Yesterday was the anniversary of the 1940 Massacre at Le Paradis, in northern France. Trying to reach boats waiting at the port at Dunkirk to evacuate them, about 100 soldiers of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, part of the British Expeditionary Force fighting alongside the French, retreated to a farmhouse at Le Paradis, about 40 miles from the port.
They held off units from Germany’s SS-Totenkopfdivision (Death’s Head division) until they ran out of ammunition, and then tried to surrender. Two soldiers came out of the farmhouse waving a white flag and were mowed down by machine-gun fire from the Germans.
When they tried again, they were led to an open field where all their property was taken from them, then stood up against a barn wall where machines guns on tripods had been placed and where a pit had been dug. Fritz Knöchlein was the SS-Haupsturmfuhrer and commander of SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment 2 who gave the order to shoot the British soldiers. The Germans, as was their custom, then bayoneted any that were not yet dead.
The massacre site
Miraculously, two soldiers survived. Albert Pooley and William O’Callaghan waited in the rain until dark then crawled out and hid for a couple of days in a pig-sty. They managed to get their wounds tended to, but they had no way to escape and again surrendered to the Germans. This time they were held as POWs, and, in April 1943, Pooley, who had a badly injured leg, was exchanged for some German POWs. When he got back to England, his account of the events was not believed.
But when O’Callaghan returned after the war and confirmed the story, an investigation was opened. A British military tribunal in Hamburg found Captain Fritz Knöchlein guilty of a war crime, and he was hanged at age 37 on January 21, 1949.
In this video, at about the 1:30 mark, you’ll find a story that includes the recollection of Bill Pooley who returned to the site.
Fritz always proclaimed his innocence with the usual progression of Nazi reasoning that went, more or less, along these lines: It never happened. OK, it happened, but I wasn’t there. OK, I was there but not in charge. OK, I was in charge, but I had no choice under the circumstances. OK I had a choice, but I followed orders. OK, I did it on my own, but you did worse and deserved it. You tortured me while in custody. Spare me because I have a wife and family.
Knöchlein was held in the infamous London Cage, and wrote letters of complaint about his treatment there.
In the internet age, it is always possible to explore all “sides” of any issue. This site for example, reiterates Knöchlein’s version:
Knöchlein alleges that because he was “unable to make the desired confession” he was stripped, given only a pair of pyjama trousers, deprived of sleep for four days and nights, and starved. The guards kicked him each time he passed, he alleges, while his interrogators boasted that they were “much better” than the “Gestapo in Alexanderplatz”. After being forced to perform rigorous exercises until he collapsed, he says he was compelled to walk in a tight circle for four hours. On complaining to Scotland that he was being kicked even “by ordinary soldiers without a rank”, Knöchlein alleges that he was doused in cold water, pushed down stairs, and beaten with a cudgel. Later, he says, he was forced to stand beside a large gas stove with all its rings lit before being confined in a shower which sprayed extremely cold water from the sides as well as from above. Finally, the SS man says, he and another prisoner were taken into the gardens behind the mansions, where they were forced to run in circles while carrying heavy logs.
“Since these tortures were the consequences of my personal complaint, any further complaint would have been senseless,” Knöchlein wrote. “One of the guards who had a somewhat humane feeling advised me not to make any more complaints, otherwise things would turn worse for me.” Other prisoners, he alleged, were beaten until they begged to be killed, while some were told that they could be made to disappear.
That piece goes on to give a long “proof” about how Knöchlein was the wrong guy, and how the real culprit was already dead, and the Brits just needed someone to hold accountable, and poor Fritz was elected, and so on and so forth.
It’s like everything else nowadays. You get to decide for yourself which side of the story you like best, and one is no better than another.