Engagements - 1943

 

 

During 1943 the 7th Armoured Division was involved in the following battles and campaigns. These include the Race to Tunis, The wait before Italy, Italy and the Volturno Crossing.

 

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Race to Tunis

After the fall of Tripoli, the 1st Army and the 8th Army combined to form the 18th Army Group, under the command of General Sir Harold Alexander. 

At this time Winston Churchill came to North Africa to review the 8th Army in Tripoli and during an address to General Montgomery and men of the Joint Headquarters of the 8th Army, at Tripoli on 3rd February 1943, Winston Churchill, his spoke these words;

"The last time I saw this army was in the closing days of August on those sandy and rocky bluffs near Alamein and the Ruweisat Ridge, when it was apparent from all the signs that Rommel was about to make his final thrust on Alexandria and Cairo. Then all was to be won or lost. Now I come to you a long way from Alamein, and I find this army and its famous commander with a record of victory behind it which has undoubtedly played a decisive part in altering the whole character of the war.

The fierce and well fought battle of Alamein, the blasting through of the enemy's seaward flank, and the thunderbolt of the armoured attack, irretrievably broke the army which Rommel had boasted would conquer Egypt, and upon which the German and Italian peoples had set their hopes. Thereafter and since, in these remorseless three months, you have chased this hostile army and driven it from pillar to post over a distance of more than 1,400 miles - in fact, as far as from London to Moscow. You have altered the face of the war in a most remarkable way.

What it has meant in the skill and organisation of movement and manoeuvres, what it has meant in the tireless endurance and self-denial of the troops and in the fearless leadership displayed in action, can be appreciated only by those who were actually on the spot. But I must tell you that the fame of the Desert Army has spread throughout the world.

After the surrender of Tobruk, there was a dark period when many people, not knowing us, not knowing the British and the nations of the British Empire, were ready to take a disparaging view. But now everywhere your work is spoken of with respect and admiration. When I was with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff at Casablanca and with the President of the United States, the arrival of the Desert Army in Tripoli was a new factor which influenced the course of our discussions and opened up hopeful vistas for the future. You are entitled to know these things, and to dwell upon them with that satisfaction which men in all modesty feel when a great work has been finally done. You have rendered a high service to your country and the common cause.

It must have been a tremendous experience driving forward day after day over this desert which it has taken me this morning more than six hours to fly at 200 miles an hour. You were pursuing a broken enemy, dragging on behind you this ever-lengthening line of communications, carrying the whole art of desert warfare to perfection. In the words of the old hymn, you have 'nightly pitched your moving tents a day's march nearer home'. Yes, not only in the march of the army but in the progress of the war you have brought home nearer. I am here to thank you on behalf of His Majesty's Government of the British Isles and of all our friends the world over.

Hard struggles lie ahead. Rommel, the fugitive of Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Tripolitania, in a non-stop race of 1,400 miles, is now trying to present himself as the deliverer of Tunisia. Along the eastern coast of Tunisia are large numbers of German and Italian troops, not yet equipped to their previous standard, but growing stronger. On the other side, another great operation, planned in conjunction with your advance, has carried the First British Army, our American comrades, and the French armies to within 30 or 40 miles of Bizerta and Tunis. There from a military situation arises which everyone can understand.

The days of your victories are by no means at an end, and with forces which march from different quarters we may hope to achieve the final destruction or expulsion from the shores of Africa of every armed German or Italian. You must have felt relief when, after those many a hundred miles of desert, you came once more into a green land with trees and grass and I do not think you will lose that advantage. As you go forward on further missions that will fall to your lot, you will fight in countries which will present undoubtedly serious tactical difficulties, but which none the less will

not have that grim character of desert war which you have known how to endure and how to overcome.

Let me then assure you, soldiers and airmen, that your fellow- countrymen regard your joint work with admiration and gratitude, and that after the war when a man is asked what he did it will be quite sufficient for him to say, 'I marched and fought with the Desert Army.' And when history is written and all the facts are known, our feats will gleam and glow and will be a source of song and story long after we who are gathered here have passed away".

Both the allied armies then began to squeeze the German forces on either flank, but German reinforcements, including the 88mm armed Tiger tanks had also arrived. With these the Germans under Von Arnim attacked the Americans at Kasserine Pass, inflicting heavy casualties, before trying the repeat the same against the British in an effort to cut the 1st Armies supply routes to it's bases in Tunisia. In the meantime the other German forces under Rommel held the British on the Mareth Line. Click here to view the Divisional Order Of Battle at this time.

 

The Chase to Tunis

 

The advance of the British was hampered by mines, for which the Division was grateful to the Engineers (4th Field Squadron RE, 21st Field Squadron RE and 143rd Field Park Squadron RE) to whom the clearance fell. The Sappers developed an uncanny skill in finding and disarming Teller and 'S' mines, sown quickly in their path. If necessary the Sappers were not without raw courage, when 4th Field Squadron were ordered to clear a minefield near Medenine, they lined up across it at six foot intervals and "beat it like a field of roots."

