On 27 May 1940, Waffen-SS troops of the Totenkopf Division, commanded by SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein, murdered 97 defenceless prisoners of the 2nd Royal Norfolks at Le Paradis.
The following day, SS troops of the II Battalion of the Infanterie-Regiment Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) herded a large number of prisoners of war (the exact number has never been confirmed), mostly from the 2nd Royal Warwicks, into a cowshed at Esquelbecq, near Wormhoudt.
Incensed by the British and French troops’ determined defence, which forced their regimental commander, Sepp Dietrich, to spend his birthday hiding in a ditch, and claimed the life of their Battalion Kommandeur, the Führer’s personal bodyguard troops despatched some 80 prisoners with bullets and grenades (again, the exact number has never been determined).
The difference between these barbaric crimes is that whilst on 28 January 1949 justice was served in respect of Le Paradis, when Knöchlein was executed by the British, the so-called ‘Wormhoudt Massacre’, will forever be unavenged: the German commander believed responsible, SS-Brigadeführer Wilhem Mohnke, never stood trial.
The war crimes of Wilhem Mohnke
Certainly, there were a small number of survivors from that dreadful cowshed massacre, who escaped and were taken into custody by other German units.
Upon repatriation, the story was out, and joined the virtually infinite list of war crimes being investigated by the British Judge Advocate General’s Department. Testimony was recorded from survivors, and the enemy unit responsible identified – along with their unscrupulous commander.
Mohnke, it was known, later fought in the Balkans, where he was badly wounded, before commanding 26 Panzergrenadier Regiment of 12th SS Division Hitlerjugend in Normandy. There, Mohnke was involved with the murder of many more prisoners, this time Canadians.
By the war’s end, Mohnke, then a major-general with Belgian and American blood also on his hands, was responsible for the security and defence of Hitler’s Berlin bunker. In April 1945, however, after Hitler’s suicide, to all intents and purposes, Mohnke simply disappeared.
The War Crimes Interrogation Unit
In December 1945, the War Crimes Interrogation Unit, based at the ‘London District Cage’, was formed, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Scotland, who successfully investigated Knöchlein and turned his attention to Mohnke.
Scotland’s team recorded over 50 statements from at least 38 former SS-men who had been with LSSAH on 28 May 1940. Owing to the SS ‘Oath of Silence’ and the Cold War scenario, though, it was two years before Scotland learned that Mohnke was still alive – and in Soviet custody.
After Hitler’s suicide, Mohnke had led a group of ‘Bunker People’ out of the subterranean concrete tomb in an unsuccessful escape bid. Captured by the Russians, all of those once close to the Führer were jealously guarded by the Soviets – who refused to make him available to the British investigators.
Ultimately, Scotland was convinced that Mohnke ordered the Wormhoudt Massacre, confirmed by former SS-men Senf and Kummert. The available evidence, however, was thin, to say the least, Scotland concluding that he ‘had no case to present to the court’, and unable to interrogate Mohnke, there the matter lay.
In 1948, with other priorities pressing, the British government ceased war crimes investigations. With the Cold War, there was no longer an appetite for prosecuting old Nazis – many of whom, in fact, were now useful to the west given their fervent anti-communist stance.
In the words of investigative journalist Tom Bower, a ‘Blind Eye’ had been turned to ‘Murder’. When the Soviets eventually released Mohnke back to Germany on 10 October 1955, therefore, nobody was looking for him.
No will to pursue the matter
In 1972, the Rev Leslie Aitkin, Chaplain to the Dunkirk Veterans’ Association, was shocked when he heard the story from Wormhoudt survivors.
The clergyman investigated personally, publishing ‘Massacre of the Road to Dunkirk‘ in 1977. Aitkin urged the authorities to re-open the case, but by then jurisdiction in Nazi war crimes had been handed over to … the Germans.
Thanks to Aitkin the story re-surfaced into the public domain, and in 1973 a memorial was erected at Esquelbecq, at the roadside near the crime scene, the service attended by four survivors.
After publication of his book, Aitkin learned that Mohnke was still alive – and not beyond the reach of Allied justice in East Germany, as had been believed, but living in the West, near Lübeck.
Aitkin lost no time in bringing this to the Lübeck Public Prosecutor’s attention, demanding that Mohnke be investigated and brought to trial. Unfortunately, the evidence, such as it was, after so many years, was insufficient to force the issue, and the Prosecutor declined on that basis.
