Dr. C.M. Johnston's Project

Discover McMaster's World War II Honour Roll

Robert E. Dorsey

It was late evening on D-Day plus one - 7 June 1944 - and Lieutenant Robert Dorsey and other Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa had just arrived as reinforcements on the Normandy beachhead and were digging in against a threatened German counter-attack. Suddenly a low-flying enemy aircraft, which had somehow managed to penetrate the Allied air screen, strafed their position. The effect was devastating. Virtually the entire group of Camerons - some thirty men -- were either killed or wounded. Lieutenant Dorsey was among the fatal casualties that evening, his war over almost before it began. He suffered much the same fate as Major Douglas Young [HR], another former McMaster student who had been killed before getting ashore on D-Day itself.

Robert (Bob) Dorsey had been born in Hamilton, Ontario on 4 December 1919 to Josiah Joshua and Annie Dorsey, who originally resided on Rosslyn Avenue in the Delta district. After the untimely death of his mother, when Bob was only four, the family moved first to Beulah Avenue and then to Bold Street, part of an affluent neighbourhood in the city's west end. His father, who remarried, was known familiarly as Joe, and was the congenial co-founder and president of a local firm, the Vitone Company, which manufactured a milk flavouring. His second wife, Helen Henderson, whom he had known before his first marriage, reportedly took over the raising of his children - Audrey, Bob, Laura, and Lloyd -- with all the care that their natural mother would have lavished on them.

After attending the nearby Central Public School, Bob proceeded to Hamilton Central Collegiate Institute (HCCI) for his secondary education. Being of slight build, he did not go in for Central's more violent contact sports such as football though he did venture into soccer. He took more readily to tennis and badminton. Actually, it ran in the family. All of his siblings were skilled badminton players. Indeed, according to Vox Lycei, HCCI's yearbook, sisters Audrey and Laura and brother Lloyd may well have introduced badminton to the school during their time there. Certainly the girls were actively involved with the club organized to promote the game. Their supportive father, who made a point of attending all their matches, was on one occasion recruited to present prizes to the winners. To his great satisfaction, in the 1934-35 season Bob lived up to the family tradition by winning a game cycle, the boys' singles and doubles, and then the mixed doubles in what Vox Lycei described as the "snappiest games of the year". But a proud "Joe" Dorsey would not enjoy such pleasures for long, dying almost as untimely as his first wife, while his grieving children were still in high school. Fortunately they could count upon their equally supportive and affectionate stepmother for the care and comfort they needed.

Meanwhile, in some of his summer vacations Bob, an active member of the local YMCA, served as a cabin leader at the Y's Erie Heights Camp near Port Ryerse, on a scenic stretch of the Lake Erie shore. One former camper who spent several sessions there in the 'thirties clearly recalled Bob's "strong ideals", and "natural leadership" qualities, the very qualities that would stand him in good stead at McMaster University and in the army. Though sometimes described as "happy-go-lucky" he obviously took his responsibilities seriously.

After matriculating from HCCI, Bob entered McMaster in September, 1938, the ominous time of the so-called Munich Crisis, the prelude to the world war that erupted a year later. Bob may have pondered these dire events but for the moment he understandably chose to concentrate on his own immediate circumstances. Contemplating a legal career, he registered at McMaster in the Political Economy Option, which was often regarded as a form of pre-law course that would open the way to Osgoode Hall. Academically he performed for the most part at the average level though he ended his final year with a considerable flourish.

On the athletic field, Bob made an even stronger impression. Having presumably put on more muscle and sinew, he decided to go out for intramural football though he still weighed only 140 pounds in a 5' 10" frame. On the face of it, he should have been heavier given his weakness for multiple desserts, which earned him the nickname "two-dessert Dorsey". At any rate, it so happened that the intramural football he did play, as McMaster classmate Henry Novak [HR] also discovered, was the only kind of football then available after the wartime suspension of intercollegiate competition. In his final year Bob played for the Senior team as an outside wing and put in a creditable performance as a pass receiver and play disrupter, often breaking through the opponent's line to make key tackles.

