Propaganda leaflet with map of encircled Dunkirk

A German propaganda leaflet that fairly accurately portrays the situation on 27th May 1940

The 2nd Norfolk Battalion had been ordered to fight to the last man and the last bullet in their stand at La Bassee Canal. By the 27th May many were dead and their wounded had only the most rudimentary care in a first aid post established in a barn. When they ran out of ammunition surrender became inevitable. The 97 survivors were marched in ranks of three into a field near Druries Farm near Le Paradis which had been their base. Signaller Albert Pooley, A Company, 2nd Norfolks was one of the men who surrendered to the SS Totenkopf Regiment under the command of SS Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein.

There were a hundred of us prisoners marching in column of threes. 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’ve ever had in my life, two heavy machine-guns inside the meadow. They were manned and pointing at the head of our column. I felt as though an icy hand gripped my stomach.

The guns began to spit fire and even as the front men began to fall I said fiercely, “This can’t be. They can’t do this to us!” For a few seconds the cries and shrieks of our stricken men drowned the cracking of the guns. Men fell like grass before a scythe.

The invisible blade came nearer and then swept through me. I felt a terrific searing pain in my left leg and wrist and pitched forward in a red world of tearing agony. My scream of pain mingled with the cries of my mates but even as I fell forward into a heap of dying men the thought stabbed my brain, “If I ever get out of here the swine who did this will pay for it”.

Pooley was shot twice more in the leg when the SS went through the pile of men to administer the coup de grâce. He survived along with one other man, William O’Callaghan, concealed under the bodies of dead men. They escaped from the scene and were later taken prisoner by another German unit. They spent the war as P.O.W.s. but Albert Pooley was repatriated in 1943 because of his disabling wounds. He then discovered that the British Military authorities would not believe his account of the massacre, they did believe that the Germans would behave like this.

It was only when his account was corroborated when O’Callaghan was released in 1945 that an investigation began. Pooley finally had the satisfaction of giving evidence against Fritz Knöchlein in a War Crimes Tribunal convened in 1948. Knöchlein was convicted and subsequently hanged.

See Peter Hart (ed): Voices from the Front: The 2nd Norfolk Regiment: From Le Paradis to Kohima

Most of the British Expeditionary Force tried desperately to find a means to avoid surrender, even though the opportunities to get away seemed very slender indeed:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Monday 27th May

French tanks put in attack this morning with certain amount of success. Hear that “A” Coy were unsuccessful last night and lost heavily, but know nothing definite. Bn. front in the town is still intact, hut I hear that enemy are through on left flank as well as right. About 1pm went to “D” Coy H.Q. as we were out of touch with the Battalion. Charles [—] was also there with some more hopeful news of French attack in the south. Had some very good brandy there.

Runner suddenly arrived with a verbal message from the C.O. to the effect that Camerons were to withdraw immediately. We commenced to withdraw about 1.45 but not with a great deal of hope as we knew that enemy were round on both sides and probably behind us. We intended to head across country for Laventie and Sailly Bridge. Having passed the church on the main road we turned off into a lane and thence across country due north.

First I directed C.S.M. and the whole party with me less Cpl Hamilton’s sec to carry on to the first bound and waited on the main road for the remainder to come up which they did some 15-20 minutes later. Mainwaring and P.S.M. Kerr arrived with remainder of 10 and 11 Pl’s and we started off. By this time the first party was out of sight. Had got about 300 yds when confronted by several tanks and had to get down in the field and available ditches.

In my ditch were remains of original 10 Pl., Sgts Turner and Watson, Ptes Leidlar, Gillespie, Nicholson, Buchanan, Elvin. Opened fire on tank with Bren and unfortunately A/T [anti-tank] Rifle jammed and striker broke. Turner and Nicholson there hit. Ditch very uncomfortable with about one foot of water in it. We stayed there from 2 p.m. till nightfall. At 10 p.m. Tanks continued firing over us and M.G. opened from the main road on our left. Occasional shell landed in our field. Enemy moving up fast on both sides and we were completely surrounded, but apparently undiscovered.

Enemy 150 yds away on either side. Have a good supply of cigarettes and fair supply of chocolate. Fortunately the day was warm but it was unpleasant and we spent a cold evening. Turner and Nicholson in a bad way. Could see enemy several times in houses on right and thought ourselves seen. No sign of D or C Companies, but Leidlar told me D had turned back to original position. It later transpired they had tried to get out of La Bassee by another route.

