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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Massacre at Paradis

Before World War II, the small hamlet of Paradis, located in the commune of Lestrem, in northern France, was home to a small farming community. It might not have quite lived up to the English translation of its name - 'heaven' - yet after war arrived in the region, it certainly became 'hell' when on 27th May 1940, 97 British soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Norfolk Regiment and other units were murdered in cold blood after having been taken prisoner by German troops during the Battle of Dunkirk.

The mass grave at Paradis where the 97 British soldiers who had been murdered there on 27th May 1940 were initially buried.

The men had been tasked with the selfless defence of the Dunkirk perimeter to allow the successful evacuation of more than 338,000 Allied troops. Despite overwhelming odds, they held back the enemy for as long as they could, eventually making their last stand in a fortified farmhouse in Paradis, and surrendering only when their ammunition finally ran out. As prisoners of war, they were entitled to the protection afforded to them by the Geneva Convention. Instead, they were disarmed and marched into a field, where they were machine-gunned, before being finished off with further shots and bayonet thrusts in what became known as the Paradis Massacre.

Dunkirk Evacuation

After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Britain and France had declared war on Germany. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to help defend France. Yet, neither side launched major operations against the other until 10th May 1940, when Germany launched an invasion of France via the neutral Low Countries, therefore bypassing the formidable Maginot Line which guarded France’s border with Germany.

On 10th May 1940, Germany launched an invasion of France via the neutral Low Countries, therefore bypassing the formidable Maginot Line which guarded France’s border with Germany.

Allied troops were rushed to the Franco-Belgian border to meet the main German thrust, which they believed would come through central Belgium. Instead, after their best divisions had been committed there, the Germans enacted the second phase of their operation - a surprise push through the Ardennes Forest in south-eastern Belgium and northern Luxembourg. German tanks and infantry quickly broke through and advanced towards the English Channel, reaching it in just five days. With the Allied units that had advanced into Belgium finding themselves cut off, a desperate attempt to evacuate them from the French port of Dunkirk was seen as the best course of action.

British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation.

What followed was the 'Miracle of Dunkirk', as between 26th May and 4th June, some 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops were successfully evacuated across the English Channel during Operation Dynamo. This figure was significantly higher than initial expectations, and with the bulk of Britain’s professional army having been rescued to fight another day, what was, in reality, a defeat felt like a victory. Yet, not every member of the BEF was given the chance to get away, with some having been chosen to stay behind and buy time for their brothers-in-arms by slowing down the German advance towards Dunkirk. Throughout the Battle of France, around 3,500 British soldiers were killed, while, for every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, one man became a prisoner of war (POW).

2nd Battalion, The Royal Norfolk Regiment

Among the units ordered to hold back the German advance for as long as possible was the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Norfolk Regiment, which, together with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots and the 1/8th Battalion, The Lancashire Fusiliers, formed the British 4th Infantry Brigade, itself part of the British 2nd Infantry Division. The division had landed at Cherbourg on 21st September 1939 and arrived on the Franco-Belgian border on 3rd October, being based east of Lille. Together with the other BEF units, it was under the command of the French 1st Army Group, and most of the time up until 9th May 1940 was spent digging field defences on the border.

Members of the Sergeants' Mess, 2nd Battalion, The Royal Norfolk Regiment at Oxney Camp in September 1939, shortly before the unit deployed to the Continent as part of the BEF.

Following the German invasion of Belgium on 10th May, the 2nd Infantry Division participated in the Dyle Plan, a rapid advance into Belgium to the river Dyle. Yet, on 16th May, the 1st Army Group was ordered to fall back to avoid being trapped by the German breakthrough further south near Sedan. As the strategic situation worsened, the 2nd Division was among the formations ordered to form a cordon around the BEF's line of retreat. It fell back, forming lines of resistance at the rivers Dendre and Escaut, and then at La Bassée Canal. When, on 26th May, the decision was taken to evacuate from Dunkirk, the division was ordered to maintain its position at the canal, to allow other formations to escape. The Royal Norfolks found themselves facing a formidable enemy - the SS Division Totenkopf.

SS Division Totenkopf

The SS Division Totenkopf was part of the Waffen-SS - the combat branch of the Schutzstaffel (SS), which was the Nazi Party's paramilitary organisation. From humble origins in the 1920s as Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard, the SS grew to become one of the most powerful organisations in Nazi Germany, where it established a police state that was responsible for suppressing any opposition to the Nazi regime. By the mid-1930s, the SS had its own combat units, known as the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT), which did not fall under the authority of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) but were placed exclusively at Hitler’s disposal. Together with other formations, the SS-VT would become the basis of the Waffen-SS.

Adolf Hitler inspecting SS troops.

