The Le Paradis massacre was a war crime committed by members of the 14th Company, SS Division Totenkopf, under the command of Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein.
It took place on 27 May 1940, during the Battle of France, at a time when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was attempting to retreat through the Pas-de-Calais region during the Battle of Dunkirk.
Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Norfolk Regiment, had become isolated from their regiment. They occupied and defended a farmhouse against an attack by Waffen-SS forces in the village of Le Paradis. After running out of ammunition, the defenders surrendered to the German troops. The Germans led them across the road to a wall, and machine-gunned them. Ninety-seven British troops died. Two survived, with injuries, and hid until they were captured by German forces several days later.
After the war, Fritz Knöchlein was located, tried and convicted by a war crimes court, with the two survivors acting as witnesses against him. For his part in the massacre, Knöchlein was executed in 1949.
The British captives, a majority of whom were wounded, were disarmed and marched down a road off the Rue du Paradis. While they were waiting, two machine-guns from No.4 Machine-gun Company were prepared and set up by a barn in a paddock of the farm. The British prisoners were marched to the barn, lined up alongside it and fired upon by the two German machinegunners, who continued firing until all the British had fallen. Knöchlein then armed his men with bayonets to kill any remaining survivors. Satisfied that they had killed them all, the German soldiers left to rejoin the rest of their regiment.
An account by Private Albert Pooley, one of only two survivors:
… we turned off the dusty French road, through a gateway and into a meadow beside the buildings of a farm. I saw with one of the nastiest feelings I have ever had in my life two heavy machine guns inside the meadow … pointing at the head of our column. The guns began to spit fire … for a few seconds the cries and shrieks of our stricken men drowned the crackling of the guns. Men fell like grass before a scythe … I felt a searing pain and pitched forward … my scream of pain mingled with the cries of my mates, but even before I fell into the heap of dying men, the thought stabbed my brain ‘If I ever get out of here, the swine that did this will pay for it.’
Ninety-seven British prisoners were killed and the Germans forced French civilians to bury the bodies in a shallow mass grave the next day. Despite the German efforts, Private William O’Callaghan had survived and pulled Private Albert Pooley alive from among the bodies in the field. The pair then hid in a pig-sty for three days and nights, surviving on raw potatoes and water from puddles before being discovered by the farm’s owner, Madame Duquenne-Creton, and her son Victor. The French civilians risked their lives caring for the two men, who were later captured by the Wehrmacht’s 251st Infantry Division and transferred to a military hospital
On the day after the massacre, 28 May, Gunter d’Alquen, a journalist in the Waffen-SS, arrived at the scene with Dr Thum, the SS-Totenkopf deputy legal advisor. d’Alquen made a report of what he saw:
It was possible to look into the back yard from the road…the corpses in British uniform were lying in the yard near the buildings. They were lying in such a position that one can assume they were killed by machine-gun bursts. It struck me at once that the dead soldiers were not wearing helmets, nor did they have any equipment on them…I took pictures of the dead bodies, and the whole farm. At Thum’s request these were to be placed at the disposal of the division…I believe I was already sitting there in the vehicle when Thum…told me that in the field which he had returned the equipment the shot British soldiers were lying in a heap, from which he had come to the conclusion that a summary trial had taken place”
After the war, O’Callaghan’s evidence and the discovery of the SS-run extermination camps prompted the British authorities to look into the reports.
The massacre was investigated by the War Crimes Investigation Unit and after Knöchlein’s company was identified as the perpetrators in 1947, he was traced and arrested in Germany. Knöchlein was arraigned on charges of war crimes in August 1948, to which he pleaded not guilty:
Knöchlein denied being at Le Paradis. Then, when residents identified him; he said the executions were justified because the British used dum-dum bullets banned by the Hague Convention.
He also claimed the British had lured his men to the farmhouse with a white flag before gunning them down. Finally, he accused his jailers of subjecting him to physical and mental torture.
The court did not believe any of it, and Knöchlein was hanged on January 28, 1949, for his role in the massacre – the only one punished.
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