1940 – The Action at Le Paradis I

The Mark III Lee-Enfield Rifle weighs just over 8½ pounds, is nearly 4 feet long and fires a 0.303-inch (7.7mm) bullet, ten of which can fit in the rifle’s magazine. This bullet weighs 174 grains or roughly 11.3 grams and once fired it travels at about 2,400 feet per second until its contents of aluminium and lead hit whatever object it is aimed at.

If that object is an enemy soldier then one of two things will happen. The bullet may travel straight through his body without being deflected by bone or other organs. If this happens then the exit wound is of similar diameter to the entry wound. If, however, the bullet hits an enemy soldier and is deflected by bone or other organs then these will cause the exit wound to be distorted. The exit wound will therefore be larger than the entry wound. Given that the human body contains rather a lot of bones and organs most bullets will distort once they hit.

To the present-day historian this fact is of academic value. But on 27 May 1940 ignorance of what actually happened inside the human body when the bullets from Lee-Enfield rifles killed soldiers of the Waffen SS during the defence of the village of Le Paradis was to have terrible consequences.

For all his faults, S. L. A. Marshall did at least identify the factor which wins wars: fire. For Marshall the key to winning future wars was the extent to which an army could get its soldiers to fire their weapons at the enemy.

At the start of World War II the British and German Armies had very different ideas about how to use fire in attack. For the Germans attack was all about the quality of fire rather than the quantity. The emphasis was on staying concealed unless taking part in the advance or in the Feuerkampf – the fire-fight. Even then German soldiers were supposed to move at speed and not present an easy target to the enemy. When they were moving forward in a loose-knit single file it was in any case hard for the enemy to find an easy target to aim at. Once the attack was within the killing range of 400 metres then fire was concentrated on to the target and it was this fire which won the assault.

For the British Army in World War II the emphasis was on the quantity of fire rather than the quality of fire. To achieve maximum fire the single file approach adopted by the Germans was out – it meant not all the soldiers could fire. Instead an arrowhead formation was adopted so everyone could fire their weapons at the enemy. Of course the problem with this was that the formation was more vulnerable. However, the planners envisaged that the enemy would be under a constant barrage of fire from the British soldiers and that this would help win the day.

Captain Peter Barclay DSO, MC, A Company, 2nd Royal Norfolks

The first thing is to smother the opposition as much as you can with effective fire. When you’ve got a demoralised enemy to contend with you’re going to capture the objective a lot quicker and with a lot less loss. So the first principle I always reckoned was to shatter their morale with fire – it needn’t be all that dead accurate – the noise is generally enough to cow the most brazen adversary. So once you’ve done that always ensure that you’ve got an element giving covering fire … until you get right up to the assault distance from the position and then the two leading platoons – on a company level – go bashing in together. But the longer you can keep your firing going, until the moment the attacking forces reach the ground and the objective, the more likely you are to succeed – and succeed without heavy loss.

The story of the fighting at Le Paradis is a battle of contrasts. On the British side were the Royal Norfolks who trained their soldiers the traditional way  – in other words drill, firing on the ranges, fieldcraft. And then more drill. On the German side were the Waffen SS who employed methods far better for producing soldiers able and willing to kill. As well as traditional drill and fieldcraft these included extensive weapons practice against lifelike targets as well as conditioning in the Nazi creed of hatred and violence.

An additional factor for the Waffen SS was that some 350 years of history separated the Royal Norfolks and the Waffen SS Totenkopf. Whereas the Royal Norfolks had nothing to prove, the Waffen SS had everything to prove as World War II was their first time in action. Elements of the Totenkopf Division had been in action in Poland before they got to France but for many this was to be their first taste of battle.

General der Waffen SS Felix Steiner

Concerning the fairness of the [Le Paradis] battle in other respects, which was most certainly fought severely but nevertheless with very deep respect, the grim rage of this phase of the battle was generally regretted and the Totenkopf Division was regarded even in its own ranks as not yet being equal to the demands of heavy fighting conditions. It was only later on the Eastern Front that it made its name in the Demjansk pocket as a ‘Do or Die’ Division.

The Royal Norfolks started their war on the Dyle Line in the Bois de Tombeek in Belgium on 11 May 1940. But this was the furthest east they were to travel. From here, as the Germans advanced, the only direction the Royal Norfolks would be going was back towards France again along the route they had travelled to get to the Dyle Line.