At 10.15 pm. appeared dark enough to get away and we started off in two parties. Failed to find any sign of Coy H.Q. and C.S.M’s party. Enemy dotted all over country side and frequently passed within 20 yds of them, had torches shone on us and were hailed but managed to get through without a mishap. Terrible night.

[Entry No.19, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

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May

26

1940

Calais surrenders to Germans

British dead immediately after the battle in Calais.

Things livened up towards midday. French seem to have gone on right. Am told Worcesters have taken their place but continually failed to get in touch with them. Enemy through on our right, 1 sec of Worcesters back on our rt hand platoon Enemy in view out of wood, but withdrew under French M.G. fire. Very pleasant Fr officer in charge of M.G.s but he is rather worried about the situation, so am I.

May

25

1945

Okinawan civilians try to leave the battlefield

Marines escort an elderly Okinawan civilian from battle, Battle of Okinawa, June 1945,

All the men we had nursed were simply lying there. One of us asked, “Soldier, what are you going to do with these people?” “Don’t worry,” he responded, “I’ll make it easy for them.” Later we heard that the medics offered them condensed milk mixed with water as their last nourishment, and then gave them cyanide and told them, “Achieve your glorious end like a japanese soldier.”

May

25

1940

Norfolks fight on as bombing fails to halt Germans

Pontoon bridge over La Bassee Canal. German PzKpfw 38(t) crossing. probably on 27th May, from Rommel's personal collection, later captured by the British.

‘Great enemy air activity today. Had orders to move back to Festubert. Sent Cameron on billeting, then arrived self with 1 Pl. Got settled in and was going to look for Camerons in War Cemetery when we were called back to Estaires. Lot of enemy air bombing along roads. Then had orders to move back to Violaines. Later in afternoon Coy Comdrs went on to meet Queens Regt, who we were to relieve in L.B. and recce area there. The usual defences of a canal in a town. Mortar shelling. ‘

May

24

1940

The evacuation from Calais as Hitler orders ‘Halt’

British transport at the dockside at Calais, pictured after the Germans had captured the port.

When I first emerged from the stuffy cellar and instinctively sniffed the fresh salt air I was met with, for me, a new and very unpleasant smell. It was the smell of scorched flesh, coming from the corpses of men who had received direct hits on the quayside. For the unloading of the hospital train it was a question of pairing off with someone, going into the train (which also stenched heavily) and carrying to the ship a wounded man on his stretcher. Very soon all the available space below decks was full, and stretchers had to be arranged on the open decks.

May

23

1940

The BEF cross back into France

German half track with Flak gun

Very tiring march. Started at 11 last night, crossed frontier about 6 a.m. This morning arrived in Lannay approximately 7.30 a.m. Once again got good billets but as it later happened, we did not expect to be left in them for more than 12 hours. Could not get hold of transport for about an hour but had breakfast at 10 a.m. then slept for 2 hours.

May

22

1940

The Holocaust progresses while war rages

Roma and Sinti are deported from the German city of Asberg, 22nd May 1940. They were sent to forced labour camps in Poland where the majority died. The remainder were later sent to death camps. There are apparently no records of any survivors.

Men, women and children of the Roma and Sinti peoples are deported from the German city of Asberg, 22nd May 1940. They were sent to forced labour camps in Poland where the majority died from starvation and maltreatment.

May

21

1945

Okinawa – Medal of Honor for Conscientious Objector

6th Div Marines Okinawa

On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover.

May

21

1940

The British counter-attack at Arras and Escaut

British troops man an anti-tank gun position in the ruined Belgium town of Louvain.

Shelled all the way between Merlin and main road, but Coy well spread out. Munro of 10 Pl killed, Cpl. Campbell, Hunter, Armstrong, all wounded, but they continued to objective. Ground very unpleasently open all way to main road. All Pl’s got into position and Coy H. Q. was on back in thick wood on S.W. side of main road. Coy heavily shelled in position and sniped.

May

20

1940

The BEF are encircled, 7th Royal Sussex are decimated

German artillery on the western front, May 1940

Lots of rumours of tanks again. On arrival back forced another perimeter of village and blocked all roads. Sudden move again this evening. Marched to Ere about seven miles, Waited there several hours, supposed to be taking over line from another unit… All slept on the side of road. Finally received orders to return Taintignies. While waiting at the roadside to Ere about 10.30 p.m. Pte Hutchinson had his arm run over and broken by a truck.