51st (Highland) Division

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51st (Highland) Division
British 51st (Highland) Division Insignia.png
Active August 1908 - March 1919
Country  United Kingdom
Branch  British Army
Type Infantry
Size Division
Part of XVII Corps and later XVIII Corps
Nickname "Harper's Duds"
"Ladies from Hell"
Engagements Battle of the Somme (1916)
Battle of Arras (1917)
Battle of Cambrai (1917)
Major-General G.M. Harper

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. 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 stylised '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 G.M. Harper. The division also fought during the Second World War as part of the Territorial Army after the Territorial Force was disbanded in 1920. The division was nicknamed the "Highway Decorators" in reference to the 'HD' insignia that adorned road signs along their axis of advance.

A related formation, the 51st (Scottish) Division, was reformed in the Territorial Army after the Second World War. Beckett 2008 says that Territorial Army units that were in suspended animation were formally reactivated on 1 January 1947, though no personnel were assigned until commanding officers and permanent staff had been appointed in March and April 1947.[1] By December 1947, the formation had become 51st/52nd Scottish Division,[2] but, by March 1950, 52nd Division had been recreated as an independent formation.[3] From December 1955, the division was placed on a lower establishment, for home defence purposes only.[4] On 1 May 1961, the division was merged with Highland District to become 51st Highland Division/District.[5]

First World War[edit]

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. In August 1914, upon mobilization, the division's infantry element had comprised 12 battalions in 3 regimentally-named brigades:- The Gordon Highlanders Brigade, The Seaforths and Camerons Brigade and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Brigade. A crisis on the Western Front in the Autumn of 1914 saw increasing numbers of individual Territorial Force battalions being seconded to Regular Army formations on the Western Front. The first T.F. 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 T.F. 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 a complete English brigade from North Lancashire was the division, now numbered 51st Highland Division, considered numerically complete and was rushed to the Western Front in May 1915 to help stem the latest German onslaught at Ypres. Obviously, the lack of familiarity amongst these newly introduced disparate units hampered division efficiency and the division could only fare moderately in further the actions at Festubert and Givenchy. Indeed, General Sir Douglas Haig, later to command all British forces in France and Belgium, 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 late summer of 1915, the division had yet to satisfy the expectations of those expecting the familiar Highland flair in battle – this was the period of Harper's Duds.

The situation was only resolved when, by January 1916, the 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 not originally in the division. Given the chance to show their mettle in July 1916, 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. The 51st were "Harper's Duds" no longer, now they were, according to the German nickname, "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 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. The neighbouring Portuguese troops bore the brunt of the initial German assault and when they 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.

First World War battles[edit]

Battles the division participated in the First World War included:[6]

First World War order of battle[edit]

The composition of the division during World War I was as follows:[6][7]

152nd (1st Highland) Brigade 
153rd (2nd Highland) Brigade 
  • 1/6th Battalion, Black Watch
  • 1/7th (Fife) Battalion, Black Watch
  • Shetland Companies, Gordon Highlanders
  • 1/4th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders (until February 1915)
  • 1/5th (Buchan and Formartine) Battalion, Gordon Highlanders (until February 1918)
  • 1/7th (Deeside Highland) Battalion, Gordon Highlanders (until October 1918)
154th (3rd Highland) Brigade 

The original brigade comprised the following battalions until April 1915 when some of the battalions moved to the 152nd Brigade:

  • 1/6th (Renfrewshire) Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
  • 1/7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
  • 1/8th (Argyllshire) Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
  • 1/9th (Dunbartonshire) Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Between 18 April 1915 and January 1916, the brigade was replaced by the Territorial Force battalions of the 164th (North Lancashire) Brigade from the 55th (West Lancashire) Division.

