A Brief History of the Desert Rats and the Memorial by Les Dinning

 

The story of the 7th Armoured Division is a long one, for it covers the whole period of the war. The Division started to come together in 1938  when Headquarters, British Troops Egypt, assembled a "Mobile Force" at Mersa Matruh as the war clouds gathered over Europe. The purpose of the force was to counter the threat from the Italian Army, who as close allies of Germany, were, expected to attack the Suez Canal. This "Mobile Force" was the nucleus of the future 7th Armoured Division (and indeed the 8th Army) little could it be imagined at that time what a long hard road the men of the division were to tread on their way to Berlin some seven years later. Birth of the Desert Rats (ITV Anglia News).

Following, a hard, but successfully North African campaign, and the invasion of Italy, the Division was withdrawn to England in January 1944 to prepare for the invasion of Europe and was stationed in Thetford Forest and the surrounding area. On the 8 May 1944 the armoured regiments moved to Orwell Park School, Ipswich, where in the extensive school grounds the men camped in tents, and the waterproofing of the vehicles completed before sailing from Felixstowe to Normandy landing on Gold Beach on the 6 June 1944. (The date of the landing is confirmed in the war diaries of the 4th County of London Yeomanry). The five months spent in the East Anglia area was the only time the Desert Rats were in the United Kingdom in the entire existence of the Division,

My service with the Desert Rats commenced when I joined the 4th County of London Yeomanry on the 16th February 1944 in High Ash Wood, Thetford Forest as a 17 year old, and I served with that Regiment until, with much sadness, it was disbanded on the 28th July 1944 following a major battle in Villers-Bocage on the 13th June 1944 while the regiment was leading the Division in a break through of the German lines. I was then transferred to the 1st Royal Tank Regiment and fought with that unit as a Cromwell Tank Gunner until the end of the war and was demobilised in 1947. The 4th CLY were replaced by the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards who remained with the Division until the Division was disbanded in 1948.

The Memorial is located about two miles north of Mundford, Norfolk, England on the west side of the A1065, at the entrance to the original camp sites occupied by the 4th County of London Yeomanry, and the 1st and 5th Royal Tank Regiments in 1944.

The quest to set up the Memorial to the Desert Rats began when following retirement in 1991 and a visit to Normandy in 1993, I commenced researching the history of the two regiments with which I had served as it affected me. During the research I found the original camp sites used by the 4th County of London Yeomanry and the two Royal Tank Regiments still existed in Thetford Forest, and is now part of Thetford Forest Park, an area of great natural beauty, used by many thousands of visitors for recreation purposes throughout the year under the control of The Forestry Commission

As I walking in High Ash Wood and reflected on the past, it occurred to me it was a pity that the majority of the visitors to the area probably knew nothing of its history and of its connection with what is arguably the most famous Armoured Division in the British Army. It was then I resolved to attempt to set up a permanent Memorial at the entrance to the original camp area showing the layout as it was in January 1944 with a summary of the history of the 7th Armoured Division.

On the 3 January 1996 I wrote to Her Majesty the Queen seeking her approval and support, and in a reply dated 8 February 1996, as Colonel in Chief of the Royal Tank Regiment, she graciously agreed to approve and support the project.

Following a meeting on the 17 July 1996, with Mr. Sandy Grieg, Forest District Manager, Forest Enterprise, the Forestry Commission kindly agreed to permit the construction of the Memorial in Thetford Forest, constructing a car park adjacent to the Memorial and a footpath connecting the camp sites used by the three Armoured Regiments to enable visitors to walk from the Memorial to the camp sites using directions shown on an area plan beside the Memorial following Desert Rat signs.

A successful funding campaign, aided by The British Legion, The Post Office, The Dulverton Trust, The Eastern Daily Press, and many generous donations from the general public enabled construction of the memorial to commence in July 1998.

The Memorial is a Cromwell Mark IV Tank set on a brick faced concrete plinth surrounded by a brick patio. The plinth and patio were constructed by the 39 Royal Engineer Regiment with the kind permission of the Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel A D Macklin, RE.

