1939 - 1945: Second World War

1920 - 19391945 - 1994


As the enemy pressed on through Belgium and France the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were involved in a rear-guard action which rapidly deteriorated into a full-scale retreat. When German forces moved swiftly for the Somme, the BEF’s commander-in-chief Field Marshal Lord Gort prepared to pull his men back to the port of Dunkirk. The men were then ordered to abandon all unnecessary equipment and put their vehicles out of action before heading for the beach. Both battalions were successfully evacuated back to England in the first days of June.


As British forces were withdrawing from France, Churchill placed 51st (Highland) Division under French command after assuring the French that Britain would ‘never abandon her ally in her hour of need.’ The Division were charged with recapturing the Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme, but their attack suffered heavy casualties. The following day, the Allies were outflanked and forced to withdraw to the coastal town of St Valéry-en-Caux, where they made their last stand. After an evacuation by sea proved impossible, the Commanding Officer of the 51st Division, Major General Fortune surrendered the town to the German Commander, General Rommel on 12 June. The captured men spent the remainder of the war as Prisoners of War.


Japanese forces attacked Singapore and invaded northern Malaya on 8 December 1941. they made rapid progress fighting South towards Singapore. 2nd Gordons were part of the Singapore Garrison and they were tasked with the defence of artillery.

The Japanese crossed the Straits separating Singapore from the mainland on the 8 February 1942 and the battle for Singapore saw fierce fighting in which the Gordons were heavily involved throughout. The end came for the 2nd Gordons with the British Army’s surrender at 8:30 pm on 15 February.  Lieutenant General Arthur Percival signed the unconditional surrender in the Ford Motor Factory in front of General Tomoyuki Yamashita.


On the night of 23 October the attack began with each Gordon Highlander wearing a white St Andrew’s cross on his back to identify him to those who followed.  The Gordons made progress into the Axis defences before digging in for the following day.  This was mainly taken up with a tank battle over the heads of the dug-in infantry.  The following nights saw further securing of Axis defensive positions, with 1st Battalion finally securing their main objective ‘Aberdeen’ (Kidney Ridge) and retiring to the reserve on 2 November.  5th/7th Battalion remained in the battle through to the night of 3 November, when they were carried into the fight on tanks – reminiscent of their exploits with the cavalry at the battle of Waterloo over a century earlier.

SFERRO, 16TH – 23RD JULY 1943

After success in North Africa the Allies planned to take the island of Sicily. 1st and 5th/7th Battalion as part of the 51st (Highland) Division fought their way into the village of Sferro. It was here that the Gordons encountered a desperate bombardment from German troops. The Regiment withstood intense fire from the neighbouring hills and held their gains against tanks and infantry counter-attack. After a week of fighting, the Germans withdrew to Messina and eventually away from the island of Sicily. After three months hard fighting the division was then withdrawn to prepare for the D-Day invasion of France.


The 6th Battalion The Gordon Highlanders, after serving with the 1st Division in Tunisia, fought in the main campaign for Italy. At 2.15am on the morning of the 22 January 1944 6th Gordons landed on the beaches at Anzio. The initial assault aimed to form a beachhead which would cut off enemy communications and weaken the German defence of Rome. 6th Gordons were in almost continuous action in the defence of the beachhead against enemy attack. The Battalion fought on for a total of four months before the Allies finally liberated Rome.


In 1943, at the Casablanca Conference, it was determined that an Allied attack on Germany should be made through Britain into Europe. The main objective of D-Day was to land enough troops so that all German counter-attacks could be resisted.  This would allow reinforcements to be landed over the following days, and the push into Normandy to begin. The landings were successful – though at great cost in men and materials. 5th/7th Gordons were the first troops of the 51st (Highland) Division to land on 6 June 1944, closely followed by 1st Gordons. 2nd Gordons landed two weeks later. All were immediately thrust into heavy action in the Normandy countryside against a battle-hardened enemy determined to push the invading Allies back into the sea. Two months of bitter fighting followed, but by mid-August 1944 the breakout from Normandy was underway.


Operation Veritable – also known as the Battle of the Reichswald – included the capture of Goch as the final objective for the 51st (Highland) Division. The 1st and 5th/7th Battalion, part of 153rd Brigade, were tasked with capturing the Southern part of the town. The battle involved much close-quarter fighting. When the Gordons entered Goch, they had to clear each street house by house. This could only be done by infantry because the streets were so badly cratered and blocked by rubble that tanks could not pass through. Once the town had been secured the next target for the Gordons was the village of Thomashof, about half a mile south of Goch. The eventual capture of Goch and Thomashof paved the way for the Rhine crossing a month later.

BURMA, 1945

Whilst in Europe they continued to perform their usual infantry role, in Burma they carried out a more unusual task.  Instead of infantry they crewed tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars and anti-aircraft guns. The Japanese were specialists in jungle fighting, and proved incredibly hard to beat.

For much of the Burma campaign the 116th acted as the leading Tank Regiment, operating at the forefront of the push through the country. On 14 August 1945 news was received that the war with Japan was over, although the official surrender of Japanese forces was not received until 12 September.  The Gordon Highlanders were the last armoured regiment to come out of action and the British regiment furthest from home at the end of the war.  After the cessation of hostilities their tanks were handed over to 5th and 9th Horse of the Indian Army