When war broke out with Nazi Germany in September 1939 the 2nd Battalion was already on active service in Palestine and was to be deployed in a successful rearguard action against overwhelming Italian forces in Somaliland in July 1940. It was then sent to Crete to help defend the island from the anticipated German invasion. Meanwhile the 1st, 4th and 6th Battalions had been despatched to France where they faced the German blitzkrieg in May 1940. Against this massive armoured assault the ill-equipped British troops were forced to withdraw to Dunkirk . The 4th and 6th Battalions were successfully evacuated from France but the 1st Battalion, with most of the 51st Highland Division, was less fortunate. When it proved impossible to rescue the Division it was ordered to surrender at St Valery.
Picture: After evacuation from Dunkirk the 6th Battalion was deployed in the defence of the Isle of Wight.
May 1941 saw the first ever airborne assault take place when German paratroopers descended on the 2nd Battalion at Heraklion in the north of Crete. The initial offensive was most effectively repulsed but later landings elsewhere forced the withdrawal of the garrison. Five months later the Battalion was moved to the besieged fortress of Tobruk and in November was to suffer very heavy losses in the attempted breakout to link up with the 8th Army. The tanks failed to provide the planned support and within one hour over 300 men had become casualties - but the objective was taken. In August 1942 the re-formed 1st Battalion along with the 5th and 7th Battalions arrived in North Africa as part of 51st Highland Division in time to take part in the momentous battle of El Alamein, the turning point in the War. This was to be followed by the pursuit across the North African desert with the many hard-fought victories notably Mareth and Wadi Akarit and the triumphant entry into Tripoli. During 1943 the 6th Battalion also became involved in the North African campaign, joining the 1st Army and taking particular part in the attack on Sidi Medienne.
Picture: Survivors of the 2nd Battalion's break out from Tobruk in November 1941 hold captured trenches.
In July 1943 the 51st Highland Division spearheaded the invasion of Sicily, the first Allied return to Europe. After a successful assault landing the Allies met increasingly stiff German opposition as they advanced over ground dominated by Mount Etna. After heavy fighting by the 1st Battalion at Gerbini and by all at Sferro, Sicily was conquered. The 51st Highland Division returned home to prepare for the invasion of Normandy. However the 6th Battalion was to remain in Italy, taking part in the hard-fought advance North against the several well prepared German defensive lines and most particularly at Monte Cassino. Its final actions were in the battles of the Gothic Line at Forli after which it was despatched to Greece in December 1944 to counter Communist partisans.
Picture: 6 pounder anti tank detachment of 6th Battalion relax near Monte Cassino in May 1944.
North West Europe
The 1st, 5th and 7th Battalions, still in the 51st Highland Division, were all landed in Normandy on or shortly after D Day, 6 June 1944. They were heavily involved in the actions leading to the breakout from Caen and the Falaise Gap, the 5th Battalion in particular experiencing severe fighting at Breville and Colombelles. There was then little action for the Regiment except for the capture of Le Havre until the autumn and winter fighting in the low lying country astride the River Maas in Holland. All three battalions were employed in the operations to stem the last German offensive into the Ardennes in the bitter weather of January 1945. It was then back to the battles of the Reichswald Forest on the Dutch-German border with the 1st Battalion being the first Allied troops on German territory. Then on the 23rd March 1945 the Regiment played a key role in the Crossing of the Rhine under a massive smoke screen and overcoming the final, albeit crumbling, German resistance.
Picture: Men of the 7th Battalion move forward to cross the Rhine in March 1945 where they were to be the first to reach the far bank.
After its enormously varied war fighting in Somaliland, in Crete and at Tobruk, the 2nd Battalion was sent to India, which was under threat from the rapid Japanese advance through Malaya and Burma. There it was specially trained for participation in the Second Chindit Expedition. Divided into two columns and often working in smaller groups, the Battalion spent 5 months operating behind the Japanese lines, disrupting their communications, their supplies and flow of reinforcements. Resupplied entirely by air drop the columns attacked and ambushed enemy columns in savage actions, generally in thick jungle and in appalling conditions of heat and disease, made worse once the monsoon broke. The Battalion ended the War training as a parachute unit for the planned invasion of Malaya.
For more information about some of the men who served with the Chindits:
Picture: Loading mules into aircraft for the 2nd Battalions part as Chindits, operating behind Japanese lines in Burma.