In September 1939, on the outbreak of the Second World War, the Dorset Regiment had two Regular battalions and two battalions of Territorials (part-time volunteers), one of which was new and in the process of forming. These – the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Battalions – were the four battalions that fought as Dorsets. During the war other battalions were formed. The 6th(Home Defence), 9th and 70th (Young Soldiers) Battalions remained in the UK. The 30th served overseas as garrison troops but never fought. The 7th and 8th Battalions converted to become light ant-aircraft regiments in the Royal Artillery and fought as gunners in North Africa, Italy and North West Europe.
The four battalions that fought as Dorsets saw service in France in 1940, on Malta and in Sicily, Italy, Burma and North West Europe. Members of the Regiment also fought with other units in other theatres including North Africa, Greece, Singapore and Madagascar. Many Dorsets came from the county but many did not. Some were Regular soldiers, some Territorials. Most were wartime volunteers and conscripts. 1,170 of them were killed, more than 3,000 wounded and more than 500 taken prisoner. In five years fighting they won 25 new battle honours for the Regiment and some 500 awards for gallantry, adding new chapters to the already proud history of a fine county regiment.
The 2nd Battalion of the Dorset Regiment went to France in late September 1939 as part of the 2nd Division in Lord Gort’s British Expeditionary Force (BEF). During the nine months of the Phoney War – while the Allies waited to see what the Germans would do next – they were kept in France because the neutral Belgian government would not allow them on their soil. If the Germans invaded Belgium (as they had done in August 1914), the British and French armies’ plan was to move up to the Dutch-Belgian border to block their advance.
The Phoney War ended on 10th May 1940. In London, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. On the continent, German tanks erupted across the Belgian border on their way to invade France. The BEF moved up through Belgium to the line of the River Dyle. Here the 2nd Dorsets, on the far right of the British line, took their place beside a French division on Algerian troops.
On 15th May, when the Germans attacked the French troops beside them, German aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the Dorsets’ positions. When the French withdrew, they first used their Bren gun Carrier Platoon to try to plug the gap beside them and then began their retreat west. The collapse of their Belgian and French allies left the British Expeditionary Force vulnerable on both flanks. They conducted a fighting retreat south of Brussels and back, past Tournai, towards Bethune in France. As they retreated they found the roads blocked by columns of civilian refugees. Near Tournai the Dorsets saw the bodies of French men, women and children, who had been strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe.
During the withdrawal the Dorsets fought a number of small rearguard actions. On 18th May, near Ghoy on the Dendre Canal, Captain Oner Bray’s Carrier Platoon held the line under heavy fire and allowed the rest of the Battalion to retreat. Next day, on a bridge south of Les Deux Acreu, Sergeant-Major Ted Giles’s platoon performed the same feat. Both Bray – whose ancestors had served with the Dorsets – and Giles – a Cockney window cleaner from Bow – managed to slip away. Both were later decorated for their bravery.
On 24th May the Dorsets reached Festubert, where their Brigade was ordered to form the rearguard to allow the rest of the BEF to retreat north towards the coast. Here they defended a line 4,000 yards long on the north bank of the La Bassée Canal. Their front contained three bridges, two of which had been destroyed and one partly destroyed. The Germans quickly occupied the opposite bank.
On 25th May Sergeant Jimmy James swam the canal with two Irish Dorsets – Thomas Tabb and James Sinnott – to identify the strength of the enemy facing them. All three were later recommended for the Military Medal.
Under heavy shelling and repeated attacks, the Dorsets, by this time reduced to a fighting strength of only 380 men, held their positions until they were ordered to withdraw. Attacking them were 960 men from two motorised battalions of the 4th Panzer Division, supported by 24 tanks. The Dorsets’ only anti-tank defence was a handful of Boys’ anti-tank rifles, which were of very limited effectiveness. Despite this, they managed to knock out several tanks, which now belched black smoke on and around the broken bridge. In a series of defensive battles the Dorsets won several decorations as their rifle platoons held their ground and their Bren Gun Carriers were used as tanks to counter-attack the Germans, who had crossed the canal further west and were now attacking the Dorsets’ right flank. Among those decorated in these attacks were Captain Chips Heron, Sergeant ‘Gary’ Cooper and two Sergeant-Majors called Brown – Reg and Sid. Meanwhile Bandsman Harold West, a Dorset stretcher-bearer, scuttled about under fire, tending the wounded and winning a Military Medal.
For two days the Dorsets beat off attack after attack until, in the afternoon of 27th May, their Colonel received the order to withdraw. Two of their company commanders – Majors Bob Goff (a veteran of 1914-18) and Sam Symes – now pulled off the very difficult trick of withdrawing their troops while engaged with the enemy. Both were later decorated for their gallant part in the defence.
Of the 2nd Dorsets, 40 men were dead, 110 wounded and 158 had been or would be taken prisoner. Back in Festubert the Dorsets’ Commanding Officer, Colonel Stephenson – known as Colonel Steve – assembled his 245 survivors, together with 45 men from other regiments. Colonel Steve had been thrice decorated in the First World War. Approaching fifty years old, he must have been exhausted. Now, mustering his remaining energy, he led his men by night north to try to rejoin the rest of the retreating British Army. The German line of advance now crossed behind them and, to escape, the Dorsets would have to cross their path.
Map and compass in hand, his Second in Command Tom Molloy at his side, the gaunt figure of the Dorsets’ Colonel led his survivors north in the darkness, across canals, fields and fences. Challenged by a German sentry, he ordered two men to bayonet him. When they hesitated, he shot the man. Miraculously, the Germans did not react to the gunshot and the Dorsets were able to carry on their march. As they approached one road a huge German convoy appeared and 285 men had to crouch for forty-five minutes in the hedgerows waiting for the convoy to pass. Then they moved on.
As they crossed the pitch-black canals two officers, Oner Bray and John Peebles, swam across several times to make sure they were safe before the rest of the troops, including some who could not swim, followed. Both Bray and Peebles were later awarded the Military Cross.
Next morning Colonel Steve and his survivors found some British troops at Estaires. They were astonished to see the Dorsets, who they thought had all been killed or captured. The Dorsets, in their turn, were astonished to hear that the BEF was being evacuated from Dunkirk. After another long march and a journey by lorry, the Dorsets reached Dunkirk, where Colonel Steve led them along the bomb-damaged mole and aboard a Thames dredger which took them home. They landed at Ramsgate on 31st May.
The short campaign that ended in the evacuation from Dunkirk had been a major defeat. The British Army would require a great deal of training, expansion and re-equipment before it could meet the Germans again in battle, but the Dorsets could take some comfort from their experience. At Festubert they had faced attack after attack by a superior force with tanks; they had held their ground until ordered to withdraw. And Colonel Steve, who had brought his survivors safely home, had set a standard of leadership and care for his soldiers that future Dorset commanding officers would have to work very hard to match.