51st Highland Division (1940)

51st Highland Division, 1940

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Battle for St Valéry-en-Caux 4 to 12 June 1940

Area: The area in and around the town of St Valéry-en-Caux, northern France.

Players: Allies: 51st Highland Division, 1st Armoured Division; French 9th Army Corps.

Germany: 7th Panzer Division; 2nd Motor Division; 5th and 31st Infantry Divisions.

Outcome: The 51st Highland Division was forced to surrender after days of desperately defending the town while waiting for an evacuation that never happened.

As British forces were withdrawing from France, Churchill placed the 51st Highland Division under French command after assuring the French that Britain would ‘never abandon her ally in her hour of need’. The move was intended to persuade the French to fight on against Hitler as Britain withdrew from the continent.

The bulk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been evacuated from Dunkirk, but the 51st Highland Division was charged with recapturing the Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme. The plan suffered from poor co-ordination between Allied artillery, tanks and infantry, and the attack on 4 June resuled in heavy casualties.

The Germans launched a counter-attack the next day, outflanking the Allies and trapping the 51st Highland Division and elements of the French 9th Army Corps, who withdrew to the coastal town of St Valéry-en-Caux.

Major General VM Fortune, commander of the 51st, asked to be evacuated on 11 June. But the Germans were determined to avoid another Dunkirk and four divisions were put into attack to prevent an evacuation.

Despite fierce Allied defence, the 7th Panzers soon held cliff-top ground overlooking the harbour, making an evacuation highly dangerous. The Highlanders were conducting a desperate defence against advancing Germans while trying, without success, to eject the 7th Panzers from their positions.

The night of 11 June was the Highlanders’ last chance to evacuate, but Fortune remained unable to contact the ships he hoped would rescue him and his men. That night, although Fortune was still hoping for evacuation and elements of the 51st were still counter-attacking, the French surrendered. By 12 June, Fortune realised that his position was hopeless and also surrendered.

Dense fog had delayed the Navy’s rescue attempt and, although they intended to arrive the next day, it was too late to save the men who fought at St Valéry-en-Caux from spending the war in a PoW camp.

It wasn’t, however, the end of the 51st Highlanders – the division was reconstituted from the 9th Highland Infantry Division.

St. Valery-en-Caux Franco-British Cemetry

St. Valery-en-Caux is a small seaside town and holiday resort 32 kilometres west of Dieppe and 60 kilometres north-west of Rouen. The Franco-British Cemetery lies on the south eastern outskirts of the town about 200 metres from the church and adjoins the civil cemetery.

Follow St. Valery town centre, and the first CWGC sign is on the right of the main road.

During the Second World War, the town of St. Valery was three-quarters destroyed and was under German occupation from the end of May 1940 until liberated in 1944.

In 1940 it was at the centre of important battles when Commonwealth troops, notably the 51st (Highland) Division, made their last stand fighting alongside the 2nd French Cavalry Division. The 51st (Highland) Division was practically wiped out, most of its members being taken prisoner.

After the war, the French Government bestowed the Croix de Guerre on the town, and the order conferring the honour contained the words, “St. Valery . . . made illustrious by the heroic resistance of the 51st Scottish Division”. Facing each other on the cliffs that flank the town are, to the east the 51st (Highland) Division Memorial, and to the west the memorial to the French Cavalry, which were unveiled simultaneously.

In the cemetery is a memorial to the 51st (Highland) Division erected by the local civil authorities, and a granite St. Andrew’s shield given, by the Marchioness of Huntley, is set into the base of the Cross of Sacrifice. The cemetery gates were the gift of the people of north and north-east Scotland.

The cemetery contains 234 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, 63 of them unidentified. There are also 218 French war graves.

No. of Identified Casualties: 335

Contact for Commonwealth war graves commission www.cwgc.org

Highland Division Window – St Valery en Caux

This window, dedicated in June 1990, is a gift from the highland cities and towns of Scotland and commemorates fifty years of their special association with the people and township of St. Valéry en Caux with Inverness and began in the difficult circumstances of 1940 when the German army converged on the town and the combined allied forces comprising the French 9 St Corps and the 51st Highland Division.

The total design concept has an underlying feeling of turbulence appropriate to the events remembered but avoids any direct war imagery which seems out of place within the church, relying rather on symbolic imagery, colour form to suggest ideas and stimulate the enquiring mind to discover and interpret the meanings within the window.

The window shows the harbour inlet and town of St. Valéry within an aerial landscape incorporating the surrounding countryside which was involved in the action of 1940, together with the abrupt division by the cliffs between it and the sea which were both of extreme significance to the events of the time.

Intentional within the design is also a visual parallel to the imagery and concepts suggested in Revelation 12 of good prevailing and the casting out of evil. The harbour channel and surrounding town of St. Valéry, a central area of red and orange to depict the destruction and fires of battle, can also be seen as being, “clothed in the sun and fires of battle”, can also be seen as being “clothed in the sun with the moon under her feet” (Rev. 12vl) with the harbour itself “giving birth” into the sea and towards possible freedom.

The outer perimeter of flames forms a king of wreath around the town within which are entwined roses and thistles in reference to the joint action and to evoke the words of General de Gaulle in Edinburgh on June 23rd 1942 when he remembered the thousands of Scots whose blood was shed with the French during the previous war, the monument to their memory at Buzancy with its inscription and medallion referencing roses and the thistle, and added “if the roses of France are blood-stained today, they still cluster lovingly around the thistle of Scotland”.

The encircling oppressive forms in the lower sections of the window represent the advancing German army. These are arranged in blocks to depict the various divisions advancing from different directions and within which the pattern suggests the movement of tanks which in superior force Rommel used to this advantage on this occasion. The seven arrowheads with the red white and black colours of the German army, “the seven headed dragon” (Rev.12v3) connect with the red borders which twist into the upper sections of the window on the left as the tail of the dragon “drawing one third part of the stars of heaven”.

The upper sections of the window should be read as both sea and sky, often indivisible at the horizon, thereby allowing for the concept of the earthly below the heavenly above. Within this area of indeterminate blue there is some indication of movement away from St. Valéry, by sea, suggesting the limited escape of those who were later. to reform with others to create the new 51st Division which was eventually to return and liberate the town.

At the very top of the window the HD emblem can be seen central to a force of descending forms which by their shape and directional inference could represent the boats to bring the avenging forces of 1944, suggesting the promise of liberation, but also forming a kind of angel wing, a more celestial symbol of the forces of good on high against the evil below.

“And they overcame him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony: and they loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev. 12Vl1).

51st Highland Division Memorial at St. Valery

In the cemetery is a memorial to the 51st (Highland) Division erected by the local civil authorities, and a granite St. Andrew’s shield given, by the Marchioness of Huntley, is set into the base of the Cross of Sacrifice. The cemetery gates were the gift of the people of north and north-east Scotland.

This is the memorial on the cliffs above St Valery-en-Caux to the 51st (Highland) Division, who surrendered to Rommel in June 1940 there, having been intentionally left off the OLYMPIC evacuation as a demonstration of London’s intentions not to abandon the French.

The inscription reads “In proud and grateful memory of all ranks of the 51st (Highland) Division who gave their lives during the war 1939-45”


Wikipedia also details information regarding the 51st Highland Division

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