History of the 51st Highland Division

The First and Second World War's

The 51st (Highland) Division was an infantry division of the British Army that fought on the Western Front in France during the First World War from 1915 to 1918. The division was raised in 1908, upon the creation of the Territorial Force, as the Highland Division and later 51st (Highland) Division from 1915. The division's insignia was a stylized 'HD' inside a red circle. Early doubts about the division's performance earned it the nickname of "Harper's Duds" after the name of its commander, Major-General George Harper.

The division was renamed the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and fought during the Second World War as part of the Territorial Army after the Territorial Force was disbanded in 1920. In June 1940, the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was attached to French 10th Army and after a fighting retreat from the Somme the greater part of the division was forced to surrender, having being cut off at St Valery-en-Caux on the Channel coast. In North Africa, the reconstituted Highland Division was nicknamed the "Highway Decorators" in reference to the 'HD' insignia that adorned road signs along their axis of advance.

First World War

The First World War doubts were the result of the way in which the division was initially plundered in late 1914 to early 1915, during a period of great strain on the Regular Army troops of the original British Expeditionary Force (BEF), serving on the Western Front. In August 1914, upon mobilization, the division's infantry element had comprised 12 battalions in 3 regimentally-named brigades: the Seaforth and Cameron Brigade, the Gordon Highlanders Brigade and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Brigade. A crisis on the Western Front in late 1914 saw increasing numbers of individual TF battalions being seconded to Regular Army formations on the Western Front. The first TF formation to be plundered in this way was the 1st London Division.

By early 1915, the Highland Division had lost six of its 12 pre-war Highland infantry battalions to Regular divisions. When TF divisions were finally ordered overseas as complete formations in their own right in early 1915, the Highland Division was only at half-strength and in no shape to be sent abroad at that time. Only by the last-minute addition of two Lowland battalions and the North Lancashire Brigade from the West Lancashire Division was the division, now numbered as the 51st (Highland) Division, considered numerically complete and was rushed to the Western Front in May 1915 to help stem the latest German onslaught during the Second Battle of Ypres. Obviously, the lack of familiarity amongst these newly introduced disparate units hampered division efficiency and the division could only fare moderately in the further actions at Festubert and Givenchy. Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Haig, then commanding the British First Army, and later to command the entire BEF, commented that the 51st was, at the time of Festubert, "practically untrained and very green in all field duties". Moved to the quiet Somme front in the late summer of 1915, the division, now under the command of Major General George Harper, had yet to satisfy the expectations of those expecting the familiar Highland flair- this was the period of Harper's Duds.

The situation was only resolved when, in January 1916, the Lancashire Brigade (by then renumbered the 154th (3rd Highland) Brigade and later became the 164th (North Lancashire) Brigade) left the division and their place was filled by original Highland battalions released by the regular divisions and by battalions of the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) not originally in the division. Given the chance to show their mettle in July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, they assaulted High Wood, which they attacked forcefully in the midst of a murderous field of fire without shelter. Though they failed to take the position, they had shown the fighting spirit expected of Highlanders. The division's reputation grew and they were chosen to capture the notorious fortress village of Beaumont-Hamel in November 1916, towards the end of the Somme offensive. The 51st were "Harper's Duds" no longer. Legend has it the Germans came to know them as "The Ladies From Hell".

By 1917, the 51st was considered a leading assault division and was handed more and more difficult tasks, throughout the year, from Arras in April/May to the combined tank-infantry assault at Cambrai in November.

By early 1918, the division, as with numerous others in the BEF at the time, was below-strength due to losses in 1917 and the tired survivors were given a quiet part of the front line to hold. Unfortunately, the Germans had by chance chosen that location as one of the focal points for their Kaiserschlacht, the last great German assault on the West in March 1918, intended to win the war before the American Expeditionary Force could arrive in great numbers. The neighbouring Portuguese Expeditionary Corps bore the brunt of the initial German assault. When Portuguese troops started to retire from their positions and ran across the 51st's positions, they were mistaken for Germans in the poor visual conditions and the 51st opened fire on them, causing casualties. The under-strength 51st was also pushed back, but eventually held as the German offensive ebbed and flowed. The remains of the division survived the Spring battles and received replacements in time for Haig's Allied offensives of August 1918 onward, which saw the war coming to an end on 11 November 1918.

