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.


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