12 June 1940 St-Valery-en-Caux

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Events leading up to 12 June 1940
St Valery-en-Caux the town
What happened on Wednesday 12 June 1940
Effect on St Valery-en-Caux

The 51st Highland Division story is well known, and it will be detailed further at a later stage of the development of this website. In the meantime, below are some commentaries that tell part of the story and add to the atmosphere of betrayal, sacrifice, and the loss of thousands and thousands of young lives.

The following poem appears in the Salle d'Ecosse of the Hotel de Ville in St Valery-en-Caux.

The Young Soldier
St Valery en Caux
June 12th 1940

A bugle call the soldier heard at last
Those dying fading notes left him aghast
To lay down arms and hold that white flag high
Who could have thought that such a time was nigh
When out across the bay there he could see
The ships of home still riding gracefully
So far away from gunshot way out there
As he and all his comrades stand and stare
And wonder - why are we still waiting here
When all those ships and men now seem so near
At last the order came and in despair
He saw from far his friends still lying there.
For all the sacrifice their hopes the joy the pain,
The terror of the bombing - where now is the gain.
What are you feeling of so deep inside
Do tears well up - remorse you cannot hide
Hold up your head show them you grow bolder
What er befall be proud. You are a Soldier.

Despatch Rider with
The East Surrey Regiment

The following text appears next to a map of manoeuvres at the cemetery of St Valery-en-Caux and refers to the 51st Highland Division's capture on 12 June 1940.

of the beach from Veules-les-Roses to St Valery (photo taken June 2009)
Photograph of beach from Veules-les-Roses to St Valery (photo taken June 2009)

The war in France and Flanders 1939-1940

Since September 1939, Britain, the other Commonwealth countries, France and Poland had been at war with Germany. A British Expeditionary Force had quickly been sent to France and spent the first winter in fortifying its sector of the front along the Belgian border. By May 1940 its strength was 13 divisions in an Allied Army of 135 division opposed by a force which, though only equal in numbers of divisions and tanks, was more effectively equipped, trained and commanded and possessed a superiority of two to one in aircraft. Of the Allied air arms the Royal Air Force was the largest and probably the most effective.

On 10th May Germany without warning invaded the Netherlands and Belgium and the BEF immediately took part in the Allied wheel into Belgium, to meet the anticipated main Line. The main thrust, however, cam unexpectedly against the central, weakly held sector of the Allied front. The German tactics were to use armoured columns, supported by dive bombers and motorised infantry, on a narrow front to pierce the defence in several places. When this had been accomplished, two columns would converge to envelop a sector which would then be disposed of by the mobile infantry. On 13th May German forces crossed the Meuse at Sedan, pierced the last defence line the following day and by 20th May reached the channel coast. The Allied front was cut in two and the BEF severed from its bases.

In the north, the Netherlands too were overrun and surrendered on 15th May and, with the hinge of the wheel into Belgium broken by the German crossing of the Meuse, withdrawal of the BEF was ordered first to the line of the Schekdt and then to the former frontier position, reached on the 23rd. The British, Belgian and French First Armies were now contained in a pocket bounded on the south by a line of canals.

The German advance southwards was checked by a spirited British counter-attack from Arras on 21st May (the only positive Allied manoeuvre of the campaign) and by the defence of Boulogne and Calais by garrisons landed from Britain. Withdrawal from the Arras salient took place on the 23rd and the last of the Boulogne garrison was evacuated on the 25th. In Calais the garrison fought on until finally overwhelmed on the 27th.

On 26th May the BEF was ordered to withdraw to the coast for evacuation: the following day the exhausted Belgian Army, on the left flank, was compelled to surrender and in a series of hard-fought actions the whole of the BEF and part of French First Army withdrew within a perimeter initially running from Dunkirk to Nieuport but thereafter contracting daily. This withdrawal was greatly aided by the strand of part of the French First Army cut off near Lille.

The harbour basins having been destroyed by bombing the evacuation, over a calm sea and under Royal Air Force protection, took place from piers, breakwaters and open beaches. From England 800 vessels were assembled to work under Royal Navy direction, many of them small craft manned by their civilian crews. By 4th June 338,000 Allied troops (198,000 British) had been evacuated.

