Engagements - 1940
During 1940 the 7th Armoured Division was involved in the following battles and campaigns. These include the Border Raids of May-June 1940 and Sidi Barrani
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June 1940 - The Cherrypicker War
Shortly after the outbreak of the war against Italy on 10th June, the 11th Hussars (under Lt-Colonel John Combe) were ordered to dominate the desert between the main Italian positions at Fort Capuzzo and Fort Maddalena. This they did and spent much of their time ambushing Italian patrols, shooting up convoys and sending back scores of prisoners. Click here to see the Divisional Order Of Battle at this time
On 14th June, the 7th Hussars, with a company of the King's Royal Rifle Corp and a battery of 4 RHA captured Fort Capuzzo, while on the same night the 11th Hussars captured Fort Maddalena. Two days later, on 16th June, the first tank battle in the Western Desert, took place. It started when on 'C' Squadron, 11th Hussars encountered two reinforcing Italian columns moving towards Fort Capuzzo. The first was made up of 12 L-3/33 Tankettes and 30 supply lorries and the second of 17 L-3/33 Tankettes and 300 Infantry. While 11th Hussars regrouped a troop of 3rd RHA Anti-tank guns was brought up to help. Meantime two armoured cars had attacked one of the columns, destroying two L3 Tankettes, with one Rolls-Royce Armoured car being damaged. Other Cherrypickers soon arrived and knocked out another L3 Tankette. Lt-Col Combe (11th Hussars) then concentrated all the available 11th Hussars (B & HQ Squadrons), plus a mixed squadron of 7th Hussars consisting of 8 A9 Cruiser and 4 MKVI light tanks and one troop 2 pdr towed Anti-tank guns from 3 RHA, ready for the main attack on the Italian force. The engagement that followed was to become known as the Battle of Girba.
By now the combined Italian force, under the command of Colonel D’Avanzo, consisting of 26 off L-3 Tankettes (3rd Company, IX light tank battalion with a Platoon from Battalion headquarters), 300 infantry (1st Libyan Infantry Division), the Libyan 17th battery, IV Group with 4 off 14 pdr (77/28) field guns, plus the lorries had formed a Waterloo style 'Square'. The square consisted of the four artillery pieces, one each, in each corner of the square, the infantry forming the sides and with 12 of the tanks on patrolling either flank. The Italian tanks charged forward unsupported by the infantry or its supporting artillery, but they were defeated by the British armour. The light tanks operating independently of the artillery and infantry were no match for the mixed armoured forces they faced. Fighting bravely and with courage they charged forward but were all soon disabled or destroyed.
The A9 Cruisers went ahead for the Italian square, while the RHA Anti-Tank troop fired at it from the right flank, and targeted the soft skinned Italian trucks and exposed infantry. It was only after the second trip around the square that the Italian artillery revealed themselves and opened fire on the British armoured vehicles. The Italian artillery had only high explosive ammunition and no armoured piercing ammunition at their disposal, but they were still capable of inflicting damage on the British armoured vehicles. There were no antitank guns with the column either, which was a clear violation of the Italian doctrine for combined arms teams operating in conjunction with the infantry and armour. The battle dissolved into four separate fights at each corner of the square with Italian guns and British armour engaging each other, but the exposed Italian gunners soon fell and the infantry broke. There was no lack of courage or skill from the Italian gunners as they engaged the enemy armour, just the lack of armour piercing ammunition. In the battle eight more L-3 Tankettes were destroyed by 11th Hussars and nine by 7th Hussars, with all four field guns being destroyed along with over 100 prisoners being taken, with the battle effectively destroying an entire Infantry battalion and two companies of tanks.
Elsewhere, 11th Hussars captured Generale di Corpo Lastruccie, Engineer-in-Chief of the Italian 10th Army, along with his Lancia staff car, his staff officer, 2 lady friends and very importantly maps showing the Bardia defences.
Sidi Barrani - Italian Offensive and Operation Compass (September-December 1940)
In July that year, the Italians re-garrisoned Fort Capuzzo, but still the Hussars, along with the light tanks of the 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades, still continued to patrol and raid as they wished. During this time the 11th Hussars sent back a stream of reports and prisoners, so when on the 13th September the 10th Italian Army, finally lumbered into action General O'Connor was well briefed. The 10th Army consisted of six infantry divisions, all fully equipped, plus a battalion of 200 tanks. On the way to Halfaya Pass, RAF Blenhiems, Gladiators and a few Hurricanes, plus RHA field Batteries, did much damage to the advancing Italian force
Despite this air attack and harassing by the 11th Hussars and the Support Group of the 7th Armoured Division (consisting of 2nd Rifle Brigade, Coldstream Guards, 3rd and 4th RHA, plus 11th Hussars), the Italian's, under Marshall Graziani, were in Sidi Barrani, by 16th September, with the British forces falling back to shorten their supply lines. The Italian's had suffered 3,500 casualties (including 700 POWs) with 150 vehicles being destroyed. After also taking the town of Maktila, this is where the Italians stopped, 60 miles inside Egypt, due to supplies running very low, partially due to the invasion of Yugoslavia on 28th September diverting resources away from the desert. Here they remained until the end of November, hemmed in by the 11th Hussars and the 7th Armoured's Support Group. They were further harassed by "Jock" columns of armoured cars, artillery and infantry, which had originally been put together by Lt-Colonel Jock Campbell of 4 RHA, that would raid the enemy with great effect. At this time 11th Hussars also formed a new 'D' Squadron, by the arrival of ten RAF Rolls-Royce armoured cars, in the form of No. 2 RAF Armoured Car Company, which had been released from their duty of guarding the pipelines in Iraq.
