Open main menu

2nd Armoured Division (United Kingdom)

The 2nd Armoured Division was an armoured division of the British Army, which was active during the early stages of the Second World War. The creation of the division had been discussed since the beginning of 1939, with the intent to form it from breaking up the 1st Armoured Division. Lack of tanks resulted in this not taking placed until December 1939. After its creation, it was deprived of forces for a short while until elements of the 1st Armoured Division were assigned to it.

2nd Armoured Division
British 2nd Armoured Division.svg
Historian Michael Chappell wrote that "a plumed knight's helmet" was chosen as the divisional sign, which was "certainly painted on vehicles and tanks, but probably never worn in uniform, as the division left the UK ... before the authorization of battle insignia."[1]
September 1976 – December 1982
Branch British Army
SizeSecond World War
10,750 men
War Establishment: 340 tanks[2][a]
Actual: 102 tanks (Libya)[3]
Cold War
8,500 men[4]
148 tanks[5]
EngagementsNorth African Campaign
Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry

During early 1940, priority for equipment was given to the 1st Armoured Division and the 2nd Armoured Division lacked equipment for many months. After the Battle of France and the threat of a German invasion of the United Kingdom, priority for equipment shifted to the 2nd Armoured Division, bringing it up to strength over the course of the summer. The division was to counter-attack the flanks of an invasion force. As the threat of invasion declined, elements of the division were transported to Egypt to reinforce Middle East Command. In October, the decision was made to transfer the rest of the division. Prior to its departure, it switched a brigade with 1st Armoured Division, reducing the division to three armoured regiments. The division arrived in Egypt in December 1940 and in the following months was stripped to support Greece. The rest of the division moved to the recently conquered province of Cyrenaica in Italian Libya. Its tanks were worn-out, mechanically unreliable and supplemented by captured Italian models that were equally unreliable. In March, a German-Italian counter-attack led to the destruction of the division and the ejection of most British forces from Cyrenaica. The consensus of historians is that there was little the division could have done to stop this.

The division was not reformed during the war. It was not until 1976 in the Cold War, after the 2nd Infantry Division was re-designated, that the division was reformed. The new 2nd Armoured Division, as part of the British Army of the Rhine, was intended to fight a delaying battle with their armoured counterparts in the Red Army of the Soviet Union in case of war. In 1982, the division ceased to exist as it reverted to its infantry designation.

Second World WarEdit


During the Interwar period, the British Army examined the lessons learnt from the experience of the First World War. This included experiment and development of theories of manoeuvre and armoured-warfare, which included the creation of the short-lived Experimental Mechanized Force.[6] This resulted in the Army mechaniseing to restore battlefield mobility.[7] By the 1930s, the army had established three types of division: the infantry division; the mobile division (later called the armoured division); and the motor division. The historian, David French, wrote "The main role of the infantry ... was to break into the enemy's defensive position". This would then be exploited by the mobile division, followed by the motor divisions that would "carry out the rapid consolidation of the ground captured by the mobile divisions" therefore "transform[ing] the 'break-in' into a 'break-through'".[8]

The Mobile Division was created in October 1937.[9] French wrote that the Mobile Division was

"'tank-heavy' ... with too few infantry and support arms. It had six cavalry light tank regiments ... three medium regiments ... two motorized infantry battalions and two artillery regiments. The mechanized cavalry were designed to reconnoitre, not to fight, and the infantry were intended to protect the tanks when they were resting and replenishing."[10]

General John Burnett-Stuart, responsible for training the Mobile Division, stated the infantry were not "to be put on to a position by Tanks and told to hold it, and they are not meant to fight side by side with your tanks in the forefront". French wrote this "stood outside the mainstream of official doctrine", which promoted combined-arms co-operation to win battles and placed the British armoured formations at odds with their German counterparts in the Panzerwaffe (Tank Arm) who had "concluded that tanks working on their own or merely in conjunction with infantry would never be a decisive weapon" and that "the key to success lay in combining tanks and supporting arms in the same divisional organization". According to French, this thinking predominated within British armoured forces, until doctrine was reformed in 1942.[10]

In the 1930s, tensions built between Germany and the United Kingdom and its allies.[11] During late 1937 and 1938, German demands for the annexation of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia led to an international crisis. This was resolved in September by the Munich Agreement, which accepted that the Germans would annexe Sudetenland.[12] Tension did not subside, and the British Government debated how best to prepare the Army for war. In January 1939, the Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha proposed splitting the Mobile Division into two smaller formations, but found no support for this move.[13] The issue was again broached a month later and was accepted in principle by the cabinet.[14] Shortly after, the French were informed of a preliminary timetable for the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the event of war, which included: "One Regular Armoured Division will become available about the middle of 1940, the second would not be available 'till a later date". The formation of a second division during this period was complicated by the slow pace of tank production.[15]

Formation and home serviceEdit

A Vickers light tank of the 3rd Hussars

The division was activated on 15 December 1939, with Major-General Frederick Hotblack as the first General Officer Commanding (GOC).[16] Hotblack had joined the Royal Tank Corps in 1916, by 1918 had became the Army's expert on German tanks, during the 1930s had been posted to Germany were he witnessed and reported on the development of German armoured forces, and had been the BEF's senior advisor on armoured vehicles.[17] The division had no troops assigned until the following month, when the 1st Light Armoured Brigade and the 22nd Heavy Armoured Brigade were transferred from the 1st Armoured Division (previously the Mobile Division).[18] On assignment to the division, the 1st Light Armoured Brigade comprised the 1st King's Dragoon Guards (KDG), 3rd The King's Own Hussars (3H), and the 4th Queen's Own Hussars (4H).[19] The 22nd Heavy Brigade consisted of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, the 3rd and the 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters).[20] The division had 77 Vickers light tanks.[21] The 2nd Support Group, which was to contain the supporting arms, was formed in February but it was not until March that its troops were allocated; the 3rd Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, 12th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery (12RHA), the 102nd (Northumberland Hussars) Light-Anti-aircraft/Anti-tank Regiment, and two motorised infantry units: the 1st Battalion The Rangers, King's Royal Rifle Corps, and the 1st Battalion, Tower Hamlets Rifles, Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort's Own).[22]

