Cathedral evensong to remember Le Paradis veterans

Le Paradis Memorial unveiling

Lord Dannatt and Lord-Lieutenant of Norfolk, the Lady Dannatt at Le Paradis Memorial unveiling at Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Submitted

Ahead of Norwich Cathedral hosting an evensong to remember those who lost their lives at Le Paradis during the Second World War, stories of some of the soldiers involved in the massacre are being recalled. 

A permanent memorial to the 97 men who lost their lives in the village in in northern France on May 27, 1940 was unveiled in May of last year in Cathedral Close. 

A dedication service was held on the 81st anniversary of the massacre, followed by a further service almost two months later, featuring Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal laying a wreath of remembrance. 

The stone monument was completed thanks to £60,000 being raised by the Le Paradis Memorial Appeal, a charity which was formed in 2018. 

Local journalist and broadcaster Nick Conrad, who is president and a trustee of the appeal, explained: “We have tirelessly raised funds to ensure that a fitting memorial is erected on Norfolk soil. I want to thank the dedicated trustees, fundraisers and the public for their support, endeavour and energy.   

“Recent events have highlighted, once again, that history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. We have witnessed, in horror, the outright brutality of Vladimir Putin’s pointless war in Ukraine. This is the first time, for many, that the heat of conflict can be felt so close to home. Television has brought the cruelty of war into the cosiness of our sitting rooms.   

“Observing what has happened in Ukraine reaffirms my belief that we should continue to learn about the horrors of conflict. Education is the only way to inform future generations of the pain, the suffering and the loss which occurs when bullets fly."

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Drawn from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Norfolk Regiment, the 1st Battalion The Royal Scots and other British expeditionary force units, the men at Le Paradis had been tasked with delaying the German advance while the Dunkirk evacuation of 338,000 allied servicemen began. 

Mr Conrad added: “This memorial is recognition for the men, their families, the professionalism and the courage of the 97 who were murdered that dark day in Le Paradis.  

“They, along with millions of others, allowed us to live in the free world that so many take for granted today. Let Ukraine be a reminder that peace is fragile and must be cherished. Allow this memorial to be testament to the consequences of man’s folly.” 

The evensong is being held at 3.30pm on Sunday, April 24. 

A tragic day

Massacre graves at Le Paradis

Massacre graves at Le Paradis - Credit: Submitted

Some 338,000 soldiers beat a retreat to Dunkirk and had the comforting sight of the White Cliffs of Dover in May of 1940 – but not everyone could be evacuated, some brave souls had to stay and fight. 

The Second Battalion of The Royal Norfolk Regiment, The Royal Scots and the Eighth Lancashire Fusiliers were given the daunting task of holding the line. Inevitably, confrontation with the Germans arrived.  

Set up in their makeshift headquarters at a rural farmhouse known as Duriez Farm, they fell under a hail of bullets. In a fog of confused orders, they did their level best to halt the German advance.  

Eventually they gave up the ramshackle farmhouse, sheltering in a nearby cowshed. As the ammunition ran out, the desperation and realty of the situation became apparent. The 99 men, under the command of Major Lisle Ryder, consulted and consoled each other before raising the white flag.   

The Germans seized the men’s weapons and marched them towards another barn. Lined up against the cold stone outbuilding they were cruelly massacred. Remarkably, two men survived - Privates Bill O’Callaghan and Bert Pooley. 

Where is Le Paradis?  

Massacre graves at Le Paradis

Massacre graves at Le Paradis - Credit: Submitted

The tiny hamlet of Le Paradis today enjoys rural peace and tranquillity, but over the years it has seen fierce fighting in two world wars.  

After recovering from heavy shelling during the First World War, history was to repeat itself with many homes destroyed during fierce fighting between the British and Germans during the Second World War. 

On May 27, 1940, the village was again under heavy bombardment at the hands of the Germans, culminating in the massacre of 97 soldiers. Initially the bodies were buried close to where they were found.  

They were later exhumed and today are buried in the churchyard at Le Paradis which contains the bodies of 166 casualties, of which 115 have been identified. Many of those who died in the massacre have never been identified due to a lack of identification found on their bodies.  

Over the years the people of Le Paradis have paid tribute to the fallen with an annual parade and church service and several memorials. 

