The Fighting 51st

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If you have not yet seen Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill in the Darkest Hour, it is worth making the effort to do so. It is a very good film rather than a ‘great film.’ Despite some ludicrous rewriting of history, such as a scene in the London Underground when an apparent indecisive Churchill is swayed by ordinary folk who he questions on the tube, and some obviously politically correct casting of minor roles and extras, it has value in the retelling of an especially trying period of our history. Similarly, Oldman’s craft is very good without, in my view, touching greatness but he nonetheless deserves the praise received. The Darkest Hour is certainly a better movie than was Dunkirk which anyway was probably aimed at a younger audience. It was good for example to see Admiral Ramsey at Dover, (the architect of the Dunkirk evacuation, receive some airtime although I think the screenwriters misjudged the Admiral’s character; specifically his resolve and bold, robust leadership throughout the crisis in France. One thing that both films have in common though is neither mention the 51st Highland Division at St Valery. Not a peep. What then happened at St Valery and why does it matter?

When growing up in the Highlands, events that led to the surrender and capture of the 51st Highland Division at St Valery in June 1940 were very real, almost visceral, in the collective memory throughout Scotland where hardly a village and certainly not a town were untouched by events. Certainly in the Highlands, there was scarcely a family or community that had not known someone who had been killed or captured during the retreat and fighting at St Valery. Most families were not to learn of the fate of their loved ones for many months, such was the chaos of the large area over which they fought and those captured were not to return home for five years.  That collective memory has become dimmed by time but where the candle still burns it burns with intense resentment over Churchill’s actions. The charge being that he needlessly abandoned the Division to their fate in order to put some backbone into the French fighting spirit, thereby buying time for the defence of Britain.

On the 22nd April 1940 the 51st Division was detached from the rest of the BEF to come under command of the French Third Army after Churchill assured the French that Britain would 'never abandon her ally in her hour of need’. The move was intended to persuade the French to fight on against Hitler as Britain withdrew from the continent.  The Division was stationed in front of the Ouvrage Hackenberg fortress of the Maginot Line and so was not encircled with the rest of the BEF during the Battle of France, and was not involved in the retreat to Dunkirk for evacuation. Instead, it was pulled back to a new line roughly along the River Somme, where it was attached to the French Tenth Army. The 51st Highland Division was charged with recapturing the Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme. The plan suffered from poor co-ordination between Allied artillery, tanks and infantry, and the attack on the 4th June resulted in heavy casualties. The Germans launched a counter-attack the next day, outflanking the Allies and trapping the 51st Highland Division and elements of the French 9th Army Corps. For some time, it was forced to hold a line four times longer than that which would normally be expected of a division. The first major attack initially fell on the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders before the other battalions of the 154th Brigade were enveloped. The Argylls' losses were heavy, the worst day for casualties in their history. Being overwhelmed, 154th Brigade was forced to retire to the west. During this period, the 154th Brigade was detached to form "Arkforce" and was able to escape the German drive into central France and Normandy. However, the 152nd and 153rd Brigades were trapped, with the French 9th Corps under Lieutenant General Marcel Ihler, at Saint-Valery-en-Caux, and surrendered on the 12th June, along with the Division's commander. 

 General Fortune with Erwin Rommel

General Fortune with Erwin Rommel

Major General VM Fortune, commander of the 51st, had asked to be evacuated on the 11th June. But the Germans were determined to avoid another Dunkirk and four divisions were put into attack to prevent an evacuation. Despite fierce Allied defence, the 7th Panzers soon held cliff-top ground overlooking the harbour, making an evacuation highly dangerous. The Highlanders were conducting a desperate defence against advancing Germans while trying, without success, to eject the 7th Panzers from their positions. The night of the 11th June was the Highlanders' last chance to evacuate, but Fortune remained unable to contact the ships he hoped would rescue him and his men. That night, although Fortune was still hoping for evacuation and elements of the 51st were still counter-attacking, the French surrendered. By 12th June, Fortune realised that his position was hopeless and also surrendered. Dense fog had delayed the Navy's rescue attempt and, although they intended to arrive the next day, it was too late to save the men who fought at St Valéry-en-Caux from spending the war in a PoW camp. The long march to Germany to the camps was arduous and peppered with ill treatment from their captors. Many more men died before they reached the comparative safety of POW camps. More than 10,000 members of the 51st (Highland) Division were taken prisoner at St Valery. They were marched to Germany, via Belgium, following the route over which the Germans had advanced against them. Their destination was Stalag XX-A at Toruń, about 120 miles (190 km) north-west of Warsaw. Some were loaded into canal barges for part of their journey, but all eventually travelled by train in cattle wagons. There were some notable escapes, mostly in the early stages of the march. Of the 290 British Army POW escapers who had returned to Britain by the end of June 1941, 134 were members of the 51st (Highland) Division. Major-General Fortune was one of the most senior British officers taken prisoner in the war. He was knighted by King George VI after the war.From the British point of view, the defeat of the 51st (Highland) Division was the end of the Allied resistance during the battle of France.

After the war the 51st Highland Division held a special parade at St. Valery on the Somme to pay honour to those who fell in the rear guard action of 1940. 

For such a proud Division, defeat and surrender was a very bitter pill. Some of these men had fought in the Great War, most others were sons or nephews of those who had fought. Many came from generational regimental families and to be the guardians of their regimental lore behind a white flag was a crushing blow. Indeed, one group of Seaforth officers when surrounded and out of ammunition during the retreat had an intense debate about fighting on with bare hands and shovels rather than be the first in their regimental history to surrender. Fortunately, sanity prevailed and they went, 'in the bag.'

Incidentally, David Saul's book, After Dunkirk: Churchills Sacrifice of the Highland Division is a purchase I can heartily recommend as I can a perusal of the 51st Highland Division website which contains first hand accounts and maps of various actions during the period.

As a postscript, my favourite story of the whole Battle of France and the evacuations and surrender is a simple one. Stanley Allan, a British rating on HMS Windsor was embarking troops off Dunkirk. A file of Scottish soldiers wearing khaki aprons over their kilts and led by an officer with his arm in a sling approached the ship.

'The wounded officer called out to the bridge, "What part of France are you taking us to?" One of the naval officers replied," We're taking you back to Dover". The Scotsmen were disgusted and said they were not bloody well coming. They promptly turned round and went back to continue the war with the Germans on their own. It really was remarkable.'

Historical note: The Territorials of the 5th Gordons were much put out by the directive from the War Office to return their kilts to stores before embarking for France and had marked the removal of their kilts in January prior to embarkation with a symbolic ritual. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Alick Buchanan-Smith, arranged a parade on the square at Bordon in which a single kilt was ceremoniously burnt as a symbol, so he said, that for 200 years the English had wanted to take away the kilt from the Highlanders and now they had succeeded. A little stone memorial to this effect was built on the spot, the inscription ending with the words: 'We hope not for long'.

Only one Highland battalion (not part of the 51st Division) managed to defy the War Office and go into battle wearing the kilt -the 1st Camerons. Some members of the battalion were still wearing kilts as they were herded off to prison camp. The men alluded to above were therefore very probably, Cameron Highlanders.