The Escapers of the 51st Highland Division
War came again, Germany invaded Poland and Britain and France declared
war. Belgium was a neutral country but by November 1939 intelligence
reports of an impending German attack reached a peak.
On the May 10th 1940, a quarter of a century after
the start of the First World War, the German army again rolled over the
borders of neutral Belgium on its way to crush the Belgian, French and
The British Army's 51st Highland Division had been sent to the Saar for
duty on the Maginot Line and was there when the German offensive began.
It was made up of
1st Battalion the Lothians and Border Horse (Yeomanry), the 152nd
Brigade (2nd and 4th Battalions Seaforth Highlanders and 4th Battalion
Camerons), 153rd Brigade (4th Battalion Black Watch and 1st and 5th
Battalion Gordons), 154th Brigade (1st Battalion Black Watch and 7th
and 8th Battalions Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders), with Artillery,
Engineers, Signals, RAMC, RASC, and attached troops including the 6th
Battalion The Royal Scots Fusiliers (Pioneers). The Division was
brought round south of Paris in a long sweeping journey, but, arriving
too late to join the main body of the main British Expeditionary Force,
from which it was already cut off, it was put into action against the
German army just south of the River Somme, near Abbeville. Hopelessly
outnumbered, with its flanks continually crumbling, it fought a retreat
of sixty miles in six days from the Somme to the little fishing port of
St. Valery-en-Caux. They surrendered on 12th June, having run out of
food, ammunition and all other supplies.
51st Highland Division surrender at St.
Valery-en-Caux. 12th June 1940
About eight to ten thousand British soldiers caught by the German
blitzkreig. All the prisoners were forced to march about 19 miles a day
from 6am to 4 or 5pm north towards Belgium without proper food or water
by brutal German guards. Men who were unable to continue were beaten or
even shot. They were given one slice of bread and a little watery soup
each day so the prisoners had to supplement their diet with raw
sugar-beet and potatoes taken from the fields either side of the road.
Prisoners were shot for taking the potatoes. The local people put out
water for the prisoners to drink but the buckets were kicked over by
the German guards. Allan G. COWAN 2927284 a Sergeant in 4th Battalion
Cameron Highlanders 51st Highland Division from Kinning Park Glasgow
and twenty year old Duncan GREIG 2930402 a Private in 4th Battalion
Cameron Highlanders 51st Highland Division from Craigmillar, Edinburgh
were two of the captured soldiers.
Cowan and Greig made several attempts to escape each time being
recaptured and taken back to the column of prisoners. When recaptured
Sergeant Cowan was told by a German officer "For you British sergeant
the war is over, there is plenty of work for you to do in Germany".
"I'm not going to Germany, I belong to Glasgow and Glasgow's that way"
said Cowan, pointing in the direction of Scotland.
51st Highland Division memorial at St.Valery-en-Caux, France
On the 4th July while camped at just before Geraardsbergen (Grammont)
Belgium on the road from Ronse (Renaix) the two men accompanied by
twenty-three year old Corporal Enoch BETTLEY also of the Cameron
Highlanders and Private Samuel (Joe) SLAVIN of 4 Cameron Highlanders
dived into a wheatfield unspotted. They hid in the field until the
column moved on and were then helped by the local policeman who sent
them in the direction of Parike, a farming community just west of
Geraardsbergen in the Flemish countryside. Here, in a small wood, they
hid, still wearing there army uniforms.
In a letter to Enoch Bettley,
Marcel FAUCONNIER (pictured left) a Belgian-Canadian who lived in
Parike described what he saw while walking in the woods that day.
"I still remember when I found you all, covered with bush in Parike's
little forest, when I said in English, "Hi guys, wake up", and one of
the boys said "Oh Boy, we're caught, and I answered "No you're not".
So I went and got sandwiches, cherries and civilian clothes."
Marcel had already watched the prisoners marching on the main road from
Ronce to Geraadsbergen he saw that some prisoner's shoes were worn out
and were barefoot, had small tin cups hanging on their side for
food.The prisoner's weren't that heavily guarded.
