No Dunkirk hurrah for the 51st Highlanders

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In the land of Brexit Union Jack-adorned Britain creaks and splutters like an old jalopy incapable of engaging first gear she pitches into reverse … to a time when girls were submissive and obedient, boys wore the trousers, mam spent her evenings mending and making do and dad was digging spuds when he wasn’t trimming his prize leeks.

What a place that was. Bloody proud to be British before all this political correctness now that you can’t call a spade a spade – know what I mean? Nudge, nudge. When an Englishman’s home was his castle and you could decide who came into in it: – no blacks; no Irish – bloody Paddies – no damn likely; bloody Welsh and no bloody Scots – uppity Jocks.

                                                                 *** 

We’re back in January 1940 and the 51st Highland Division of bloody Jocks has landed in Le Havre in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) but it’s a baptism of fire for allied forces around the French coast as the situation becomes untenable with constant and escalating German attacks.

It’s April and the 51st are separated from the rest of the BEFs and deployed deep into France to the very vulnerable area of Hombourg-Bundage under the French Tenth Army on the defensive Maginot line. Casualties are high as the Germans advance at lightning speed towards the French coast.

Early June and the German panzer division makes ground as it heads for the coast protected and aided from the air.

At 3 o’clock on 4th June French and Scots men pressurising German positions find themselves under intense fire and dive-bombing Stukas. As the 51st struggle desperately to defend the front line French tanks forge ahead the infantry in their wake and one after another are blown to smithereens by mines or disabled by heavy gun fire. Many are consumed by fire. Men of the 4th Seaforths are cut down by heavy machine-gun fire.

20170804_154746

On 5 June a huge offensive  comprising 124 German divisions launch a major attack, Fall Rot, along 70 miles of front line including the 25 miles the 51st are struggling to hold. Beleaguered the Highland Division fight a losing battle to defend the area around le Havre.

On 7 June two German armoured divisions split the French Tenth Army.  The Highland Division along with their French comrades are separated from part of the Tenth.

On 8 June the 51st are cut off in Rouen-Dieppe.

On 9 June the 51st are 35 miles north of Rouen which has fallen into German hands. They receive orders to withdraw to le Havre. This is not possible as Germany launches an attack from the east and the 51st are cut off.

On 10 June the 51st along with the French IXth Corps drop back to St. Valery, hoping to be evacuated by sea.

On 11 June Brigadier Stanley-Clarke issues the order for a new line be held to the last man.

Radio contact is lost with the 51st as the evacuation of Stanley-Clarke’s own force from Dunkirk continues. It is decided to abandon the young men of the Highland Division too deep into France but hope lives on among the men that they might yet be evacuated from St. Valéry.

Fog prevents any chance of this happening and in any case the Germans now occupy the steep cliffs at the coast.

On 12 June the French corps surrenders and shortly after so do what remains of the 51st Highland. A few escape but are captured by General Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division.

 Land of Hope and Glory plays in the background

“Out from the hell that is Dunkirk. Out from the steel thrust of the German war machine they come – the BEF (some of them – not those abandoned) footsore and hungry. Never defeated or dispirited. Around these men there hangs an atmosphere of glory.
The men who’ve got back to Blighty are grateful – to the navy and to the merchant service.
And grateful to the French navy.
The BEF is grateful to the Royal Air Force.
The BEF is grateful, too, to its French comrades.
The BEF is grateful to the girls in uniform who’ve stayed with them to the end.

But not it appears grateful to the men of the 51st.

While these men live and breathe Britain is safe. The enemy will never pass

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpb0aOPEQkE

For the lucky ones evacuated from Dunkirk there were jam sandwiches and hot tea waiting for them in England.

Iron-spined Major-General Harold Alexander is undaunted by Nazi bombers screaming overhead shelling sea and land; explosion after explosion. Without (much of ) a thought for his own safety he waits offshore, binoculars in hand, till satisfied there are no more living creatures left on the beach or water and with a final nod to the captain they sail off into the blue yonder to more than a jam sandwich. Mission accomplished.

englands dunkirk

Hunkered down in his Westminster bunker sustained on a diet of Scotch whisky and cigars national hero and Prime Minister Winston Churchill exalts the ‘miracle of deliverance’ of the Dunkirk retreat.

‘We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight them 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,’ he insists 200 miles away from the men of the 51st.

I well remember a very old lady, a former schoolteacher in the Highlands, who could not bear to hear the fawning adulation of Winston Churchill presented through newspapers, histories and radio and television. It took me many years to realise just why she despised him so much. Britain’s greatest hero Mr Churchill regretted the fate of the Highlanders but drew solace from the Division coming back to its own when other Scots were drawn into its ranks. 

To illustrate his feelings Churchill drew on a poem by the Aberdeenshire poet Charles Murray, A Saugh o’ War – which I published recently here on the blog. The poem is too jingoistic and sentimental for my liking

Half-mast the caste banner droops,

The Laird’s lament was played yestreen,

An; mon a widowed cottar wife

Is greetin’ at her shank aleen…

A’ keen to show baith friends and foe

Auld Scotland counts for something still.