On that date, south of the German wedge, there were still 140,000 British troops in France. Serving in the Maginot Line, and so cut off by the German breakthrough, the 51st Highland Division fought its way across to St Valery-en-Caux where, after fog had prevented evacuation, it was forced to surrender on 12th June. 1st Armoured Division, landing on 19th May, lost heavily in an unsuccessful attack at Abbeville wile of 52nd Lowland and 1st Canadian Divisions, arriving in early June, only 157 Lowland Brigade saw fighting.

On 14th June it was decided to withdraw the remainder of the BEF. The evaluation, marred only by the sinking of the 'Lancastria' with the loss of 3,000 lives, was completed on 25th June by which time a further 192,000 Allied troops (144,000 British) had been brought away.

The German victory, though sweeping, was incomplete in one respect - it had failed to prevent the withdrawal to Britain of 500,000 men. The nucleus, of an army whose flanks had been turned by whose front had never been broken, was to lead the Allied return four years later to an even greater victory.

The dead of the campaign lie mainly in war cemeteries in northern France and Flanders and along the coast. The names of 4,523 soldiers whose graves are unknown are commemorated on the Memorial at Dunkirk and those of the missing sailors and airmen on memorials at their home ports and at Runnymede, England. Those who died in their little ships at Dunkirk are commemorated in the Roll of Honour of the Civilian War Dead enshrined in Westminster Abbey.

ST VALERY-EN-CAUX FRANCO-BRITISH WAR CEMETERY This cemetery commemorates the battles around St Valery fought jointly by French and British units - particularly those from the French 2nd Cavalry Divisions and the 51st Highland Division. Except for one Polish airman, it contains only French and Commonwealth dead - 218 French sailors and soldiers, 206 British soldiers (54 of whom belonged to the 51st Highland Division) and 22 British, 4 Canadian, 1 New Zealand and 1 South African airmen.

of the St Valery story at the cemetery(photo taken June 2009)
Photograph of the St Valery story at the cemetery (photo taken June 2009)

The following appears on two boards on the cliffs of Veules-les-Roses next to guns which have been taken from the sea.

Thursday June 6th 1960 Beginning of the military operations whcih will strike Veules les Roses. An engagement of about one hour takes place between German aircraft and boats cruising off the coast.

Friday, June 7th A large number of enemy aircraft bomb the surrounding villages. Driven off by the German offensive towards the south, the French and British troops fall back on Veules and Saint-Valery where they are cut off by the German armoured divisions. The struggle leads to four days of bitter fighting. Several houses are burnt down.

Monday, 10th The German pressure is becoming increasingly intense. The traffic on the Dieppe Saint Valery road is very heavy in both directions.

Tuesday, June 11th At first light, fifteen thousand men, half French, half British organise a ruthless defence. Many bombs including incendiaries are dropped on the village: these destroy more than thirty houses and cause a great number of civil and military casualties.

This desperate battle lasts twelve hours from 5 pm until 5 am. At about 6 o' clock, the German troops arrive at the outsides of Veules.

Wednesday, June 12th Thirty British, Belgian and French ships cruise off shore. Three thousand soldiers embark on boats in order to reach the ships: to escape death, some of them come down the forty metre cliffs by rope. Three ships sink off Veules, among them the 'Cerons' which ran aground at low tide and was unable to gain the offing at high tide. Five thousand other soldiers are taken prisoner.

Eight days after the fall of Dunkerque, there occurred at Veules probably the last real battle of the 1940 German offensive.

The village was buffered in this hard fight, but it was able to maintain a laudable steadfast attitude in spite of the casualties and the painful sight of ruins and desolation.

'Let us remember the courage of the inhabitants of Veules and the sacrifice of the valiant soldiers facing the enemy.'

For a free France

On June 10th 1940, the CERONS, commanded by Lucien Eve, master mariner sub-lieutenant of the reserve gets under way from Cherbourg to Le Havre. On June 11th, after fighting with all its fire power against the air-craft attacks, the CERONS leaves Le Havre with all the flotilla and all the SAUTERNES boat in direction to Saint Valery-en-Caux being commissioned to board surrounded by the enemy. On June 12th, by 3 a.m., Saint Valery, in fire is already invaded, an English destroyer leads them to the bay of Veules-les-Roses. They arrive at 5 a.m., it's the ebb, the CERONS is anchored at about 300m from the beach. The boats are immediately launched to embark the soldiers ashore. The enemy troops and tanks appear from all sides of the cliffs and fire the ships. At the same time, planes suddenly appear and machine-gun the boats. The CERONS counter-attack with all the power of its cannons. Despite the enemy's attack, 300 soldiers are embarked. The tide still falls ... it's 7 a.m., the executive officer, Eve, decides to cast off, the pusher propeller stirs up sands, thrashing the shingles and the CERONS runs aground.... The 300 soldiers are transferred to the SAUTERNES, which is anchored on the port side of the CERONS. The executive officer of the CERONS and his crew, after destroying all the secrete [sic] documents on board, still heroically fight against the enemy troops before being held prisoners. The wreck of the CERONS, still visible at low tide, by spring tide, is situated in front of the cannon brought back ashore by the minesweeping team of Cherbourg's National Navy in August 1995 and erected on the cliff on Mr Jean Claude Claire's initiative, mayor of Veules-les-Roses.