In November 1993 Marcel FAUCONNIER's daughter, Betty Loveday, made a
tape of her father telling the story of how he came across the
soldiers, this is what he said:-
Anyway, I’d say about a week later I was gathering wood in the bush
in Parike, there was a big wind before that day and every time there is
a large wind in that area, well a lot of them dry trees in the little
bushes, not bushes, it’s really a forest of trees with trees, I’d say 2
– 3 feet in diameter and high, well, a lot of them dry limbs way up
they’d blow down from the wind and whoever was first to go and gather
them, well, that’s the guy who got the firewood to burn because we had
no more coal, there was no more coal coming. The Germans, they had
stopped everything because they wanted the coal themselves I guess for
their own country.
Anyway, I was gathering coal, uhm, them these branches, all of a sudden
I come to a kind of a bushy little area, rugged terrain there and I
seen a shoe projecting just on the side of that brush, they call it in
Flemish breemen (not sure of spelling) where there is some kind of like
raspberry grows on, anyway I noticed that and I noticed a khaki pants a
few inches . I said oh my gosh here’s English and one hollered Oh JC
(swore) we are caught, and I said no you’re not. Who the hell are you
he said. I says, well I live here a few years and I lived in Canada and
I can speak English. You guys come on out, how many are you’s here? (
he didn't say) So they came out and they had all little wee potatoes in
their pockets that’s what they dug out in the evening in the farmer’s
garden I guess because they didn’t dare to talk to anyone in case they
were German or working along with the Germans. They didn’t want to get
caught again, so what I done, I knew a few friends that were like on
the English side for sure, and I went and warned them and told them,
lets get some sandwiches together and it was just in time of the ripe
cherries in Belgium. Boy, we got a couple of pails of cherries and I’d
say a whole pail of sandwiches. We weren’t rationed off very much at
that time, we still had plenty of bread and everything, I took it out
there in the evening so when nobody was looking and it started to get
dark, a couple of the other guys came along, they had kind had made a
little place for themselves to lay down at night, and we finally
decided to make a dugout the next day where they could lay down and not
be seen in between them breemen or bushes unless you just walk right
into it. They were so happy, they ate the whole darn works what we
brought them, they were hungry I am telling you. Of course we had a few
bottles of beer along which nobody refused.
The next day two or three guys with spades and shovels, we went to make
a dugout where five or six could rest easily and cover it with long
branches with leaves and then threw some kind of sod on top but after
three or four days, it was so damp in there it was along side a little
creek which kept running which had a large bank because that was we
seeked, that they had to come to out of the dugout, walk into water a
ways, I’d say 15, 20 feet before they got onto dry land so we were
pretty sure that nobody would walk into the water and go look, it was
kind of on a little curve too and on the other side she was pretty
rough terrain, no one would ever think of walking there. So that’s
where we made the dugout.
So they started getting sick, one was sick in his stomach, his name was
Percy the engineer from England and the kleine, that we called the
kleine or the little one later on, he was only seventeen and half years
old, he lied to get into the army so he could come over to Europe. He
was okay, he was full of pep but the other two, they had sore
shoulders, sore legs all from the dampness so we decided to take him
over to my house one evening when it was a little bit cloudy and little
bit darker than usual, I say we’ll go and get them then, so we went and
got them and I kept them in my house for two months.
Then I found a friend in another village, that took two because four
was too much in one house, sometimes we even had Germans coming in
seeing if they could bring two or three soldiers to sleep in our house
when they came over with a unit that was maybe a thousand or two
thousand men they went and asked the people how many bedrooms they had
and how many they used, and who ever had an extra bedroom they put in
soldiers. So this was getting too dangerous, I told him we only had one
bedroom and all four of them (soldiers) were upstairs and by golly they
believed me, if they hadn’t believed me and went and looked they
would’ve found all four of them but they didn’t go up because we were
kind of smiling to the German officer, offering him a cup of coffee
trying to be on his good side you know so that they would believe us,
and they did by golly, we escaped that one, so that was a good one. Mom
was really scared and was shivering after they left.
The whole village was very friendly and hospitable and the four men
lived in a dugout in the woods for two weeks and then for three months
they lived with an old lady Louise D'OOLAGE and her family.
