A few short years before D-Day, another terrible battle took place in Normandy, just 100 miles north east of those famous beaches, around Veules-les-Roses and Saint-Valéry-en-Caux.
It’s not talked about much in England and until our visit we had no idea about the events of 11 & 12 June 1940, until a vintage postcard took us up a deserted track for an unclear match through the trees to the town below.
The match is unremarkable, except to highlight long lost suburban tidiness now replaced with a more relaxed attitude towards foliage.
Before looking for our match we parked at the top of the cliffs overlooking Saint-Valéry-en-Caux and walked towards edge to find out why two huge guns were placed there looking out across the Channel. A pretty sea sparkled below and the small harbour looked peaceful in early autumn sunlight.
Then we read the information board by the old guns and everything sort of stopped. The board in French and English didn’t go into much detail, it didn’t have to.
From Veules-les-Roses to Saint-Valéry-en-Caux is the site of one of the most terrible defeats of WW2 and heroism we can only imagine.
Holding back the German war machine
History we learn in school, or from films and occasional newspaper articles, hails the courage of rescuers and the rescued from Dunkirk between 27 May and 4 June 1940. A tidy story that often fails to mention the thousands of British troops left behind in France. Or the appalling weeks they faced, brave but vastly outnumbered by the German war machine.
One group that would not be leaving with the main body of the British Expeditionary Force (British forces in Europe, so called at the start of the war) evacuated at Dunkirk was largely made up of the 51st Highland Infantry Division.
General Victor Fortune’s 51st Highland were fighting as an integral part of the French 9th army, tasked with holding back the German army for as long as possible from the Maginot Line, back via the Somme, to the strategically important town of Abbeville and finally aiming for the Channel coast to be evacuated and redeployed.
The division was made up of the 2nd Seaforths, 1st Gordons, 4th Camerons, 4th Seaforths, 5th Gordons, 1st Black Watch, the Lothians, Norfolks and the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers (Pioneers).
Winston Churchill had placed the 51st Highland under French command assuring the French that Britain would ‘never abandon her ally in her hour of need’.
10 June 1940
As soon as General Fortune realised the 152nd and 153rd Brigades would not be able to reach Le Havre he made the decision to lead his troops, with a fair number of French solders (who had horses not tanks) to the small coastal port of Saint-Valéry-en-Caux. Still hoping for an orderly evacuation, General Fortune alerted the Navy at 4am on 10 June.
He was unaware just how aggressively they were being pursued by the 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions. Hitler was desperate to avoid another Dunkirk.
11 June 1940
By 11 June troops were organised into a horseshoe shape from Veules-les-Roses across to the far side of Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, but there were gaps. There was also no sign of the Royal Navy. Soon the Panzer divisions were attacking from the West.
Still hopeful, at 10am General Fortune sent an order outlining the proposed evacuation:
“The Navy will probably make an effort to take us off by boat, perhaps to-night, perhaps in two nights. I wish all ranks to realise that this can only be achieved by the full co-operation of everyone. Men may have to walk five or six miles. The utmost discipline must prevail.
“Men will board the boats with equipment and carrying arms. Vehicles will be rendered useless without giving away what is being done. Carriers should be retained as the final rearguard. Routes back to the nearest highway should be reconnoitred and officers detailed as guides. Finally, if the enemy should attack before the whole force is evacuated, all ranks must realise that it is up to them to defeat them. He may attack with tanks, and we have quite a number of anti-tank guns behind. If the infantry can stop the enemy’s infantry, that is all that is required, while anti-tank guns and rifles inflict casualties on armoured fighting vehicles.”
Marching into hell
Both towns are in valleys between steep cliffs. As troops were pushed aggressively back by superior fire power and numbers, there was nowhere to escape. Each town had been reduced to a chaotic inferno by the enemy who kept up an onslaught of shelling, mortars, machine gun fire, grenades and even flame throwers.
Up on the cliffs, in spite of fierce defence, the 7th Panzers soon held cliff-top ground overlooking each harbour, making an evacuation highly dangerous.
The weather was also against them, thick fog kept 209 ships of the Royal Navy far out into the channel and as his men faced terrible odds, General Fortune was unable to contact their rescuers.
Battle lights up the night sky
The battle did not stop as night fell. Under constant fire they endured a terrible night. At dawn many tried for the few boats they could see offshore, far fewer than were needed.
A soldier remembers
Those who reached the seashore edged along the foot of the cliffs with the hope of a sea rescue had to step around bodies of lost allies.
