The division was formed in the United Kingdom under Northern Command on 12 September 1940, commanded by Major-General John Crocker, an officer of the Royal Tank Regiment who had recently fought in the Battle of France. The division initially had the 20th and 26th Armoured Brigades under command, as well as the 6th Support Group. In late April 1942, the 20th Armoured Brigade was transferred from the division and replaced by the 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade and the 6th Support Group was disbanded in June. The 6th Armoured Division, now commanded by Major General Charles Keightley, taking over from Major General Charles Gairdner, soon began intensive training in preparation for service overseas.
Operation Torch (initially called Operation Gymnast) was the joint Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa during the Second World War in the North African Campaign, starting on 8 November 1942.
On 22 November, the North African Agreement finally placed Vichy French North Africa on the side of the Allied powers, allowing the Allied garrison troops to be sent forward to the front. By this time the Axis powers had been able to build up their forces, which resulted in them outnumbering the Allies. The Allies had only two brigade groups and some additional armour and artillery for an attack on Tunisia. Nevertheless, they believed if they moved quickly, before the newly arrived Axis forces were fully organised, they would still be able to capture Tunisia at relatively little cost. The plan called for the Allies to advance along the two roads and take Bizerte and Tunis. Once Bizerte was taken Torch would come to an end. Attacking in the north towards Bizerte would be the British 36th Infantry Brigade, supported by Hart Force, a small armoured group from the British 6th Armoured Division.
To the south, the British 11th Infantry Brigade supported on their left by "Blade Force", an armoured regimental group commanded by Colonel Richard Hull, which included the tanks of the 17th/21st Lancers, a U.S. light tank battalion plus motorised infantry, paratroops, artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns and engineers. Both infantry brigades were from the British 78th Battleaxe Infantry Division, whose commander, Major-General Vyvyan Evelegh, was in command of the offensive. (Evelegh was later to command the 6th Armoured Division.) The operation narrowly failed with the modest attacking forces getting to within 10 miles (16 km) of Tunis before the Axis troops, which had mainly been flown in, were able to organise their defences and repel the Allied advance. By the end of 1942, a stalemate had set in as both sides built up their forces.
On 30 January 1943, the German 21st Panzer Division (veterans of the Afrika Korps under Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel) and three Italian divisions met elements of the French forces near Faïd, the main pass from the eastern arm of the mountains into the coastal plains. They overran them and surrounded two U.S. units near them. Several counter-attacks were organized, including a number by the U.S. 1st Armored Division, but these were beaten off with ease. After three days, the Allied forces had been forced to pull back and were withdrawn into the interior, to make a new forward defensive line at the small town of Sbeitla.
The Germans and Italians started forward once again the following week to take Sbeitla. They were held up for two days, but eventually the defence started to collapse on the night of 16 February 1943 and the town lay empty by midday on 17 February (see also the Battle of Sidi Bou Zid). This left the entirety of the interior plains in Axis hands and the remaining Allied forces retreated further, to the two passes on the western arm of the mountains into Algeria, at Sbiba and Kasserine. It was during this time that the 38th (Irish) Brigade left the division, to be replaced by the 1st Guards Brigade from the British 78th Division.
Their offensive stopped, even as the U.S. II Corps, under Major General Lloyd Fredendall, retreated in disarray. Eventually Rommel decided his next course of action was to simply take the American supplies on the Algerian side of the western arm of the mountains. Although doing little for his own situation, it would seriously upset any possible American actions from that direction.
On 19 February 1943, Rommel launched what would become the Battle of Kasserine Pass. After two days of advances through the American defences, the Afrika Korps and the Italians had suffered few casualties, while the American forces lost 16,000 men and two-thirds of their tanks. During the battle the Italian 131st Centauro Armoured Division captured more than 3,000 American soldiers. On the night of 21 February 1943, the 6th Armoured and 46th Infantry Divisions, arrived to bolster the American defence, having been pulled from the British lines facing the Germans at Sbiba. Counter-attacks by Italian troops were also ordered both on the British and Americans. Two battalions of experienced Bersaglieri soldiers are recorded by the 23rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery as having made a daylight counter-attack through the Ousseltia Plain, which was repelled. Next day opened with yet another successful German counter-attack against the Americans, until the arrival of four U.S. artillery battalions made offensive operations difficult.