Battle of the Scarpe. Capture of the Greenland Hill by the 51st Division. Daylight patrol of the 1/6th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders working forward towards Hausa and Delbar Woods. North-east of Roeux, 29 August 1918. Troops firing into a dug-out in a deserted German trench to dislodge any remaining Germans.

Second World War

France 1940

Major-General Victor Fortune took command of the division in 1937. In common with the rest of the British Army at the time, training and equipment had been insufficient in the years after World War 1. In 1938, after Chamberlain's visit to Munich, the decision had been taken to double the size of the Territorial Army, and the Highland Division had made good progress with this recruitment by the spring of 1939.

The issue of equipment and the associated training remained a problem. For example: two years of regular army infantry training was compressed into 3 months; some mortar units had no experience with live ammunition until they got to the firing ranges in France; Bren gun carrier crews only received their equipment in the summer of 1939, leaving little time for training in operating and tactics.

With the situation regarding Nazi Germany deteriorating and the threat of war on the rise, the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was mobilised on 24 August 1939. In preparation for joining the BEF in France, the division travelled from Scotland to Aldershot, where it received final equipping and training. All units had arrived at Aldershot by 16 September 1939. The men were required to wear the standard British Army battledress of the day. The War Office had decided that kilts were not suited to modern mechanised warfare and did not provide protection in the event of a gas attack. Thus the men were required to hand in their kilts before embarking for France.

In mid-January 1940 the Division departed from Southampton and disembarked at the French port of Le Havre. On 28 January it came under command of I Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under Lieutenant-General Michael Barker. His command also included the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions, both Regular Army formations.

In February and March the 51st Division underwent a major reorganisation as per policies of the BEF. Some of the division's units were replaced by Regular Army formations. This was done with the intention of strengthening inexperienced Territorial divisions. The 23rd Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, a Regular Army unit, replaced the 76th (Highland) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, as one example of the changes made. The 76th (Highland) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery was transferred to the 3rd Infantry Division. On 22 April 1940 the 51st Division was detached from the rest of the BEF to come under command of the French Third Army. The division was stationed in front of the Ouvrage Hackenberg fortress of the Maginot Line.

With the German invasion of France and the low countries on 10 May 1940 the BEF advanced into Belgium to meet the advancing German forces. Stationed to the south in front of the Maginot Line, the 51st Division was not a part of the force involved in Belgium, and was thus not involved in the Dunkirk evacuation. In response to the German advance it was pulled back to form a defensive line along the Somme, where it was attached to the French Tenth Army. With the withdrawal of Allied forces at Dunkirk, the Germans turned their attention to the south.

On 5 June they began their second offensive. The 51st was tasked with holding a line four times longer than that which would normally be expected of a division. Sustained attacks over 5-6 June caused heavy losses, particularly among the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, where the main weight of the German attack fell. The Argylls' losses were the worst they had suffered in their history. The other battalions of the 154th Brigade were enveloped. The remnant of the 154th Brigade was forced to retire to the west.

Meanwhile, the 152nd and 153rd Brigades, along with the French 9th Corps, under Lieutenant General Marcel Ihler, were cut off from the main Allied forces, and had to withdraw toward Le Havre for a possible evacuation by sea. The 154th Brigade was detached to form "Arkforce" and tasked with maintaining an open line of communication with Le Havre. As the force moved back toward the coast German forces reached the coast area near Saint-Valery-en-Caux first, cutting off the line of retreat to Le Havre. The French and British force pulled back into Saint Valery-en-Caux.

