Speeding South out of Paris on the A10 autoroute this summer, driving through the Loire countryside en route to their holiday homes, thousands of Britons will flash past the little village of Maillé without noticing.
A cluster of houses beside the main Paris-Bordeaux railway line and the motorway, it is an unremarkable little place with a few hundred inhabitants and half-a-dozen streets, one of them named Rue du 25 Aout.
In any other French community, this would commemorate a great day of national rejoicing - August 25, 1944, when Paris was liberated after four years of German occupation. But in Maillé, it signifies a terrible anniversary. Because on that warm summer's day, while the rest of France was celebrating its deliverance, Maillé's inhabitants were wiped out by soldiers of the Third Reich bent on vengeance.
In all, 124 men, women and children - the oldest 89, the youngest three months - were butchered. Ten were from one family alone, eight from another, as the soldiers rampaged through the village with guns, grenades and flame-throwers.
Maillé's fate went largely unnoticed. In Paris, Free French soldiers advanced down the Champs Elysees and the people flooded the boulevards, tearing down swastika flags and singing the Marseillaise. These heady, heroic scenes were what mattered, not more tragedy.
Its timbers still smouldering, Maillé quietly buried its dead in a mass grave, and the survivors - those who had fled in time or who had managed to hide in cellars and not been dragged out to die - began the process of rebuilding their lives.
The atrocity was cited as a war crime at the Nuremberg trials in 1946. Six years later, a Lieutenant Gustav Schlueter, a supplies officer in the Wehrmacht, the Germany Army, was tried in absentia for ordering the killings and sentenced to death by a military tribunal in Bordeaux. But his conviction was largely meaningless. He remained free in Germany until his natural death in 1965.
Now, 64 years after Maillé's 'martyrdom', the case is being re-opened - by the Germans themselves. This week, a prosecutor from the Nazi war crimes bureau in Dortmund arrived in the village, accompanied by two senior detectives. Their visit is unprecedented - it is the first time Germans have come onto French soil to investigate the war crimes of their own countrymen, according to Philip Varin, the regional prosecutor in Tours.
'We are providing every assistance and all surviving witnesses will be re-interviewed,' he said. 'Perhaps the perpetrators will finally be brought to justice.'
Seventy-four-year-old Serge Martin will be one to tell his story. Then the ten-year-old son of the village blacksmith, he was staying with his grandparents at their house just outside the village and listening to the Free French wireless station broadcasting news of the imminent surrender of German forces in Paris, 170 miles to the north.
The noise of machine-gunfire sent him scuttling to hide in the cellar from what he thought was yet another attack by the RAF on the nearby railway. He recalls a knot tightening in his stomach as, instead of planes, he heard 'half-track' military vehicles revving their engines and German officers barking orders. This was no air raid. He was listening to the sound of family, friends and neighbours being slaughtered - his own parents, his brother and two sisters among them.
The troops had arrived in trucks at 8am and blockaded the village. Gendarmes who came from a nearby village to investigate the commotion were met by a hail of bullets and forced away.
In the 50 or so homes, the villagers were going about the normal business of a Friday morning. Madame Meunier was opening up the grocery shop. Monsieur Creuzon was chatting to a neighbour and getting ready to go to his allotment.
The postman was on his way to collect mail from another village when he saw the cordon of soldiers and froze. He turned round, went home, scooped up his teenage wife and their 15-month-old daughter and sought refuge in the cellar under the village school.
At 9am, in their khaki camouflage overalls, the troops advanced, slowly and mercilessly moving through Maillé from south to north, killing anyone they could find. Some were blown apart by grenades; some machine-gunned; some burned alive by flame-throwers; some left to die slowly with their throats slashed by daggers.
In her shop, Madame Meunier was with her mother, grandmother, two-year-old son Jean and four-year-old daughter Annie when three soldiers walked in and casually opened fire.
'I was holding Jean in my arms,' she said in statements collected by the parish priest, Abbe Peyron, in the immediate aftermath. 'The bullets grazed my lips but my little boy's left arm was blown off and his left leg mutilated. I collapsed to the floor, playing dead, as the soldiers were reloading their guns. They shot my poor little Annie, killing her outright.'
