How the sacrifice in France of Scottish troops changed the course of history

THANKS to his very kind words in Saturday’s paper, reader Archie Hamilton is about to have his wish granted as today we will be recounting the story of the 51st Highland Division and its sacrifice in France in 1940.

Flattering your columnist on the letters pages is always a good way of getting attention, and I was struck by Archie’s letter and its description of “the other side of Dunkirk”.

Loading article content

Indeed, there was another side to the British involvement in France in 1940. When the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was surrounded at Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo commenced, no-one really thought that even tens of thousands of soldiers would be rescued. Eventually, and largely due to the arrival of the “little ships”, almost 400,000 men were lifted from the hell of Dunkirk’s beaches and brought back to Blighty.

It was a devastating defeat, nevertheless. The German blitzkrieg had reduced the BEF to running away, leaving behind all their stores, ammunition, tanks and guns. Hitler acclaimed it as the greatest victory in the history of battles, as he was convinced that Britain’s forces would never return to France.Yet it was the Fuhrer’s own tactical errors that had allowed the Dunkirk evacuation.

It took the genius of Winston Churchill and his soaring oratory to convince the British public of the “miracle” of Dunkirk. He had been Prime Minister for just 25 days when Operation Dynamo ended on June 4. Even he had to admit “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory – wars are not won by evacuations”, but the rest of his speech to the House of Commons that day has gone down in history as the “we shall fight them on the beaches” peroration.

In case you’ve forgotten it, Churchill said: “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

And we never did. Yet across the English Channel in France, the 51st Highland Division was about to be forced to surrender, for they had been left behind by Churchill to help the French Army fight on as the Panzer divisions poured into the heart of France.

The 51st Highland Division had originally been the 1st Highland Territorial Division when it was raised at the general creation of the Territorial Force in 1908. Mobilised at the start of the First World War, the 1st consisted of brigades drawn from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Seaforths, Gordons and Camerons.

In 1915, it was renamed the 51st Highland Division and despite various changes, such as the addition of Black Watch and occasional English battalions, the division remained intact under the command of General George Harper. Their early reputation was not sound – they were nicknamed Harper’s Duds – but as they fought courageously in vicious battles such as the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Cambrai, the reputation of the 51st soared. They won six Victoria Crosses and many other medals for their valour.

Returned to territorial status in peacetime as part of the 1920 formation of the Territorial Army, the 51st was mobilised again in August 1939 under command of Major General Victor Fortune, its peacetime commander. Again it was the Territorial battalions of the five Highland regiments which provided the men – the Black Watch, Seaforths, Queen’s Own Camerons, the Gordons and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The division rapidly trained up but regular army soldiers were drafted in to bolster the ranks of the 51st, especially a unit of the Royal Artillery, the 23rd Field Regiment.

With the German invasion of France, the government of Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, sent the BEF over the Channel, and the 51st embarked at Southampton for Le Havre in January 1940. To the chagrin of every Highlander, they were ordered to hand in their kilts as the War Office deemed them unfit for modern warfare. Curiously enough, not a few men of the Division managed to smuggle their kilts to France and wore them in the 51st’s last stand in June 1940.

What happened between January and June is instructive. There is a misunderstanding that Churchill alone sacrificed the 51st to allow the rest of the BEF to escape, but the fact is that three weeks before Churchill entered 10 Downing Street, the division’s fate was sealed by the order to move its three brigades to reinforce the French divisions much further to the east from where the bulk of the BEF was stationed. The 51st was then placed under the command of the French Third Army as it prepared to defend against Hitler’s Panzers.

On April 19, the 51st began moving to the Saar area to help defend the massive Ouvrage Hackenberg fortification that was part of the Maginot Line, France’s first defence against German invasion, and more than 200 miles from the English Channel.

Unfortunately the Nazis did not play by the book and simply bypassed the Maginot Line by sweeping through Belgium and attacking the north-west coast of France.

The BEF was coming under fierce attack from the Panzer tanks and accompanying troops and was eventually encircled, leaving the 51st trapped inland with the French. Hackenberg was harassed by the German forces but never directly attacked, and the 51st were ordered to withdraw west by train and lorry to the defensive line which the French had hastily formed along the River Somme in Picardy, with much of the fighting centred on Abbeville.