In addition to regular military training, in some ways superior to that of the regular army, SS troops were also subjected to intensive political and ideological indoctrination. Recruitment was based on minimum height requirements and rigid physical and racial standards. The Waffen-SS would eventually field more than 20 divisions, creating an armed force of about half a million men and establishing a command and operations structure to rival the German Army, alongside which it served throughout World War II.

The SS Division Totenkopf emerged from the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), which was established in 1933 to administer the concentration camps that held the Nazi Party’s political opponents. In 1936, SS-Gruppenführer Theodor Eicke, the former Kommandant of the Dachau concentration camp, was given command of the SS-TV, which he reorganised and enlarged into five battalions, each based at one of Germany's major concentration camps. They were known as the 'Death's Head Units' due to their collar badges, which featured a skull (totenkopf).

The insignia of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, also known as 'Death's Head Units'.

During the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Hitler placed the SS-VT under the operational control of the Army High Command, while SS-TV units were called on to carry out so-called 'police and security measures' in rear areas. During this time, they were responsible for committing several atrocities against civilians. In October, 6,500 of the most experienced SS-TV troops, reinforced by SS reservists, were formed into the new SS Division Totenkopf. Command of the new division was given to Eicke, who gave up his concentration camp duties for the role of a Waffen-SS field commander.

Theodor Eicke

The SS Division Totenkopf spent the following months training and preparing for the coming war in the West. At the start of the Battle of France, the division was part of the reserves of Army Group A, but on 16th May, it was ordered forward to exploit the German armoured advance in what would be its first major engagement of the war. The division raced through Belgium to join the XV Army Corps near Cambrai, where it immediately went into action, getting its first taste of battle and suffering its first casualties. On 21st May, the division was involved in dealing with a British counterattack near Arras. On the following day, it was subordinated to the XVI Army Corps and given the task of crossing the La Bassée Canal and capturing the town of Béthune.

The Battle

The SS Division Totenkopf reached the area of the canal on 24th May, close to where the British 4th Infantry Brigade held the hamlets of Riez du Vinage and Le Cornet Malo. On 26th May, the Germans forced a crossing and attacked Le Cornet Malo, which was being defended by the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Norfolk Regiment. Word had come through from Battalion HQ, located at Duries Farm in nearby Paradis, that their orders were to fight 'to the last man and the last round' to allow as many troops as possible to be evacuated from Dunkirk. The Royal Norfolks put up stiff resistance, with both sides suffering heavy losses, but by morning on the 27th, Le Cornet Malo had been taken after 'A', 'B' and 'D' Companies were practically wiped out, and the remnants of 'C' Company became cut off from the rest of the battalion. 

Duries Farm, in Paradis, where the headquarters of the 2nd Bn., The Royal Norfolk Regiment was located.

The SS Division Totenkopf continued its advance towards Paradis, where Major Lisle Ryder, who was acting Commanding Officer of the Royal Norfolks, had organised what was left of his battalion into a defensive position around Duries Farm. The Germans, for their part, were determined to capture Paradis at all costs, and for several hours, they attacked the farmhouse with tanks, mortars and artillery, despite mounting casualties. By late afternoon, the beleaguered defenders were still holding on, but their situation was becoming desperate, with both their numbers and their ammunition dwindling. Major Ryder got a message through to Brigade HQ to provide an update and was instructed to hold the position until dusk, and then withdraw North East to La Nouvelle France.

The Surrender

Sometime later, Major Ryder sent one last message, stating that the HQ was on fire and that the radio would have to be broken up. With the farmhouse burning, and the roof in danger of collapse, he had no option but to order everyone out into a nearby cowshed once anything that could be useful to the enemy had been destroyed. Even now, they held out for another 25 minutes, but with their ammunition nearly exhausted, and knowing that it would not get dark for another couple of hours, Major Ryder gave his men a choice: surrender or fight to the finish. The majority decided to surrender, although anyone who believed they had a chance of getting away was allowed to do so.

Major Lisle Charles Dudley Ryder was acting Commanding Officer of the 2nd Bn., The Royal Norfolk Regiment.

The first attempt to surrender was made by three men who walked into the open displaying a white cloth tied to a rifle. They had only walked a few paces when they were cut down by machine gun fire. Tense moments passed before a second attempt was made. This time, they were met by cheers from the German soldiers instead of bullets. The men were ordered to come out with their hands in the air before they were lined up and searched. Their helmets were struck from their heads, and their equipment and gas marks were forcibly removed.

The Massacre

After some fifteen minutes, they were ordered to form up with their hands clasped behind the back of their heads, before being marched down the road, whilst being subjected to acts of brutality, including being spat at, kicked, and beaten with rifle butts. Upon reaching the Creton Farm, they were halted for a few minutes, before they were marched into an adjoining field, where a hole had been dug in the ground. The captives were ordered to continue walking ahead, straight into the hole, at which point, without warning, two machine guns opened up on them.

