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How you can help keep the memory of Norfolk’s Le Paradis massacre victims alive 80 years on

PUBLISHED: 08:39 27 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:27 27 May 2020

The original graves of the 97 Royal Norfolks murdered by SS troops after fighting a delaying action to enable their comrades to escape from Dunkirk. Picture: Supplied

The original graves of the 97 Royal Norfolks murdered by SS troops after fighting a delaying action to enable their comrades to escape from Dunkirk. Picture: Supplied

Supplied

We will remember them: join the two-minute silence at home for the 97 brave soldiers murdered 80 years ago today at Le Paradis.

Rob Edwards, left, convener of the Campaign for a Memorial for the Heroes of Le Paradis, and Dennis O'Callaghan, son of one of the survivors of Le Paradis massacre, at the launch of the campaign.   Picture: DENISE BRADLEYRob Edwards, left, convener of the Campaign for a Memorial for the Heroes of Le Paradis, and Dennis O'Callaghan, son of one of the survivors of Le Paradis massacre, at the launch of the campaign. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Le Paradis Memorial Appeal hope Norfolk will join them by falling silent for two minutes at 5.10pm to commemorate those who died in a massacre 80 years ago today.

Ninety-seven men - most from the Royal Norfolk Regiment - were murdered by Nazis as they battled to delay the German advance while the Dunkirk evacuation of 338,000 allied servicemen began nearby.

Their sacrifice was set to be honoured by a series of events, beginning with a pilgrimage to Le Paradis in northern France and a service on May 23 in the village and ending today, with a church service.But while the coronavirus pandemic has put paid to physical gatherings, spirits remain unbowed and today a special commemoration will take place online with a two-minute silence at 5.10pm – believed to be the exact time the massacre began – which campaigners are urging people in Norfolk to join.

The 2nd Battalion, the Royal Norfolk Regiment was part of the force whose unenviable task it was to delay the German advance while the Dunkirk evacuation of 338,000 allied servicemen began in late May 1940.

The original graves of the 97 Royal Norfolks murdered by SS troops after fighting a delaying action to enable their comrades to escape from Dunkirk. Picture: SuppliedThe original graves of the 97 Royal Norfolks murdered by SS troops after fighting a delaying action to enable their comrades to escape from Dunkirk. Picture: Supplied

During glorious weather, two units – the Royal Norfolks and the 8th Lancashire Fusiliers, were given the task of manning three French villages to help keep the Allies’ position secure. One of the three was Le Paradis.

When the Germans attacked, the fighting was fierce – but the Nazi firepower was far superior and with a lack of ammunition and no way to reach their headquarters, the Norfolks were eventually left with only one choice: surrender.

From the shelter of a cowshed and under the orders of Major Lisle Ryder, 99 officers and men lay down their weapons and stepped out of shed with a white towel draped over a rifle. The Royal Scots did the same.

What happened next was a dreadful lottery: those who escaped from the farmhouse were taken as prisoners of war and survived, those sheltering in barn at the point of surrender became victims of the massacre.

These 99 men were ordered to march to a nearby barn where two machine guns were manned: there, they were told to line up against the wall.

And then Commander Fritz Knöchlein ordered the Totenkopf to gun down every man – survivors were run through with bayonets, it was a terrible, horrific, bloodbath which would lead to a war trial and the execution of Knöchlein after the war.

Only two men survived, one of them Private William O’Callaghan from Dereham, who played dead in order to escape and helped another man, Private Albert Pooley, to safety. Both men were later taken as prisoners of war.

The Le Paradis Memorial Appeal has been campaigning for a permanent memorial to the fallen men and is awaiting a decision from the Cathedrals’ Fabric Commission after a green light from Norwich Cathedral to place a striking memorial in its grounds.

If the charity’s plans are given the go-ahead, the memorial will be placed outside St Saviour’s Chapel, itself the chapel of the Royal Norfolks and the Royal Anglian Regiment.

The group hope the memorial will be standing in time for the 81st anniversary in May 2021.

The Le Paradis Service of Remembrance for the 97 of 2nd Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, 1st Battalion the Royal Scots Regiment and other units who died 80 years ago today, will take place on a computer screen by necessity.

At 5pm today, members and guests including chair and secretary Rob Edwards, founder members John Head and Joy Smith, patron Brigadier Max Marriner CBE, Private O’Callaghan’s son Dennis and lay minister and Le Paradis campaign supporter Sandra De Ville-Leggett will ‘gather’ online for the service.

The service will begin with an introduction, which concludes with the following words: “Freedom often comes at a very high price. This freedom should always be respected and the price never forgotten.”

There will be prayers, including those of the Royal Norfolks and The Royal Scots, the names of the fallen will be read, there will be Bible readings, a hymn, the National Anthem and Pte O’Callaghan’s son will finish with the Kohima epitaph: “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.”

Mr O’Callaghan said: “It’s important that we continue to remember their sacrifice even in these difficult times - they are nothing compared to what they faced for us.”

Mr Edwards added: “We could not let pass this opportunity to honour the memory of those who died. Their sacrifice helped make the Dunkirk evacuation possible...it was pivotal.”

At 5.10pm, a two minute silence will be held – a silence the charity hopes will be observed by many across the county.

* The Le Paradis Memorial Appeal Service will be recorded and available to view after the event online at www.memorial4leparadisheroes.uk

Scots’ memorial to the Le Paradis massacre

The Royal Scots, who held the line adjacent to the Royal Norfolks in May 1940 at Le Paradis were also forced into surrender and some of their number died in the massacre.

On the 25 May 1940, the remains of the 1st Battalion The Royal Scots, less than 400 strong, prepared for their last stand at Le Paradis, 30 miles from Dunkirk in North East France.

Their orders, to “Stand And Fight To The Last Man”, played a pivotal role in enabling the withdrawal of 337,000 Allied Forces and equipment from the beaches of Dunkirk.

However, this valiant three-day rear-guard defence against overwhelming odds also led to the Battalion’s destruction.

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A Zoom commemorative event was held for the Royal Scots last night which has been recorded and will be available at www.theroyalscots.co.uk.

Colonel Martin Gibson said: “Though the Royal Scots had been in continuous action for 17 days, had travelled over 200 miles and had suffered heavy casualties their fighting spirit was undaunted. The Royal Scots, professional soldiers doing what they had signed up to do, fought ferociously to the last man at Le Paradis.

“Their contribution to Dunkirk was vital. We should never forget that the vast majority of those who survived spent the next five years as prisoners of war.”


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