War Diary


4th Seaforth officers, POW Camp Oflag VII, Laufen, Germany, 1941, sent by PGM via Croix-Rouge and Switzerland, addressed to CQMS Jack Matheson, c/o Dr Duncan Macrae, Kyle of Lochalsh, Ross-shire, Scotland

Standing, l-r:  Allan Wallace; 'Tosh' Mackintosh QM; ?; Rev Cecil Lake; Ramsay Bisset;  ?; George Cameron (Tain);  Cargill;  Shand;  Hector Gascoigne.
Seated l-r:  Paddy Heffernan;  Rory Tarbat (later Lord Cromartie); R A A S Macrae, Adjutant; Patrick Munro of Foulis.


Group of POW officers, Oflag VII C Germany, July/August 1941, from a postcard sent by PGM to Lady Munro of Foulis, Foulis Castle, Evanton, Ross-shire, Scotland, dated 13 August 1941.

Back row, l-r:  Capt. J. M Bingham, Black Watch; Lord Elphinstone, Black Watch;  Major Cluny Macpherson, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; Major Victor Campbell, Cameron Highlanders; Captain Hector Gascoigne, Seaforth Highlanders; Capt. Patrick Munro of Foulis, Seaforth Highlanders.
Front row, l-r:  Capt. I Campbell (later Duke of Argyll), Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders;  Major W Murray, Cameron Highlanders;  Capt. G Koch de Gorrynde.

War Diary of Captain Patrick Munro of Foulis

Page 13

We reached our destination safely and Companies were allotted areas, and we were told that we should probably be here for 12 hours - this was at 6 pm.  The men had a meal and, having issued orders to the platoon commanders, I went to Battalion HQ to try to "get in the picture" if anyone knew the "picture" by now!

The CO was away at Brigade so I hung about for an hour or so and met Norman Innes (QM 2nd Bn.) on the main road to Dieppe, which ran close by, and had a crack with him. Eventually, Shaw arrived back at 9 pm and said we were to move immediately to Arques la Bataille on the main road and about ten miles east of Dieppe.  The CO had a hurried Company Commanders' conference and our positions were pointed out to us by the light of one flickering electric torch on our extremely inaccurate maps.  I returned straight away to the Company, put Alan Shearer in charge, gave him his orders and set off in my truck for Arques la Bataille to do a recce.  I managed to find the place in the darkness and made my plan and dispositions.  As I was walking back along the road down which my Company was coming, Victor Fortune, our Divisional Commander, drove up in his car.  He had a word with me and then told his chauffeur to stop the car by the side of the road where I hope he managed to catch a few minutes' sleep as he looked completely exhausted.

I walked on down the road and met the Company.  I led them through the village of Arques la Bataille to the area I had been allotted.  It was just getting light as we arrived and I was able to explain the situation and issue orders straight away.  My HQ was established in a house at the end of the village and the Company was holding a line running parallel with a railway and a river, both running about 300 yards in front of the platoon positions.  These afforded good, natural, anti-tank obstacles but that was all one could say for an otherwise absurd position.  My Company, of  60 or 70 men, was holding approximately two miles of front.  This cases no aspersions on my senior officers as the Division's task was to hold some 24 miles of front!

My first job was to get in touch with a platoon of 4th Camerons on my left, as I was left hand Company of the Battalion.  This was accomplished successfully.  However, an apparently insoluble problem now arose.  The ground we were occupying was low and inclined to be marshy with the river Bethune running along our front.  The platoons found that on digging down to a depth of two feet, they struck water.  Therefore in most of the posts, when occupied, the men had to stand up to their knees in water!

The village was still occupied but at 11 am (9th June) the Mayor issued a very belated evacuation order.  I was immediately besieged by weeping women and children, all saying what were they to do, where were they to go, etc?  Two of the move level headed householders gave me all the keys to their houses and said I was to use anything I liked and, if I felt inclined, to destroy everything in the house before I left so as the Bosch wouldn't get it.  All the villagers then departed.  I immediately moved my HQ into one of the houses at the west end of the village and having stripped the garden of all the vegetables - there were some very young and very delectable green peas amongst them - I set the Jocks on to digging a deep shelter into which I could move my HQ in the event of shelling or air bombing;  this was to prove a godsend later in the day.

