In Poland and western Europe in 1939 and 1940, the German armoured formations demonstrated what some observers felt were dramatically improved new tactics, leaving the Allied forces with a perceived need to address these developments. The continued evolution of the Royal Armoured Corps was the answer for the British Army.
The 11th Armoured Division was organized in March 1941, in Yorkshire under Major-General Percy Hobart. A veteran of the Royal Tank Corps, he had already strongly influenced the shape of the 7th Armoured Division, but his original and innovative ideas had led to his retirement from the army. Reinstated after the disasters of the Battle of France in 1940, he further realised his vision with the 11th Armoured. Under his leadership the Division adopted the “Charging Bull” as its emblem.
Originally composed of the 29th and 30th Armoured brigades, together with the 11th Support Group, it was reorganised in late May and early June 1942 on the standard armoured division establishment of the time, of a single armoured brigade and an infantry brigade, along with supporting units. As a result, the 11th Support Group was disbanded and the 30th Armoured Brigade left the division, to be replaced by the 159th Infantry Brigade, transferred from the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division. After this reorganisation, for the next two years it conducted intensive training while gradually receiving new, more modern equipment. In November 1942 as the Allies invaded North Africa as part of Operation Torch the Division was warned to prepare for overseas service to join the British First Army fighting in Tunisia and began embarking when the order was cancelled.
In July 1944, after the Allies invaded Normandy, the 11th Armoured Division participated in Operations Epsom and Goodwood. It also participated in the drive to Amiens, the fastest and deepest penetration into enemy territory ever made at that time. On 4 September, the 11th Armoured Division captured the city of Antwerp.
Soon thereafter, the Division pushed forward into the German-occupied Netherlands. In March 1945, it crossed the river Rhine and captured the German city of Lübeck on 2 May 1945. It occupied the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on 15 April 1945. When men of the Division entered the camp, more than 60,000 emaciated prisoners were found in desperate need of medical attention. More than 13,000 corpses in various stages of decomposition lay scattered around the area. Units of the Division and its higher formations were detached to oversee the clean up of the camp. From the end of the war in Europe (8 May 1945), the 11th Armoured Division controlled the province of Schleswig Holstein until it was disbanded in January 1946.
The 11th Armoured Division was reformed in the autumn of 1950, but was converted into the 4th Infantry Division in 1956.
Most of the 11th Armoured Division landed on Juno Beach on 13 June 1944 (D+7), seven days after the 3rd Canadian Division had landed on D-Day. It was deployed in all major operations of the British Second Army, including Operations Epsom, Goodwood, and Bluecoat, and the battles around the Falaise Gap.
The 11th Armoured Division, as part of the VIII Corps, was committed to action on 26 June 1944 as part of Operation Epsom. It entered the Scottish 'corridor', opened beforehand by the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division. Despite mistakes in navigation, which slowed down the 159th Infantry Brigade in Mouen, the 11th managed to seize the bridges at Grainville and Colleville. It then progressed southward to Hill 112 (a dominant feature in the Normandy landscape near the village of Baron) and succeeded in capturing and holding this high ground against increasingly intense German counter-attacks. However, a renewed attack by fresh SS-Panzerdivisions transformed what was intended as a breakthrough into a battle for position. On 30 June, Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey, commanding the British Second Army, fearing a general counter-offensive, ordered the 11th Armoured to withdraw from Hill 112. Operation Epsom was considered a failure, but it did force the German Army to abandon its offensive plans. With the operation over, the Division began resting and absorbing large numbers of tanks and replacements for the casualties sustained.
The 11th Armoured was then moved to the east of Caen to spearhead Operation Goodwood. Planning and execution errors, coupled with strong German defences, led to a tactical British defeat. Goodwood was cancelled on 20 July, with the 11th Armoured being withdrawn from the front line to rest and refit. In only two days of fighting, it had lost nearly 200 tanks, representing more than half of its complement. The subsequent reorganization saw the 23rd Hussars absorb the remainder of the 24th Lancers (of the 8th Armoured Brigade).
The 11th Armoured was directed again to the west, to take part in Operation Bluecoat. Beginning on 30 July 1944 it seized Saint-Martin-des-Besaces. The Division spotted an intact bridge on the Souleuvre river, which enabled it to drive the Germans back. In what became the famous "Charge of the Bull", the division liberated Le Bény-Bocage on 1 August and quickly progressed southward. Although severely weakened at that time, the German army remained ever-present and dangerous. From 5 August, The 11th Armoured worked with the Guards Armoured Division and 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division to push back a counter-attack of the 9th SS Panzer Division.
After being replaced by the 3rd Infantry Division, the 11th Armoured was attached to XXX Corps. It progressed eastward hard on the heels of the Germans, who were retreating after the failure of the Mortain counteroffensive. The sole memorial to the fallen of the division is at Pont de Vère, the location of a battle on 16 August against a German rearguard. The 11th Armoured seized Flers on 17 August, then moved toward Putanges. From 19 August, it pushed the Germans back north of Argentan and captured the commander of the German 276th Infantry Division and more than 900 other prisoners.