The killers left to hunt out more victims, 'but I didn't dare move as soldiers were continually passing by outside. I managed to take off my smock and lie little Jean on it. He cried a lot to begin with, but as he lost blood, his cries became increasingly feeble. An hour passed, more Germans came in and I kept still, hardly able to breathe. Jean was dead by then. They smashed the windows with the butts of their rifles, laughing all the time, then they set fire to the place.'
Madame Meunier escaped in the thick smoke, taking her son's body with her. 'But I didn't have the strength or courage to get my other child; she burned in the shop.'
Monsieur Creuzon was standing near the church with his neighbour when 50 soldiers, he estimated, walked towards them, firing at will. His 18-year-old cousin, Fernand, was washing himself at the village water trough and began to run. A shot in the back killed him. The two others hid in the forge, behind the blacksmith's workbench, and were soon joined there by half a dozen other frightened villagers.
Outside, gunfire resounded. The house next door burst into flames. As the fire spread, they knocked out planks at the back of the building to escape.
But the blacksmith, 34-year-old Rene Martin, refused to leave. He could not believe what was happening. 'People don't get shot just like that,' he told the others. He had a white handkerchief. 'I'll wave this with my hands up and shout "Kamerad",' the German for friend.
He never got the chance. Soldiers came into the yard and hit him with their first shot. He fell screaming in agony. His wife and three children were gunned down, too.
Creuzon leapt through the hole in the wooden wall and ran away blindly until he caught sight of a group of villagers cowering in a pile of firewood. Gratefully, he pulled himself in alongside them.
Unusually, ten members of the Confolent family were at home together when the gunfire started. In the kitchen, 17-year-old Rene was the first to hear the gate creak open and footsteps outside.
'Papa, it's the Germans,' he whispered to his father. Bravely, Monsieur Confolent went to confront them. 'A soldier burst in like a madman,' he recalled, 'firing his sub-machine-gun.'
Like other villagers, he was incredulous. Why were the Germans doing this? They had been stationed in the area since 1940 and many were quartered in local homes. He tried to explain to the soldiers that they were civilians but another hail of bullets sent him diving. Another son, Yves, also tried to reason with the soldiers but was mown down.
One German spun round, firing in every direction. Rene fell with a bullet in his side. His 14-year-old sister Héléne was hit in the thigh. The rest hurled themselves to the floor and played dead until the soldiers left. The terrible silence was broken only by the mortally wounded Rene reciting the Catholic act of confession.
But their ordeal was not over. Another 'assassin' appeared, finished off Hélélne with a bullet to the heart and shot Madame Confolent. One by one the family fell, until Confolent had lost four of his five sons and both daughters. Their grandmother burned to death in her bedroom. He hid, cradling his wife until she died. He listened in terror to the mayhem beyond the walls of his house.
'Shots fired in the street shook the shutters, and bullets thudded into the wall. I heard Madame Martin, the blacksmith's wife scream: "Don't kill my child!" Then firing silenced her.'
It was late afternoon before Confolent emerged, with just one remaining hope - that his eldest son, Pierre, who had been away from the house working, might have survived. But the young man must have come back because he, too, lay dead in the yard. On the garden path, Monsieur Confolent laid out nine bodies, his entire family.
By then, the village lay in ruins. At midday, after the troops withdrew, heavy guns opened up to flatten everything within range. Only the church and a café remained standing. Now, the shocked survivors emerged from their hiding places, overwhelmed by the destruction and the bodies of family and friends in the streets.
That night, while the rest of France toasted victory, the Maillé survivors could only wonder why their village had been marked out for this eleventh hour slaughter?
The harsh fact is that these were the most dangerous of times. Ever since the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944, the Germans had been hair-trigger edgy. Emerging Resistance fighters across the country made them nervier still. The Maillé area, strategically situated on the north-south railway line, was a magnet for the Resistance, who had attempted to blow up the line and twice launched attacks on the station. Then, on August 11, the Germans were angered when an RAF pilot who baled out over the village was spirited away by locals before he could be captured.
On the evening of August 24, tensions were at breaking point. Some German forces were holding their ground, as Hitler had instructed. Others were in full retreat. It was a time for caution rather than bravado. But at around seven o'clock that evening, a truck of Resistance fighters drove into a farmyard near Maillé to commandeer supplies. Simultaneously, two German Army vehicles arrived at the same place.
