7th Armoured Division (United Kingdom)

"Desert Rats" redirects here. For other uses, see Desert rat (disambiguation).
Mobile Division (Egypt)
7th Armoured Division

7th Armoured Division insignia, from 1944 onwards.
Active 1938–1958
Country  United Kingdom
Branch  British Army
Type Armoured Division
Size Second World War: 14,964 men[1][nb 1]
Nickname(s) The Desert Rats
Mascot(s) Jerboa
Engagements Second World War
North African Campaign
Tunisia Campaign
Allied invasion of Italy
North West Europe
Percy Hobart
William Gott
Jock Campbell VC
John Harding

The 7th Armoured Division was an armoured division of the British Army that saw distinguished active service during World War II, where its exploits in the Western Desert Campaign made it famous as the Desert Rats.

After the Munich Agreement, the division was formed in Egypt during 1938 as the Mobile Division (Egypt)[2] and its first divisional commander was the acclaimed tank theorist Major-General Sir Percy Hobart. In February 1940, the name of the unit was changed to the 7th Armoured Division.[2]

The division fought in most major battles during the North African Campaign; later it would land and fight in the Italian Campaign during the early stages of the invasion of Italy before being withdrawn to the United Kingdom where it prepared to fight in North-west Europe. It began landing in Normandy during the afternoon of D-Day, 6 June 1944, and fought its way across Europe ending the war in Kiel and Hamburg, Germany. The 7th Armoured Brigade was detached from the division during early 1942 and fought the Japanese during the fighting in the early stages of the Burma Campaign, it then returned to the Mediterranean Theatre and fought in the Italian theatre.

Although the 7th Armoured Division was disbanded during the 1950s, the history, name and the famous 'Desert Rat' flash is carried on by the 7th Armoured Brigade.[3]



When Italian troops were massed for the invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, a Mobile Force was assembled in Egypt in case the war spread. When rain and sandstorms led to vehicles being bogged down, it became known as the "Immobile Farce" within the ranks.[4]

After the Munich Crisis, elements of what would become the 7th Armoured Division arrived in the Middle East in 1938 to increase British strength in Egypt and form a Mobile Division.

The 'Mobile Force' – initially the "Matruh Mobile Force" – was established on the coast some 120 mi (190 km) west of Alexandria. It was formed from the Cairo Cavalry Brigade (three armoured regiments: the 7th Queen's Own Hussars, the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars and the 11th Hussars) and supported by the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, a company of the Royal Army Service Corps and a Field Ambulance unit.

The Force was organised as a cavalry brigade (the Hussar regiments with Light Tanks, 15-cwt Ford vehicles, and armoured cars), a tank group (older medium and light tanks and latest Light Tanks) and a "pivot group" (artillery with 3.7-inch Mountain guns and tracked vehicles to tow them).

It was joined by the 1st battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps from Burma and then its first commander, Major-General Percy Hobart. Hobart was an armoured warfare expert and saw that his troops were properly prepared to fight in the desert despite their poor equipment. Stewart Henry Perowne, the Public Relations Attaché at the British Embassy in Baghdad, perhaps uncharitably referred to the unit as the "Mobile Farce" because it included some obsolete tanks like the Vickers Medium Mark II.[5]

The King's Royal Rifle Corps battalion joined the pivot group as a Motor Battalion. By September 1939 the artillery was equipped with 25 pounder gun-howitzers and 37mm anti-tank guns. The next month the first cruiser tanks were issued.

North Africa

In December 1939, Major-General Michael O'Moore Creagh succeeded Hobart, who had fallen foul of his superiors.

The division was meant to be equipped with 220 tanks. However, at the outbreak of the Second World War, in September 1939, the 'Mobile Force' only had 65. Most of the unit's troops had already been deployed for two years by 1940 and it took as long as three months for mail to arrive. On 16 February 1940, the Mobile Division, which had changed names during the middle of 1939 to be called the Armoured Division,[6] became the 7th Armoured Division.[2]

Light Tank Mk VIs and lorries of the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars assembled ready to move off for an exercise in the desert, Egypt, 5 June 1940.

After the Italian declaration of war, the Western Desert Force, under the command of Major-General Richard O'Connor, was massively outnumbered. However, the Italian Army consisted largely of leg infantry; its artillery dated back to the First World War, it had no armoured cars and a few antitank weapons, which were effective only against light and cruiser tanks. As such, it proved to be no match for the British. The Western Desert Force captured 130,000 Italians as prisoners of war (POWs) between December 1940 and February 1941 in piecemeal battles.