About 1 o'clock, to my utter astonishment, suddenly Ron Mackintosh Walker came into my HQ.  I had no idea he was even in France and hadn't seen him for about four years when he was with 2nd Bn. at Dover for a short spell.  He had apparently taken over command of 4th Camerons from Jack Cawdor who, unable to stand the racket and strain, had gone home.  He had come to see me about his right hand Company, which was on my left flank, and said that the officer commanding this Company, a Major Murray, would shortly be coming to see me, to 'liaise' with me over a possible withdrawal that night.  The name Murray convened nothing to me and I thought he would probably be a Territorial I did not know.  However, to my further astonishment, about an hour later who should suddenly walk in but Willie Murray.  The last Murray I expected to see as I thought he was still living comfortably in his house in Inverness!  He was in great form, we exchanged news and I was delighted to see him.  Having made arrangements for the withdrawal that night, he left.  Little did I think then that we should live in the same Mess, in the same room, in the same prison camp for over a year!

Later that afternoon some more reinforcements were sent up to me.  They consisted of two officers and about 40 ORs, includijg a new CSM as I had now lost two, Anderson having been wounded and evactated at Mozenville, and his successor, whose name I can't recollect, who was killed on 4 June.  This new one was an Englishman and didn't impress me much.  The two officers were Ramsay Bisset, a tall, very fair, well built chap about 6ft 2" or 3", from Edinburgh;  and Douglas Young who was small and dark and who, I discovered later, was a varsity cricket blue and quite a celebrity in this line.  The ORs were a mixture of old reservists and pretty hard cases at that, and very young militia men;  both classes seemed to be more or less untrained.  I spent most of the afternoon sorting out the platoons and forming new sections and allotting them to the few NCOs I had left.

Except for one incident which I will deal with later on, the day was fairly quiet.  About 3 pm I walked through the village to see Hec.  He had established himself in a large house in the middle of Argues la Battaile, the back yard of which weas full of livestock of various sorts - hens, pigeons, rabbits etc - and he gave me a present of two dozen eggs! After tea, all being quiet, we went over and explored a house, the owners of which had left their keys with him and told him to take what he wanted.  It must have belonged to a very prosperous, retired businessman and was a most lovely house.  At the back was a delightful garden with a stream running through it.  They had only had time to snatch up a few personal belongings before leaving, otherwise the house was untouched.  It was full of beautiful furniture, pictures, miniatures and tapestries.  We took the owner at his word and I helped myself to a pair of his wonderful silk pyjamas and some underclothes as I had nothing except what I stood up in, having lost my truck and all my belongings.

I got back to my HQ to find that Forsyth had cooked my supper.  Having eaten it, I then went round the posts and returned to my HQ.  That night I was thankful to get a few hours' sleep and was woken shortly after midnight by the blowing of the bridges across the Bethune river which ran parallel to our front.  It was a tremendous explosion - they can't have made any mistake about destroying the bridges - as it broke several of the windows of my house although the bridges were a mile and more away!

Before dawn I took Ramsay Bisset and his platoon to relieve Willie Murray's Company. It was very dark but we completed the relief without incident.  As the daylight grew stronger, I began to see that it was a ridiculous position and, if attacked, quite untenable for a Company let alone a platoon.  It was a large area of flat and marshy ground with no cover whatever and well overlooked by wooded slopes from the enemy's direction. There was a gap of at least two miles on the right flank of this platoon whilst their left flank was in the air now that the Camerons had withdrawn!  I spoke to Shaw about it as soon as I got back but he said nothing could be done about it.

That day, 10 June, turned out to be a glorious one and the morning seemed to be very quiet, but we knew that the Germans were following up quickly, so fireworks were expected before the day was very old.  In the morning I helped Lammond, who had his A/T platoon on the main road to Dieppe which passed outside my HQ.  Having sited his guns, we made a road block out of old motor cars which we pinched from a deserted garage.

