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Long Read Military History People and Leadership

Rewriting history: St Valery and Remembrance

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

‘Glory From Defeat: Our Second Dunkirk’ by June Goodfield is available by emailing here or here

June Goodfield’s ‘Glory from Defeat: Our Second Dunkirk’ is an accessible entry point to the lesser known Battle of St Valéry-en-Caux, which took place in June 1940.  Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the Highland Division’s surrender, almost a week after Dunkirk.  Some are unaware that not all the British Expeditionary Force escaped from France in the Dunkirk evacuations.  Now, the fight of the remaining British forces in France has become a hotly contested battle in itself with allegations of betrayal and sacrifice levelled at the most senior leaders in Britain at the time.  Those revisionist claims are now being reasserted by a strong and sustained counter-revisionist kick back, which presents a very different picture.

Some of today’s debate on the battle may seem like academic history, but the application of detailed scrutiny, well-marshalled evidence, and the robust defence of positions are all skills which transfer well into the thinking and actions leaders aspire to.  St Valery is a fiercely contested area on social media, thus showing that the interest and the debate are alive and well.  Goodfield provides a useful plank to better understanding one aspect of the battle, which helps to re-assert the truth of events in 1940 away from some of the more counter-factual claims that often appear on social media which run counter to historic accounts of the event.

There needs to be critical eye on the assembled, often conflicting, range of information accessible on the St Valery episode.  In many ways, good leaders are historians, with a keen eye on the past and learning from it.  The discipline of history however has fierce internal debates   E. H. Carr in ‘What is History?’ asserted that the historian is a representation of their own era as much as that they are investigating.  This ran counter to the more traditionalist views of ‘pure’ history and revisionist accounts since including for example Hitler biographer Richard J. Evans.  In the midst of all this we see Trevor-Roper asserting there are times when a new error can be more life giving than old truths.  History certainly has many fertile errors and indeed sterile accuracy.  Just as in leadership, complexity and how to deal with it is honed by developing critical thinking skills.

With only a handful of St Valery veterans left, soon only history will be able to decide on the story told about the surrender of the 51st Highland Division to the attacking German army in June 1940.

Since the war’s end, several notable books have been published on St Valery, each adding to our understanding of the event.  The Return to St Valery (Lang, 1974) told the story of ‘daring do’, the author, Derek Lang, an escapee who later went on to become Scotland’s Senior Army Officer and Governor of Edinburgh Castle; Monty’s Highlanders (Delaforce, 1997) focussed on the reformed 51st Highland Division winning in El Alamein and the recapture of St Valery in 1944; St Valery Impossible Odds (Innes, 2004) notes the gallant rear-guard action of the private soldiers at St Valery; meanwhile the title of After Dunkirk: Churchill’s Sacrifice of the Highland Division (David, 2013) speaks for itself in many ways.  Nevertheless, David notes French disorganisation as much as any callousness from Churchill contributing to the Division’s fate.  Most recently, Glory from Defeat: Our Second Dunkirk (Goodfield, 2019) offers readers a manageable entry point to events, whilst slaying the myth that all were captured by Rommel’s advancing Panzer forces.

Coming back from the war few spoke of their experience.  Some of the men who surrendered at St Valery were perhaps even quieter, feeling a sense of shame at the Highland Division’s surrender there.  They were left with the trauma of dealing with the prisoner of war life they painfully experienced.  Initial accounts reflected their bravery against overwhelming odds.  Little else was said as history’s focus turned to key events in winning the war: Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, D-Day, VE Day and VJ Day.  Clare Makepeace referenced the post-war silence and shame in her “Captives of War: British Prisoners of War in the Second World War” (2017).

Brigadier Charles Grant, the modern historian of the 51st Highland Division, suggests there was not a town, village or hamlet in the Highlands and beyond unaffected by St Valery.  This echoed the words of Major General Thomas Gordon Rennie speaking in 1945 of fallen ‘HD’ comrades.  Contemporary writer Eric Linklater (1942) described news of the defeat as “another Flodden”.  The impact is clear to see, albeit the wounds were not openly talked about immediately after the war.

