51st (Highland) Division in the Second World War

20 April 2022
More details The band of 51st Highland Division plays in the main square in Tripoli during a review by General Montgomery, 28 January 1943. Two Humber Mk III armoured cars can be seen in the foreground
Author Stephen Wynn recounts the wartime activities of the 51st Highland Division during the Second World War.

On 24 August 1939, the Territorial regiments of the 51st Highland Division, having been increased in size in 1938, were mobilized, in readiness for their deployment to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). But before they made their way across the English Channel they underwent some additional training at the military garrison at Aldershot, which had seen a military presence in the town, since it was first established way back in 1854.

The men’s first surprise when they arrived at Aldershot was to learn that they would be going to France without their beloved and somewhat iconic kilts. This decision wasn’t out of any sheer bloody mindedness by senior officers, it was based on the sound knowledge of modern warfare. But to ensure that none of the soldiers were even tempted to wear their kilts once across the English Channel, they had to hand them in on receipt of their newly acquired battledress uniform.   

Ready to embark

With their training complete and fully equipped for the challenges ahead, the men of the 51st embarked at Southampton on a crisp winter’s morning in January 1940, and arrived at the port of Le Harve on the north west coast of France.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Initially they were not put in a front line position, but instead were held in reserve on the outskirts of Lille, where they underwent six weeks of intensive training to bring them up to scratch. It was during this time that some of the Division’s regiments were replaced with full time, Regular Army units, because it was felt that the Territorial divisions needed more experience.

Although the men of the Division, began the Second World War with the reputation of their predecessors from the First World War, this new band of brothers had to prove that they were worthy to the claim of being members of the 51st Highland Division.

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A new band of brothers 

The Second World War version was extremely inexperienced, with nearly every single man being a relatively new recruit, with no more than two or three years military experience, bar a few of the officers who had seen service in the First World War.

In April 1940, elements of the Division became the first British troops to see active service, but under the direct command and orders of the French High Command, specifically, the French Third Army, when they took up defensive positions in the Saar area of Lorraine. 

Little did they know it at the time, but theirs was to be a relatively short lived involvement as part of the BEF, which by March 1940, was in full retreat from the fast moving German forces, who had steamrollered their way through the Low Countries, and were now in the process of chasing French, Belgium and British forces back towards the English Channel.

The Dunkirk evacuations, which took place between 26 May and 4 June 1940, were by any stretch of the imagination, a major success, but sadly for the men of the 51st Highland Division, they were not amongst those who were evacuated. Instead they remained behind to continue the fight in a defensive line alongside their French counterparts, along the River Somme, in an action which greatly assisted in ensuring that such large numbers of Allied soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.

The position of the remaining British and French forces became such that they were left with few options. Stand and fight to the last man against a much larger enemy force, surrender or try to make good their escape by making for the port of Le Harve. They chose the latter, but they were beaten to the coast by the Germans, who by arriving near to Saint-Valery-en-Caux, prevented the British and French from reaching Le Harve.

On 12 June, having exhausted all their options, which included their ammunition, and with any hope of being evacuated by sea dashed, due to a combination of German forces and inclement weather, the British and French forces, reluctantly surrendered. Major-General Victor Fortune and his 10,000 men of the 51st Highland Division, were marched off into captivity.

Officers and men were separated and sent to different camps. Fortune earned the respect of his men by continuing to work to improve their conditions as POW’s, throughout their war time incarceration, even after he was offered the chance to be repatriated after having suffered a stroke in 1944. 

On returning to England after having been liberated in April 1945, Fortune was Knighted at Buckingham Palace by King George Vl, for his efforts in looking after the welfare of his men during their time as POWs.

Rising from the ashes

But this was not the end of the 51st (Highland) Division. Like a phoenix it rose from the ashes after the 9th (Highland) Division was re-designated as the 51st(Highland) Division in August 1940, with its first General Officer Commanding was Major-General Alan Cunnigham.

Between August 1942 and May 1943, the Division saw action in North Africa, where it saw action against Rommel’s Africa Corps, initially in the Battle of Alam Halfa in September 1942.

In April 1943, the division was involved in the Battle of Wadi Akarit. Between June and November 1943, during the invasion of Sicily (Operation Huskey), the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders landed on the beaches at Pachino in the early hours of 10 July. Thankfully the landings went largely unopposed, in a campaign which lasted for just 38 days, resulting in very few Allied casualties. As for the invasion of Italy which followed in early September 1943, the 51st (Highland) Division took no part, apart from providing artillery support, and instead were held in reserve.

The Salerno Mutiny

On 16 September 1943, a number of men from the 51st (Highland) Division were involved in what became known as the Salerno Mutiny.

About 1,500 men sailed from the Libyan capital of Tripoli as replacements and reinforcements for the Allied invasion of Italy. This included a number of troops from the 51st (Highland) Division who had been wounded whilst fighting in the North Africa campaign, and were, as they were led to believe, on their way to re-joining their respective units in the 51st (Highland) Division, who they had been fighting with prior to having been wounded.

