As he was taken from the truck by his Nazi guards and led, naked, into the woods from which his seven fellow SAS men had not returned, Private Edwin Weaver had turned to his German guard and spoken four words.
At his subsequent war crimes trial SS-Unterscharführer Georg Zahringer, who had driven the men to the site of their murders, told the court what Pte Weaver’s last words had been.
“We were good men.”
Zahringer said at his trial that Pte Weaver had been made to stand near the edge of an open grave, from where he could see the naked dead bodies of his comrades. “He was not trembling,” Zahringer said. “He was shot through the back of the head and fell on to the bodies of the others.”
Over the weekend of July 27 and 28, 2019, family members of the men gathered at the two sites of the mass graves that, over time, had been reclaimed by the forest, to mark the unveiling of new memorials to their relatives.
The mission is believed to have been betrayed and after weeks of hit and run raids, starved of supplies and hunted by German troops, the two SAS groups, each of eight men, attempted to withdraw to Allied lines. They were all captured and subsequently murdered.
Despite attempts to conceal the crimes, the tenacity of the SAS War Crimes Investigation Team after the war led to the bodies being exhumed in May 1946. The 16 victims of both atrocities were reinterred into Durnbach War Cemetery in Germany.
A memorial had been erected in the 1980s at a site incorrectly identified as the location of one of the mass shootings, around 12 miles to the north-east of La Grande Fosse.
It remains symbolic and has been welcomed as a place of pilgrimage by both veterans and relatives over many years, but thanks to the tireless efforts of a former soldier using the pen name Ex-Lance Corporal X new memorials have been laid in the correct places of Les Moitresses and La Grande Fosse.
Pat Cahill, 80, daughter of Sergeant Walter Henry Edgar Nevill, said the SAS man had been given the nickname ‘Pat’ by his friends as he had constantly talked about his young daughter.
Mrs Cahill laid a wreath on her father’s memorial and said that although the visit had been very emotional she wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
She said a huge debt is owed to the locals of the area for their support today, and their resistance to the Nazis during the war. “I cannot thank them enough,” she said. “When you think of how many men and boys they lost, it’s just terrible.''
She paid tribute to the local villagers who suffered terribly for supporting the SAS men but who never gave them up.
Hundreds of men from the local area were deported to concentration camps as a result of helping the Regiment and yet Ex-Lance Corporal X, the author of a three-volume Roll of Honour cataloguing all 374 men killed in the war from the SAS and its forerunner, the Long Range Desert Group, says the memorial construction and ceremonies were organised by the descendants of local French civilians who paid with their lives.
“They all worked on this project for free as a way of saying thank you to the SAS who died for their liberty,” he told the Telegraph.
The two memorials comprise stone slabs made from local granite, with inlaid plaques of lava stone created by a local artist carrying inscriptions in French and English. The roughly eight-foot tall memorials stand on circular gravel bases of about a six-metre diameter.
Under the words ‘We Were Good Men’, the simple inscription at the memorial at La Grande Fosse, states: ‘At this spot, on the 15 October 1944, the following men of the 2nd SAS were shot after capture’. The names of the eight SAS soldiers is then listed.
The memorial at Les Moitresses is similarly laid out with the names of the men who died there listed under the words ‘I Am A Soldier’, spoken by one of the SAS men to his captors just prior to his death.
Don Hay had travelled from Australia to be present at the unveiling of the memorials. His uncle, Sergeant Ralph Hay, was one of the men murdered at La Grande Fosse.
"The actual experience of being at the two sites was incredibly powerful, incredibly emotional and the ceremonies beautiful in their simplicity," he told the Telegraph.
"To stand on the spot where these men were killed, where their blood seeped into French soil, was a moment of personal and profound anguish. I thought to myself that my uncle was born a son of Scotland but in giving his life here he died a son of France."
A British military court in May 1946 at Wuppertal in Germany, sentenced several members of the Kommando Ernst, the unit involved in the killings, to various terms of imprisonment ranging from two to ten years.
Hans Ernst, the unit commander, escaped from American custody to East Germany only to be sent to a gulag in 1947 by the Russian authorities.
He was released in 1956 as part of an amnesty and received compensation.
Although sentenced to death three times in absentia for crimes including the mass deportation to concentration camps of citizens of Moussey, the French rulings were not recognised by West Germany.
He subsequently practised law until 1977 when persistent pressure from Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld resulted in denial of his right to do so. By the time a case was ready in 1981 he was allegedly in too poor a state of health to stand trial. He died a free man in 1991.
Ann Epps, the niece of Private Frederick Leonard Austin, said it had been “an emotional weekend and an amazing experience”.
She said that before he left on his last mission, Fred had asked his pregnant sister that if she had a girl to name the baby Ann. She was born with a birthmark between her eyebrows the shape of a parachute.
Clare Rose, granddaughter of Sergeant Nevill said her mother Frances, Sgt Nevill’s second daughter, died last year.
“Mum would have been so proud,” she said. “The services were really moving, personal and thought-provoking”.
Speaking of her grandfather she said: “I would have loved to have met him. I’m really keen its not forgotten.”
The remaining funds from sales of the Roll of Honour will be used for similar memorials for other SAS members who lost their lives as well as local people who were murdered for helping the SAS.
"The welcome the relatives and I were afforded by the local French people was second to none," Ex-Lance Corporal X told the Telegraph.
"It is through their hard work that we have been able to come together as a Franco-British team to produce memorials that will last forever."
David Weaver, the eldest son of Pte Weaver’s stepbrother, Charles, told the Telegraph he had been moved by his uncle’s last words. He wondered what his final thoughts might have been: “‘Well, at least we are all going to be together',” he suggested.
He said the simple, respectful acts of remembrance allowed time for reflection.
“My next youngest brother is named Edwin Thomas Weaver,” he said. “I never knew why until recently. It has been an eye opening experience which I have been privileged to attend.”
Lewis Weaver, another of Edwin’s nephews, was deeply touched by the generosity of the people of the Moussey and Vosges area. On meeting the owner of the land on which his uncle’s memorial now stands, Mr Weaver wanted to express his gratitude. “I gave him two Melton Mowbray pork pies and a round of Stilton,” he said. “I hope he enjoyed them”.
His father had said very little about Edwin after the war but on one of the last occasions they were together before his father’s death, Lewis had asked what had happened to his uncle. “He was murdered by the Gestapo” his father had replied.
Mr Weaver laid three poppies at the site of Pte Weaver’s capture, one for each member of his family that had attended the ceremonies, and has already donated his uncle’s medals to the SAS museum.
Pte Weaver and 15 other SAS soldiers were executed in September and October 1944 having parachuted into the Les Moitresses and La Grande Fosse regions of eastern France on Operation Loyton; a mission behind enemy lines to attack communication centres.