In 1939 the expansion of Britain’s Territorial Army caused the Dorsets’ TA battalion, the 4th, to form a sister battalion, the 5th. Brigaded together in 43rd Wessex Division, the two battalions were inseparable throughout the war and their histories are therefore best described together.
After spending nearly five years of war in the UK, guarding the south coast against invasion and then training for the invasion of France, the 43rd Wessex Division landed in Normandy seventeen days after D-Day. Their first major battle was near Maltot on 10th July 1944 when the Division attacked the German positions on and around Hill 112, a feature which dominated the surrounding country and was seen as the key to holding Normandy. In a fierce and costly battle, the Germans defended their positions resolutely, exacting a high price. At some cost the 4th Dorsets captured Eterville while the 5th Dorsets and the 7th Hampshires attacked Maltot. In the confusion of battle the brigade commander thought Maltot had been captured and ordered the 4th to join the battle. As they closed on the village a hurricane of machine gun and anti-tank gun fire burst upon them. Maltot cost the 4th Dorsets 348 casualties and the 5th also lost heavily. On Hill 112 the sun set on bloody stalemate. The 43rd Wessex Division and their Wehrmacht and SS opponents had fought each other to a standstill. For the Dorsets and their fellow infantrymen Hill 112 would remain a yardstick of horror, against which all future battles would be measured.
Having received reinforcements, both battalions joined in the push south beyond Caumont, fighting fierce battles at Cahagnes and Jurques on their way to Ondefontaine towards Mont Pincon which (like Hill 112) dominated a large area of Normandy. By 9th August the Dorsets were on Mont Pincon, which had fallen to 129 Brigade. Their fighting in the close Normandy bocage country was over and the campaign was won. Their next battles would be in late August and early September across the Seine.
In late September the 43rd Wessex Division was moved forwards to support Guards Armoured Division in its battles beyond the Waal at Nijmegen in the drive up to relieve the Airborne forces at Arnhem. By the time the Dorsets crossed Nijmegen bridge the 2nd Parachute Regiment holding Arnhem bridge had been overwhelmed and German troops and armour were pouring across to block any advance towards the Neder Rijn. Nonetheless the 4th and 5th Dorsets forced their way up to the south bank of the river west of Arnhem near Driel, where plans were made to reinforce the Airborne troops across the river around Oosterbeek. When the operation was abandoned the 4th were ordered to cross the swollen river, under heavy fire, to rescue their Airborne comrades. Of the 315 Dorsets who reached the north bank only 75 returned. The 4th Battalion’s sacrifice was recognised by the award of an Airborne Pennant and they were the only non-airborne unit to win the battle honour Arnhem. For the second time in ten weeks the 4th Dorsets had effectively been destroyed. Meanwhile, the 5th Dorsets took to the water and ferried the Airborne survivors back across the river.
After a short period around Groesbeek in the Reichswald Forest, both battalions moved to the south of Holland to the Roer triangle. Winter arrived and in the snow and mud around Geilenkirchen they fought bitter battles in the grimmest conditions. Here, despite the conditions and despite heavy casualties, the 5th Dorsets captured and held a wood west of Tripsrath, which in their honour was called Dorset Wood.
In February 1945 they returned north to force their way from Cleves through the Reichswald Forest and to close up to the Rhine. The 5th crossed the Rhine on 25th March and took the villages of Speldrop and Androp without much opposition. The 4th followed and captured Millingen. The British advance was rapid and the German defence was losing cohesion but pockets of German defenders, armed with Spandau machine guns and sometimes supported by 88mm artillery, often exacted a heavy toll before withdrawing. Liberating the Dutch towns of Hengelo and Borne the Dorsets and Hampshires established a lasting friendship with the inhabitants. Hengelo presented the Regiment with a Liberation Scroll while Borne renamed their town square Dorset Plein.
By 19th April they were fifteen miles from Bremen but, although it was clear the campaign was almost over, the losses continued to the end. Three or four days before the end a Kangaroo (armoured personnel carrier) went over a German mine and a whole infantry section of twelve men were killed. On 4th May came the news of the German surrender.
The 4th and 5th Dorsets’ eleven month campaign was over. They had fought through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and across Germany to Bremerhaven. The campaign had cost the 4th Battalion 266 men killed in action and the 5th 218. Total casualties of both battalions probably totalled 2,000. The 4th had also lost many men captured across the river at Arnhem. Both battalions had contributed to the unequalled reputation of the 43rd Wessex Division in battle and had added a new lustre to the story of the Dorset Regiment.