The 77th Infantry Division of the British Army was formed during the Second World War, from the re-organisation of the Devon and Cornwall County Division. During its existence the division changed roles several times. On 20 December 1942, it became the 77th Infantry (Reserve) Division, training recruits in infantry and armoured warfare. New recruits to the army were assigned to the 77th to complete their training.
On 1 December 1943, the division was once again renamed. Now known as the 77th (Holding) Division, it was responsible for retraining soldiers who had been on medical leave. Once recruits were fully trained, and men returning from injury retrained, they were allocated to formations fighting overseas. Notably, the formation was used as a source of reinforcements for the 21st Army Group, which was fighting in Normandy. After all available British army troops left the United Kingdom for France, the division was disbanded and re-formed as a deception unit to give Germany the impression that the British army had more divisions than it did. The notional 77th Division was held in reserve within the United Kingdom.
In 1940, following the Second World War's Battle of France, the United Kingdom was under threat of invasion from Germany. During the summer, the Battle of Britain dampened this threat. As the year progressed, the size of the British Army increased dramatically as 140 new infantry battalions were raised. During October, with the possibility of a German invasion during 1941, these new battalions were formed into independent infantry brigades that were then assigned to newly created County Divisions.
The County Divisions, including the Devon and Cornwall County Division, were around 10,000 men strong and assigned to defend the coastlines of threatened sections of the country, including the manning of coastal artillery. These divisions were largely static, lacking mobility and also divisional assets such as artillery, engineers, and reconnaissance forces. Using the recruits in this manner allowed the regular infantry divisions to be freed up from such duties, undertake training, and form an all-important reserve that could be used to counterattack any possible German landing.
On 22 June, Germany launched a massive attack upon the Soviet Union; this attack all but removed the threat of a German invasion of the United Kingdom. However, the British still had to consider the threat of a German invasion due the possibility that the Soviet Union could collapse under the German onslaught and the ease in which Germany could transfer troops back to the west. In late 1941, the arrival of autumn and winter weather meant that the threat of invasion subsided. This, coupled with the production of new equipment for the British army, allowed the War Office to begin steps to better balance the army due to the large number of infantry units formed during the preceding year and a half. As part of this reform, the County Divisions were disbanded.
During the war, the divisions of the British Army were divided between "Higher Establishment" and "Lower Establishment" formations. The former were intended for deployment overseas and combat, whereas the latter were strictly for home defence in a static role. On 1 December 1941, the Devon and Cornwall County Division was abolished and reformed as the 77th Infantry Division, a "Lower Establishment" division. The division, like its predecessor, comprised the 203rd, the 209th, and the 211th Infantry Brigades. That day, the division was assigned artillery, engineers, and signallers. An anti-tank regiment and reconnaissance troops joined the following month. The war-establishment, the on-paper strength, of an infantry division at this time was 17,298 men. Major-General Godwin Michelmore, who had commanded the Devon and Cornwall County Division since 30 October, retained command of the division. The 77th was assigned to VIII Corps, and remained based in the Devon area. The Imperial War Museum comments that the division insignia references "Arthur's sword Excalibur, acknowledging the [division's] connections with the West Country" and its predecessor division. After the division became a training formation, the insignia was only worn by the permanent division members.
During the winter of 1942–43, the British Army overhauled how it would train new recruits. The 77th was one of three divisions that were changed from "Lower Establishment" units to "Reserve Divisions". On 20 December, the division was renamed the 77th Infantry (Reserve) Division, becoming a training formation in the process. These three divisions were supplemented by a fourth training formation, which was raised on 1 January 1943. The 77th Infantry (Reserve) Division was assigned to Northern Command. Soldiers who had completed their corps training were sent to these training divisions. The soldiers were given five weeks of additional training at the section, platoon and company level, before undertaking a final three-day exercise. Troops would then be ready to be sent overseas to join other formations. Training was handled in this manner to relieve the "Higher Establishment" divisions from being milked for replacements for other units and to allow them to intensively train without the interruption of having to handle new recruits. For example, the 12th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment provided the additional training to the regiment's new recruits before assigning them to other battalions within the regiment.
As part of the restructuring, the 211th Infantry Brigade was transferred to the 80th Infantry (Reserve) Division. The infantry brigade was replaced with the 11th Army Tank Brigade, in order to provide training facilities for the Royal Armoured Corps and retain reinforcements until they were ready to be deployed. On 1 December 1943, the division was again re-organised, and became the 77th Holding Division. As part of this restructuring, the 11th Army Tank Brigade was withdrawn. Lieutenant-Colonel H.F. Joslen wrote that the division's role was now "for sorting, retraining and holding personnel temporarily – due to disbandments, medical and other causes." For example, as part of the change from a reserve to holding division, the 14th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry was converted from a regular infantry unit into a Rehabilitation Centre. Ex-prisoners of war, repatriates, troops who were suffering from morale issues or of low physique were sent to the battalion where they underwent medical, physical, and military tests. These tests were designed to establish what medical category the soldiers should be assigned, and what job or military capability would best suit them. Likewise, soldiers returning from long periods of overseas service were sent to the 11th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment for retraining.
On 30 June 1944, the 77th Holding, and the training divisions, had a combined total of 22,355 men. Of these, only 1,100 were immediately available as replacements for the 21st Army Group. The remaining 21,255 men were considered ineligible for service abroad due to a variety of reasons, ranging from medical, not being considered fully fit, or not yet fully trained. Over the following six months, up to 75 per cent of these men would be deployed to reinforce the 21st Army Group, following the completion of their training and/or having come up to the required fitness levels. Stephen Hart comments that, by September, the 21st Army Group "had bled Home Forces dry of draftable riflemen" due to the losses suffered during the Battle of Normandy, leaving the army in Britain (with the exception of the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division) with just "young lads, old men, and the unfit". On 1 September 1944, the division was disbanded. The 45th (Holding) Division was then formed (the 45th Infantry Division having been disbanded on 15 August) by Michelmore and his headquarter staff. Michelmore assumed command, and the 45th Holding Division took over the role of the 77th Division. Roger Hesketh states the reason behind this renumbering was due to the 45th Division being a "well-known territorial [formation from] before the war whose [number was] familiar to the public and [was] therefore of recruiting value".
During 1944, the British army was facing a manpower crisis. The army did not have enough men to replace the losses to front line infantry. While efforts were made to address this (such as transferring men from the Royal Artillery and Royal Air Force to be retrained as infantry), the War Office began disbanding divisions to downsize the army so as to transfer men to other units to help keep those as close to full strength as possible. The 77th Infantry (Reserve) Division was one of several "Lower Establishment" divisions, within the United Kingdom, chosen to be disbanded.
R Force, a British deception unit, seized upon this opportunity to retain the division as a phantom unit to inflate the army's order of battle. A cover story was established to explain the change in the division's status. It was claimed that, with the war nearing an end, several Territorial Army divisions would revert to their peacetime recruiting role and release their equipment and resources to other units. For the 77th, this equipment would be notionally transferred from the 45th Division. With the transfer of equipment, the 77th Division was notionally raised to the "Higher Establishment". The notional division was held in reserve, within the United Kingdom, pending a future use elsewhere.