In early 1940, the 1st Armoured Division had priority for equipment and the 2nd Armoured Division had to make do with the remainder.[23] On 14 April, the 1st Light Armoured Brigade became the 1st Armoured Brigade and the 22nd Heavy Armoured Brigade was renamed the 22nd Armoured Brigade.[24] Three days later, Hotblack ended his tenure as GOC of the division after an apparent stroke.[25] Major-General Justice Tilly took over on 10 May, having been an armour warfare instructor and commander of the 1st Tank Brigade before the outbreak of the war.[16][26] The division had an establishment of 340 tanks, sixteen 25-pounder field guns, and twenty-four 2-pounder anti-tank guns. By May, the division was down to 31 light tanks, all in the 1st Armoured Brigade, with the 22nd Armoured Brigade having no serviceable tanks and making do with lorries. The division had two 25-pounders supplemented by four First World War-vintage 18-pounder field guns, four 4.5 in (110 mm) howitzers of similar vintage, and two anti-tank guns.[2][23][27]

An example of a Cruiser II tank, as used by the division. This particular model is armed with a howitzer, for firing smoke and high explosive rounds in a close support role and not for tank on tank actions.

The division was held in reserve in the Linconshire area.[28] In June, the serviceable number of tanks fluctuated between 178 and 197.[29] After the Battle of France, the division was moved to a position between Northampton, in Northamptonshire, and Newmarket, in Suffolk. The division was to strike into the flanks or the rear of a German landing in East Anglia or north of the The Wash.[30] During July, production priority was given to the 2nd Armoured Division, which received new 25-pounders. By 4 August, the division had 17 new Cruiser tanks and the number of light tanks had increased to 226.[31] During August, despite the threat of invasion, the War Office decided to reinforce Middle East Command. The 3rd Hussars were transferred to Egypt to reinforce the 7th Armoured Division.[32][33][b] The 3rd Hussars were replaced by the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR).[19] The division saw a steady increase in its tank strength and by early October, it had 269 light tanks and 65 cruisers.[35]

By October, the threat of a German invasion had receded and the British could spare additional forces for the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre, including the dispatch of the 2nd Armoured Division.[c] Prior to being dispatched, the 22nd Armoured Brigade was exchanged with the 3rd Armoured Brigade of the 1st Armoured Division.[37] The exchange brought the division up to 334 tanks: 159 light, 157 cruiser (74 Cruiser Mk II and 83 Cruiser Mk IV), and 18 close support cruisers (armed with 3.7 in (94 mm) howizters in place of the standard 2-pounder).[23][38] The division departed Liverpool, in late October, on Convoy W.S. 4a.[39]

Arrival in the Middle EastEdit

The convoy sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, and arrived in Suez at the end of December.[40][41] The division arrived in Egypt with just three armoured regiments: 4H, 3RTR, and 5RTR.[42] On arrival, Tilly reported to General Archibald Wavell (Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command and all British land forces in the Middle East) that "the mechanical state of his two Cruiser regiments" was in question, with "the tracks ... practically worn out" and with "engines [that] had already done a considerable mileage" without overhaul before being transported. It had been intended to replace the tracks once they arrived in Egypt, but the spare parts in stores were found to be useless.[33][43] On January 5, Tilly died following an air crash. He was replaced by Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry on 12 February 1941.[16][44] Gambier-Parry had served in the infantry during the First World War, transferred to the Royal Tank Corps in the 1920s, commanded an infantry Brigade in the 1930s, and prior to his appointment as GOC was part of a diplomatic mission to Greece.[45][46] During February, the 2nd Support Group's 102nd (Northumberland Hussars) converted to just an anti-tank unit.[22]

While the division was en-route to Egypt, Wavell had launched a counter-attack to the Italian invasion of Egypt, codenamed Operation Compass. The initial objective was to destroy forward Italian forces and advance as far as Sollum if the situation allowed. By the time the division had arrived, Compass was on the verge of defeating the entire Italian 10th Army. By February, the offensive had captured the entire Italian Libyan province of Cyrenaica.[47] Further prosecution of the offensive was discussed, but it was believed the province of Tripolitania would be to hard to defend or supply. It was furthered believed that the captured territory in Cyrenaica would provide sufficient security for Egypt, and that there was little threat at present nor would there be until at least May (by which point, additional forces would be available to reinforce the Cyrenaica garrison). At the grand strategic level, British interests had shifted to supporting Greece, and maintaining the status-quo in the Balkans without allowing further countries to be overran by Germany or Italy. After discussions with the Greek Government, it was decided to dispatch an expeditionary force using substantial forces under the command of Middle East Command and downsizing the garrison in Cyrenaica.[48][49] The 1st Armoured Brigade was detached from the division on 27 February. Likewise, the division lost the 1st Battalion, The Rangers, the 12RHA, and the 102nd (Northumberland Hussars) Anti-Tank Regiment to the expeditionary force. The 1st Armoured Brigade was dispatched with 52 cruisers and 52 light tanks, and arrived in Greece by 18 March.[50][51][d]

Move to LibyaEdit

Italian M13/40 tanks, similar tanks to these were used by several units of the division most notably the 6RTR.
Cruiser IV tanks of the 5RTR, prior to their transfer to the 2nd Rrmoured Division and deployment to Egypt.

