Unlocking Warwick’s researchers have established that three of the men commemorated on the war memorial in Church Street were murdered in the notorious Wormhoudt / Esquelbecq Massacre of May 1940. And a fourth soldier, who lived in Budbrooke Barracks for three years, is commemorated on the war memorial in Rugby. He committed a remarkable act of self-sacrifice in the massacre trying to save others.
The son of Thomas White, also called Thomas and known as Tom, responded to our appeal for pictures and information with some details about the incident. The White family lived at 17 Market Street. Tom’s father had been reported missing as the British Expeditionary Force retreated towards Dunkirk, and it was about a year before his mother was told Thomas had been ‘killed in action’. She died in 1989 and never knew the truth about how her husband had died. Tom didn’t find out the full story until he himself was 72 years old.
He says, “Over the years I became curious about what had happened to my father. I wrote to various government departments but could never discover the truth. Then one day I went to the St. John’s Museum, (the museum of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment now part of the Fusiliers), and a chap suggested I look at a book titled ‘The Forgotten Massacre’ by Guy Rommelaere. To my surprise I found my dad’s name in the back”.
As the retreating British army was at risk of being overrun by advancing German forces, troops from the 48th (South Midland) Infantry Division on the 2nd Warwickshires were holding a key road at Wormhoudt against elite German divisions, delaying their advance and helping more than 330,000 men to escape to Britain. When they ran out of ammunition they surrendered, expecting they would be take prisoner according to the Geneva Convention. But their captors were the Waffen-SS division ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’. Along with some French troops, nearly 100 men were herded into a small barn. Some were taken out in groups of five and shot, then grenades were thrown in and the barn was sprayed with machine-gun fire.
Some of the soldiers survived because Company Sergeant Major Augustus Jennings and Sgt Stanley Moore (see below) hurled themselves on top of the grenades using their bodies to suppress the explosions. Eighty men were killed outright, nine more died of their wounds within two days; six survived and were taken to hospital by regular soldiers of the German army. After the war the survivors wanted the SS unit commander Wilhelm Mohnke to be prosecuted for war crimes. He strongly denied giving orders for prisoners to be killed, and forty-eight years after the event, in 1988, a German prosecutor concluded that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against Mohnke, who died three years later.
Thomas White junior has visited his fathers grave in France and seen the small museum in a recreated barn or cowshed that commemorates those who were murdered there. Those names include two more who are also honoured on the Warwick War Memorial – Arthur Williams and Thomas George.
Arthur Williams‘ family lived in Wathen Road, Warwick. Arthur, the oldest of five children, enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1931 and two years later Married Lottie Russell. He left the army in 1938 to work at the Warwick Aviation Company, but with the outbreak of war he was called up as a reservist.
It seems the families of those that died were not told of the massacre; they were reported as ‘killed in action”. So when Arthur Williams’ grandson, Carl Wilson, who lives in Warwick, read about our research in the Warwick Courier, he contacted us to say “I couldn’t believe it when I saw my grandfather’s name. I had no idea he had been murdered by the SS. Thank you for finding out about this”.
Thomas George‘s family lived at 55 Lakin Road. He worked as a ‘laundry hand’. He and his wife Evelyn had a daughter called Mary. She was three years old when her father was murdered by the SS in ‘The Wormhoudt Massacre’. We don’t know if there are any surviving relatives.
Augustus Jennings was the unit’s Company Sergeant Major. Survivors say that when the first grenade was lobbed into the barn, he threw himself on top of it to shield the other men, and died instantly.
His daughter Diane Norton discovered what had happened in 1988 when the facts became known and the media took an interest in the story. She arranged to have his name added to the war memorial in Rugby, Augustus’ home town, and is now campaigning to have her father’s service medals sent to the family. She would also like the MOD to consider some kind of posthumous bravery award. You can read Augustus’ Jennings’ story in the ‘Not Forgotten’ section of this website, devoted to names not on the Warwick War Memorial, but certainly worth remembering in the town.
Sgt Stanley Moore was also with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment soldiers herded into the barn and he too performed the ultimate act of bravery – to lay down your life for your friends – and threw himself on top of a grenade to protect the men. He lived at Aston in Birmingham, part of Warwickshire at the time, and married Martha Scott in September 1939 just 8 months before the massacre in the barn.
We are grateful to Tom White and Kathy Ferguson for sharing with us their photos and story about Thomas White, and to Diane Norton for telling about her father, Augustus Jennings.