Picture Gallery: Memorial service for Dereham war hero William O’Callaghan

Memorial service in Dereham to remember local hero William (Bill) O'Callaghan. Picture: Ian Burt Memorial service in Dereham to remember local hero William (Bill) O'Callaghan. Picture: Ian Burt

Friday, May 23, 2014
12:39 PM

It was a memorial service like few others – not held at a towering monument or a solemn cenotaph, but in a quiet corner of the housing estate named in honour of a Dereham war hero.

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About 35 people arrived for the annual service to remember Pte William O’Callaghan, a soldier whose story has become one of Dereham’s best-known tales of wartime courage.

He was one of only two survivors of an infamous massacre in May 1940, when German soldiers machine-gunned and bayoneted 99 captured Royal Norfolks, who had surrendered to SS officers in the French hamlet of Le Paradis, near Dunkirk.

Although wounded himself, Pte O’Callaghan was able to carry his injured comrade Bert Pooley half a mile to the relative safety of a neighbouring farm.

In his honour, a housing development off Swaffham Road in his home town was named William O’Callaghan Place – and it was here that the annual service was held on Sunday.

A wreath was laid by the soldier’s son, Dennis O’Callaghan, who is president of the Dereham branch of the Royal British Legion.

He read an account of his father’s recollections of the massacre: “We were lined up and searched. The Germans said ‘you have fought hard, but for you the war is over’.

“They led us along a path and through a gate. As the line got towards the end wall I heard the word ‘fire’. I felt a burning in my arm and I thought: ‘Good God, this cannot be happening’. After a while the shooting stopped and I heard the sounds of bayonets being uncovered.”

Hymns were sung and the Last Post was played by a lone bugler as the standards of the Royal British Legion were lowered.

The service was led by Dereham rector the Rev Sally Theakston, who said a prayer in honour of “all those whose endeavours on land, on sea, and in the air have preserved peace and freedom”.

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