“We had to keep close in to the rocks and avoid attracting machine gun fire from the cliff top. As it was there were places where we could only advance by diving from cover to cover. As we progressed we came across the body of many of our soldiers and Frenchmen who had been caught in the cross-fire of the guns. Some lay at the water’s edge, washed by the tide. Others were poised in standing or crouching positions against the rocks where they had been shot. They looked so lifelike that we approached several of them to talk to them only to find their eyes sightless and their bodies rigid in death.“ Lt-Gen Sir Derek Lang.
At Veules-les-Roses soldiers fell down cliffs attempting to get away from the advancing Panzer Divisions, after tying whatever they had together to make a rope.
“Troops had tried to descend the three hundred foot high cliffs… few could have succeeded judging by the smashed bodies lying on the beach while a hundred and fifty feet above we could see the frayed ends of their ropes” Lt-Gen Sir Derek Lang.
12 June 1940; victory, death, or…
From the top of the cliffs the 7th Panzer Division shelled everything they saw. Down below General Fortune was still unable to contact the Royal Navy.
The Highlanders were prepared to fight on to victory or to death. French officers did not like the odds of either option. At 8am on the foggy morning of 12 June 1940 the French army surrendered.
General Fortune realised the British position was now hopeless and further sacrifice would be pointless. His men were exhausted; they had been fighting almost continuously since 27 May at Abbeville. They were short of ammunition, surrounded and vastly outnumbered. There would be no rescue by sea.
In an act of great courage General Fortune made the most difficult decision of his career. The decision to surrender.
General Rommel accepted the surrender of the 51st Highland Division, at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux.
The pain of surrender
When General Fortune sent down the order for his troops to surrender some refused thinking it a German trick. As they realised the awful truth initial disbelief was replaced by shock and some broke down in exhausted tears.
A few soldiers to the west of the town managed to escape and a few made it on foot to Le Havre and were evacuated. Others made their way through to Spain, Gibraltar before finally sailing home.
For most escape was impossible. Over 1000 had been killed and 4000 wounded. 8,000 were quickly marched into Germany and Poland to spend the rest of the war working in fields, factories and the salt mines of Thuringia alongside inmates of the Nazi concentration camps, as slave labour.
End of the Battle of France
The defeat of the 51st Highland Division was the end of British resistance in the Battle of France. On 22 June France and Germany would sign an Armistice, Normandy was under Occupation.
Return to Saint-Valéry-en-Caux
12 June 1940 was not the end of the 51st Highland Division – it was later reformed by some of the men who escaped and other regiments. After showing exceptional courage notably at Al Alamein, on 7 June 1944 they landed on Sword Beach, Normandy. It is estimated the 51st lost 25% of their soldiers in the bitter Caen-Falaise battle.
As the Allies determinedly pushed back the German army, the 51st were chosen for a special task by Field Marshal Montgomery. He held back advancing Canadian troops so they could carry it out.
On 2nd September 1944 the 51st Highland Division marched into Saint-Valéry-en-Caux. The 152 and 153 Brigades were allocated the positions of the old brigades in 1940. They were met by the Mayor and welcoming crowds. The little seaside town was free again.
The 51st return
The bravery of the 51st Highlanders and the bond they forged with French Armoured Division while fighting at Abbeville played an important part in General Charles de Gaulle’s decision to continue the war and lead the Free French forces, fighting on the side of the Allies. De Gaulle stated: ‘For my part, I can say that the comradeship of arms, sealed on the battlefield of Abbeville in May–June 1940, between the French armoured division, which I had the honour to command, and the gallant 51st Scottish Division under General Fortune, played its part in the decision which I made to continue the fight at the side of the Allies, to the end, come what may’.
As a prisoner of war, Major Fortune stayed with his men, famously refusing repatriation after suffering a stroke. He worked tirelessly to try and secure for prisoners of war what they needed in the camps. He won the admiration of his own men and the Germans who oversaw. Victor Fortune died in 1949 fully recognised for his courage and dedication; Major-General Sir Victor Morven Fortune KBE, CB, DSO.
Today, the proud legacy of the 51st Highland Division lives on in 51 (Scottish) Brigade, the current Headquarters Brigade of 2 UK Division, based at Stirling Castle.
There is no military museum, you can’t buy the usual memorial coins. But at the top of the cliffs to the north you will see a powerful monument that helps to keep this important story alive. The anniversary of liberation is enthusiastically celebrated.
- Read a news item about the Highlander’s return (kilts and bagpipes of course!) for the 2014 anniversary of liberation.
Find out more
Lots online about the proud history of the 51st Highland Division.
Secondhand copies can still be found online of Lt-Gen Sir Derek Lang’s remarkable war dairy “Return to St Valery: An Escape through Wartime France” published in 1974 but written from notes made just months after the war.