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Dunkirk: British honour...Scottish tears

As its 70th anniversary approaches Diplomatic Editor Trevor Royle examines how a symbol of national courage has a more tragic resonance north of the Border

Dunkirk is considered to have been a victory plucked from the jaws of defeat. As a result, the fighting retreat to the Channel port at the end of May 1940 has an honoured place in the annals of the British Army.

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But for the people of Scotland, Dunkirk stirs bitter memories of defeat and surrender and the loss of historic infantry regiments with proud military records.

Dunkirk saw more than 10,000 Scottish soldiers taken prisoner of war at St Valery-en-Caux when the outnumbered and outgunned 51st Highland Division was forced to surrender to the attacking German panzer divisions. Many Scots believed – and continue to believe – that the Highlanders had been deliberately sacrificed as a pawn to encourage the French Army to stay in the war.

While these events were about to unfold, another infantry battalion further to the north, 1st Royal Scots, was almost wiped out in a bitter rearguard action as the British Expeditionary Force fought its way back to the English Channel and safety. At the time, Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned that people should take care not to hail Dunkirk as some kind of success as wars are not won by defeats. The people of Scotland knew that only too well.

At the outset of war in September 1939, Scotland’s regiments had immediately been put on a war footing and prepared to cross over to France with the British Expeditionary Force to support the French Army against the expected German onslaught. Altogether 36 Scottish infantry battalions were deployed in France by the beginning of 1940, but in the Scottish public’s mind the most important manifestation of the country’s military prowess was the presence of the 51st Highland Division, a Territorial Army formation made up of the five Highland regiments: Black Watch, Seaforths, Camerons, Gordons and Argylls.

Shortly after arriving in France under Major-General Victor Fortune, the division was sent to the Saar region of Lorraine where it was stationed on the Maginot Line, the huge French defensive system that consisted of fortifications constructed to deter German aggression. It also came under French command and that decision sealed its fate. On May 10, 1940 the German Army unleashed a massive attack into France using blitzkrieg tactics. The speed of the armoured assault meant the 51st Highland Division became isolated.

While the rest of the BEF began retreating towards the Channel, the Highlanders found themselves under the command of General Besson’s French Third Army. During this difficult period it became clear that some elements in France were considering suing for peace.

Churchill was determined to keep France in the war at all costs, as any armistice would allow their powerful navy to fall into German hands and make an invasion of Britain more likely. At the same time, Churchill had ordered the bulk of the BEF to withdraw through Dunkirk, even though that gave the impression to the French their allies were deserting them.

As the 51st Highland Division pulled back into Flanders the political thinking in London was to have a decisive effect in what happened next. On June 4 the division supported a French attack made by the remnants of the French armoured and artillery forces along the Mareuil ridge to the south of Abbeville, but although the French fought with great determination they were outnumbered and outgunned. Even as the attack took place, the last of the BEF had been picked up from the Dunkirk beaches: the 51st Highland Division was now on its own in France, together with the remnants of the 1st Armoured Division. The following day the Germans launched a fresh offensive along the line between the Somme and the Aisne.

The overwhelming power of their offensive sealed the division’s fate as it withdrew towards the coastal town of St Valery-en-Caux. General Fortune hoped to pull his division out of Le Havre but, after almost two weeks of hard fighting, on June 12 he was forced to surrender to his opponent: General Erwin Rommel, later to be the highly respected commander of the German Afrika Korps in north Africa.

In a last gesture of defiance, Scottish soldiers were ordered to clear cliff-top positions outside St Valery but this was forestalled when the French started surrendering in the face of a German tank attack. For one young officer, 2nd Lieutenant Donald Ritchie, it was a harrowing moment: “I was completely overcome by emotion. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I was keyed up to attack this bloody ridge and then the reversal. I’ll never forget Platoon Sergeant Herbie Forsyth giving me a wallop on the back and a bottle of brandy to swig from and saying, ‘It’s not your fault, sir’. It was a terrible thing and we were completely unprepared.” More than 10,000 British troops were captured – or ‘went into the bag’ in army parlance – at St Valery. In the Highland areas of Scotland there were scarcely any families unaffected by the loss of the division. Given the circumstances of the surrender and the fact the bulk of the BEF, some 338,226 soldiers, managed to escape from Dunkirk it was not surprising many Scots came to believe the division had been sacrificed unnecessarily.

Even after the war had long ended, that belief lingered. In 1994 it was the subject of a book written by the historian Saul David. While his contention is probably correct that the 51st Highland Division “paid a heavy price for the miscalculations of the Government” it is also true that General Fortune had little option but to remain with the French Army. His division was at the point of honour and any precipitate retreat would have been a brutal betrayal. Besides, the 51st Highland Division was also undone by the speed and aggression of the German armoured divisions as they swung towards the coast to cut off any escape through Le Havre.