After early 1916, the brigade contained the following battalions:

  • 1/4th (Ross Highland) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders
  • 1/4th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders
  • 1/9th (Highlanders) Battalion, Royal Scots
  • 1/7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders


  • I Highland Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (numbered CCLV (I Highland) Brigade on 15 May 1916)
    • 1st Aberdeen Battery
    • 2nd Aberdeen Battery
    • 3rd Aberdeen Battery
    • I Highland Brigade Ammunition Column
  • II Highland Brigade, RFA (numbered CCLVI (II Highland) Brigade on 19 May 1916)
    • Forfarshire Battery
    • Fifeshire Battery
    • Dundee Battery
    • II Highland Brigade Ammunition Column
  • III Highland (Howitzer) Brigade, RFA (numbered CCLVIII (III Highland) Brigade on 17 May 1915)
    • 1st Renfrew (Howitzer) Battery
    • 2nd Renfrew (Howitzer) Battery
    • III Highland (Howitzer) Brigade Ammunition Column
  • Highland (Fifeshire) Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery (until 5 May 1915)
  • I Lowland Brigade RFA (joined 10 November 1915 from Forth Defences; renumbered CCLVII on 15 May 1916, changed to CCLX on 3 June 1916)[8]
    • 1st Edinburgh Battery
    • 2nd Edinburgh Battery
    • Midlothian Battery
    • I Lowland Brigade Ammunition Column

After reorganisation in August 1916:

  • CCLV Brigade, RFA
    • A, B, C, D (H) Batteries
  • CCLVI Brigade, RFA
    • A, B, C, D (H) Batteries


  • 1st Highland Field Company, Royal Engineers (renumbered 400th (1st Highland) Field Company 3 February 1917)
  • 2/2nd Highland Field Company, RE (raised after outbreak of war; renumbered 404th (2/2nd Highland) Field Company 3 February 1917)
  • 3rd Durham Field Company, RE (joined 19 September 1915; transferred to 7th Division 30 January 1916)
  • 2nd Highland Field Company, RE (transferred from 7th Division 31 January 1916; renumbered 401st (2nd Highland) Field Company 3 February 1917)


  • 1/8th Battalion Royal Scots (transferred from 7th Division 19 August 1915)

Second World War[edit]

51st (Highland) Division
51st (Highland) Division.jpg
Formation patch as worn after 1940
Active 1939–1945 World War II
Country  United Kingdom
Branch  British Army
Type Infantry
Nickname The Highway Decorators
Engagements Battle of France
Second Battle of El Alamein
Sicily Landings
Normandy Campaign
Battle of the Bulge
Operation Veritable
Operation Plunder
Victor Fortune
Alan Cunningham
Neil Ritchie
Douglas Wimberley
Tom Rennie

The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was commanded by Major-General Victor Fortune and formed part of the British Expeditionary Force in France at the beginning of World War II. With the capture of two of its brigades in France the division effectively ceased to exist. The 9th (Highland) Infantry Division, the 2nd Line duplicate, was renumbered as the 51st and subsequently served in the North African Campaign. From there it went to Sicily before returning to France as part of the invasion of Northern Europe.

France 1940[edit]

After three years of training under Major-General Fortune's command, the 51st Infantry Division departed from Southampton and disembarked at Le Havre in mid-January 1940.[10] It was stationed in front of the Ouvrage Hackenberg fortress of the Maginot Line and had thus escaped being encircled with the rest of the BEF at Dunkirk. It was then pulled back to a new line roughly along the River Somme, where it was attached to the French Tenth Army. For some time, it was forced to hold a line four times longer than that which would normally be expected of a division. The 51st Division was attacked very heavily over 5–6 June with the major attack initially falling on the 7th Battalion Argylls before the other battalions of the 154th Brigade were enveloped. The Argylls' losses were heavy, the worst day for casualties in their history. Being overwhelmed, 154th Brigade was forced to retire to the west. During this period, the 154th Brigade was detached to form "Arkforce" and was able to escape the German drive into central France and Normandy. However, the 152nd and 153rd brigades were trapped, with French troops under General Ihler, at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, and surrendered on 12 June, along with the Division's commander. General Fortune was one of the most senior British officers taken prisoner in World War II. He was knighted by King George VI after the war.[11] From the British point of view, the defeat of the 51st Division was the end of the Allied resistance during the battle of France.[11]

More than 10,000 members of the 51st (Highland) Division were taken prisoner at St Valery.[12] They were marched to Germany, via Belgium, following the route over which the Germans had advanced against them. Their destination was Stalag XX-A at Toruń,about 120 miles (190 km) north-west 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) Division.[12]

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. Those 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.