In March, the remnants of the 2nd Armoured Division left Egypt and travelled to Libya, suffering many breakdowns en-route.[16][53] For example, the 5RTR began their journey to Libya with 58 Cruisers but arrived with only 23 following breakdowns.[54] Once in Libya, the division had the strength of a brigade group and consisted of the KDG, the 3H, the 5RTR, the 6RTR (which it had just taken command of), the 1st Tower Hamlets Rifles, and the 104RHA.[53][55] The 6RTR arrived in Libya in February, without any tanks. It was therefore outfitted with captured Italian Fiat M13/40. While equipped with a good 47mm anti-tank gun, they were found to be slow, uncomfortable, and mechanically unreliable. The British tanks, too, had exceeded their engine-lives and were also facing reliability problems.[53][56] There was a lack of transport, workshops were understaffed and lacked spare parts, and the division's radios lacked the equipment needed to keep them charged so they soon failed.[53][57] By the end of March, the division had 102 tanks (3H: 26 MK VI light tanks and 12 M13s; 5RTR: 25 Cruiser Mk IVs; 6RTR: 36 M13; 3rd Armoured Brigade HQ: 3 MK VI light tanks).[3]

Key locations in Libya, in reference to the movement of the division from Egypt.

The Axis aerial bombing of Benghazi had rendered this forward port unusable for delivering supplies to the 2nd Armoured Division, which had to rely on overland routes back to Tobruk. A lack of transport meant that the British Army had to create a series of static supply dumps to supply the forward area. This made it impossible to supply a garrison west of El Agheila, which was the most favourable position for a defensive line, and restricted the mobility of the 2nd Armoured Division that could not move beyond the range of their supply dumps.[58] Lieutenant-General Philip Neame, GOC Cyrenaica Command, arrived in Libya to find that his command lacked staff, had limited signal equipment required to command mobile operations and had to rely on the local telephone system (staffed by Italian operators) to communicate with subordinate formations.[53][57] The terrain between El Agheila and Benghazi was optimal for armoured warfare, and there existed no easily defensible position for infantry. Neame believed his position was untenable without a fully equipped armoured division supported by two complete infantry divisions and adequate air support. Instead, the only other major formation other than the 2nd Armoured Division, was the 9th Australian Division that was underequipped, undertrained, and lacked direct communication with the 2nd Armoured Division. One of the division's brigade remained at Tobruk, while the other two were positioned well to the north of Benghazi to hold important high ground (Jebel Akhdar). Neame was ordered to give ground if attacked, as the conversation of his force was more important. The 2nd Armoured Division had the conflicting objectives of avoiding tank losses, while being ready to operate against the flanks of any Axis armoured force. In order to do so, the 3rd Armoured Brigade was based southeast of Mersa Brega, where the division's Support Group was located. Neame also predicted once operations got underway, the 2nd Armoured Division's tank numbers would rapidly dwindle due to breakdowns.[59][60]

Axis offensiveEdit

An example of the German Panzer III, the most common tank in the German Afrika Korps during this period.

Italy had responded to Compass by redeploying their 5th Army from the border with French Tunisia towards Cyrenaica, and by dispatching the 132nd Armoured Division Ariete and the 102nd Motorised DivisionTrento.[61][62] In addition, Germany had dispatched the Afrika Korps (the 5th Light and 15th Panzer Division). At the end of March, the 5th Light Division was on the border of Cyrenaica with 25 Panzer I, 45 Panzer II, 60 Panzer III, and 17 Panzer IV tanks. The Ariete had around 46 M13/40s in the forward area.[63] The scope of Axis reinforcements to Libya had been underestimated by the British. It estimated that it would not be until the end of May that the Axis would have four divisions available, and then only two of which that could be used extensively due to the expected strain on the supply line. British air reconnaissance had observed Axis troop movements towards Cyrenaica, and on 25 February spotted German Schwerer Panzerspähwagen (eight-wheeler armoured cars). These armoured cars were superior to the British in both speed and armament, and it was desired to avoid contact in order to avoid casualties.[64] Continued reconnaissance flights showed further troop movements and preparations closing in on El Agheila.[65]

The forward area was patrolled by a single platoon from the 1st Tower Hamlet Rifles, and elements of the 1KDG. On 23 March, the division had its first action with the enemy. A patrol of two armoured cars from the 1KDG, supported by a single anti-tank gun attached from the 9th Australian Division, spotted and engaged their German reconnaissance counterparts near El Agheila. The Axis force withdrew after the Australians claimed three vehicles knocked out. The following day, a platoon from the 1st Tower Hamlet Rifles moved forward to ensure that the colonial fort near El Agheila was still unoccupied, before moving to take up an ambush position to the west of the town. Nearing the fort, they found it occupied and came under fire. Shortly afterwards, German armoured cars moved forward. A brief clash occurred that resulted in one German armoured car being knocked out, and an Australian gun crew suffering casualties. After this brief action, the British screening force withdrew to Marsa Brega ceding El Agheila to the Axis. At least one, and maybe two, German tanks were subsequently lost on mines in this area (potentially left over Italian ones, which had not been cleared by the British).[65][66]

El Agheila
Key locations in Libya during this period. 1 - Mersa Brega; 2 - Agedabia; 3 - Antelat;
4 - Msus; 5 - Mechili; 6 - Derna

On 31 March, the Axis forces renewed their attack. Following dawn, the first clash of the day occurred with the 5RTR. Sources either describe one clash from the British or German perspective, or two separate events. The 5th Light Division report engaging up to five British tanks, in two inconclusive engagements with no losses on either side. The 5RTR reported a patrol of four tanks observing the advance of the Axis forces, which was then engaged with one British tank damaged, and three Italian M13s potentially destroyed.[67][68] By 09:00, the 3rd Armoured Brigade started to withdraw following their prearranged plans.[69] Following 10:00, the Germans moved forward towards the main position held by the Support Group at Marsa el Brega. Skirmishing took place between the outposts held by the Tower Hamlet Rifles and the Germans, before the forward troops fell back to the main position. During the course of the day, the fighting increased with both sides calling upon artillery to bombard each others positions. [70] A Luftwaffe attack, utilizing Stuka dive bombers was also conducted. The 2nd Armoured Division's AA gunners reported two planes shot down, and the Germans recorded a friendly fire incident with one bomber attacking German tanks. During this period, the 2nd Support Group reported having repulsed two attacks and having drove off an advance by German armoured cars. The Germans recorded their own success of suppressing the British positions, destroying numerous vehicles that were within range of their guns, and having destroyed at least one tank of the 5RTR. A request for the 3rd Armoured Brigade to be deployed to assist was denied, with Gambier-Perry reporting there was "insufficient time to get them into action from their present position before dark".[70][71] After 18:00, a heavy German barrage was fired and two separate attacks were launched. The first was repulsed, while the second managed to make gains in the Tower Hamlet position. In response, a counter-attack was launched by a scout platoon that restored the position at the loss of eight universal carriers. After dark, the Support Group withdrew. By the next morning, they had moved 30 miles (48 kilometres) to Agedabia. Under the cover of dark, the Germans carefully advanced and captured Marsa el Brega without incident the next morning. The fighting had cost the division at least 59 men.[71][72]

An abandoned Cruiser IV of the 5RTR.