During the Italian retreat in January 1941, Major-General O'Connor ordered the Desert Rats to travel south of the Jebel Akhdar and cut off the Italian forces at Beda Fomm, while Australian forces pushed the Italians west. On 7 February, as the tanks were unable to travel fast enough, the manoeuvre was led by an ad hoc brigade of armoured cars, towed artillery and infantry, which completed the trip in 30 hours, that cut off the Italian retreat and destroyed the Italian Tenth Army. Lieutenant Colonel John Combe led this ad hoc group, which was known as "Combe Force" after him. After this, the tanks of the 7th Armoured Division, after eight months of fighting, needed a complete overhaul and the division was withdrawn to Cairo and temporarily ceased to be available as a fighting formation being replaced in the line by the 2nd Armoured Division.[7]

A 2-pounder anti-tank gun being manned by members of the 2nd Battalion, Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort's Own), 24 March 1942.

The Italians had proven so weak that Hitler was forced to send the Afrika Korps, under Erwin Rommel, as reinforcements. In April 1941, the Allied troops in Tobruk were cut off by the Germans and Italians.

On 7 June, the division was again prepared for battle as part of Operation Battleaxe, having received new tanks and additional personnel.[8] In the attack plan for Operation Battleaxe, the 7th force was divided between the Coast Force and Escarpment Force. However, this Allied push failed, and the 7th Armoured Division was forced to withdraw on the third day of fighting.[9] On 18 November, as part of Operation Crusader the whole of the 7th Armoured Division was concentrated on breaking through. They faced only the weakened 21st Panzer Division. However, the XXX Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Willoughby Norrie, aware that the 7th Armoured Division was down to 200 tanks, decided on caution. During the wait, in the early afternoon of 22 November, Rommel attacked Sidi Rezegh with the 21st Panzer and captured the airfield. Fighting was desperate and gallant: for his actions during these two days of fighting, Brigadier Jock Campbell, commanding the 7th Support Group, was awarded the Victoria Cross. However, the 21st Panzer, despite being considerably weaker in armour, proved superior in its combined arms tactics, pushing the 7th Armoured back with a further 50 tanks lost (mainly from the 22nd Armoured Brigade).[10]

The Western Desert Force later became HQ XIII Corps, one of the major parts of the British Eighth Army which, from August 1942 was commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Montgomery. The 7th Armoured Division took part in most of the major battles of the North African Campaign, including both battles of El Alamein (the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942, which stopped the Axis advance, and the Second Battle of El Alamein in October/November 1942, which turned the tide of the war in North Africa). The 7th Armoured Division, now consisting of the 22nd Armoured and 131st Infantry Brigades, later took part in the Battle of El Agheila in December and in many battles of the Tunisia Campaign, under the command of Major General John Harding until he was wounded in January 1943 and replaced by Major General George Erskine. The 7th Armoured Division entered the city of Tunis in May 1943 and participated in the destruction of Axis forces in Tunisia, which brought an end to the fighting in North Africa, with almost 250,000 Axis soldiers surrendering and becoming POWs.

Infantrymen of the 1/6th Battalion, Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey), part of the 131st Infantry Brigade, marching into Tobruk, Libya, 18 November 1942.

On 27 June 1942, elements of the 7th Armoured Division, along with units of the 3rd The King's Own Hussars, suffered one of the worst friendly fire incidents when they were attacked by a group of Royal Air Force (RAF) Vickers Wellington bombers during a two-hour raid near Mersa Matruh, Egypt. Over 359 troops were killed and 560 others were wounded.[11]


The division was not an assault force in the invasion of Sicily, instead remaining in Homs for training in amphibious warfare, but did participate in the early stages of the Italian Campaign. It came ashore at Salerno, on 15 September 1943, to help repel heavy German counterattacks during the Battle for the Salerno beachhead (Operation Avalanche). Shortly after landing on the 18th the 131st (Queen's) Infantry Brigade (which become part of the division in November 1942 and consisted of the 1/5th, 1/6th and 1/7th Territorial battalions of the Queen's Royal Regiment) relieved its 'sister' duplicate, the 169th (Queen's) Infantry Brigade, (consisting of 2/5th, 2/6th and 2/7th Queen's, all formed in 1939), which was part of the 56th (London) Infantry Division, and had been in continuous combat since 9 September. The assembley of six battalions of a single regiment has since been considered a unique moment in the regiment's history.[12] The 169th (Queen's) Brigade was commanded at the time by Brigadier Lewis Lyne, who would later command the 7th Armoured Division from November 1944 onwards. Then, as part of Lieutenant General Mark Clark's U.S. Fifth Army's British X Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Richard McCreery, and supported by the British 46th Infantry Division, it drove on and took Naples. The Desert Rats, used to fighting in the desert, had to adjust to the confined Italian roads. The division crossed the river Volturno in southern Italy, constructing a pontoon bridge. This paved the way for many divisions heading north.