The fate of the 51st Highland Division has overshadowed other contributions made by Scottish regiments during the retreat to Dunkirk. None suffered more brutally than 1st Royal Scots, a regular battalion that recruited from Edinburgh and the Lothians. As the straggling remnants of the British Army fought their way back towards the Channel on May 27, the Royals were ordered to make a last stand at Le Paradis, close to La Bassée Canal. Together with elements of the 2nd Royal Norfolk Regiment, they faced an overwhelming assault by superior German forces including armoured units and an SS regiment. Within three days the battalion had fought itself to a standstill.

Although some survivors managed to escape, the battalion ceased to exist as a coherent fighting unit. Among those who managed to escape was the commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel H D K Money who said later: “Never once did the men fail to respond to their orders; never once did the battalion give up a position until ordered to do so; never did the men fail to respond to the old cry, ‘Come on, The Royals!’” Unfortunately it was not the end of the story. During the final attack on the Royals’ position at Le Paradis, SS soldiers threw grenades into a first aid post, killing wounded.

Only the intervention of a German regular soldier prevented the rest being fired on by machine-guns. Others were not so lucky: a party of more than 100 Norfolks were massacred after surrendering – the first of a number of similar incidents involving soldiers who had waved the white flag. But the Scots had the last word. One of their sergeants survived and later gave evidence when the SS murderers were brought to justice after the war.

As for the 51st Highland Division, it was reconstituted and played a major role in later fighting in Africa, Sicily and Europe. It also had its revenge: on September 2, 1944 St Valery was liberated by the division and the pipes and drums of the regiments played in triumph on the site of that earlier defeat.

A Scottish soldier’s great escape

Not everyone went ‘into the bag’ at St Valery-en-Caux. Amid the confusion of the surrender, some Scottish soldiers managed to make the long march to freedom to fight another day. Among them was Captain Bill Bradford, adjutant of 1st Black Watch, who slipped away and cycled to the Pyrenees with the intention of escaping to Spain.

Arrested by the Vichy French authorities, he escaped again and stowed away on a ship to Algiers. From there he and two others crossed the Mediterranean in a yacht and reached Gibraltar even though none of them had any sailing experience. On his return, he rejoined The Black Watch, fought in North Africa and Sicily and eventually reached the rank of brigadier. Even luckier was Captain Derek Lang, 4th Seaforths. Despite being wounded, he melted into the French countryside where the resistance helped him to get to Marseilles.

From there he boarded a ship bound for Beirut and crossed into Palestine. He returned to his regiment and after the war was knighted and promoted to lieutenant-general in command of the army in Scotland.

Another prominent escapee was 2nd Lieutenant Chandos “Shan” Blair, 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, who spoke later about the sense of shock and disgrace he felt at being forced to surrender. Determined to escape at the earliest opportunity, he eventually absconded from the notorious Oflag VB camp at Biberach in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. While outside the perimeter with a working party he managed to escape and walked 75 miles to the Swiss border. From there he was given a passport and money which he used to travel to Madrid and then crossed over to Gibraltar. For his feat he was awarded the Military Cross.

He also returned to fight another day and later, as Lieutenant-General Sir Chandos Blair, became the senior army commander in Scotland. During the post-war years he spent some time on secondment with the King’s African Rifles in East Africa. In 1975 he acted as an envoy to Uganda to save the life of a British teacher Dennis Hills, who had been sentenced to death for treason by President Idi Amin. Because Amin had served in the King’s African Rifles, Chandos Blair was sent to try and find a solution to the impasse. Amin welcomed his old comrades-in-arms with full military honours but the mood quickly changed and the negotiations ended when Blair saluted Amin and walked out, muttering he was “very disappointed”. The following year Dennis Hills’s death sentence was revoked.

A dance of solidarity

Although the 51st Highland Division went into captivity in Germany for the remainder of the war its links with Scotland were not severed. Shortly after soldiers arrived at their PoW camp at Oflag VIIC at Laufen, they devised a dance that became known as The Reel of the 51st Division.

Its steps were smuggled back to Scotland where the reel became immensely popular and was danced to show solidarity with the imprisoned Highland soldiers. Devised by Lt Jimmy Atkinson, 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the key formation of the dance replicates a St Andrew’s Cross, the Saltire being the division’s shoulder flash.

The reel was published by the Perth section of the Scottish Country Dance Society. It is still danced to this day at ceilidhs and balls.

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