Military re-enactors to stage symbolic walk to raise cash for Le Paradis memorial
PUBLISHED: 13:21 19 July 2020 | UPDATED: 13:01 23 July 2020
Defenders of France
Their sacrifice brought the salvation of the British nation and a group of military re-enactors are ensuring the Holy Boys of Le Paradis will never be forgotten
Walking towards the coast dressed in the instantly-recognisable khaki of the British Army, the sponsored walk is a deliberate echo of the march to Dunkirk 80 years ago.
Defenders of France, a group of military re-enactors, are planning a sponsored walk to raise money for the Le Paradis Memorial which was recently given the go-ahead by Norwich Cathedral.
A permanent memorial to the 97 British soldiers – the majority of them Norfolk Regiment men - massacred by Nazis at Le Paradis in May 1940 will stand in the grounds of the Norwich landmark thanks to campaigning by the Le Paradis Memorial Appeal.
On August 15 and 16, a group from Defenders of France will walk the Peddars Way in period battledress to remember the soldiers that paid the ultimate price for freedom and raise money for the memorial appeal.
Some members will be in British Expeditionary Force infantry uniforms and others in French infantry 1940 uniforms.The distance they will walk is roughly that of Le Paradis to Dunkirk: around 45 miles.
In May and June of 1940, Dunkirk’s Operation Dynamo succeeded in evacuating more than 338,000 soldiers to England in only nine days.
After the relative calm of the so-called “Phoney War” period that followed the 1939 declaration of war, Germany’s attack on Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg saw the Allies forced to retreat to the north.
The fear was that they would become trapped and, judging the battle to be lost, Britain decided to evacuate troops by sea.
England sent practically any vessel that could float to rescue the soldiers in Dunkirk as hundreds of thousands of men made their way back to home soil.
Left behind were 40,000 Allied soldiers, most of whom would be taken prisoner by the Germans.
They belonged to the divisions in charge of slowing down Germany’s advance while Operation Dynamo took place: and amongst them were the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Norfolk Regiment - nicknamed The Holy Boys - whose unenviable task it was to hold back the Nazis.
During glorious weather in May 1940, two units – the Royal Norfolks and the 8th Lancaster 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.
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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 3rd SS Division Totenkopf to gun down every man – survivors were run through with bayonets, it was a terrible, horrific, bloodbath.
Only two men survived the massacre: Private William O’Callaghan of Dereham and Londoner Private Albet Pooley, who O’Callaghan managed to drag to safety.
Years later, both men would give evidence at the War Crimes trial of Fritz Knöchlein and see justice done as he went to the gallows in January 1949.
It took until 1970 for a memorial to be placed outside the French barn where 97 men met their brutal deaths in May 1940.
Eight years later, a further memorial was placed near the village church, a third memorial was erected in Le Paradis in 1991, a fourth in 1994, a fifth in 2018 – there is currently no permanent memorial to the massacre in Norfolk, but this will soon be rectified thanks to the hard work of a band of dedicated campaigners.
Jake Peckett from Defenders of France said: “A big reason for the walk is to remember the sacrifices of the British, French and Belgian armies that formed the Rear Guard in a desperate moment of the war.
“This is embodied in the courageous stand the 2nd Norfolks made and it is saddening that they, and so many others, faced these hard decisions in the name of freedom.
“The sacrifices all of these men made enabled the evacuation of so many from Dunkirk 80 years ago.”
Dennis O’Callaghan, son of survivor William O’Callaghan said: “We welcome this support not least because it means another generation knows about the atrocity and the price paid to defend our peace.
“It’s good to remember that because of the rear-guard actions at Dunkirk we are able to live freely today. If no actions such as those took place it would be a different world we live in.”
Plans are now being drawn up as to when work can commence on the memorial which will stand 5ft 6in tall and has been designed by the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge.
Rob Edwards, Chair of the Memorial Appeal said: “This excellent support takes us closer to a lasting memorial in Norfolk to those 97 heroes of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.”
At the time of writing Defenders of France have already raised almost half of their £1,000 target on their gofundme page https://gf.me/u/ydctgg.
· For more details about the Memorial Appeal can be found at www.memorial4leparadisheroes.uk/
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