Despite the fact that the Norfolks were well dug in on the Dyle the problem for the British Expeditionary Force was that the German advance through the French lines had been so rapid that the Germans were threatening to encircle the British and cut them off from the French Army. To avoid this threat the order came through to withdraw. The format for a withdrawal was usually to take up defensive positions by day and to move by night, although the proximity of the enemy meant that withdrawal was never easy, especially as the Germans also tried to delay the advance by attacking civilians from the air.

Captain Peter Barclay

We never, ever, carried out a withdrawal in contact. If we thought that was likely, we patrolled very offensively against the enemy positions before we pulled out. And gave them something to think about and then extricated ourselves without fear of interference. This in fact occurred every time – we were never once molested in our withdrawal which I was thankful about – because nearly always I was a rearguard company and you had a horrible sort of feeling of getting one up the pants as you were coming out. But it never came to that.

Private Ernie Farrow, Pioneer Section, 2nd Royal Norfolks

After a few days we had to withdraw again. As soon as we started to withdraw three of the Stukas came over. Now they took no notice of us, [but] we dived out of the lorries because we expected them to blow us to hell. But they didn’t, they simply went over the top of us and disappeared in the trees. We heard the machine guns, we heard the sirens, we heard the bombs dropping. On our left flank we had the Belgian Army and we naturally thought they were going after the Belgian Army. But after we had driven down the road three or four miles we found what they had done. They had come over us, left us but to stop us they had machine-gunned and bombed these poor people. It was a massacre. All along the road were people who had been killed, with no arms, no heads, there was cattle lying about, dead, there was little tiny children, there were old people. We couldn’t stop to clear the roads because we knew that this was what this was done for – for us to stop and the Germans to surround us. We had to drive our lorries over the top of them. We couldn’t do anything about it.

Captain Peter Barclay

The initial advance of the Germans was bound to come up the road and our first contact would invariably be along lines of communication. They were very bad at deploying off roads – in fact at deploying off main roads. I found this later on, after D-Day that two or three times I’d put an attack down some little, tiny side road and avoided all heavy enemy artillery fire and in fact achieved remarkable surprise on all those occasions because they only thought in terms of guarding the main road approaches to their positions. They were very inflexible

By 20 May the Royal Norfolks had retreated as far as the Escaut canal near Tournai and here they received orders to stand and fight. They took over positions previously held by the Royal Berkshire Regiment which were located on a wide front, too wide really for the soldiers of the Royal Norfolks to defend effectively. Added to this there were buildings on the Norfolks’ side of the canal and a forestry plantation on the other side where the Germans were expected.

By the time the Norfolks had reached the canal they were exhausted. The previous night they had marched nearly thirty miles to reach their new positions and when the morning of 21 May dawned they were in direct contact with the Germans. Not just any Germans either. For the Norfolks this was to be their first taste of fighting the Waffen SS. And in the ensuing fire-fight they were to notch up another first for the regiment – their first Victoria Cross of the war in an action where one man took on the enemy.

This sort of one-man action is entirely consistent with General Marshall’s view of the battlefield where you have a minority of individuals taking responsibility for the fighting.

Captain Peter Barclay

Having satisfied myself on the company layout, my batman reported that he’d seen some black rabbits in a park – there was a château in the grounds of which some of my positions were – and not only that but he’d found some ferrets in a box in the stables. I’m ashamed to say there were also a couple of retrievers kept shut up in the stables and all the occupants of the château and everybody round about had departed except in a little convent where two nuns remained. So we thought we’d get in a little bit of sport before the fun began.

I had a shotgun with me and popped these ferrets down a big warren and we were having a rare bit of sport as rabbits bolted out of these burrows when after about half an hour of this the shelling started along the river line generally. And we came in for a certain amount of this and we thought, ‘Well, we’d better pack this up now and deal with the other situation.’ So back we went to company headquarters and waited for the next pattern of activities.

After a few hours some Germans appeared on the far bank. They were totally oblivious of our presence in the immediate vicinity. And I told my soldiers on no account were any of them to fire until they heard my hunting horn. And an officer appeared and got his map out and appeared to be holding an O group with his senior warrant officers

Then they withdrew into the wood and we heard a lot of chopping going on and we saw tops of trees flattening out. And in fact what they were doing was cutting down young trees to make a long series of hurdles to lay over the top of the blitzed bridge which was in the middle of my sector. There were bits of concrete lying across the canal, you couldn’t walk across, but they were so placed across the canal that with suitable lengths of hurdles, pedestrians had been able to get across.

