La Plaine au Bois – The Plain in the Woods – is in the commune of Wormhoudt (or Wormhout) in France, some twenty miles or so west of Ypres (Ieper) in Belgium, so we all have an idea of where we are. And once upon a time, one sunny afternoon only a lifetime ago, this was a place of mass murder.
There was a different barn – cow shed, really – here then, back in 1940, but one of these trees still survives, as we shall see later.
Today’s barn, a modern replacement, the old barn having been torn down in the early 1960s, is, as you can see, a place of pilgrimage.
Often overlooked, maybe, when discussing the evacuation from Dunkirk, is the role played by the men whose job was to slow the German advance further inland to give the whole evacuation process the one thing it needed; time. One such group, mainly men from the Royal Warwickshires, but also some Cheshires and men of the Royal Artillery, were ordered to hold the Germans in the Esquelbecq, Ledringhem & Wormhoudt area in France, about six miles from the Belgian border.
Inadequately equipped, lacking ammunition even from the start, and with little sleep and food, they managed to hold off the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler for between five & nine hours (depending on accounts) before their ammunition ran out and the survivors had no choice but to surrender.
Around a hundred men, some wounded, were taken prisoner and marched here, open pastureland at the time. ‘First they took all our personal effects – my letter, my photographs of my mum and dad and my two sisters, even the photograph of Elizabeth, my wife. They were torn up and burned. They didn’t want any of us identified.’ Their identity tags were also removed before the men were herded, literally crammed, into the cowshed that stood here. And then the grenades followed. And the bullets. Any men not killed were dragged out and shot in the back. Even so, the heroism of at least two men, who threw themselves on grenades to save their colleagues, allowed a handful of others to escape.
There are two plaques you can just spot on the side of the shed,…
…almost obscured by the rose bush,…
…and beneath, one of a series of information boards dotted around the site, some of which I will show you, and some of which I won’t (click them to enlarge). The man pictured is Captain James Fraser Lynn-Allen, 2nd Bn. Royal Warwickshire Regiment, the most senior British officer among the prisoners. After the grenade explosions, he saw a chance to escape, grabbing a badly wounded soldier on his way, ‘He could have got away. But he didn’t leave me. That man saved my life. As we ran I collapsed and he could have got away, but he didn’t.’
There’s a memorial mound at the far end of the site,…
…and beyond the barn, on the right…
…three rows of trees, each with a memorial at its base.
Forty oaks, planted in 2004 by the Birmingham Dunkirk Veterans Association, remember forty men, mainly of the Warwicks, who are known to have been among those murdered. Exact identification of all the victims has been impossible due to the lack of identity tags (which also explains the usual use of the term ‘about a hundred British soldiers’ in most reports, the precise number presumably still unknown).
Sergeant Stanley Moore, 2nd Bn. Royal Warwickshire Regiment, one of two men known to have thrown themselves onto the grenades flung into the barn in an attempt to protect their colleagues,…
…with the second man, Company Sergeant Major Augustus Jennings, pictured here on the left. On the right, Private Thomas White, another man who died, although not among the forty named men on the plaque. Both were 2nd Bn. Royal Warwickshires.
An information board among the trees remembers two British soldiers who were killed here the day before the massacre while conducting a reconnaissance mission.
Captain Lynn-Allen and the wounded private dashed some two hundred yards to this pond, and, tragically, Lynne-Allen’s story ends here. Their flight was spotted by a Waffen SS officer who followed them and shot both of them at point-blank range in the pond.
‘And that’s how he died. That’s how my captain died. Saving my life. He was a fine man and a fine soldier.’
‘I was shot twice behind the ear. He thought he had killed me.’ The quotes all come from Private Bert Evans (pictured), 2nd Bn. Royal Warwickshire Regiment, the soldier, wounded in the arm, whom Lynne-Evans grabbed as he fled the barn. Despite being shot in the neck alongside Lynne-Allen, he lay in the water pretending he was dead until the SS officer had left, after which he managed to crawl out of the pond and make his way to a local farm. Found by Wehrmacht soldiers, not SS, he was taken to hospital where his injured arm was amputated, and from there to a POW camp. He would be repatriated to Great Britain under the Red Cross prisoner exchange scheme in 1943.
