Use of Arms
The purpose of this page is to explain what the role of a British armoured division and the various units that made it up was during the Second World War and how they worked together as a fighting unit.
The Role of the Armoured Division
In Western Desert the role of an armoured division was two fold. Firstly, in attack it was to engage and destroy enemy armour which would then allow it to turn the normally open southern flank and get behind the infantry units holding the main defensive line, cutting of their supplies and routes of retreat. This would then allow it to support the main infantry attacks. Secondly, in defense it fulfilled the opposite role of guarding the open southern flank and preventing the enemy doing the above to the British and Commonwealth forces. When Army Tank Brigades arrived in North Africa, they assumed the infantry support using their more heavily armoured 'I' (Infantry) tanks, such as Matildas, Valentines and later Churchills.
In either role the tanks were helped but the units from the Support group (until Motorised Infantry were a permanent feature of an armoured brigade) with motorised infantry assigned for close support, field artillery support and anti-tank guns to help protect their flank.
At night the tanks would laager in the best defensive position they could find in the open desert, protected by the infantry and await re-supply. Before dawn they would start up and move off ready for first light, in case of enemy attack. When advancing the tanks would form a protective screen (or box) around the soft skinned (unarmoured) vehicle of those units accompanying them.
Most armoured divisions had two armoured brigades on their strength, which provided quite a fighting force, if used in conjunction, but up until El Alamein, each brigade (or even regiment) tended to fight separately from each other which gave the Germans and Italians, who tended to mass their tanks together, a better chance of defeating each brigade. Most of the time the two brigades were similarly equipped, but in the case of 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades during Operations Brevity and Battleaxe. During these actions 4th Armoured Brigade was equipped with heavier Matilda Infantry tanks for close infantry support while 7th Armoured Brigade was equipped with Cruiser tanks (A10, A13 and Crusader) for tank to tank action..
It was only once the 8th Army was re-organised before El Alamein that the role of the armoured division, to be the force to break through the enemy lines, with permanent infantry support (in the form of a Lorried Infantry Brigade) was implemented. Each Armoured brigade also contained a permanent Motorised Infantry Battalion (normally either the Rifle Brigade or King's Royal Rifle Corp) to provide the close support the tanks needed. Although it still had to take on and destroy the enemy armour it now had the strength to take and hold positions until the normal infantry divisions caught up. It could still manoeuvre in the wide open, unpopulated, spaces of the desert, fighting battles with the enemy tanks, almost like medieval knights on horse back. But as the war moved from the Western Desert into Tunisia the terrain started to change, reflecting the type of war that was to follow in Europe. Also as the desert war came to an end the tank types became for unified (Sherman and later Cromwells), which left an armoured division to be the armoured spearhead of an army, while the heavier Churchill's in some independent armoured brigades provided Infantry support when needed.
Italy and Northern Europe
Once in Italy and then Northern Europe, the job of an armoured division changed due to the change in terrain which meant operations had to be confined to main roads and firm ground, capable of supporting the weight of a tank.
An armoured division is a spearhead, with its point being its three regiments of tanks and in close support of each of them is a company of the Motorised Infantry in half-tracks and carriers. Behind this come the three battalions of the Lorried Infantry Brigade in Troop Carrying Vehicles (TCVs) - of infantry. An armoured division probes and pushes its way through or around opposition. It does not bash blindly ahead. It does not stop to 'mop up'. It moves on and hopes to God that its supplies last out, or catch up. The limit of the advance is effectively the limit of those supplies. As the Tanks make their way ahead, if they meet machineguns they deal with them, but if they bump anti-tank guns or anti-tank ditches - its the infantry's job to deal with those. Anti-tank guns are cleared by infantry flank attacks. The Infantry would also clear and hold anti-tank ditches until AVREs (armoured vehicles Royal Engineers) bring up tank bridges or 'fascine' tanks to fill up the ditch. In a normal advance each armoured regiment would normally be assigned a company of motorised infantry , along with a self-propelled artillery battery for support.
At night the tanks would laager on some prominent feature or natural obstacle such as a hill or river. Round them in all-round defence would be the infantry from the Lorried Infantry Brigade. During the night supply columns battle their way through to the divisions positions. By next day infantry from an ordinary infantry division are brought upto relieve the armoured division which sets off again!