During 1 April, the 3rd Armoured Brigade continue to withdraw. While avoiding combat, it lost further tanks due to breakdowns.[69] The Germans caught up with the Support Group at first light on 2 April. At 10:30, a major infantry attack was launched that included up to 50 tanks. At the same time, the Support Group was given the order to withdrew. A scout platoon attempted to conduct a rearguard action to allow the rest of the Tower Hamlet Rifles to get away, and was lost in the process. While retreating, B Company was outflanked by eight German tanks and forced to surrender. The Support Group withdrew 30 miles (48 kilometres) to the north, and took up new positions.[73] Out on the desert flank, the 3rd Armoured Brigade was still conducting their withdrawal, restricted to 7 miles per hour (11 km/h) to match the slowest vehicles that were towing artillery pieces. For most of the day, their movements were shadowed by armoured vehicles they were not able to identify. During the afternoon, the withdrawal was further slowed down by breakdowns, conflicting orders, as well as the need to rest and refuel. This resulted in the nearby armoured vehicles gaining ground. Two troops from the 5RTR were ordered to conduct a rearguard action, and took hull-down positions.[74] It was soon determined that these were Axis tanks, believed to be Italian by the men of the 5RTR but were actually German, who advanced in an arrowhead formation straight at the British position. Between 900 yd (820 m)-1,500 yards (1,400 metres) both sides opened fire upon each other. In the ensuring action, 5RTR lost five tanks and 24 casualties. They claimed to have knocked out at least eight tanks in return.[75] Historian Thomas Jentz reports that German records show only three German tanks were destroyed, "along with an unrecorded number damaged."[76] The remaining British tanks withdrew to friendly positions further behind, and then the entire regiment regrouped 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) from where the fighting took place. The brigade then resumed its retreat, with no German vehicles following them.[77] During the day, there was a series of delayed and contradictory orders issued by Gambier-Perry, Neame, and Wavell on how the division should operate, if it should continue or was capable of blocking the coastal road, how it would conduct its withdrawal, and if the division should remain together or two separate forces. The varying discussions were ignorant to the realities on the ground, and notably included Neame informing Gambier-Perry that the 3rd Armoured Brigade was not to be committed en mass without his strict permission.[78][79]

By the morning of 3rd April, the 3rd Armoured Brigade had reached Antelat.[80] Their continued withdrawal had been verified via German aerial reconnaissance.[81][82] With this knowledge, Rommel immobilized the majority of the 5th Light Division around Bir el Ageradt, in order to allocate as much transport to bringing up fuel for a further advance across Cyrenaica.[83] German and Italian detachments were ordered to probe around the southern flank of the 2nd Armoured Division, including a reconnoitre towards Msus.[81] German forward scouts had detected around 30 tanks, they believed to be out of fuel, so a reinforced tank battalion was ordered to advance towards Bir el Ageradt, with the objective of engaging theses tanks.[83] During the early afternoon, the movements of the 3rd Hussars and the 6RTR caused alarm and confusion within the 5RTR, who had believed them to be German tanks before their identity was confirmed and no engagements took place with Axis forces.[80] The Royal Air Force (RAF) spotted Axis forces approaching Msus (now Zawiyat Masus in the Fati Municipality), site of the main divisional supply dump. The 3rd Armoured Brigade, along with some elements of the Support Group, were ordered to move to Msus and deal with the Axis forces. The division was subsequently crippled by a breakdown in communication, the result of late, missed, and conflicting orders that had the effect of units being ordered to move then being ordered to turn around. None of the division arrived at Msus during the day, and it was established late in the afternoon that the RAF had misidentified friendly vehicles in the area.[84] By the end of the day, the 3rd Armoured Brigade had been reduced to 18 light tanks, 26 Italian tanks, and 12 cruisers.[80]

On 4 April, Rommel ordered his varous subordinate units to advance in various directions, with objectives as far as Tobruk. Benghazi was liberated by Axis forces at dawn, having been abandoned by the division and other Allied forces.[85] The only clash of the division with Axis forces during the day, was when artillery fire from the Support Group halted German reconnaissance forces near Charruba.[86] At midday, Richard O'Connor arrived at the front and held a meeting with all relevant senior commanders in Cyrenaica, including Gambier-Perry. During this meeting, Gambier-Perry was of the opinion that the Axis forces would attempt no further advance now that they had captured Benghazi, which he believed to be their final objective.[87] The decision was made to withdraw from the Jebel Achdar without an attempt to hold it. The 2nd Armoured Division would concentrate at Mechili, an important source of water in the desert, to protect the withdrawal of the Australian infantry. The recently arrived 3rd Indian Motor Brigade would secure Mechili to ensure it was in Allied hands when the division arrived.[88] The division spent the day continuing their withdrawal, a process that was again impeded by ongoing communication issues, and the loss of additional tanks through breakdowns. Furthermore, a supply convoy for the division was attacked by 18 Axis aircraft and destroyed, which included the loss of 1,600 gallons of fuel.[80][89] By the end of the day, the 5RTR had nine cruisers left and the 6RTR had nine M13s.[89] The following day, as the result of continued misinformation that had suggested Axis armored forces had passed Msus, Neame ordered his entire command to withdraw with the 2nd Armoured Division to pull-back to Wadi Derna. However, Axis forces had outran their supplies in their pursuit and the lead elements had halted and were suffering increased mechanical breakdowns. The KDG and other Allied units verified that there was no Axis forces near Msus, and the reported tank sightings turned out to be the 2nd Armoured Division. The nearest Axis unit, by the end of the day, was 20 mi (32 km) from Msus.[90]

