The outbreak of war found the Dorsets garrisoning Malta, a sleepy colonial backwater in the Central Mediterranean. In June 1940 Mussolini’s declaration of war hurled Malta to the forefront of world events. The island’s position below Sicily and above Italian Libya and British Egypt made her strategically vital in both the campaign in North Africa and the war in the Mediterranean. The Italians (and later the Germans) tried to bomb and starve surrounded Malta into surrender. The siege lasted three years, during which the 1st Dorsets defended the coast, repaired bomb damage, mended roads and runways, manned anti-aircraft guns and prepared for an invasion that happily never came. Thirty-three were killed while all faced hardship, hunger, danger and deprivation.
On 10th July 1943 the 1st Dorsets led the Allies’ return to Europe when they landed on the south-east tip of Sicily. In the next six weeks, in a series of bitter battles against the retreating Germans, they liberated the south-eastern quarter of the island and lost 63 killed and twice that number wounded. On 8th September they were one of the first to return to the European mainland when they landed at Pizzo on the toe of Italy. Happily, after suffering relatively few casualties in the landing, they were withdrawn to the UK to prepare for the liberation of Europe.
On 6th June 1944 the 1st led the assault on the Normandy beaches, capturing all their objectives and suffering fewer casualties than had been expected. This was the Battalion’s third assault landing in eleven months. In the ensuing campaign in Normandy the Battalion lost heavily – especially among their company, platoon and section commanders. By 1st July across their four rifle companies only one officer remained in the job he had held on D-Day; the other nineteen had been killed, wounded or posted elsewhere. Among the killed was their Commanding Officer. The battle of attrition faced by the British and Canadian armies to enable the Americans to break out of their beach-head cost crippling casualties. The Dorsets received reinforcements from many regiments, including an entire company of Durham Light Infantry and several officers attached from the Canadian Army, who were quickly and happily absorbed into the Dorset family.
In September 1944 the 1st Dorsets supported the Guards Armoured Division in their initial advance to relieve the Allied airborne troops who had captured the bridges on the way to Arnhem. After the strategic failure of the operation they moved to the island – the low-lying polderland between Arnhem and Nijmegen – to defend the area from German recapture. Such were their casualties in two months’ fierce fighting here – and the casualties throughout their Division – that in December 1944 they were returned to the UK, where they became a training unit. Many officers and men, however, transferred to the 4th and 5th Battalions who were also serving in North West Europe.
Their long war cost the 1st Dorsets 327 killed and 1,029 wounded. They had won 81 decorations, 12 new battle honours for the Regiment and a reputation as a fighting battalion that was second to none.