Once the battle for the Falaise gap was over, the 11th Armoured liberated L'Aigle on 23 August and crossed the Seine on 28 August.
After a night move, and an unprecedented advance of 60 miles in one day, the Division liberated Amiens on 1 September. The same day, it captured General Eberbach, commander of the Wehrmacht's German 7th Army. Advancing to Lens, then Tournai, the Division was then committed to the fight for Antwerp, which it liberated on 4 September. Two days later, it tried to establish a bridgehead over the Albert Canal, but the attempt, due to intense enemy fire, was not successful. After this failure, 11th Armoured had to cross much further to the east, at Beringen. It then advanced to Helchteren, Peer, Bree, and cleared the area between the Albert Canal and the Maas up to 12 September. The Division was then rested for a week.
Eleventh Armoured was not directly committed to Operation Market Garden. Instead, it was tasked with securing the right flank of the operation. Attached to VIII Corps, it began moving on 18 September. Advancing in two columns, it managed to reach the US 101st Airborne Division at Nuenen, while on the 22nd, its engineers established a bridge over the Willemsvaart canal. The Division could then make an encircling move around Helmond, forcing the Germans to withdraw on 25 September.
At the beginning of October, the Division was employed in clearing pockets of German resistance remaining west of the Maas. The operation developed promisingly with 159th Infantry Brigade, battling its way across the Deurne canal. Unfortunately, the attack was quickly stopped by obstinate German resistance. Further delay was imposed by the growing supply shortage and the launching of an enemy counter-attack in the south. There was also a skillful German defence which postponed clearing of the Maas for several weeks. During this period the Division came into contact with troops from the United States and the divisional sign was referred to as "the Swell Bison". On 16 October Sergeant Eardley of the 4th Battalion, King's Shropshire Light Infantry (from 159th Brigade) was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery.
Preparations for a new crossing attempt were delayed until the second half of November. On the 22nd, 159th Brigade managed to cross and to seize the village of America. It progressed to Horst, before being relieved by units of the 15th (Scottish) Division. On 30 November, it attacked the fortress of Broekhuizen, which was defended by German parachutists. The enemy inflicted heavy losses, before capitulating on 5 December. The western bank of the Maas was also cleared.
At the beginning of December 1944 units of the 11th Armoured Division were placed in reserve around Ypres. The infantry was to benefit from a longer rest, while tank crews would receive new Comet tanks, a vehicle armed with a powerful 77 mm gun which was capable of engaging German panzers at longer range.
The start of the Ardennes offensive, (the Battle of the Bulge) modified British ambitions. Being one of few formations in reserve, the 11th Armoured was urgently recalled to active service with its old tanks and directed to hold a defensive line along the Meuse, between Namur and Givet. On 24 December, its advanced positions spotted and destroyed several tanks of the 2nd Panzer Division, east of Dinant. From 26 December onwards, the Germans started to withdraw and 11th Armoured was replaced by the 7th Airborne Division, after having pushed the enemy back beyond Celles. Only 29th Armoured Brigade was retained in support of the airborne troops. It forced the Germans back to La Bure and Wavreille between 3 and 7 January. From the 9th on, it reached Grupont, before being finally directed the following day to Ypres for rest, refit and training activities.
On 17 February 1945 the 159th Brigade was recalled to the front, to add its weight to the reinforce XXX Corps fighting in Operation Veritable (Lower Rhine region). The fights lasted longer and were more difficult than expected and, despite fairly limited involvement, suffered the highest exhaustion rates of any British or Canadian units involved. At the same time the 4th Armoured Brigade, under Brigadier Michael Carver, came under command of the Division and left 8 March.
The infantry of the 11th Armoured later received orders to seize Gochfortzberg, south of Üdem, then to break the Schlieffen line and capture Sonsbeck, in order to support the II Canadian Corps which progressed towards Hochwald from the north (→ Operation Blockbuster). The brigade attack started on 26 February. Under challenging conditions, Gochfortzberg was seized on 28 February, Sonsbeck on 3 March.
The 11th Armoured Division was held in reserve until 28 March 1945 when it crossed the Rhine at Wesel, heading for the river Weser. Despite sporadic pockets of resistance, it reached Gescher on the evening of 30 March. During the next few weeks the Division worked closely with the British 6th Airborne Division, both of which were under command of Lieutenant-General Evelyn Barker's VIII Corps. 3 RTR arrived at the river Ems in Emsdetten; they then reached the Dortmund-Ems canal the following day.
