Scots heroic last stand in 1940 to be remembered

A HEROIC but ultimately tragic last stand by Scottish troops against the Nazi onslaught in France in 1940 is to be commemorated this week at the northern French town of St Valery.
Soldiers from the 51st Highland Division and French comrades march into captivity. Picture: GettySoldiers from the 51st Highland Division and French comrades march into captivity. Picture: Getty
Soldiers from the 51st Highland Division and French comrades march into captivity. Picture: Getty

The defiant action of the 51st Highland Division, which held back General Erwin Rommel’s tanks as thousands of British troops made their escape from Dunkirk, will be remembered in three days of ceremonies.

The events will involve families of veterans, the British consul, French dignitaries, a detachment of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and Geoffrey Bridden, a veteran of the fighting.

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The action comprised the worst Scottish military disaster since the Battle of Flodden 1513 and saw 10,000 Scottish troops captured by the Germans, to spend the rest of the war as PoWs.

The fighting flared around the town of St Valery, south of Dunkirk, where the 51st Highlanders were put under the command of the French in an effort to persuade France to not surrender.

Between 4 and 12 June, as much of the rest of the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated, the Highlanders were charged with recapturing the strategic Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme.

The division was made up of the 2nd Seaforths, 1st Gordons, 4th Camerons, 4th Seaforths, 5th Gordons, 1st Black Watch, the Lothians, Norfolks and the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers (Pioneers). After a fierce German counter-attack, the troops retreated to St Valery where they formed a perimeter to hold out, in the hope the Royal Navy could help them escape.

For days, the Highland Division held out but their commander Major General Victor Fortune struggled to contact the navy who were unable to provide rescue because of fog.

The end came when the French surrendered at 8am on 
12 June leaving the division to fight alone.

While General Fortune considered a counter-attack, his men were short of ammunition and were exhausted and he was forced to surrender.

The 51st Highland Division was later reformed by some of the men who escaped and other regiments. After playing a crucial role in the North African campaign, it spearheaded the attack in 1944 after D-Day.

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Field Marshal Montgomery famously halted the Canadians so that the 51st Highland Division could be the ones to liberate St Valery, four years after the military disaster there.

Taking part in the commemoration will also be the the Highland Division Normandy, the Normandy Highland Pipe Band and reenactment soldiers from France 44 dressed in 1940 Highland Division uniforms.”

The group was formed last year by French enthusiasts to remember the heroic actions of the Scots in helping to free France from the Nazi oppression and it led a tour of the towns liberated by the division.

Alisdaire Le Bugle, who is president of the Highland Division Normandy group and will be re-enacting the role of a major of the 1st Battalion, the Gordon Highlanders, said it was a privilege to be involved in the commemorations.

He said: “We are very much looking forward to the events and remembering the brave men who fought so hard to protect and eventually liberate our country.

“It is important that the memory of the 51st Highland Division is kept going. There are not many veterans left but we owe them so much.”

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