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Straight on for Tokyo is a remarkable book in three ways – for the story it tells, for the characters it portrays and for the quality of its telling – which together produce an outstanding account of an infantry battalion at war. Written shortly after the war by Geoffrey White, one of the Battalion’s commanding officers, it paints a vivid picture of both the campaigns in which the Dorsets excelled.
Let us first consider the quality of the story, which is really two very different stories. The first begins in late May 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force was in retreat towards the Channel coast. On 25th May the 2nd Dorsets, part of the 2nd Division, were ordered to make a stand on the La Bassée Canal below Festubert to allow the greater part of the Division to withdraw. Here, through three long days, their widely dispersed companies defended a broad front against repeated attacks by a much larger force. The Battalion held on until, outflanked by German soldiers who had crossed the Canal to the west, they were given permission to withdraw fighting. Two companies pulled off the difficult task of withdrawing while in close contact with the enemy, and the Battalion withdrew into Festubert. The German attacks continued to press hard but, time after time, their tanks and infantry were repelled. Now, with the enemy line of advance crossing behind him, their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Stephenson, assembled his 245 survivors (together with 40 men from other units), and personally led them to safety. Compass in hand, his Second-in-Command at his side with a map, Colonel Steve navigated them in the dark through pouring rain across fields, fences, roads and canals – even across the path of an advancing German column – until they reached Estaires in the early morning of 28th May. Their arrival was unexpected. Their commanders had expected the entire Battalion to have been killed or captured. It was here that they first heard of the plan to evacuate the BEF. The 2nd Dorsets’ stand at Festubert had bought time for others to escape but, thanks to their Colonel’s leadership, they brought more of their soldiers home than any other battalion in the Division. Colonel Steve did not spare himself until 0830 on 31st May, when he led his men ashore at Margate.
The second story starts on 26th April 1944, when the 2nd Dorsets (still with several Festubert survivors among their number) filed up Garrison Hill, Kohima, to relieve the Royal Berkshires. Here, in the incongruous surroundings of a British diplomat’s bungalow, amid terraced gardens and tennis court, they withstood savage, relentless attacks by the Japanese who were desperate to capture the position. On their first night at Kohima a veteran of Festubert, Major John Bowles, got his Company beyond the Japanese positions and established them behind the bungalow, overlooking the Dimapur road, where they remained for five days until relieved by B Company. For seventeen days, amid the cacophony of mortaring, shelling and machine gun fire and the stench of rotting bodies, in a series of vicious little battles and skirmishes the 2nd Dorsets held their own against a fierce and unforgiving enemy. Finally, on 13th May, supported by Sergeant Gerry Waterhouse’s single tank which had been manhandled up the precipitous slope, Clive Chettle’s D Company led the attack on the Japanese positions around the tennis court and broke the back of the Japanese defences. Suddenly, Sergeant Tom Cattle later remembered, some of the Japs started running. And we knew we had done it. We mowed them down as they ran. There were bodies that had been there weeks, covered in flies and maggots; the stench was terrific. The 2nd Dorsets’ hard-won, spectacular victory in this battle was the turning point in the battle of Kohima, which was itself the turning point in the entire campaign in Burma.
Alone, either the story of Festubert or the story of Kohima would justify a book. This book includes both. And it covers still more because the 2nd Dorsets, now commanded by White himself, helped lead the advance south-east, past Imphal across the Chindwin, the Mu and the Irrawaddy, and down beyond Mandalay. Depleted in numbers, plagued by sores and fevers and exhausted in energy, they were finally withdrawn from battle in April 1945 after capturing Mount Popa. The book then tells the story of how, chosen by General Sir Bill Slim to be one of three British battalions to join the largely American force occupying Japan, they finally encountered their once implacable, now defeated enemy in his homeland.
That, very briefly, is an outline of the unique story that this book tells. But a story is of little interest without characters. What of those who together formed the 2nd Battalion? Two quite different but equally distinguished commanding officers stand out: Stephenson and White himself. Colonel Steve was not far short of fifty when, after their heroic defence of Festubert, he led the remnants of his Battalion to safety. As CO of the first Dorset battalion to fight in the Second World War he set a dazzling standard of courage, endurance and care for his men that others would struggle to match. Knocker White was eighteen years younger and a distinguished sportsman, whose energy and devotion to the Regiment became legendary. Second-in-Command of the Battalion at Kohima, he took command on 8th June 1944 and made the 2nd Battalion very much his own: his proprietorial affection for his officers and men shine through his book. A third distinguished CO who was denied the chance to command them in battle was George Wood, whose humanity and high standards of professionalism permeated the entire Battalion. George Wood’s reputation as a fighting commander would be won later, when he commanded not a battalion of Dorsets but an entire division.
Other characters who stand out in the first part of this remarkable story include: Majors Bob Goff and Sam Symes, who at Festubert successfully disengaged their companies while in close contact with the enemy and saved the day; Major Dayrell Stayner, captured at Festubert, who later became Senior British Officer at Colditz Castle before returning in 1945 to restart the Keep Museum; Sergeant Jimmy James and Privates Thomas Tabb and James Sinnott who together swam the La Bassée Canal and earned Military Medals – one escaped, one was captured and one killed; and Captain Chips Heron and Sergeant Gary Cooper, who each led a fierce counter-attack in their vulnerable Bren-gun-carriers. In Burma the Battalion’s padre, Gus Claxton and doctor, Joe Chamberlin, often working together to help the wounded, won an heroic reputation. At Kohima the bravery of Captain Clive Chettle, Sergeant Jock Given and Sergeant Gerry Waterhouse became part of a legend that has spread far beyond those of us who care about the Dorset Regiment.
The third factor that makes this book exceptional lies in the character of its author. At first glance Knocker White may have appeared the caricature of a British infantry officer: moustached, athletic, humorous and perhaps none too sensitive and none too bright. This book instead reveals a thoughtful man with the sharp eye of a gifted writer. A remarkable commanding officer who took great pains to know his officers and men personally, he describes them colourfully and accurately, usually with affection and often with humour. He tells their inspiring story very well indeed. Straight on for Tokyo will make you laugh, cry and marvel at the achievements of the young men of the 2nd Dorsets, who met their enemy – German and Japanese – head-on in battle, winning high honours for their Regiment and for themselves a place in history.
The new 400-page edition of ‘Straight on for Tokyo’, packed with photographs, is available from the Keep Military Museum for £15 (plus £3 postage if required)
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