JUNE marks the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk.

But a week after 338,000 Allied soldiers were famously rescued from the besieged city, a lesser-known but just as daring effort was launched to rescue 20,000 men trapped in the tiny seaside village of Veules-les-Roses.

Nine yachts and three fishing boats assembled in Newhaven to bring home 51st Highland Division fleeing a disastrous defeat in Saint-Valery-enCaux.

But the coronavirus pandemic means the courageous operation cannot be commemorated this year. 

TAKE a walk in the small French seaside village of Veules-les-Roses and you might come across Sentier Derek Lang.

The footpath winds atop the commune’s peaceful cliffs. The story behind its name will soon become clear.

But stand in that same spot 80 years ago and the surroundings would be anything but peaceful.

When the evacuation of Dunkirk was completed on June 4 1940, many thought the job of saving British soldiers from capture was complete.

The Argus: Captured British soldiers are marched out of Veules-les-RosesCaptured British soldiers are marched out of Veules-les-Roses

For the 51st Highland Division, the fight had only just begun.

The Scots had been quickly separated from the rest of their British comrades by the lightning Nazi advance south.

So when the invaders turned towards Major-General Victor Fortune’s men on June 5, the division was stretched thin.

Ordered to fight on by Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, the hardy soldiers were soon forced to retreat to Rouen three days later.

But with escape to the port of Le Havre cut off, last-ditch plans were made to bring home the Scots from the village of Saint-Valery-en-Caux on the night of the 11th.

As the division scrambled into the hamlet, a ragtag fleet was scraped together in Newhaven to bring them home.

By the morning of the 11th, the Haven Blue Flotilla of nine yachts and three fishing boats had been assembled, commanded by a Lieutenant Thompson.

One of those taking part in the daring raid was Eastbourne fisherman Ernie “Glaxo” Sayers.

In a letter written to a TV station in 1990 he vividly remembered the operation.

The Argus: The beaches of Veules-les-Roses todayThe beaches of Veules-les-Roses today

“Our small boat, with myself as skipper, and F. Allchorn as engineer, and Mr Prodger also skipper, arrived and found that several friends had already gone across,” he wrote.

“We then had orders to get rations for four days, then got aboard and were dished out with helmets and bandages, and finally we were taken in tow by a tug.”

But when plucky fleet arrived at St-Valery at 2pm, no other craft were there to be found. Searching the coast for two hours for signs of their allies, the flotilla then decided to sail back.

There was a good reason for the confusion.

“While the men of the 51st Division were struggling into St Valery, an armada assembled by Admiral James was doing its best to make the proposed overnight rendezvous,” wrote Alfriston historian June Goodfield in her book on the evacuation, Glory from Defeat.

“When at 5pm the HMS Codrington, received a signal giving the go-ahead for the evacuation, all of James’s ships were still at sea seven miles north-west of St-Valery.

“Most did not even receive the signal, for though the civilian rescue force consisted of 67 merchant ships and 140 smaller boats, only a mere 16 could receive radio messages.”

The Argus: A flotilla to save the Highland Division was assembled in NewhavenA flotilla to save the Highland Division was assembled in Newhaven

Choosing not to give up on the trapped soldiers, at night the Newhaven fleet journeyed again to St-Valery in heavy fog.

By then the town was burning and the beach was under heavy fire, making escape impossible.

So at 1am on June 12, a final plan was hatched to steam towards to the beaches Veules-les-Roses and pick up the Scots there.

When Lt Thompson’s ship Goldfinch arrived at 2.30am, the rescue effort began.

“It was a revelation to see men who had been fighting today without proper food or rest, helping to pull the boat out to the ship,” he later wrote.

But at 8am St-Valery fell to the German Seventh Panzer Divison. Half an hour later they began bombarding the beach and the bloodshed began.

“It was simply murder,” wrote one volunteer. There was a heavy fog, the sea was rough and the Germans were ready for us. It was like sending toys out to fight tanks.”

Captain Derek Lang had reached the beach on the morning on the 12th after an exhausting two-hour hike from the hills around St-Valery.

“The bigger of the two ships was French and was lying some way out from the shore; the other, little more than a fishing boat, bravely flew the red ensign. The decks of both ships were already covered with men, both French and British,” he later wrote.

The Argus: Nazi soldiers and artillery fired from the cliffs of Veules-les-RosesNazi soldiers and artillery fired from the cliffs of Veules-les-Roses

“While were taking in the scene the big guns on the cliffs near St-Valery opened up on the Frenchman. We had a ringside seat at this macabre play, watching in horror as they systematically destroyed the crowded ship.

“Evidently some of the troops had tried to descend the 300ft high cliffs on ropes. Few could have succeeded judging by the smashed bodies lying on the beach while 150ft above we could see the frayed ends of their broken ropes.”

Making a dash for one ship, Captain Lang soon discovered he likely would not make it off the beach.

“The boat was so hopelessly overcrowded that the Captain feared she would not be able to make the crossing even if she could be floated off,” he said.

About 3,200 British and French soldiers were rescued from Veules les Roses that day, 110 by the Newhaven flotilla.

Fisherman Ernie had carried eight wounded Frenchmen to Newhaven in an open motorboat. One of those evacuees, Parisian Louis Marie Diverres, later died of his wounds and was given a military funeral in Eastbourne.

The Argus: A path was named after Derek Lang in 2015A path was named after Derek Lang in 2015

Meanwhile Captain Lang and 6,000 other Highland soldiers were captured and marched up the cliffs to prisoner of war camps.

This would not be his last time in Veules les Roses. After escaping the Tournai prisoner camp in Belgium, he snuck through France and took a Corsican boat to Italy, eventually finding his way to British-controlled Jerusalem.

By the time the Allies were preparing to land in France on D-Day in 1944, Captain Lang was now Lieutenant Colonel Lang.

He was tasked by Field Marshal Montgomery to liberate St-Valery and Veules les Roses, an order he gladly accepted.

In 2015 the route on which he and 6,000 other soldiers had been marched as prisoners was renamed Sentier Derek Lang.

Veules les Roses and the Sussex village of Alfriston are now twinned. As mayor Jean-Claude Claire wrote in the preface to Glory from Defeat: “Come what may, it will always take a mere four hours to cross the Channel.”