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51st (Highland) Division
Active 1939-1945 World War II
Country United Kingdom
Branch Territorial Army
Type Infantry
Nickname The Highway Decorators
Engagements Battle of France
Battle of El Alamein
Sicily Landings
Normandy Campaign
Battle of the Bulge
Operation Veritable
Operation Plunder
Alan Cunningham
Neil Ritchie
Douglas Wimberley
Thomas Rennie

For the First World War unit, see British 51st (Highland) Division (World War I).

The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was a British Territorial Army division that fought during the Second World War. The division was nicknamed the "Highway Decorators" in reference to the 'HD' insignia which adorned road signs along their axis of advance.




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

France 1940

After three years of training under Maj-Gen Fortune's command, the 51st Infantry Division departed from Southampton and disembarked at Le Havre in mid-January 1940[1]. 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. 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 at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, and surrendered on 12 June.

Subsequently most were prisoners at Stalag XX-A at Toruń until early 1945 when they took place in the 'Long March' marching up to 450 miles in the depths of winter to Stalag XIB/357 at Bad Fallingbostel on the Lüneburg Heath.

A Division Reborn

In August 1940, the British 9th (Highland) Infantry Division, a 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 Brigade. Two years of home defence followed on the south coast of England and north-east coast of Scotland [2].

The Mediterranean

Arriving in North Africa in June 1942, the new 51st Highland Division experienced its first battle at El Alamein (October-November 1942). It then played a major part in Operation Lightfoot, where it was in the center of the Northern Push, between the Australian 9th 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 Argylls, Lt Col Lorne Campbell, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership during the battle. Later, the division took part in the invasion of Sicily and later, the invasion of Italy. It was then recalled from the 8th Army in Italy, on the wishes of the 8th Army's ex-commander, General Bernard Law Montgomery, together with 7th Armoured Division and 50th (Northumbrian) Division, to prepare for the invasion of North-West Europe. Montgomery later commented "Of the many fine divisions that served under me in the Second World War, none were finer than the Highland division."

Salerno Mutiny

When a group of recuperating wounded soldiers of the 51st returned from their North African hospital to rejoin the division in Italy, they were split up instead 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. The mutineers were distributed to various units regardless, while ringleaders were jailed.

Battle of Normandy

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, who stated in a telegram to Field Marshal Brooke that the division "had failed every mission it was given" [3]. This led to the replacement of its Normandy commander, Major-General D.C. Bullen-Smith, with Major-General Thomas Rennie, who had served with the division in France, North Africa and Sicily before being elevated to command of 3rd Infantry Division for the Normandy invasion [4].

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[5] 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 were with the 51st in 1944. A similar event occurred at Dieppe when it was liberated by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division.

After Normandy

Leaving St Valery, 51st Division was engaged in Operation Astonia, the battle for Le Havre. After the successful capture of the town, 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 [6]. 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 [7]

Orders of Battle

51st (Highland) Infantry Division, 1939-1940 [8]

152nd Infantry Brigade

153rd Infantry Brigade

154th Infantry Brigade

Divisional Support Units

  • 1st Lothians & Border Yeomanry
  • 75th (Highland) Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 76th (Highland) Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 77th (Highland) Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 51st (West Highland) Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 236th Field Company, Royal Engineers
  • 237th Field Company, Royal Engineers
  • 238th Field Company, Royal Engineers

51st (Highland) Infantry Division, 1940-1945[9]

152nd Infantry Brigade (formerly 26th Infantry Brigade
  • 2nd Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders
  • 5th Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders
  • 5th Battalion, The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders
153rd Infantry Brigade (formerly 27th Infantry Brigade
  • 5th Battalion, The Black Watch
  • 1st Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders
  • 5/7th Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders
154th Infantry Brigade (formerly 28th Infantry Brigade
  • 1st Battalion, The Black Watch
  • 7th Battalion, The Black Watch
  • 7th Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Divisional Support Units

Commanders [10]

Cultural References


  • "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 Steel, 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 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-WWII edition (Book Thirteen) of "The Scottish Country Dance Book".


  1. ^ Delaforce, p.10
  2. ^ Salmond, pp.19-25
  3. ^ Doherty, p.167
  4. ^ Delaforce, p.145
  5. ^ Doherty, p.184
  6. ^ Delaforce, pp.196-7
  7. ^ Salmond, p.273
  8. ^ url=; Doherty, pp.277-78
  9. ^ url=
  10. ^ See Salmond, The Story of the 51st Highland Division


  • Delaforce, Patrick, Monty's Highlanders: The Story of the 51st Highland Division Pen & Sword, 2007. ISBN 1844155129
  • Doherty, Richard, None Bolder: The History of the 51st Highland Division in the Second World War Spellmount, 2006. ISBN 1862273170
  • Salmond, J.B. The Story of the 51st Highland Division. Wm Blackwood & Sons, 1953. No ISBN.
  • Linklater, Eric The Highland Division. HMSO, 1942. No ISBN.

External links

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