The remainder of the day was uneventful except for one Company, and I think it best to quote an extract out of the Adjutant's official diary:

"1300 hrs. 'D' Company reported that the enemy were attacking and trying to cross the Bethune river by the destroyed bridge.  Captain Pelham-Burn (OC 'D' Company) reported that his forward post at the bridge had been driven back.  It was also reported that German lorries were debussing troops the other side of the Bethune at a crossroads.  This information was passed back to the Royal Horse Gunners who immediately concentrated fire on the crossroads.  However, enemy troops managed to cross the river and establish a post in an old factory near the railway.

"The Germans were making good use of their mortars on 'A' and 'D' Companies.

"It was reported by Captain P-B that the enemy were trying to repair the bridge.  One section of carriers was sent forward under Sgt. Ross to 'D' Company.  Sgt. Ross attacked the enemy at the bridge with his carrier but was caught at nearly point blank range by an enemy A/T gun which destroyed the carrier.  Sgt. Ross was blown clean out.  He was brought back, badly wounded by tommygun bullets in the chest.  He was still alive when he left the RAP for the ADS.  Sgt. Ross did a very gallant and courageous bit of work.

"'D' Coy. was now withdrawn some 70 yards into line with 'B' Coy. in order to allow the artillery to shell the bridge area.

"The RHA shelled the bridge and scored a direct hit on the ruin, which blew it to pieces. They also shelled the wood on 'A' Company's front while the Mortar Pl. shelled the factory post and drove the enemy out of it.

"'A' Coy. was heavily shelled and was engaging the enemy to their front with fire.

"Liaison with 5th Gordons on our right, who were not being directly attacked, gave us MG fire right across our front.

"1400 hrs. Bn. HQ was heavily shelled, causing several casualties.  The transport hide also received some of this shelling and three COMS were wounded and one Lance Corporal killed while three other MT staff were badly wounded.  The momentum of the attack was wearing off by 1600 hours and all the enemy had been drawn off."

Meanwhile, I was in my HQ from 11 am onwards hearing all this going on on my right and wondering what it was all about and expecting to be attacked at any minute. However, it wasn't until 6 that evening that I even saw any of the enemy.  There was a lot of them and all were running as hard as they could out of their positions, back up the hill into the woods.  I cannot understand why they only made one attack on our lines and that in not very great numbers.  At 6.15 pm I received a message from Bn. HQ to the effect that the Battalion would hold on at all costs till 11 pm and then withdraw to a pre- arranged RV about two miles further back.

Spontaneous firing was still going on, so, still expecting an attack, I sent my new CSM on his first real job and told him to reconnoitre our route back to the RV.  He came back later saying he knew it with his eyes shut and I felt satisfied.

At 7 pm we were subjected to a good deal of shelling, several landing all round us and splinters flying about all over the place.  I was extremely glad I had dug slit trenches the day before as the house that my HQ had been in was partially demolished by three direct hits.

At 11 pm I withdrew the platoons to my HQ.  We set off in pitch darkness up an exceedingly steep hill, though thick fir woods, led by the CSM who was supposed to know the way.  After half a mile I could see that he was hopelessly lost and so I took over from him.  It was now pouring with rain, pitch dark, and the woods through which we were going were being shelled by the Germans.  This was inclined to panic some of the younger men of the draft that had arrived the day before and I had some trouble trying to control them and stop them from wandering.  By some miracle no one was hit.  The ones who were inclined to panic soon quietened down.  It was not surprising that they were "jumpy" as some were straight out from home.

I led the Company on up the hill through the wood which was intersected by paths going in every possible direction which made things even more confusing.  It was hard work for the men as they were carrying everything - weapons, ammunition, picks, shovels, cooking stoves, grenade boxes, a large amount of reserve SAA, as well as their packs and greatcoats.  

