Norfolk needs new memorial to honour Second World War heroes
PUBLISHED: 21:14 08 November 2018 | UPDATED: 07:25 09 November 2018
As Remembrance Sunday nears, Nick Conrad says it's time Norfolk honoured the heroes of Dunkirk
On Sunday, as Britain falls silent, who will you be thinking of? My mind whirls through a carousel of individuals I’ve known, admired or read about, who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. As you can imagine, as someone who enjoys reading about our nation’s history, my mind wanders between the personal losses so many have endured to the wider consequences of war. For me, two minutes is never enough time. I find the silence comforting, constructive and hugely poignant.
This year I’ll spare a moment for those who called this county home, who lost their lives fighting for their country. Norfolk is a proud military county. Prominent individuals who’ve held high rank in our armed forces populate our history. As ever, it’s the story of the everyday men and women that has really captured my imagination. None more so than the story of the brave men who experienced hell in ‘paradise’ – Le Paradis to be exact.
On May 24, 1940, the British and Allies beat a retreat to Dunkirk. Our troops hurriedly scrambled for the coast in the hope of salvation. The invasion had been disastrous, abandoned equipment was strewn across the French countryside. The terrifying reality of capture motivated the swift exit and evacuation. The Germans, thank God, halted –allowing 338,000 men the comforting sight of The White Cliffs of Dover and the relative sanctity of Blighty. Not all could evacuate. Some brave souls had to stay to fight.
The 3rd Company SS Division Totenkopf, consisting of fanatical and hardened Nazis, pressed on. The Second Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment and the Eighth Lancashire Fusiliers were given the daunting task of holding the line. What must these young men have been thinking whilst holding that line?
Inevitably confrontation came for the Royal Norfolks. Set up in their makeshift headquarters at a rural farmhouse known as Duriez Farm they fell under a hail of bullets. In a fog of confused orders, they did their level best to halt the German advance. Eventually they gave up the ramshackle farmhouse, sheltering in a nearby cowshed. As the ammunition ran out, the desperation and realty of the situation became apparent. The 99 men, under the command of Major Lisle Ryder, consulted and consoled each other before raising the white flag.
The Germans seized the men’s weapons and marched them towards another barn. Lined up against the cold stone outbuilding, they expected to be taken prisoner. However, two German machine guns were raised in their direction and many were mowed down under a hail of bullets – crudely ripping through their flesh before ricocheting off the masonry. Survivors were bayonetted until their lifeless bodies surrendered. Remarkably, two men survived.
Bill O’Callaghan was hit in the arm and knocked to the ground. ‘Luckily’ another body landed on him, and he had the foresight to play dead. He lay motionless despite knowing the Germans were thrashing and slashing his comrades around him. The shrill whistle of German commandment ended the orgy of violence, and Bill slipped into unconsciousness. Two hours later he was awoken by the only other survivor, Bert Pooley. The two men worked together, sheltering in a pigsty, surviving on raw potatoes and sipping water from puddles. The French landowner eventually found them, ignoring the clear danger she faced for aiding a British soldier. Eventually both men were captured and made POWs. Bert was repatriated, deemed no longer a threat to the Germans due to his injuries. Bill spent the rest of the war incarcerated.
I’ve just given you an overview of one of the most incredible stories from the Second World War. Hearing about the actions of these brave men fills me with pride that they came from our county of Norfolk. Now our country needs to honour them. That’s why I’m passionately putting my name behind calls for a memorial to be erected in Norfolk.
The successful evacuation from Dunkirk, that ‘miracle’ that to this day stirs such emotion inside of me, was made possible by the selfless defence of the Dunkirk perimeter – by troops who knew they would not be rescued.
These men are true heroes, and their story must be enshrined in a prominent monument in our county.