From dawn to dusk the armoured division would have rocket-firing 'Tiffies' (RAF Typhoon fighter-bombers) constantly circling round and all the division's artillery to call upon in support. An armoured division would not normally have take part in wood clearance or street cleaning, as that was not its prime role. That would be left to the ordinary infantry divisions, supported with by Army Tank Brigades in the more heavily armoured Churchill tank or specialised Armoured Support such as Churchill Crocodiles, Petards, etc, which would normally be very costly in men.
The Role of the Armoured Car
The Western Desert.
To understand and appreciate the achievements of the Armoured Cars in North Africa, it is necessary to understand the role that their personnel were required to carry out.
They were effectively the ‘Special Forces’ of the Desert Army, operating most of the time in advance of their own troops, and at times, behind enemy lines.
The normal role of an Armoured Car Regiment was as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Brigade and Divisional Commanders. To do this each regiment had to maintain a continuous 40 mile observation line, at sight distance, generally 6 miles apart, which depending on suitable high ground, was normally achieved using two squadrons, and one in reserve, plus a HQ Squadron and ‘B’ echelon. When it was necessary to operate over a 70 mile front all three squadrons were used in the forward role.
They maintained this formation and role from first light to last light, but after dark, they were constantly listening for enemy movement. Each Squadron's HQ being generally located between 1 to 3 miles to the rear of the forward observation line, positioned such as to halve the wireless distance between the forward Troops on observation, and Regimental HQ.
The Squadron Commander was in contact with his forward Troops through a forward W/T link, while contact to the rear was maintained to Regimental HQ forward link, and to the other Squadron HQ’s on a rear W/T link, operated on a different radio frequency. By using this system of radio communication, information passed by one Squadron to Regimental HQ was therefore picked up by all the other Squadrons, and the exact position prevailing along the entire front covered by the Regiment was consequently known at all times by all Squadron commanders, as well as Regimental Command. Regimental HQ rear W/T link was in contact with Brigade or Division, or both, depending on under whose control the Regiment was operating.
When not being used for an observation, the armoured car regiment could often move forward to make contact with the enemy, sometimes up to 70 miles forward of Division. One such example of this is being detailed to capture prisoners for interrogation, which was generally done with the assistance of attached infantry, artillery, and anti-tank support.
Depending upon what the state of battle was Armoured Car Regiments were allotted ‘aggressive, or harassing’ roles by Division when extremely mobile armour was required, especially behind the enemy formations, cutting their lines of communication, and destroying their supply and fuel dumps, and attacking enemy aircraft operating on forward landing grounds.
When it was necessary to withdraw they would operate as ‘rearguard’ for withdrawing or retreating columns. As well as covering the withdrawal, they would shadow the enemy and reporting their movements, while shepherding the allied units back to safety. They were also used to assist with the salvage of Allied armour, aircraft, and transport, generally in forward positions, and rescuing downed pilots, and stranded tank crews.
Due to the nature of the work they were used for the possibility of being cut-off and surrounded was a very real and present danger and it happened frequently. In their work they endured the heat of the day out in the open, the dust storms, and spent nights of discomfort, leaguered out in the open and because of their forward position, there was always the danger of friendly fire from trigger happy Allied gunners.
Frequently during attack they would draw enemy fire, by deliberately exposing themselves, so as to pinpoint the enemy’s positions for the Allied guns. As the result of being in the vanguard of any advance they were generally the first Allied troops to enter towns evacuated by the enemy. Consequently had to take control and maintain law and order in the face of killing and looting by the local inhabitants, until they could hand over to occupying forces. Then, they would escort captured enemy prisoner of war columns to rearward positions, and also to cover Divisional lines of communication.
One of the most remarkable things about all this was that it was all done on just one gallon of water per person per day, for all purposes. This was used for cooking, cleaning, washing, drinking, and for the radiators, and as the CO once said, "mostly for radiators!" As with most other forces in North Africa shaving water was often pooled and petrol was commonly used for washing.
The Armoured Cars played a very significant role in the Western desertthat has generally been overlooked by military historians.
Italy and Northern Europe.