Faced with stiffening defences and the news that the Eighth Army had reached Medenine, only a few kilometers from the Mareth Line, Rommel decided to call off the attack and withdraw on the night of 22 February 1943 to support the Mareth defences, hoping that the Kasserine attack had caused enough damage to deter any offensive action from the west in the immediate future. The Axis forces from Kasserine reached the Mareth line on 25 February. It was after the battle of Kasserine Pass that the 6th Armoured Division was reorganized and equipped with the M4 Sherman tank. In March 1943 the division was assigned to the recently arrived IX Corps, under Lieutenant-General John Crocker, the first GOC of the division, later wounded in a training accident and replaced by Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks, was the spearhead of the British First Army's final assault in May 1943, breaking through to Tunis. The 6th Armoured Division went on to take the surrender of the famous 90th Light Division and participated in the round up and capitulation of all Axis forces in North Africa in May 1943.
Italy was to prove completely different from North Africa. There was to be no more mobile warfare in wide open spaces. The division would spend much of its time supporting the infantry as the Allies came across defensive line after defensive line.
The Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the Battle for Rome and the Battle for Cassino) was a costly series of four battles. In the beginning of 1944, the western half of the Gustav Line was being anchored by Germans holding the Rapido, Liri and Garigliano valleys and certain surrounding peaks and ridges but not the historic abbey of Monte Cassino, founded in AD 524 by St. Benedict, although they manned defensive positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey walls. On 15 February the monastery, high on a peak overlooking the town of Cassino, was destroyed by American B-17, B-25 and B-26 bombers. The bombing was based on the fear that the abbey was being used as a lookout post for the Axis defenders (this position evolved over time to admit that Axis military was not garrisoned there). Two days after the bombing, Fallschirmjäger (German paratroopers) poured into the ruins to defend it. From 17 January to 18 May, the Gustav defences were assaulted four times by Allied troops. These operations resulted in casualties of over 54,000 Allied and 20,000 German soldiers.
Operation Diadem was the final battle at Cassino, during which the Division was a part of the British XIII Corps. The plan was that the U.S. II Corps on the left would attack up the coast along the line of Route 7 towards Rome. The French Corps on its right would attack from the bridgehead across the Garigliano originally created by X Corps in the first battle in January into the Aurunci Mountains, which formed a barrier between the coastal plain and the Liri Valley. The British XIII Corps in the centre right of the front would attack along the Liri valley, whilst, on the right, the 2nd Polish Corps would attempt to isolate the monastery and push round behind it into the Liri valley to link with XIII Corps' thrust and pinch out the Cassino position. The division took part in the advance north through central Italy under command variously of XIII Corps and X Corps.
The next major engagements were along the Gothic Line defences. The 6th Armoured Division, now commanded by Major General Gerald Templer (but soon replaced by Major General Horatius Murray after Templer was injured in early August), was now part of Lieutenant General Sidney Kirkman's British XIII Corps, which had been assigned to the U.S. Fifth Army, under Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, to form its right flank and fight in the high Apennine Mountains during Operation Olive in August and September 1944. The Gothic Line, also known as Linea Gotica, formed Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring's last major line of defence in the final stages of World War II along the summits of the Apennine Mountains during the fighting retreat of the German forces in Italy. The 6th Armoured Division captured the San Godenzo Pass on Route 67 to Forlì on 18 September during these battles.