of gun on Veules-les-Roses cliff top (photo taken June 2009)
Photograph of Veules-les-Roses cliff top (photo taken June 2009)

Memrial de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale ࠓaint Valery en Caux

The following text is taken from the memorial at the Museum Maison Henri Quatre in Saint Valery en Caux

A peaceable seaside resort, Saint Valery was a town where the rhythm of life was geared to the holiday season until the summer of 1939. When war was declared, the port ceased activity and, as in the rest of France, everyone anxiously watched events develop. In June 1940, the quiet and tranquillity were interrupted forever by the mortar fire of Rommel's Panzer Division, which destroyed 70% of the town. Saint Valery never again knew the same carefree spirit. The turmoil of its history thrust itself on its inhabitants, who had to learn to accept life under occupation and then had the task of rebuilding their town after it was liberated.

Before June 1940

In 1939, at the outbreak of war, Saint Valery en Caux was a quiet fishing port which had been a holiday resort for about a hundred years. Coastal and rural worlds co-existed, an attractive prospect for tourists, and for locals who took advantage of the arrival of holiday-makers to eke out their living by selling them poultry, butter and shellfish. The casino was the centrepiece of the resort, and the railway brought visitors from Paris, Rouen... and even abroad. Numerous hotels were located around the main market square. The town had a very active entertainments committee, and thriving tennis and sailing clubs. After the summer of 1939, many families decided to stay on in Saint Valery, where they felt they were safer, far from disturbing events. In the spring of 1940, although the Somme front seemed relatively stable and German thrust contained, Rommel broke through the front at the head of the 7th Panzer Division. Moving at phenomenal speed, German forces crossed the department. They reached the Seine near Oissel, then drove through to the coast at Petites Dalles, went west as far as F飡mp, and then returned to Veulettes, which they reached on June 10. This left 50,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force 9th Allied army corps caught in a trap, cut off from the rest of the French and British forces preparing for a swift embarkation at Le Havre. For the threatened troops, the only port that offered the chance of a possible evacuation was Saint Valery en Caux.

The events of June 1940

From the afternoon of Monday, 10 June onwards, British and French warships, small craft and transports were anchored close to the port, while the town was encircled by the Germans. It became too dangerous to escape from Saint Valery, and the local population began to take refuge in makeshift shelters. During the evening, the shelling began. All parts of the town were under fire. Entire areas were devastated and ablaze. On June 11, the 7th Panzer Division reached the plateau that overlooks Saint Valery and forced its way to the hamlet of Tot, in spite of fierce resistance from the Scottish front line troops. At the same time, a port defence was set up to allow for later evacuation. Unfortunately, the size of the town was unsuitable for the military manoeuvre of 50,000 men. Nonetheless, a classic military strategy was applied. To the west, the Scottish troops of the 51st Highland Division confronted the enemy; the French were to the south and east; and to the north lay hope, in the form of the English Channel. The shelling kept the Allied vessels at a distance while the Nazi infantry took up positions in the hamlets to the west of the town, tightening the grip they had already taken when the 5th Panzer Division arrived at the village of Manneville 賠Plains. The Allied troops continued fighting until their last resources were exhausted, and some attempted to reach the boats anchored off Saint Valery. Many men drowned or fell from the cliffs, and the others saw their boats sink. Three large transports that they were trying to reach were sunk between Veules les Roses and Saint Valery en Caux. The losses were substantial, and a mere 3,000 men were evacuated. Unable to fight or retreat, the only choice was capitulation. On the morning of June 12, the white flag was raised from the church steeple. The order to cease fire given by the French general was hard to obey for those who had fought valiantly for several days and had seen their companions in arms fall alongside them. German tanks moved down from the cliffs, took the Le Havre road and entered Saint Valery to accept the Allies' surrender. More than 40,000 men were taken prisoner and a substantial stock of equipment was confiscated. So began the occupation, that was to last for over four years.