Eventually they emerged from this plantation with a number of long hurdles made of these saplings and they proceeded to lay these across the rubble and the remains of the concrete blocks in the canal. So we kept quite quiet and they still had no idea we were there.

I reckoned we’d wait there until there were as many as we could contend with on our side of the canal before opening fire. They were SS with black helmets and they started to come across. We waited for a posse of them to accumulate on our side (they were still convinced that there was no problem about adversaries in the area and they were standing about in little groups waiting for guide parties to get across) and then I reckoned we’d just enough to manage and contend with.

I blew my hunting horn and then of course all the soldiers opened fire with consummate accuracy and disposed of all the enemy personnel on our side of the canal and also the ones on the bank on the far side, which brought the hostile proceedings to an abrupt halt, and then of course we came in for an inordinate amount of shelling and mortar fire.

Private Ernie Leggatt, A Company, 2nd Royal Norfolks

We saw the Germans coming at us through the wood and they also had light tanks. We let them have all we’d got, firing the Bren, rifles, everything. I was on the Bren gun firing from the cover of these old benches, tables and God knows what on this veranda. We killed a lot of Germans. They came up almost as far as the river and we gave them hell and they retreated. They attacked us again and the tanks were coming over their own dead men, to us that was repulsive and we couldn’t understand why they did that.

Captain Peter Barclay

Not long after that I was wounded in the guts and in the back and in my arm. And we’d had several casualties before this and all the stretchers were therefore out. My batman, with great presence of mind, ripped a door off its hinges and in spite of my orders to the contrary, tied me to this door. In fact if he had not done this I probably wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. They took me round on this door to deal with what had become a very threatening situation from our right flank. Instead of a friendly unit being there, suddenly we were fired on by Germans from our side of the canal. So I had to deplete my small reserve which was sore because I had such a wide front to hold.

I put my Sergeant-Major Gristock in charge of this small force which was about ten men including a wireless operator and a company clerk and various other personnel from company headquarters to not only hold my right flank but deal with a German post that had established itself not very far off to my right. He placed some of his soldiers in position to curtail the activities of that particular post, so effectively that they wiped them out.

While this was going on fire came from another German position on our side of the canal on the bank. He spotted where this was and he left two men to give him covering fire. He went forward armed with a Tommy gun and grenades to dispose of this party which was in position behind a pile of stones on the bank of the canal.

When he was about twenty or thirty yards from this position he was spotted by another German machine-gun post on the enemy side of the canal who opened fire on him and raked through and smashed both knees. In spite of this he dragged himself until he got within grenade lobbing range of this German post on our side of the canal. Then he lay on this side and he lobbed a grenade over the top of this pile of stones, belted the three Germans, turned over on his side, opened fire with his Tommy gun and dealt with the lot of them.

Both Barclay and Gristock were evacuated through Dunkirk. Gristock was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action but sadly he died in Brighton on 16 June 1940.

On 22 May the Norfolks were ordered to retreat once more. After a short period as divisional reserve they were on the move again, this time to the La Bassée canal in front of the small village of Le Paradis near Béthune. The idea was for them to hold the line to buy more time for the retreating BEF. But this time their enemy was the Totenkopf Division.

In fact advance elements of the Waffen SS had reached the area on 24 May, a day before the Norfolks took up their positions on the canal in the early hours of the 25th. Intelligence reports given to the Waffen SS suggested that there were two elite British units holding the line and that there would be a hard fight.

This other unit referred to in the German intelligence reports was the Royal Scots whose positions were next to those of the Royal Norfolks. But in taking up their positions the Norfolks had made a mistake because, while A and C Companies were in their allotted positions, B and D Companies had mistakenly deployed on a subsidiary loop in the canal, exposing a large gap in the defences. Orders were given to the Pioneer Section to fill the gap.

Private Ernie Farrow

What they told us to do was to go up on to the top of this canal bank and make sure that every round we fired got a German. After we had fired a number of rounds we had got to scramble back down the bank and then back up again to try and bluff the Germans that there was a whole company of us there. We were told then that we were getting short of ammunition and we had to try and make every round count. We were being hard pressed by machine gun, mortar and artillery. It was the most terrible thing I think I have ever experienced. We were dug in on our little foxholes but we couldn’t stay in them all the time; we had to get up to fire at the Germans on the other side who were trying to get across the canal to get at us. Our artillery was doing their best to keep the Germans from getting across – they were even driving their lorries into the canal to get their tanks across. Our artillery was managing to keep them at bay. I was using my .303 rifle, occasionally we took turns in firing the Bren gun but there again we had to be very careful because we were running short of ammunition. We found that by using our rifles we could save ammunition quite a lot. We could pick a German off with our rifles just as well as we could with the Bren gun. The Bren gun used twenty rounds to hit the same German.