When the war moved from the wide open spaces of the Desert to the confined streets and roads of Italy and later Northern Europe, the way Armoured cars were used changed dramatically. The 11th Hussars, the famous Cherry Pickers, were undoubtedly the finest armoured car recce regiment in the British Army. They were proud to have been first into every captured town in the long desert campaigns, but once in Italy they found that they were keep to the roads by waterlogged ground and that the Germans strewed mines everywhere along with booby-traps. There was also the added problem of plus small units of German infantry armed with the Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon made life even more difficult.
When they landed in Normandy in June 1944, they found the situation complicated further by the high hedges of the Bocage countryside. In both theatres they knew from long experience of the importance of getting the armoured car patrols along the roads in front before the enemy had time to recover his balance sufficiently to put out his roadblocks with their support of anti-tank guns or Panzerfausts. The one weakness in 7th Armoured Division was that the old Desert Hands did not really understand the effective use of camouflage!
During any typical operation, even when out of the Bocage the lead cars could expect to be knocked out by an AP round or Panzerfaust, at any moment, and it was this that normally would identify where the enemy was. The normal procedure was then to back off and call up infantry and artillery support to clear the position, but on many occasions by the time this had been organised the Germans had moved off to a new position, maybe only a few hundred yards down the road. It was not untypical for two or three cars to be knocked out by in this fashion and in fact 11th Hussars effectively left a trail of burnt-out cars from Normandy to Hamburg, along with fifty-four graves!
In the Western Desert, especially in the early years of the war, all artillery was towed and it was only after El Alamein that Self-Propelled Guns became common. This mean that the artillery were mainly static in many engagements moving only when they needed to follow the advance or it was their time to withdraw. This practice carried on into Italy.
In the Desert the 25-pounder guns of the Royal Horse Artillery and Royal Artillery, where used to provide support for the infantry of the Support Group and in any armoured attacks. They artillery would also be used to suppress fire from enemy positions and gun batteries, along with of course anti-tank guns.
Once the Sexton Self-Propelled Gun was issued to 5th RHA upon their return to England in 1944, the role of the artillery changed. While 3rd RHA usually supported the Queens with their towed 25-pounders, 5th RHA supported the 'Tankies' of 22nd Armoured Brigade as they were able to move and fire more easily, not having to keep hitching and un-hitching the guns as in the past. A self-propelled artillery battery would normally be assigned to support an armoured regiment in any a particular action, along with a company of motorised infantry.
During the time between landing in Normandy and arriving in Hamburg between them 3rd and 5th RHA collectively fired 550,000 rounds, equivalent to thirty rounds per gun per day, although in Normandy some of the crisis-battles demanded up to 400 rounds per gun. The quick, accurate, brutal firepower of the British Artillery was greatly feared by the German Wehrmacht!
The role of an anti-tank unit was exactly what the named suggested as it provide anti-tank support for other units. Until the infantry battalions were re-organised and a support company with anti-tanks was added, an anti-tank regiment would provide batteries or Troops to for support to an infantry battalion. It would also provide protection to the flanks of armoured units when engaging enemy armour.
At the start of the war all anti-tank guns were towed and it was not until the introduction of the M10 and Achilles Tank Destroyers that an effective self-propelled anti-tank gun was available. By 1944 within an armoured division two of the four anti-tank batteries were equipped with towed 17 pdr guns, while the other two were equipped with the M10 (Wolverine) or Achilles Tank Destroyer. The towed guns mainly supported the infantry battalions, augmenting their own 6 pdr guns, while the Tank Destroyers, bolstered the anti-tank capability of the armoured units. The use of Tank Destroyers allowed the anti-tank guns to keep up with the tanks much easier, too.
In the early days of the Second World War the support group (or Pivot Group as it was sometimes known) was literally to do what its name suggested. It provided whatever support the armoured brigades needed to the operation in hand, being able to provide motorised infantry, field artillery, anti-tank artillery or light anti-aircraft artillery as needed.
It was after the 8th Army was re-organised in preparation for El Alamein, that the Support Group ceased to be and became either a Motor Brigade or Lorried Infantry Brigade to support the armour in greater strength.
The incorporation of a Lorried Infantry Brigade into an armoured division came when the 8th Army was re-organised in preparation for El Alamein. The role of the old Support Group ceased and it either began a Motor Brigade or was replaced by a Lorried Infantry Brigade to support the armour in greater strength. The role of a lorried infantry brigade was to follow behind the armoured brigade and provide greater infantry support as needed and then to help hold any new ground until normal infantry could replace them. If a village or town was to be assaulted it would be the lorried infantry that would lead the way, if infantry from a normal infantry division were not available supported then by the tanks. A lorried infantry brigade was not used in the same way as a normal infantry brigade and were taken out of the line if the armoured brigade were in access elsewhere as they were not considered strong enough to hold anything.
