1940 – The Action at Le Paradis II

Lance-Corporal James Howe MBE, 1st Royal Scots

We were with the Royal Norfolks; they had one end of the village and we had the other end. We had some mortar fire for a day or two. Then the Germans attacked, actually the area I was in first. We were about fifty yards from the centre of the village. We were in this house tending our wounded, the regimental aid post, with the medical officer and the padre, about six of us attendants, and maybe twenty wounded. But my first sight of the Germans was [as] they came down this small road towards us. The first thing I saw was a hand preparing to throw a hand grenade through the window of our regimental aid post. This hand grenade came in, blew up and we all dived in the corner. Of course the building caught fire so we had no option but to get out as quickly as we could.

We came out and here were these Germans, SS troops. They screamed at us to get down in the road where there was a Bren gun carrier, one of ours. We sheltered by this Bren gun carrier, at the same time under the muzzles of the German Tommy guns. But the Germans screamed at us and then they began firing on our regimental headquarters which was further down the road. They were using us as a shield.

On the evening of 26 May calm descended on the village of Le Paradis. Sometime during the night battalion headquarters was moved to Druries Farm on the Rue de Paradis, 500 yards to the west of the crossroads which bisected the Merville–Loubleau road. This crossroads was about a hundred yards to the south of the main collection of village buildings, the shops and the church. A Company, 2nd Royal Norfolks, was holding the neighbouring hamlet of Le Cornet Malo.

It was at Druries Farm that the order was received to hold the position to the last man and to the last round.

At 0330 hours on 27 May the calm was broken by a determined German attack against Le Cornet Malo, the brunt of which was taken by B Company which was holding the ground next to A Company.

Private Arthur Brough, 2nd Royal Norfolks

We set our mortar up and it was getting a bit hectic round there. Lots of tanks and heavy gunfire. We were putting as much stuff down the mortar as we could to get rid of our ammunition. We were trying to repulse them but we knew it wasn’t a lot of good because there were so many there.

It was a 3-inch mortar, the No. 1 was looking through the clinometer sight, focusing roughly on whereabouts the tanks were situated (I was the No. 1). You say, ‘Right on!’ and tap No. 2 on the shoulder. He taps Number Three who’s passing the bomb over. Then they put it in the barrel. Fire. And that was what we did. The mortar must have been red hot, anything they could get hold of we were putting down the mortar until it got so bad that we even resorted to rifles.

There was only about three of us left by that time and [the] PSM [platoon sergeant-major] had been killed. They were throwing pretty heavy stuff at us. We resorted to rifle fire which was absolutely stupid but I suppose it was instinct to try and do your job until we saw that it was absolutely hopeless so we just chucked the bolts out of the rifles and dived and scattered.

Why you do these things, don’t ask me why, it must just be instinct. It was what we were taught to do: immobilise our rifles, take the bolts out. We just ran for it; what can you do when you see all tanks coming at you? There were no officers. The mortar platoon seems to have been isolated there. Johnny Cockerel was with me and we scattered and we dived into a dyke.

There were tanks by the hundred coming up, it was frightening really. As we scattered we got stopped dead in our tracks because there was a bomb that dropped quite near us from the tanks and I could feel something in the back of my leg, my upper right leg and Johnny Cockerel got a piece out of his knee, pretty bad. I looked after him as much as I could, just the field dressing. Mine was just a superficial cut, two or three cuts on the back of my leg and a lot of splinters.

We were in this dyke and all of a sudden the tanks were right on top if us and the next thing we saw was a German officer standing there telling us, ‘The war is over Tommy!’ That’s what he said. We were left there to our own devices for a while and their infantry was coming up behind the tanks. By that time there were a lot of them – just tanks and men. Made you wonder how you really could repulse them.

By now the main German attack was under way but because there were only two survivors from the Royal Norfolks from the main part of the day’s fighting the details concerning exactly what happened on the British side remain obscure, even to this day. What we do know is that the Royal Norfolks, or some of them at least, were fighting hard according to their orders to fight to the very last. Given that most were killed during or after the fighting the main witnesses to what happened on 27 May 1940 were members of the Waffen SS.