The Bren gun weighed just over 22 pounds and was nearly 4 feet long. It was air-cooled and gas-operated and fired the 0.303-inch bullet. Its magazine could hold 30 rounds and could be changed in less than five seconds. It was a reliable and accurate weapon. The Bren gun was ideal for the British philosophy of laying down fire for any attack. However, it was outclassed by the German MG34 (and later the MG42) machine gun (known as the Spandau to Allied soldiers). The MG34 could fire at at least twice the rate of the Bren – a 250-round belt of ammunition lasted just 30 seconds. This made for a devastating fire even at difficult targets although for this set-up the Spandau needed a supporting bipod or tripod. This came with sights enabling accurate fire up to 3,000 yards. Used on the move it could be fitted with 50- or 75-round drums.

In a typical German company there would be more than thirteen Spandaus which made them a formidable opponent. These weapons had a distinctive sound when fired – a high speed ripping noise, like canvas tearing according to some – which the British soldier soon learned to recognise. But for the defenders of Le Paradis the best chance of survival was not with the main body of soldiers, but rather when they were captured on special missions.

Private Ernie Farrow

I remember Corporal Mason shouting to me, ‘Come on over here,’ he said, ‘Right, you, you and you, we’ve got to go and blow a bridge up.’

I said, ‘We’re just back.’

He said, ‘Never mind about that. Go and find some amatol, gun cotton, whatever you can find and bring it across.’ He then went to try and find a vehicle to take us in because we couldn’t carry all this stuff around with us.

The CO had already been sent back and Major Ryder had taken over as the CO. He had been wounded as well. He told Corporal Mason that his driver had already been detailed to take us to this bridge; he didn’t want any map reference, he knew exactly which bridge to go to, it was only a short distance away.

The vehicle the CO had was an old Humber car. His driver’s name was Hawker – he came from King’s Lynn and we all knew him. He opened the back of the old car and we put the gun cotton, the primers and whatever we had in the back. The sergeant-major came along and he said, ‘Right here lads, here’s something to be going with’, and he gave us a big tin of Bluebird toffees. He said, ‘When you come back there’ll be a hot meal for you.’ I’m afraid we never got the hot meal. But the Quartermaster came along and said, ‘Right, it’s just a few rounds.’ Three rounds of ammunition we were issued with. Three rounds of ammunition to fight the German Army! We thought, ‘Oh Gawd!’

With this we all piled into this old car and we were away. I couldn’t tell you how far it was because we were so busy trying to get this tin lid off to get the toffees out and we were being shelled and machine-gunned all the way, not too badly but the occasional shot or burst of machine-gun fire. We knew that one bullet through the back of our car and we could all get blown to pieces.

We hoped to God that the driver would get there as quick as he could. In no time at all the driver turned round and said, ‘Here’s the bridge coming up!’ We all looked up – the lid was still on the toffees, we hadn’t got that off – but we looked up. This happened in seconds not minutes. We heard this machine-gun fire; we could see the bridge in front of us and directly to our left-hand side there was a big house and on the right was the canal. At that very instant that he spoke the machine gun opened up and the whole top of this old car was riddled by machine-gun bullets. But not one of us was touched. We were still all alive.

We didn’t wait for the second burst. We dived out of this car because the Germans were firing from this house directly in front of us. There was no point in us trying to get to this bridge because they were already over it. The first place we went was straight into the canal. We dived in. The driver was trying to turn his vehicle round to get back to headquarters to warn them that this bridge had already been taken by the Germans. I suppose that was what was in his mind.

By the time we got into the canal we heard this hell of an explosion and we were splattered by bits of metal as the poor old car was blown up and the driver with it. We tried to climb up the edge of the canal bank and fire at the Germans. Somehow we managed to get a footing. How we did it I don’t know because as you know the canal bank is all mud. We managed to get there somehow and we fired our few rounds off at these Germans in the house and along the side of the bridge, hoping that every bullet would kill a German. In no time at all we had no more ammunition left and there was no way we were going to get back to headquarters.

