Heinz Stahlschmidt

Heinz Stahlschmidt dies; demolitions expert thwarted razing of Bordeaux

By T. Rees Shapiro
Friday, March 12, 2010

Heinz Stahlschmidt, a World War II demolitions expert in the German navy who disobeyed orders to raze the crucial French port of Bordeaux and instead set off a controlled explosion that was credited with saving the city, died Feb. 23.

He was 90 or 91, depending on news accounts, and had been living in Bordeaux since 1947, when he became a naturalized French citizen and was known as Henri Salmide.

Mr. Stahlschmidt, a native of Dortmund in northeast Germany, joined the navy in 1939 and was trained to defuse British sea mines. He survived the sinking of three warships and in 1941 was assigned to shore duty in Bordeaux in southwest France.

In late August 1944, with Allied forces closing in, he was ordered by his superiors to rig Bordeaux's docks to blow. It was the country's most extensive port, stretching about seven miles.

Mr. Stahlschmidt said he could not bring himself to perform the job. "My family were Huguenots, and I acted according to my Christian conscience," he told Reuters in 1997. "I could not accept that the port be wantonly destroyed when the war was clearly lost."

After making contact with French Resistance fighters, Mr. Stahlschmidt came up with a plan to thwart the destruction.

The German orders called for the city to be blown up on Aug. 26, but Mr. Stahlschmidt struck Aug. 22 at 8:15 p.m. He laid strips of dynamite inside the supply bunker filled with demolition hardware and thousands of pounds of ordnance and watched as the city shook from the huge explosion.

He killed dozens of Germans in the process but spared nearly 3,500 civilian lives -- the number the Germans expected to die in the port blast. By saving Bordeaux -- home to the country's most vital harbor and nucleus of the famed wine region -- he also helped assure France had a stable platform for postwar economic recovery.

In 2000, France made him a Knight of the Légion d'Honneur, one the country's most prestigious decorations.

After the demolition, Mr. Stahlschmidt hid from Gestapo in Bordeaux, became a member of the port's fire brigade and later married a French woman, Henriette Buisson, according to the New York Times. She is his only immediate survivor, the Times reported.

Mr. Stahlschmidt was seen as a traitor by many Germans, and his name was struck from official German naval records. Likewise, Mr. Stahlschmidt said French officials nearly shot him after the war because of his German military service. For many years, the French Resistance tried to take credit for Mr. Stahlschmidt's exploits in Bordeaux.

"Despite it all, in the same circumstances I'd do it all over again," Mr. Stahlschmidt told Reuters. "But to some people, I'm still just a 'boche' [a derogatory term in French for Germans]."

By adopting a French name, he made his allegiances clear. He returned to Germany only once, in 2001, and proudly wore the Legion d'Honneur insignia on his lapel during a visit to Dortmund.

Bordeaux city government officials said Mr. Stahlschmidt will be buried in French soil.

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