End of the divisionEdit

Cyrenaica location map

On 6 April, British air reconnaissance reported Axis columns advancing across the desert. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, which was attached to the division during the day, repulsed an attack at Mechili.[91][92][e] This attack led to O'Connor at the Cyrcom headquarters (Neame had left to visit Gambier-Parry), to order a general withdrawal.[91] The headquarters of the 2nd Armoured Division and the 2nd Support Group were ordered back to Mechili, followed by the 3rd Armoured Brigade. Rimington decided that the armoured brigade lacked the fuel to reach Mechili and ordered a move to Maraura, where a small amount of petrol was found. Rimington planned to move to Derna via Giovanni Berta, to obtain more fuel and was captured with his deputy when he motored ahead. The brigade continued on and crowded the Australians, who were by-passing Derna, as they withdrew to Gazala.[94]

Kirchheim sent the non-mechanised parts of the Pavia Division (Major-General Pietro Zaglio) and the Brescia Division along the Via Balbia and the mechanised and motorised units through the Jebel Akhdar. On 6 April, the Ariete Division reached Mechili and at midday, Ponath re-assembled his group near Derna airfield and cut one of the British withdrawal routes. The 5th Royal Tank Regiment (5th RTR, Lieutenant-Colonel H. D. Drew), repulsed two determined attacks and then counter-attacked with the last four British tanks. The rest of the British in the area disengaged before the tanks were knocked out and the road was left open for stragglers in Derna to escape.[94]

By nightfall on 7 April, the 9th Australian Division (less the 24th Australian Infantry Brigade) with the 2nd Support Group had blocked the Via Balbia at Acroma, about 15 mi (24 km) west of Tobruk, where the 18th and 24th Australian Infantry brigades were digging in. A small force held El Adem, south of Tobruk to observe the approaches from the south and south-west and at Mechili, Gambier-Parry had the 2nd Armoured Division headquarters, soft-skinned vehicles and a cruiser tank, most of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, M Battery 1st Royal Horse Artillery, part of the 3rd Australian Anti-tank Regiment and elements of other units.[95]

The Germans tried twice to bluff Gambier-Parry into surrender but having received orders from Cyrcom to break out and retreat to El Adem, decided to attack at dawn to gain a measure of surprise. On 8 April, A Squadron of the 18th Cavalry broke through and then turned to attack Italian artillery, as some Indian troops of the 11th Prince Albert Victor's Own Cavalry (Frontier Force) got away. Most of the garrison was pinned down but during a second attempt at 8:00 a.m., small parties of the 2nd Royal Lancers escaped. The garrison had fired most of its small-arms ammunition at the vision slits of the German tanks, which had hung back in fear of mines and when Italian infantry attacked, had little ammunition left to defend itself. Gambier-Parry and 2,700–3,000 British, Indian and Australian troops surrendered to Zaglio.[96] On 10 May 1941, the 2nd Armoured Division was officially disbanded.[97][f]


A contemporary after action report, by surviving senior offices from the division, wrote "This division had not, in fact, had opportunity for adequate training as a team. It was a collection of units, three of which had only joined shortly before the action, rather than a trained formation. The breakdown in control and administration was largely due to this fact."[98] Further critique was leveled at Gambier-Parry, who was described as "a conventional and slow minded soldier who couldn't cope with the unexpected." Historian David French describes the latter critique has harsh, and highlighted that the divisional commander "was not a cavalryman" and had transferred previously from the infantry to the Royal Tank Corps.[99] French's own assessment looked at "the ineptitude of [the division's] undertrained staff", as well as a lack of logistical support: "The disaster that overtook [the division] was in part caused by the fact that it had no railhead and could not be provided with sufficient motor transport to enable it to build up a sufficient reserve of supplies some 350 miles from the nearest base."[100] Field Marshal, and historian, Michael Carver wrote similarly: "a combination of long delays in communications, resulting in misunderstandings and change sin orders, and a general breakdown of the logistical organization within [the division], left to a collapse of any effective resistance."[78] In reviewing the entire reversal, including the loss of the division, Carver wrote it "must be attributed to failure to face realities at every level. The general state of the force, in terms of training, professional competence, logistical supply and serviceability of equipment, meant that it was not match for its opponent."[101] General and historian David Fraser stated had "the Germans chose to drive across the chord of the Cyrenaican arc there was little to stop them", as the 2nd Armoured Division "had little fighting capacity left as a coherent formation of all arms" following the extensive breakdown of equipment. Had it been able to fight, Fraser criticised the chain of command that would have hindered its ability: the 3rd Armoured Brigade "was subjected to the orders of … Gambier-Parry; ... Neame; ... Wavell" and O'Connor.[102]

On a tactical level, historian Thomas Jentz argued that, considering the mechanical state of the tanks, the 2nd Armoured Division "didn't have anything to lose in conducting ambush counterattacks" agiasnt their Axis opponents "as recommended in their tactical manual." However, "At no time" was the division "a threat of a hinderance to the advancing German-Italian forces" largely as a result of how they were "tactically handled".[76] Jentz lauded the courage of the tank crews, but criticised their inflexible attitude towards combat and especially maneuver, which required permission from the next level in the chain of command to even move a single tank. Jentz argued that this lack of flexibility, mixed with a lack of alternative firing positions, explained the rapid tank losses that occurred when the division did engage their opponents. Jentz also criticised their German opponents, who showed an equal lack of flexibility against their own doctrine, which resulted in the two sides lining up to fire at one another rather than engaging in a battle of maneuver. On a positive note, the lack of understanding on the Germans part about the intention of the 2nd Armoured Division resulted in the 5th Light Division being "decimated by mechanical breakdowns" due to "unnecessarily rushing through the desert", a move that resulted in 83 tanks having to be sent to workshops.[103]

Cold WarEdit

In September 1976, following the conclusion of a Government review on the state and funding of the military, the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) began a series of reorganizations to increase the fighting efficiency of its formations. The 2nd Infantry Division was reformed as the 2nd Armoured Division. In Exercise Spearpoint 76, the division, the first to undertake any reorganization, demonstrated the changes. The reforms removed the previous brigade structure, along with all brigade command, control and logistical arrangements. In its place, the division had five combined arms battle groups that could be created on an ad-hoc basis and in turn these would be assigned to one of two combined arms task forces.[104][105][106] The historian David Stone commented that the system was

...designed to allow the commander maximum flexibility and take precise account of the operational or tactical task to be achieved.