The Mareth Line, on the Tunisian frontier, had been built by the French to shield southern Tunisia from the Italians. It was the most formidable set of defences encountered since El Alamein. The 7th Armoured Division was involved in the German counter-attack at Medenine, but not in the latter battles that took place between 18th and 30th March 1943.

Rommel counter-attacked on 6th March, but the 8th Army has learned a lot about defensive tactics, in the last few years, and so they let the German armour roll on in the dark, before opening fire with their anti-tank guns. The Germans lost 50 of their precious tanks, two of them to the gun commanded by Sergeant Andrews of the 1/7th Queens, plus other to that of Sergeant Crangles, whose Bren gunner engaged the tank crews as they bailed out. By now Rommel was suffering very badly from jaundice and returned to Germany for treatment, never to return to North Africa. However, the Division was to meet him again in Normandy.

The American 2nd Corps, under General Patton, re-opened the attack in the mountains of Tunisia, on 17th March, while on 20th March the 8th Army attacked the Mareth Line. On 23rd March the Mareth Line was breached, with the Germans with drawing to Wadi Akerit and the Gabes Gap. German reinforcements also arrived, in the shape of the Hermann Goring Division and the 9th Division, which arrived by air. On 6th April the 8th Army broke through at the Gabes gap and begun to pursue the Germans north towards Tunis.

In the days and weeks that followed the 1st and 8th Armies subjected the German and Italian forces to a series on either flank, with the aim of joining up south of Tunis. The 7th Armoured Division left the 8th Army and was transferred to 9th Corps of the 1st Army for the assault on Medjez El Bab, with the tanks moving on tank transports for once. Once this attack had broken through it raced with 6th Armoured Division for the honour of capturing Tunis, which fell on 8th May 1943.

The terrain initially impeded the advance, with the infantry advance starting on 5th May with strong artillery support being provided to the Queens Brigade and the Engineers. At 7am on 6th May the race to Tunis began. This race was 'won' by 'B' Squadron, 11th Hussars, who entered Tunis on the afternoon 7th May. They were closely followed by the tanks of 22nd Armoured Brigade and the Queens Brigade, whose infantry and 6-pdr anti-tank guns helped to quell the remaining resistance, before 1st RTR arrived.

The 7th Armoured Division had the freedom of Tunis for a week, with the French providing free meals and lots of wine, some of which was put onto the Divisions trucks only to be laces with petrol or antifreeze by the Arabs, which did cause some deaths.

All resistance in Tunis was over by the morning of 8th May, after which the German army finally started to collapse. Some of it headed towards the coast near Bizerta, hoping for evacuation and the rest making a last stand at Cape Bon, but on 12th May the Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered. A total of 28,000 Italian and 10,000 German troops surrendered along with General Von Arnim. After three years of fighting and two thousand miles from El Alamein, the Deutsche Afrika Korps had finally been destroyed. It was also fitting that the unit that started harassing the Italians three years before had captured Tunis, the final prize in the campaign, and this of course was the ever present 11th Hussars.

The war in North Africa was over and the Division now made ready to fight in the very different terrain of Italy and Northern Europe. Since El Alamein the Division had not looked back, especially with their Jerboa shoulder flashes having the "Desert Rat" facing forward.

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Now that the war in North

 

The Wait Before Italy

After the Axis surrender in North Africa, the Division withdrew to the town of Homs on the coast, fifty miles east of Tripoli. Here the Division re-equipped, cleaned, painted and services all of its equipment, to remove the dust and grit of the Desert War. The fire power of the 11th Hussars increased by the addition of two 75mm Gun Mounted White Scout cars, to some of itís squadrons. As the war in Europe would involve a sea-borne landing, the Division rehearsed embarking and disembarking from landing craft in Homs harbour.

The Divisional Staff also gave considerable thought to the tactics of the forthcoming operations, as the days of the open desert were over. Having experiences the problems of the close country in Tunisia, they realised that the narrow walled streets and the proximity of civilians would need a different battle plan. This would mean an increasingly important role for the Infantry and Royal Engineers, the former of which had now received the PIAT. As the Americans and Germans had similar weapons the tanks would need protection from infantry carried anti-tank weapons. Therefore, for future operations it was decided that the Queens Brigade would be first ashore, followed by an armoured regiment with artillery and engineers, in support. The remainder of the Division would then follow on afterwards. Taking into accord these new plans the Division was able to test the infantry intensive tactics in a few exercises. The Norfolk Yeomanry (65th Anti-Tank Regiment RA) were also re-equipped with the new 17/25-pdr anti-tank gun to counter the Tiger tank.

The highlight during the time at Homs was a visit from H.M. King George VI, who inspected the whole division, spending much of his time with the 11th Hussars, of which he was Colonel-in-Chief.

The Division was not involved in the invasion of Sicily, but their turn came with the invasion of the Italian mainland at Salerno. Click here to view the Divisional Order Of Battle at this time.

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Italy (Volturno Crossing)

Going Ashore: On 8th September 1943, a small party landed with the assault waves, but the main part of the Division did not go ashore until 15th September. The disembarkation started during the evening and continued during the night, as the beach head was under artillery fire. By midnight the Queens Brigade, with most of 5th RTR, was ashore, with the guns of 3rd RHA landing just before dawn.

