51st Highland Division after Dunkirk



The 70th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation has now passed. After Dunkirk, the remnants of the BEF were left to battle on in northern France. In recognition of the British Expeditionary Force’s last throw of the dice in northern France, this site will follow the development in a series of maps, based on available information. This may be the last time veterans of the 51st Highland Division gather in France to remember their fallen comrades. It is time for another generation to carry on the job of remembering.

That Highland Division was Scotland’s pride; and its loss, and with it the magnificent men drawn from practically every town, village and croft in Scotland, was a great blow …

Major General Thomas Rennie, Cailleville, France, 3rd Sept, 1944, on the liberation of St Valery.

When Rommel’s panzers reached the French coast they split the BEF into a larger force in the north and a smaller force, mainly the 51st Highland Division, to the south. The main (northern) body of the BEF retreated on Dunkirk. In the south, the 51st Division was under French command, now forming the extreme left of the Allied flank. It was undermanned, underequipped and undersupplied, yet it was expected to cover over 18 miles of front south of the Somme canal – over four times the distance normally defended by a full strength infantry division. Their sector was stretched southwards from the Somme to the River Bresle. By the time the 51st Div reached the small port of St Valery-en-Caux, one of its brigades, the 154th had been severely battered by elements of the German 12th Infantry Division supported by the 11th Motorised Brigade. The remnants of 154th brigade made their way south, some reaching Le Havre in Ark Force, where they managed to avoid the enemy encirclement.

Map 2. First contact

B, C and D Companies, 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders faced the main thrust of the initial German attack south of the Somme on the morning of 5th June, on an East-West line from Catigny to Saigneville (map 2). The 7th Argylls were in a series of strong points with undefended gaps in between. It was here that the enemy pushed through fastest (Map3).

Main attack on 8th Argylls

The 8th Battalion occupied a line running at a right angle to this from Pendé to St Blimont. When D Coy, 8th Argylls pulled back to a position east of 8th Bn HQ at St Blimont around 0930hr the effect was to channel the enemy into the area where the two lines met, around the village of Tilloy (Map 4). One of the platoon commanders (15 Pl) described the sight of waves of infantry interspersed with armoured cars moving towards them through growing crops.

5-JUN-1940, attack on Tilloy

C Coy withdrew from Tilloy through St Blimont and attempted to stabilise a line from Belloy, through Escarbotin to Fresenneville, where they were to link up with the Divisional reserve, 4th Battalion, the Black Watch. Despite their spirited defence of the initial line from Pendé to St Blimont, the enemy had broken through and outflanked their positions. German forces were gathering strength by the hour. Elements of  7th and 8th Battalions Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders hung on in stubborn defiance.  C & D Companies of the 8th Argylls made a particularly gritty stand based on the chateau at Belloy, pitting around 170 exhausted highlanders against 1500 enemy infantry, armour, and field artillery.

Defence of the chateau grounds, Belloy

Their defence lasted from 5th to 7th June, ending just five days before the main body of the 51st HD surrendered in St Valery.

The final stages of the battle for the chateau at Belloy

In a submission to the Regimental archive, the Officer-in-Charge C/D Coy, 8th Argylls at Belloy observed that no orders were received subsequent to the command to hold the position. That they held on for so long despite hopeless odds and a lack of both sleep and food, is a measure of their determination to stop the enemy in his tracks. Their courage under fire has been documented in Saul David’s book, Churchill’s Sacrifice of the Highland Division, which asks what was intended beyond the political objective of trying to get France to battle on.

The surrender of the 51st Highland Division at St Valery was a bleak day for Britain. Major General Fortune was the highest-ranking British officer to be captured by the enemy. Unlike at Dunkirk, only a small fraction of his force got away by boat. Captured officers, NCOs and other ranks spent the remainder of the war in Prisoner-of-war camps, though a small number managed to escape captivity.

The 51st Division was subsequently rebuilt, and accompanied Montgomery from El Alamein to Germany, stopping off on the way for some unfinished business in St Valery.

Expedition & Wilderness Medicine reviewed

Oxford Handbook of Expedition and Wilderness Medicine. Johnson C et al. 2008, Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-929661-3

This title has been recommended as supplementary reading for the Fellowship of the Australasian College of Tropical Medicine part 1 exam (FACTM pt 1), and provides useful background reading for key modules (e.g. Malaria 3).