— Stone[104]

The division continued the reorganization into 1977, as additional armour and infantry units brought the formation up to strength.[106] When the process was complete, the division contained the following major units that could be assigned to either Task Force Charlie or Task Force Delta, the 1st Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment, 1st King's Regiment, 2nd Grenadier Guards, 4th Royal Tank Regiment, 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards and the 17th/21st Lancers.[107] The division totalled 8,500 men during peacetime but in the event of war was expected to reach a strength of 14,000 as reservists arrived.[4] The headquarters was in the Tax House in Lübbecke with the Signals Regiment at the nearby Birdwood Barracks in Bünde.[108][109] As part of I (BR) Corps, the division was to conduct a holding battle against the numerically superior Red Army.[110]

The Task Force concept lasted until the end of the decade; Stone commented that it had "not prove[d] entirely satisfactory". In turn, brigades were recreated and the division reorganised.[104] The division now comprised the 4th and the 12th Armoured brigades. The former was composed of the 2nd Grenadier Guards, 4th Royal Tank Regiment and the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. During August 1981, the 2nd Grenadier Guards were replaced by the 1st Irish Guards and in July 1982 the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars replaced the 4th Royal Tank Regiment. The 12th Armoured Brigade comprised the 1st Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment, 1st King's Regiment and the 17th/21st Lancers. In January 1982, the brigade was reinforced with the 1st King's Own Scottish Borderers.[111]

During 1982, the Government made the decision to further reorganise the BAOR and the 2nd Armoured Division was to revert to the 2nd Infantry Division and return to the United Kingdom. Based at Imphal Barracks in York, the division would command reinforcements for the BAOR.[112] By December 1982, the division had ceased to exist and was renamed the 2nd Infantry Division.[113]

General officer commandingEdit

The division had the following commanders during the Second World War:

Appointed General Officer Commanding
15 December 1939 Major-General F. E. Hotblack[16]
17 April 1940 Brigadier C. W. M. Norrie (acting)[16]
10 May 1940 Major-General J. C. Tilly (Died on 5 January 1941)[16]
16 January 1941 Brigadier H. B. Latham (acting)[16]
12 February 1941 Major-General M. D. Gambier-Parry (captured, 8 April 1941)[16]

The division had three general officers commanding during the Cold War:

Appointed General Officer Commanding
1977 Major-General Frank Kitson[114]
February 1978 Major-General Alexander Boswell[114]
March 1980 Major-General Martin Farndale[114]

Orders of battleEdit

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ These two figures are the war establishment, the paper strength, of the division for 1940.
  2. ^ This was in addition to two other armoured regiments, 48 anti-tank guns with 40,000 rounds, 20 light AA guns with 30,000 rounds, 48 25-pounders and 24,000 rounds, 500 machine guns, 250 anti-tank rifles, 50,000 anti-tank mines, one million rounds of .303 ammunition, wireless equipment and 300 tons of spare parts.[34]
  3. ^ Between the end of August and the end of 1940, the following transfers took place: 76,000 men, including Australian and New Zealanders, were shipped from the UK to the Middle East; c. 50,000 troops were dispatched from Australia, India and New Zealand to the Middle East. These reinforcements included administration and supply units, Royal Air Force personnel and machines, reinforcements for depleted formations and new units including seven artillery regiments and five infantry brigades to bring existing divisions up to strength. Additional transfers included the arrival of the 5th Indian Division and the 1st South African Division, although these went to East Africa.[36]
  4. ^ These units ended up fighting in the Battle of Greece.[51] 102nd (Northumberland Hussars) Anti-Tank Regiment, for example, deprived the division of 578 men, 168 vehicles, and forty-eight 2-pounder anti-tank guns.[52]
  5. ^ The Brigade comprised the 2nd Lancers (Gardner's Horse), the 11th Prince Albert Victor's Own Cavalry (Frontier Force), and the 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry. It was under the command of Brigadier Edward Vaughan. These battalions were technically mechanised cavalry units, but lacked armoured vehicles. The men were largely equipped with rifles and transported in trucks. The brigade lacked artillery and anti-tank weapons, and was equipped with only half of the required wireless sets.[93][92]
  6. ^ The 2nd Armoured Division also had an RAMC Brigade but war time records identifying the unit number are unavailable.[97]