Map of 7th Armoured Division in Italy

The 7th Armoured were the reserve division for the British 10th Corps and were concentrated near the village of Battipaglia, a few miles inland, in an area of reclaimed marsh land, infested by malarial mosquitoes. When it moved on, with 23rd Armoured Brigade under it's command too, everyone was please to get away from the area and on 27th September it was ordered forward.

The first objective was Scafati on the river Sarno, from where 23rd Armoured Brigade was to take the coast road between the sea and the rumbling Versuvius volcano and then head for Capua on the River Volturno. This was when the Sappers realised that as well as the mines they had become used to in the desert they also had to deal with booby-traps and clearing a path through the rubble choked village streets. Unable to disperse laterally on this stone walled countryside, the Division was at one time spread out for 55 miles of narrow road. Apart from this all went well, with the local population giving an ecstatic welcome.

By now missing the open space of the desert, the Division felt confined, especially the King's Dragoon Guards and the 11th Hussars, as they were keep to the roads by waterlogged ground. The rain teemed down into the turrets of the tanks and armoured cars, while the Germans strewed mines everywhere along with booby-traps, plus small units of German infantry armed with the Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon made life even more difficult. Also during the advance the KDG, being a cavalry regiment of over 250 years standing, requisitioned some local horses and formed a horse troop which was used for patrols and bringing up the rations.

North of Naples the countryside opened out more and 22nd Armoured Brigade took the lead, with 1st RTR as the vanguard, supported by 4th CLY on the left flank. Although both regiments made good progress the 11th Hussars found roving the countryside hard, as gone were the days of free manoeuvre in the open desert, which had been replaced by the narrow roads. Usually the first contact with the enemy was when one of the lead armoured cars was 'brewed up'. The tanks and the Queens would come up to probe for enemy flanks. Clearing a road block was slow and dangerous work, with fierce fighting on occasions. 1st Rifle Brigade lost a number of men while clearing an obstacle at Carditio, while the Division approached its first major battle in Italy on the River Volturno. Here all the bridges were down and the town of Capua was held in strength by the Germans.

Volturno: Crossing a defended river is not an easy task for an armoured division, so the job of forming a bridgehead was given to the Queens Brigade. With them the Queens Brigade took 4th CLY, all the Artillery and all the Divisional Royal Engineers to help them. The Volturno is a wide, fast flowing river, with high banks, being swollen by the recent rains at the time. The opposite (North) bank was defended by a well-entrenched enemy with machine guns, supported by artillery, ranged onto all the likely crossing points, and of course able to fire on any units forming up for the crossing.

After careful consideration the most suitable place to force a crossing was selected as the village of Grazzanise, seven miles west of Capua. Here a wooden bridge had only partly been destroyed, leaving an 80ft span in the middle intact, but with both ends demolished. Even with the river 240ft wide, flowing at 9 mph and with 15ft banks, this location was deemed the best place for an assault.

Battle of Volturno

For two nights patrols and swimmers probed the enemy defences, while the Royal Engineers brought up Bailey bridges to span the gaps in the bridge. However the bridge was still not considered strong enough to support tanks, so bulldozers cut and levelled the banks so the tanks could try and find a ford. During this time the Division was under machine gun and shell fire, which was answered by 3rd RHA and a squadron of 4th CLY.

The actual crossing began on the night of 12th/13th October 1943, with the 1/7th Queens leading. However, many assault boats were holed by shrapnel and machine gun fire, or simply carried downstream by the current, thus preventing a lodgement being gained. At 02:30 in the morning the Queens tried again and by dawn they had gained a small bridgehead on the north bank. By mid-day 'B' and 'C' companies were across and dug in and they clung on during the rest of the day, into the night before the anti-tank guns could be ferried across. The 4th CLY also found a crossing point just upstream of the wooden bridge, suitable for their waterproofed Sherman. After a bulldozer had crossed the repaired bridge it levelled the northern banks, allowing 4th CLY to cross with all of the Regiment being across by 17th October. Only one tank needed to be recovered from the river by the bulldozer.

On 16th October, the 1/7th Queen's were patrolling in Brezzia on the north bank, with the 1/5th Queens also across and expanding the bridgehead. It should be noted that during the river crossing the mortar platoon of 1/7th Queens fired more bombs than in the whole of there time in North Africa. By 22nd October both the British 10th Corps and the US 6th Corps were across the Volturno and advancing towards the next obstacle, the River Garigliano. It is a testament to the Royal Engineers that the Bailey bridge was still in place and being used in 1974.

The 7th Armoured Division continued to advance north clearing mines as it went and repairing the road, to help it's advance, while still meeting German resistance. The Division now moved upto the Agnena River, taking up positions on the coast. From here 1/6th Queens and 5th RTR captured the small port of Mondragone. On 7th November, the many rumours about returning the to UK, came true, with the Division being withdraw from the line and handed over it's tanks and vehicles to 5th Canadian Armoured Division. On 19th November, the advance party left for home and their next task the landings in Normandy. All the men of the Division took with them was their kit and personal weapons. By early January 1944 the Division found itself in Norfolk preparing to the invasion of Northern Europe.

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