Feature: pilgrimage to remember massacre of Warwickshire soldiers

Relatives with the mayor of Wormhout gather at the gravesides of the massacre victims.
Relatives with the mayor of Wormhout gather at the gravesides of the massacre victims.
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A pilgrimage will be made later this year to a village in northern France where Warwickshire soldiers were massacred in one of the most notorious incidents of the Second World War.

Faced with overwhelming odds in the late spring of 1940, the British Army was retreating towards the town of Dunkirk when a number of regiments were ordered to make a last-ditch stand in order to hold up the relentless advance of the Germans.

British visitors pause to reflect at the rebuilt barn which has now become a shrine to the victims of the massacre.

British visitors pause to reflect at the rebuilt barn which has now become a shrine to the victims of the massacre.

The men were told that they were to fight until their ammunition ran out.

Among these soldiers were members of the Worcestershire Yeomanry, the 8th Worcestershires and the 2nd Royal Warwickshires.

Deployed to the outskirts of Wormhout, a village not far from Dunkirk, the Yeomanry saw a German staff car approach.

They immediately opened fire and the vehicle skidded to a halt.

Two of the enemy were killed outright, but the surviving two dived into a ditch seeking cover.

But what the men of the Yeomanry could not know was that one of the surviving Germans in that ditch was Obergruppenfuhrer Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, commanding officer of the notorious Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Regiment of the Waffen SS.

Even at this early stage of the war, the regiment had earned itself a fearsome reputation for not taking prisoners.

And it was this quirk of fate involving the Yeomanry that would later have such tragic repercussions for nearly 100 captured Warwickshire soldiers, soon to be murdered in cold blood by Germans enraged by what had happened to their commanding officer.

After hours of desperate fighting and with no ammunition left, the depleted British regiments surrendered. And that was when the full horror started to unfold.

More than 90 men of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Warwickshire Regiment were herded into a tiny barn on the outskirts of Wormhout and methodically taken out in groups of five and shot.

After a while, the Germans decided this method of execution was too laborious, and began to throw grenades into the barn. This development prompted acts of incredible bravery as two soldiers of the Warwicks, using their bodies as human shields, threw themselves over comrades in heroic but futile attempts to save their mates.

A Warwickshire officer – Captain Lynn-Allen – managed to escape from the barn with a private, Alf Tombs.

They attempted to hide behind reeds in a pond but were discovered and shot.

Lynn-Allen was killed but Tombs, despite a massive loss of blood, managed to survive and later got back to British lines.

Nearly all the men in the barn were killed, with only a handful getting away to tell the tale and subsequently give evidence to a war crimes tribunal.

In November, Midlands-based organisation Battlefield Memorial Tours will visit the site of the massacre, including the rebuilt barn.

The trip will also visit the historic town of Ypres, where there will be an opportunity to attend the yearly Armistice service held at the Menin Gate.

For more information call 01629 650780 or visit www.battlefieldmemorialtours.co.uk

**** Warwickshire soldier Alf Tombs, one of the few survivors, lost an arm as a result of his ordeal and – unable to work at his pre-war job in a factory - had for many years no alternative but to scrub floors for a living.

Hauptsturmfuhrer Wilhelm Mohnke was identified as being the German officer who gave the order to shoot the prisoners.

He became a businessman after the war and was never brought to justice.

Former Birmingham Labour MP Geoff Rooker unsuccessfully campaigned for many years to bring Mohnke to stand trial for war crimes.

Out of the three companies who had stood their ground at Wormhout, only seven officers and 130 men were counted when the remnants of the battalions made it to Dunkirk.

The last sounds to come from the barn of death was the gradually weakening voice of a young Warwickshire soldier endlessly reciting the Lord’s Prayer, which only stopped when he died.

Battlefield Memorial Tours’ trip to Wormhout and Ypres will run from Friday, November 10 to Sunday, November 12.