  1. ^ Chappell 1987, p. 12.
  2. ^ a b Joslen 2003, p. 129.
  3. ^ a b Jentz 1998, p. 88.
  4. ^ a b Stanhope 1979, p. 115.
  5. ^ Watson & Rinaldi 2005, p. 74.
  6. ^ French 2001, pp. 28–29.
  7. ^ French 2001, pp. 36-37.
  8. ^ French 2001, pp. 37–41.
  9. ^ Perry 1988, p. 45.
  10. ^ a b French 2001, p. 42.
  11. ^ Bell 1997, pp. 3–4.
  12. ^ Bell 1997, pp. 258–275, 277–278.
  13. ^ Gibbs 1976, pp. 503–504.
  14. ^ Gibbs 1976, p. 511.
  15. ^ Gibbs 1976, pp. 514, 525.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Joslen 2003, p. 16.
  17. ^ Hardy 2017, pp. 40–44; Pallud 2014, p. 42.
  18. ^ Joslen 2003, pp. 14, 16.
  19. ^ a b Joslen 2003, p. 144.
  20. ^ Joslen 2003, p. 168.
  21. ^ Newbold 1988, p. 408.
  22. ^ a b Joslen 2003, p. 216.
  23. ^ a b c Hughes, Broshot & Philson 1999, p. 35.
  24. ^ Joslen 2003, p. 144, 168.
  25. ^ Hardy 2017, p. 40.
  26. ^ "No. 34485". The London Gazette. 18 February 1938. p. 1080.
  27. ^ Newbold 1988, pp. 68, 410.
  28. ^ Collier 1957, p. 125.
  29. ^ Collier 1957, p. 125; Newbold 1988, p. 417.
  30. ^ Collier 1957, p. 130.
  31. ^ Newbold 1988, pp. 250, 421.
  32. ^ Playfair et al. 2004a, p. 190; Fraser 1999, pp. 119–120.
  33. ^ a b "No. 37638". The London Gazette (Supplement). 2 July 1946. p. 3424.
  34. ^ Playfair et al. 2004a, p. 190.
  35. ^ Newbold 1988, pp. 422, 426, 427.
  36. ^ Playfair et al. 2004a, pp. 244–247, 251.
  37. ^ Joslen 2003, p. 16, 151, 168–169.
  38. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, p. 345.
  39. ^ Higham & Knighton 1955, p. 152; Farndale 1996, p. 103.
  40. ^ Playfair et al. 2004a, pp. 244-245.
  41. ^ Farndale 1996, p. 103.
  42. ^ Joslen 2003, pp. 144, 151.
  43. ^ Playfair et al. 2004a, p. 478.
  44. ^ Smithers 1987, p. 82, 100.
  45. ^ Doherty 2013, p. 238.
  46. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, p. 122.
  47. ^ Playfair et al. 2004a, pp. 258-261, 355–362.
  48. ^ Playfair et al. 2004a, pp. 372-376.
  49. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, pp. 2-3.
  50. ^ Joslen 2003, pp. 144, 216.
  51. ^ a b Long 1953, p. 30.
  52. ^ Operation Lustre aid to Greece - file ref WO 106/3132
  53. ^ a b c d e f Playfair et al. 2004b, p. 3.
  54. ^ Smithers 1987, p. 82.
  55. ^ Joslen 2003, pp. 16, 151, 216.
  56. ^ Jentz 1998, p. 85-88.
  57. ^ a b French 2001, p. 226.
  58. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, pp. 4–6.
  59. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, pp. 1-9.
  60. ^ Carver 2002, p. 19.
  61. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, p. 14.
  62. ^ Bauer 2000, p. 121.
  63. ^ Jentz 1998, pp. 82-86.
  64. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, pp. 10–12.
  65. ^ a b Maughan 1966, pp. 36-38.
  66. ^ Jentz 1998, p. 82.
  67. ^ Jentz 1998, pp. 89-91.
  68. ^ Maughan 1966, p. 49.
  69. ^ a b Jentz 1998, p. 91.
  70. ^ a b Maughan 1966, pp. 49-50.
  71. ^ a b Jentz 1998, pp. 90-91.
  72. ^ Maughan 1966, pp. 51-52.
  73. ^ Maughan 1966, p. 54.
  74. ^ Jentz 1998, pp. 92-93.
  75. ^ Jentz 1998, pp. 92-95.
  76. ^ a b Jentz 1998, p. 101.
  77. ^ Jentz 1998, pp. 94-95.
  78. ^ a b Carver 2002, p. 21.
  79. ^ Maughan 1966, pp. 57-58.
  80. ^ a b c d Jentz 1998, p. 96.
  81. ^ a b Playfair et al. 2004b, pp. 25–26.
  82. ^ Jentz 1998, p. 95.
  83. ^ a b Jentz 1998, pp. 95-96.
  84. ^ Maughan 1966, pp. 59-63.
  85. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, pp. 26–27.
  86. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, p. 27.
  87. ^ Maughan 1966, p. 67.
  88. ^ Maughan 1966, pp. 67, 76.
  89. ^ a b Maughan 1966, p. 76.
  90. ^ Maughan 1966, pp. 81-82.
  91. ^ a b Playfair et al. 2004b, p. 28.
  92. ^ a b c Mackenzie 1951, p. 71.
  93. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, p. 8.
  94. ^ a b Playfair et al. 2004b, p. 29.
  95. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, pp. 30–34.
  96. ^ Playfair et al. 2004b, p. 30.
  97. ^ a b Cochran 1991.
  98. ^ French 2001, p. 227.
  99. ^ French 2001, p. 231.
  100. ^ French 2001, p. 117, 231.
  101. ^ Carver 2002, p. 22.
  102. ^ Fraser 1999, p. 151.
  103. ^ Jentz 1998, pp. 101-102.
  104. ^ a b c Stone 1998, p. 224.
  105. ^ Simon 1988, p. 332.
  106. ^ a b Kneen & Sutton 1996, p. 183.
  107. ^ Watson & Rinaldi 2005, pp. 74–75, 95.
  108. ^ "Tax House". BAOR Locations. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  109. ^ "Birdwood Barracks". BAOR Locations. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  110. ^ Clayton 2013, p. 245.
  111. ^ Watson & Rinaldi 2005, pp. 76, 95.
  112. ^ HC Deb, 20 July 1981 vol 9 cc57–8W
  113. ^ Watson & Rinaldi 2005, p. 95.
  114. ^ a b c Army Commands Archived 5 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  115. ^ Joslen 2003, pp. 16, 144.
  116. ^ Joslen 2003, pp. 16, 168.
  117. ^ a b c Joslen 2003, pp. 16, 151.
  118. ^ a b c d e Joslen 2003, pp. 16, 216.
  119. ^ Maughan 1966, p. 47.
  120. ^ Watson & Rinaldi 2005, pp. 74-75, 95.
  121. ^ Watson & Rinaldi 2005, pp. 76 and 95.