Sturmbannführer (SS Major) Werner Zorn, Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

The battle was generally described as having been particularly severe. The enemy resisted stubbornly and losses were, therefore, considerable. With the exception of the 1st Battalion and a few troops of the 3rd Regiment who, with the SS Heimwehr of Danzig, had taken part in the Polish campaign, the division was not seasoned in battle. Nothing is known to me about cruelties or other dirty business during the battle. On account of the losses incurred, 26 May was occasionally referred to as the black day of the division

Herbert Brunnegger, 2nd Battalion, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

The attack is renewed. A weak sun is rising out of ground mist. A signpost points to Le Cornet Malo. Mortars and submachine guns move into position on the edge of the wood and fire at recognisable enemy targets in a village a couple of hundred metres in front of us. While they do this our soldiers move forward on both sides of the path. I come across a young Englishman. His face is distinctive and brown but the proximity of death is making his skin go pale. He is standing up and leaning against a wall made of earth. In his eyes there is an indescribably hopeless expression while the whole time bright spurts of blood are coming out of a wound at the base of his neck. In vain his hands try to press on a vein in order to try and keep the life in his body. He cannot be saved.

Onwards! A surprise as bursts of machine-gun fire hit a section as it moves out of a cutting. The bursts toss them into a tangle of bodies. One stands up and sways past me to the rear – he has a finger stuck into a hole in his stomach.

Unterscharführer (SS Corporal) Edmund Gluma, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

On the morning of 27 May at about 0500 hours, 1 and 2 Platoons (I belonged to 2 Platoon) received the order to clear the terrain in front of us of the enemy. We came across a group of houses supposed to be near Le Cornet Malo. Here we received heavy fire from machine guns and rifles from the houses. Right at the beginning of the battle we had considerable losses in dead and wounded. Our section reached a water ditch about seventy-five metres away from the houses. Here, however, we were forced to remain inactive, as every movement brought us under fire.

Herbert Brunnegger

Before long the machine-gun nests of the invisible defenders suddenly open up on us. The enemy soldiers are able to make best use of the terrain which is made up of ditches, windbreaks, straw bale dumps, isolated farmsteads, tall grass and newly grown wheat. Snipers and machine-gun nests are hidden in the extensive area over which we plan to attack. Our supporting mortars cannot be used to their full effect. The countryside in front of Le Paradis is wide and flat.

The English defend themselves with incredible bravery and doggedness. Again the losses in terms of wounded and dead pile up. Again we are completely pinned to the ground in front of the enemy who are totally invisible and whose ability commands our admiration. We have to adapt ourselves completely to the enemy’s tactics. We work ourselves forward by creeping, crawling and slithering along. The enemy retreat skilfully and without showing themselves. However, it is a thousand metres to the place which we have been ordered to attack. After the meadow, which does afford us protection, there are broad, deep level fields. Any idea of crossing this without support would be totally suicidal. I am reminded of doing this on exercise – then the artillery supported us wonderfully! I conjure that manoeuvre in my mind today in recipe book terms, ‘You need such and such a thing …’ But I have not seen anything of our big Skoda guns. Where are they dug in?

The guns had a problem. They had been supplied with the wrong ammunition and were in any case too busy changing position to assist the SS infantry in any useful way. This had resulted in the regimental commander Standartenführer (SS Colonel) Hans Friedmann Götze having an argument with the divisional commander Gruppenführer (SS Major-General) Theodor Eicke, about the order to continue fighting without the artillery. The feeling in the ranks was that as a direct result of this Götze was careless of his safety and ended up being killed. But for the time being the troops were unaware of the problem and the artillery did fire the odd shot from the odd gun it managed to get into action.

Herbert Brunnegger

Behind us a howitzer has been brought into position in order to break the resistance of Le Paradis’ defenders. After a short time the first shell whooshes right over our heads and crashes down in their presumed positions. Now it must be enough and white flags must soon appear. Rubble, fire and thick smoke show where the shells have landed. Onwards over the last hundred metres

But then the machine guns open up from a large building which is several storeys high. At the same time the infantry set up a withering fire which sends our comrades to the ground. We try to use every small elevation and small dip in the field. No one digs in, in order to avoid the attention of the snipers. Dammit, they must see our predicament. Is the howitzer no longer to be used? But soon the shells resume their attack on the main buildings of the village. It is where the defenders’ return fire is the fiercest.

From my position I can see that motorcycle troops are getting into the village from the far side during the artillery bombardment. Once there they are taking up the fight.

Captain Knöchlein gives the signal to attack. The artillery gives us effective cover and we make it to the village without any further losses. In the village the motorcyclists are already fighting to good effect.