The division’s surrender has been used by some who use it as an opportunity to attack Churchill’s leadership and apparent ‘abandoning of troops’ at this critical point in the war.  Goodfield (2019) helps us to dispel that particular myth, whilst also heaping praise on the Newhaven and Eastbourne fishermen who rescued Highland Division and French soldiers in “the forgotten Dunkirk.”  Some 3,200 soldiers from the Highland Division were rescued and returned to Britain.  More could have perhaps have escaped, however Major General Victor Fortune and his forces stayed and supported French allies.  Honour and alliances meant more.  It should also be noted that a small number also escaped having been taken as PoWs.

A deeper analysis than the “abandoned troops” narrative offers reveals to us the complex situation Churchill was trying to manage.  Complexity is something we do not deal with well in a world of soundbites and debates with the messy middle hollowed out of them.  Many forget that Churchill was in France the day before the St Valery surrender.  His woes were added to when Italy announced it would join the forces of Fascism in the war in Europe, and Norway fell to German forces.  Churchill desired victory but beyond ‘fight them on the beaches’-type speeches there was little other than oratory to offer.  Churchill was said to have described St Valery as the most “brutal disaster”1 yet suffered.  Social media ‘historians’ take aim at Churchill, however he is almost impenetrable from criticism for many having led overall victory in World War Two.

The 8,000 men of the 51st have been both pawns of quasi-history on social media and popular press.  On this, the 80th anniversary of the battle, a number of preeminent myths can be slayed.  This helps to honour their memory, and that of the leaders who have been wrongly charged with sacrificing the Division.  Fake news is thrown around twitter like confetti and newspapers often pick up only on the easy narratives. Thankfully historians patrolling these online spaces, like Gordon Barclay2 and Adam Brown of the Scottish Military Research Group are helping reassert the balance.  Books like Goodfield’s help us appreciate those who were rescued and their rescuers.  This is only one part of a complex revisionist history that helps us better understand leadership at St Valery and how history has portrayed leaders since.

The first myth that it was Scots only.  Whilst the Highland Division was primarily ‘Jock’ its make up reflected the United Kingdom.  Kilted men (although kilts were dissuaded on the battlefield for operational reasons) came from Seaforths, Queen’s Own Camerons, Black Watch, Gordons and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.  They fought alongside Lothian & Borders Horse and Royal Scots Fusiliers; as well as Norfolks, Northumbrians, Princess Louise’s Kensington Regiment (Middlesex Regiment), and other service units.  Scottish, English, and Welsh soldiers were side-by-side in a British Army Division under overall French command.

The Highland Division being placed under French command is a strong part of the sacrifice myths portrayed by those attacking Churchill in today’s history debate.  The facts surrounding this need considered fully before making judgements.  Had the Scottish troops been placed their as bait or sacrificial lambs?  Far from it!  It just happened that the 51st were the tenth formation to be sent in turn to the French army to gain experience facing the Germans.  Pre-war German re-armament made British rifles pale into insignificance against armoured units advancing at speed all along the now retreating front.  The French called out for support and stability throughout the period, and Churchill tried to keep his allies afloat.  Belgium, the Netherlands, and most of France had fallen. Something was needed to shore up what was left.  An ‘Ark’ Force (named after village of Arques-la-Batille) tried to form a defensive position 20 miles east of La Havre, however the situation was hopeless.  The sheer strength of advancing Panzer forces under Rommel would have been impossible for any Division.

The take of the men being forgotten is helpfully adjusted by Goodfield’s determined research of the sailors from Eastbourne and Newhaven who rescued many Highland Division men and some French soldiers from Veules-les-Roses.  There were also other troops left in France, not just the 51st.  Furthermore, attempts were made to rescue the men from the horribly small harbour of St Valery-en-Caux.  Mass evacuations of the scale of Dunkirk were impossible due to the size of the harbour, fog during the night which prevented ships signalling (few had radios), and German artillery shelling rescue craft.

