A Point man has been brought face to face with part of his family history as the 80th anniversary approaches of the battle at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, in France, on 12 June 1940.
Next Friday (12 June) the ‘forgotten army’ of Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, including many Lewismen, are being commemorated with socially-distanced events including a tribute by over 200 pipers from 16 countries.
Saint-Valéry-en-Caux is near Dieppe on the French coast north of Le Havre and was almost totally destroyed in the battle between French and Scottish forces, and invading Nazi forces commanded by Erwin Rommel, later leader of the Afrika Corps.
The 80th anniversary has particular resonance for Donald M M Macleod of Aird, who now stays in Stornoway. He was born in 1946 and named after his uncle, Malcolm ‘Clicks’ Mackenzie, who died as a prisoner-of-war exactly two years before his own birth. His uncle was one of thousands taken prisoner after the battle.
Donald had only family anecdotes and a few historic documents to complete his story but for a recent contact from a Polish primary school teacher. Donald saw an enquiry on the Point Facebook noticeboard from historical researcher Magaidh Smith of Kinloch. She had written an account of the experiences of Lewis men at St Valéry which led Sylwia Kaszuba, a teacher of English in a primary school in Miłoradz, Poland, to contact her.
The Nazi Stalag XX2A and XXB work camps were in Sylwia’s home town of Malbork (formerly Marienburg in East Prussia) and she set her students a history topic, researching 15 Britons who were part of the life of their village in 1944.
Sylwia said: “A few years ago a local man told me that during the war some British soldiers lived in Miłoradz. It seemed very interesting to me. I decided to find out how was it possible and we as a group managed to prove that during the WW2 in our small village Miłoradz (Mielenz) there was a work party of British soldiers.
“A lot of British prisoners-of-war were Scots from the 51st Highland Division captured at St Valéry in 1940. There were about 15 PoWs working in Miłoradz on farms and at the bakers. PoWs were polite, helpful and very young men. I think it is very sad that so many young British soldiers were captive in Stalag XXB.”
Among this group, Malcolm Mackenzie was a mature soldier, physically tough and someone who must have seemed a father-figure to some.
Donald said: “On 11 September 1944 Malcolm was shot dead by a German guard. A friend and fellow prisoner of war visited Malcolm’s mother following repatriation and recalled the events of that fateful day.
“It seems they were part of a group of prisoners engaged in felling timber under the supervision of German guards. The guards were harassing a young English solder who was not fit to work due to a bad leg injury. Malcolm stepped in to remonstrate and was shot on the spot.”
The same former PoW later wrote of Malcolm Mackenzie in the Stornoway Gazette: “He was the life and soul of the camp, always popular and willing to help. There were many young soldiers in the camp and Mackenzie always set them a good example. In the early days in France when these lads were first under fire, Mackenzie’s courage and coolness was an inspiration to them.”
Other comrades said of him: “His love of justice cost him his life.”
A letter of sympathy to the family dated 14 September 1944 was received from Company Sergeant Major James Fulton, who served with Malcolm for more than 20 years. CSM Fulton writes: “I know it will be a comfort to your heart and mind that your son was buried in full accordance with customs of the Christian church. Rev N Maclean officiated at the funeral, wreaths were provided and borne to the graveside by friends.”.
Rev Norman Maclean was camp chaplain and he also wrote to Malcolm’s mother, confirming he officiated at Malcolm’s funeral and saying: “Comrades played the Last Post and Reveille, flowers were laid, and his coffin was draped with his own flag.”
On 26 January 1945 Malcolm’s mother received formal confirmation of his death from the War Office. In April 1946 the War Office confirmed that he was buried in Marienwerden Cemetery. Subsequent correspondence in April 1949 showed that he was reinterred in Malbork Military Cemetery.
Donald said: “It struck me how hard this must have been for his mother and the family. It took a long time before they heard officially that he had died and then just a few years later it was all resurrected for them with the confirmation of his reinterment.”
It was at Malbork war cemetery that Sylwia had found Malcolm’s gravestone, inscribed in Gaelic with the words ‘Gus am bris an la agus na teich na sgailean’ (Until the day breaks and the shadows flee).
Donald has sent Sylwia a photograph of Malcolm, to be placed as a tribute against the headstone and complete the journey which began when the career soldier left Aird in 1939 to fight in the Second World War.
Donald said: “It is fitting, as we approach the 80th anniversary of St Valéry, that we are able to recall this story and others, and remember the sacrifice these brave young men made and the suffering they endured on the march to Poland and during five years of captivity.
“There is so little mention of St Valéry in war histories, compared to Dunkirk, and it’s good that more people now appreciate their sacrifice”.
“The people in Poland have been so interested in my uncle’s story and I am very grateful to Sylwia for what she has done, and for what Magaidh has done researching the stories.”
Sylwia said: “Nothing is left of Stalag XXB – the last brick buildings were demolished in 2008. Today there is a memorial, and many POWs lie at the Commonwealth Cemetery in Malbork.
“I try to tell as many people as possible about the Stalag and British soldiers but as I'm not a historian I do it in a bit different way. I tell the story of individual soldiers, guards or workers. It is much more valuable in my opinion and captures the imagination.
“Last year in June with a group of my friends we managed to put a memorial in Miłoradz. It is dedicated to British PoWs who worked in Miłoradz and those who died during the Long March 1945. We also started a Hall of Memory here.
“Thanks to the internet, I met Maggie Smith and thanks to Maggie and Donald I have put the puzzles together. I think now I know the sad story of Malcolm ‘Clicks’ Mackenzie. He was a brave and a strong man who could survive the death march but was shot in September 1944.
“The day before he died, Malcolm wrote in a letter to his family ‘We are all looking forward to the day when we regain our freedom and with God's help we will return home.’ I have visited his grave. Please tell the locals from your area that we haven't forgotten about your brave soldiers who came to the Continent and were in captivity in Malbork.”
- At 10am on Friday 12 June, pipers from all over the world will play the tune Heroes of St Valery by Pipe Major Donald MacLean of 5 Balantrushal, who also served with the Seaforth Highlanders and was taken prisoner at St Valery. Among those pipers will be Larry Ferguson, who will play at Kinloch War Memorial and pipers from the Nicolson Institute, who will play at the clock tower at the school. Lord Lieutenant of the Western Isles Donald Martin will attend a memorial at Tarbert War Memorial in the afternoon.
- Malcolm’s story and others from Stalag XXB can be read on Sylwia’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Forgotten-Heroes-commando-of-Stalag-XX-B-in-MielenzMi%C5%82oradz-324799508295736/
- The pictures show: Malcolm Mackenzie in the 1930s as an army boxer and with a PoW work-gang felling trees at Miłoradz in 1944 (Malcolm is on the left). Also shown is Malcolm’s Commonwealth War Grave at Malbork, the memorial placed by Sylwia and her friends near to the site of Stalag XXB and the hall of memory which she has created using materials researched by her school students. Donald M M Macleod is pictured with the portrait of his uncle.