There was no way we could get out of the canal where we were. So Corporal Mason said, ‘Right, bolts out of your rifles, get rid of them, there’s no way they’re needed any more. The only thing we need is safety for ourselves.’ Our tin hats, everything went off into the canal. Luckily for us we were all good swimmers; we swam under water across the canal.

The Germans were on both sides so it made no difference where we went but we felt it was safer to go on the other side. We couldn’t get out of the canal because the banks were too high to climb and if you started to climb the banks you’d be picked off. We wanted to find somewhere where the dyke ran into the canal – we hadn’t thought of this but the corporal had.

We swam across and on the other side of the canal there was a bed of river plants. There we kept still to stop even the ripples in the water for fear the Germans would put their machine guns into where we were. The corporal said, ‘Right, stop where you are, keep your heads down. I’m going to swim down the canal and find somewhere where there’s a ditch runs into the canal where we can climb out.’ Then he disappeared.

The three of us in these rushes were very close together. The young fellow on my left-hand side, almost touching me, [was] a fellow called Porter from Beccles in Suffolk. He’d been in the Army with me from the time we’d joined up, a very nice young fellow. He said, ‘I’m just going to have a peek over the top.’

At that very instant I hear this machine-gun or rifle fire and I thought that they’d fired across into the bank of this canal. I turned and looked up and this poor fellow had been shot right through the middle of his head and the back of his head was missing. He was then sinking back into the water. I was trying to hold him up which was no good because he was dead. I was telling the fellow on my right – his name was Reeve from Dickleburgh. He was an old soldier who’d been in India and he had two gold teeth.

I was talking to him and I felt something hit my face. I put my hand up automatically and I was covered in blood. I thought, ‘God!’ I looked at the blood and thought I had been hit. I felt again but I was still all there. When I turned round to look at this poor fellow it was him. They had shot down the river and had shot his jaw and it was his jaw which had hit me in the face.

He was then disappearing; the last thing I saw of him was these two gold teeth in the top of his head. In a few minutes the water round me was red with blood but the poor boys had gone. A few minutes afterwards the corporal came back and there was just the two of us. He knew exactly what had happened. He said, ‘Right we can’t fret about the poor boys, let’s go!’ We dived under and swam – how far we swam I have no idea.

Eventually he pulled on me and said, ‘Right here we are.’ There was this ditch right beside us. The first thing I wanted to do was to get out of that damn canal, to get clear of it. I’d seen enough damage already. He said, ‘You stop where you are, that’s an order, keep your head down.’ As I was standing in this canal I looked down this ditch and on the left-hand side of this dyke I could see a bush and I was almost sure I could see this bush moving. At the same time he said, ‘Stay where you are, I’ll go and look see if there’s anything on this meadow.’ With those few words I heard this mouthful of Army language.

I looked at him and he had been shot through the shoulder, and the bone of his arm was sticking out of the top. He was still alive and he put his arm round my neck to keep himself up and again everything happened in seconds. This bush I had seen, there was a German behind it, probably the one who had shot Mis [Mason] just then. He came from behind this bush, jumped into the ditch and he came down running towards us. When he was about twelve yards from us he stopped and put his rifle up to his shoulder.

I said my last prayer because I knew I was going to die. But the Lord was with me again,. There was a loud click, [but] he’d run out of ammunition or his breech had stuck; there was no bullet came out, no bang. He jumped down towards us. We couldn’t move.

He turned his rifle round, got hold of the barrel and as he got close to us he took a swipe at my head. I put my arm up to stop him hitting me and the first blow smashed my hand up. The next blow came down and I still had the strength to hold my elbow up to stop him and he smashed my elbow and put my shoulder out of joint. One more blow and I’d have been dead but at that very instant I heard this loud shout and lots more Germans came into sight. One of these was an officer who had shouted.

They jumped into this ditch and he ordered them to pull us out of the canal. They pulled poor old Mis out first. They had to be very careful because if they had pulled his wrong arm they’d have pulled it off he was in such a state. But he was still alive and they put him on a stretcher and took him away. Then they pulled me out.

May 26 saw more hard fighting in and around Le Paradis. The Germans made several determined attempts to cross the canal and succeeded in getting units into the village of Le Paradis itself. Counter-attacks with the help of 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots, ensured that the Germans did not win the day completely on 26 May but the situation was obscure and getting more desperate.