The significance of the Cromwell Tank is that the armoured regiments of the 7th Armoured Division were equipped mainly with Cromwell Tanks while stationed in Thetford Forest, and I believe the Division was the first formation to take the then brand new British tank into action.

The final development of the Cromwell Tank was carried out by Rolls-Royce who fitted the tank with a Meteor engine (a modified Merlin Spitfire engine) which gave the tank phenomenal acceleration and a top speed of well over 50 mph. I am sure the acceleration and extraordinary speed of the Cromwell saved me and my fellow crew members on several occasions when the German gunners failed to appreciate the speed we were travelling, be it on the road or cross country. As for reliability, I can not recall a single mechanical breakdown of my tank due to engine failure.

All the tanks in the Division were named and my tank (5 Able "B" Squadron, 1 RTR) bore the inscription "Little Audrey Laughed and Laughed", although the tank was hit several times by anti tank weapons, it survived the war. In a Bazooka attack on the 26 September 1944 the Tank Commander, Sgt. A Davies, and Wireless Operator, Cpl. A (Taffy) Glenton were mortally wounded and are buried in Holland.


A short history of The Desert Rats since 1945

By the end of World War Two, the 7th Armoured Division was in and around Hamburg being occupation duties and soon moved to Berlin in July 1945, when it took part in the Allied Victory Parade. The 4th Armoured Brigade was in Northern German between Geesthacht and Hamburg and moved to other parts of Northern Germany while the 7th Armoured Brigade was in Northern Italy and parts of Austria.

Post war saw vast changes in the organisation of the three units as the British Army reduced in numbers of men and units, which included the disbanding of the 7th Armoured Brigade in 1946, with its name transferring to rename the 22nd Armoured Brigade within Division. In January 1948 the Division was disbanded, being perpetuated by 7th Armoured Brigade, but the Division was was reformed in March 1949 and served with the British Army On the Rhine (BAOR) until it was finally disbanded in January 1957 being formally removed from the British Army List in 1959. In its entire history it had only been in the United Kingdom for about six months. Following this date the name of the Desert Rats and the tradition of the original Division have been carried on by the 7th Armoured Brigade. Since then the 7th Armoured Brigade and served as part of British 1st Armoured Division as part of the BAOR and in other theatres and operations worldwide, such as Kuwait, Iraq, The Balkans and Afghanistan.

In March 1948 the 4th Armoured Brigade was also disbanded, but it was reformed in 1981 in Munster, West Germany, serving as part of British 1st Armoured Division as part of the BAOR, plus Kuwait and Iraq. In 2007 it was redesignated as the 4th Mechanized Brigade, with its men still wearing the Black Rat and is now part of British 3rd Mechanized Division based in the UK. Before this date like the 7th Armoured Division it had only been in the United Kingdom for about six months. 

Some of the regiments that served in the Division and Brigades have been disbanded or merged over the years and the organisation of each has changed many times over the years, but its is still good to know that the honours and traditions of the original Division and its two original Brigades are carried on by the men and women of today who still proudly wear the Desert Rat and the Black Rat emblems on their arms.

4th Mechanized Brigade Army Website 7th Armoured Brigade Army Website
4th Armoured/Mechanized Brigade 7th Armoured Brigade

 

Donations to the Memorial Fund would be very much appreciated

Cheques should be payable to: The 7th Armoured Division Commemorative Fund and sent to :

Ian Paterson - Treasurer. 21 Beech Grove, Little Oakley, Essex, CO12 5NN.

