Tributes to war veteran, 100, who narrowly avoided Nazi massacre
- Credit: ARCHANT
A war veteran, who narrowly avoided being caught up in a notorious Nazi massacre, has died aged 100.
Robert “Bob” Brown, of Norwich, has been described by his family as “generous, forgiving, and sociable”.
Mr Brown was born in Newton Flotman, south of the city, on July 15, 1920, where he spent his youth.
From the age of seven, he would sit and listen to his father talking about his time during the First World War. This eventually sparked his ambition to become a soldier.
However, at the age of 11 he had to wear glasses and thought his chances had been scuppered.
At 14, he left school and began gardening before working on the rose fields. One day he was off ill and overheard his mother’s friend saying men wearing glasses could now join the Army.
Within 10 minutes, he was dressed and waiting for a bus to the recruiting office on Thorpe Road.
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He was eventually offered a place within the Royal Norfolk Regiment – the same regiment his father had served in – and on May 21, 1938, he became a soldier, thus fulfilling his dream.
During the Second World War, he was a private serving in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment and was one of the British soldiers holding up the Germans on the southern side of the corridor to the French coast, in the village of Le Paradis - 31 miles south of Dunkirk.
During the first two days of the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940, he was part of the signalling section of the Battalion's headquarters company which was holding a series of farm buildings in Le Paradis grouped around an open courtyard known as Duriez Farm.
When the Germans recommenced their advance on May 27, Mr Brown had his finger on the pulse of the Battalion as the switchboard operator in the Duriez Farmhouse cellar.
The messages from the frontline companies reached him first before the calls were passed through to the officers in the farm's kitchen overhead.
As the German attacks strengthened, those who could be spared were ordered to take their place around the farm's perimeter, including Mr Brown. First, however, he was sent to an outpost to act as a lookout.
After reporting back to the officers in the farmhouse, on the southern side of the courtyard, Mr Brown joined one of his comrades in the barn on the northern side.
Eventually, as the fighting intensified, acting commanding officer Major Lisle Ryder announced from the courtyard that anyone wanting to surrender and escape could do so and would not be accused of running away.
Mr Brown slipped out of the side entrance of the burning house and made for an adjacent ditch. There he and two other men joined the battalion medical officer, who volunteered to see whether the coast was clear.
Unfortunately for all of them, it was not, and they were captured by a regular army unit.
At the time, he did not realise how lucky he had been as it was only much later that he found out what had happened to the men who had walked out of the outer door of the stables on the western side of the courtyard.
They had been arrested by a different unit, the 1st Battalion of the Totenkopf Division's 2nd Regiment, whose commander Hauptstürmfuhrer Fritz Knöchlein wanted to avenge the killing of so many of his own men.
Just under 100 British soldiers, most of them Royal Norfolks, were then put against a wall and massacred, with the exception of two survivors - Private William “Bill" O'Callaghan from Dereham and Private Albert "Bert" Pooley from Southall, London.
Mr Brown only found out about the massacre in 1948 when Knöchlein was arrested and convicted of murdering the British soldiers and hanged.
One of the murdered men included one of Mr Brown's closest friends.
For a period of around 10 years starting in the 1980s, Mr Brown marked the anniversary of the battle by going out to Le Paradis each year to remember those who had died. He last visited aged 90.
His granddaughter, Claire Howard, of Mulbarton, recalled that visit with him and explained how the taxi driver spoke with the barn house owner and allowed them inside and into the basement.
She said: “As we walked inside, the expression on granddad’s face was harrowing.”
After the war, he continued serving in the army and eventually returned to Newton Flotman, where he married his sweetheart, Doris, in the village’s church. The couple celebrated their diamond wedding and were married for 63 years.
After completing his service, he joined the Territorial Army and belonged to the Dunkirk Veterans Association.
Six weeks after welcoming their first child, Viv, in 1946, the couple moved to New Costessey and remained there until moving to Bracondale around 40 years later.
They had a son, Vic, in 1949, and another daughter, Irene, in 1951.
He worked in a few jobs including the Milk Marketing Boards with his father, carrying out repairs at the gas board until 1968, and as a storeman for AEW Engineers.
His daughter, Viv Roberts, 74, of Norwich, said: “He loved a challenge for working things out and he was well organised.”
She described how they were brought up on war stories, nonsense rhymes, humour, fun, and playfulness.
She added: “He never held grudges, and I’m sure that’s why he went on to live a long life. He was very generous and forgiving.
“I don’t know anyone who did not get on with him. He would talk to anyone at the bus stop. He was a very social person.
“He really enjoyed seeing people. He had a good relationship with people at the local shops. He also loved seeing his family.”
When Doris passed away in June 2009, aged 87, Mr Brown was living at Harriet Court, Lakenham.
He enjoyed gardening, especially tending to roses, and also helped out on his son-in-law David’s allotment.
Mr Brown, who has contracted and recovered from Covid-19 earlier this year, died following a fall and a subsequent head injury on January 26.
He leaves behind his children, seven grandchildren, and several great grandchildren.
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