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Did a tragic mistake lead to the massacre of 97 Royal Norfolks 75 years ago?

PUBLISHED: 13:03 28 May 2015 | UPDATED: 13:03 28 May 2015

Photograph of the  2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1939.
See also: (L TO R) William O'Callaghan and Albert Pooley arriving at the War Crimes Court in Hamburg, members of the 2nd Battlion Royal Norfolk Regiment.

Picture: Supplied
Copy: Rowan Entwistle
For: EDP NEWS
EDP Pics ©2004  Tel: (01603) 772434

Photograph of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1939. See also: (L TO R) William O'Callaghan and Albert Pooley arriving at the War Crimes Court in Hamburg, members of the 2nd Battlion Royal Norfolk Regiment. Picture: Supplied Copy: Rowan Entwistle For: EDP NEWS EDP Pics ©2004 Tel: (01603) 772434

Eastern Daily Press © 2004

A tragic mistake might have led the German SS to carry out a notorious massacre of captured Royal Norfolks 75 years ago, it has been revealed. Historian HUGH SEBAG-MONTEFIORE tells how a 94-year-old veteran may have finally solved the mystery of the nightmare of Le Paradis

William O'Callaghan was from Dereham and was captured and fled after playing dead during WWII.; A service is being held to remember him. His Son Dennis pictured at William O'Callaghan Place, Dereham, the road that was named after him.; PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY; COPY:; FOR:EDP NEWS; © ARCHANT NORFOLK 2009 (01603 772434)William O'Callaghan was from Dereham and was captured and fled after playing dead during WWII.; A service is being held to remember him. His Son Dennis pictured at William O'Callaghan Place, Dereham, the road that was named after him.; PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY; COPY:; FOR:EDP NEWS; © ARCHANT NORFOLK 2009 (01603 772434)

A man who 75 years ago was involved in the rearguard action outside Dunkirk which ended with around 100 Royal Norfolk prisoners of war being massacred by the SS may have come up with the reason why Germans committed their war crime.

And in the process he may have solved a mystery which has been perplexing soldiers and historians since May 27 1940.

Bob Brown, now aged 94, has observed that the bullets which British troops were using were pointed and that they often rotated on impact. This would have had the effect of causing a small entrance hole when they hit a German soldier, and a larger exit hole when the bullet emerged on the other side of the victim’s body.

That, according to Brown and Paul Cornish, the small arms expert at the Imperial War Museum, is precisely the effect that one would have expected to find if dum-dum bullets had been used, bullets which explode on impact - and which are banned under international law.

William O'Callaghan was from Dereham and was captured and fled after playing dead during WWII. A service is being held to remember him. Pictured LEFT at the Nuremberg Law Courts. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY COPY: FOR:EDP NEWS © ARCHANT NORFOLK 2009 (01603 772434)William O'Callaghan was from Dereham and was captured and fled after playing dead during WWII. A service is being held to remember him. Pictured LEFT at the Nuremberg Law Courts. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY COPY: FOR:EDP NEWS © ARCHANT NORFOLK 2009 (01603 772434)

The allegation that the Royal Norfolks had used dum-dum bullets was one of the reasons why the Germans wanted to execute their prisoners according to a secret report written by General Theodor Eicke, commander of the SS Totenkopf Division, two days after the massacre.

Bob Brown’s theory suggests that Eicke and his subordinates may have genuinely believed that the British soldiers had acted illegally, and that it was this error which led to the massacre.

The reason why the 2nd Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment came up against the Totenkopf Division in the first place was linked to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. The German panzers had broken through the French Army on the eastern side of France and then had sped across to the western coast before turning north with a view to surrounding the main block of British troops in Belgium.

The Royal Norfolks were one of the units ordered to hold a series of strongpoints on the north and south of a corridor through which the British troops were streaming back to Dunkirk so they could be evacuated.

New French film looks to answer questions about war crime

A new film aimed at separating the facts from the fiction of the events at Paradis has premiered in Paris and its filmmaker is keen to bring it to Norwich.

The documentary-style film by French independent filmmaker Hélène Chauvin sets out to solve the mystery of why village elders believed the site to be haunted. Les Fantômes de Paradis (The Ghosts of Paradis) unveils the story of the first war crime committed by the Nazis on French soil and which would see its perpetrator, Captain Fritz Knöchlein, tried in court and hanged.

Mme Chauvin grew up in Paradis and is the great-niece of the woman who found two sole survivors, Pte William O’Callaghan, from Dereham, and London-based Pte Albert Pooley injured and hiding out in a pigsty following the massacre.

Her search for answers brought her to Norfolk where she interviewed Mr O’Callaghan’s son Dennis and veterans Bob Brown and Arthur Brough.

“It is very poignant,” said Mr O’Callaghan. “It is something that we must not let go or forget the sacrifices these people gave for us to live how we do today. I think my father would be amazed that people are still remembering that day. He never saw himself as a hero - he was in my eyes.”

Mme Chauvin said the film was well received. It was also shown on television channel France3 last Saturday. “It was quite emotional and intense and I am happy and grateful people like it,” she said.

The Royal Norfolks’ position was about 30 miles south-east of Dunkirk north of the Gravelines to La Bassée canal line, one of the last obstacles standing in the way of the German advance.

However, the Germans managed to cross the canal and prepared to attack the remains of the Royal Norfolks in the village of Le Cornet Malo and at the headquarters, a farm a mile to the north in Le Paradis.