 

Recommended Books about the 7th Armoured Division

Title Author Publisher
TOBRUK FRANK HARRISON CASSELLS
PRESS ON REGARDLESS  EDWARD WILSON  SPELMONT
DESERT RATS JOHN PARKER HEADLINE
THE TANKS KENNETH MACKSEY ARMS AND ARMOUR
AND THEN THE MUSIC STOPPED PLAYING KEN WARD BRAISWICK
THE LONG DRIVE DENNIS HUETT PEARLBAY UK
A DESERT RATS SCRAPBOOK ROGER FOGG THE HISTORY PRESS
A TANKIES TRAVELS JOCK WOOD WOODFIELD PUBLISHING
Churchill's Desert Rats in North-West Europe

If you buy a copy of this book via this link the Memorial Association will receive 12% commission from the sale.

 

Patrick Delaforce

If you buy the book on-line via the link to the left, the Memorial Association will receive 12% commission from your purchase.

Pen and Sword Books
BRITISH ARMOURED DIVISIONS AND THEIR COMMANDERS 1939-1945 RICHARD DOH ERTY PEN & SWORD BOOKS
A total of eleven British armoured divisions were formed during WWII but, as this highly informative book reveals, just eight saw action. It was in the North African desert that armoured divisions really came into their own. The terrain was ideal and six such divisions of 8th Army fought Rommel’s Panzers into submission. The campaign from D-Day onwards saw the Guards Armoured, 7th Armoured (the Desert Rats), 11th and Percy Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division in the thick of the action.
Written by leading military historian, Richard Doherty, this book describes the many fascinating aspects of armoured warfare; from its uncertain beginnings, through to the development of tactics and the evolution of tank design. The combination of gripping historical narrative and well researched fact, make this an invaluable and highly readable work on the contribution of British Armoured Divisions to victory in the Second World War.

"British Armoured Divisions and their Commanders 1939-1945" is a very different look, equally  compelling, brilliantly researched with every detail that the most  ardent student could wish, but still a great read for someone new to the Desert Rats story. - Rod Scott, Chair of the Desert Rats Association

TANK COMMANDER: FROM THE FALL OF FRANCE TO THE DEFEAT OF  GERMANY BILL CLOSE PEN & SWORD BOOKS
Bill Close had a remarkable war. Throughout the conflict, in campaign after campaign, from the defence of Calais in 1940 to the defeat of Germany in 1945, he served as a tank commander in the Royal Tank Regiment – and survived. After being evacuated when France fell, he took part in the Greek campaign and in all the major battles in the Western Desert, including those fought at Sidi Rezegh, Bir Hacheim, Knightsbridge, Agedabia and El Alamein. Then, as a squadron commander, he was involved in the break-out battles in Normandy – Operation Epsom, the struggle for Hill 112, Operation Goodwood – before his tanks drove across France and the Low Countries in pursuit of the retreating enemy. By the end of the war, he was one of the most experienced and resourceful of British tank commanders.
This book is not only an extraordinary memoir, but a compelling account of the exploits of the Royal Tank Regiment throughout the conflict. As a record of the day to day experience of the tank crew of seventy years ago – of the conditions they faced and the battles they fought – it has rarely been equaled

"Tank Commander" is the auto biography of Bill CLOSE and I recommend, in fact urge you to read this book, I read the book in two sessions going well into the night. It is compelling and will tell you why we believe that the Desert Rats are regarded by military historians as highly as they are. You do not need to have too much prior knowledge, it is all you will need to know. - Rod Scott, Chair of the Desert Rats Association

STRAFER DESERT GENERAL" N S Nash
Have just read this book and I consider this to be the best biography I have ever read, it shows how the ever changing war in  the western desert gave the commanding officers huge challengers and explains the complexity of the chain of command. It is researched to the finest detail and gives definite answers where none existed before, the death of this truly remarkable man brought a lump to my throat, remembering how Sqd Sgt  Major Lenard Burritt (Gotts signal officer) laid a wreath at the Alamein memorial, I had to steady Len as he remembered with great affection not just his commanding officer but a true friend.
 

I recommend this book without reservation and have sent my personal thanks and congratulations to the author.

