A chance meeting in a Norfolk village by two men has resulted in a moving and important book looking at a massacre which took the lives of 97 soldiers in a small French village during May 1940.

The setting for this mass-killing was a beautiful piece of French countryside by the name of Le Paradis.

Some would call it “Paradis” (Paradise) but in 1940 those who fought there would look upon it more as hell. And for that reason this new book  is called “Hell in Paradise.”

On May 27 at about 5.30pm 99 men from the Royal Norfolk, the Royal Scots and other regiments were forced to surrender to the German SS.

They were marched down a road, into a field, lined-up against a barn wall and machine gunned.

Eastern Daily Press: The scene of the massacre on May 27 1940

Those still alive after the initial shooting were then bayoneted and shot on the orders of a man labelled “the worst kind of Nazi.”

But, against all the odds,  two men did survive.  Bill O’ Callaghan, from Dereham, and Bert Pooley from London. They died some years ago but we can read their personal and painful memories.

This new book has been written by journalist Peter Steward and John Head, of Hethersett and deserves to be read.

They have spoken to the families of the victims at length and Bill’s son Dennis is a leading member of Le Paradis Commemoration Group and his daughter Heather is also a big supporter of the group’s aim.

Eastern Daily Press: Ralston Ryder, son of Major Lisle Ryder, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion of the

As they say: “This is the story of those who died in the massacre and in the immediate area and also the story of the men who fought in and around Le Paradis and survived to return home.”

The Le Paradis Commemoration Group was founded following that meeting by the authors. John was a member of a three-man team that gave illustrated talks on the massacre to schools and other groups.

The talks also featured Dennis O’Callaghan and historian Nick Smith. The commemoration group was later joined by Rob Edwards who was at the forefront in bringing a lasting memory to the 97 who lost their lives and a second group was set-up to raise funds and organise the siting of a memorial.

The book is a joint effort backed by other members of the commemoration group and the Le Paradis Memorial Appeal trustees.

The massacre has gone largely unnoticed in the annals of British history, being overshadowed by the evacuation at Dunkirk. These soldiers were holding back the German troops to allow the evacuation to take place.

Eastern Daily Press: Bill O’ Callaghan (left) and Bert Pooley returned to Germany after the war to help bring justice

Bill O’Callaghan gave his version of events at the subsequent war crimes trial of Captain Fritz Knoechlein, of SS Totenkopf, who played a major part of the massacre. He was sentenced to death.

When Bill heard the order “fire” he dropped down into the ditch to avoid being a victim. In fact he was shot four times and fell into a bed of thistles.

“After the firing had stopped. I heard my comrades shouting and shrieking in their agony. I then heard what sounded the fixing of bayonets and, shortly afterwards,  I heard moans and shrieks from more of my comrades, which sounded to me as if they were being bayoneted,” he told the hearing.

He did not lift his head for fear of being bayoneted but also heard pistol and rifle shots before the Germans moved on.

But the other man who survived had also been badly injured…Bert Pooley, a Londoner who worked for the Post Office.

Eastern Daily Press: The founder members of Le Paradis Commemoration Group at the website launch at Dereham in 2018,

He told the hearing how men were falling into a hole once shot. “I felt a sharp pain in my left knee and fell into the hole. I fell on top of some men already lying there, and others fell on top of me.”

“Groans were coming from men lying in the hole and it was at this point that three Germans jumped into the hole near Major Ryder evidently for the purpose of finishing off any prisoners still alive with bayonets.” said Bert.

“One of the men beneath me moved and two shots were fired into the heap of bodies, both of which hit me in the left leg,” he explained.

He thought he was the only survivor but then he heard Bill snoring. Together they made their escape with Bill carrying and dragging Bert across a field despite the difference in their size. Bert was well over 6ft tall and Bill barely 5ft 6in.

More stories will follow about the soldiers involved. You can buy a copy of Hell in Paradise by Peter Steward and John Head via petersteward@lineone.net and take a look at the official website of the Le Paradis Commemoration Group.

*John Head and Dennis O’Callaghan will be giving a presentation and selling books at the Norfolk Family History Society HQ, 70 St Giles Street, Norwich, on Friday May 10 at 11am. If you would like to be part of the live audience could you please email volunteers@nfhs.co.uk as they have limited spaces.

Eastern Daily Press: Another scene by Charles Long showing the fatal attack at the rear of battalion HQ