The soldiers in Paricke 1940
Top from Left:Samuel Slavin, Allan Cowan,Marie De Plancke, Duncan
Greig, Enoch Bettley, Emma De Planke,
Middle from left: Clarice Verleyen, Marie Elodie Carmée, Alfred
Roeland, Eliane Dutranoy, Marcel Dutranoy (last two are son and
daughter of Emma De Plancke, married to Albert Dutranoy, who is not on
In front: Albert Verleyen, Achiel Roeland, husband of Marie De Plancke
and father of Alfred. (Photo from Betty Loveday)
The villagers of Parike also helped other evaders, Corporal Matthew
CONNELLY 792142 Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders stayed in 1942.
Also hiding in the woods was a Scottish soldier who before the war was
a member of the Indian police. He had heavily tattooed arms, which
easily gave him away as a British soldier so he had tried to remove the
The woods in Parike where the soldiers hid.
He stayed in the woods and was known as "Uncle Felix" to the local
children. Who he was is not known but local people today believe he was
shot dead by the Germans in a cafe at D'Hoppe near Parike. Other
soldiers in Parike were 793956 Private W.J. CLARK, 5 Gordon Highlanders
51st Highland Division. Captured at St Valery-En-Caux on 12 June 1940
he escaped on the 10th July 1940 with 2879532 Private L. ANDREWS and
was in Brussels for one week from the 9th January 1941 when he left for
France guided by a doctor., Richard Storey BAINBRIDGE who escaped with
Alfred George JONES and Driver Alfred W. BERRY so they also may have
visited the village.
Greig on left and Slavin on right with two
unknown British soldiers.
During the day the soldiers didn't do anything but sleep and play
cards. At night they would wonder out in the back garden and on the
street sometimes and if all was clear they would get some exercise. A
German came to see how many bedrooms they had so they could sleep some
of their men when a large unit was in town. This was a bit scary for
them since they had the four soldiers in the attic at that time but
they convinced this officer that they only had one bedroom and he
didn't check it out. The family were afraid when Saturday night came as
Slavin in particular wanted to visit cafes in the local town and would
sometimes go out in disguise. The soldiers were forbidden to speak English with each other and had to learn Flemish. This made the other soldiers nervous as
well. Duncan was known as "de kleinen" (little one) by the villagers a
common name amongst the Flemish, this is always the nickname of the
youngest in the family. He called Madame FAUCONNIER "mum". He told the
villagers that his mother back in Edinburgh was hoping he would
continue his education when he left the army but he felt that the
experiences he'd had so far in the war were education enough. Duncan was not afraid of the German soldiers,
he would walk through the middle of two soldiers walking along the pavement allowing his shoulders to bang into them.
Enoch Bettley became sick while hiding in the village, he was ill for about six weeks and a doctor had to be called from Brackel.
The other British
soldiers also had nicknames probably acquired
when they were in France on the Maginot Line, Cowan was "Sarjon" the French
pronuciation of his rank, Sergeant,
Bettley was "Acajou" French for mahogany, perhaps from his hair colour.
October 12th 1940
B.E.F. MEN STILL
From a Belgian Correspondent
According to the German wireless in Brussels, soldiers
of the British Expeditionary Force who have evaded capture are still in Belgium and northern France,
where, with the complicity of the population, who supply them with civilian clothing
and help them in every way, they succeed in escaping the notice of the German police.
The German authorities, exasperated by their inability to lay hands on them, have warned Belgians that severe penalties
will be imposed on persons who know that one or more British soldiers are in the locality and who fail to notify the Germans
As the warning was broadcast in the Flemish programme it may be assumed that the British soldiers in question are hidden in the north-west
On the 13 October Cowan and Greig were taken to the forester in the
village of Lierde ste Marie where they were sheltered until the 12 Jan
1941 but they came back most days to the home of Louise D'OOLAGE.
Bettley and Slavin had been moved to Brussels on the 23rd of December
1940 and on the 12th January, Greig and Cowan were also taken there.
After the soldiers left the village Marcel Fauconnier and the local
policeman placed all the papers, adddresses and photographs concerning
the soldiers in a large glass bottle. This was then buried in the back
garden of 4 Koestraat, Parike about 18 inches deep. Almost forty years later, in 1979,
the family sold the ground for development, foundations were dug out and the long forgotten bottle
with the photograph and papers was revealed and returned to the Fauconnier family.
Click on www.belgiumww2.info to
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John Clinch 2002