You know you’ve come to depend on a textbook when you feel lost without it. That was my fate recently when I had to go off on a field trip without my copy. It was a bad case of separation anxiety. This book is a strong addition to the Oxford Handbooks series and comes as a result of a collaboration between travel and medicine experts and the Royal Geographical Society’s Geography Outdoors centre. Hardly surprising, then, that this is a very practical book packed with advice for the intrepid traveller. This is more than a handy guide to doctors, nurses and paramedics. It has well laid-out advice . So what does this guide provide you? The contents follow a logical continuum, with emphasis on leading priorities:

  1. Expedition medicine
  2. Preparations
  3. Food, water and hygiene
  4. Crisis management
  5. Emergencies – diagnosis
  6. Emergencies – trauma
  7. Emergencies – serious illness and collapse
  8. Skin
  9. Head and neck
  10. Remote emergency dentistry for doctors
  11. Chest
  12. Abdomen
  13. Limbs and back
  14. Infectious diseases
  15. Psychological and psychiatric problems
  16. Risk from animals
  17. Plants and fungi
  18. Anaesthesia in remote locations
  19. Cold climates
  20. Mountains and high altitudes
  21. Rivers, lakes and oceans
  22. Caving expeditions
  23. Hot environments – deserts and tropical forests

Three snapshots should give you an idea of how useful this book can be:  detailed instructions on how to purify water in the field, an overview of how to diagnose and treat gastrointestinal complaints during an expedition, an entire chapter on coping with risk from land and marine animals, and a guide to set up a medical evacuation by helicopter. This is an extremely practical book for people who need to know how to do things in remote places. It is necessarily short on explanation, discussion and speculation – not things you’re likely to have time or space for until you’ve made it back home in one piece.

Dirt & disease way up north

Once again melioidosis is in the news. Queensland Health’s Dr Jeff Hanna has highlighted the melioidosis hot spot recently identified in the vicinity of Townsville, and Darwin melioidosis export Prof Bart Currie fronts up on the ABC’s 7.30 Report tonight.

Changing climate conditions in the north, particularly in the northwest, are thought to be responsible for some of the apparent increase in cases that can be blamed on severe weather events. But occupational activities as diverse as expansion of farming, the mining industry and even the local film industry could all contribute to an increase in meaningful encounters with a contaminated environment, and therefore subsequent cases of infection.

For a recent on-line review on melioidosis, see Life in the Fast Lane.

Tips for field work

Molecular microbiology field work, a.k.a. amplifying within tent.

Some things you do in the lab just don’t cut it in the field. But when you get out there to do your stuff in the field, you don’t have the option of walking back to the store cupboard for another box of pipette tips, a different range pipette or one with another kind of action. The decisions have to be made before you go, and you have to live with the consequences.

Here are a few observations on the things that worked and the things that didn’t, on a recent expedition in northern Australia, remembering that molecular microbiology is not meant to be an extreme sport.

The tips themselves. Good quality, aerosol-resistant tips, pre-tested on the pipettes before departure. Poor fitting, cheap tips cause more problems than they’re worth. Poly bags or beakers of autoclaved tips don’t do the job either. The plastic boxes decent tips come in double up as a useful discard zone for used tips when you’ve gone into overdrive and used up your first box far too quickly.

aerosol-resistant tips ready for action

Size range. The best combination seems to be a collection of three sizes:

  • 10μL
  • 200μL
  • 1000μL

a good range of dispensing volumes

Every time we’ve been, we revise our estimate based on the maximum use of all reagents, and still we get caught out towards the end of the field trip. It seems the best way to go is to assume there will be some wastage, a bit of overrun and at least one change to the standard procedure. The solution seems to be to calculate the number of each size of tip then pack at least 20% more of each as shock absorbing materials around the larger items of equipment.

The pointy end. The other end of your automatic pipette needs to work well with the chosen tips, under pressure, in unfamiliar surroundings and quite often in poor light. The last issue can be addressed either by working outdoors in good, natural light, or by using a caving headlamp. To pick up easily and seal well, pipette tips need to be firm and snug on the business end of the pipette. It may seem a little obvious, but if they don’t sit well back home, they’re not likely to work well in the field. It’s not just the tips that matter here. It’s the combination of tip and pipette. The small volume ranges really need a metal front end.

sturdy, neat metal pipette end

Handy hints. A lot has been done with pipette shapes recently, with more than a passing reference to ergonomics. I guess it’s a haptic issue: the combination of size, shape, control surfaces, balance and how the moving parts change all this. My preference when working in the field is for a pipette with a bit of weight in the main body, a good tip release mechanism and a light forward/reverse pipetting action. My favorite for small volumes is the double plunger effect (200μL in the picture). It is useful to be able to hang these up above the lab bench, so a rack or rail is worth packing. If not, a few moments improvising one is worth the effort.

Waste not. It’s a given that we take our consumables waste home again when we’re finished. So there’s no excuse for failing to pack enough small plastic bags and ties to secure these when full. As small pipette tips easily pierce thin plastic, it is usually necessary to double-bag this kind of waste. Taking care with tip disposal has the added advantage of reducing the risk of molecular contamination of work surfaces.

Paint the map red

The μGnome got out his set of paintbrushes today to refresh a set of disease maps for the forthcoming tropical medicine breakfast session at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.

Gone are the neat little red outlines carefully added to world map outlines. This is the genuine graffiti version in block colour – world distribution of scrub typhus and melioidosis, as of May, 2010.

The stand-alone maps will appear on the Priobe Net shortly.

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