Daily Telegraph Press Cutting 1940
Gallantry of 51st
Highland Division B.E.F.
First story of the capture of two brigades at St Valery
by Douglas Williams, Daily Telegraph War Correspondent
The material for this article has been supplied by the only officer of the 152nd and 153rd Brigades, which were captured by the Germans at St. Valery-en-Caux on June 12, to escape to England. This officer, accompanied by a naval officer who had been sent out to superintend the proposed evacuation of the two brigades by the. Navy, succeeded in getting away from a German prisoners-of-war camp in France on the eve of the removal of the prisoners by train into Germany. Having obtained civilian clothing the two men, after walking for days, finally reached the coast in the neighbourhood of Deauville, where they appropriated a small sailing boat. After two days and nights of rough weather they succeeded in reaching a beach on the south coast of England. Their only instrument of navigation was a tiny compass, presented to the naval officer by his mother while he was a boy in a naval college. Strapped to his wrist, it had escaped the attention of the German soldiers when they searched their prisoners.
ON May 20, ten days after the Germans invaded Holland and Belgium, the 51st (Highland) Division was holding
a portion of the French line in front of the Maginot forts in the Metz area. Three weeks later, in the storm of the German Blitzkrieg, two of its brigades found themselves prisoners of war: the third, the 154th (Black Watch and Argylls), was on its way home to England, having been evacuated from Havre on June 11.
FIGHTING ON SOMME
The French High Command had decided to send this division north to the Somme. After delay and much confusion owing to repeated change of orders, in the course of which the division's artillery and transport became temporarily lost, it finally arrived, on May 27, on the line of the River Bresle, from which it was sent forward to the Abbeville area to defend the.
Somme bridgeheads, in conjunction with units of the French NinthCorps. Very heavy fighting developed from June 1 onwards, and
combined attacks by the French, assisted by the 152nd and 153rd Brigades, at dawn on June 4 failed to secure the bridgehead, and the division suffered heavy casualties, especially the 152nd Brigade (Seaforths and Camerons). A particularly brilliant incident of this day's fighting was the highly successful attack of the Gordons against enemy forces strongly entrenched in the Grand Bols; the position was carried after the most gallant fighting, and the whole wood cleared of the enemy.
ESCAPE TO THE SEA
Heavy enemy pressure, however, finally made a withdrawal inevitable, and the division fell back again to the line of the Bresle,where at one time it occupied a front more than 18 miles long. These positions, however, could only be held for three days, and on the night of June 8 a further withdrawal was carried out to the line of the River La Bethune. Next morning (June 9) the 154th Brigade, later christened the Ark Force, was detached and ordered back to defend the Havre area, to take up a line running due south from Fécamp, in the hope that it could hold it until the other two brigades could join them.
Finally, on he evening of June 10, the remaining two brigades moved back along the coast line via Dieppe, to take up their final positions round St. Valery-en-Caux. A bridgehead was formed around St. Valery, the southern portion being held by units of the French Ninth Corps, the eastern face by the 153rd Brigade, and the western area by the 152nd Brigade.
The following day the enemy appeared in force and launched heavy attacks with large numbers of tanks, assisted by very accurate mortar fire and the co-operation of masses of aircraft, against which, apart from ground fire, we had little protection.
Heavy casualties were suffered by the 153rd Brigade (Gordon Highlanders and Black Watch). The men, however, held on gallantly throughout the day and the enemy failed to break through at any point on the eastern wing. Increasing fire, however,
especially from heavy mortars, guided by accurate direction from air, made the line increasingly difficult to hold. At, night the order was received to withdraw to the beaches and for the troops to embark al St. Valery, where vessel were to be sent.
A rendezvous was given at St.Valery railway station, and embarkation was to begin at 2 a.m. on June 12. The withdrawal was successfully made, and the men arrived near their rendezvous, where news was received that the embarkation could not be proceeded with. It appeared that the previous day, while our two brigades had successfully held their positions, the French Ninth Corps had been forced back, permitting the enemy to get round behind the British positions and occupy the port. Harbour and beaches were already occupied by the enemy, with tanks, mortars and machine-guns commanding every point of embarkation. At 8 a.m. the French capitulated and handed over the town to the Germans. There was therefore no further hope of escape, and the remnant of the division, totalling about 150 to 200 officers and between 4,000 and 5,000 men, was taken prisoner by the enemy, together with the French Ninth Corps. One of the unhappiest aspects of this tragic event was the fact that at Veules les Roses, a little port a few miles eastward of St. Valery, a large number of other British troops were at that moment
being embarked. Had the 51st Division but known of this undoubtedly a great many of the men could have marched there without difficulty and got away. When captured the British troops, while exhausted, short of food, and worn out by continuous
marching and fighting in hot weather, were in high spirits and full of fight. They were not inconsiderately treated by their captors, though it was clear that the Germans had never expected such a large bag. Rations at first were scanty, a loaf of rye bread being divided among six, and water was short. The first day they were marched 12 miles to a camp nearby, but after that conditions improved, and their subsequent movements were by motor-lorry.
