2LT BILL WILLISON AT DUNKIRK

The Le Paradis Incident

 

Le Paradis Massacre Site

 

In 1940 my Uncle Bill was a junior officer in the Second Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment. During the WWII Battle of Dunkirk, members of the Royal Norfolks were victims of a German war crime at Le Paradis in the Pas-de-Calais in France, on 26 May 1940.[1] It took some time to discover and record the details during the war and Bill's death date is shown as 27 May.

The 2nd Battalion was one of several units of the 4th Brigade covering the British army's retreat to Dunkirk. The brigade was holding the line of the La Bassee Canal. At such times units get separated and the 2nd Norfolk's HQ company had formed a 2nd Norfolk defensive position based at the Duriez farmhouse. The 2nd Norfolk conducted their defence until the afternoon with many injured and the Germans shelling the farm. Making their last stand until they ran out of ammunition they finally surrendered to a unit of the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the SS 'Totenkopf' (Death's Head) Division. The local German commander was SS Obersturmfuhrer (Lieutenant) Fritz Knoechlein. The surviving 99 2nd Norfolk prisoners were marched to some farm buildings on another farm and were lined up alongside a barn wall.

The Germans then opened fire with two machine guns. When the shooting stopped, German soldiers with bayonets killed everybody who still showed signs of life, while other soldiers and officers shot at the corpses. One German eyewitness later said he saw a wounded British officer raise himself on one arm and point to his heart, as a plea that he should be dispatched. Many of the soldiers were already wounded in battle as later proven by military bandages found on them by the French authorities. Ninety-seven Norfolks were killed and their bodies buried in shallow pit. Although wounded, Privates Albert Pooley and William O'Callaghan had hidden in a pig-sty and were discovered later by the farm's owner, Mdme Creton, and her son. The two British soldiers were later recaptured by a regular Wehrmacht unit and spent the rest of the war as prisoners of war.

 

Knoechlein

 

SS Totenkopf

 

The local 2nd Norfolk commanders had tried to surrender to those Germans on 26 May 1940, however, the battalion negotiators had been gunned down. The bodies were exhumed in 1942 by the French and reburied in the local churchyard which now forms part of the Le Paradis War Cemetery. A memorial plaque was placed on the barn wall in 1970. A large memorial was subsequently erected beside the Church.

The massacre was investigated by the War Crimes Investigation Unit and Knoechlein was traced and arrested. Tried in a British military court in Hamburg, Knoechlein was found guilty and hanged on January 28, 1949. Fifteen soldiers, including an officer, Lieutenant JG Woodwark, survived the shooting as they were badly wounded in a ditch and were overlooked.

The Germans themselves investigated the incident, but official access was denied by the Wermacht to try to protect its own men from Allied retaliation. The treatment of Prisoners Of War (POWs) was internationally agreed and ratified by Germany prior to the War. The 3rd SS was only one of 38 divisions fielded by the Waffen-SS during World War II. The division is infamous due to its insignia and the fact that most of the initial enlisted men were SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS concentration camp guards).

Lieutenant JG Woodwark survived the war and added details to the reports.

SS Division Totenkopf

The SS Division Totenkopf was formed in October 1939. The Totenkopf was initially formed from concentration camp guards and men from the SS-Heimwehr Danzig. The division was officered by men from the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT), of whom many had seen action in Poland. The division was commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer (General) Theodor Eicke. He is most remembered for personally executing SA Chief Ernst Röhm following the Night of the Long Knives.

Promoted on January 30, 1934 to SS-Brigadeführer (Major-general), Eicke took command of Dachau and immediately began reforms, establishing new guarding provisions, which included blind obedience to orders, and tightening disciplinary and punishment regulations for detainees, which were adopted by all concentration camps of the Third Reich during the following years.

Eicke's radical anti-semitism and anti-bolshevism as well as his insistence on blind and unconditional obedience towards him as the camp's commander as well as the SS and Adolf Hitler made an impression on Himmler. And in May 1934, he was appointed "inspector of concentration camps", a position which he began working in on July 4, 1934. Although technically responsible to the bureaucracy, Eicke in fact reported directly to Heinrich Himmler.

Eicke's reorganizations and the introduction of forced labour made the camps one of the SS's most powerful tools. It was this and other things that earned Eicke a fearsome reputation even within the SS; he was described as brutal and evil, distrustful, cruel and plagued by his exuberant ambitions, full of hatred for everyone who did not agree with the Nazi ideology.

Eicke's attitude of "inflexible harshness" also influenced the guards in the concentration camps; constant indoctrination removed any compassion for the detainees from the guards and created an atmosphere of controlled, disciplined cruelty that lived on even when Eicke was no longer involved with the concentration camps.

Having missed the Polish campaign, Totenkopf was initially held in reserve during the assault into France and the Low Countries in May 1940. They were committed on 16 May to the Front in Belgium. The Totenkopf men fought fanatically, suffering heavy losses.

 

Canadians with Dutch Waffen SS

 

During the Campaign in France, the 3rd SS Division served first as a part of the Army reserve. The men had been former concentration camp guards, from Dachau. On May 16th, 1940, the Division was ordered into battle, and on May 19th, 1940, it was used to secure the area of Le Cateau and Cambrai. It was during this period that elements of the Division were involved in actions that led to the execution of the Allied prisoners. The commander of the 4th Kompanie, I Abteilung, (the responsible unit) was Fritz Knochlein.

In 1944, the First Canadian Army provided the primary troops to open the Atlantic coast and the Canadians captured many Germans in the Liberation of the Low Countries.

The picture shows Canadian troops escorting Dutch POWs at Veenendaal in the Netherlands on 11 May 1945. SS membership was not limited to the Germans alone.


ENDNOTES

1        The incident is well documented. See Robert Lee Hotz, "The Human Face Of War", Los Angeles Times Magazine. My cousin Lee first outlined for the family Bill Willison and the Norfolk's tragedy at Le Paradis. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Norfolk_Regiment#Le_Paradis_Incident, http://www.feldgrau.com/3ss.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Paradis_massacre, http://home19.inet.tele.dk/antinazist/warcrimesE.htm#Paradis, http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=73521, http://www.waffen-ss.nl/harsfoto.php, http://www.answers.com/topic/le-paradis-massacre.

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