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.
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.
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.
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, became the 7th Armoured Division.
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.
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. 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. 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).
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.
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 and commanded by Major General John Harding, fought in many major battles of the Tunisian Campaign, taking part in the Battle of El Agheila in December. By January 1943 the Eighth Army had reached Tripoli where a victory parade was held, with the 7th Armoured Division taking part. Among the witnesses was Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, and General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS).
The division, now commanded by Major General George Erskine after Harding was severely injured in January, next took part in the Battle of Medenine, followed by the Battle of the Mareth Line in March. In late April, towards the end of the campaign, the 7th Armoured Division was transferred to IX Corps of the British First Army for the assault on Medjez El Bab. The attack was successful, with the 7th Armoured Division competing with the 6th Armoured Division of the First Army in a race to the city of Tunis, with 'B' Squadron of the 11th Hussars being first into the city on the afternoon of 7 May, followed closely by the 22nd Armoured Brigade and the 131st Brigade. The fighting in North Africa came to an end just days later, with almost 250,000 Axis soldiers surrendering to the Allies and becoming POWs.
The division was not an assault force in the invasion of Sicily, instead remaining in Homs, Syria for training in amphibious warfare, but did participate in the early stages of the Italian Campaign.
The 7th Armoured Division 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 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. The 169th 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 W. 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. The 7th Armoured Division was then withdrawn from the front line and held in reserve.
On the wishes of the British Eighth Army commander, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, the 7th Armoured Division was recalled to the United Kingdom, along with the 4th and 8th Armoured Brigades, and the 50th (Northumbrian) and 51st (Highland) Infantry Divisions, all of which had seen extensive service alongside the 7th Armoured Division in the Mediterranean and Middle East, to participate in the invasion of North Western Europe with the British Second Army. The 7th Armoured, handing over its battered vehicles and equipment to the recently arrived 5th Canadian (Armoured) Division, left Italy in late December 1943, arriving in Glasgow, Scotland in early January 1944. Many of the men had been overseas for over five years.
In November 1943, the division left Italy for the United Kingdom; with the last units arriving on 7 January 1944. 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. The Desert Rats were the only British armoured division to use the Cromwell as their main battle tank.
The 7th Armoured Division was one of the three British follow-up divisions of the two British assault corps earmarked for the Normandy landings. 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. 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. 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 7th Armoured Division then took part in the Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine.
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, who had been in command of the division since January 1943, Brigadier William Hinde, commanding the 22nd Armoured Brigade, and up to 100 other officers of the division were removed from their positions and reassigned. Erskine was replaced by Major General Gerald Lloyd-Verney. Historians largely agree that this was a consequence of the "failure" at Villers-Bocage and had been planned since that battle. 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". 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.
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 Lloyd-Verney, was relieved, by Major General Lyne, after he "was unable to cure the division's bad habits well enough to satisfy Montgomery and Dempsey." There is almost no doubt that the division was suffering from collective and cumulative battle fatigue. As Lloyd-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." This was not an isolated incident; the 51st (Highland) Division and several of the other veteran formations Montgomery had brought back from the Mediterranean for Operation Overlord experienced similar difficulties, although, curiously, not with the 50th (Northumbrian) Division, which performed well throughout the Normandy Campaign.
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, where the division, now commanded by Major General Lewis Lyne, a highly experienced commander, was slightly reorganized, with many experienced men who had been overseas with the division for five years returning home. In January 1945 the division, with the 8th Armoured and 155th Infantry Brigades (from the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division) under command, took part in Operation Blackcock to clear the Roer Triangle. The division had a short rest for training in late February. This was followed by Operation Plunder; the 7th Armoured Division crossed the River Rhine near Xanten and Wesel and advanced on the German city of Hamburg as its destination, as part of the Western Allied invasion of Germany, where the division ended the war. The 7th Armoured Division's final battle of the war was the Battle of Hamburg.
In July 1945 the 7th Armoured Division moved to Berlin where it took part in the Berlin Victory Parade of 1945, alongside American, French and Russian troops. Among the many witnesses in the parade were Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, who was particularly fond of the division, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, the 21st Army Group commander.
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.
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.
Commanders included:Cyril Bromley
Field Marshal Lord Carver – GS01
Major-General John Combe- initially 11th Hussars, later staff officer
The Rt Hon Enoch Powell MBE – Staff officer
Second Lieutenant Dan Ranfurly – chronicled by his wife Hermione Ranfurly's book To War With Whitaker: The Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly, 1939–1945
There is a monument to the 7th Armoured at Brandon in Thetford Forest where the 7th trained prior to D-day.