Pooley’s Revenge

Private Albert Leonard Pooley (2023903), originally from Southall, was a regular soldier in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment. With the rest of his comrades, Pooly had gone to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). It was through his dedicated desire to avenge his murdered comrades, that Lieutenant-Colonel Fritz Knoechlein was tried, convicted and executed as a war criminal.

The photographs in this article appear in the publication “The Vengeance of Private Pooley” by Cyril Jolly, published by William Heinemann Limited (1956), ISBN: 095077331X

On the night of 26-27 May 1940, the German force which included the 1st Battalion, 2nd SS ‘Totenkopf’ Regiment, moved up the south bank of the La Bassee Canal. It attacked across the canal in a northerly direction with Bailleul as its objective. In the area immediately north of the canal they were held by the Norfolk Battalion in much depleted strength because of the previous fighting and the physical exhaustion of the men. The Battalion and the Royal Scots were holding the villages of Riez du Vinage, Le Cornet Malo and Le Paradis. The Battalion Headquarters was in Le Paradis.

During the night, the 2nd SS Infantry Regiment crossed the canal using the ruins of the bridge Pont Supplie. They met heavy British resistance and advanced very slowly and at high cost. They eventually occupied Riez du Vinage and spent the night in the Bois de Paqueaut.

At dawn on 27 May 1940, the German forces emerged from the wood and began attacking Le Cornet Malo. No. 3 Company was in the centre, with No. 2 on the right and No. 1 on the left in semi-reserve. The British troops defended very stubbornly. According to a German account four officers and one hundred and fifty men were killed and eighteen officers and four hundred and eighty men wounded of this and another action. Fritz Knoechlein’s company suffered the greatest casualties. With the village of Le Cornet Malo burning and its fields dotted with dead, the Germans attacked Le Paradis.

The British Battalion’s last contact with Brigade took place at 11.30am. They were then told that they were isolated and must fend for themselves. They had fallen back upon the Battalion Headquarters situated in a farm on the Rue du Paradis.

The farm used as Battalion HQ.
The farm used as Battalion HQ.

This road formed the boundary between the Norfolks and the Royal Scots who had been fighting on the right of the Norfolks. The location of the Battalion Headquarters on the the boundary between these two forces, accounts for the curious events that followed the surrender, for although the Norfolks were attacked by one SS Battalion, most of their survivors were captured by the SS Company which up to that moment had been fighting the Royal Scots. This other SS Battalion took a number of prisoners, among them Captain C. Long, MC, who was the Battalion Adjutant. The treatment they received was good, and gave little cause for complaint.

When the Battalion surrendered about one hundred men were collected and paraded on a minor road off the Rue du Paradis. There they were given many evidences of the mounting temper of German troops. Their equipment was taken and they were marched into a paddock of a farm and shot.

The Field where the British POWs were shot.
The Field where the British POWs were shot.

The German Battalion Commander had gone forward after the surrender, which took place in the early hours of the afternoon. While the men were waiting on the road two machine-guns of No. 4 Machine-gun Company were brought forward and set up in the paddock. Fritz Knoechlein was No. 3 Company Commander of the Battalion and also the Deputy Battalion Commander. He was directly responsible for the crime and it was on his orders to fire that the killing of the prisoners occurred. After the shooting of the British soldiers Knoechlein had gone around the locality looking for British prisoners or wounded. He found some French civilians and threatened them. These civilians saw a wounded soldier shot with a rifle after the mass shooting.

The bodies of the shot British prisoners were thrown into a mass common grave by the Germans. In 1942, the bodies were exhumed by the French authorities and removed to Le Paradis churchyard. Only about fifty, out of an approximate total of ninety, were identified.

The two survivors of the shooting were Privates Albert Pooley and William O’Callaghan. Despite being wounded, both men escaped and lived for three days and nights in a pig-sty and raw potatoes and water from puddles. They were then discovered by a Frenchwoman, who risking death from the Germans, cared for them.