After crossing the canal on 1 April, the 11th Armoured approached Ibbenbüren and was heavily engaged on the heights of the Teutoburger Wald. The villages of Brochterbeck and Tecklenburg were captured, albeit at a high price. Further east, the wooded hills were defended by companies of NCOs, who savagely counter-attacked the 3rd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment. The intervention of the 2nd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment of the 131st Infantry Brigade, of the 7th Armoured Division, later on, made it possible to overcome their opposition, but the battalion, already weakened during previous campaigns, had to be replaced by the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment and was transferred to the 115th Independent Infantry Brigade. The battalion had suffered over 1,100 casualties throughout the campaign, including 267 killed. It was during the same action the Division was also awarded its second Victoria Cross of the war, belonging to Corporal Edward Thomas Chapman of the 2nd Monmouths.
Divisional units continued toward the Osnabrück canal. After crossing via a captured bridge, it moved towards the Weser, reached by leading elements near Stolzenau on 5 April. A week later, the 11th Armoured liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. A local agreement with German commanders made it possible to declare the neighbourhood of the camp an open area, and the fighting moved northeast. The Division reached the river Elbe near Lüneburg on 18 April.
On 30 April 1945 the 11th Armoured Division launched their last attack. It crossed the Elbe at Artlenburg, then against little opposition, occupied Lübeck on 2 May and Neustadt on 3 May (Cap Arcona). It finished the war by patrolling the surrounding countryside, collecting 80,000 prisoners which included 27 Generals. After the German surrender, the 11th Armoured Division was used as an occupation force in the Schleswig-Holstein area. On 23 May, units of the division were employed in the capture of members of the Dönitz government in Flensburg.
The 11th Armoured Division was disbanded shortly after the end of the war at the end of January 1946. During the campaign in northwestern Europe, from June 1944 until May 1945, the Division had lost almost 2,000 officers and men killed in action and more than 8,000 wounded or missing in action. Its rotation in tanks was 300%.
Throughout the North West Europe Campaign the 11th Armoured Division had, in the words of General Sir Miles Christopher Dempsey,
proved itself throughout the campaign in North-Western Europe an outstandingly fine division. I have never met a better. Even after sustaining considerable losses [10,000 casualties including 2,000 killed] – and the 11th Armoured Division had heavier casualties in any other division in Second Army – there was always a sound and well-trained nucleus to fall back on. The division was brimful of that priceless asset – confidence.
11th Armoured Division was constituted as follows during World War II:
29th Armoured Brigade24th Lancers (left 6 February 1944)
2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry (from 7 June 1941)
3rd Royal Tank Regiment (from 6 February 1944)
8th Battalion, Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own)
30th Armoured Brigade (left 20 April 1942)22nd Dragoons
1st Lothians and Border Horse
2nd Battalion, Queen's Westminsters (renamed 25 March 1941)
12th (Queen's Westminsters) Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps (from 25 March 1941)
11th Support Group (disbanded 1 June 1942)13th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (Honourable Artillery Company) (to Divisional Troops on 31 May 1942)
75th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery (to Divisional Troops on 31 May 1942)
58th (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery (from 7 May 1941, to Divisional Troops on 31 May 1942)
8th Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles (left 8 May 1941)
12th Battalion, Green Howards (from 9 May 1941, left 8 May 1942)
159th Infantry Brigade (from 1 June 1942)4th Battalion, King's Shropshire Light Infantry
3rd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment (left 3 April 1945)
1st Battalion, Herefordshire Regiment
1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment (from 6 April 1945)
Divisional Troops2nd Independent Machine Gun Company (Machine Gun Company, from 16 March 1944)
27th Lancers (Reconnaissance Regiment, from 10 March 1941, left 25 March 1943)
2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry (Reconnaisssance Regiment, from 25 March 1943, disbanded 17 August 1944)
15th/19th The King's Royal Hussars (Reconnaissance Regiment, from 17 August 1944)
13th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (Honourable Artillery Company) (from 1 June 1942)
151st (Ayrshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
75th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery (from 1 June 1942, left 2 June 1945)
65th (Norfolk Yeomanry) Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery (from 2 June 1945)
58th (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery (from 1 June 1942)
12th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers (from 16 March 1941, left 1 January 1943)
13th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers (from 16 March 1941)
612th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers (from 1 January 1943)
147th Field Park Squadron, Royal Engineers (from 16 March 1941)
10th Bridging Platoon, Royal Engineers (from 1 October 1943)
11th Armoured Divisional Signals Regiment, Royal Corps of Signals
An Inns of Court Regiment armoured car squadron was attached to most 11th Armoured Division operations.
11th Armoured Division is depicted in Episode 4 "Replacements" of the TV miniseries Band of Brothers. During the assault on Nuenen, the 11th Armoured Division's Reconnaissance unit, the 15th/19th The King's Royal Hussars equipped with Cromwell tanks, assisted Easy Company on a forced reconnaissance northeast of Eindhoven. Although they have both Cromwell and Sherman tanks in the series, the Hussars was historically equipped with Cromwells only. Despite the Shermans, the producers have marked the tanks with correct markings with the unit marking for the 11th Armoured Division, "45" for Reconnaissance unit and a triangle for "A" Squadron.