A fire-fight broke out. Armed with Sten guns dropped to them by a British plane, the partisans had the upper hand, and a number of German soldiers were killed. Immediately afterwards - and in accordance with policy laid down by Hitler and Himmler on how to deal with 'terrorists' - a family on a nearby farm were lined up to be shot as a reprisal. But the executioner's gun jammed and they ran for their lives.
One of the officers caught in the fight with the Resistance was Schlueter, who, back at his barracks, telephoned his superiors in Tours. 'Should I act against them?' he is said to have asked. The reply was emphatic: 'Yes. Attack Maillé.'
The order was ambiguous. Was he being told to take a patrol into the village to root out partisans? Or was he to initiate mass slaughter as a lesson - just as at Oradour-sur-Glane, 100 miles to the south where, six weeks earlier, the Das Reich division of the Waffen SS systematically slaughtered 642 villagers as a reprisal for Resistance activity?
Either way, the soldiers who descended on Maillé acted as if everyone they came across was guilty. Their barbaric job done, they left behind scribbled notes, two of which survive to this day, proclaiming: 'This is punishment for the terrorists and their accomplices.'
Now the German investigators who are visiting Maillé this week will hope to discover the precise order, who gave it and how high up the chain of command it went. But they will also have to examine a bigger question: who actually carried out the killings? German documents have never been found to identify the unit responsible. 'Rogue killings' was one official explanation.
Gustav Schlueter - the man found guilty in absentia by a war crimes tribunal - was a Wehrmacht officer in command of a logistics unit and, though a Nazi Party member, there must be grave doubts that he led his men in murder on such a scale and carried out with such savagery. Did he have help?
It turns out that in the area at the time were battle-hardened troops of the feared Waffen SS - the elite of the Nazi military, owing direct allegiance to Hitler. The men of the 17th G¿tz von Berlichingen panzer division were retreating from Normandy where they had sustained heavy losses after weeks of fighting Allied troops. They had taken a beating and, exhausted, were heading for the German border to regroup. They had scores to settle.
They were a brutal bunch, named fittingly after a scary medieval German knight who had brandished a prosthetic iron hand in place of the one hacked off in battle. Many were not German but recruits from Romania, which had sided with the Nazis in 1940. The division as a whole was implicated in numerous war crimes, including the murder of wounded American paratroopers after D-Day.
According to military historian Jean-Luc Leleu of Caen University, an acknowledged expert on the Waffen SS, the 17th division are 'strong suspects'. They have been accused before, but exonerated because they were never armed with heavy guns of the sort that flattened the village after the massacre. But, says Leleu, in the chaos at this stage of the war, it was entirely possible that elements of the 17th were fighting with members of the regular Wehrmacht.
Previously, there was also an issue over the uniforms worn by the killers. Survivors recalled their khaki combats, not the black uniforms associated with the SS. But, says Leleu, a mechanised SS infantry division like the 17th routinely wore camouflage.
'It is a mistake to imagine that the bad guys were in black and the ordinary soldiers in green. The distinction was frequently blurred,' he says.
He believes that, unlike Oradour, where the populace was first assembled in the town square before being systematically executed, the Maillé massacre was spontaneous, with very little planning - 'that's why there are so few records of what happened'. But there are still the memories of those who survived, though, over the years, they have largely been ignored. The truth is the slaughter of their families and friends has been the forgotten massacre.
The world remembers Oradour, not least because General de Gaulle, the French leader, decreed it should remain a ruin as a memorial of Nazi cruelty. But Maillé, rebuilt by the end of the 1940s and displaying nothing of its agony apart from a single memorial stone with 124 names on it, slipped through the net of remembrance.
Six decades later, is there a real chance of the perpetrators being made to pay for their crimes, even supposing any are still alive?
'Germany has been very active in setting up the latest inquiry,' says Leleu, 'but we will have to see how rigorous it will be in pursuing guilty parties.'
Meanwhile, Serge Martin waits for answers and explanations for the murder in cold blood of his parents, his nine-year-old brother Raymond, four-year-old sister Josiane and baby Danielle, six months. Their loss still haunts him.
'I think about what happened all of the time. Unspeakable acts were carried out by men incapable of showing any mercy. We need to know who they were and why they did it.'
This is London