Bob also signed up for basketball and soccer. As a soccer player he was soon being commended by the sports editor of the weekly Silhouette as a "leader on the field", an attribute reminiscent of his prewar days at Erie Heights Camp. Bob's skilful play often helped to keep the game in the opponent's end of the field and contributed to his Senior team's championship performance in 1940. He also made a showing in track and field, specializing in the mile and, like classmate Stanley Gaudin [HR], in the harrier course. Bob's admiring sister Audrey, who always regarded him as a "buddy", recalled the characteristic effort he put into track. On one occasion the strain of winning the mile event led to his collapse at the finish line. Fortunately he speedily recovered.

It was in badminton and tennis, however, that Bob truly continued to excel, so much so that in 1939 he won the singles tennis championship in a district meet held in Hamilton. In his last two years at McMaster he also reigned as the city's badminton singles champion after tournaments staged at the venerable Thistle Club. Not surprisingly he coached and managed McMaster's badminton team, which had little trouble "subduing" the local high school competition. His talented and ubiquitous presence inspired a spoof in the Silhouette. "The McMaster team", it reported in the fall of 1940, "has many famous badminton coaches, such as Bob Dorsey, Robert Dorsey, and R. Dorsey". That same year the multiple Dorsey's varied sports accomplishments earned him his 1st Grade Athletic Colours and an "M" Certificate, qualifying him as a letterman.

Off the playing field Bob indulged in chess, a game to which his father had introduced him, and he took an active part in the affairs of the campus' popular Chess Club. In 1940 he also served as the Secretary of Year '41, a post he won by acclamation. Throughout much of his undergraduate career he eagerly participated in the activities of the Political Economy Club, serving on its executive in his final year. Indeed, the author of his Marmor "Obit" claimed that "his enthusiasm for sports was only excelled by his interest in economics". With World War II now in full swing, Bob, along with most of his male classmates, was also obliged to serve - though he would have willingly served anyway as a cadet -- in the McMaster Contingent of the Canadian Officers' Training Corps (COTC). It was deemed in Ottawa's vigilant eyes the equivalent of service in the Non-Permanent Active Militia. When COTC duties permitted Bob worked his summers at a resort in Muskoka where he may have met fellow worker and classmate Stanley Gaudin.

Bob completed his military training on campus and at summer camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake over a two-year span. As a consequence, on 20 January 1942 he was made a commissioned officer in the militia, albeit at the lowest end of the scale, a "one pip wonder" - as the dismissive phrase went -- that is, a 2nd lieutenant. Before his training program came to an end he had already graduated BA from McMaster, this in the spring of 1941. He appears to have thought twice about Osgoode Hall. For some months he worked as a laboratory assistant at a major city firm, the Steel Company of Canada, before enlisting in Toronto for active service in May, 1942. Perhaps he had merely been filling in time.

When Bob enlisted he was probably well aware that the war was very much on a razor's edge. In April, the month before, the Americans, still reeling from Pearl Harbor had, to be sure, struck back with the morale-boosting "Doolittle Raid" against Japan. But Tokyo was still very much in the ascendant in the Pacific theatre of war, busily consolidating and expanding its many conquests in south-east Asia and furiously contesting American naval intervention in such waterways as the Coral Sea. Even more ominously Japan was planning another major assault of its own, this time on the strategic American island base of Midway. In Russia, a battered Red Army was falling back on Stalingrad, hoping there to make a stand against the Germans, an exercise, however, which many in the West thought doomed. Even if Bob Dorsey had only casually glanced at the daily newspaper in that late spring of 1942 he would have been struck by the starkness of the situation around the globe.

After his enlistment, Bob, like fellow McMaster cadet Gordon Holder [HR], was posted to Gordon Head, British Columbia, where in August 1942 he qualified formally as a 2nd lieutenant in the active army. And then it was on to Camp Borden, which was once again serving as a training station in a world war. There, on 12 September, he passed the requisite examinations for promotion to lieutenant. His Ontario postings were not yet over, however. Again, like Holder, he was made an instructor at training centres. He served in this capacity in Simcoe and Brantford before returning to similar duties at Borden. All of this transpired between his promotion in September, 1942 and March, 1943. Just as this phase of his military service was drawing to a close and an overseas posting was in prospect, the "blonde charmer" (as Bob was described in his McMaster Obit) married his fiancee, Florence Kathleen Riley.

