The Men We Left Behind
There’s been plenty of reference to Dunkirk spirit recently, and this has set me thinking. While we rightly celebrate the immense rescue of over 330,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, what about the 70,000 people we left behind… the ones we couldn’t evacuate?
They have many interesting stories a few of which I’m going to share with you today.
For all the people who escaped at Dunkirk I want to start by sparing a thought for a group of people who not only didn’t escape but also were selected to not escape, those being the men forming the perimeter lines.
These divisions including some of our finest regiments were slated to hold the line until they could not fight any more and then surrender to the advancing German forces and as a result, they could expect honourable treatment as per the Geneva Convention. In many cases this was not what happened at all.
On the 27th May, the first day the evacuation began, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolks was holding the perimeter at the village of Le Paradis when the advancing SS Totenkopf or “Death Head” Division attacked at dawn. Outnumbered and outgunned the Norfolks put up a stubborn defence before falling back to their HQ
Despite the lack of support, their lack of numbers and their ever-dwindling stocks of ammunition the Norfolks did fight to the end, they surrendered at 5:15pm, nearly 12 hours after first contact with the enemy, when they had run out of ammunition. It was to be the worst decision they made.
Around ninety men were marched to a brick farm building, and when they saw the two machine-guns pointing towards them, they knew how this was going to turn out. There was nowhere to escape to now. As the bullets died down, anyone still alive heard the unmistakable sounds of pistols being cocked and bayonets being fixed. Since the SS were going to commit a war crime, they were going to be thorough about it.
As the cries and screams died down, a total of ninety-seven men had been killed, and French civilians were forced to bury the bodies. In amongst those bodies were Private Albert Pooley and Bill O’Callaghan who were somehow still alive, despite both of them having been shot.
As night fell they found the space and strength to slip away from the scene. They then hid themselves in a pig sty living off raw potatoes and puddle water. They lived like this for three days before being discovered and cared for by the farm owner and her son. At great risk to themselves they nursed both soldiers back to a semblance of health and they agreed to surrender to soldiers of the Wehrmacht, and this time according the proper treatment as Prisoners of War.
They were treated in a military hospital and then spent the rest of the war as Prisoners in Stalag 21D and later Stalag 8B. We will return to their story later….
One hundred men of the Warwickshire Regiment , Cheshire Royal Artillery and some French soldiers were holding the southbound road through the village of Wormhoudt, and like the Norfolks we have discussed before they fought on until their ammunition was exhausted and then, in line with the general orders of Lord Gort.
After their surrender they were marched to a barn in the neighbouring La Plaine au Bois.
Having rounded them all into the barn, troopers of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler threw stick grenades into the crowded barn. This would have killed everyone in the barn were it not for the sacrifice of Sergeant Moore and CSM Jennings who jumped onto the grenades to suppress the explosions.
Realising their first plan hadn’t worked the Germans brought groups out 5 at a time and shot them in the back but this was taking too long so they resumed the throwing of their remaining grenades into the barn.
A total of 80 men were killed immediately, and a further 9 died of their wounds within 2 days. But beyond all comprehension, despite numerous wounds five men survived the massacre and were discovered at the barn by the next division of soldiers to occupy the farm.
Privates Albert Evans, Edward Daly, and Arthur Johnson. Lt. Kenneth Keens, and Gunner Brian Fahey survived. They were treated by Wehrmacht medics and joined their comrades in the Prisoner of War camps. For them the war was over, but they were damn lucky to be alive.
In amongst all the soldiers we needed to evacuate there was an awful lot of British women serving in France at the time as nurses, drivers, mechanics, couriers and telephonists, but with the troops at Dunkirk now encircled there was no way to evacuate them from there. As Queen Alexandra Nursing sister Lilian Gutteridge was making her way to Dunkirk an SS officer stopped her ambulance and attempted to commandeer it.
When he ordered the ambulance be emptied and the wounded men within to be thrown outside Lilian slapped him in the face with all the passion a British Nurse could deliver, and in response he stabbed her in the leg with his dagger. As he was about to finish the job several soldiers of the Black Watch appeared and put the man out of Lilian’s misery.
Then, Dunkirk fallen, and with a wounded leg she got back in the ambulance to a railway siding and convinced the driver to take on her wounded. She escaped the Dunkirk area to Cherbourg, by rail but collected a further 600 British and French wounded men on the way. She was evacuated from Cherbourg as part of Operation Ariel which was evacuating as many personnel as possible from any port that the Royal Navy could still access.
It was to one of these ports that 20 year old Rifleman Bill Lacey of the Gloucestershire Regiment was now trying to make his way to.
Bill had given up his seat in one of the boats out of Dunkirk so that a wounded man could take the place and when he turned to get the next boat out he found that there wasn’t a next boat out. As he started to see the perimeter guards rounded up and taken prisoner he elected to try his hand at escape and evade and headed south.
He got rid of his uniform, hid his weapon and stole clothes from French washing lines in an effort to more blend in to the local population. This could, however, make things much worse for him as if he was captured out of uniform he could be shot as a spy.
He didn’t speak French, had never been to France before and had no idea where to go, but living off scraps and stream water he stayed on the run in hostile occupied France. He said afterwards “every time I saw the sun come up I told myself I was winning”. He carried on “winning” for four whole months.
By this time the evacuations at every other French port were long gone. The last evacuation boat from anywhere in France left on 25th June 1940, it was now well into October.
As he approached the coast having inadvertently travelled in a giant circle he found a fishing boat tied to a small pier. As an Ilfracombe man Bill knew how to handle a boat but he’d never done a channel crossing before, but how hard could it be? After dark, he slipped the moorings and aimed at what he hoped was England. Soon after dawn he came ashore near Dover, a ragged figure weighing less than 7 stone.
The last man out of Dunkirk was home.
Where he was immediately arrested and taken to an army barracks where inteliigence officers just wouldn’t believe his account. It was only when local French newspapers confirmed the story of a British soldier on the run, stealing clothes and the mysterious disappearance of a fishing boat, that he was released.
Bill Lacey got his chance to go back into action. His survival skills got him a transfer into Special Operations and he worked on a mission in the Channel Islands to capture a German General. He retired at the rank of sergeant in 1964 and became a postman.
For most of the men left behind the war, as the phrase goes, was over and they spent their war as POWs being released and repatriated once hostilities had ceased.
Albert Pooley and Bill O’Callaghan gave evidence at war crimes tribunals which led to SS Commander Fritz Knochlein being convicted of war crimes for the Le Paradis massacre. He was hanged on 28th January 1949 in Hamelin.
In 1947 the role of Wilhelm Mohnke and the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler was investigated for war crimes, but it proved impossible to build a sufficient case against any individual to mount a successful prosecution. After a further campaign in 1988 by Labour MP Jeff Rooker a German prosecutor again closed the case due to insufficient evidence. Since everyone who was identifiable has since died, true justice will never be done for the Wormhoudt massacre.
Sometimes, the bad guys get away with it.
So when you see the many celebrations of Dunkirk, the praising of the little ships, and the breathtaking film, spare a thought for the 70,000 those ships didn’t rescue, the men and women who came home a completely different way, the men who only came back 6 years later, and the men who just didn’t come back at all.
Thank you for reading.