On the 12th June 1940, just days after the successful mass-evacuations at Dunkirk, thousands of British troops still 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 PoW camps in Eastern Europe, where they endured appalling conditions for five long years.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 4 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 organized 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 the Division considered all the options – a counter-attack, 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.
There can hardly have been a town, village or hamlet in the Highlands 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.