They had met while Bob was stationed at the training centre in Brantford. One evening he and some of his soldiers paid a visit to the local YWCA, hoping to take part in the folk dancing it advertised. Florence, the branch's physical education director, happened to be leading that very activity. It turned out that before moving to Toronto Florence had actually grown up in Bob's west end Hamilton neighbourhood and attended Central School and Westdale Collegiate. But their paths had not crossed before the wartime meeting in Brantford. In any case, it proved to be the proverbial love at first sight and a speedy courtship ensued. On 27 March 1943 they were married by Florence's clergyman father in Toronto's St. James Cathedral, where he served as dean. They enjoyed a brief honeymoon at what is now called the Guild Inn on the picturesque Scarborough bluffs. The following February she bore Bob a son, John Josiah, a "blessed event" that was duly entered on the father's military service record. Bob, who like Florence, had not known of her pregnancy before departing for overseas, was fated never to see his son.

In early May 1943, within a year of his joining up and with an embarkation furlough coming to an end, the time had arrived for the newly married Bob Dorsey to bid adieu to Florence and to family. He was shortly transferred to the Canadian Army (Active Force) Overseas and went aboard the ship in Halifax that would take him and hundreds of others to England. After a ten-day crossing he landed there on 22 May - reported by cable to his relieved wife and his family -- and was shortly assigned to the 5th Canadian Reinforcement Unit. A month later he was posted to the 7th Brigade Group, 3rd Canadian Division, having qualified along the way as M/C Class III. This may refer to his having passed muster as the driver of a motor or personnel carrier. It was not unusual for officers to take a variety of such courses as a means of keeping themselves occupied and their morale properly sustained while awaiting action on a battle front. The strategy would help to overcome what one officer described in a letter home. "I must report", he wrote a family member in the fall of 1943, "that things are as static with us as ever … one feels very detached at such a time, like an onlooker at a distant sporting event".

Sometimes off duty diversions also helped to bolster morale in such "static" times. These included attending local cinemas where Bob was often heard emitting his "famous cat call" when something on the screen failed to catch his fancy. He also strove to boost the spirits of the men in his unit. A "great organizer" - to quote the tribute of a fellow officer -- he frequently invoked the Erie Heights Camp spirit of old by arranging well-received athletic contests, tournaments, sing songs, and dinners, all under his amiable supervision. A firm believer in the morale-generating properties of song, he admonished his men on route marches to "Sing … or we march another ten miles".

When not so engaged Bob enjoyed a number of short leaves, and spent many of them in the West Country and Scotland where he made numerous friends. While in Scotland he seized the opportunity to purchase and diapatch for John Josiah's use a "wee Argyle tam" and a christening gown. The newfound overseas friends wrote a pleased Florence with the latest news of her husband, who had described her as the "nicest and Best Girl in the world" and who waxed lyrical over his newborn son. In turn they extolled the way he endeared himself and quickly broke down the traditional English "reticence" with his "joyfulness" and "spontaneous good will". Since he was now attached to the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa he often showed up in a kilt, which, as a Cornwall friend put it, made him look, "as any Scotch mother would say 'A Braw Laddie' …." But his attire so amazed a neighbourhood child that he exclaimed, "there's a Man … with no trousers on!"

Originally a militia outfit, the Cameron Highlanders had been put on a war footing in September, 1939 and designated for active service as a machine gun and mortar regiment. They had first served in Iceland - to forestall a German invasion that never came - before going to England in the spring of 1941. Like other Canadian units the Camerons would ultimately be readied for the D-Day operation, the anxiously awaited cross-Channel invasion of Hitler's Europe planned for the late spring of 1944. Bob Dorsey became heavily involved in their pre-invasion training after he joined the regiment as a reinforcement officer in April, 1944. It was based in what was styled the "tent city of Crookham Crossroads" in Sussex. D-Day was barely two months away.