I was now going entirely by compass, by guess and by God!  Soon we came to a clearing in the wood and found ourselves in front of an enormous chateau.  Here things were further complicated by finding ourselves in a maze of outbuildings, gardens and courtyards.  However, we managed to find our way out of this maze and, after a quarter of an hour spent in scrambling across hedges and ditches, we found ourselves on a road and soon met R A A S Macrae who came to meet us in a carrier.  Soon we met the Battalion transport which was lined up waiting for us.  I got my men on to every available space I could find and still had many left over.  They had to get on somewhere, somehow, or be left behind to be picked up by the Germans.  Eventually, by some amazing feat they all got on - I shall never understand how - and the convoy started off. Soon we reached a main road and, when first light came about 3.30 am, I saw what was causing us to move only at snail's pace.  An enormous column had developed, consisting of hundreds of vehicles of all kinds, moving nose to tail, consisting of the whole Division and masses of panicking French troops.

Soon we reached a small town whose name I have forgotten.  No words can describe the traffic chaos here.  Each vehicle had to get on as best it could and find its own way out of the town, and the convoy was split up.  After backing and turning and manoeuvring, I managed to get my truck clear of the town and found myself immediately behind Duncan Macrae and his ambulance.  I signalled for him to stop, which he did, and we consulted our map and checked our route.  Just as we started off again we were joined by two more trucks, one of which was an ammunition truck belonging to an A/T battery with an officer driving it, and the other a 15 cwt. with eight of his men on board. Duncan had the only map we owned between us so he led in his truck, followed by me, then the ambulance, then two A/T trucks.

Half an hour's driving brought us to the village which we had been given as an RV.  I jumped out of the truck and thought it odd that no one else appeared to be there before us.  As I was walking forward to consult with Duncan, I was met by a hail of lead from all directions, at very close range, and simultaneously an anti-tank gun started pumping shells into the vehicles.  Something was very wrong here, surely?

All our trucks, nose to tail now and halted, were naturally facing the wrong way for getting back out of the village.  There seemed to be no possible turning place in the narrow village street.  Somehow the ambulance did manage to turn and went flat out down the road only to find its way partially blocked by the A/T ammunition truck which had been hit and was blazing to the sky and going off like a fireworks display in a most alarming way.  However, the ambulance managed to barge its way past and Duncan picked out the driver, who was very severely burnt and wounded, and threw him into the back of his ambulance.  [RCHS note:  was it for this action that Duncan Macrae received the Military Cross??]

Meanwhile, the second A/T truck had got hopelessly stuck and was abandoned by its occupants.  Whilst changing over from their truck to mine, two of them were killed instantly about a yard from me, and one of the occupants of my truck had been hit, but they got him on board alright.  I was, meanwhile, trying to disentangle the congestion and direct turning operations.  The ambulance had gone on.  The A/T truck was on fire and written off, the A/T officer's truck was hopelessly bogged and stuck.  This left only mine and Duncan't truck which in some miraculous way the drivers had managed to get turned.  Having done this, they put their feet down on the accelerators as hard as they could, thinking I suppose that I was on board - which I wasn't - and, to my horror, I found myself stranded in the middle of the road with Germans not more than 150 yards away, taking shots at me out of the windows of the houses in the village.  It was only a matter of time before I would be hit by something, and I must now catch that rear truck, and the only hope in hell I had of doing this was to run for it - and then only a very faint hope!  It was no good shouting to them to slow down as there was a devil of a noise going on, what with the roar of the roar of the engines and two trucks blazing, and the Germans firing at us.

So I ran.  My God, how I ran up that road!  All I could think of at the time was how amazingly lucky we were to have driven into an ambush which was apparently manned by the worst shots in Hitler's army!  It seemed that if they could hit a haystack, they should have got us all.

Luck was with me that day alright.  As I ran I saw the trucks would have to slow down to get past the blazing ammunition truck.  I just made the rear one as he was accelerating after passing the burning truck and was hauled on by the collar of my jacket by the troops sitting on the back, and was held there, more off than on, with my legs trailing along the road!

We stopped as soon as we were out of range to allow Duncan Macrae to dress the burns of the A/T ammunition truck driver who was terribly badly burnt all over and, although conscious then and suffering agonies, I doubt if he lived long.