 
Rod Scott - Chairman of the Desert Rats Association

 

 

From Gazala to Tunis: 442 days in the life of the 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade

Phillip Harding Fonthill Media
I have known the author for a number of years and have consulted him on a number of questions related to the Rifle Brigade, especially the 2nd Battalion on many occasions. His knowledge of the Battalion and its history particularly in the North African Campaign is excellent.
The book draws on many sources of information, importantly including the men like his late father who were actually there and as such is a very compelling read. The description of 'Snipe' is second to none and places then reader in the thick of the action. 

While reading it I was reminded of the film about the US Air Cavalry in Vietnam, called "Were We Soldiers" and how the story of the 422 days in 1942 would make a similar film, if someone was ready to make it happen.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in the North African Campaign of 1942. It is a great read. Ian Paterson - Historical Consultant

THE ARMOURED CAMPAIGN IN NORMANDY: JUNE-AUGUST 1944 Stephen Napier The History Press

Beginning with the D-Day landings, this is a brutally frank appraisal of the planned use and actual results of the deployment of armour by both German and Allied commanders in the major tank battles of the Normandy campaign. These include operations Epsom, Goodwood, Cobra and Totalize.

Please click here for more information.

The Normandy Campaign of 1944 has many and varied areas of interest to different people. This study of the Armoured Campaign investigates and reports on this part of it very well.

The book consists of a number of well written studies in to the different stages of the Allied and German Operations which can be read as a self contained study or as part of the whole book, which improves its readability. Each study contains evidence from personal accounts and official records from both sides of the front and includes a well written assessment of the Operation and its impact on both sides as the Campaign progressed. Reading it one realises that being in a tank on either side in Normandy was an extremely dangerous thing, as the Allied tanks were outgunned by the Germans and the latter outnumbered and always in danger of air attack. Both sides were heavily restricted in the use of their armour by the terrain which always favoured the defender, but from reading it one is left with the question of what might have been the outcome of the Normandy Campaign if the Germans has a) been able to deploy their armour sooner and b) the battle field had been more open and allowed better movement.

I do personally recommend this book to anyone interested in Normandy and/or Armour of WW2. I found it a engrossing read and the use of stand alone chapters made it much easier to put down and pick up again later on. Ian Paterson - Historical Consultant

A SMALL FRAGMENT OF THE GREAT WAR DAVID OSBOURNE
If you have an interest in Thetford's connection to WW1 or a Norfolk interest or how any local small town was affected, then "A small fragment of the Great War" by David Osbourne is a must. It shows the human side and how some families were virtually destroyed. I also shows how major business were forced to reconfigure due to loss of man power. It is unusually very readable and to my mind the best book of its kind and I have read many, as part from my position as chairman of the Desert Rats Association. I run my own museum which covers WW1 the book, the book is available through Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life White Hart St, Thetford.

Rod Scott - Chairman of the Desert Rats Association

Useful Websites related to 7th Armoured Division or the units that served in it

Imperial War Museum The Veterans Agency The Royal British Legion
The Italian Campaign D-Day Museum Portsmouth UK D-Day 6th June 1944 
Normandie 44 Memoire   Normandie 60 Memoire   The Battle of Normandy
Villiers-Bocage Battlefield Tour Operation Blackcock Royal Gloucester Hussars Museum
Royal Tank Regiment Museum, Bovington Camp The War Poetry Website The History Of The 4th Armoured Brigade
El Alamein Commemorations 2012 First Desert Rat honoured. Birth of the Desert Rats (ITV Anglia News).

Video history of the Desert Rats on Liveleak and YouTube

Prewar to December 1940

December 1940 to November 1941

 

 

November 1941 to February 1943

February 1943 to July 1944

July 1944 to the Berlin Victory Parade, July 1945

 

Rare footage of Tanks from 1st Royal Tank Regiment from the Division on manoeuvres in March 1940

 

 

Home page

Contents page

Location of 7th Armoured Division (The Desert Rats) Memorial or see map below.

 
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For more detailed information on the 7th Armoured Division and the 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades please look at the below websites

History of the 7th Armoured Divison (The Desert Rats) Website

History of the 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades Website