While awaiting it, Bob and a fellow officer put together another morale booster, a front line regimental newspaper which Bob named The Rocket. It was originally designed to record the outfit's athletic activities, which he had predictably overseen as the Camerons' "Sports Officer". But it soon broadened out to include news from the fighting fronts - usually drawn from the reports of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) - along with editorials, stories, jokes, and cartoons. As well, all ranks were invited to submit contributions. Bob would probably have chuckled over a private's tongue-in-cheek query: "My sergeant told me that if I studied nights I could become a first class idiot. Is that better than a second lieutenant?" But the serious side of the new venture was spelled out for the readership in a later edition, written after Bob's death:

[O]ur always-to-be-remembered friend Bob Dorsey, named it the "Rocket" [because] if any copies fell into [enemy] agents' hands around Crookham they'd understand in the secret laboratories of Germany, that a Canuck "Rocket" was also making history long before the German Rocket [the pilotless V-1 or "buzzbomb"] was destined to kill, maim and shatter …. The Canuck "Rocket" that YOU should read every day was to slay all the terror of that V-weapon thru [sic] Truth and Faith … so many rumours of a terrifying [weapon] swept the B[attalio]n in the first use of this robot, that many chaps were beginning to be [beaten] … in the mind, and unless you win the "Battle of the Mind" you will lose ….

To further the cause, Bob, who had long collected bits of inspirational prose and verse and composed some of his own, put this creative hobby to work on the paper. It would soon be sorely needed.

When D-Day came on 6 June 1944 the Camerons were not scheduled to participate in the initial Normandy landings. So Bob and other officers - to quote the regimental war diary - "gathered around a radio and listened to … BBC [reports] … and to the King as he called the nation to prayer and urged them to carry on the crusade for the liberation of the despotically occupied countries". The diary then tersely stated that "all the co[mpan]ys have dangerous roles to play, especially the MMGs [machine guns] and Mortars … [soon[ scheduled to go out …." This was a reference to the kind of formation that Bob would lead on D-Day plus one. On the trip across the Channel he again characteristically revived the Erie Heights spirit by organizing a lively sing-song and spreading words of encouragement. Apparently his responsive men were still singing when they disembarked on the "Juno" beachhead in the early evening of 7 June.

Meanwhile, the Canadian advance inland - spearheaded by the 27th Armoured Regiment in which fellow McMaster alumnus Nairn Boyd [HR] was serving -- had been sharply thrown off stride by a powerful German tank thrust. This probably accounts for the role assigned Bob Dorsey and his party of newly arrived Camerons. Armed with their standard weaponry, Vickers machine guns and heavy mortars, they were immediately ordered to dig slit trenches and otherwise bolster forces detailed to fight off an anticipated German counter-attack.

To that point, as a regimental history reports, periodic strafing by the Luftwaffe had "made life miserable but netted no casualties". But misery was at least bearable to a point; what followed next was not. As related, out of nowhere a bold German fighter aircraft - possibly the dreaded and recently deployed Focke-Wulf 190 - roared in at low level. It dropped anti-personnel fragmentation bombs on the tightly grouped Camerons, who, to quote The Rocket, were "busily plying their shovels to throw up a quick slit-trench". Bob Dorsey's fate was sealed there and then. He and nineteen others were instantly killed. The officer who had guided them to their planned defensive position in a field beyond the beach "miraculously survived". In the "highly distressing circumstances" caused by the attack he immediately set about evacuating the wounded. For all those involved the words of "The March of the Cameron Men" were grimly apt: Oh proudly they walk but each man knows / He may tread on the heather no more.

A close friend of Bob's and the godfather of John Josiah, a heartbroken chaplain, H/Captain John Stewart, had painstakingly "checked" and "double checked" the grim news before reporting to "dear" Florence on 18 June 1944. He told her that he had recently visited Bob's grave, located where he had died, and placed a cross on it. The grave reposed, he said, in a "quiet spot … in a "field with poppies by [a] hedge", a reference that was bound to evoke poignant memories of the Great War. To provide as much comfort as he could, Stewart added that the "few French people who still remain in the nearby village daily place fresh flowers on the grave … of [this] gallant officer". Indeed a local French woman adopted the grave and wrote to a grateful Florence, who years later paid her and the gravesite a wistful visit. For its part, The Rocket devoted an entire issue to the memory of its creative co-founder, "a great guy".