The aftermath of the massacre: The bodies of the murdered POWs near the barn on the Creton Farm where the men had been shot.

Men started falling on top of each other, with the firing continuing until no one was left standing. When it finally stopped, cries of pain could be heard coming from those who had not been killed outright. Some of the SS men fixed bayonets and jumped down into the pit to finish off anyone who was still moving, and after they had climbed back out, several pistol and rifle shots followed for good measure. It was only when no further signs of life were observed that they finally left the area.

Two Survivors

Yet, unbeknownst to them, two men had survived the massacre. 26-year-old Private William "Bill" O'Callaghan, from Dereham, Norfolk, was hit in the arm and knocked to the ground as another soldier fell on top of him. He decided to play dead, but to his horror, he realised that the Germans were going around bayoneting the wounded, including some of those immediately around him. Finally, a whistle was blown and the Germans left. Feeling completely exhausted, O'Callaghan fell asleep for several hours.

Pte. William "Bill" O'Callaghan (3rd from right, rear row).

The other survivor was 28-year-old Private Albert "Bert" Pooley, from Southall, London. When the firing started, he was hit in the left knee before falling into the hole. As further shots were fired into the mass of bodies to finish off anyone who was still alive, he was hit in his left leg twice more, but he too decided to play dead. Over the next three to four hours, he drifted in and out of consciousness, too scared to move in case the Germans came back. Finally, he decided it was safe to move, at which point he heard O’Callaghan snoring and realised that he was not the only survivor.

Pte. Albert "Bert" Pooley.

The two men decided to find a place where they could lie low. O'Callaghan carried the badly injured Pooley to a nearby burnt-out farmhouse, where they spent the next four days in hiding, eating raw potatoes and drinking water from puddles. Eventually, they were discovered by the owner of the farm, Madame Duquenne-Creton, and her son Victor, who repeatedly risked their lives by bringing them food and drink even though the Germans had ordered the death penalty for anyone found harbouring British soldiers. Eventually, however, the two men agreed to give themselves up to avoid reprisals against the French civilians, and they were handed over to the German 251st Infantry Division. Pooley was transferred to a military hospital, and both men were eventually taken to different POW camps.

German Reaction

On 28th May - the day after the massacre - Gunter d'Alquen, a prominent SS war correspondent, visited Paradis and reported what he saw. The bodies were still lying there, in a position indicating that they had been killed by machine-gun bursts. He noted that none of the dead soldiers were wearing helmets, nor did they have any equipment on them. Indeed, this was found piled up in a nearby field. Another German officer noted that most of the men had been shot in the head from close range, and some had their skulls smashed in, suggesting that they had received a blow from a rifle butt.

News of the massacre soon spread to neighbouring German divisions, eventually reaching General Erich Höpner, the commander of the XVI Army Corps. Höpner was an officer of the old school and disliked the SS. When he heard what had happened at Paradis, he ordered an investigation into the allegations, demanding that Eicke be dismissed if evidence could be found that British POWs had been murdered by his men. However, despite Höpner’s efforts, no meaningful investigation was undertaken, and Eicke and his division suffered no consequences.

The Investigation

The Allies received no information about the massacre until the summer of 1943 when Pooley was repatriated as part of a prisoner exchange organised through the Red Cross. Both survivors had decided not to say anything about what had happened whilst in captivity, for fear of what might happen to them should the Germans realise that there were witnesses to the massacre at Paradis. Yet, when Pooley recounted his story to British military authorities, they refused to believe him. With O’Callaghan still being held captive, Pooley refused to give his name for corroborative evidence, in order to protect him. O'Callaghan himself did not return to the United Kingdom until the end of the war in 1945.

By this time, Pooley was starting to think that he had dreamt up the whole thing. He even refused to tell his family, for fear that they too would not believe him. Yet, in September 1946, he returned to the scene of the massacre, where he saw the bullet holes left by the machine guns and met Madame Duquenne-Creton, thus proving to himself that the whole incident had in fact taken place. This time, he reported what had happened to the French authorities and the facts were relayed to the War Office in London. He and O'Callaghan were approached to give their testimony by the War Crimes Investigation Unit, headed by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland, who launched an investigation.

Fritz Knöchlein

One of the first things that the investigation needed to establish was which German units had been in action at Le Cornet Malo and Paradis on the day of the massacre. British intelligence and captured German orders of battle helped confirm that the unit in question was the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the SS Division Totenkopf. Suspicion was narrowed down to No. 3 Company, which at the time had been under the command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein.