Life during occupation

Civilians made their way back to their homes, and discovered the chaos that reigned throughout the town. Animals that had broken loose were wandering aimlessly through the disorder and destruction of the battlefields. Looters had passed through the town, adding to the general state of the devastation. 600 people, one quarter of the population of the town, had lost everything they owned. 400 houses, one third of the total number of homes, had been completely destroyed or were temporarily uninhabitable. The town hall and all its archives had burnt down, as had the tax office, the customs office and practically all the hotels and restaurants. Everything needed rebuilding. But the question was when would it be rebuilt? After all, the town was now under German control. Men were commandeered for forced labour, whether locally or in Germany. The new living conditions included ration cards and a system of passes. All of this lasted four years. On June 18, General de Gaulle broadcast in his appeal to the whole of France from London. Resistance was not organised in large networks in this sector. However, certain individuals, operating alone or in smaller groups, took part in actions against the enemy forces and helped weaken them. At Saint Valery en Caux, a bookseller, Th鲨se Lemoine, was involved in what became known as the "Veules les Roses" affair. She was arrested in March 1941, and was imprisoned in a series of women's camps in Germany. She returned after the liberation, marked forever. Life under the occupation was relatively calm. The region did not have to endure further attacks or battles.


Following the liberation of Paris in August 1944, the Germans evacuated Saint Valery en Caux in its turn, fleeing in the face of the advancing Allies. The Canadians passed briefly through the town on September 1, but it was the Scots, who had battled so courageously here in June 1940, who symbolically liberated Saint Valery en Caux on September 2 1944. The region rejoiced, and Saint Valery's residents acclaimed the soldiers of the 51st Highland Divisions as heroes, on account of their past valour. During the speeches that were made, faces beamed with new-found smiles. Everyone followed behind a procession of children from local schools which made its way to the nearby chⴥau of Cailleville, in the gardens of which a great party was organised in honour of the liberators.

An American presence

Shortly after D-Day and the liberation of this region, the Americans set up eight transit camps for their servicemen in what was then the Seine Inf鲩eure department. Each camp was named after a brand of cigarettes. The Lucky Strike camp was located on the plain overlooking Saint Valery, right by the Saint Sylvain/Saint Riquier/Paluel airfield. The largest in Europe, Lucky Strike served as a rest camp for U.S. servicemen. Those who arrived at Le Havre from the United States by sea transited there before being sent on to the front. Those who were returning from the front line in the east of France were also able to recover their strength before setting sail from Le Havre for the United States. The Lucky Strike camp mainly consisted of tents, and could accommodate up to one hundred thousand men. Twelve thousand buildings, four hospitals, four theatres, a military tribunal, a post office and numerous stores were set up. The troops were attended by three thousand prisoners of war who performed all of the chores, such as food preparation, washing-up, cleaning and other menial tasks. The tents were set out surrounding a huge airstrip, used by the Germans during the occupation. An entire town was thrown up on the site by the Americans in 1944, only to be dismantled a few months later in August 1945. Local farmers had to rid their fields of waste and other leftovers from the camp before the area was fit for cultivation again. It was during the existence of Camp Lucky Strike that a tragic incident took place - a train crash at the Saint Valery en Caux station on January 17, 1945. America troops had disembarked at Le Havre and were to be taken by train to the camp, before being moved out to eh east of France to the Ardennes battleground. The trip took place at night, and when the train arrived at Saint Vaast, around dawn, the brakes appeared to be giving problems, Nonetheless, the train set off again, but at N鶩lle, just before the descent to Saint Valery, the train turned into a runaway and was only halted when it actually crashed right through the station building. One of the drivers threw himself from the train and was killed. The number f U.S. soldiers killed in the accident was estimated at between 100 and 200. The official number is now unknown, as the U.S. military authorities immediately classified the accident as an act of war and the circumstances surrounding it, along with the casualty figure, a military secret. A security cordon was thrown around the area and the taking of photographs prohibited. But the people of Saint Valery en Caux who went to help the victims told of horrifying sights of twisted bodies caught up in the train wreckage.

Visits to St Valery-en-Caux