strathspey Archive: The 51st Division in WW II

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The 51st Division in WW II

Message 23216 · hways · 25 Oct 2000 04:46:43 · Top

Richard Goss wrote:

> The problem of myths of any provenance is that they are not
> very sesceptible to reality checks.

Which prompts me to offer the following comments
about a myth long prevalent in Scottish Dance circles
which is susceptible to a reality check, and also a brief
history of the 51st Highland Division in World War II.

Most Scottish Country dancers have heard the story of
the creation of "The Reel of the 51st Highland Division",
devised in a German prisoner of war camp by members
of the division captured early in World War II at St.
Valerie en Caux. Frequently the tale includes the claim
that they had been captured after fighting a rear-guard
action to protect the Allied troops being evacuated at
Dunkirk. There were several such references in response
to a recent request on this server for background
information on that dance. But this never happened, and
the myth should be discredited, if only to provide credit
where credit is due.

The 51st was far away from Dunkirk between May 27th
and June 4th,1940, when the evacuations took place,
and was under orders to stay in place and not participate
in that operation. But two other Scottish units of the 2nd
Division were there, and contributed significantly to the
success of Operation Dynamo, the code name for the
evacuation. 1st Battalion, Queens Own Cameron
Highlanders and 1st Battalion, Royal Scots, fought
valiantly defending the Dunkirk perimeter, and paid a
heavy price. Fewer than 100 men from these two units
made it back to Britain, as most became casualties or
were captured.

This discussion is in no way intended to diminish the
brilliant fighting record of the 51st throughout W.W.II. At
the time of the Dunkirk evacuations, the Division was
about 80 miles away, south of the Somme near
Abbeville, defending against the German onslaught
toward Paris. They had been assigned to the 10th
French Army and were under the overall command of
General Maxime Weygand. When the other elements of
the British Expeditionary Force were allowed to escape,
the 51st was ordered to stay in place and continue
fighting, in a futile effort to convince the French to do so
also. That order is generally attributed to Winston
Churchill, who desperately wanted to prevent a French

When the commanders of the 51st saw that the French
Armies were collapsing, and the situation was hopeless,
they decided to fight their way to the coast, contrary to
the orders of the General Weygand and the War Office.
Their hope was that it was not too late for them to be
evacuated. Cut off from Le Havre, their original
destination, and battling stiff resistance from Panzer
divisions, they made it to the coast at St. Valerie En
Caux, a site that had been used for evacuating wounded.
An armada was hastily assembled, with little practical
assistance from the British High Command, and was on
the way to rescue them, but before it arrived the situation
became critical. Five German Divisions under General
Erwin Rommel had surrounded the town, gained the high
ground and had heavy artillery shelling the town. They
were in place to dominate the town and annihilate any
attempts to get across the beach to the boats.

Faced with an ultimatum to surrender, or face all out
bombardment and the destruction of both the town and
his troops, the division commander, Major General Victor
Fortune at first refused. He organized an attempt to
regain the high ground, but soon realized there was little
chance of success, as the Highlanders were nearly out of
ammunition and equipment and greatly outnumbered.
General Fortune reluctantly surrendered his 10,000 men
to German General Erwin Rommel on June 12th, 1940.
About 1000 had been captured earlier, and the division
had suffered over 1000 fatal casualties and nearly 4000
wounded. Years later the Duke of Argyll, who as Captain
Ian Campbell had been General Fortune's Intelligence
Officer in 1940, wrote; "It has always been abundantly
clear to me that no division has ever been more
uselessly sacrificed. It could have got away a good week
before, but the powers that be - owing I think to faulty
information- had come to the conclusion that there was a
capacity for resistance in France which was not actually

The Division was reconstituted soon after St. Valerie, and
fought with distinction throughout the balance of the war
in the armies commanded by Field Marshall Bernard
Montgomery. They fought with Monty in North Africa,
Sicily and Italy. Some units went ashore in the D-Day
landings. They fought their way across the Rhine and
into Germany in 1945.. Their significant involvement in
the defeat of Rommel's Afrika Korps at the battle of El
Alemein must have been a particularly sweet moment,
especially to those members who had escaped from the
prison camps and rejoined their regiments. ( in less than
a year, 134 members of the Division had escaped and
returned to Britain.) From El Alemein to the Rhine
crossing and beyond, the 51st Division suffered over
15,000 casualties.

As the allied advance through France neared St. Valerie,
General Montgomery changed his order of battle to allow
the 51st to liberate the town from the Germans. They
were led into town on September 2nd, 1944 by the
Division Commander, Major General Thomas Rennie, an
escapee who had been a major in 1940. Lt. Col. Bill
Bradford, captured as a captain in 1940, led the 5th Black
Watch. Addressing his troops, Gen. Rennie remembered
his comrades: "That magnificent Division was sacrificed
to keep the French in the war. True to Highland tradition,
the Division remained to the last with the remnants of our
French Allies, although it was in their capacity to withdraw
and embark at Le Harve." Rennie was later killed in action
leading his division during the crossing of the Rhine in
March of 1945.
There is a granite memorial to those who died in 1940 on
the cliff overlooking St. Valerie.

Harry Ways

The 51st Division in WW II

Message 23225 · Priscilla M. Burrage · 25 Oct 2000 20:36:00 · Top

Harry, thank you for such a moving description of the activitites of the
51st Division during WWII. I shall dance that dance now remembering the
sacrifices these soldiers made for us.

Priscilla Burrage Vermont US

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