On 12 June 2010, Veterans of the 51st (Highland) Division attended a commemorative ceremony for the 70th Anniversary of the battle at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux.[13]

In August 1940, the 9th (Highland) Infantry Division, the 2nd Line Territorial Army duplicate of the 51st Division, was converted into the new 51st Division, with the 26th and 27th Brigades redesignated as 152nd and 153rd brigades, and the 28th being merged with the severely under strength 154th Infantry Brigade. Two years of home defence followed on the south coast of England and north-east coast of Scotland against a potential German invasion.[14][15]

The Mediterranean[edit]

Arriving in North Africa in June 1942, the new 51st (Highland) Infantry Division experienced its first fighting at the Second Battle of El Alamein (October–November 1942). 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 21st Panzer Division and some Italian units. Initially unsuccessful during Lightfoot, the minefields it cleared were key in achieving a breakout during Operation Supercharge. It was involved in the battle at Wadi Akarit, Tunisia 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 battalion commander of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Lieutenant Colonel Lorne MacLaine Campbell, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership during the battle.

Later, the division took part in the invasion of Sicily followed by the invasion of Italy. The 51st was then recalled from the British Eighth Army in Italy, on the wishes of the Army's old commander, General Bernard Law Montgomery, together with the 7th Armoured and 50th Infantry Division, to prepare for the opening of the Western Front. Montgomery later commented "Of the many fine divisions that served under me in the Second World War, none were finer than the Highland Division. 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 Italy, they were instead split up and ordered to various units and formations 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).

Battle of Normandy[edit]

The 51st Division landed in Normandy on 7 June, as part of I Corps. After spending a brief period supporting 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, it was sent across the Orne River, 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). Its performance in Normandy was, overall, considered disappointing, particularly by General Montgomery, 21st Army Group Commander, who stated in a telegram to Field Marshal Alan Brooke that the division "had failed every mission it was given".[16] This led to the replacement of its Normandy commander, Major-General D.C. Bullen-Smith, with Major-General Tom Rennie, who had served with the division in France, North Africa and Sicily before being elevated to command of 3rd British Infantry Division for the Normandy invasion.[17]

On 1 August 1944 the division, along with the rest of I Corps, became part of the newly activated First Canadian 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 Montgomery's order[18] 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 who were with the 51st in 1944. A similar event occurred at Dieppe when it was liberated by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. Leaving Saint Valéry, 51st Division was engaged in Operation Astonia, the battle for Le Havre, September 1944.

After Normandy[edit]

After the successful capture of the town of Le Havre, the division went on to take part in the Battle of the Scheldt in October 1944, finally passing into reserve and garrisoning the Meuse during the Battle of the Bulge, now as part of XXX Corps. 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. 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 US 84th Infantry Division at Nisramont on 14 January.[19] Following this, the division was involved in Operation Veritable, the clearing of the Rhineland and the later Rhine crossings, ending the war in the Bremerhaven area of Northern Germany. During the North-West Europe campaign 51st (Highland) Division had suffered a total of 19,524 battle casualties[20]

51st (Highland) Infantry Division, 1939–1940[edit]

Source:[21] 152nd Infantry Brigade

153rd Infantry Brigade

  • 4th Battalion, Black Watch
  • 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders (Regular Army)
  • 6th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders (to 1940)
  • 5th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders

154th Infantry Brigade

  • 6th Battalion, Black Watch (to 1940)
  • 1st Battalion, Black Watch (Regular Army) (from 1940)
  • 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
  • 8th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Divisional Support Units