White flags appear hesitantly. We watch them carefully and suspiciously as they emerge into captivity. Most of the British are wounded. The costly fight for the La Bassée Canal and for Le Paradis is at an end.

Private William O’Callaghan, 2nd Royal Norfolks

After connections with the brigade had been cut we were entirely surrounded and the CO told us to destroy and break up telephones, wireless sets, etc. We destroyed all correspondence and made our way one at a time from the cellar into a barn. We were subjected to mortar fire and had some casualties. To save further loss of life the CO, Major Ryder, ordered us to surrender. At this time it was early afternoon.

We hung a towel on the end of a rifle and shortly afterwards all firing ceased. We opened the door and started to file out with our hands above our heads. The first dozen men were cut down and then the firing ceased.

Private Albert Pooley, 2nd Royal Norfolks

After some fifteen minutes we were ordered to form up on the road with our hands clasped behind the back of our heads. During this process we were struck with rifle butts while standing in the ranks. The guards who did this were not reprimanded by their officers or NCOs.

Private William O’Callaghan

We started off again to march along the road and met German troops who behaved in a very brutal manner towards us, hitting us with their rifles and pushing us about. On the march we halted once or twice and it is possible that one of these halts occurred just before we turned off a gateway leading into a farm. On passing through this gateway I noticed a pasture on our right and a farm building on our left.

Herbert Brunnegger

I see a large group of English prisoners by a farmhouse. Those that are not wounded are standing up; the wounded are sitting and lying down in front on the ground. Many of them reach out in despair towards me with pictures of their families. Perhaps they think we are going to send them on leave?

As I look more closely I notice two heavy machine guns which have been set up in front of them. Whilst I look on, surprised that two valuable machine guns should be used to guard the prisoners, a dreadful thought occurs to me. I turn to the nearest machine-gun post and ask what is going on here. ‘They are to be shot!’ is the embarrassed answer. I cannot grasp this and think there is some stupid joke behind these words. Therefore I ask again, ‘Who has ordered this?’

‘Captain Knöchlein.’ Now I know that this is deadly serious. I quickly hurry to catch up with my own section so I do not have witness the shooting of the prisoners who are waiting for death with pictures of their families in their hands.

Hauptschaführer (SS Sergeant-Major) Theodor Emke, 1st Battalion, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

At the time when the prisoners were being marched on to the meadow, Antons said to me something to the effect that it was right that they should be shot, the were franc-tireurs – Heckenschützen – soldiers who, having surrendered by displaying a white flag or raising both hands, allow their enemy to approach to within a short distance and at the last moment use their weapons again.

Private Albert Pooley

We left the road and went into the field through the gate and I noticed at the foot of the wall a large hole which was at least five feet deep, fifteen to twenty feet long and about eight feet broad. When the first prisoners reached the far end of the hole the firing commenced. I was just then entering the gate. It seemed that as the men were hit they fell inside the hole.

When I reached the hole the man nearest to me, Private Ward, was hit and I felt a sharp pain in my left knee and fell into the hole. I fell on top of some men who were already lying there and others fell on top of me. Firing continued for a few seconds during which time I noticed Major Ryder sitting inside the hole with his back to the side nearest to the wall. He seemed to me to be very badly hit.

Hauptscharführer Theodor Emke

As the prisoners reached the house front Knöchlein as well as Schrödel remained behind, leaving a clear distance between them and the marching column. As the column was within four to five paces of the right-hand corner of the house and the last prisoners had just reached the left corner, so that the group was completely covering the front of the house, Knöchlein shouted suddenly, ‘Fire!’ Because of this shout Schrödel and Petri almost simultaneously gave the order, ‘Open Fire!’ Both guns opened fire immediately. I involuntarily looked towards the guns and noticed Mai and Pollak on the gun nearest to me (Mai in charge of the gun and Pollak No. 1). I was prevented by the hedge from seeing the second gun to the right of the first. I presume, however, that Wenda was No. 1. My attention was naturally taken up by the prisoners who collapsed from right to left and fell forward. The whole business was over in a few seconds.

We were silent during the return march since members of the section as well as me were very much affected.

Private William O’Callaghan

When I saw the men falling I threw myself forward and fell into a slight depression in the ground and in falling stretched my hands out in front of me and sustained a slight flesh wound in the left arm. After the firing stopped I heard my comrades shouting and screaming in their agony. I then heard what sounded to me like the fixing of bayonets and shortly afterwards I heard screams and shrieks from more of my comrades which sounded to me as if they were being bayoneted.

