began in high drama during the battle of Normandy in 1944. His life ended equally dramatically this summer.

M. Gosselin was a successful dairy farmer who retired last year. One of his great passions was flying. He converted an absurdly sloping field into an air-strip and would fly on still, bright mornings and afternoons, after milking his cows. One of M. Gosselin's other great passions was the local history of the Second World War. This is not surprising, he was part of it.

In July 1944, Bernard was born in the farmhouse which stands just over my garden hedge. The battle of Normandy was raging 20km to the north. The only civilian doctor in the area had been injured in Allied bombing. Bernard's parents, Albert and Emilia Gosselin, were distraught. Their three previous children had died in infancy.

Unable to find even a midwife, Albert Gosselin appealed in desperation to German troops in a bar near by. To his horror, M. Gosselin found the carousing Germans were from the SS. Less than a month earlier, soldiers from another SS division had massacred all the men, women and children of a village in central France. The SS 9th Division doctor, Bernhard Runge, had been amputating the limbs of wounded soldiers but agreed to deliver the French baby. Almost all local people forgave the Gosselins this act of enforced collaboration. A few never did.

Twenty-eight years later, in the spring of 1972. Bernard Gosselin was sitting on his tractor ploughing a field. A tall, elderly man with curly, grey hair approached and flagged him down. Bernard recounted the story to me three years ago, for an article on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

"He said, 'Is your name Bernard and were you born in July 1944?' I said, 'yes'. I had already recognised the German accent and my heart was racing."

"He asked me, 'Do you know who I was? Do you know who I really was? I was the SS. I was the wicked SS'." There began an unlikely 25-year friendship between the two men - a spiritually troubled former Nazi, who had been a minor defendant at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and a Norman dairy farmer. The friendship ended with Dr Runge's death in 1997 at the age of 93. Every summer until 1994, when he became too ill to travel, Dr Runge would spend weeks living in the Norman hills with the man that he called "my French son". Bernard Gosselin's life ended this summer a few miles south of the house where he was born. He took off in his plane and turned back, as if he had mechanical problems or was ill. He crashed before he could land.

Bernard Gosselin now lies in our village cemetery beside the Commonweath War grave of Flt Sgt M K H Wilson of the Royal Australian Air Force. Flt Sgt Wilson came from Brisbane to die when his aircraft, brought down by flak, crashed near our village on 14 June 1944. Three weeks later, just over the hill, an SS doctor delivered a French baby ...