During the week, I spend a lot of time on the phone at the moment and this week I was chatting to a member of the Banchory British legion who asked me if I'd lead a short service at the Gordon highlander memorial. It was a memorial service for those who were killed in a world war two battle at the little fishing town of St-Valéry-en-Caux.. A little research uncovered some information. I reproduce it below in the form that the Legion gave it to me..
At 10am on 12th June 2020, pipers up and down Scotland will take to their doorsteps and play the haunting pipers march, Heroes of St Valéry. To pay tribute to thousands of Scots who were killed or captured during “the forgotten Dunkirk” 80 years ago.
The first piper to sign up to play was Pipe Major Ben J Duncan, from The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Pipes & Drums, who previewed the Heroes of St Valéry from the doorstep of Edinburgh Castle. Ben, who is based at Leuchars and lives in Edinburgh, said: “As soon as I heard about the plans to mark the 80th anniversary of St Valéry I wanted to get involved. While the country may still be in lockdown, this is a great way for such a significant but little-remembered event in our history to be properly commemorated, while still staying safe at home.
Dr Claire Armstrong, Chief Executive of Legion Scotland, said: “It was incredibly moving to see the country join together to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of VE Day last week – particularly in such challenging circumstances. While this was a day to celebrate, it is vital that we also remember less triumphant periods of our history. The ‘Forgotten 51st’ should be forgotten no more.”
On the 12th June 1940, just days after the successful mass-evacuations at Dunkirk, thousands of British troops remained on continental Europe under French command. Largely comprised of men from the 51st Highland Division, they fought almost continuously for ten days against overwhelming odds until eventually surrounded at St Valéry.
However, a combination of fog and the proximity of German artillery above the town prevented the awaiting flotilla of ships from reaching shore. Those who were not killed in the fierce fighting, or fell to their deaths from the cliffs trying to escape, were captured and marched hundreds of miles to Prisoner of War camps in Eastern Europe, where they endured appalling conditions for five long years.
Brigadier Charles Grant, a retired British Army officer and historian of the 51st Highland Division website, said: “The 51st Highland Division – initially about 20,000 strong – comprised nine battalions of the Highland infantry regiments with supporting arms and services, including elements from England.
“They had been detached from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and therefore managed to escape encirclement around Dunkirk. Instead, from 4th June they were conducting a fighting withdrawal west from the Somme under French command. The speed of the German advance was such that they, and part of the French army, were cut off, despite hopes that they would escape through Le Havre.
“Part of the Division did get to Le Harve to secure it for evacuation and escaped, but the remainder were cut off and surrounded at the little fishing town of St-Valéry-en-Caux. Not unlike Dunkirk, a flotilla of 67 Merchant ships and 140 small vessels were organised and despatched from British Ports, but the inclement weather and the German artillery overlooking the town meant any evacuation on the night of the 11th June was impossible.
“General Fortune commanding what remained of the Division considered all the options – a counterattack, further resistance, retaking the town, but, against this, there was no possibility of evacuation or support. The men had been fighting almost continuously for ten days against overwhelming odds. They were exhausted and virtually out of ammunition, with no artillery ammunition at all. Shortly before 1000hrs on the 12th June, General Fortune took the most difficult of decisions – to surrender.”
Brigadier Grant added: “There can hardly have been a town, village or hamlet in the Highlands and beyond which was not directly affected by the loss. While events such as Dunkirk, D-Day and VE Day are rightly commemorated, it is time that the memory of those who fought and fell at St Valéry are remembered in a national tribute for the first time.”
The public is being asked to support the St Valéry tribute through a fundraising campaign which will support the work of three charities. Poppyscotland that provides life-changing services in advice, employment, housing, mental health, mobility and respite. Legion Scotland which is the largest ex-Service membership charity in Scotland and provides services covering remembrance, comradeship and befriending and RCET, Scotland’s Armed Forces Children’s Charity. RCET funds services in family support, respite, education, youth participation, wellbeing and policy work to ensure that all Armed Forces children in Scotland can reach their full potential.
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