Massacre at Wormhout

The massacre at Wormhout, northern France, as narrated by Private Joseph Humphreys:

Pte Joseph Humphreys got in touch with Regimental H.Q. of the Cheshire Regiment to say that he had been present at the massacre at Wormhoudt. Humphreys was transferred to the 22nd from the Manchester Regiment in November of 1939, and in January of 1990 he told his story ‘in a calm and concise way, without exaggeration but with obvious emotion to an officer of the Regiment.

The withdrawal continued to Dunkirk where Pte Humphreys’ section spent a few days resting before being ordered into the town itself. They had hoped to be evacuated from Dunkirk but this was not to be the case. As they reached a water trough in the centre of the town, the platoon commander, Lt Glasspool, received orders that they were to go back to fight a rear-guard action.

The Company moved back from Dunkirk and established themselves at Wormhoudt on the 27th May Lt Glasspool sited the gun positions and told Pte Humphreys’ section to dig in at the base of a hedge in an open field facing out towards the supposed enemy positions. They began digging but on the suggestion of Pte Stubbs, who was an experienced regular soldier, moved their gun pit to the far side of the hedge where they had a much better position. By dusk they had dug in and camouflaged the position. They settled down to await the arrival of the enemy.

All was quiet until the following morning at dawn when the Germans opened an attack with some heavy mortar fire. Pte Humphreys’ section could see numbers of Germans in the distance, moving around with civilians whom he took to be the fifth columnists they had all been warned about. The last order the section had received from Lt Glasspool was to stand and fight to the “last man, last round”.

( Lt Glasspool then obviously went off to see to other positions and was never seen again).

Sgt Weston, the Section Commander, decided that they were being surrounded and the position was becoming untenable. He ordered the men to disable or destroy their guns as best they could and withdraw. The gun firing mechanisms were removed and the section withdrew, using the ditch at the base of the hedge as cover.

The little group worked their way up the ditch and quickly became mixed up with both Cheshires and other troops who were all withdrawing under fire. The enemy maintained a heavy fire. It was a desperate situation and inevitably they were surrounded and outnumbered and forced to surrender. The Germans disarmed and searched them but did not take their possessions.

The prisoners were marched back to the edge of Wormhoudt where they were shut into a brick cow shed. There followed a speech from a German officer which included the usual ‘for you the war is over, if you behave you will be treated well’. Eventually about 40 men gathered in the cow shed where they had a brief rest.

The group was then taken out of the cow shed at gunpoint and marched across a ploughed field. Some of the German soldiers told the prisoners “not to worry” as they were going to a prison camp and had nothing to fear. After the brief march across the field, the prisoners were herded into a small wooden and corrugated iron barn or shed in the field. They had not been in the barn for more than a few moments when the enemy called for five men to come out. Five men went out and were lined up by the Germans and shot dead. There was consternation inside the little barn. Another five were called for Humphreys could not remember whether it was 5 or 3 men who went) and were also lined up and shot. A third 5 were called out and shot dead. No one moved when the next 5 were called. The enemy shooting party were obviously infuriated by this refusal to obey orders. They fanned out around the barn and those near the door threw in stick grenades. When the grenades went off the Germans began firing into the shed through the openings and through the wooden and tin sides of the shed.

Those inside dived to the ground and attempted to protect themselves as best they could. People huddled together in the centre of the barn. The noise inside was terrible – mingled with the detonation of grenades and the gunfire were the cries of agony of the wounded, the curses of those who were still defiant and the prayers of those who expected to die Humphreys says he remembers all those round him saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over again. The firing continued for some time and Humphreys found himself in the centre of the barn under a pile of his dead and wounded comrades. He lay still, face down, under the bodies for some time after the firing had stopped and does not know whether any Germans subsequently re-entered the barn.

At this point he realised that he had sustained shrapnel wounds in the left leg.

After a while Humphreys climbed out from under the bodies because he could hear Tug Wilson, one of his section, crying out for help. He couldn’t see where Wilson was and found himself with two other men who got up next to him. They were Londoners but he was not sure which Regiment they were from. The three men found an opening in the tin wall of the barn and crawled out. There was no one there and the three decided to get away and try to get some help for those who were still alive. They got into a ditch next to the barn. The ditch was full of water and heavily overgrown with brambles. The three men crawled away from the barn for about 300 yards and stopped to take stock of the situation. On looking out over the edge of the ditch they could see a farmhouse a short distance away across the fields. The two Londoners were all for going across to the house for help and argued that it seemed to be all clear. Pte Humphreys did not agree and after a brief discussion the Londoners left the ditch whilst Humphreys remained in cover. They set off at a trot across the fields towards the house and had not gone far when they were cut down by bursts of automatic fire. Two German soldiers appeared from the direction of the farmhouse and came towards the two dead Londoners. Pte Humphreys, on seeing their approach, wormed his way deep into the brambles in the ditch and lay perfectly still.

The two Germans inspected the ditch after checking the two bodies but did not discover Humphreys. Humphreys remained motionless in the ditch and soon lost consciousness. When he came to he had rolled into the bottom of the ditch and was almost totally submerged in muddy water. It was now dark and he decided to try to get away and rejoin the retreating British forces. He crawled up the ditch until he came to a road, crossed the road and took cover in a field on the far side. In the distance he could see the lights of a town (which turned out to be Cassel). He made off towards the lights hoping to find someone to help those who were wounded and still lying in the barn.

At dawn he realized that he must have spent most of the night unconscious in the ditch. He travelled cautiously throughout the next day going across country and making best use of cover. He did not see any Germans all day. He finally arrived at Cassel where he noticed a tank on a street corner on the outskirts. Not being able to make out what sort of tank it was (and therefore whether it was German or British) he skirted round the town and approached it from the other side where he found British soldiers who turned out to be Cheshires.

He was taken to the unit’s Company Commander (he thinks it was probably A Company) and after a brief interview was sent with a sergeant as a guide to see the Brigadier. He explained what had happened in the barn and how he had got away but the Brigadier said that they were withdrawing that evening and there was nothing that they could do to help. Pte Humphreys remembers him saying: “You’re very lucky but I’m sorry, we’re moving out at midnight”. Pte Humphreys went back to the Cheshire Company where he was fed and given a rifle and a steel helmet. He moved off that evening with the Company. There were a number of stragglers from other units attached to it. The following day they came under another heavy attack and after a brief fight were ordered to split up into small groups and make for Dunkirk. The situation soon became confused with small groups of soldiers heading in all directions to get away as best they could.

Humphreys and a group of about eight Cheshires hid in a small Nissen hut. A Frenchman came into the hut and said that he would go and find them some food, but they did not trust him, so they moved off straight away into a nearby high sided lane. Shortly after scrabbling into the lane they were surrounded by a squad of Germans using motorbike and sidecar combinations and forced to surrender.

The group was taken to a nearby field where there were a number of Bren Gun carriers being driven around by laughing Germans who were thoroughly enjoying themselves. They were put into the back of a truck and driven to a nearby town. The following day the prisoners were loaded into another truck and driven off. After a while the truck-load encountered a huge column of prisoners. The group was taken off the truck and fallen in with the column. After some three weeks of marching and truck journeys Pte Humphreys arrived at STALAG 8 in Lamsdorf where he spent most of the rest of the war.

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