With steep cliffs overlooking the small harbour, the Germans had a ready line of fire to use against any attempts to withdraw. General Fortune could not hold out much longer, and realized their last chance was to be pulled off in the dark on the night of 11/12 June, but no ships came. (The Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, Admiral William James, had assembled ships for the evacuation but daytime evacuation was impossible and on the final night fog meant that the ships could not communicate and co-ordination would be impossible.)On the morning of 12 June the French forces surrendered, followed 30 minutes later by the British. Major-General Fortune was one of the most senior British officers to be taken prisoner in the war.

After the war was over, General Fortune was knighted by King George VI for his work in promoting the welfare of his men while in captivity: despite failing health, he had resisted repatriation. From the British point of view, the defeat of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was the end of the Allied resistance during the Battle of France.

More than 10,000 members of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division were taken prisoner at St Valery. They were marched to Germany, via Belgium, following the route over which the Germans had advanced against them. The officers were separated from the men, for most of whom the initial destination was Stalag XX-A at Toruń, about 120 miles (190 km) northwest of Warsaw. Some were loaded into canal barges for part of their journey, but all eventually travelled by train in cattle wagons. There were some notable escapes, mostly in the early stages of the march. Of the 290 British Army POW escapers who had returned to Britain by the end of June 1941, 134 were members of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division.

As other camps were brought into operation, a large proportion of the POWs were transferred - most to Stalag XX-B at Malbork and Stalag 344 at Lambinowice, but with small numbers in many other camps.

Early in 1945, the Russian Army had advanced close to these camps, so the POWs were involved in the Long March. Some groups from Stalag XX-A marched around 450 miles (720 km) in the depths of winter to Stalag XIB/357 at Bad Fallingbostel on the Lüneburg Heath, north of Hanover. Others had similar journeys in severe winter conditions, affected by shortages of food and shelter, with many suffering from dysentery and frostbite.


In August 1940, the 9th (Highland) Infantry Division (the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division's 2nd Line Territorial Army duplicate, which it had helped form) was re-designated as the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division. As part of this, the 26th and 27th Infantry Brigades were re-designated the 152nd and 153rd Infantry Brigade. The 28th Infantry Brigade was merged with the severely understrength 154th Infantry Brigade.

The first general officer commanding (GOC) of the new incarnation of the division was Major-General Alan Cunningham, who, in October 1940, was sent to the Middle East. He was replaced by Major-General Neil Ritchie. Almost two years of home defence and training duties followed on the south coast of England and northeast coast of Scotland against a potential German invasion, which never arrived.

In June 1941, Major-General Ritchie was sent to the Middle East and Major-General Douglas Wimberley, who had served with the original 51st (Highland) Division during the First World War and more recently commanded the 152nd Brigade, assumed command. With the arrival of Wimberley as GOC, strenuous training for future operations overseas began. By June 1942, the division was ordered to prepare for service overseas.

North Africa

Arriving in North Africa in August 1942, the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division experienced its first fighting at the Second Battle of El Alamein (October-November), sustaining some 2,000 casualties. It then played a major part in Operation Lightfoot, where it was in the centre of the Northern Push, between the 9th Australian Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division. It faced the German 21st Panzer Division and some Italian units. Initially unsuccessful during Lightfoot, the minefields it cleared were key in achieving a breakout during Operation Supercharge.

Subsequently, the division was involved in many battles of the Tunisian Campaign, including the battle of Wadi Akarit, in early April 1943, and took part in the frontal assault on strongpoints guarded by deep minefields, where it was on the far right of the line. The Commanding Officer (CO) of the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Lieutenant Colonel Lorne MacLaine Campbell, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership during the battle. The war in North Africa ended on 13 May 1943 with the surrender of almost 250,000 Axis soldiers as prisoners of war (POWs). Throughout the fighting in North Africa the division served under the command of the British Eighth Army, under General Bernard Montgomery.

Later the 51st Division had a rest to absorb replacements for the heavy losses, in both manpower and materiel, suffered in North Africa and began training in amphibious warfare. In July, the division took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, suffering comparatively light casualties in the short campaign, which lasted for 38 days. Towards the end of the campaign in early August, the division was withdrawn from combat and held in reserve for the Allied invasion of Italy. Although the 51st Division as a whole did not take part in the invasion, some of the division's artillery helped support Operation Baytown, the Eighth Army's crossing of the Strait of Messina in Sicily to the Italian "toe" at Reggio Calabria.

