The Sunday Telegraph, ISSUE 1836 Sunday 4 June 2000
Survivors of 'sacrificed' division still feel bitter
By Ian Cobain

AS hundreds of war veterans converge on Dunkirk today, 70 old soldiers will gather in another French seaside town 120 miles away, to remember the events of 60 years ago after the armada of small boats had departed. They are the survivors of the entire infantry division that was sacrificed by Winston Churchill to persuade the French to fight on against Hitler - and who were then marooned and forgotten as the other British troops sailed home.

The officers and men of the 51st Highland Division were placed under French command after Churchill told his opposite number in Paris, Paul Reynaud, that Britain would "never abandon her ally in her hour of need". At its heart were some of the proudest regiments in Scottish history: the Black Watch, the Seaforth Highlanders and the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, and their men stood and fought as the French army collapsed around them.

After fighting their way back to the Channel and the small town of St. Valery-en-Caux, they found the sea blanketed by thick fog, and no ships there to rescue them. In a last stand that claimed thousands of casualties, and in which the grandfather of the actor Hugh Grant played a pivotal role, the division fought almost to its last bullet. When its commanding officer, Gen Victor Fortune, finally surrendered to Rommel, more than 10,000 men were taken prisoner and marched off to spend the rest of the war in captivity.

The loss of the division shocked the small Highland communities from which its members were drawn. Alan Carswell, the curator of the National War Museum of Scotland, said: "It was a huge blow throughout Britain, but particularly in the Highlands. The 51st had been regarded since the previous war as perhaps the most effective division in the British Army." Moreover, many of the the survivors are still bitter at the way in which they were left to their fate while more than 300,000 other men were plucked off the beaches.

"We are still very angry about it," said Tommy Parton, then a 20-year-old private who had joined as a regular with the Seaforth Highlanders."We were sacrificed by Churchill because he was eager to keep the French fighting. We were placed under poor command, and expected to fight alongside men who didn't have the stomach for it." Mr Parton found himself taking part in a bayonet charge against German positions without any support "because the French tanks didn't turn up". Some elements of the division managed to escape to Le Havre, and on to England by boat, but most of the 51st found itself in St Valery, which was pounded by artillery and Stuka dive bombers, and surrounded by Rommel's tanks.

When Gen Fortune eventually ordered his officers to surrender on June 12, many broke down and wept. However, one of the battalions of the Seaforths continued to fight at its outpost in a village outside the town. The men had been led by Major James Murray Grant, the grandfather of the actor Hugh Grant, after their commanding officer collapsed under the strain of weeks of continual fighting. Major Grant called his officers and pointed out that no battalion of the Seaforths had ever surrendered before.

Running out of ammunition, he sent out his wounded, carried by the men who wanted to surrender, and then organized the rest into small parties who made a break for freedom under cover of darkness. Many were killed, and others were captured, including Major Grant, who was later awarded the DSO.

Saul David, a military historian, believes that Churchill sacrificed the 51st because he was anxious that the French continue fighting from her colonies, or at least resist long enough for Britain to prepare her defenses. However, Capt Ian Campbell, Gen Fortune's intelligence officer and who later became the Duke of Argyll, said shortly before his death in 1973: "It has always been abundantly clear to me that no division has ever been more uselessly sacrificed. It could have been got away a week before but the powers that be - owing I think to very faulty information - had come to the conclusion that there was a capacity for resistance in France which was not actually there."

Next Wednesday the survivors of the 51st will gather at the granite memorial to their dead comrades, which was shipped from Scotland and now stands on a cliff overlooking St Valery. Mr Parton knows what he will remember most. "People who weren't there think of it's like some black-and -white news reel, but film will never tell you about the smell of battle or the cries of your friends who are dying."

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

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