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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Battle for St Valéry-en-Caux

4 to 12 June 1940

Theatre: France
Area: The area in and around the town of St Valéry-en-Caux, northern France.
Players: Allies: 51st Highland Division, 1st Armoured Division; French 9th Army Corps. Germany: 7th Panzer Division; 2nd Motor Division; 5th and 31st Infantry Divisions.
Outcome: The 51st Highland Division was forced to surrender after days of desperately defending the town while waiting for an evacuation that never happened.

As British forces were withdrawing from France, Churchill placed the 51st Highland Division under French command after assuring the French that Britain would 'never abandon her ally in her hour of need'. The move was intended to persuade the French to fight on against Hitler as Britain withdrew from the continent.

The bulk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been evacuated from Dunkirk, but the 51st Highland Division was charged with recapturing the Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme. The plan suffered from poor co-ordination between Allied artillery, tanks and infantry, and the attack on 4 June resulted in heavy casualties.

The Germans launched a counter-attack the next day, outflanking the Allies and trapping the 51st Highland Division and elements of the French 9th Army Corps, who withdrew to the coastal town of St Valéry-en-Caux.

Major General VM Fortune, commander of the 51st, asked to be evacuated on 11 June. But the Germans were determined to avoid another Dunkirk and four divisions were put into attack to prevent an evacuation.

Despite fierce Allied defence, the 7th Panzers soon held cliff-top ground overlooking the harbour, making an evacuation highly dangerous. The Highlanders were conducting a desperate defence against advancing Germans while trying, without success, to eject the 7th Panzers from their positions.

The night of 11 June was the Highlanders' last chance to evacuate, but Fortune remained unable to contact the ships he hoped would rescue him and his men. That night, although Fortune was still hoping for evacuation and elements of the 51st were still counter-attacking, the French surrendered. By 12 June, Fortune realised that his position was hopeless and also surrendered.

Dense fog had delayed the Navy's rescue attempt and, although they intended to arrive the next day, it was too late to save the men who fought at St Valéry-en-Caux from spending the war in a PoW camp.

It wasn't, however, the end of the 51st Highlanders - the division was reconstituted from the 9th Highland Infantry Division.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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