It was the fierce resistance of the Royal Norfolks in and around these two villages which led to what happened next. Some Royal Norfolk soldiers caused Germans to abandon their tanks by throwing grenades into their tracks. The Germans thought their tanks were on fire. The British soldiers also mowed down the German infantry who were following the panzers. Bob Brown himself shot a German motorcyclist who was approaching the Le Paradis farmhouse where he had been the signaller.

But in the end the Germans overwhelmed the Royal Norfolk troops and most of those in the Le Paradis headquarters surrendered to the Totenkopf Division. Only a few, including Bob Brown, managed to surrender to a regular German unit because they attempted to escape from the burning farm via a different exit.

He only found out during a war crimes investigation after the war what had happened to the bulk of those who surrendered. They were marched up the road, put up against a wall and machine gunned. Their guards then moved in and finished off anyone they thought was still alive. There were only two survivors.

The day after the massacre a German major reported to the XVI Corps commander that he had come across 89 dead English soldiers who had apparently been ‘summarily executed by being shot in the head at very close range. In some cases the whole skull has been smashed, which could only have been the result of blows from rifle butts or similar weapons.’

A day later General Eicke presumably reacting to a request for information from his commander, justified the killing on the grounds that the British soldiers had been using dum-dum bullets.

He also mentioned that ‘a swastika flag had lured our soldiers from cover whereupon they were ambushed and wiped out by machine gun fire.’ After mentioning that his unit had suffered heavy casualties, he stated: ‘We were therefore justified in taking our revenge for these treacherous and villainous tactics by shooting those who participated following a court martial.’

Eicke’s report appears to have been treated with a degree of scepticism by the corps. Eicke was asked how many Germans were hit by dum-dum bullets and how did he know dum-dum bullets had been used. No reply is to be found in the corps file. It seems that the German inquiry was put to one side after the Totenkopf Division was transferred to another area.

The fact that a war crime had been committed by the Germans was only publicised in 1948-9 when one of the perpetrators Fritz Knöchlein was tried, convicted and hung.

Bob Brown knew nothing of the German allegation that he and his comrades had been using dum-dum bullets until I rang him up in connection with the publication of a special 75th anniversary edition of my Dunkirk book. It was then that he gave his explanation.

Pte William O’Callaghan’s war could have and perhaps should have ended five years before the end of the Second World War.

But the 26-year-old, who grew up in Scarning, not only survived the massacre by German heavy machine guns in Paradis, he managed to carry the only other survivor to safety. On May 27, 1940 they had become isolated from their regiment and they occupied and defended a farmhouse against an attack by Waffen-SS forces in the village of Le Paradis. After running out of ammunition, they surrendered. The Germans led them across the road to a wall, and machine-gunned them.

In total 97 were killed but William O’Callaghan and Albert Pooley survived. 
Later Pte O’Callaghan recalled his officer saying they were protected by the Geneva Convention and then heard the command ‘Fire’.

He said: “I dived down. Then I felt a burning in my arm and I said to myself: ‘Good God, this can’t be happening’. Another of my comrades was lying on my right arm. After some time, the shooting stopped.And then I heard what sounded like bayonets being pulled out. They buried the bayonet into the body of a comrade who had moved. Then he was finished off with a couple of shots.”

Pte Pooley later wrote: “The guns began to spit fire ... For a few seconds the cries and shrieks of our stricken men drowned the cackling of the guns. Men fell like grass before a scythe.”

After the SS had gone Pte O’Callaghan found Pte Pooley among the bodies and carried him 200 yards to the pigsty before they were discovered by the farm’s owner, Madame Duquenne-Creton, and her son Victor. They were later captured by the Wehrmacht’s 251st Infantry Division.

Pte Pooley was repatriated and had to have a leg amputated while Pte O’Callaghan spent five gruelling years as a prisoner of war in Poland.

In 1948 they testified at the war crimes trial of Fritz Knöchlein, who was subsequently hanged.

Pte William O’Callaghan’s war could have and perhaps should have ended five years before the end of the Second World War.

But the 26-year-old, who grew up in Scarning, not only survived the massacre by German heavy machine guns in Paradis, he managed to carry the only other survivor to safety. On May 27, 1940 they had become isolated from their regiment and they occupied and defended a farmhouse against an attack by Waffen-SS forces in the village of Le Paradis. After running out of ammunition, they surrendered. The Germans led them across the road to a wall, and machine-gunned them.

In total 97 were killed but William O’Callaghan and Albert Pooley survived. 
Later Pte O’Callaghan recalled his officer saying they were protected by the Geneva Convention and then heard the command ‘Fire’.

He said: “I dived down. Then I felt a burning in my arm and I said to myself: ‘Good God, this can’t be happening’. Another of my comrades was lying on my right arm. After some time, the shooting stopped.And then I heard what sounded like bayonets being pulled out. They buried the bayonet into the body of a comrade who had moved. Then he was finished off with a couple of shots.”

Pte Pooley later wrote: “The guns began to spit fire ... For a few seconds the cries and shrieks of our stricken men drowned the cackling of the guns. Men fell like grass before a scythe.”

After the SS had gone Pte O’Callaghan found Pte Pooley among the bodies and carried him 200 yards to the pigsty before they were discovered by the farm’s owner, Madame Duquenne-Creton, and her son Victor. They were later captured by the Wehrmacht’s 251st Infantry Division.

Pte Pooley was repatriated and had to have a leg amputated while Pte O’Callaghan spent five gruelling years as a prisoner of war in Poland.

In 1948 they testified at the war crimes trial of Fritz Knöchlein, who was subsequently hanged.

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk: Fight To The Last Man (75th Anniversary edition with new personal accounts added) is published by Penguin, £8.99.



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