'We were like a married couple but without the sex', says veteran

ASK Peter Black if 70 years on whether it matters that we remember the surrender of the 51st Highland Division at St Valery-en-Caux and he gives a very clear answer.

"Definitely," the 90-year old veteran declared.

"If you read books or watch films, they tell you the last man out of France left Dunkirk, but there were a lot of us out there."

Last night, Peter was due to be among the surviving St Valery veterans who were guests at a special reception held at Inverness Town House before city Provost Jimmy Gray travels to the Normandy town to mark the actual 70th anniversary there.

It was on 12th June, 1940 that the outgunned and surrounded remnants of the 51st Highland Division, numbering at least 8000 men, were forced to surrender to German forces under the command of Erwin Rommel, soon to become Germany's most famous general as "the Desert Fox".

It was the start of an enduring relationship between St Valery and the Highlands. Four years later Montgomery's new 51st Highland Division was given the honour of liberating St Valery after D-Day and it was later to become one of Inverness's three twin towns.

As the battle recedes into the past, Lochardil resident Peter is finding that he is more willing to speak about St Valery.

"There was an element that you felt disgrace because you had been taken prisoner," Peter admitted.

"I used to go to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day and people would be there with their chestful of medals and I'd be there with my two or three. The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) and the people who fought in Norway didn't get any medals. We didn't even get the Defence Medal because you had to serve six months in this country, but we never served that long."

An apprentice blacksmith in his native village of Glencarse near Perth, Peter joined the Territorial Army in 1938, a fortnight after his 18th birthday.

"The reason I joined was for the money," he admitted.

"You were paid a 5 bounty and that was enough to buy you a suit and have a good bit over. I wanted to join the Black Watch, but my father wouldn't hear of it. He said: 'There's an RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) battalion up there. You can join them instead.'"

Mobilised following the German invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939, Peter and the rest of the 51st Division were ordered to France the following January.

At first the posting was relatively peaceful, but in May 1940 the Nazis launched their attack, driving through neutral Belgium and The Netherlands to avoid the French defences on the Maginot Line.

As the Allies were forced back by the German blitzkrieg, Peter's convoy was ambushed and he was wounded by shrapnel, making him a priority for evacuation when he reached St Valery, a small harbour town nestling between great chalk cliffs.

"We went down to the beaches and I could have got away because there was a boat, but I wanted to wait for my mates," Peter revealed.

Peter and his comrades on the beach could hear the German tanks at the top of the cliffs, but eventually had to climb back up.

"When I got up to the top, I had the fright of my life," he admitted.

"There were probably only 30 or so, but it seemed like there were hundreds of German tanks waiting for us.

"When we went to France I had visions of getting killed or losing a leg, but becoming a prisoner never entered my mind. We would have much rather been out in North Africa or somewhere other than being in a prison camp."

Some troops did try to escape incarceration, including one who cut a length of tubing from his gas respirator to create a primitive snorkel and started swimming.

"He didn't get very far," Peter said. "It was 60 plus miles to Britain."

The surrender took place just over a week after the last troops had been evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk not that Peter was aware of this at the time.

"We knew nothing about the evacuation of Dunkirk or at least I didn't but I always remember that just before St Valery, two chaps cleared off on a motorbike," he said.

"The sergeant-major said to put them on a charge as soon as they came back, but of course we never saw them again. I think they must have known what was going on."

Because of his wounds, Peter spent almost two months in hospital in France, avoiding the forced march his able-bodied comrades had to endure. Walking 20 miles a day on a diet of a slice of bread and watery soup, other St Valery survivors would report seeing stragglers beaten or even shot as they trudged into five years of captivity.

Peter's recollections of his captors was more positive.

"Some of the Germans were very good, though some were pigs," he said.

"When they saw you were wounded they would make room for you in the truck, so I never walked at all."

Peter's experience of captivity was so imprinted on his mind that years later he would think back to his hut while lying in bed and name all its occupants.

"When you were in the PoW camp you used to have a mucker, a mate, you would pal up with," he recalled.

"We were like a married couple but without the sex!

"He would get a letter from home and I would read it and I would get a letter and he would read that. In five years, I can't remember us having a cross word."

Conditions improved when Peter was put to work on a farm, but he was later sent to a factory in Poland.

"The Yanks used to bomb us regularly and the guards just used to open the gates and let us run," he said.

Though there were air raid shelters, prisoners were banned from using them, though it was possible to get round this by keeping your back to the wall to hide the "KG" letters sewn on the back of their overalls which identified them as prisoners-of-war.

"I'd rather have been out in the woods," Peter revealed.

"When you were sitting there you could hear the bombs coming closer but you couldn't do anything about it.

"The factory was near Auschwitz and we had a lot of Jews with us.

"When we were evacuated they were in front of us and were lying dead all over the place."

Marching west to avoid the advancing Red Army, Peter's group eventually arrived at Bayreuth in Bavaria where the prisoners were put to work at the heavily bombed railway.

"We were there during a bombing raid and they tried to put us under this railway bridge that had been bricked off at both ends, but my mate said: 'I'm not going in there.' So we went off and found somewhere else to hide," Peter said.

"When we came back after the all clear, the bridge had taken two direct hits.

"It's funny. Death didn't bother you. Now I wouldn't touch a dead body, but then you just got on with things."

When the Americans starting advancing rapidly towards them, the prisoners were ordered to head back to the east. Eventually they were liberated by the American army on the 24th April 1945 close to the Czech border.

Peter returned to Scotland, but took some time to readjust to civilian life.

"After five years never speaking to a woman, I didn't know how to deal with them," he admitted.

"If there was a woman serving in a shop, I would turn round and walk back out again."

Three days after he returned home, the war came to an end and Peter, as the only serviceman in the village at the time, was persuaded to go along to the village's VE Day party, only to be dragged onto the middle of the dance floor while everyone else circled round him and sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow".

"I don't think I have ever felt worse in my life," Peter admitted.

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