51st (Highland) Infantry Division, 1940–1945[edit]

Source:[22] 152nd Infantry Brigade (formerly 26th Infantry Brigade)

  • 2nd Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders
  • 5th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders
  • 5th Battalion, Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders

153rd Infantry Brigade (formerly 27th Infantry Brigade)

  • 5th Battalion, Black Watch
  • 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders
  • 5/7th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders
Memorials in Dutch village of Dinxperlo honouring the 51st Highland Division for liberating it

154th Infantry Brigade (formerly 28th Infantry Brigade)

  • 1st Battalion, Black Watch
  • 7th Battalion, Black Watch
  • 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Divisional Support Units

  • 1/7th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment (Machine Gun Battalion)
  • 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry, Royal Armoured Corps
  • 126th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 127th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 128th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 61st Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 274th Field Company, Royal Engineers
  • 275th Field Company, Royal Engineers
  • 276th Field Company, Royal Engineers


A specific memorial to the division exists at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial site on the Somme, by the sculptor George Henry Paulin.


  • "The 51st (Highland) Division's Farewell to Sicily", a folk song written by Hamish Henderson, a former officer who served in the 51st Division during the Sicilian campaign. It has been recorded by a number of folk singers, including Dick Gaughan.
  • "The Beaches of St. Valery", performed by the Battlefield Band. Written by Davy Steele, it tells the story of the 51st Division's struggle to reach Saint-Valéry-en-Caux in 1940 only to find that no ships had been sent to evacuate them.
  • "The Old Boys", performed by the Scottish group Runrig, who sing in both English and Gaelic. The song which first appeared on the album Recovery (1981) and was reprised on Protera (2003) speaks of the declining numbers of Gaelic speaking members of the 51st who fought at St Valery.
  • "Farewell, 51st, farewell!", a folk song written by Andy Stewart, about scrapping of the 51st Division, but indicates that they will never be forgotten, as the lyrics say "On the glory road of fame, there is honour tae your name. Farewell 51st, Farewell."
  • "The 51st Highland Division", a 4/4 march composed by Pipe Major Donald Mac leod.[23]
  • "The 51st Highland Division Farewell", a 2/4 march composed by Dr. Charles Bannatyne.[24]
  • "The 51st Highland Division at Wadi Akarit", a 2/4 march composed by W. Mac Donald.[25]


  • "The Reel of the 51st Division" was written in the Laufen PoW camp by soldiers captured at St Valery. It was the very first modern Scottish Country Dance published by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. The original tune written in Laufen has been superseded by the traditional reel "The Drunken Piper" and the dance was re-cast from its original form involving a longwise set of ten men to the more usual four couple set. The original ten-man version is still danced in some parts.

The dance was published in the first post-World War II edition (Book Thirteen) of "The Scottish Country Dance Book".


  • Major-General Richard Bannatine-Allason: August 1914-September 1915
  • Major-General George M. Harper: 25. September 1915-10. March 1918
  • Major-General George T.C. Carter-Campbell: 11. March 1918- June 1919
  • Major-General Ewen G. Sinclair-Maclagan: June 1919-June 1923
  • Major-General Sir Archibald B. Ritchie: June 1923-June 1927
  • Major-General Sir William M. Thomson: June 1927-June 1931
  • Major-General Sir James L.G. Burnett of Leys, Bt.: June 1931-June 1935
  • Major-General W. Douglas S. Brownrigg: June 1935-January 1938
  • Maj.Gen. Victor Fortune: January 1938 –12 June 1940 (Captured)
  • Maj.Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham: 7 August 1940 – 7 October 1940
  • Maj.Gen. Sir Neil Ritchie: 7 October 1940 – 11 June 1941
  • Maj.Gen. Douglas Wimberley: 11 June 1941 – 8 August 1943
  • Maj.Gen. Charles David Bullen-Smith: 8 August 1943 – 26 July 1944
  • Maj.Gen. Tom Rennie: 26 July 1944 – 23 March 1945 (Killed in Action)
  • Maj.Gen. Gordon MacMillan: 23 March 1945 – 28 May 1945
  • Maj.Gen. James Cassels: 28 May 1945 – March 1946 [26]
  • Major-General Colin M. Barber: 1946-May 1949
  • Major-General Robert K. Arbuthnott: May 1949-November 1952
  • Major-General James Scott-Elliot: November 1952-March 1956
  • Major-General Edward C. Colville: March 1956-March 1959
  • Major-General Frederick C.C. Graham: March 1959-March 1962

