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May 2019
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British Army

Portrait of Tom Renouf, 51st Highland Division

 Portrait of Tom Renouf,
51st Highland Division
 
How many people know that the Scots participated in the Allied counter-offensive during the Battle of the Ardennes and liberated a number of villages and towns in our area, including La Roche-en-Ardenne?

Dr Tom RENOUF of the 5th Battalion Black Watch

of the 51st Highland Division

was one of these Scottish liberators.

Born in March 1925 in Musselburgh, 5 miles from Edinburgh in the County of East Lothian [Midlothian !], in 1943, after his studies, Tom decided to join the Army.  He was appointed to the 5th Battalion Black Watch of the 51st Highland Division, a Division created in 1939 and which, from May 1940, was to fight in France, then in ’42 to participate in the North Africa Campaign, notably in El Alamein, to liberate Tunis, and later to recapture Sicily.
 
After extensive military training in Perth, from 06 June ’44 Tom RENOUF was to be involved in the Normandy Campaign as well as in the capture of the ‘Poche de Falaise’.  He was also to take part in the liberation of the Channel ports of St. Valéry and Le Havre, a campaign during which he was to be promoted to Lieutenant but that on 27 August was also to lead to six weeks in the Bayeux field hospital.
 
After his stay in hospital, Tom RENOUF rejoined his battalion and in October ’44 was involved in the Holland Campaign and took part in the liberation of North Brabant and South Limburg.  After which, with his comrades-in-arms, he took a well-deserved rest while preparing for future military operations, in particular the Germany Campaign, while hoping to spend some nice Christmas celebrations with welcoming Dutch families.  But the German High Command was to dash his hopes.
 
In fact, on 16 December ’44 at 05:30 in the morning, in the fog and the cold, the German Army launched a large-scale offensive, so started the Battle of the Ardennes, from Monschau to Echternach.  On 19 December, following a crisis meeting in Verdun convened by General EISENHOWER, Marshal MONTGOMERY, commanding the 21st Army Group, decided to place the 30th British Corps at the disposal of the Supreme Allied Commander.  He also ordered General HORROCKS, commanding the 30th Corps, to proceed towards the Ardennes, to take up a waiting position between Maastricht and Leuven, then to occupy defensive positions along the Rivers Sambre and Meuse in order to protect the bridges and to prevent any crossing of the rivers by the German troops.
 
On 25 December, Christmas Day, the 51st Highland Division that was in reserve received the order to proceed and to occupy a waiting position to the south of Liège.
 
On 03 January ’45, in the cold and snow, the Allied counter-offensive began.  But Tom RENOUF and his comrades were still occupying their waiting position, harassed by the many impacts of V1 rockets.
 
On 07 January, in the icy cold, in a snowstorm and on roads covered in black ice, the 51st Highland Division received the order to proceed towards Marche-en-Famenne.  The objective was to relieve, south of a line from Marche to Hotton, the Welsh units of the 53rd Welsh Division, exhausted by three days of heavy fighting in the forests, in the bitter cold, practically without respite, and having suffered heavy losses.
 
The mission of the Scots was to push back the German troops, to occupy the left bank of the River Ourthe, to progress towards La Roche-en-Ardenne, Champion and Ortho, and to ensure a link-up with American units.  It was finally on 09 January that Tom RENOUF and his comrades of the 5th Battalion Black Watch joined battle and liberated the villages of Hodister and Warizy.
 
On 11 January, preceded by a mine-clearance team, an armoured reconnaissance unit and a tank unit, the Scots of the 1st Battalion Black Watch entered La Roche and liberated the town.  In turn, on the following day, the men of the 5th Battalion entered the town of La Roche, devastated by successive Allied bombardments at the end of December.  Tom RENOUF will never ever forget the town of La Roche with its houses destroyed and the main street obstructed by debris, “worse than some Normandy towns”, he remembers.  On seeing all these ruins Tom RENOUF felt an enormous sadness and thought of the inhabitants and their suffering.  He will never forget.
 
He will never forget the Battle of the Ardennes and especially the icy cold that forced him to his very limits … sometimes with the help of a tot of rum.  He will never forget what today he reckons was “the limit of what was humanly bearable”.
 
Despite the barriers of trees felled by the Germans and the violent rearguard actions, Tom RENOUF and his comrades were to continue their advance to liberate the village of Hubermont.
 
On 16 January, with all their objectives achieved, the British troops left the Ardennes and the combat zone.  For Tom RENOUF the Battle of the Ardennes was over, but the war was to grind inexorably on.  Tom rejoined his camp in the south of Holland for a short rest and above all to prepare for the Germany Campaign.  But he could not forget the nine men of his Battalion killed in combat and the seventy-two injured during the Battle of the Ardennes.
 
With his comrades-in-arms, in February ’45 Tom RENOUF was to take part in the capture of the forests of Reichwald and Goch, and one month later to cross the River Rhine and advance to Bremerhaven to take part in early May in the capture of HIMMLER in Bremervorde.
 
When the war was over, Tom RENOUF remained in Germany for a further 10 months as part of the occupying forces, and he was finally demobilized in June ’46.  On return to his native Scotland, Tom RENOUF enrolled at Edinburgh University and studied physics for four years.  These university studies opened for him the gates of the Physics Department of the Royal Military College of Sciences, training British Army officers.
 
After spending ten years at the Royal Military College, Tom RENOUF was awarded a position of responsibility at the University of Edinburgh, which enabled him, in 1968, to obtain a Doctorate that enabled him to teach physics in a public school until his retirement. But it was not really a question of retirement:  Tom RENOUF decided to look after his comrades-in-arms.  So he became Secretary of the 51st Highland Division Veterans’ Association, and was to regularly organize commemorative ceremonies and “pilgrimages” to the various theatres of operation to remember the fighters of the 51st Highland Division who had distinguished themselves by their bravery.
 
It was through the initiative of Dr Tom RENOUF, and above all thanks to the decision of the Mayor, Jean-Pierre DARDENNE and the Communal Finance Committee, that on 07 May 1999 and in the presence of 45 Scottish Veterans with their regimental standards, the town of La Roche-en-Ardenne inaugurated a "Roll of Honour" Memorial dedicated to the 53 fighters of the 51st Highland Division who gave their future for the liberty of the towns and villages of the Ardennes.
Tom RENOUF will never forget his emotion, or that of his comrades, when he unveiled the La Roche Scottish Memorial.
 
He will never forget the people of La Roche, nor their Mayor, nor their warm welcome.  Likewise, the people of La Roche will never forget their Scottish liberators.
 
Guy BLOCKMANS