They were eventually taken prisoner by the Germans. Pooley was in hospital in Germany until he was repatriated as medically unfit in 1943. After his arrival back in the UK, no one was prepared to believe Pooley that the Germans were capable of committing such atrocities. Private Willaim O’Callaghan returned to this country in 1945, after his POW camp had been liberated.

After Pooley had paid a return visit to Le Paradis in September 1946, and the visit had made the “Nord Elair” newspaper, action started to happen. Also at this time, the investigating authorities were more inclined to believe that the atrocities experienced by Pooley and O’Callaghan were credible.

The investigation of the Le Paradis atrocity was conducted by the War Crimes Investigation Unit. It began its enquiries after Pooley’s return from France, in the latter half of 1946.

The first item to establish was the German units which had been in action at Le Cornet and Le Paradis on the day of the shooting. British Intelligence and captured German Orders of Battle quickly established the make-up of the German forces. The 2nd Infantry Regiment, SS ‘Totenkopf’ (Death’s Head) Division had attacked across the Le Bassee Canal and fought its way through Le Cornet Malo and Le Paradis to La Fosse and Bailleul. A reinforcement from the 3rd SS Regiment had also helped in the fighting at Le Paradis. It looked as if the 2nd Infantry Regiment was the one concerned with the shooting.

Pooley was requested to attend the London District POW Cage, in Kensington Gardens, London. The London District Cage was a large mansion surrounded by barbed wire with an armed guard at the entrance. After taking Pooley’s statement, the Warrant Officer took the statement away and left Pooley in the room for sometime. He eventually returned with Colonel Scotland, who was the Chief of the War Crimes Investigation Unit. Colonel Scotland wanted to know why Pooley had not reported this incident earlier. When Pooley told him that he had reported the incident at Richmond Convalescent Camp, in the summer of 1943, Colonel Scotland was furious. One week later, on 6 November 1946, Pooley returned to the London District Cage and made a sworn statement. A short while later, O’Callaghan also made a sworn statement at Kensington.

Both Pooley and O’Callaghan attended separate identity parades while at Kensington. Separately, they both picked someone out from their respective identity parades.

Knoechlein was found still alive, and was brought to London for examination. He was born in May 1911 at Munich. He attended an elementary school for four years and then spent eight years at a secondary school in Munich. He was forced to end his studies as his Father became unemployed. From 1928 to 1933 he was an errand boy, tutor, insurance agent and clerk. In 1934 he joined the Waffen SS ‘Ellwangen’ Battalion. In April 1935, he went to the SS School of Warfare at Brunswick, completing a year’s course of instruction. He returned to the ‘Ellwangen’ Battalion, ‘Deutschland’ Regiment as a Platoon Commander serving until 1939.

After the outbreak of war in 1939, he was posted as a Company Commander to Dachau on the formation of the SS ‘Totenkopf’ Division. He served through the Western Front campaign as Commander of No. 3 Company SS 2nd Infantry Regiment. After this campaign was completed, he transferred to No. 5 Company. With the dissolution of the regiment in 1941, he went to an AA Battery of the same division as Battery Commander. He served in this capacity on the Russian Front until January 1942, and then became Battalion Commander of the newly-formed No. 36 Regiment, 16 Panzer Grenadier Division. In April 1944, he became a Regimental Commander, and remained in command of a regiment fighting the Russians until the capitulation. Fritz Knoechlein was decorated with the Iron Cross in France in May 1940; with the German Cross in 1942, for fighting in Russia; and in 1944 with the Knight’s Cross in Russia. He was promoted in 1939 to Captain; in 1942 to Major and in 1944 he became a Lieutenant-Colonel.

Pooley’s pilgrimage to France in September 1946 had been a tremendous strain. He made his statement in November 1946, after three years of complete indifference and incompetence by the British authorities. On 28 December 1946, he was admitted to Roehampton Hospital for a major operation on his stomach ulcers. The ulcers had been there since his first operation in a Paris hospital in 1940. Often during the time that he was in hospital, Pooley was not expected to survive. Out of the five people that had the same abdominal operation that day, only Pooley survived. Three died on the operating table, and one died later in the ward. Pooley eventually confided to the hospital superintendent and surgeon that the obligation to avenge his pals had lain very heavily on him.