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Beckett 2008, 169.
  2. ^ Graham Watson, The Territorial Army, 1947, v1.0, 10 March 2002, www.orbat.com
  3. ^ Beckett 2008, 178.
  4. ^ Beckett 2008, 180.
  5. ^ Beckett 2008, 183, 185, and regiments.org (archive), Highland, 1905–1995.
  6. ^ a b Becke, pp. 101–7.
  7. ^ 51 Division at Long, Long Trail
  8. ^ Becke, p. 111.
  9. ^ Richard A. Rinaldi, Royal Engineers, World War I at Orbat.com
  10. ^ Delaforce, p.10
  11. ^ a b Heroes of St. Valery
  12. ^ a b Saul David, Churchill's Sacrifice of the Highland Division, France 1940, ISBN 1-85753-378-X
  13. ^ Council supports Saint Valery en Caux Battle commemorations The Highland Council, 11 June 2010
  14. ^ Salmond, pp. 19–25
  15. ^ Gorle, pp. 10–16
  16. ^ Doherty, p.167
  17. ^ Delaforce, p.145
  18. ^ Doherty, p.184
  19. ^ Delaforce, pp. 196–7
  20. ^ Salmond, p.273
  21. ^ url=http://www.ordersofbattle.com/UnitData.aspx?UniX=1443&Tab=Oob; Doherty, pp. 277–78
  22. ^ url=http://www.ordersofbattle.com/UnitData.aspx?UniX=1443&Tab=Oob
  23. ^ Queen's Own Highlanders Caber Feidh collection of bagpipe music (Book 2), Patterson's Publications, London
  24. ^ Logan's Complete Collection of Highland Bagpipe Music, Tutor Number Eight
  25. ^ Queen's Own Highlanders standard settings of bagpipe music, Patterson's Publications, London
  26. ^ See Salmond, The Story of the 51st Highland Division


  • Maj A.F. Becke,History of the Great War: Order of Battle of Divisions, Part 2a: The Territorial Force Mounted Divisions and the 1st-Line Territorial Force Divisions (42–56), London: HM Stationery Office, 1935/Uckfield: Naval & Military Press, 2007, ISBN 1-847347-39-8.
  • Ian F.W. Beckett, 'Territorials: A Century of Service,' First Published April 2008 by DRA Printing of 14 Mary Seacole Road, The Millfields, Plymouth PL1 3JY on behalf of TA 100, ISBN 978-0-9557813-1-5,
  • Bewsher, F. W. (1921). The History of the 51st (Highland) Division 1914–1918 (N & M Press 2001 ed.). London: Blackwood. ISBN 1-84342-108-9. Retrieved 14 September 2014. 
  • Delaforce, Patrick, Monty's Highlanders: The Story of the 51st Highland Division Pen & Sword, 2007. ISBN 1-84415-512-9
  • Doherty, Richard, None Bolder: The History of the 51st Highland Division in the Second World War Spellmount, 2006. ISBN 1-86227-317-0
  • Gorle, Richmond "The Quiet Gunner" Alamein to the Rhine with the Scottish Divisions, Pen and Sword 2011 ISBN 978-1-84884-540-4
  • Linklater, Eric The Highland Division. HMSO, 1942. No ISBN.
  • Salmond, J.B. The Story of the 51st Highland Division. Wm Blackwood & Sons, 1953. No ISBN.

External links[edit]