A Sherman tank of the 4th County of London Yeomanry fording the Volturno river at Grazzanise, Italy, 17 October 1943.

On the wishes of the Commander of the British Eighth Army, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, the 7th Armoured Division was recalled to the United Kingdom, along with the 4th Armoured Brigade, 8th Armoured Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division and 51st (Highland) Infantry Division, all of which had seen extensive service alongside the 7th Armoured in the Mediterranean and Middle East, to participate in the invasion of North Western Europe with the British Second Army. The division left Italy in late December 1943, arriving in Glasgow in early January 1944.

North West Europe

In November 1943, the division left Italy for the United Kingdom; with the last units arriving on 7 January 1944.[13][14] The division was re-equipped with the new Cromwell cruiser tanks and in April and May received 36 Sherman Vc Fireflies; enough to organise each troop so that they had a complement of three 75 mm gun Cromwell tanks and a 17 pounder gun Firefly.[13] The Desert Rats were the only British armoured division to use the Cromwell as their main battle tank.[15]

The division was one of the three British follow-up divisions of the two British assault Corps earmarked for the Normandy landings.[16] The 22nd Armoured Brigade embarked on 4 June and most of the division landed on Gold Beach by the end of 7 June, a day after the initial landings.[13][17] The division, part of Lieutenant General Gerard Bucknall's XXX Corps, initially took part in Operation Perch and Operation Goodwood, two operations that formed part of the Battle for Caen, itself part of Operation Overlord, codename for the Allied invasion of Normandy. During Perch, the division was to spearhead one arm of a pincer attack to capture the city. Due to a change in plan, elements of the division engaged tanks of the Panzer-Lehr-Division and the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101 in the Battle of Villers-Bocage.[18] Following the capture of Caen, the division took part in Operation Spring, which was intended to keep the German forces pinned to the British front away from the Americans who were launching Operation Cobra and then Operation Bluecoat, an attack to support the American break-out and intercept German reinforcements moving to stop it. After the Battle of the Falaise Gap, which saw most of the German Army in Normandy destroyed, the division then took part in the Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine.

Major General Gerald Lloyd-Verney, GOC 7th Armoured Division, enters Ghent in his Staghound armoured car, 8 September 1944.

The division's performance in Normandy and the rest of France has been called into question and it has been claimed they did not match those of its earlier campaigns. In early August 1944, Major General George Erskine, the division's GOC, Brigadier William Hinde, commanding the 22nd Armoured Brigade, and up to 100 other officers of the division were removed from their positions and reassigned. Historians largely agree that this was a consequence of the "failure" at Villers-Bocage and had been planned since that battle.[19][20][21][22] Historian Daniel Taylor is of the opinion that the battle's result provided an excuse and that the sackings took place to "demonstrate that the army command was doing something to counteract the poor public opinion of the conduct of the campaign".[21] Historian and former British Army officer Mungo Melvin has commented approvingly of the 7th Armoured Division's institution of a flexible combined arms structure, which other British armoured divisions did not adopt until after Operation Goodwood.[23]

Men of the 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry run along a street in Weseke, Germany, 29 March 1945.

Following the advance across France, the division took part in the Allied advance through Belgium and the Netherlands; liberating Ghent on 6 September. The division then took part in the advance to and securing of the River Maas. In January 1945 the division took part in Operation Blackcock to clear the Roer Triangle, followed by Operation Plunder; the division crossed the River Rhine near Xanten and Wesel and advanced on the German city of Hamburg its destination, as part of the Western Allied invasion of Germany, where the division ended the war.

Cromwell tank with Challenger tank behind of 8th Hussars, 7th Armoured Division, outside Hamburg Dammtor station, 5 May 1945.

The replacement of the division's GOC, following Normandy, did not change the performance of the division and in November 1944, Erskine's replacement, Major General Gerald Lloyd-Verney, was relieved, by Major General Lewis Lyne, after he "was unable to cure the division's bad habits well enough to satisfy Montgomery and Dempsey."[24]

There is almost no doubt that the division was suffering from collective and cumulative battle fatigue. As Verney put it, with some prescience: "There is no doubt that familiarity with war does not make one more courageous. One becomes cunning and from cunning to cowardice is but a short step."[25]

Post war

The Division remained in Germany as part of the occupation forces and then into the 1950s as part of the British Army of the Rhine standing watch against the Warsaw Pact. As the British Army became smaller, its higher numbered divisions were removed from the order of battle. The Division's long and illustrious career finally came to an end in this fashion, in April 1958, when it was converted into 5th Division. However, the traditions and iconic nickname ("Desert Rats") of the Division are maintained by 7th Armoured Brigade, which forms part of 1st Armoured Division.

