The incredible story of how almost 340,000 troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France during the summer of 1940 is very well known and is symbolic of the spirit which Winston Churchill was attempting to engender among the British public during that period of the war.
However, much less known is the story of the 40,000 troops who were left behind in France to be captured by the Germans. A recent Channel Four documentary featured first-hand accounts of those who had been involved but barely touched on the fact that these thousands of soldiers were marched through France, Belgium and Holland where they were transported to POW camps in Germany and Poland.
Many of the soldiers captured in the weeks following Dunkirk were either part of or attached to the 51st Highland Division. The division had been defending a section of the Maginot Line in France but the speed of the German invasion cut them off from the rest of the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) in the north.
The division and battalions from many other regiments including my grandfather’s battalion, the 7th Battalion Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, who were attached to the division to offer support, in my grandfather’s case as a machine gun unit, retreated across France and could have been evacuated from ports further west such as Le Havre were it not for the fact that Winston Churchill insisted that the division continue to support the French. The British had trucks but some of the French were on horseback which made the retreat painfully slow along roads blocked by refugees.
Cut off from Le Havre by the rapidly advancing German panzer divisions, the 51st found themselves at the small port of St Valery en Caux but thick fog made evacuation impossible and on 12th June 1940, ammunition spent, the command was given to surrender.
Those captured were then marched back along the route of the German advance all the way to Holland where they were loaded onto coal barges and ferried along the canals to Germany where they were packed into railway wagons whose destinations were the POW camps of Germany and Poland.
My next novel, Fred and Leah, tells the story of these soldiers and also of the families left behind. The novel will be published in January but if you can’t wait that long, you can download a free sample here.