Donald Smith took this picture of his friends in the 51st Highland Division before the war, all of whom died at St Valery-en-Caux
Remembrance of the 51st Highland Division, 1940
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
“I started thinking about dance tunes to keep my mind clear of grisly thoughts, and I began to get this idea for a dance." ~ Lieutenant J. E. M. Atkinson of the 7th Battalion, 51st Division, POW
80 years ago today at 10 A.M. on the 12th of June 1940, the 51st Highland Division were captured in the French fishing port of St Valery En Caux. The evacuation of Dunkirk, which took place between 27 May and 4 June 1940 during World War II, is the historical backdrop for the dance "Reel of the 51st Division." The evacuation rescued over 300,000 fighting men and enabled a morale-boosting, positive spin on this costly endeavour for Allied forces. On the 4th of June, the day after the evacuation from Dunkirk was completed, 80 miles south, ten thousand Scots in Normandy launched an attack on the German onslaught towards Paris. Amongst the troops fighting to hold off the Germans and make the evacuation possible were the 7th and 8th Battalions of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 51st Highland Division. They had been assigned to the 10th French Army and were under the overall command of General Maxime Weygand. When the other elements of the British Expeditionary Force were allowed to escape, the 51st was ordered to stay in place and continue fighting, in a futile effort to convince the French to do so also. Fighting valiantly to the coast, they were cut off from escape with no support and diminishing equipment and ammunition. This combination of circumstances allowed them to be effectively sacrificed, and they suffered heavy casualties before being overwhelmed at St. Valerie en Caux. Some were forced to march 1000 miles to a POW camp and spent the rest of war as prisoners. It was during the incarceration, that this dance was devised.
Reel of the 51st Division
The evacuation of Dunkirk, which took place between 27 May and 4 June 1940 during World War II, is the backdrop for the dance "Reel of the 51st Division."
The evacuation rescued 300,000 fighting men. It also enabled a morale-boosting, positive spin on what had been a military debacle. Much less known - and not at all celebrated - is the fact that on 4 June, 1940, the day after the evacuation from Dunkirk was completed, ten thousand Scots in Normandy launched an attack on the Germans.
For recent short readings on this subject, see the following:
Jock Morrison (2015), "After Dunkirk, Churchill abandoned the Highlanders at St. Valery"
Charles S. Grant (2010), 'Sacrificed' Scots soldiers remembered'
From "History in an Hour":
"One of the most spectacular Allied successes of World War Two was the evacuation of more than three hundred thousand British, French, and Belgian troops from Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4, 1940 . The men had been cut off and surrounded by the German army, and would have been slaughtered or captured if not for a hastily assembled flotilla of more than eight hundred military and civilian vessels, which achieved what became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.
Among the troops fighting to hold off the Germans and make the evacuation possible were the 7th and 8th Battalions of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 51st Highland Division. Their officers read them these orders: “You will hold this position; you will either be killed, wounded or made a prisoner of war.”
At 3 p.m. on June 5, twenty-six-year old Lieutenant J. E. M. Atkinson of the 7th Battalion, surrounded by German troops who had just shot off his wristwatch, surrendered near the French town of Saigneville. He was not alone. After Dunkirk, the 51st Division was charged with recapturing the Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme, but they were overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties.
The captured Highlanders were marched a thousand miles to Oflag VII-C prison camp at Laufen Castle near Salzburg. Scottish country dancing had been a regular part of Jimmy Atkinson’s life at home, and he later recalled that during the long march, “I started thinking about dance tunes to keep my mind clear of grisly thoughts, and I began to get this idea for a dance” that would symbolize Scotland and the Highland Division. The figures that came to his mind were based on the diagonals of the St. Andrew’s Cross on the badge of the 51st Division."
For more details on the origins of the dance, click the photo below of the men of the 51st division in France, 1940, or visit https://my.strathspey.org/u/anselm/stories/reelofthe51st/.
And for a video of the dance performed by an all male set at the Pinewoods Scottish Dance weekend in 2009, click the video.
Below: Men of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 51st Highland Division, Millbosche, 7 June 1940