  • Bauer, Eddy (2000) [1979]. Young, Peter (ed.). The History of World War II (rev. ed.). London: Orbis. ISBN 1-85605-552-3.
  • Bell, P. M. H. (1997) [1986]. The Origins of the Second World War in Europe (2nd ed.). London: Pearson. ISBN 978-0-582-30470-3.
  • Carver, Michael (2002) [1986iu]. Dilemmas of the Desert War: The Libyan Campaign 1940–1942. Staplehurst: Spellmount. ISBN 978-1-86227-153-1.
  • Clayton, Anthony (2013) [2006]. The British Officer: Leading the Army from 1660 to the Present. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-405-85901-1.
  • Chappell, Mike (1987). British Battle Insignia 1939–1940. Men-At-Arms. II. London: Osprey. ISBN 978-0-85045-739-1.
  • Cochran, Russell (1991). The Lost Years. no ISBN. unpublished autobiography.
  • Collier, Basil (1957). Butler, J. R. M. (ed.). The Defence of the United Kingdom. History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. London: HMSO. OCLC 375046.
  • Doherty, Richard (2013). British Armoured Divisions and their Commanders, 1939–1945. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military. ISBN 978-1-84884-838-2.
  • Farndale, Martin (1996). The Years of Defeat: Europe and North Africa 1939–1941; History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. London: Brassey's. ISBN 978-1-857-53080-3.
  • Fraser, David (1999) [1983]. And We Shall Shock Them: The British Army in the Second World War. London: Cassell Military. ISBN 978-0-304-35233-3.
  • French, David (2001) [2000]. Raising Churchill's Army: The British Army and the War Against Germany 1919–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-199-24630-4.
  • Gibbs, N. H. (1976). Grand Strategy. History of the Second World War. I. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office. ISBN 978-0-116-30181-9.
  • Hardy, Colin (2017). "A Great War Legend: Major Frederick Elliot ('Boots') Hotblack" (PDF). Stand To! The Journal of the Western Front Association (January–February 2017 No. 108): 40–44. Retrieved 14 September 2019.
  • Higham, J. B. & Knighton, E. A. (1955). Movements. History of the Second World War. London: War Office. OCLC 16642055.
  • Hughes, David; et al. (1999). British Armoured and Cavalry Divisions. The British Armies in World War Two: An Organizational History. I. West Chester, OH: George F. Nafziger. ISBN 978-1-58545-050-3.
  • Jentz, Thomas L. (1998). Tank Combat in North Africa: The Opening Rounds, Operations Sonnenblume, Brevity, Skorpion and Battleaxe, February 1941 – June 1941. Atglen, PA: Schiffer. ISBN 978-0-764-30226-8.
  • Joslen, H.F. (2003) [1960]. Orders of Battle: Second World War, 1939–1945. Uckfield: Naval and Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84342-474-1.
  • Kneen, Brigadier J. M.; Sutton, Brigadier D. J. (1996). Craftsmen of the Army: The Story of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers 1969–1992. II. London: Leo Cooper. ISBN 978-0-850-52549-6.
  • Latimer, Jon (2001). Tobruk 1941: Rommel's Opening Move. Osprey Military Campaign. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84176-092-6.
  • Long, Gavin Merrick (1953). Greece, Crete and Syria. Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army. II. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. OCLC 3134080.
  • Mackenzie, Compton (1951). Eastern Epic: September 1939 – March 1943 Defence. I. London: Chatto & Windus. OCLC 59637091.
  • Maughan, Barton (1966). Tobruk and El Alamein. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1 – Army. III. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. OCLC 954993.
  • Newbold, David John (1988). British Planning And Preparations To Resist Invasion On Land, September 1939 – September 1940 (PDF) (Ph.D. thesis). London: King's College London. OCLC 556820697.
  • Pallud, Jean Paul (2014). Margry, Karel (ed.). "It Happened Here: The First to be Killed in Action". After the Battle. Old Harlow, Essex: Battle of Britain International (132): 34–55. OCLC 680456280.
  • Perry, Frederick William (1988). The Commonwealth Armies: Manpower and Organisation in Two World Wars. War, Armed Forces and Society. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-71902-595-2.
  • Playfair, I. S. O.; et al. (2004a) [1st. pub. HMSO 1954]. Butler, J. R. M. (ed.). The Mediterranean and Middle East: The Early Successes Against Italy (to May 1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. I. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84574-065-8.
  • Playfair, I. S. O.; et al. (2004b) [1st. pub. HMSO 1956]. Butler, J. R. M. (ed.). The Mediterranean and Middle East: The Germans Come to the Help of their Ally (1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. II. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84574-066-5.
  • Simon, Jeffrey (1988). NATO-Warsaw Pact Force Mobilization. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press. OCLC 18522267.
  • Smithers, A.J. (1987). Rude Mechanicals: An account of Tank Maturity during the Second World War. London: Leo Cooper. ISBN 978-0-58620-305-7.
  • Stone, David (1998). Cold War Warriors: The Story of the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment (Berkshire and Wiltshire). London: Leo Cooper. ISBN 978-0-850-52618-9.
  • Stanhope, Henry (1979). The Soldiers: An Anatomy of the British Army. London: Hamilton. ISBN 978-0-241-10273-2.
  • Watson, Graham; Rinaldi, Richard A. (2005). The British Army in Germany: An Organizational History 1947–2004. Takoma Park, MD: Tiger Lily Publications for ISBN 978-0-972-02969-8.

Further readingEdit

  • Shales, J. (2015). A Detailed Fighting Account of the 2nd Armoured Division, 9th Australian Division, 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, 7th Support Group and 22nd Guards Brigade in Combat with the Afrikakorps and Units of the Ariete, Brescia, Bologna, Pavia and Trento Divisions: February – May 1941. Infantry, Artillery and Tank Combat in Libya and Egypt. I. Rainham, Kent: Armour. ISBN 0-9931732-0-9.

External linksEdit