Fritz Knöchlein

Knöchlein was born in Munich on 27th May 1911. He joined the SS in 1934 and was enrolled in an SS-Junker School (a leadership school for potential SS officers) in Braunschweig the following year. Following his commissioning, he eventually joined the SS Division Totenkopf as commander of 3. Kompanie/SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment 2. After the Battle of France, he was transferred to 5. Kompanie before being given command of a Totenkopf flak battery, serving in that capacity on the Eastern Front. He then served in various other SS formations, ending the war as an SS-Obersturmbannführer and a holder of the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest award for valour. Knöchlein was subsequently tracked down in Lodge Moor Camp, near Sheffield, where he was being held as a POW. He was brought to the London Cage, an interrogation centre located in Kensington Palace Gardens, and was arraigned on charges of war crimes in August 1948, to which he pleaded not guilty.

The Trial

The trial of Fritz Knöchlein opened on 11th October 1948 at the Curiohaus, in Hamburg. The War Crimes Investigation Unit presented several witnesses, including O’Callaghan, Pooley, and Madame Duquenne-Creton, as well as a certain Madame Romanie Castel, who was able to identify Knöchlein. Vital testimony was also obtained from other German POWs. Theodor Emke, a member of the machine-gun unit employed in the massacre, testified that the order to fire had been issued by Knöchlein. Emil Stürzbecher, at the time a fellow officer in the 2nd Infantry Regiment, testified that two days before the massacre, he had personally heard Knöchlein announce that he had no intention of taking prisoners and that he would gladly kill any British soldier who came into his hands.

O'Callaghan and Pooley outside the courthouse in Hamburg during the trial of Fritz Knöchlein.

Knöchlein claimed that he had not been present at Paradis at the time of the shooting and that he had only heard rumours of the incident a few days later. He also claimed to have been told that the British had opened fire on German troops after having used a white flag to lure them out into the open, and that they had used illegal dum-dum bullets. These claims were vigorously denied by the prosecution. On 25th October, a guilty verdict was pronounced by the court, and despite a plea for clemency by his defence lawyer, Knöchlein was sentenced to death. He was hanged, aged 37, on 28th January 1949, at Hamelin Prison. No other German soldiers or officers were prosecuted for their roles in the massacre.

Le Paradis War Cemetery

To this day, it has proved difficult to establish the names of all of those who were murdered at Paradis. In his cross-examination during Knöchlein’s trial, O'Callaghan stated that while the men had been searched immediately after having surrendered, some of them had had their identity discs torn off. What is known with certainty is that a total of 99 POWs from the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Norfolk Regiment and other units were marched to the field where the machine guns opened up on them, with only O'Callaghan and Pooley surviving, leaving a figure of 97 men murdered. To date, only 49 of them have been identified.

Local villagers tending to the mass grave where the victims of the massacre were initially buried, in the same field where they had been shot.

A couple of days after the atrocity, the local villagers were ordered by the Germans to bury the dead in a mass grave in the field where they lay. In 1942, however, the bodies were exhumed and reburied in the Paradis churchyard, which now forms part of the Le Paradis War Cemetery, administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The bodies of other soldiers killed in the fighting around Paradis were also eventually interred there. Today, there are 166 World War II burials, nearly a third of whom are unidentified.

Le Paradis War Cemetery.

Bill O'Callaghan passed away in November 1975, aged 61. Bert Pooley, who suffered from serious health problems for the rest of his life, including having both legs amputated, died in February 1982, aged 70. A few months later, his last wish of being laid to rest alongside his fallen comrades was carried out when his ashes were interred in front of the Cross of Sacrifice in the Le Paradis War Cemetery.

Remembering the Victims

Over the years, several memorials to the massacre have been put up, both in France and the United Kingdom. In 1970, a plaque was placed on the bullet-scarred wall of the barn where the massacre took place, but since this was located on private land, a second memorial was inaugurated in 1978. Located near the Paradis church, it was erected by the Norfolk and Norwich Branch of the 1940 Dunkirk Veterans' Association, on a site generously donated by the commune of Lestrem. It had been Bill O'Callaghan’s last wish that his comrades be remembered by a fitting and prominent memorial. More recently, a newer memorial was unveiled in Lestrem in November 2018.

On 27th May 2021, a new permanent memorial to the 97 victims of the Paradis Massacre was officially dedicated in Norwich Cathedral Close.

On 27th May 2021 - the 81st anniversary of the massacre - a new permanent memorial was officially dedicated in Norwich Cathedral Close, meaning that the families of the victims will no longer have to travel to France to pay their last respects. The memorial serves as a fitting tribute to the 97 men who fought to the last round in an attempt to enable as many of their compatriots to escape, only to then be murdered in cold blood on that dark day of 27th May 1940.



The Massacre at Le Paradis - Hell in Paradise - May 1940. Retrieved December 22, 2023, from

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