51st Division surrender at St Valery-en-Caux

Rommel and Fortune at St. Valery
Erwin Rommel, Commander of the 7th Panzer Division with Major General V M Fortune, Commander of the 51st Highland Division, which had just surrendered at St Valery

There remained a substantial British force in France after Dunkirk. Large numbers of support troops were making their way to the western-most ports to find a route home. The 51st Highland Division had been fully engaged, fighting a defensive battle under French Command.

Now like the main French forces, they were outflanked and they made their way to the small French port of St Valery-en-Caux where an attempt was made by the Royal Navy to evacuate them. However the main German force was soon on the cliffs overlooking the town and able to bring fire down on them.

Eventually the majority of the 51st Division was forced to surrender. The confused situation is well described by Arthur Webster who was with the 1st Field Squadron R.E. and arrived in the town on the 11th:

On foot and with rifles at the alert, we made our way to the sea front. We were spotted by the enemy and, for the first time in our military careers, came under shell fire, a frightening experience.

One of my companions was killed; this was real war. In the afternoon we saw a ship approaching the harbour and quickly arrived on the quayside. The tide was high and the ship, a destroyer, came into the harbour. The Boche bracketted the destroyer with a salvo of shells. Rather than presenting a sitting target, the destroyer reversed out of the harbour and made for the open sea. The Luftwaffe, attracted by the commotion also decided to pay a visit but, beyond dropping a stick of bombs, left us alone, knowing full well that the German infantry could cope. They were now in some strength across the harbour.

As St Valery was a picking up point for the wounded, a lifeboat was stationed there. This was brought into action to ferry the wounded out of the harbour in spite of the fact that no hospital ship was stationed outside the harbour. A brisk fire fight was now taking place across the harbour and a German machine gunner made the lifeboat his target. A row of bullet holes appeared on the side of the boat and it drifted away – the rowers, being wounded, were no longer able to manoeuvre the boat. A fellow soldier, with an angry expletive, singled out the German machine gunner for attention. Two well aimed shots were sufficient and the gunner toppled over. There was no further firing.

After a shambolic day, moving chaotically around St Valery in small groups, we were ordered back to the beach where a small cave was to be our HQ. I realised the morning would present me with three situations:
1. I could be wounded.
2. I could be a prisoner of war and wounded.
3. I could be dead.
This was to be the lot of many British soldiers left in Normandy.

A fitful period of sleep followed, the cave providing shelter and protection. There was skirmishing as patrols clashed outside but the dawn would bring the bulk of the axis troops to tidy up the beaches. They seemed well supplied with equipment, particularly mortars.

As dawn broke, a mist was covering offshore and as it lifted, to me a miracle occurred for, following the mist inshore, was a small flotilla of ships coming in very slowly. We quickly made our way to the beach but the boats were having difficulty in coming closer due to the shallowness of the water. One boat was approaching a ridge of rock which ran out to sea.

I scrambled along the rocks, crawling, jumping, walking and eventually reached the end to find a sea-going barge riding high in the water, manoeuvring to find a spot to pick up any soldiers. Hanging from the bows was a rough timber ladder. Two French soldiers were endeavouring to reach the ladder and commenced to fight. Whilst they fought, the ship came closer to the rock and, without further ado, I launched myself at the ladder.

I hit the ladder with a crash and commenced to climb as the boat moved into deeper water. To my horror, the ladder came away but two strong hands on the ship held it as I climbed.

Read Arthur Websters’ story at BBC People’s War.

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