In the meantime, Western Desert Force had also been reinforced, when on 24th September 1940, three new Armoured Regiments, plus other forces, arrived at Port Said. These were, 2nd RTR with Cruiser tanks (mainly A13, but with some A9 and A10s) and 7th RTR with 48 Matilda tanks and the 3rd Hussars which still had MKVI light tanks only. The Matilda's of 7th RTR were the first to arrive in the Middle East. In October 2nd RTR joined 4th Armoured Brigade, while 3rd Hussars joined 7th Armoured Brigade. The Divisional Commander, Major-General O'Moore-Creagh, decided to transfer 'B' Squadron of 2nd RTR to 3rd Hussars and visa versa, which meant that each tank Regiment was able to have at least one Cruiser tank Squadron on its strength. Click here to view the Divisional Order Of Battle at this time. In the meantime 7th RTR started training with various infantry brigades, in their infantry support roll. The 11th Hussars were also strengthened by the addition of No.2 Armoured Car Company RAF with ten Fordson Armoured cars, who became ‘D’ Squadron (RAF) within the regiment.
General O'Connor was ordered, by General Wavell, to attack in the area of Sidi Barrani, Sofafi and the saltpans of Buq-Buq, making use of the heavily armoured Matildas. However, the Italians had been idle for the last three month, with a string of fortified camps now protecting Sidi Barrani. Three of these, Nibeiwa, Tummar East and Tummar West, lay to the south of the main position at Sidi Barrani and were manned by infantry, heavy artillery and tanks. An estimated 75,000 men were in or around Sidi Barrani, with about 120 tanks and 200 guns, with O'Connor having the 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions. The British force consisted of 25,000 men and a total of 275light, Cruiser and Matilda tanks.
The plan was for the 7th Armoured lead 4th Indian Division and 16th British Infantry Brigade through the 20 mile wide Enba gap between Sofafi (to the south) and Nibeiwa Camp to sweep west and mask Sidi Barrani and the three camps, from the main Italian army, while the 4th Indian with 7th RTR inMatildas went north to overrun the camps and the town. The attacked was carefully rehearsed during November and on the evening of 8th December the advance (Operation Compass) began.
The 4th Armoured Brigade was across the coast road on 9th December, west of Sidi Barrani, with 4th Indian Division attacking the Tummar camps and isolating Sidi Barrani. At Maktila, Selby Force (drawn from the Mersa Matruh Garrison, considering mainly of 3rd Bn, Coldstream Guards, with some Machine Gun units and artillery) supported by the Cruisers from 6th RTR and Matildas from 7th RTR, took the town with the aid of naval support from Royal Navy monitors, HMS Terror and HMS Aphis.
The Italian collapse was dramatic, with the Indians swiftly overrunning Nibeiwa and the Tummar camps, while 7th Armoured cut the coast road. The Italians around Sidi Barrani were soon in full retreat. Aided by the guns of 4th RHA and the advance of the Matildas of 7th RTR, two battalions of 11th Indian Brigade - the 2nd Battalion Cameron Highlanders and 1st/6th Rajputana Rifles soon cracked the defences at Nibeiwa. The assault started at dawn, when the Matilda tanks of 7 RTR led the attack on the western side of Nibeiwa, their armour proving invulnerable to Italian artillery fire. Together with the infantry, they completely destroyed the Gruppo Maletti (a divisional sized formation of light tanks and Libyan infantry) based in the camp, but the commander; General Maletti engaged the tanks with a light machine gun before he was killed. The Cameron Highlanders from 4th Indian Division, swept through the camp with bayonet, killing several hundred Italians and taking over 4,000 prisoners.
7th RTR then advanced north to assist 5th Indian Brigade in its assault on a large encampment at Tummar West. The advantage of surprise had been lost, and the attack was hampered by a midday sandstorm. The first attack by the Royal Fusiliers was pinned down by enemy fire, but the 3rd/1st Punjabis managed to break through the defences and the camp was taken with a further 2,000 prisoners. Meanwhile, 4th/6th Rajputana Rifles drove off an Italian relief column of tanks and lorried infantry, inflicting 400 casualties without suffering a single injury themselves. The attack on Tummar was reinforced by the New Zealand drivers on the No 4 Motor Company, who having borrowed rifles, charged at the head of the British infantry with cries of "Come on you Pommie bastards".