Derivation of nickname “The Desert Rats”

The name was coined by the first divisional commander, Major-General Percy Hobart on a visit to Maaten Bagush. There he met Rea Leakey, then GSO 3 Intelligence, who had a pet jerboa, or “desert rat”. Hobart took to the animal and decided to adopt “The Desert Rats” as a nickname for the division. The shoulder flash was designed by the wife of his successor, Major-General Michael O'Moore Creagh, using a jerboa from Cairo Zoo as a model. The resulting shoulder patches were made of scarlet thread. These were unofficial; the War Office did not adopt the flashes until the summer of 1943 and then redesigned them to look, in the opinion of Leakey, more like a kangaroo than a jerboa. The colour was also changed to black.[26]

General Officer Commanding

Commanders included:

Appointed General Officer Commanding
3 September 1939 Major-General Percy Hobart[27]
16 November 1939 Brigadier John A. L. Caunter (acting)[27]
4 December 1939 Major-General Michael O'Moore Creagh[27]
1 April 1941 Brigadier J.A.L. Caunter (acting)[27]
13 April 1941 Major-General Michael O'Moore Creagh[27](replaced after failure of Battleaxe)
3 September 1941 Major-General William Gott[27] (promoted to command of XIII Corps)
6 February 1942 Major-General John Campbell VC (killed in motor accident 23 February)[27]
23 February 1942 Brigadier A.H. Gatehouse (acting)[27]
9 March 1942 Major-General Frank Messervy[27] (dismissed after battle of Gazala)
19 June 1942 Major-General James Renton[27]
14 September 1942 Major-General John Harding (wounded on 18 January 1943)[27]
20 January 1943 Brigadier George Roberts (acting)[27]
24 January 1943 Major-General George Erskine[27]
4 August 1944 Major-General Gerald Lloyd-Verney[27]
22 November 1944 Major-General Lewis Lyne[27]
1947 Major-General George Roberts[28]
March 1949 Major-General Robert Arkwright[28]
May 1951 Major-General Charles Jones[28]
November 1953 Major-General Kenneth Cooper[28]
March 1956 Major-General John Hackett[28]
February 1958 Major-General Geoffrey Musson[28]

Members of the 7th Armoured Division


There is a monument to the 7th Armoured at Brandon in Thetford Forest where the 7th trained prior to D-day.

See also


  1. This is the war establishment, the on-paper strength, of the division for 1944/1945; for information on how the division size changed over the war please see British Army during the Second World War and British Armoured formations of World War II.
  1. Joslen, p. 129
  2. 1 2 3 "4th Mechanised Brigade: History". British Army. Archived from the original on 3 March 2008.
  3. Welcome to the new British Army Website – British Army Website
  4. British and Commonwealth Armoured Formations 1919–1946
  5. Kelly, Saul, The Lost Oasis, p. 121
  6. Playfair, Volume I, p. 36
  7. Wavell, Archibald (1946). Operations in the Middle East from 7th February to 15th July 1941. Wavell's Official Despatches. first published in The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37638. pp. 3423–3444. 2 July 1946., p. 2 (see The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 38177. p. 310. 13 January 1948.)
  8. Playfair, Volume II, pp. 1–2, 32, 163–164
  9. Liddell Hart, Basil H.. The Tanks: The History of the Royal Tank Regiment and its Predecessors, Heavy Branch, Machine-Gun Corps, Tank Corps, and Royal Tank Corps, 1914–1945, pg. 90
  10. Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 103–105
  11. The Rommel Papers, Liddell-Hart, Basil Henry pp.238–239 (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, 1953)
  12. "The Italian Campaign". The Queen's Royal Surrey Regimental Association. Retrieved 27 November 2015.
  13. 1 2 3 Fortin, p. 4
  14. Delaforce, pp. 1–2
  15. Taylor, p. 6
  16. Ellis, p. 79
  17. Forty, p. 36
  18. Buckley, pp. 23–27
  19. Fortin, p. 10
  20. Forty, p. 104
  21. 1 2 Taylor, p. 84
  22. Wilmot, p. 398
  23. Buckley (2006), pp. 28–29
  24. D'Este, Carlo (1983). Decision in Normandy. London: William Collins Sons. p. 286.
  25. D'Este, p. 273
  26. Rea Leakey, Leakey’s Luck, paperback edition 2002, p 23 and pp 24-25n; photographs of original and redesigned flashes between page 102 and 103.
  27. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Joslen, p. 19
  28. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Army Commands Archived 5 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine.


External links

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