Dunkirk – a name familiar to many, not least thanks to Christopher Nolan’s 2018 film. What is less known is the fate of the 51st Highland Division. Left behind to help the French Army fight on as German forces pushed into France, they weren’t able to get to a position to be picked up by a British ship. On 12 June 1940, 10,000 men of the division were captured at St Valery-en-Caux. This week we mark the 80th anniversary of the surrender.
Our Poem of the Moment is one written by Jack (John) Low. Born in 1919, Jack, a member of the 51st Highland Division, was imprisoned after the Division’s surrender; he remained a POW until the war ended. While a prisoner, he wrote ‘The Poem without a Title’, which you can read on the website.
Below, Jack’s son, John, writes about his father and the 80th anniversary of the surrender.
I have my dad’s story recorded. We gave him a cassette player and tapes in his latter years and after he had put my mum to bed, he was her carer, he recorded his story for his grandchildren Jack and Conall. He was a great talker and story teller.
Dad was always known as Jack. He was born on a farm in NE Fife and became a farm worker when he left school aged 14, eventually working with horse and plough until he was called up in late 1939.
He had never traveled more than 25 miles from home in his life till he did his training at Cameron Barracks in Inverness. He was in 2nd Company, 4th Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders. Once training was complete the Regiment was sent to France in early 1940, en route the Troop Train passed through NE Fife where he saw his own father working in the fields, he wasn’t to see him for another four and a half years.
The Regiment settled in near Rouen, which was idyllic, until they were sent to the front in May and then the Germans attacked.
In his recordings he describes the continual retreat down from Belgium through northern France. Fight, retreat, fight, retreat. The Germans had tanks, he never saw British or French tanks and described it as rifles against tanks and being constantly dive bombed by Stukas with their sirens screaming as they plummeted from the sky. He lost many friends on the way, something which he talks about in The Poem Without a Title.
Exhausted and almost out of ammunition but still well disciplined they arrived outside St Valery on the 10th June and held their front. On the morning of the 11th dad said they took some badly wounded men down to the harbour and put them on a small ship which was going to take them to safety but as it sailed out of the harbour it was blown to pieces by shells.
The following day the 51st were forced to surrender as the Germans controlled the heights above either side of the town and the remains of the Division were marched into captivity. Taken on foot initially they were then put on barges and locked in the hold for 3 days. Arriving in Bucholdt a German town they were marched round and round a football stadium with, as my dad described them “big fat Germans and wifies” shouting and spitting at them – it was filmed for propaganda. However in his story he says they didnt let the Germans have the satisfaction of them reacting; they marched as best they could with pride. Then they were put into cattle trucks for days with little food or water and men dying till they reached POW Camp 21D outside Poznan. He was just 21 years old.
It was in the Camp that he wrote the poems. Not being an educated man in the formal sense I believe it was a way for him to express feelings he couldn’t otherwise put into words. He describes life in the camp and especially the comradeship. He said they never stole from each other but became adept at stealing from the Germans, raking in waste bins outside the Germans kitchens for food, stealing from the fields. One day he saw the Jews shuffling along the road and saw those who fell by the wayside being shot, he talked of raids by the Brownshirts ransacking the Camp huts looking for the secret radio they new the men had but they never found it! Despite all this he said they looked after each other and kept up their morale and sent uplifting messages home to try and make sure that their folks didn’t worry too much!
In 1944 dad was repatriated via Sweden as he had been diagnosed with TB. After an initial spell in hospital in the south of England he was sent to Bridge of Earn hospital outside Perth. There he met the love of his life, a Red Cross Nurse, Jen Adams. They were devoted to each other all their days together with dad looking after mum in the last few years as her memory failed and that is when he talked his story to the cassette player and recited his POW Poems. Dad died suddenly in Nov 2003 and mum just four months later.
He never talked to me about the war years and it wasn’t until he passed away that I found his small booklet of POW Camp poetry. The one thing more than anything he left me and my boys with was his saying that in life “always leave things better than you find them because if everyone does that the world will be a far better place”. He was an ordinary man who in our eyes did extra ordinary things. I hope you enjoy his works.
John Low (we aren’t an imaginative family with names).
Jack (John) Low, Ploughman, Soldier (poet), Policeman, Dad and Grandad. Born March 1919 Died Nov 2004