Initially they travelled in normal lorries but latter in the war they used more specialised Troop Carrying Vehicles (TCV). Two RASC drivers took it in turns to drive each massive TCV. They were top heavy and yawed frighteningly at speed, particularly when cornering. Usually they were cold and draughty, but when the canvas screens were folded they were warm and cosy. Here the infantry could doze, play cards, eat their 'compo' rations en route to the next engagement. As the moved an 'air sentry' sat on the roof, within the circular lid for the A/A Bren gun for defense against air attack. Inside there were two rows of tip-up seats facing inwards and a central row facing out in alternate directions. The TCV was high-sided, and the sides were un-armoured, which made it highly vulnerable to any enemy activity. The two doors at the back opened outwards with a mounting step on left and right, to allow quick disembarkation and loading.
The Queens Brigade travelled hundreds of miles in what they called their mobile 'homes'. It was better than marching!
At the start of the Second World War, the British Army viewed the use of its various units separately and did not include a permanent infantry presence in its armoured brigades. However, as the Desert War progressed, more and more often infantry were attached on a regular basis. It was not until 1942 that each armoured brigade had its own dedicated infantry support.
These Motorised Infantry battalions differed greatly from the regular infantry units as they were designed to be more mobile, having a great number of Bren gun carriers in the scout platoons and were trained to fight alone side the tanks. They also has an Anti-Tank Company equipped with 6 pdr Anti-Tank guns, a Mortar Platoon equipped with 3-inch Mortars, a Machine Gun Platoon equipped with Vickers Machine Guns and were better equipped with Radios than a normal infantry battalion. There were three motor companies, each consisting of about 90 men each. A motor battalion possessed a great deal of firepower from all this equipment, but it was fewer in numbers than a normal infantry battalion. Originally these battalions consisted exclusively of battalions from the Rifle Brigade or King's Royal Rifle Corps, with the only exception being the Guards Armoured Division.
When the M3 and M5 half-track became available these were the mainstay of the Motorised Infantry Battalions, along with the ever present Bren Gun carrier of course. When 'Kangaroo' Armoured Personnel Carriers became available these were also heavily used. The use of armoured vehicles to carry the troops into battle providing them with protection from small arms fire. Being tracked also allowed the Motorised Infantry to keep up with the tanks, as did the Sextons and Tank Destroyers of the artillery. A Company of motorised infantry would normally be assigned to support an armoured regiment in any a particular action, along with a self-propelled artillery battery.
The role of the Engineer is a many any varied one, which can range from building to destroying bridges, clearing minefield and general entrenchment work. Engineers were also trained to fight as infantry so that they could defend themselves if necessary
Until 1942 all an Engineer originally had to clear a minefield was nothing more than the tip of bayonet to feel for mines with, until the arrival in the Western Desert a "Mine Detector". This did not always work, which meant the bayonet had to be used again, but as the war progressed they became more reliable. The advent of the flail tank also eased the burden of clearance from the engineers.
To clear barbed wire, Bangalore Torpedo's, Satchel Charges, or even wire cutters were used. In the construction/repair of bridges or filling or large wholes, many materials would have been used including wood, 30ft Bridge laying tanks and of course the Bailey Bridge
For the destruction of anything the use of TNT, Dynamite or even Plastic Explosive would have been used.
To cap all of this most of the work was done while under fire!
Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers
The role the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) was effectively to keep the vehicles and equipment of the division work or fit for battle. This had originally been done by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and Royal Engineers, but in 1942 the REME was formed.
The repair system in the field was reorganised so that repair could be carried out as far forward as possible. The take-over from RAOC of responsibility for scaling of spares was completed. Almost at once the new organisation was tried out and proved successful at the Battle of Alamein; the first major operation after the Corps was formed. The re-organised recovery and repair system was thoroughly tested during the remainder of the war.
As the war progress various Armoured Recovery Vehicles (ARV) were developed to allow the easier recovery of tanks from the battlefield, even under fire!
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