We will remember them: proposed location of Royal Norfolk Regiment memorial to Le Paradis massacre revealed as 80th anniversary looms
PUBLISHED: 17:17 28 April 2020 | UPDATED: 17:18 28 April 2020
Campaigners calling for a fitting commemoration of one of the Norfolk Regiment’s darkest days have been handed a boost as their proposals have been backed by the Cathedral
A memorial for the Royal Norfolk Regiment soldiers murdered by Nazis at the Le Paradis Massacre could soon have pride of place outside Norwich Cathedral
Now the Le Paradis Memorial Project, a charity which formed at the end of 2018, is hopeful that after successful a successful campaign, which saw the group raise £60,000, the heroism of Norfolk’s finest will be permanently recognised.
Ninety-seven men were executed by German soldiers on a day of savagery etched into Norfolk history books 80 years ago in a tiny village in northern France.
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.
The Holy Boys, the Royal Norfolks’ nickname, found themselves facing a deadly German fighting force – the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf, the infamous Death’s Head Division with its terrifying skull and crossbones symbol.
The Totenkopf was formed from hardened soldiers, many of whom had been involved in multiple massacres of civilians and prisoners of war – the Battle of France in May 1940 saw the same men responsible for yet more reckless slaughter.
During glorious weather, 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 the 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.
Rumours about what had happened at Le Paradis drifted across northern France and, when they heard what had happened, other German divisions were outraged – but
what the Death’s Head Division didn’t know was that two men had survived the massacre – and that one day, justice would be served.
Private William O’Callaghan, of Dereham, was one of only two survivors of the infamous massacre.
As bullets rained, O’Callaghan was hit in the arm and thrown to the ground. Within seconds, a fellow soldier fell on him, so he stayed still and played dead.
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Hours later, when the Nazis were busy preparing a secret grave for the dead soldiers, Bill discovered there was another survivor of the massacre and, despite being wounded, he slung an unconscious Londoner, Private Albert Pooley, across his shoulders and escaped.
Sheltered by the French but eventually captured by the Nazis, neither man forgot what he had seen and when the war ended, both were ready to seek justice for their comrades, giving evidence at the War Crimes trial of Fritz Knöchlein.
In January 1949, Knöchlein went to the gallows.
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.
Thanks to the charity, however, a striking new memorial is set to be unveiled in Norwich Cathedral’s grounds outside St Saviour’s Chapel, itself a memorial to those who fell in the First World War and the chapel of the Royal Norfolks and the Royal Anglian Regiment.
Portland stone, used in Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries, will be used to create a striking memorial which will stand 5ft 6in tall has been designed by the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge.
It will read, above an etched Royal Norfolk Regimental Cap Badge: “To the memory of the 97 soldiers who died in the massacre on 27th May 1940 at Le Paradis, Northern France”.
On the left-hand, a straight edge will rise from the ground “reflecting the sharp brutality of the act, lives cut off suddenly and completely” while on the right, the memorial will be rough stone to echo “the open, raw wounds that were felt by the two survivors and are still felt by the families and friends of those who were massacred.”
The stone will stand with its rough back to the cathedral to symbolise the men being lined up with their backs to the wall before they were shot.
In its proposal to the Cathedral, the Le Paradis Memorial Appeal says: “We hope the beauty of it will draw people in to look and be reminded of the fragility of life and inspire the need for goodness.”
Pte O’Callaghan, who died in 1975, spent five years as a prisoner of war in Poland. His son Dennis said the fight for a formal memorial to his father and his brothers-in-arms had been long, but that the end was in sight.
“The memorial is long overdue,” he said, “I am very pleased that we are a big step closer to a memorial to those who died, and I know that the families of the victims welcome this development.
“I am sure I speak for the Appeal trustees and all our supporters when I thank the Cathedral for their ongoing assistance in making this possible.”
The planning application for the memorial, which has been given a seal of approval by Norwich Cathedral, is now waiting for the green light from the Cathedrals Fabric Commission and English Heritage.
Rob Edwards of the Le Paradis Memorial Appeal, said that the group hoped the memorial would be in place before the 81st anniversary of the massacre.
“Norwich Cathedral has been incredibly helpful and we hope that with its support behind the appeal we will shortly be in a position to mark the terrible tragedy at Le Paradis with a fitting memorial,” he said.
“We want future generations to be reminded of the courage faced by those brave men in 1940 and of the debt we owe them all. We look forward to the day we can unveil this very special memorial.”
* If you would like to donate to the campaign or find out more, visit www.memorial4leparadisheroes.uk or email Memorial4LeParadisHeroes@gmail.com