Pipers in Captivity

The Battle of St. Valery-en-Caux

June 4 to 12, 1940

Contributed by Piper Ryan Bradley

In 1939 when it became apparent that Hitler would invade France at the beginning of WWII, Britain was poorly equipped to go to war. It was decided that a British army would assist the French despite its lack of preparation. Part of this army became the 51st Highlanders, made up of four famous Scottish regiments: The Black Watch, The Seaforth Highlanders, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and The Argylle and Sutherland Highlanders.

The 51st Highland Division arrived in France in January 1940 and faced the onslaught of the better equipped German army when the Nazis invaded on May 13, 1940. The British and French armies were quickly pushed to the western coast of France. There the famous rescue at Dunkirk began where the British Navy, along with the help of many French and British civilians, evacuated the British and French troops across the English Channel to safety. These troops would fight again during the war.

Accompanied by a French Division, the 51st Highland Division was sent to fight a rearguard action ensuring the safe retreat of the British and French forces at Dunkirk. The 51st Highlanders found themselves face to face with Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division. Their retreat was cut off, and they were forced to the coastal town of St. Valery-en-Caux where they hoped they would be rescued just like the troops at Dunkirk. The rescue never came. Greatly outnumbered and relentlessly bombarded by Rommel’s artillery and tanks, the 51st Highland Division surrendered on June 12, 1940. At least 8,000 members of the Division were kept in German prison camps for five years until the end of the war.

A small number of soldiers managed to escape during the capture and still others throughout the Division’s internment. One of these men was a Gaelic speaking Pipe Major named Donald MacLeod who hailed from the Outer Hebrides island of Lewis. Also known as ‘Wee Donald’ because of his diminutive stature, and perhaps owing to that stature, he evaded the Germans and returned to Britatin where he served for the remainder of the war.  He wrote a 3/4 time retreat titled “The Heroes of St. Valery” to honor his fellow soldiers who were killed or captured.

At the end of the war, many soldiers of the 51st Division that had been held prisoner during the war felt betrayed by their country. The British sung the praises of the soldiers that escaped Dunkirk, but no one had ever heard of the soldiers captured at St. Valery. Many of them permanently relocated to North America because of the bad feelings they harbored for the British government who had turn their backs on them in order to save face in the public eye. Today the bravery and tenacity of those soldiers is recognized. A stone monument to those killed and captured now stands in the seaside village of St. Valey-en-Caux.

51st Pipe Band in German POW camp.

About The Author

Ian is an acclaimed writer, producer, and director of documentary films and multimedia events. He is also a competitive bagpiper and has produced large scale multimedia concerts and pipe band recordings. It is his combined passion for film and piping that endow him with a unique and personal perspective for the Pipes of War project.


8 Responses to “Pipers in Captivity”

  1. Al McMullin says:

    I am 99.9% certain the piper you cite as “Donald MacLean” was in fact Donald MacLeod. As part of the “escape” story, MacLeod related that when confronted by German soldiers, he simply spoke Gaelic which the Germans thought was probably a slavic language and let him move on.
    MacLeod was an extremely famous piper as well as composer of many great pipe tunes. I hope you will correct the name.
    Thank you.

    • Dear Al McMullin,

      I appreciate your bringing this potential error to my attention. I strive to provide as accurate a history as possible. I accepted this account from a contributing piper and had not checked every detail as thoroughly I should have. I will confirm your findings and make the proper corrections.

      Thank you for your time, interest, and help. Further, if you would like to contribute to our humble blog, I extend the invitation.

      Best Regards,

      Ian Williams

  2. * Correction made to the original text.
    Special thanks to Al McMullin for bringing to our attention the discrepancy in the name of the Pipe Major and we extend our apologies for posting the error. We strive to provide an accurate history and appreciate Mr. McMullin’s assistance.
    For a short biography of Pipe Major Donald MacLeod see: http://www.footstompin.com/artists/pipe_major_donald_macleod

  3. Mick Stewart says:

    Dear Ian, just a quick email to let you know that we have formed the Second World War (1939-45) Memorial Pipe Band in Houston, Texas. Our website covers most info on the band, but you can contact me for more info if you would like. We wish to field (by 2013) 5 pipers and 2-3 drummers in WWII British Battledress, Royal Stewart kilts (modeled on 1st KOSB, 3rd Division) and glengarry’s. Our objective is to honor the service and sacrifice of the Greatest Generation. Regards, Mick Stewart, Pipe Sergeant (www.kosb.us)

  4. Man, the noise from those straight pipes must have been deafening. What a He-Man craft!

  5. Hi
    The piper major who escaped was P/M Donald MacLeod of Lewis, but the piper major who composed the tune ‘Heroes of St Valery’ was P/M Donald MacLean of Lewis. Both were in the pipe band of the 2nd battalion of the Seaforths. There is a photograph of the band, posing for a photograph at Aldershot. MacLean was pipe major of the band at that time anad while ‘wee Donald’ escaped, P/M Donald MacLean remained in captivity in Poland. While there he composed the well known tune ‘Major David Manson at Clachantrushal’.

    Pipe Major Donald MacLeod is renowned for being a prolific composer of both light music and pibroch as well as a renowned tutor.

    Are you able to correct the name of the composer of the tune ‘Heroes of St Valery’?


  6. Louise M Gamble says:

    This is a photo of the pipe band taught and organised by by my father Lt J Hector Ross,
    4th Seaforth Highlanders, (Pipe Major) at Eichstatt (?) POW camp. The pipes were obtained via the Red Cross and my father had numerous newspaper articles in the Scottish press (Edinburgh) at the time recounting his work and enthusiasm to maintain morale by encouraging the learning and performance of pipe music. I have many photos, including this one, in his collection. He is pictured at the far right of the front row of pipers. He later became the secretary of the Royal Scottish Pipers Association for many years and a respected judge at many piping competitions and Highland Games.He was captured at St Valery (he never used the word ‘surrendered’!) He was taught by Pipe Major William Ross and as little girls , my sister and I probably met most of the most outstanding pipers of the day who visited our home for tuition and encouragement from our father.

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