When Pooley was eventually mobile again, he received a surprise visit from Sister Lawrence, the Irish nun who had nursed him in Bethune Hospital, after his capture by the Germans. As a result of torture by the Gestapo, she was crippled and unable to work. She told Pooley that the escape organisation had been betrayed by a wealthy women visitor to the hospital. She had been taken to Ravensbrueck Concentration Camp. After being badly tortured, she was sentenced to death. On the day of her execution, Soviet troops liberated Ravensbrueck.

Early in 1948, Pooley and O’Callaghan received letters from the War Office asking if they would be prepared to give evidence at the trial of an alleged war criminal in Hamburg. They both separately replied at once, and said “Yes”.

O'Callaghan and Pooley arriving at Hamburg for the trial.
O’Callaghan and Pooley arriving at Hamburg for the trial.

The trial of Fritz Knoechlein took place in No. 5 Court of the Curiohaus, Altona, on Monday 11 October 1948. The accused had already pleaded not guilty when arraigned on 28 August 1948.

President: Lieutenant-Colonel E.C. Van der Kiste.
Members: Major P. Witty, Major C. Champion, Captain J.E. Tracey, Captain A. Preston.
Judge Advocate: Mr. F. Honig.
Prosecutor: Mr. T. Field-Fisher (Barrister)
Defence: Dr. Uhde

Fritz Knoechlein was charged with the following:

The accused Fritz Knoechlein, a German national, in the charge of the Hamburg Garrison Unit, pursuant to Regulation 4 of the Regulations for the Trial of War Criminals, is charged with committing a war crime in that he in the vicinity of Paradis, Pas-de-Calais, France, on or about 27 May 1940, in violation of the laws and usages of war, was concerned in the killing of about ninety prisoners-of-war, members of The Royal Norfolk Regiment and other British Units.

During his defence, Knoechlein claimed that the British soldiers had been dum-dum ammunition and had mis-used a flag of truce. This was robustly denied by the prosecution.

On the 12th day of the trial, 25 October 1948, the Judge-Advocate summed up the trial. He stated that the question of whether British troops had been using illegal ammunition, or mis-using a flag of truce, was irrelevant. If they had, then the British troops had committed an offence under the laws and usages of war. The enemy should then have conducted a proper legal trial. No such trial took place, so if these prisoners were shot out of hand, then this was still a crime.

The defence lawyer did not deny that an atrocity had taken place in the field at La Paradis, he stated that the accused had not been present, and so could not have issued the order to open fire.

The prosecution offered the evidence of Madame Castel, the Frenchwomen who risked her live to treat Pooley and O’Callaghan. She also stated in court that she recognised the accused as the man that was looking for British prisoners and that he also threatened her.

After the Judge Advocate’s summing up, the court adjourned to consider its verdict.

At 11.30am on 25 October 1948, the President of the court announced that Fritz Knoechlein had been found guilty. The President also reminded Knoechlein that its findings were subject to confirmation by higher authority.

Dr. Uhde, the accused’s lawyer, then presented several character witnesses. He concluded by saying that

All that is left for me to say is that some little doubt may have remained in the minds of the Court which will enable the members not to award the extreme penalty. Spare the life of the accused. He has a wife [who attended every day of the trial] and four children who are dependent upon him for support. Consider also the fact that he is a soldier, and the Court is composed of members of the British Army. I believe I am entitled to appeal to the Court to pronounce a sentence which will enable my client to come out of prison at an early date.

The President then announced that the Court would re-assemble no earlier than 3pm.

At 3pm, on 25 October 1948, the President of the Court announced that Fritz Knoechlin had been sentenced to death by hanging. Upon hearing this, the accused turned grey, but gave no other sign. He was then escorted from the court.

On 28 January 1949, at Hameln Prison, Fritz Knoechlein was hanged.