Special stories of escape from Le Paradise horrors

Le Paradis Memorial

Blessing of Le Paradis Memorial at Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Submitted

Many stories of bravery and heroism have come to light from the fighting in and around Le Paradis in May 1940. 

Ninety-seven soldiers were killed in the massacre but many more either died or were injured in action in and around the area. 

One of the Le Paradis Memorial Appeal’s trustees is historian, researcher and journalist Peter Steward, who has investigated the stories of the men who perished – and the two who escaped with their lives. 

  • Privates Bill O’Callaghan and Bert Pooley  
Bill O'Callaghan and Bert Pooley

Le Paradis survivors Bill O'Callaghan, centre right, and Bert Pooley, centre left - Credit: Submitted

Privates William ‘Bill’ O’Callaghan and Albert ‘Bert’ Pooley had very different characters despite being born within four miles of each other.  

They also shared a secret that could have led to their deaths if divulged. For these were the two soldiers that survived the massacre.  

Whilst 97 comrades were gunned down beside them, Bert and Bill lived to tell the tale and to show a steely determination to bring to justice the man who had ordered the massacre at Le Paradis.  

Both were Londoners by birth. Bill moved to Norfolk when he was six years of age and always looked upon himself as a true Norfolk man, speaking with a local accent. Bert always looked upon himself as a Londoner.  

Bill enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1930 at the age of 16 and then re-enlisted into the Regulars in 1932. Before signing up he was employed by Hobbies of Dereham. He served in Gibraltar and went to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1939.  

Before signing up for service, Mr Pooley worked for the Post Office, an organisation he re-joined after the war.  

He was a heavy smoker and drinker and a perfectionist with decided opinions on everything, whereas Bill was more laid back.   

That they survived the massacre was a miracle in itself. After the Germans had finished firing, believing that there were no survivors, Bill, standing at just 5ft 5in tall, carried Bert, who was over 6ft, to a pig sty where they survived for a number of days on raw potatoes and muddy water before being found by the farmer.  

They were voluntarily handed over to the German Wehrmacht and taken to a local hospital. Bert was later repatriated due to his severe injuries which later saw him lose both his legs. Bill spent the rest of the war marching between prisoner-of-war camps before returning to England at the end of the conflict.  

Both men suffered nightmares for the rest of their lives over what had happened on May 27, 1940. 

  • Ernest Eric Farrow  
Le Paradis veteran Eric 'Strips' Farrow

Eric 'Strips' Farrow - Credit: Submitted

Known as Eric by his family but everyone else knew him by the nickname ‘Strips’. 

Nobody knew how or why he came by this nickname, but after Le Paradis he also became known as “The Man Who Missed the Massacre.”  

Born in White Hart Street in Aylsham, Strips worked as a servant and in a gravel pit until the day he walked 20 miles into Norwich to join the Royal Norfolk Regiment.  

Before the outbreak of war, Strips served in Gibraltar before moving to France as part of the desperate attempt to halt the German advance.  

On the day of the massacre at Le Paradis, Strips was given an order that ultimately saved his life.  

He had been involved in heavy fighting with the Germans before dropping back to battalion headquarters at Duriez Farm. Volunteers were sought to blow up a bridge across a nearby river to hamper the German advance. Strips volunteered along with three others and a driver, Private Auker, who came from King’s Lynn.      

The quartet came under heavy German fire and Strips was taken prisoner. He escaped from a party of prisoners and went on the run with two colleagues, marching through France and into Spain and onto Gibraltar before being repatriated and spending a considerable amount of time in a military hospital.  

Strips later recalled how he tried to make like a crowd: “After we’d fired a certain number of rounds, we’d scramble back down the bank of the canal, run along a bit, then go to the top again, just to try and bluff the Germans that there was a great company of us there."  

Mr Farrow received a medical discharge from the army in June 1946 and worked on the railways in Norwich until retiring in 1985.  

Strips’ family received no news of him whilst he was on the run and assumed he had been killed – that is until he turned up back in the UK, much to their surprise.  

The platoon sergeant major who ordered him to destroy a bridge had undoubtedly saved his life and given him the nickname “The Man Who Missed the Massacre”. 

Mr Farrow died in January 1998 at the age of 77. 

More stories can be read at leparadismassacre.com.