The 12th June marks the 80th anniversary of St. Valery. It is a point in World War 2 that is often overshadowed by the heroic return of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from Dunkirk. Among the men on those beaches that were strafed by Nazi planes, shelled by artillery and desperately trying to get home were soldiers of the 6th Battalion. Those lucky enough to be rescued by the flotilla that crossed the Channel were successfully ferried back to England.
Just as heroic is the story of the 51st Highland Division that included the 1st and 4th Battalions. Led by Major General Victor Fortune, a Black Watch officer, they were fighting further south, having been placed under French command. When the Germans broke through the
French lines the Division was soon cut off from retreating to Dunkirk. Some, including the 4th Battalion, was evacuated at Le Havre; the remainder were cut off around the small port of St Valery-en-Caux. On the 11th June the British Navy, which had already tried one unsuccessful rescue, were forced to pull back from the coast. Despite bravely fending off German attacks the Division eventually ran out of time. They were exhausted, running low on ammunition and surrounded. Major General Fortune was left with no choice but to surrender on the 12th June.
Almost 11,000 soldiers from the 51st Highland Division, including 800 from The Black Watch, were taken prisoner and marched across Europe. Some escaped en route going to extraordinary lengths to make it back to Britain. Captain Bradford escaped on the march and eventually headed to North Africa from Marseille as a stowaway. Held in Algiers he escaped in a fishing boat to Gibraltar. It would be July 1941 before he made it back to Britain – there he would re-join the new 51st Highland Division and head to North Africa. Despite the success of his escape on the march many others never made it as far as the camps. For those held as prisoners of war in the Nazi camps the fighting was now over. Some were sent to do hard labour in the mines, effectively becoming forced labour used to support the Nazi war effort. It would be almost five years before they were released.
In 1944 as part of the invasion of France, Field Marshall Montgomery made a point of sending soldiers from the 51st Division back to liberate St Valery. For the Division and The Black Watch the surrender at St Valery continues to be an important point of remembrance and an example of the bravery and fortitude of those that served in World War 2.