Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind

oldbaldy

LE
Moderator
#1
IT WAS a defining moment of the Second World War in which 200,000 British troops were rescued from certain death or capture after being defeated by the Germans in France.
And now, the amazing story has emerged of a Scottish soldier who escaped, was recaptured and narrowly avoided execution by the SS after the intervention of a regular German Army officer.

David Mowatt, from the Black Isle, was one of thousands of troops taken prisoner by the Germans in the northern French town of St Valery after they failed to make it to the Allied evacuation on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Mowatt's tale is to be told in a new book to be published next month called Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind, by the leading historical writer Sean Longden.

Amid the euphoria over saving the troops from disaster, few focused on the thousands of soldiers left behind who had fought alongside the French Army and on the later evacuations of soldiers from other parts of the French coast.

In June 1940, the 51st Highland Division was surrounded at St Valery en Caux and forced to surrender.

For Mowatt, captivity came as a severe shock. Two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the local Territorial Army battalion in search of extra cash and a welcome break from his job as a farm labourer.

He said: "We thought we'd join the TA and get a holiday."

As part of the Fourth Battalion the Seaforth Highlanders, he was stationed in northern France, where he and colleagues would sneak out into no man's land looking for signs of whether the Germans were moving forward.

He lost a close friend in battle and his division was pushed back across France by the relentless German advance before the division was captured at St Valery. They had hoped to get to Le Havre, where another evacuation was under way. Mowatt himself personally encountered the Nazis' star commander, General Erwin Rommel.

Mowatt said: "Rommel came up, he was on one of the first tanks to come through. He spoke to us. He said: 'I hope you will be treated fairly and you will not be too long a prisoner of war.' He was right there at the front with his troops. He probably knew we'd had it. He knew he was safe."

Mowatt found that he was one of 40,000 British soldiers marched towards Germany with little food, water or rest. He completely wore out a brand-new pair of double-soled boots during the forced march to Dortmund.

Speaking of the horror of that march, he said: "I didn't have the strength to talk. We were all dragged right down. We were filthy – lousy. I can't describe the despair. It was terrible. The days just blurred into each other. We didn't know how far we were going to march – we were just going in circles."

He and his comrades endured brutality from German guards who shot soldiers who reached out for food which French peasants had put by the roadside for them. And then in the camps they had to endure more trauma from fellow British soldiers as officers and NCOs tried to impose discipline on the exhausted and demoralised prisoners.

Mowatt said: "I can't remember entering the camp. All I can remember was a Welsh Sergeant Major. He was trying to get us to march up and down – after all the way we'd walked! I collapsed and ended up in hospital.

"That sergeant eventually wangled his way on to a repatriation ship. On the boat on the way home he vanished. Someone got him and dumped him over the side. It was someone who remembered him from the camp, and thought, 'I'll have him one day!'"

Mowatt then spent almost five years in the Thorn PoW camp in occupied Poland until the chance came for freedom in 1945.

As the Red Army advanced through Poland and East Prussia, the Germans set about evacuating the camps and marching the prisoners west.

Mowatt and three others men managed to escape and headed east towards the advancing Soviet troops. They survived in the Polish countryside for two weeks by killing and eating farm animals. But they were then captured by the SS, who planned to shoot the fugitive PoWs. They were only saved when an ordinary German officer appeared and took the five men into his care.

He said: "One morning we woke up to the sound of tanks. We thought: 'Good God, we're at the front line.' By the time we got dressed all the doors had been smashed in. We were expecting it to be the Russians, but it was the SS. They put us up against the wall with a firing squad of five men. It's dreadful to think about it even now.

"Then an ordinary Wehrmacht officer appeared. Lady Luck was on our side. He stopped them."

Mowatt and his comrades were finally liberated after the Germans surrendered in May 1945.

As Mowatt suffered in captivity, the Highland Division was rebuilt with the single brigade that had escaped from France and with fresh recruits.

They played a key role in breaking the German lines at El Alamein. They then fought in Italy and Normandy, and in 1944, British commander Field Marshal Montgomery changed his order of battle in northern France to allow the 51st to liberate Saint-Valery.

Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind by Sean Longden is published by Constable and will cost £20 in hardback. It will be published on May 29.
I believe 9 (Scottish) Inf Div was renumbered as 51 in 1940. Which is how the 51st came to be in North Africa.
 
#2
Interestingly OB, this story has also recently been published in relation to Dunkirk.