In the fertile plains of Northern Italy, the mountains gave way to ditches, canals and flood banks. As wet winter weather, which had turned the rivers into torrents and made the ground into quagmires, receded the Fifth and Eighth Armies were able to launch their final offensive in Italy in March 1945. The 6th Armoured Division had been reattached to Eighth Army as part of V Corps. On the right wing of the armies, V Corps attacked across the Senio river and then the Santerno river. Elements of the 56th (London) Infantry Division and the 78th Infantry Division then drove on towards the town of Argenta where the dry land narrowed to a front of only 3 miles (4.8 km) bounded on the right by Lake Comacchio, a huge lagoon running to the Adriatic coast, and on the left by marshland. By 19 April, the Argenta Gap had been forced and 6th Armoured was released through the left wing of the advancing 78th Infantry Division, to swing left to race north west along the line of the river Reno to Bondeno and link up with units of the Fifth Army advancing north from west of Bologna to complete the encirclement of the German divisions defending Bologna. On all fronts the German defence continued to be determined and effective, but Bondeno was captured on 23 April. The 6th Armoured Division linked with the U.S. IV Corp's 10th Mountain Division the next day at Finale. The US IV Corps had broken through onto the plains on 19 April, bypassing Bologna on their right. Bologna was entered by the Poles advancing up the line of Route 9 on 21 April, followed two hours later by the U.S. II Corps from the south.
The U.S. IV Corps had continued its northwards advance and reached the river Po at San Benedetto on 22 April. The river was crossed the next day, and it advanced north to Verona, which was entered on 26 April. The British XIII Corps crossed the Po at Ficarolo on 22 April, while further east V Corps was crossing the Po by 25 April heading towards the Venetian Line, a defensive line built behind the line of the river Adige. The British V Corps, met by lessening resistance, traversed the Venetian Line and entered Padua in the early hours of 29 April to find that partisans had locked up the German garrison of 5,000. As April came to an end, Army Group C, the Axis forces in Italy, retreating on all fronts and having lost most of its fighting powers, was left with little option but to surrender. General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, who had taken command of Army Group C, signed the instrument of surrender on behalf of the German armies in Italy on 29 April, formally bringing hostilities in Italy to an end on 2 May 1945.
The Division was reformed in May 1951 in the UK and later assigned to the British Army of the Rhine in Germany. It consisted of the 20th Armoured Brigade and 61st Lorried Infantry Brigade. It was disbanded in June 1958.
6th Armoured Division was constituted as follows during the war:
20th Armoured Brigade (from 16 October 1940, left 23 April 1942)1st Royal Gloucestershire Hussars
1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry
2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry
2nd Battalion, The Rangers (became 10th Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps 21 March 1941)
26th Armoured Brigade (from 9 November 1940)16th/5th Lancers (detached 9 January 1944, rejoined 29 March 1944)
2nd Lothians and Border Horse (left 17 July 1945)
4th Queen's Own Hussars (from 28 July 1945)
2nd Battalion, Tower Hamlets Rifles (from 16 October 1940, became 10th Battalion, Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own) 15 January 1941, left 29 May 1944)
1st Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps (from 22 July 1945)
6th Support Group (from 1 November 1940, disbanded 1 June 1942)12th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (Honourable Artillery Company) (left 31 May 1942)
72nd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery (left 31 May 1942)
51st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment,Royal Artillery (left 31 May 1942)
9th Battalion, Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment (left 24 April 1942)
38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade (from 9 June 1942, left 16 February 1943)2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles
1st Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers
6th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
1st Guards Brigade (from 24 March 1943, left 29 May 1944)3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards
2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards
3rd Battalion, Welsh Guards
61st Infantry Brigade (from 29 May 1944)2nd Battalion, Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own)
7th Battalion, Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own)
10th Battalion, Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own) (from 30 May 1944, disbanded 20 March 1945)
1st Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps (from 8 March 1945, left 22 July 1945)
1st Battalion, Welch Regiment (from 29 June 1945)
2nd Battalion, Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders (from 19 July 1945)
1st Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment (from 19 July 1945)
Divisional Troops1st Derbyshire Yeomanry (Reconnaissance Regiment, from 10 November 1940)
12th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (Honourable Artillery Company)
152nd (Ayrshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
72nd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery
51st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery
5th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers (from 19 November 1940, left 6 March 1944)
8th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers (from 15 December 1940)
625th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers (from 7 March 1944)
144th Field Park Squadron, Royal Engineers (from 19 November 1940)
6th Bridging Troop, Royal Engineers (from 25 December 1943, left 21 August 1945)
6th Armoured Divisional Signals Regiment, Royal Corps of Signals
36th Infantry Brigade
201st Guards Motor Brigade
24th Guards Brigade
21st Indian Infantry Brigade