The forgotten heroes of Dunkirk

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THE disastrously failed evacuation from St Valery in June 1940 impacted in Scotland like no other Second World War engagement. Over a few days in June, the 51st Highland Division, following a heroic rearguard action effectively vanished, with some 8,000 of its men surviving to languish in German prisoner-of-war camps, and there remains a lingering sense of bitterness among the dwindling band of survivors that one of Scotland's greatest divisions was sacrificed by Winston Churchill.

The forgotten heroes of St Valery were part of the grim fighting which took place in order that the "miracle of deliverance", as Churchill called the Dunkirk evacuation, could be achieved. Following Dunkirk, between 4 and 12 June 1940, the 51st Highland Division, which boasted regiments of the calibre of the Black Watch, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and the Seaforth Highlanders at its core, was forced by Rommel's panzer divisions to withdraw, along with fragments of the French 9th Army Corps, to the Normandy coastal town of St Valry-en -Caux. Naval vessels, hampered by fog, grouped offshore. A German counter-attack, however, placed the town and its beach under heavy fire, and the ships were unable to get in.

Now, a new book about the men who stayed behind to cover the Dunkirk evacuation contains the controversial claim that, had the 51st's commanding officer acted differently, the planned evacuation from St Valery might have been carried off successfully.

In Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man, by the historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, a diary kept by the late Major Murray Grant, second in command of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and grandfather of the British film star Hugh Grant, suggests that the 51st's CO, Major-General Victor Fortune, by that time under the command of the French, enabled the Germans to break through from the south towards St Valery because he had failed to order enough artillery and anti-tank guns to back up the Seaforths he had sent to secure the line south of St Valery. Grant's account also suggests that Fortune, and General Ihler, his French counterpart, didn't do enough to ensure a more orderly retreat.

The western section of the ring of French and British forces guarding the town was attacked by the advancing panzer divisions, and here the delay caused by congested roads turned out to be critical. Firstly, the French unit that was supposed to be holding the line from the edge of the cliffs overlooking St Valery to Le Tot had not arrived; secondly, the 2nd Seaforths were not backed up by any anti-tank guns or artillery. And he quotes Grant's diary: "The position was obviously untenable against AFV (armoured fighting vehicle) attack without artillery and A/Tk support..."

Grant asked for anti-tank support as a matter of urgency and Major-General Fortune promised to send guns as soon as possible, but owing to the blocked roads and the failure to send anti-tank weapons in advance, they hadn't appeared by the time the first panzer units attacked the Highlanders on the afternoon of 11 June. "By all accounts, writes Sebag-Montefiore, "some 90 tanks attacked the thin line of Highlanders holding the western perimeter, and although once again they stood their ground, the German panzers inevitably broke through their front line."

"The fire [from the tanks] was severe," wrote Grant, "and we suffered between 30 and 40 killed and wounded... within a few minutes three enemy tanks were knocked out by [anti-tank] rifle fire..." Within a short time, however, the Germans had established their guns on the cliffs overlooking St Valery harbour. All hope of an evacuation vanished.

Sebag-Montefiore agrees that it is all too easy to talk in hindsight about decisions carried out in appalling conditions. "I think you've got to be totally balanced about it," he says. "Fortune was acting under extreme pressure, because the French were very defeatist by that time. Fortune had effectively taken over from Ihler and had suggested to him that was at least a chance of escaping. So even in carrying on, Fortune can be said to have been a heroic fighter."

The traffic congestion didn't help. Grant's diary recalls "a nightmare drive to St Valery... All drove full out. It was still broad daylight, and we expected to be bombed out of existence at any moment. By pure luck we got through just before the roads became completely jammed with French military and civilian vehicles 'flying' to St Valery."

"Basically," explains Sebag-Montefiore, "the Highlanders were all round St Valery in a kind of circle, with some French units, but if he had sent down artillery to bolster that southern flank with anti-tank guns and artillery, it stands to reason that there would have been a chance of stopping the tanks."

In the book, another Highland soldier, Sergeant John Mackenzie of the 2nd Seaforths, recalls the chaos.: "We reached the square just as night was drawing in. Scenes of indescribable confusion met us as our truck came to a halt. The town had been badly smashed by an air raid, and many houses were alight. Thousands of drunken French soldiers were looting cafs, shops and houses, blazing away at anything with their rifles. Someone took a couple of pot shots at me as I was talking to the driver of a light tank... sending me back to my truck in a hurry."

However Bill Innes, editor of St Valery: The Impossible Odds (Birlinn), points to the chaos surrounding the operation and cautions: "Fortune didn't have much in the way of artillery to send. The problem for the 51st was that they were covering the left flank of the French 31st division, and Fortune, rightly or wrongly, felt he could abandon them. The Highlanders had transport and could have got away if they'd got in their lorries but they couldn't leave the French, who didn't have transport, undefended.

"But also nobody could have foreseen how quickly Rommell had swung round to the south and cut them off. You have to factor in the total chaos at the time, with very poor communications by today's standards. The senior officers were all used to the strategies of World War One. Rommell used his panzer divisions at a rate which even took his own high command by surprise."

There was plenty of heroism, too. The 2nd Seaforth's aid post, in a barn, was hit by mortar fire. "Quite a few were killed inside, and [doctor] McKillop was severely wounded," recalls an officer. "One leg was blown off and the other broken in three places. In spite of this, he tried to direct operations, and refused to be moved until the last man still alive had been rescued."

The 8,000 men of the 51st who survived to be taken prisoner found themselves on a forced march to five years of incarceration in Germany and Poland.

The bloody conflict at St Valery has inspired pipe tunes, songs... even a country dance, called The Reel of the 51st and devised by captured officer to relieve the boredom of their POW camp. Those who remember the shock to communities across Highland and north-east Scotland as the "missing" and "killed in action" telegrams arrived, not to mention the survivors, are fading away.

But did Churchill deliberately "sacrifice" the division, as its veterans often claim? Sebag-Montefiore has never seen any specific documents confirming this was the case. However, he reckons that circumstantial evidence does suggest that, while Churchill may have hoped the French would evacuate the 51st before they were surrounded, he was willing to risk their being captured rather than antagonising his French allies.

"During the night of 7-8 June, the War Office was sent a message explaining that unless they retreated from the River Bresle towards the south, they would be in grave danger of being surrounded," he says. "Yet no order to retreat was sent to the division, who were under French control. They were forced to wait until the evening of the 8th, when the French order to retreat was finally given. As a result, a whole day was lost because Churchill did not take them out of French control so they could retreat immediately." Also, he adds, Churchill wouldn't allow the 51st to leave the French behind, which hampered the British who, unlike the French, were mostly in trucks. "If he had, they would probably have made it to Le Havre before the Germans cut them off."

Then, on 10 June, the War Office told the division that they could not evacuate without French permission. The French finally permitted evacuation on evening of 11 June. "After that, every attempt was made to save the division, but it was too late."

The following day Churchill is reported to have told the War Cabinet that "the French had let us down badly. They had not allowed the 51st Division to retire to Rouen, and then kept it waiting until it was no longer possible for it to reach Havre. Finally they had compelled it to capitulate with their own troops." This, says the historian, suggests the Prime Minister had not intentionally sacrificed the division.

Whether, in hindsight, the "sacrifice" was worthwhile is doubtful, as France capitulated a few days later. "However," adds Sebag-Montefiore, "the attempt to evacuate from St Valery did divert the Germans so that more time was given to the other British units waiting to be evacuated further to the south at Cherbourg and St Nazaire."

• Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man, by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, is published by Viking