 

And a predictable report on Dunkirk from the BBC 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/june/4/newsid_3500000/3500865.stm

So as Britain goes Dunkirk delirious just like it did back in 1940 there are parts of these islands where the hysteria is just a little tempered for knowing the picture of blood and guts and bravery played out in cinemas across the land is not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The abandoning of the 51st Highlanders does not fit the narrative of British pluck and victory loved by rightwing commentators – historians, film makers, journalists or anyone who prefers myth to reality and preferably all tied up with a ribbon of red, white and blue.

Britain and its people exist on a diet of myths. Dunkirk was a major success in terms of saving many lives and an illustration of the courage of individuals but it is also an example of the British state’s coyness to admit it also creates victims as a result of its actions while readily exploiting for propaganda purposes an event that is very partial in the telling.

Britain would “never abandon her ally in her hour of need” bellowed Churchill – at the same time he didn’t think twice about ditching men of the 51st Highland Division.

The ‘Dunkirk spirit’ might be said to have a second meaning – the sacrifice of people – of Scots, bloody Jocks (and others serving with the 51st.) They were heroes but heroes largely written out of the story of Dunkirk.

The flag-waving hurrah over Dunkirk will go on for a long time but does plucky British heroism conceal a shabby and uncomfortable reality of bravery plus sacrifice?

Capt Ian Campbell, General Fortune’s intelligence officer said:

“It has always been abundantly clear to men that no division has ever been more uselessly sacrificed. It could have been got away a week before but the powers that be – owing I think to very faulty information – had come to the conclusion that there was a capacity for resistance in France which was not actually there.”

Never Surrender

We shall never surrender

H    O   M    E

Over 330,000 made it home

It was the Scots Highlanders who didn’t get home but were abandoned in France.

Back in the war everyone pulled together – that Dunkirk spirit characterizes us. Britain at its best – all in the same boat…

51st Highland Division memorial at St Valery-en-Ca from inverux

Inver granite memorial to the 51st Highland Division at St Valery

(The 51st Highland Division comprised men from the Black Watch, the Seaforths, the Queen’s Own Camerons, the Gordons and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders under Major General Victor Fortune aka the Duke of Argyll.)

Click on Pawns in the War Game, 1940

18 Comments to “No Dunkirk hurrah for the 51st Highlanders”

  1. Funny how facts are ignored when myths are more popular. There are a number of myths surrounding the story of Dunkirk. In recent years, one of these has been that the Highland Division was ‘abandoned’. In fact, after the successful Dunkirk evacuation a second operation, codenamed ‘Ariel’, was launched to rescue allied troops still in France. A fleet of nearly two hundred ships and small craft were assembled on 10th June off the coast at St. Valery, and some Highland units began making their way to the sea. However, thick fog thwarted the evacuation plan – otherwise it would have been remembered as another ‘miracle’. Just as the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk suited and still suits a particular view, the idea of the Highlanders being ‘abandoned’ suits another one; but it is not true.

  2. My dad was captured at St Valery and taken to pow camp in Poland he was a brave man who came back with a stutter and always refused to talk about his ordeal in the war God Bless Him and all of the Seaforth Highlanders

    • I had an uncle who spent years in camps in Germany and Poland – who only spoke of the years he endured there to others who’d experienced war service. Sorry about your dad. L

  3. After Dunkirk-J-B-Priestly BBC news broadcast of 5th June capitulated the mood of the country when he claimed-Dunkirk is another English epic.It was so charecteristically English.This was from the book Never Surrender written by Robert Kershaw.

  4. What reason do we still have in this day and age to allow ourselves, a proud people to still be subservient to the whim of a government in a foreign land, our young men killed in wars to this day that we were not involved in as a Scottish nation, wake up Scotland smell the heather break your shackles be free again. Enough Scottish blood has been shed for English conquest

    • I certainly believe the First World War was not worth the spilling of any blood far less the wholeasale slaughter it produced but think the Second World War was a different matter entirely. However, those behind its tactics have many questions to answer…and they’re a’ deid.

  5. My father was one of the 51st Highland Division captured in St Valery and was in a POW camp for one month short of five years. I will not go to see the film ‘Dunkirk’ because he and the rest of the soldiers were abandoned.

  6. Enlightening, moving and utterly infuriating. Par for the course for Scottish battalions since 1707.

  7. There’s another book published bilingually in English and Scottish, which is a first-hand account by a soldier (from Uist) of the rearguard action by the 51st Highland Division at St Valéry and his own subsequent capture as a prisoner of war. Fo Sgàil a’ Swastika – Under the shadow of the swastika, Donald John MacDonald (1919-1986).

  8. This division was stationed in Rothes prior to going to France, we lost a lot of friends & acquaintances from that division. Shame on Winston Churchill for allowing thos to occur.

  9. Thanks to Lena for drawing attention to this little-considered episode. A detailed account of it can be found in a book published in the 1990s: Churchill’s Sacrifice of the Highland Division: France 1940, by Saul David. Brassey’s, London, 1994, xii + 276 pp. There is a review here: http://smothpubs.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/pawns-in-war-game-1940.html

  10. Your picture above shows how different the coastline at St. Valery is from that at Dunkirk. With the Germans on top of the cliffs to the north and south attempts were made, but could not succeed under fire. If the 51st had not been attached to the French army and been kept there in order to try to stiffen the French morale things might have been different.

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