Signals' Return to St. Valery
1-3 September 44
This account is taken from "The Story of the 51st Highland Division Signals - June 1944 to July 1945"
The Preface to this little booklet published in September 1945 is as follows.
This little book has been written at Syke, from which HO have already gone home the first released soldiers of Highland Divisional Signals, under the Age and Service Demobilization Scheme. It is an attempt to set down for those of us who served in it, the movements, and some of the work of the Unit, from its landing on the Beaches of Normandy to its arrival at the Elbe.
If it is told mostly from the viewpoint of the Companies at Divisional HO, it is because to tell of every Sections' movements would be beyond the scope of the book. If it does not mention the work of many types of tradesmen, it is because, although perhaps not spectacularly employed, they have been there working all the time and making by their work the entity of Highland Divisional Signals whose story this is.
All unknown to the Division back ,at his HO at T ac 21 Army Group, the Commander in Chief, General Montgomery, in the full flood tide of the Seine crossing had found time to write to the Commander of the Canadian Army, General Crerar, that all Scotland would be grateful if the Highland Division should capture St. Valery.
On 1 September, 152 Bde supported by tanks of E.R. Yeo. and preceded by 2nd Derby Yeo, was directed on St. Valery. They crossed the Seine in the early morning by the bridge built by the Canadians at Elboeof and by noon followed by Tac HO had passed through Rouen, where the only difficulty to progress encountered, was the demonstrations of joy of the people at their liberation. .
General Rennie halted his Tac HO at Pissy Poville, about seven miles through Rouen for the night. He was often heard to say afterwards that the place was chosen by him "for the name only". It was certainly a poor HO, consisting mainly of an "auld water meedie". It was into this that the Main HO came in the middle of that dark night in torrents of rain, to hear from a wet and tired duty officer that St. Valery-en-Caux was in the hands of (the Division after 4 ½ years. The General, his Staff and most of Tac Signals were by this time anywhere but in that wet field trying to find shelter.
On the morning of 2nd September, Divisional HO moved to the Chateaux, about two miles outside the town, which had been the last HO of the old Division, and the Bdes by Brigade Groups went into the same areas in which the Brigades of the original Division had fought their last battle in 1940.
During the remainder of 2nd September, visits were made to the town, and, in particular, to the military cemetery, where each grave of the Eccossais Inconnu was scarlet with geraniums in full bloom, in vivid contrast to the whiteness of the wooden cross. The large number of German soldiers graves bore witness to the tremendous struggle which had been waged for the possession of this little French fishing town on the hill. Standing in the shade of the Cyprus hedge that warm Autumn afternoon looking over the graves so well tended by the villagers, the thoughts of one who had served for many years with the original Highland Divisional Signals and who had had the honour to be with its successor in all its battles was of those of his friends, So many in number, who fought their last battle at this place or who left from here on that long arch into captivity and subsequent years as prisoners, and of strange twist of fate that brought the Division back again as victors.
3rd September, was declared. St. Valery day, which will ever bring memories of General Rennie meeting some of his Staff in the Town Square by accident that morning and describing to them the scene, at which (as at that time he was GSO II to General Fortune) he had been an unwilling participant. He told of how Rommel watched the Division march past its commander in the very same square into captivity, while from the heights round the town the splutter of German machine guns could be heard firing on the jocks on the beaches; and his own successful dash from the marching prisoners, about which he was so quiet. Happier memories were later on that day of Retreat played by the Massed Pipes and Drums of the Division in the grounds of the Chateaux near Divisional HO, and the attendance of the Anciens Combattants de Guerre from the town, some in uniform which must have seen 1875 with their rival band which had its triumph at the end of the Retreat, which when two little girls in their Confirmation dresses presented a bouquet of red roses to General Rennie, and the Mayor thanked him in the name of St. Valery, amid rather a solemn silence was seen to gather itself together and then play La Marseillaise and God Save The King. More memories carne back of General Rennie's speech when he said, "That Highland Division was Scotland's pride and its loss, and with it the magnificent men drawn from practically every town, village, and croft, in Scotland was a great blow. But this Division, then the 9th Highland Division, took its place and became the new 51st Highland Division. It has been our task to avenge the fate of our less fortunate comrades and that we have nearly accomplished. We have played a major part in both the great decisive battles of this war - the Battle of Egypt, and the Battle of France and have also borne our share of the skirmishes and those costly periods of defensive fighting which made these great victories possible. We have lived up to the Great Traditions of the Fifty-First and of Scotland."
One remembers, too, the Signals Tea Tent, with its carefully planned tea for special guests, and its invasion by "les civiles" who thought it was all part of the afternoon's entertainment; and the toast given that night in many messes of "Absent Friends" and knowing that some would never be seen again, and that there was a long way ahead to where those others were prisoners.