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 not 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.
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
An excellent summary of the invasion of France can be found in the West Point History of World War II, an invaluable guide to the whole war, which I reviewed in 2015. This history has contains many maps and charts that help to explain the campaign: