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Tribute to be paid to Highland soldiers killed or captured during 'forgotten Dunkirk'; Saint-Valery-en-Caux milestone marked in memory of 51st Highland Division

By Staff Reporter

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A recent commemorative event at the Normandy monument commemorating the 51st Division at St Valery-en-Caux.
A recent commemorative event at the Normandy monument commemorating the 51st Division at St Valery-en-Caux.

The World War II battle of Saint-Valery-en-Caux in northern France mainly involved the 51st Highland Division and resulted in the deaths of 1000 men.

At least 4000 men were wounded and 10,000 were taken prisoner.

They had remained in France following the successful mass evacuations at Dunkirk and had fought almost continuously for 10 days against overwhelming odds until finding themselves surrounded by German forces.

A series of events will take place tomorrow, including a small commemoration at the war memorial in Cavell Gardens, Inverness.

Pipers across Scotland and around the world will also take to their doorsteps at 10am to play the haunting march, Heroes of St Valery, and there will be a broadcast of the play, The Beaches of St Valery by Dr Stuart Hepburn, on social media.

Bob Shanks, chairman of the Seaforth Highlanders’ Regimental Association and a military history enthusiast, has previously visited the graves of the fallen at Saint Valery, which is twinned with Inverness.

He outlined why the men from the 51st Highland Division – including soldiers from the Black Watch and the Queens Own Cameron, Seaforth and Gordon Highlanders – did not have a Dunkirk-style evacuation.

Having been detached from the main British forces, the plan was to retreat west for a similar escape using a flotilla of ships which had sailed from Britain.

“They were tantalisingly close, but unfortunately things were working against them,” Mr Shanks said.

“The mist came down and the Germans advanced very quickly.”

With the ships unable to make it to shore and German artillery above the town, evacuation was impossible and the division commander, General Victor Fortune, took the difficult decision to surrender on June 12.

His men were exhausted and virtually out of ammunition.

“He could have attacked but he would have lost more lives,” Mr Shanks said.

“Certainly there was nothing to be ashamed of in the surrender under those circumstances. The boys did their best and could hold their heads high.

“The Germans were so strong and it was not possible to hold out against them.”

The play, The Beaches of St Valery, depicts the events of 80 years ago.
The play, The Beaches of St Valery, depicts the events of 80 years ago.

Those captured were marched to prisoner of war camps in eastern Europe where they endured hardship for the rest of the war but in a bid to maintain public morale, little was mentioned of the surrender and many did not speak about it afterwards.

Mr Shanks said: “Many myths came up – a lot of people suggested Winston Churchill had allowed them to be taken and sacrificed but a number of books say this was not the case.”

To ensure future generations will know what happened, armed forces charities Poppyscotland, Legion Scotland and Royal Caledonian Education Trust have come together to launch new learning resources.

As well as daily lesson plans, other events include an interactive Facebook live lesson tomorrow.

There will also be a special broadcast at 3pm on the charities’ social media pages of Heroes of St Valery which was first performed as part of A Pie, A Pint and A Play at Glasgow’s Oran Mor in March.

Related: St Valery rallying call for pipers

Invergordon mural recalls long march heroes

Exploits of 'forgotten 51st' come into focus

Taking part in the piping tribute in Ross-shire? If you would like to share video clips or pictures, email hector.mackenzie@hnmedia.co.uk

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