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The largely forgotten Second World War battle of St Valéry led to 10,000 mainly Scottish soldiers from the 51st Highland Division being captured as prisoners of war at the French fishing port of St Valéry-en-Caux.
Days after the mass evacuations at Dunkirk, the division remained on mainland Europe supporting their French allies in a rearguard action, but they were soon surrounded by German troops and forced to surrender.
At 10am on June 12 2021, the 81st anniversary, pipers around the world played ‘Heroes of St Valéry’ in tribute to the valiant 51st Highland Division and remembering those who fell and were imprisoned.
The piece was composed by Pipe Major Donald MacLean who himself was one of the 10,000 men captured that day and subsequently spent four years in a prisoner of war camp in Poland.
Neil McLennan, chair of the organising St Valéry committee, said: ‘The events of June 12, 1940 had a profound impact on every town and village in the Highlands, with most families having one or more male relatives enlisted. Continuing to educate and remember the battle ensures we, as a nation and wider military community, do right by those that fought that day.’
A socially distanced commemorative service was also held on Saturday at the St Valéry Memorial Stone in the French village, where Lt Col CD Close and Colonel HJP Wilkinson will lay remembrance wreaths on behalf of the British Army and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Dr Claire Armstrong, CEO at Legion Scotland, added: ‘As the custodians of Remembrance in Scotland we are committed to marking the sacrifices made by the 51st Highland Division annually as it’s an important chapter of Scottish war history that must not be forgotten.’
Heavily involved in the St Valéry rearguard action was the 8th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, with young men from all over Argyll in its ranks.
One such Argyll soldier was Donald McLellan from Lochgilphead.
Speaking on the 80th anniversary last year, his neice Cathie McLellan said: ‘I was too young to remember him, but I know he worked as a male nurse at the Argyll and Bute Hospital before the war.
‘Like most of the young men in the area he and his pals had joined the territorial army and enjoyed going away to training camps and things.’
When the war began Donald, not long engaged to be married, and his friends were called up with the 8th Argylls.
After basic training in Aldershot, they were sent with the 51st Highland Division to northern France with the British Expeditionary Force to help defend the Maginot Line.
Lance Corporal Donald McLellan was killed in action on June 5 1940 at the age of 24.
With him was another Lochgilphead lad, Duncan Campbell, who was taken prisoner. Duncan survived the war and lived to old age, and his son Duncan and daughter Jane still live in the Lochgilphead area.
Cathie continued: ‘My grandmother and the family didn’t find out until after the war what had happened to Donald, but we now know he is buried in a lovely graveyard in Dunkirk.’
She added: ‘Donald is remembered with pride and love by his nieces, nephews and all the family.’