A Highland MSP has recalled the bravery and sacrifices which were made by so many men, including one of her relatives, who served with the 51st Highland Division at St Valery in 1940.
Maree Todd, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Children and Young People, explained why it was so important to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Division’s gallantry in the French village, which preceded its surrender on June 12.
She said: “The incredible bravery and sacrifice of the mainly Scottish men who fought against all odds is being commemorated this week – 80 years on.
“My uncle Angie, my granny’s brother, was one of them.
“I grew up in Ullapool and several men from the village were there. In fact St Valery Place, where my house was situated, was named in tribute to them.
“They fought and were captured in St Valery and were imprisoned in camps for years – until the war ended.
“The stories they told about the camps, gave an insight into the hardships they endured but also their resilience.
“Angie used to talk about the physical labour – one time, they were digging a well using a pump. They found that if it broke down, the Polish man employed by the Germans would have to cycle into town to fetch spare parts, enabling them to rest a bit.
“So they tampered with the pump to ensure it broke down regularly. Not enough to be suspicious, just enough to keep them strong.
“Lots of their stories featured food – I think they must have been hungry. One day they were unloading a lorry of food and they stole a sack of sugar.
“The German guard saw this, and warned them that all the food was accounted for. If they stole a sack, it would be noticed. If they took less, they would get away with it. A story that shows some humanity in the darkest of times.
“As the war ended, they heard about the D-day landings from a crystal radio which one of the men – Geordie Ross – had made from a potato. We are nothing if not innovative in the Highlands.
“They had one more appalling hardship to endure though – the long march.
“Mrs Fraser from Leckmelm had given all the men a bible before they went off to war. Geordie documented in his, the names of all the places they passed through on that march – an astonishing record of a forgotten episode.
“When I was little, I heard about how the men marched on foot right across Europe in awful conditions. Angie never forgot the kindness of ordinary people though, who despite having very little themselves, gave them food as they walked.
“Despite hearing these stories all my life, I find it hard to imagine what they endured. The fighting, imprisonment, hunger and sense of dislocation. And, for much of it, with no end in sight. Their experiences forged a bond which lasted a lifetime.
“We owe them. We must remember.”