Freedom Heroes

51st Highland Division

by Elizabeth Jensen

51st Highland Division Memorial overlooking St Valery-en-Caux in Summer 2001 (
51st Highland Division Memorial overlooking St Valery-en-Caux in Summer 2001 (

The 51st Highland Division of 1941 was sent to the Maginot Line in France, to help fight the German advance. Many of them had had only a few months of training, but they fought like veterans. In the spring of 1941 they were forced to pull back because the German Blitzkrieg was too strong. On their left flank, the 31st French Division had no motor vehicles, while the 51st did. This meant that if the 51st pulled out at the rate at which they were supposed to, according to the timetable given to them by the English government, they would expose the 31st French Division, which could be disastrous for the French. Instead, the 51st Division pulled back according the the French timetable.

The 51st Highland Division was supposed to join the rest of the English army at Dunkirk, where they would be extracted. However, since they slowed down to protect the 31st French Division, they were three days behind schedule, and could barely make it to the coast. On June 12, 1941, they reached the small town of St. Valery, where they waited for ships to come rescue them. Only two ships came, and only one escaped again. The other ship was wrecked by the German cannons, firing from a cliff up over the town. 200 of the men of the 51s Highland Division made it back to England. Hundreds of others were taken prisoner, and spent the rest of the war in prison camps. They did their best to escape, and never gave the Germans any peace, but there was little they could do, as they were put in some of the top security prisons.

When the men from the 51st Highland Division returned home in 1945, they were treated almost as cowards. People spoke of Dunkirk, where 350,000 men had been rescued; and of other battles in the war, but no one spoke of St. Valery, or the 51st Highland Division. Later, the General of the 31st French Division would thank the 51st Highland Division for their support, and say that their loyalty and sacrifice helped to keep the French in the war as one of the Allied nations.

Many of the men from the 51st Highland Division were ashamed that they had spent the war in prison camps, and angry that no one recognized their sacrifices. A few moved away, to other countries to try to forget the pain of being ignored, and others simply went on with their lives. They had done a lot for their country at the beginning of the war, but because they chose to be loyal to their allies, and thus sat out the rest of the war, they received no recognition.

Page created on 8/28/2011 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 8/28/2011 12:00:00 AM

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51st Highland Division - Survivors of 'sacrificed' division still feel bitter