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The 2nd Battalion The Dorsetshire Regiment in World War Two

At Aldershot on the outbreak of war, the 2nd Dorsets were the first of the Regiment to go to war.  Sent to France with the 2nd Division, they spent the phoney war training on the Belgian border and moved into Belgium when the Germans invaded the Low Countries on 10th May 1940.

With the French Army collapsing on their right flank, the British Expeditionary Force conducted a fighting retreat past Brussels and Tournai.  At Festubert on 25th May they were ordered to stand and fight to enable other units to escape.  Holding positions on the La Bassee Canal, they were conscious that this had been the site of a gallant defence by the 1st Dorsets in October 1914.  Over the next three days the 2nd emulated their predecessors’ courage, beating off attack after attack by a greatly superior German force and losing 40 killed, 110 wounded and 158 taken prisoner.  On the night of 27th/28th May their Commanding Officer, Colonel Stephenson, assembled his 245 survivors (plus 40 men from other units) and personally led them to safety on a long march across the German advance, across canals and occupied country.  Colonel Steve did not relax until he had shepherded his men to Dunkirk and seen them safely aboard a ship back to England.

After nearly two years guarding the Yorkshire coast against invasion, the 2nd Dorsets were sent to India, where they trained in jungle warfare.  The Japanese invasion of Assam in March 1944 threatened Dimapur and Kohima, where a tiny garrison faced overwhelming Japanese forces.  The 2nd Division were despatched from India to relieve the garrison at Kohima.  Here the Dorsets fought a protracted and bitter battle against a ruthless and implacable enemy in the incongruous surroundings of the grounds of a bungalow in what had been a peacetime hill station.  The centre of the Japanese defence was around a tennis court where for eighteen days from 26th April, the Dorsets fought a deadly, bloody battle of attrition.  In the steeply terraced gardens their positions were within 25 yards of the Japanese and surrounded by the cacophony of machine guns and the stench of rotting corpses.  On 13th May a tank was finally manhandled up the steep slopes and, with its brave support, the Dorsets finally broke the Japanese hold and captured the position.  Their role had been central to victory in Burma because the tennis court was the key to Kohima and the victories at Kohima and on the Imphal Plain were the turning point in the war in Burma. 

Slim’s Fourteenth Army now pursued the retreating Japanese southwards past Imphal, Shwebo, Mandalay, across the Irrawaddy, to Meiktila and Mount Popa and on towards Rangoon.  Despite their heavy casualties at Kohima, the 2nd Dorsets took part in this long advance, beyond the jungle and out onto the Burmese plains, until they were withdrawn back to India in April 1945.  Their year in Burma included several fierce battles and cost them 151 men killed, three times that number wounded and a great deal of sickness and hardship.  Their part in two campaigns won six new battle honours for the Regiment.