Book Review Last Stand at Le Paradis - The Events leading to the SS Massacre of the Norfolks 1940

Discussion in 'Books, Films, TV, Radio' started by Jonathan Ball, Apr 18, 2019.

  1. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    “It was a cracking good fighting machine, there’s no doubt about that. We’d been very well trained...” - Captain Peter Barclay

    This is much more than just a recap on one of the most brutal and infamous crimes of the Second World War. Richard Lane, the author who sadly passed away as the book was being completed in 2008 produced a short, compact yet detailed account of the 2/ Royal Norfolk Regiment during the France and Flanders Campaign in 1940.

    The 2nd Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment was the first complete infantry unit of the BEF to land in France and as such they went straight to the front line along the Franco-Belgian border. During the coldest winter in 50 years the men laboured with pick and shovel digging in along the Frontier. In the opinion of the men manning the line people seeing photos of them might have been forgiven for thinking they were looking at images taken over 20 years before. In the words of Sgt Walter Gilding of the Mortar Platoon the defences were of a “First World War pattern”

    They didn’t spend the entire winter digging though. On Christmas Eve, 1939 they were moved towards the Maginot Line with the idea of gaining combat experience being in such close proximity to the German Front Line.

    The Norfolks were given a tour of this impregnable line. Captain Peter Barclay, as mentioned above was impressed with the technology stating “it was mechanised to the nth degree”. However, he couldn’t help thinking that the French, due almost entirely to this Technological marvel had grown complacent of the threat facing them and was private of the belief that they were “totally unoffensive-minded”.

    The Norfolks had different ideas and aggressively patrolled the no-mans land ahead of them. Indeed, the first two British Soldiers to be decorated for Bravery in the field in this war came from the Norfolks. That was for Barclay himself, recipient of an MC and a MM for Corporal Davis.

    Winter turned finally to Spring and of course on 10 May the Germans finally fell on the west. The Norfolks were sent 67 miles from the BEF’s carefully prepared positions on the border to the line of the River Dyle, east of Brussels. Here they stood and fought. The pressure was intense and the strain took its toll on the Battalion C.O, Lt-Col Gerald de Wilton who having succumbed to shell shock in the previous war broke down as the Norfolks began to withdraw westwards and was replaced.

    So the Norfolks began to pull back to the next defensive line on the River Escaut. They witnessed the lines of refugees blocking the roads and in places their bodies where they had been machine gunned by the Luftwaffe. In the eyes of the Norfolks an act done deliberately to slow the BEF’s withdrawal. As recounted in the book the trucks couldn’t stop and the bodies had to be driven over.

    The Norfolks kept asking ‘Why can’t we fight it out?’ on the road west. On the occasions they turned around to face the Germans they gave a terrific account of themselves. The selfless actions of CSM George Gristock bear this out. Taking on a German machine gun post he was badly hit in both legs but kept on attacking and finally, after killing the Machine Gun crew of four, knocked the position out. Badly wounded, he was evacuated to the UK and despite having both legs amputated at the hip, Gristock succumbed to his wounds from an act for which he was to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

    The book weaves together the fighting retreat of the Norfolks with a tidy outline of the General Situation skilfully, which given that it comes in at just 181 pages is to be admired. Of course, the story reaches its denouement at the village of Le Paradis. With the defenders of the La Bassee Canal being pushed ever backwards the remnants of the Battalion, under the acting command of Major Lisle Ryder fell back to the Battalion Headquarters at Duriez Farm. The story is well known and to his credit Lane tells it well. After surrendering to the SS, 99 men, predominantly of the Norfolks were marched in to a small meadow by Creton Farm to see two machine guns set up no more than 30 yards to their right.

    97 of them didn’t come out but as Lane explains, thanks to both the dogged determination and testimony of the two survivors of the massacre, Bert Pooley and Bill O’Callaghan, the perpetrator of the massacre was brought to justice after the war.

    They were a fine Battalion from a fine Regiment and 1940 wasn’t the end of the Norfolks. They distinguished themselves in other theatres throughout the following 5 years of war. As Lt-General Brian Horrocks was to write the Regiment experienced other hardships “from which a lesser regiment might never have recovered…”


    Last Stand at Le Paradis

    Last edited: Apr 18, 2019
    Gibbo, Drew5233, kopite and 3 others like this.
  2. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    Nice review about a fine book from an author who may have had more to other.

    Just as a side note to the last paragraph - Horrocks was right. The Norfolk Regiment claimed more VC's during WW2 than any other regiment.

Share This Page