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.

MAY 1940

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 British armies.

JUNE 1940
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

JULY 1940

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 Faucconier 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 the picture) 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 tattoos.

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.


The Times
October 12th 1940
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 of Belgium.....

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.

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.

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© John Clinch 2002