St Valéry remembered: Skye honours heroism of 51st Highlanders 80 years on

The Battle of St Valéry which was fought during World War II and left an indelible mark on hundreds of Highland families was today commemorated nationally for the first time, 80 years on.

Thousands of men from the 51st Highland Division were captured during a last stand on 12th June 1940 in the small French fishing port of St Valery-En-Caux.

After being cornered, the troops were left with no option but to surrender to German Major-General Erwin Rommel.

At the war memorial in Somerled Square in Portree the North Skye British Legion commemorated the 80th anniversary of the battle.

Local piper Alasdair Connor performed the Heroes of St Valéry as George Burns – Royal Corps of Signals, Thomas Wilson – Parachute Regiment and Donnie Nicolson of the Royal Marines led the North Skye British Legion Colour Party before the square fell silent at 10.00 am to pay their respects.

While events such as Dunkirk, D Day, and VE Day are rightly commemorated, Friday 12th June 2020 marked the first time that the memory of those who fought and fell at St Valéry has been remembered in a national tribute.

Poppy Scotland provides an overview of the battle…

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 prisoner of war camps in Eastern Europe, where they endured appalling conditions for five long years.

Speaking to the Free Press after this morning’s commemoration, Murdo Beaton from the Skye Gaelic Trust said: “It involved the 51st Highland Division, along with one or two units, they were sent to France and were pushed back by Rommel and his forces.

“They tried to make a stand at the Somme, but they were driven back from there.

“They tried again to make a stand at Abbeville, but they were eventually pushed back to the little fishing town of Saint Valéry-en-Caux, and there they had no option but to surrender.

“I think there were thousands from the Highland Division who were taken prisoner at Saint Valéry-En-Caux.

Mr. Beaton, who has visited Saint Valéry-En-Caux as part of the Skye Gaelic Trust (Urras an Eilein) went on to add: “We have visited that town twice, and it is quite amazing the regard that the people of Saint Valéry have for the Highlanders.

“It was very obvious to us that this regard and esteem was focussed, not for the British Army, not even on the Scots, but exclusively on the Highlanders.”

Urras an Eilein group service of remembrance (held in Gaelic) – at the military cemetery, St Valéry.
Johnnie Matheson (Lochcarron) and Willie MacKenzie (Achiltibuie) receiving their medals from the Mayor of St Valéry – July 2007
Highland Division Memorial, St Valéry – stone sourced from Rubislaw Quarry, Aberdeen.

Among a small group of people paying their respects during the commemorative event in Portree was John MacKinnon.

John’s dad Allan MacKinnon fought in the battle of St Valéry and was captured as a prisoner of war by the Germans.

Today John shared a letter with the Free Press his father had written about his time from joining the Territorial Army to becoming a prisoner of war.

The following are excerpts from that letter. 

“Little did I think what the future held for me when I joined the T.A on my 17th birthday in 1929.

“My first camp was in Carrbridge. It was good to get away for two week in the year from my work as a postman in Portree. Sleeping under the canvas, route marches through the lovely Speyside country.

“The bagpipes playing and the island boys signing Gaelic songs.”

“My last camp was in Barry previous to the start of the war in 1939.

I got my calling up papers when I arrived for work on 10th September 1939.

“My duty that day was to deliver mail to Sconser, Sligachan and Carbost Post Offices.

“These duties done, I reported to the Drill Hall, Portree, collected my uniform, rifle and equipment. I had to sleep in the drill hall that night.

Onward to Belgium

“It was a lovely country, masses of poppies.

“I heard the nightingale for the first time in my life.”

“The first casualties of the 4th Camerons happened here. One of those killed was Norman MacLeod from Portree, a lively cheery lad in the prime of his life.

“This news cast a gloom over the battalion.

“By this time the Germans had broken through, we were rushed back to Normandy where the Germans, led by Field Marshall Rommel cornered us at St Valéry.”

After a long march to Holland, the soldiers were taken to Torun in Poland via Dusseldorf.

After spending two weeks there they were sent to the Stalag XX-B POW camp in Marienburg.

Allan MacKinnon’s army jacket.

Christmas in the POW camp

“We were still wearing the clothes which we had on leaving home in September 1939. Needless to say, we were in a bad shape.

“We were issued with Dutch clogs (foot rags) and some of the French POWs put up a small Christmas tree on which was hung five or six lights.

“Then we started singing all the traditional songs, the Christmas atmosphere began…

“The guard joined in singing Silent Night in German.

“The atmosphere of that haunting melody is something which sticks in my memory.

“The scene was so fitting in many ways, the snow failing heavily round the thickly wooded area.

“Memories of these years in the army are precious to me in the evening of my life.”