Eighty years on, remembering the Lochaber POWs of St Valery

Captain (Rev’d) Kenneth Grant, RC chaplain to the 4th Battalion, Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, and his brother, Driver Angus Grant. NO F14 POWs great uncles
Captain (Rev’d) Kenneth Grant, RC chaplain to the 4th Battalion, Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, and his brother, Driver Angus Grant. NO F14 POWs great uncles

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This article is an updated version of one which first appeared in the February/March 2020 edition of ‘The Braes’ magazine.

By Kenny Grant

The towns of Laufen in Upper Bavaria and Malbork in the Danzig Peninsula of Poland have little in common, separated as they are by a road journey of 1,200 kilometres.

But in July 1940, the two locations had in common their place in a network of prisoner-of-war camps established by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

There was also a family connection between the towns. Two of my
uncles, Captain (Reverend) Kenneth Grant, RC chaplain to the 4th Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and his brother, driver Angus Grant, in the same battalion, had been among the 10,000 soldiers of the 51st Highland Division captured by German forces, under the command of General Erwin Rommel, at St Valery-en-Caux, Normandy, on June 12 1940.

After an arduous journey across Europe, Uncle Angus arrived at Stalag XXB in Malbork, which was known at the time as Marienburg, following the German occupation of Poland in 1939. Uncle Kenny’s journey took him to Oflag VIIC in Laufen.

Today, the contrast between the towns extends to the fate of the POW establishments. Nothing remains of the wooden hutted camp of Stalag XXB, but a commemorative monument was erected in 2009.

Oflag VIIC was housed in the former residence of the cardinal archbishop of Salzburg, originally built in the 15th century. It remains largely intact
and today houses private apartments in addition to several medical and dental practices.

The 80th anniversary of St Valery takes place in June this year. To mark the occasion, the Highlanders Museum at Fort George, Invernes, and West Highland Museum, still hope to mount exhibitions commemorating the experiences of the St Valery POWs, from their capture in 1940 until their liberation in April and May 1945.

NO F14 POW camp gates
NO F14 POW camp gates

At the time of writing, it is not possible to say when these will take place, on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I have a reasonable, though far from complete, idea of the POW experiences of my two uncles. In common with many families with their roots in Lochaber and beyond, I learned of the extraordinary exploits of the three Ballachulish soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders – Ginger Wilson, Willie Kemp and Sandy MacDonald.

However, despite extensive research in the archives, including those at Fort George, little evidence emerged of other Lochaber POWs from St Valery, who normally served as infantry in the Camerons or in the specialist corps, including the artillery, signals, transport and supply.

This situation prompted me to search for the missing information by writing articles for ‘The Braes and ‘Lochaber Life’ publications which, in turn, prompted a helpful response from several individuals.

I thank all of them for their assistance. Reading my Uncle Kenny’s letters again also bore fruit because in several of them he mentions the names of fellow Lochaber POWs including Tommy MacKenzie, Angie MacLennan, Willie Andrew Fraser and a Fort William man by the name of Aitchison.

If anyone reading this article can provide with more information about these POWs, I would be delighted to hear from you.

While the vast majority of those taken prisoner at St Valery are no longer with us, I would be interested in meeting family members with memories of the stories recounted to them by St Valery POWs.

My Uncle Kenny died before I was old enough to ask him about the war. Fortunately our family has, in addition to his letters, photographs and other  items such as his POW identity tags.

These have provided an intriguing insight into his life as a POW. If anyone reading this article is a family member of a former St Valery POW and has any of the memorabilia described, I would be grateful if you would consider letting me see it for research purposes.

In common with many war veterans, POWs were reluctant to say much about their experiences, but those who did have left us with much on which we should ponder.

I would therefore welcome the opportunity to meet those of a younger generation who were family members or friends of POWs or knew them through business or local organisations.

Both my uncles came home in 1945 and are shown together in the photograph. Angus, having spent all of his years of captivity in Stalag XXB, survived the infamous Death March of January -March 1945, during one of the most extreme winters of the war.

Thousands of Allied prisoners were force marched by their captors away from Poland and eastern Germany in the face of the inexorable Russian advance.

To this day, we remain uncertain about the true number of those who died on the march. Kenny ended up where he felt his true place was – among the non-commissioned soldiers in Stalag 383, Hohenfels, Bavaria.

It was there he met up again with a Cameron Highlander comrade, Company Sergeant Major James Savage, the Beekeeper of Stalag 383, but that is a story for another time.

*If anyone can help Kenny with his appeal for information, please contact the Lochaber Times (fort@obantimes.co.uk) and we will forward it on to him.

 

CAPTION: Captain (Reverend) Kenneth Grant, RC chaplain to the 4th Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and his brother, Driver Angus Grant.

NO F14 POWs great uncles

NO F14 POW camp gates