In essence on finding out that instead of being re-united with their comrades in the 51st, who at the time were based in Sicily and due to return home to the UK to prepare for the Allied invasion of German occupied Europe, that they were to become part of the 46th and 56th Infantry Divisions who were part of the United States Army, they refused orders to join their assigned units.

Initially this involved 300 men, of whom 108 eventually decided to follow orders, which left 192 who did not. They were all charged with the military offence of mutiny under the Army Act, the largest number of men accused of the offence in one event in British military history.

After a court-martial in October 1943, in French Algeria, all 192 men were found guilty, with three sergeants being sentenced to death. All of the sentences were subsequently commuted and finally quashed, but the convictions still stand to this day.

 A final irony was that the mutineers were then sent to the very units that they had refused to join, which had led to their mutiny in the first place.

Troops of the 51st Highland Division were involved in the D-Day landings at Normandy, coming ashore on 7 June 1944, followed by supporting the 3rdCanadian Infantry Division as well as the 6th Airborne Division, and taking part in the fighting at both Breville and Colombelles in June and July 1944. 

August 1944 saw the 51st (Highland) Division involved in Operation Totalise, which saw them fighting alongside men of the Canadian First Army in an Allied offensive aimed at breaking through German defensive positions just south of Caen. The operation ended on 10 August, with the 51st (Highland) Division having secured all of its objectives.

The next target for the men of the 51st saw them advance east over the River Seine and head towards the town of Saint-Valery-en-Caux, where 10,000 of the divisions men had been forced to surrender in June 1940. The 51st still comprised a number of veterans of the 1940 campaign, and they were given pride of place as the men marched in to the recaptured town.

There was no respite for the men of the 51st as the Division continued their war time involvement.

Operation Astonia – 10 to 12 September 1944

The Allied attack on the port of Le Harve. The intention being to capture it in tact so that it could be used by the Allies to deliver much needed supplies for their war effort in Europe. The German 11,000 strong force at Le Harve surrendered on 12 September.

Despite an offer by the German commander at Le Harve to allow the French civilian population to be evacuated, this was turned down by the Allied High Command, and in the subsequent bombardment of the city and its port, some 2,000 French civilians perished, whilst only 19 German soldiers were killed.

Operation Pheasant – 20 October to 4 November 1944

This was an operation in the Netherland province of North Brabant to defeat German forces who occupied the area. This included units of the 51st capturing the town of Schijndel on 23 October, before going on to liberate the Herzogenbusch concentration camp.

Operation Colin also known as the Battle of Maas, began on 23 October 1944, with the 51st (Highland) Division beginning their involvement the following day.

Operation Ascot – 14 to 18 November 1944, was a plan to drive German forces back across the River Maas, and then keep pushing them all the way up to the city of Venlo in southeast of the Netherlands. This action included elements of the 51st (Highland) Division.

Operation Noah – on 2 December 1944, German forces blew the Lek dyke in Holland, which flooded the immediate area resulting in the 5th Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlander’s, to evacuate their position as the subsequent flood waters reached approximately 3 feet in depth. Once the waters had subsided, the Highlanders returned.

Operation Veritable  - 8 February to 11 March 1945. This was also known as the Battle of Reichswald, and its intention to flush out the remaining pockets of German forces from the ground between the parallel the Maas and Rhine rivers. By the end of the operation, almost half of the 90,000 German forces had become casualties.

Operation Plunder – 23 March 1945. This was a night time operation to cross over the River Rhine, at three locations, Rees, Wesel, and south of the River Lippe. Rees was where men of the 51st (Highland) Division made their crossing. 

At 9pm on 23 March, men of the 7th Battalion, Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) crossed the Rhine near Rees, followed by their comrades of the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. On 24 March, Major-General Tom Rennie, commanding officer of the 51st (Highland) Division, was killed by German mortar fire.

Victory in Europe

With just a month to go until the end of the war, the men of the 51st found themselves in the Enschede region of Holland trying to locate the final pockets of German forces that were still in the area. By now most of the German forces knew that the war was coming to end and they were going to be the losers, but despite this, some of them still wanted to fight on to the bitter end rather than surrender themselves to an uncertain future.

As for the men of the 51st (Highland) Division, they had more than done their bit for King and country, and had lived up to the standards set for them by their forebears who had also served with courage, bravery and dignity during the years of the First World War.

Read Stephen Wynn’s account of the 51st (Highland) Division in World War I here

About the author

Stephen’s first book, Two Sons in a Warzone, was published in 2010, and told the story of his son’s first tours of Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. His younger son served with 2 Para, whilst the other was with 42 Commando, Royal Marines, one of them was injured and the other was shot. It is an emotional story which also includes Stephen’s account of what he went through as a parent of having son’s away fighting in a war, whilst wrestling with the dilemma of having the natural protective instincts of being a father, and not being able to do anything to protect them. Putting his personal thoughts down on paper left him with the writing bug.

At the end of March 2022, his latest book St Nazaire Raid - 1942 is due out. It will be his 56th book that he has had published.

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