Aitkin also petitioned the Canadians to act, who also wanted Mohnke for atrocities in Normandy, but two years later no action had been taken.
Similarly, the British authorities made no effort to persuade the West Germans to open the case, again owing to the lack of evidence. There was also, undeniably, a lack of communication and cohesion between the three nations involved – and no will to pursue the matter.
‘Hiding in plain sight’
In 1988, Ian Sayer, a Second World War enthusiast, author and publisher, launched a new magazine, WWII Investigator.
Aware of the Wormhoudt Massacre, Ian connected Mohnke to murders at Wormhoudt, Normandy and in the Ardennes – and confirmed the car and van salesman’s address.
Astonished that a man still wanted by the United Nations War Crimes Commission could be ‘hiding in plain sight’, Ian was determined to cause the British government to act.
Supported by Jeffrey (now Lord) Rooker, then the MP for Solihull, Ian began a relentless media campaign, gaining international attention, with support forthcoming from Westminster, aimed at pressurising the West Germans into re-opening the case.
The British authorities were moved to provide the Lübeck Prosecutor their extensive files on the Wormhoudt case, although an official British report dated 30 June 1988 concluded that:
‘This is a German responsibility and that the evidence against Mohnke is less certain than was being claimed.’
The main problem was that the only former SS-man prepared to turn ‘King’s Evidence’ during Scotland’s investigation, Senf, was ‘too ill and too infectious to be moved, let alone taken the witness stand’ in 1948 – 40 years later, Senf’s whereabouts were unknown, nor even whether he remained alive.
Nonetheless, confirmation had apparently been received from Bonn that the case was being re-opened. The outcome was inevitable: no further action. With options exhausted, there the matter lay – and with the prime suspect now deceased, is very much closed forever.
‘He was a hero’
Exactly how many men died in the Wormhoudt Massacre will probably never be known. Many were buried as ‘unknown’ by the locals, before concentration in British War Cemeteries after the war. Others, there can be little doubt, lie in lost field graves.
The ‘missing’ of this campaign are remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial – amongst them one Captain James Frazer Allen. A regular officer and Cambridge graduate, 28-year old ‘Burls’, as his family knew him, was the Royal Warwickshire officer present in the cowshed – who remonstrated with the SS-men.
Managing to escape, dragging the wounded 19-year old Private Bert Evans with him, the Captain made it to a pond a couple of hundred yards from the cowshed.
Shots rang out – killing Lynn Allen and further wounding Evans, whom the Germans left for dead.
Bert, however, survived, but lost an arm as a result of those dreadful events. We met at his Redditch home in 2004, when he told me that, quite simply,
‘Captain Lynn Allen tried to save me. He was a hero.’
Indeed, the young Captain was recommended for the Military Cross for his bravery and leadership during the defence of Wormhoudt – having last been seen ‘facing the Germans with his revolver’, his men unable to ‘speak too highly of his personal valour’.
At the time of that recommendation, details of the Captain’s fate and of the Massacre was unknown – but in another injustice arising out of the appalling events of 28 May 1940, the award was not approved.
A final injustice
Perhaps the final injustice of Wormhoudt is that Bert Evans, the last known survivor, died on 13 October 2013, aged 92, in a council-run care home – whereas SS-Brigadeführer Mohnke, a successful businessman, died in a luxury retirement home, peacefully in his bed, aged 90, on 6 August 2001.
As a retired British police detective, I understand the rules of evidence and how complex enquiries such as this are, especially when investigated historically.
Having reviewed all of the evidence available, my conclusion is that the Scotland enquiry was rigorous, and that the reason Mohnke was never tried was because the evidence, for whatever reason, did not exist – especially in 1988.
There remain unanswered questions, however:
Why did the West Germans not arrest Mohnke, which the available evidence did justify? Although never arrested, was Mohnke even interviewed officially in 1988, and if so what was his explanation? If not, why not?
Having been granted unprecedented access to the German archive containing the answers, I look forward to visiting Germany and eventually getting to work on the book arising – hopefully providing closure for those still deeply moved by the injustice of Wormhoudt.
Dilip Sarkar MBE is an internationally recognised expert in the Second World War. For more information on Dilip Sarkar’s work and publications, please visit his website
Featured Image Credit: The reconstructed cowshed, now a memorial, at the Wormhoudt Massacre site..