Fusilier Charlie Evans ended up in Auschwitz. He was captured at Dunkirk whilst serving with 1RWF. The bulk of the battalion were either killed, wounded or captured. They were then reformed from the remnants, and went into action at Donbaik in 1943. One of Charlie's comrades who also ended up in the bag at Dunkirk was the actor Lt Desmond Llewellyn RWF.

http://www.shropshiremagazine.com/2008/05/back-from-the-brink
 
#3
I have a book somewhere about some Highlanders (Seaforths?) who manged to evade capture and escape to Spain. It was called 'The Long Way Round', fascinating story indeed.


Edited to add title:
 
#4
oldbaldy said:
Two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the local Territorial Army battalion in search of extra cash and a welcome break from his job as a farm labourer.

He said: "We thought we'd join the TA and get a holiday."
My grandfather (also a Seaforth) thought likewise when he joined the TA in 1939. He had to drop out of the last year of his bakers apprenticeship and claimed to have been guarding a railway bridge from 39 until the Normandy invasion. Didnt get demobbed till 46 and swore until the day he died never to volunteer for anything again.
 
#5
Have a book upstairs on dunkirk its in the next to read pile, but this one sounds alot better

Might have to loose some pennies for this one instead
 
#6
My Father joined up in 36, for 3 years, (no employment in UK coalmines).
He was a Gunner and was in BEF.
He came back from Dunkirk and he told me on more then one occasion, that over the years he had met many who claimed to have been there, he said that after speaking to them none ever convinced him.
john
 

oldbaldy

LE
Moderator
#7
The Runrig song 'The Old boys' makes reference to St Valery and in the Proterra album version they is an 'old boy' speaking, I am told by native gaelic speakers he is talking about trying to get to Dunkirk and fighting a rearguard action to St Valery.
I believe the gentleman in question is from the Hebrides and was with the 51st Highland Division.

An interesting use of the song can be seen here:
The Old Boys
 
#8
This one is on my Amazon wishlist, but I read "Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man" by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore a few months ago. That was an absolutely brilliant read, and yet this sounds even better!

(Oh, and I have a vested interest in Dunkirk, as my Grandfather missed the boat at Dunkirk!)
 
#9
Another 2 reads about the 51st HD are:

Monty's Highlanders - 51st Highland Division in the Second World War by Patrick Delaforce

St Valéry - The Impossible Odds edited by Bill Innes
 

oldbaldy

LE
Moderator
#11
Article by Sean Longden in the Sunday Times pays tribute to the men of the 51st:
Sunday Times
 
#12
This looks to be quite interesting and I'm looking forward to reading this which is next in my book pile. I can only imagine how they felt staying behind while others were getting on the boats.
 
#13
Chaps a relative of mine has recently tried to publish a book about his unsuccessful attempt to reach Dunkirk and his resultant capture, but no-one seems particularly interested, i am surprised at this as there is obviously a lot of interest in this period. Any advice on futher attempts at publishing?

RCGJ
 
#16
RedcoatGreenjacket said:
Chaps a relative of mine has recently tried to publish a book about his unsuccessful attempt to reach Dunkirk and his resultant capture, but no-one seems particularly interested, i am surprised at this as there is obviously a lot of interest in this period. Any advice on futher attempts at publishing?

RCGJ
Any idea which publishers he tried? I would imagine pen & sword would be interested.
 
#17
One of our batteries got trapped at St Valery. Most broke out - essentially a CFT along the cliff tops under mortar fire before they contacted a passing RN paddlesteamer and made their way down to the shore with a rope made from their belts. A few evaded making their way through France and Spain to rejoin. I parked an ex SAS PSI next to one at a squadron dinner a few years back: "Sir, I'm not sitting next to a F*** pensioner" changed once they'd been introduced and we pretty much to prise them apart after the port. A major player in the lifelines was a Scottish clergyman called Caskie whose "Tartan Pimpernel" is worth a read
 
#18
This one is on my Amazon wishlist, but I read "Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man" by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore a few months ago. That was an absolutely brilliant read, and yet this sounds even better!

(Oh, and I have a vested interest in Dunkirk, as my Grandfather missed the boat at Dunkirk!)
Seconded. Hugh Sebag is a good author. I've also read a book of his about the Enigma Machines.

C_of_J

PS. My Granfather did catch the boat at Dunkirk, HMS Codrington.
 

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