Down Memory Lane, May 21 2021

The gravesite of the unknown St Valéry soldier, presumed to be Len Scott Keller, at the Franco-British military cemetery in St Valery-en-Caux.
The gravesite of the unknown St Valéry soldier, presumed to be Len Scott Keller, at the Franco-British military cemetery in St Valery-en-Caux.

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Can you help identify fallen St Valéry hero?

As the anniversary of the battle of St Valéry-en-Caux approaches, an international search has been launched to uncover the identity of a fallen hero.

The soldier of the 51st Highland Division evaded capture during the infamous Second World War battle, in which almost 100 men from Kintyre fought, but would later be discovered and now rests in an unnamed grave.

Days after the mass evacuations at Dunkirk, thousands of men from the 51st Highland Division remained on mainland Europe supporting their French allies. As German troops advanced through Normandy, the 51st fought valiantly, protecting French citizens, hoping evacuation by sea would be forthcoming.

On June 12 1940, German tanks surrounded the division at the French fishing port of St Valéry. This, alongside a curtain of heavy fog, made the long-awaited flotilla rescue unviable and they were forced to surrender. Those who were not killed in the fighting were captured as prisoners of war and marched to camps in Eastern Europe, where they remained for five gruelling years.

Following the commemorations to mark the 80th anniversary of the battle last June, a remarkable story has emerged. One brave soldier miraculously evaded capture and was taken in by a French family who hid him from the occupying German forces.

‘We were contacted by Monsieur Patrick Prieur, a 65-year-old St Valéry resident whose grandparents and father remained in the town during the entirety of the war. He told us the story of the escapee and the tragedy that befell him,’ said Dr Claire Armstrong, chief executive of Legion Scotland.

‘As we approach the 81st anniversary of the battle, we hope to identify this Scottish hero, give him the recognition he deserves and bring peace to his family.’

Patrick Prieur recalled the tale his late father told him: ‘A soldier from the 51st Highland Division was hidden by a family in the village. They bonded and the family learned he was a married man with a wife and two daughters waiting for him to return home.

‘For several weeks, the soldier remained hidden but, regretfully, he was eventually discovered by German troops and marched through the town to the municipal cemetery.

‘After being forced to dig his own grave, he was positioned against the cemetery wall and shot. His death deeply upset the townspeople, who had been aware of his hiding, and especially my father, who was only 11 at the time.

‘In later years, the Franco-British military cemetery was built and his body was moved there. His grave is marked as ‘Known unto God’ and my father and other villagers tended to it for decades after the war ended.’

The gravesite of the unknown St Valéry soldier, presumed to be Len Scott Keller, at the Franco-British military cemetery in St Valery-en-Caux.
The gravesite of the unknown St Valéry soldier, presumed to be Len Scott Keller, at the Franco-British military cemetery in St Valery-en-Caux.

Monsieur Prieur added: ‘My father had been gifted a piece of paper on which the soldier’s name was written, ‘Keller Len Scott’, and this became his prized possession. He desperately wanted to find the soldier’s family to tell them what had happened to their beloved and where he was laid to rest, but having very little information, he struggled.

‘In 2014 my father passed away and, being eager to finish what he started, I recently contacted Poppyscotland and the Highland Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Association to ask for help.’

The treasured piece of paper belonging to Monsieur Prieur's father with 'Keller Len Scott, July 1940, 51st Division' written on it.
The treasured piece of paper belonging to Monsieur Prieur’s father with ‘Keller Len Scott, July 1940, 51st Division’ written on it.

Michelle McKearnon, head of engagement at the Highland Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Association, said: ‘We started to do our own research to unearth the fallen soldier’s identity but only got so far. We believe the name order on the piece of paper may have been written in military fashion, with the surname preceding any given names, so the family name might be Keller.

‘We’re now at an impasse, struggling to find additional information through our own resources, so we need the knowledge of the wider community to continue our efforts.’

Dr Armstrong added: ‘We are urging anyone who believes they know of or has any information about our ‘Unknown Soldier’, no matter how small, to get in touch.

‘This brave man fought valiantly for his country and to repay our debt to him for his service would be an honour, not only for Legion Scotland as custodians of remembrance, but for his family, Monsieur Prieur’s father, the people of St Valéry and, ultimately, for all the ‘unknown soldiers’ who sacrificed their lives for us.’

Anyone with information that could help identify the soldier should visit poppyscotland.org.uk/stvalery