The following morning, 10th December, saw the surrender of the now dispirited and isolated Italian garrisons of Tummar East and Point 90, while 16th Infantry Brigade advanced north through fog towards the coastal town of Sidi Barrani. Unfortunately, the fog lifted just as the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders began their assault, and they suffered relatively heavy casualties from Italian artillery. However, 10 Matildas of 7th RTR arrived to support 2nd Battalion, The Queen's Regiment in a successful attack on the western end of the defences, aided by fire from Royal Navy monitor, HMS Ladybird, which culminated in the surrender of the Black Shirt Legion garrison.
By the evening of 10th December, over 5,000 prisoners had been taken and with 7th Hussars cutting of their retreat route at Buq-Buq, so many Italians surrendered that they became to numerous to count. In the end some 20,000 prisoners were captured, with the British suffering about 700 losses.
More might have been achieved if the 4th Indian Division had not be recalled to Cairo on the second day of the battle and sent to Sudan, where another Italian army had taken to the field.
This left 7th Armoured to continue the battle around Sidi Barrani and they soon took the Rabia and Sofafi camps, which the Italians had abandoned. At this time the 11th Hussars had discovered the Italian 64th Catanazaro Division, under General Armico, well dug into the dunes west of Buq-Buq, behind the salt flats, with thirty-five guns of all types covering the east and another twenty-five guns of all types covering the south. A hastily assembled force of 3rd Hussars, a squadron of 2nd RTR, cruisers from the 8th Hussars, along with 'B' & 'C' Squadrons of the 11th Hussars, plus a battery of 4 RHA, all under the command of Lt-Colonel John Combe (11th Hussars) attacked the Italian force. They met strong opposition from the Italian artillery, which stopped the advance of 'C' Squadron, 3rd Hussars, and knocked out many of the tanks of 'A' Squadron. The Italians were finally overwhelmed by a flank attack by 8th Hussars, in Cruiser tanks, along the western seaward side.
Shocked by the violent assaults and the number of defeats, the Italian army was now in full retreat, while being harried by 7th Armoured's Support Group and of course roving patrols of 11th Hussars. These forces were of Birkforce (consisting of 7th Hussars, half of 11th Hussars, with two Batteries [1 field, 1 Anti-Tank] of RHA) and Combeforce (2nd RTR, half of 11th Hussars, with two Batteries [1 field, 1 Anti-Tank] of RHA). On many occasion the Italian air force (Regia Aeronautica) attacked these two forces, delaying their progress. 7th Armoured Brigade was ordered to capture Sollum and get between Fort Capuzzo and the coast, in order to prevent any Italian forces trying to retreat into Sollum, but the Brigade failed to do so, as they preferred to undertake tank maintenance, refueling and eat their evening meal rather than carry out night marches, much to General O'Connor's annoyance! However, the Italians were still chased back across the Italian wire south of Sollum and into Cyrenaica, but they left 38,000 prisoners and a vast quantity of equipment, including 237 guns and over 70 tanks.
By 15th December the Italian army was out of Egypt and the British paused to count their gains, with both sides holding their positions. The Division, less 4th Armoured Brigade, surrounded Bardia waiting for the 6th Australian Division to be brought up to prepare for an assault on Bardia and for supplies to be brought up. The enemy positions around Bardia, which was garrisoned by 45,000 men and over 400 guns (off all types), 12 M-13 Tanks and a Hundred L-3 Tankettes. consisted of a 18 mile long perimeter, with double barbed wire, a four foot anti-tank ditch, many natural wadis and scores of artillery and MG positions, plus six well dispersed minefields. Having captured plans of these defences back in June, the defences were probed for weakness for a while. There was also a need to re-equip as the strength of 7th Armoured had dropped to 108 light tanks and 59 Cruiser tanks, of which many had outrun the designed track mileage.
While the rest of the Division and the Australians prepared to attack Bardia, 4th Armoured Brigade, attacked the by-passed Italian camp as Sidi Omar on 16th December 1940. 2nd RTR lead the attack from the west, with good artillery support by 4 RHA, and soon broke through the perimeter, in tactics not dissimilar to a Napoleonic cavalry charge. 7th Hussars and 'B' Squadron, 3rd Hussars soon joined in, with the battle lasting just 10 minutes. The Italian Fascist gunners, with their guns sited on the east of the position (to face where any assault was most likely) fired to little avail, while under bombardment from two batteries of 4 RHA the main attack had come in from the west and south. 900 Italian prisoners were taken with 50 being killed
But the real battle in December was that of supply. It was down to the men of the RASC (Royal Army Service Corp) to provide food, ammunition, water and petrol. The Division had four companies (Nos. 5, 58, 65 & 550) of the RASC, plus the 4th New Zealander Reserve Company, of Tummar fame, and a detachment from the Royal Indian Army Service Corp. The RASC built up a formidable reputation and received a number of medals and mentioned-in- despatches for its had work.
While the Italians in Bardia enjoyed every luxury, the Australians and 7th Armoured Division settled down outside the perimeter for their Christmas lunch, waiting for the main assault in the new year.
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