Across the fields in that direction the British had constructed a roadblock on the Wormhoudt – Esquelbecq road. Early on 28th May, the car of the commander of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, was ambushed by British riflemen at the roadblock. With his driver shot dead, Dietrich and another officer were forced to take refuge in a ditch for several hours, the subsequent firefight seeing a considerable number of Germans killed.
This area was once a French Army depot of some sort, guarded in May 1940 by a French soldier called Robert Maurice Joseph Cornil Vanpee.
Vanpee had apparently been hidden by a local farming family but after a German soldier perched on a tank had been shot from the direction of the farm, the whole Bollengier family were lined up against a wall to be shot in retribution, at which point Vanpee surrendered, saving the family, but sealing his own fate.
Led into a field, Vanpee was shot, his body later buried along with the British victims of the massacre. The bodies were exhumed in 1941 and reburied in Esquelbecq Military Cemetery, Vanpee simply as an ‘Unknown French soldier’. His identity was restored (above right), after much research, I imagine, in the late 1990s.
The foundation of this mound was made from the sediment of the original pond where James Lynn-Allen and Bert Evans were shot. No trace of Lynn-Allen’s body was found, so this is his gravesite, I suppose. His name can be found on Panel 40 of the Dunkirk Memorial.
View from the top. The barn is at the far end of the trees in the centre. Beneath the trees on the left,…
…this sculpture, signifying ‘Peace and Friendship among Peoples’,…
…was inaugurated on 28th May 2010, the 70th anniversary of the massacre.
Another information board,…
…which I imagine would make more sense if the hedge beyond hadn’t grown in the meantime, obscuring the farm in question (below).
And what of the man whose troops carried out these killings, Hauptsturmführer Wilhelm Mohnke, commander of 2nd Bn. Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler?
In 1947 the War Crimes Interrogation Unit, accompanied by several survivors of the massacre, returned to Wormhoudt, but it would prove impossible to bring any prosecutions – men had died since, and even subsequent investigations as late as the late 1980s would come up against the SS ‘code of honour’ as surviving SS soldiers refused to speak. Mohnke would never face trial for the murders.
During the final days of the Third Reich, Mohnke (identity card, above left; on the left behind Hitler, above right), by now a SS Brigadeführer, was Hitler’s personal appointee as commander of the defense of the central government district in Berlin, which included the Reich Chancellery, and the Führerbunker. Captured by the Soviets on 2nd May 1945, he would be imprisoned for ten years, the first six in solitary confinement; released in 1955, he would eventually die, old and free, aged 90, in 2001. He always maintained, ‘I issued no orders not to take English prisoners or to execute prisoners.’
Back at the barn, and on the far left,…
…its bark festooned with barbed wire and faded crosses.
There are probably bullets deep within, this being one of the trees in the earlier black & white photo, the only one that still remains.
Two men who survived the killings, Gunner Alf Davies, 69th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, who died in April 2018 on the left, and another artilleryman, an already wounded gunner called Brian Fahey, on the right. Shot again during the massacre and left for dead, Fahey would survive the removal of a lung and five years as a prisoner-of-war. A composer, arranger, conductor & bandleader, he would later write the theme tune to BBC Radio’s ‘Pick of the Pops’ (‘Greetings, Pop Pickers’), which began in 1955 and is still being broadcast, was principal conductor for the BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra in the 1970s, and lived to be 87, dying in 2007.
Bert Evans (inset), who for many years would make an annual pilgrimage to Wormhoudt, would die in October 2013 aged 92. The victims of the massacre are buried in Esquelbecq Military Cemetery; other men killed in the fighting beforehand can be found in Ledringhem Churchyard & Wormhoudt Communal Cemetery. ‘They were hopelessly underequipped. They were virtually out of ammunition before they even started—and yet they managed to hold off the SS for a considerable time. They managed to get a lot more people away from the [Dunkirk] beaches than they would have done if Wormhoudt had fallen.’