The division was then recalled from the Eighth Army and returned to the United Kingdom, on the wishes of the Army's old commander, General Montgomery, together with the veteran 7th Armoured and 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Divisions, to prepare for the opening of the Second Front in June 1944. Montgomery commented on the 51st "Of the many fine divisions that served under me in the Second World War, none were finer than the Highland Division" and later "It was the only infantry division in the armies of the British Empire that accompanied me during the whole of the long march from Alamein to Berlin."

When a group of recuperating wounded soldiers of the 51st returned from their North African hospital to rejoin the division in Sicily, they were instead split up and ordered to various units and formations, mainly the British 46th Infantry Division which had suffered heavy casualties during the Salerno landings, totally unrelated to the 51st Division or its component regiments. Some soldiers of the division regarded this as administrative high-handedness and refused to follow these orders, and the result was the Salerno Mutiny. The mutineers were distributed to various units regardless, while ringleaders were sentenced to death (the sentences were later commuted and finally quashed).

Normandy and North West Europe

Most of the 51st landed in Normandy as part of Operation Overlord on 7 June 1944, a day after D-Day, as part of British I Corps, under Lieutenant-General John Crocker. After spending a brief period supporting the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, it was sent across the River Orne, and spent two months supporting the 6th Airborne Division in its bridgehead. During this period it fought many difficult actions at places such as Breville (11-12 June) and Colombelles (11 July).

The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division's performance in Normandy was, overall, considered disappointing, particularly by General Montgomery, now the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the Allied land forces in Normandy, who stated in a telegram to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS, the professional head of the British Army), that the division "had failed every mission it was given". This led to the replacement of its GOC, Major-General Charles Bullen-Smith; his dismissal is not mentioned in the Divisional Official History nor formation accounts.[40] His successor was Major-General Tom Rennie, who had served with the division in France, North Africa and Sicily before being elevated to command of the British 3rd Infantry Division for the Normandy invasion.

On 1 August 1944 the division, along with the rest of British I Corps, became part of the newly activated Canadian First Army. The division fought alongside this army in Operation Totalize, before advancing to Lisieux. It then continued east over the River Seine and headed, on General Montgomery's orders for Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, the scene of the division's surrender in June 1940. The division's massed pipes and drums played in the streets of the town, and a parade included veterans of the 1940 campaign in France who were with the 51st Division in 1944.[44]

A similar event occurred at Dieppe when it was liberated by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. Leaving Saint Valéry, the 51st Division was engaged in Operation Astonia, the battle for the French port of Le Havre, in September 1944.

After the successful capture of the town of Le Havre, the division went on to take part in Operation Pheasant in October 1944, finally passing into reserve and garrisoning the Meuse River during the Battle of the Bulge, now as part of XXX Corps, under Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks. It was not involved in heavy fighting during the early stages of the battle and was deployed as a stopgap in case the Germans broke through.

Men of the 2nd Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders and Churchill tanks in the Reichswald forest, Germany, 10 February 1945.

In January 1945, the division, along with the rest of XXX Corps, helped to cut off the northern tip of the German salient, linking up with the U.S. 84th Infantry Division at Nisramont on 14 January.Following this, the division was involved in Operation Veritable, the clearing of the Rhineland. In late March the 51st took part in Operation Turnscrew within the framework of Operation Plunder, the crossing of the River Rhine, near the town of Rees, where the GOC, Major General Tom Rennie, was killed by enemy mortar fire. He was replaced by Major General Gordon MacMillan, a very highly experienced and competent commander who had previously been the GOC of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division.

The division advanced through Germany and ended the war in the Bremerhaven area of Northern Germany. During the North-West Europe campaign the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division had suffered a total of 19,524 battle casualties

More specific details about our local history to be added in the future.

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