Major General Fortune, G.O.C. of the division, was treated with special attention, and was permitted to keep his motor-car, his A.D.C. and his servant. Similar courtesies were shown to the two brigadiers who were captured with him.
A battalion of the Cameron Highlanders,
ordered to fight rearguard action to hold Arras, refused to go into battle in
They put on their kilts and went into action with the bayonet, one of their pipers on the same pipes on which his father played the Camerons into action in the last war.
This incident in the retreat before Dunkirk was revealed yesterday.
Though there has been no lifting of the ban on the kilt as battle dress, more and more Scottish soldiers are reverting
to the kilt when off duty.
Among them are many Scots, in the kilted battalions of the Dominions. A number of these brought their kilts with them. Others placed orders to have them made as soon as they reached England.
"If they think they they can stamp out the kilt by putting us all in khaki trousers they're mistaken,” one young Highland soldier said.
"It makes me furious to think those fine Greek highlandmen are allowed to go Into battle in their kilts while our kilts have been banned.'
All the Scottish kilted regiments which went to France with the B.E.F. at the beginning of the war took their kilts with them to wear when off duty.
Q.M.S. Higgins had another story of heroism by a battalion of Cameron Highlanders. "I don't know which battalion they were." he said, "but did those Jocks stick it, and did they give Jerry something. I'll say they did."
"We saw Jocks in doorways and at corners with bayonets. Whenever Jerry approached they just went for them. It was real hand-to-hand fighting.
"Several battalions withdrew through the town, but still the Camerons stick it. It was a grand stand, and there is no dougbt that it helped the other battalions to get way."
BLACK WATCH SURRENDER
A rending account is given of the surrender of the remnant of the Black Watch. At 10 o'clock Major Thomas Rennie went to the cemetery hill and gave them their orders. They were to cease fire and surrender. Then come the words:
"No one believed him, because the order, at first hearing, was unbelievable. But Rennie was well known, and his word could not long be doubted. With understanding came utter dismay and men stood up and wept.
"A little while later the last fragment of the Gordon Highlanders unarmed, were allowed to march past their General. Marching in the rain, they gave him "Eyesright!" And the 51st Division went into eclipse.
Another demand for surrender was more flatly rejected by Second-Lt. P. B. Hay, of the 1st Gordons When a French officer —"some poor renegade "— came with a meassage from the enemy he got his answer. It was brief, It was loud, it was impolite. 'Take that to your German general.' said Hay."
Some time before the Camerons, who were having a roughish time, were having their forward telephone cables tapped by the Germans. They soon countered this by talking with their platoon posts in Gaelic. Then they recovered some of their last positions.
HIGHLANDERS GRIM FIGHT
RECORD OF THE 51ST DIVISION
The unbroken spirit of the 51st Highland Division, which helped Gen. de Gaulle to decide "to continue fighting on the side of the Allies unto the end, no matter what may be the course of events," is described by Eric Linklater in "The Highland Division" published by the War Office.
In the last war the men of the 51st - they wore the kilt - were known by the French as "The Ladies from Hell." BY the Germans it was the most hated division in the British Army.
Telling of those terrible days when France had capitulated the author writes:
"It is on the whole, against the background of rout and sickness of despair, that the performance of the 51st must be assessed and the fact that signally emerges is that throughout its rearguard action and retreat the division retained coherence. It remained a division, and discipline ruled until the very end.
"They were compelled to show an almost superhuman endurance. There is no sterner test of discipline than a long rearguard action, unless it be the sight of supporting troops who have been broken in the fight.
"The 51st survived those tests and the division was a division till the end. It suffered many casualties, but not the fatal one. Its hard core was fighting to the end and discipline was last in the field."
Mr. Linklater tells another story. A colonel's batman, Allan Carswell, came to the colonel with his left sleeve hanging bloodily by his side to ask for the loan of a revolver.
"What do you want it for" asked the colonel." Can you not see that I've got a broken arm? I can't use a rifle."
Of the final scene on the beeches, the author writes: "It had begun to rain. The news was confirmed that there would be no evacuation that night. The patient soldiers packed tightly in the darkness, took this newest blow, this terrible disappointment. with stoic fortitude.
"They obeyed their orders, and moving into the eastward part of the town, prepared to defend themselves within a small perimeter for another day. There was still some hope —or perhaps only the fiction of a
hope - that the Navy would come for them But r stronger than hope was discipline. Discipline was unimpaired."