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Middle East 1930 - 1947:

British Armoured Formations

Post the Great War, a cavalry brigade had been stationed with British Troops Egypt. This comprised three regular army cavalry regiments, which were still horsed. It had been formed as The Mobile Division in September 1938, as a result of the raised tension caused by the Munich Crisis. Initially called the ‘Matruh Mobile Force’, it was founded by Major General HOBART. It was redesignated as the Armoured Division (Egypt) on the outbreak of war. Owing to the shortage of units in the Middle East, the division was not up to the establishment of a standard armoured division. On 16 February 1940, the division was redesignated as the 7 Armoured Division.

As the 7 Armoured Division, the formation became famous as the ‘Desert Rats’, an allusion to the divisional symbol of a jerboa, a rodent that lives in the Western Desert. As such, the division fought in all the major actions of the campaign up to and including the Second Battle of El Alamein. The division continued to serve with the 8 Army, and went on to serve in Tunisia, Italy, and then North West Europe.

On 15 December 1939, the 2 Armoured Division was formed in the United Kingdom. It originally comprised the 1 Light Armoured Brigade and 22 Heavy Armoured Brigade. The 1 Light Armoured Brigade was a regular army formation which comprised the 4 Hussars, The King’s Dragoon Guards and 3 Hussars. The brigade travelled out to Egypt with the division, arriving on 1 January 1941. On 5 March 1941, the brigade left Egypt to be deployed to Greece. The division relinquished the 3 Armoured Brigade between 26 February and 19 March, when the division came together as the front line of the British Forces in Libya, under Cyrenaica Command. The Divisional H.Q. took under command some units already in Libya. When the Axis Forces attacked on 31 March 1941, the division initially held the line, but then quickly fell back, sustaining heavy casualties. On 8 April 1941, the divisional commander was captured in Libya and on 10 May 1941, the division was formally disbanded in Egypt.

The 1 Armoured Division was one of the only two armoured formation in the British Army that existed before the outbreak of the Second World War. The division was deployed to France, but only after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. After equipping and training, it sailed from the U.K. on 27 August 1941, and because it had to sail via Cape Town and Durban in South Africa, it did not arrive until 13 November. The division then required a period to acclimatize and work up to operational effectiveness. It came under the command of 8 Army on 13 December, but did not move forward to join XIII Corps until the January 1942. During this period, the 22 Armoured Brigade was detached from the division to come under command of the 7 Armoured Division for the start of Operation Crusader. The division remained with XIII Corps until 23 April 1942, when the division transferred to XXX Corps. The first action this division participated in the Western Desert was the Battle for Gazala. The division also saw action in the First Battle of El Alamein, and the Battle of Alam Halfa, before playing a major role in the Second Battle of El Alamein. The division continued to operate and saw service in Tunisia and Italy, before disbanding at the end of 1944.

The 8 Armoured Division was formed in the United Kingdom on 4 November 1940. It was organised on Basic Organization No. III. This meant it comprised two armoured brigades and a support group. The division’s first commander was Major General Richard McCREERY. The division was retained in the United Kingdom as the threat of invasion was still present. Having been formed in Northern Command, it moved to Southern Command on 4 March 1941. Two months later, on 29 May, the division transferred to the South Eastern Command. It remained with this command until the threat of invasion had passed, transferring to War Office control on 7 May 1942 when the division sailed for Egypt. As with all ships bound for Egypt, they had to travel via Freetown and South Africa. The division arrived on 5 July 1942, and commenced operational readiness training. The arrival of the division in Egypt coincided with the greatest threat to the British position in the Middle East as the Axis forces reached El Alamein. With the arrival of Lieutenant General MONTGOMERY, plans were advanced for the Battle of El Alamein. There was no specific role for this division in that battle; instead it was used to reinforce other formations. In addition, the Headquarters Divisional Royal Artillery formed a specific formation called ‘Hammerforce’ to exploit the gaps through the minefields. With the eventual success of the 8 Army, the 8 Armoured Division had no role and was disbanded in Egypt on 1 January 1943. In fact, the division never operated as a division at time during its deployment in Egypt.

The 10 Armoured Division was formed in Palestine on 1 August 1941 by the reorganisation and redesignation of the 1 Cavalry Division. The General Officer Commanding the 1 Cavalry Division, Major General C. G. W. CLARK, continued in command of the new armoured division. No support group was formed and the second armoured brigade was not available until 9 October 1941. The division remained in Palestine until 29 April 1942. The headquarters of the formation arrived in Egypt on 30 April 1942, i.e., a month before the Battle for Gazala. Even when it arrived in Egypt, the division was not up to strength, lacking equipment and importantly tanks. A Headquarters Divisional Royal Artillery was formed on 7 May 1942, but was then detached to form ‘Reesforce’ for the defence of Cairo. Elements from this division first saw action in the Battle of Alam Halfa commencing on 30 August 1942. During this confused period, the divisional headquarters formed Headquarters ‘Gateforce’ (so named after Major General Alex GATEHOUSE, who had assumed command of the division on 26 June 1942), and operated as Gateforce between 1 and 17 July 1942. Major General GATEHOUSE had to also command the 1 Armoured Division from 19 until 22 July 1942. Following the Battle of Alam Halfa, the division prepared for the forthcoming offensive. The division had a key role on the opening of the Second Battle of El Alamein. With the Axis forces in retreat, the division was not required in the advance so remained in Egypt. It moved to Palestine on 1 January 1943, and spent time in Syria before returning to Egypt on 27 September 1943. The division disbanded in Egypt on 18 June 1944.

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