The 51st was now almost 100 miles from Dunkirk and could not have been evacuated from there even if they had wanted to. Churchill had promised the French Government that the remaining BEF forces would fight on, and it was that decision which sealed the Highlanders’ fate. The only way out for the 51st would be through the ports of Dieppe and St Valery-en-Caux, and it was going to be a very tight run thing for them to make it there.

Operation Dynamo having finished on June 4, the Germans now turned their full attention to the French Army and the Highland Division on the Somme.

Thanks to the Highland Division online museum we can read extracts from the diary of intelligence officer Captain JPP Taylor of the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders. He gives a vivid account of the Germans approaching the 51st Division’s positions: “I climbed up the tree which was being used as the OP (observation post), and saw a small detachment of enemy crawling towards us. This manoeuvre was very well carried out and, although they were within 300 yds of us, it was almost impossible to see them with the naked eye. The German soldiers, I thought, appeared extremely well-trained in their stalking tactics. Our men, even at this stage, were poor at the art of concealment. The Germany uniform blended perfectly with the green cover through which they were crawling.”

ON and on they came, and the French army led a bid to retake the Abbeville bridgeheads which the Germans had established. It failed, despite the gallantry of the Highlanders. The officers and men of the 51st must have known their position was hopeless, but still they fought on as other parts of the BEF escaped back to Britain through other ports on the French coast of the English Channel and further south. It was anticipated that the 51st would join them, but their orders were to stay as long as possible to help the French in their increasingly shambolic defence.

At this point the 51st was fighting alongside a force commanded by a tall moustachioed and quite imperious French officer – General Charles de Gaulle. The courage and dedication of the Scottish soldiers helped determine De Gaulle’s future as leader of the Free French forces.

During a speech in Edinburgh in 1942, the future president of France said: “For my part, I can say that the comradeship of arms, sealed on the battlefield of Abbeville in May-June 1940, between the French armoured division, which I had the honour to command, and the gallant 51st Scottish Division under General Fortune, played its part in the decision which I made to continue the fight at the side of the Allies, to the end, come what may.”

He then quoted the motto of the French royal bodyguard, the Garde Ecossaise: “omni modo fidelis” – faithful in every way.

That is the true measure of the 51st’s achievement. By fighting on in those dark days of early June, they bought enough time for De Gaulle and hundreds of his men to flee to Britain and thus shaped the post-war Western European powers.

What a price the 51st paid, however. After Abbeville, they tried to repulse the Germans at Huchenneville and sustained heavy casualties. By June 6, the division was down to half its fighting strength, with the Argylls having taken the worst casualties in a single day in the regiment’s long history.

Fortune now issued orders for the formation of an Ark Force evacuation group which did manage to get some of the 154th Brigade home to Britain. Even then, the rest fought on, but the German Panzers under the command of Erwin Rommel, were now set to overrun the division so the decision was taken to get all the remaining Highlanders to St Valery and evacuate them home.

It was at this point that one of those “snafus” occurred which have been a regular feature of war ever since humankind first started fighting. The Royal Navy came into the port on June 10, but the 51st had been held up and were not at that point there to be evacuated. The unlucky moments came when fog set in, and the Navy had to move out to sea, then could not get back in as the Germans now commanded the heights above St Valery.

June 11 dawned hot and humid, and the German tanks made things much hotter in the afternoon. Running out of ammunition and already out of rations, the division encamped around St Valery and suffered more casualties. At 08:00 hours on June 12, the French forces in the area surrendered.

General Fortune could have ordered his men to fight on and try and make it south to Cherbourg or other ports where troops were still being evacuated.

The situation was hopeless, however, and to avert slaughter, the General surrendered himself – he was the most senior officer captured by the Germans in the war – and his surrounded division. Some 10,000 men were taken off to a long and arduous captivity. During that time, Lieutenant Jimmy Atkinson of the 7th Battalion, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, composed a now-famous dance called the Reel of the 51st Highland Division, which was performed for the first time before Fortune in a prison camp in Germany. The capture of the division devastated families across Scotland. Yet it was reformed and fought with distinction in North Africa and Italy before returning in 1944 to northern France and St Valery itself – this time as liberators.