The image of Major General Fortune surrendering to Rommel is a painful one for many.  Rommel himself often spoke of Fortune to his wife and son.  His sympathetically noted the gallant leader of a good decision who just had back luck.  From a leadership perspective I have been asked about the shame of losing.  Whilst many would have felt it at the time and after, Fortune’s honour was strong.  He was invited to lunch with the victorious, young Rommel.  He refused.  Fortune was very much with his men.  As a prisoner of war he suffered a stroke in 1944 but refused repatriation.  After the war he was Knighted in recognition of his work in supporting PoWs.  De Gaulle (1942) said that the “valiant 51st Highland Division played its part in the decision which I took to continue fighting.”   This alternate perspective is not often sought in our one-dimensional view of history.   The modern era has much to learn about the sacrifice and honour shown by Fortune.  Royal Military Academy Sandhurst’s Manual of Leadership cites Colonel Munson’s 1947 Leadership for American Army Leaders reflecting on the situation in 1940.  ‘Sacrifices that saved Britain’, ‘regimental pride’ and ‘the complete truth about esprit’ all feature.  Those aspects of this story have often been forgotten in the clamour to utilise it to present particular narratives relating to the ‘betrayal’ of the 51st.  Such concepts, it appears, only arrived when retrospectively reviewing events and adding in present day issues.  E.H. Carr may approve, however, pure historians are always keen to get to the heart of the evidence from the era.  And that is where Goodfield has added much to our knowledge through her endeavours.

At 1000 hours on June 12th 2020 St Valery was commemorated nationally.  Later that day Goodfield’s book was profiled as part of a historians panel.  It is clear from the perspective of the 80th anniversary that a new narrative is needed which adequately captures the overarching position leaders found themselves in.  Breaking new ground is the work of leaders, be they writing new histories, or on the ground leading men.  Last year, battlefield tours of the area were planned led by a former CO of 51st Brigade, which sadly did not take place.  Regardless, there is learning to be had from the box formation Highland Division troops held around the town of St Valery in an attempt to escape successfully.  It seems that in leadership learning there is much to study on attack and defence on the battlefield and indeed in history itself.

 

References

Barclay, Gordon (2020) ‘A Villain for All Seasons’ Churchill and Scottish Mythologies of Grievance’, Finest Hour: The Journal of Winston Churchill and His Times, Third Quarter 2020, No. 189, pp 14-18.

Carr, E.H. (1961)  What is History? (Penguin, London)

Colville, John (1986) The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries: Volume One: 1939-October 1941 (Hodder & Stoughton, London).

De Gaulle, Charles, (1942) Speech given in Edinburgh, accessed www.electricscotland.com Speech delivered by General de Gaulle at Edinburgh, 23rd June 1942 (electricscotland.com) [last accessed 22 December 2020].

Delaforce, Patrick (1997) Monty’s Highlanders: 51st Highland Division in the Second World War (Pen & Sword, Barnsley).

Evans, Richard, J. (1997) In Defence of History, (Granta, London).

Forczyk, Robert (2017) Case Red: The Collapse of France (Osprey Publishing, Oxford).

Goodfield, June (2019) Glory From Defeat: Our Second Dunkirk (Menin House Publishers, Eastbourne).

Innes, Bill (2004) St Valery: The Impossible Odds, (Birlinn, Edinburgh).

Lang, Derek (1974) Return to St Valery: An escape through wartime France (Lee Cooper, London).

Lindsay, Martin (2000) So Few Got Through: With the Gordon Highlanders From Normandy to the Baltic (Pen & Sword, Barnsley).

Linklater, Eric (1942) The Highland Division (His Majesty’s Stationary Office, London).

Dr Clare Makepeace referenced the post-war silence and shame in her “Captives of War: British Prisoners of War in the Second World War” (2017).

 

Neil McLennan

Senior Lecturer and Director of Leadership Programmes at University of Aberdeen at University of Aberdeen

Neil McLennan is Senior Lecturer and Director of Leadership Programmes at University of Aberdeen. In January 2020 he was appointed Director of Leadership Studies at the Centre for Global Security and Governance, University of Aberdeen. He is a former history teacher and past president of the Scottish History Teachers Association. He has lectured to Royal Military Academy Sandhurst Group on leadership models and values-based leadership. He researches and writes extensively on First World War history, remembrance and commemoration.  In 2020 he was the Convenor of the St Valery 80 Commemorations Committee (#StValery80).

Footnotes

  1. Coville, 1986: p180
  2. Barclay, 2020:pp14-19)

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