After Bob's death, his sorrowing stepmother composed a moving poem, which Florence has preserved:

Proudly our soldiers marched / Bravely they died; 
Freely their all they gave / To stem the tide
Of wickedness and greed. / What did they give?
Their plans, their hopes , their talents,
Then their lives. / No more had they to give.
Bravely they offered all / That we might live.

The sacrifices made by Bob Dorsey and the other fallen on 6 and 7 June 1944- days of clamour, turmoil, and death -- helped to secure a Canadian foothold in Normandy. It shortly provided, along with the American beachheads at Omaha and Utah and the British ones at Gold and Sword, a springboard for successful albeit bitterly fought and costly Allied campaigns. In these the Camerons - glowingly praised by Ross Munro, a leading Canadian war correspondent -- would play a conspicuous role, supporting with their machine guns and mortars other units of the 3rd Canadian Division. Within a year, in conjunction with the equally crucial accomplishments of Soviet arms in the East, the combined campaigns in Northwest Europe led to the overthrow of Hitler's Third Reich.

Robert Edmund Dorsey was later re-buried with full military honours in Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, Reviers, Calvados, France.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: John Borthwick, Ruth Borthwick, Cathy Dorsey, John Josiah Dorsey, Robert Dorsey, William Lees, Audrey (Dorsey) McCaskill, David Mildon, and Florence Kathleen Riley provided recollections and information vital to this biography. Florence Riley furnished the most moving and informative memoir. Her son, John Josiah, kindly made available wartime correspondence and other documentation and memorabilia that illuminated this piece (see below). Archival and editorial aid was generously supplied by Angela Connell, Margaret Lyons, Kenneth Morgan, Mark Steinacher, and Sheila Turcon.

SOURCES: Original manuscript material, including letters, postcards, The Rocket, a "front line newspaper", photographs, and assorted McMaster and military memorabilia (in the possession of John Josiah Dorsey); Mildon Family Collection (in the possession of David Mildon): Capt. H.B. Gonder to Ivy Mildon, 20 Sept. 1943; National Archives of Canada: Wartime Personnel Records / Service Record of Lieutenant Robert E. Dorsey; Record Group 24, War Diaries, vol. 15026: War Diary of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (MG), 1, 6 June 1944; Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Commemorative Information, Lieut. Robert E. Dorsey.
Hamilton Public Library / Special Collections: Vox Lycei (HCCI), 1933-1934, 83, 1934-1935, 66, 1935-1936, 39, 1936-1937 ("Peace Issue"), 50, 1938-1939, 39; Le Raconteur (Westdale Secondary Schools yearbook), 63; Canadian Baptist Archives / McMaster Divinity College: McMaster University Student File 7346, Robert E. Dorsey; McMaster University Library / W. Ready Archives: Marmor, 1939, 38, 102, 1940, 39, 70, 102, 110, 1941, 18, 65, 67, 105, 1942, 51; Silhouette, 8 Mar. 1940, 4, 15 Mar. 1940, 1, 31 Oct. 1940, 3, 7 Nov. 1940, 1, 21 Nov. 1940, 3, 28 Feb. 1941, 3, 2 Oct. 1942, 3; Richard M. Ross, The History of the 1st Battalion Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (MG) (Ottawa: Runge Press, 1946), chaps. I - IV (particularly 5-7, 11-12, 18-19, 33-43); Ottawa Evening Journal, 28 June 1944, 1, 6 (Ross Munro's report); George G. Blackburn, The Guns of Normandy (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995), chap. 1; C.P. Stacey, Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, III: The Victory Campaign: The Operations in North-West Europe, 1944-1945 (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1960), chap. V (particularly 126-31), B.H. Liddell Hart, History of the Second World War (London: Pan Books, 1973 ed.), 568 passim, Walter T. Steven, In This Sign (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1948), 179.

[ For related biographies, see Nairn Stewart Boyd, John Douglas Young ]