Hauptscharführer Heinrich Wenda, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

I heard that British soldiers had been shot. As far as I can remember the comrades did not speak much about it. It certainly distressed them all. It was said that the sights had not worked properly and that the shots had therefore gone too low.

Private Albert Pooley

Groans were coming from men lying in the hole and it was at this point that three Germans jumped down into the hole near Major Ryder, evidently for the purpose of finishing off any prisoners still alive with bayonets. These Germans evidently climbed out of the hole again because further shooting then started with revolvers and rifles from the edge of the hole. One of the men beneath me moved and two shots were fired into the heap of bodies, both of which hit me in the left leg. At the sound of a whistle firing ceased and all the Germans appeared to move away.

Unterstürmführer (SS 2nd Lieutenant) Hinrich Schinkel, 13th Company, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

Meanwhile another two or three men had come up by the victims of the shooting. I do not know who they were. I am almost certain one of them was an officer. I saw first one and then the other bend down and how shortly after, odd shots kept being fired from a carbine or pistol.36

In total ninety-seven British soldiers were massacred that day by the Waffen SS. Not all were men from the Royal Norfolks; there were also signallers and gunners killed that day.

The reasons given by the Waffen SS for the massacre were twofold. Firstly they argued that the British had behaved badly by shooting on German soldiers who were responding to white flags of surrender. This is a dangerous argument and simply a distraction from their own crime. After all in any battle there may well be groups of soldiers surrendering while others nearby continue to fight.

However, it is perhaps worth noting that Marshall’s arguments about firers and non-firers might come into play here. It did appear that different groups of British soldiers were surrendering at different times. Perhaps what was happening was that the minority of active firers were continuing the battle despite the best efforts of some of the others to surrender. And if the active firers were the ones refusing to surrender then they would clearly be shooting to kill the Germans who might be moving to accept the surrender, causing the resentment on the German side.

Secondly the Waffen SS argued that the British had used dumdum bullets. However, the 0.303-inch bullet could easily cause the sort of damage associated with a dumdum bullet, depending on the way in which it travelled through the human body. And of course not all the SS were agreed on whether the British were using dumdum bullets.

Hauptscharführer August Leitl, 2nd Battalion, 2nd SS Infantry Regiment

I was detailed by Hauptsturmführer [SS Captain] Knöchlein to patrol the battle area with some men and collect our dead. On this search such bullets would have been bound to have fallen into my hands. I myself am a sergeant-artificer and ammunition expert and in this capacity I can say that the dead men, who without exception had been shot in the head because they had been shot from the front while lying on the ground, in several cases had rather large holes in their heads which were caused by the fact that the shot on striking the steel helmet flattened itself at the point and thus caused a larger wound than would have been the case if it had not struck against steel. I can assert this a specialist, and as I personally saw every single German corpse I must have known better than any other member of the company whether or not dumdum bullets were used and I hereby declare that this was not the case.

There was a third factor in the massacre, mentioned at the start of this chapter. And that was the need for the Totenkopf to prove itself. If the Waffen SS was to be the elite unit envisaged by Eicke and Himmler then the message would have been victory at all costs.

Obersturmbannführer (SS Lieutenant-Colonel) Paul Werner Hoppe, adjutant to Gruppenführer Eicke

No official pronouncement was made on the subject and thus apparently a deliberate effort was made to keep the circle of those acquainted with the facts as small as possible. From Gruppenführer Eicke’s point of view this is understandable when one considers that the reputation and tradition of the Totenkopf Division, their proving their mettle as new and young fighting troops, was jeopardised by such action. And it was precisely in order to prove themselves that the Totenkopf Division, especially, had to struggle hard, being the junior unit of the Waffen SS.

After the French surrender the Totenkopf Division stayed in France. Although it had shown it could massacre ninety-seven men in cold blood, later when stationed in the south of France it also had no hesitation in executing one of its own members who had assaulted a French woman. In a way the massacre of the British soldiers at Le Paradis tells us something else. If soldiers are conditioned to kill, as were the Waffen SS, then perhaps one of the by-products of that willingness to kill is a lowering of the defences against atrocity. This is a factor which is also a problem for modern armies in places like Vietnam and Iraq.

Justice was finally served out to Haupsturmführer Knöchlein on 28 January 1949 when he was hanged at Hamburg by the British military authorities for his crime. Pooley and O’Callaghan, the only two British survivors of the massacre, had been instrumental in convicting him.