After some difficulty and asking numerous people, we found Divisional HQ and reported what had happened, and they were more than a little surprised to hear that the enemy were only a mile or so away.  There seemed to be tremendous activity going on, people coming and going, and everyone looking very harassed, including three Naval officers who, I suppose, had come up from St Valery.

I left Divisional HQ and went on to Bn. HQ which I found at a place called Yelon.  Here they seemed surprised to see us, as they had guessed what had happened and thought they had probably seen the last of us!  I felt a little indignant at having followed the route given to me very accurately and arrived at my correct destination only to find it occupied by Germans!  However, the explanation was that the RV had suddenly been changed as the situation was changing so rapidly, and the message with the change of RV in it had not reached the part of the column that I was in!

By now it seemed pretty clear that the Germans had almost encircled us and were drawing closer the whole time.

I collected my Company and was allocated a new subaltern, Douglas Young, who had turned up with some reinforcements.  We reached our positions which were in an orchard surrounded by large grass fields and small woods.  Again we dug.  The morning and afternoon were comparatively quiet and there was nothing to report.

However, as evening drew on .......... ends. 

Postscript

The Highland Division was blissfully unaware that, by mid-afternoon of that day, General Rommel's Panzers had indeed encircled them and cut off their escape westwards to Le Havre.

Behind the scenes a last ditch attempt to evacuate the Division was being planned around the small channel port of St Valery-en-Caux.  Those Battalions (4th Seaforths, 5th Gordons, 1st Black Watch) which had been heavily engaged on the river Bethune had been allocated the nearer, eastern, perimeter to hold, whilst the 2nd Seaforths, 1st Gordons and 4th Camerons were ordered to the west of the town;  the remnants of the French Corps to which they were attached held the southern approaches.

The confused convergence on St Valery that morning (11th June) meant that the 4th Seaforths did not actually take up their positions around Yelon until 11.30 am.

By the afternoon, Rommel had covered the remaining six miles to St Valery, punching a hole in the weak western defences.  His tanks, sitting on the cliffs, were then able to train their guns on the beaches and harbour of the town and, by evening, they had broken through to the east as well.

Early on 12th June, orders reached Shaw-Mackenzie, CO of 4th Seaforths, to abandon positions and withdraw into St Valery, which the Battalion successfully achieved by 5.00 am.

By now the Division's fate was well and truly sealed, but a few lucky troops (1,300 British and 900 French), by chance in the chaos finding themselves in the right place at the right time, were taken off the beach at Veules les Roses, some five kilometres to the east of the town, despite the presence of the German guns. 

Totally surrounded, General Fortune still hoped to hold out until nightfall and for possible evacuation of his Division by the Royal Navy.  With this in mind, he ordered his troops to secure the woods on the heights on both sides of St Valery.  4th Seaforths were concentrated to the south-east of the town and Major Shaw-Mackenzie, told to secure the woods on the opposite hillside, had just dispatched the first wave of his men when word reached him that the French Corps Commander, General Ihler, under whose command the 51st Division was, had given the order to surrender at 8.00 am.

General Fortune, however, was determined to fight on, but a heavy German bombardment of the town commenced and, reluctantly, he realised at a few minutes past 10.00 am that he had no alternative other than to obey orders.  Thus started virtually five years as Prisoners of War for more than 10,000 men of the 51st Highland Division. 

Biography 

On return to civilian life Patrick Munro of Foulis took over control of all the farms on Foulis Estate and died in 1995 at the age of 83.

During captivity, Hugh Forsyth was forced to work in mines in Poland but in post-war years had a successful career as an electrician.  He died in August 2007 at the age of 92.

Hector Gascoigne worked for the Forestry Commission in Wales and Aberdeen.

Duncan Macrae became a much-loved and respected GP in Dingwall and died in 2007 at the age of 92.  For his war service he was awarded the Military Cross but when asked by the late Dr William Bruce how he had earned it, Dr Macrae replied, with typical modesty, "Och, I could make a better brew (of tea) than the rest of the boys."


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