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23rd (Northumbrian) Division
23rd (Northumbrian) Division formation sign.svg
23rd (Northumbrian) Division formation sign
Active 2 October 1939 – 30 June 1940
Country  United Kingdom
Allegiance British Crown
Branch  British Army
Type Motorised Infantry
Size Division (two Brigades)

Second World War

Battle of France

The 23rd (Northumbrian) Division was a Territorial Army formation raised in 1939 as the 2nd line duplicate of the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division.[lower-alpha 1] Intended to be a motorised infantry division, as was its 1st line counterpart, it saw active service in World War II in the Battle of France in 1940, before being disbanded later that year after suffering heavy losses.



The units that were to become the 23rd Division were first formed at cadre level (25 officers and men) in their parent formations in March 1939 on the doubling of the Territorial Army.[3] These units were embodied on 1 September but continued to be administered by their parent units until the Brigade and Division headquarters were formed on 2 October.[4] Like the 50th Division the 23rd was a two brigade motorised infantry division with the 69th (5th East Yorkshires, 6th and 7th Green Howards) and 70th (10th, 11th and 12th Durham Light Infantry[lower-alpha 2]) Brigades. Although issued rifles, there was little training aside from drill parade, and most of the time was spent guarding locations in the North East of England.[6] On 22 April 1940 the Division was shipped to France.[7]

France 1940

Along with two other divisions, the 12th (Eastern) and 46th Infantry Division, it joined the British Expeditionary Force as a labour and training division.[8] The division travelled to France without any of its artillery, a much reduced signals detachment without radios, few administration units and a reduced rear echelon (R.A.S.C. and R.A.M.C.).[9] The infantry had only its rifles, and for each battalion, 14 Bren light machine guns, less than 10 Boys anti tank rifles and a few 2" mortars. There were no carriers and a limited amount of impressed civilian transport. Few men had been trained in the use of the Bren gun and some had still not been trained in the use of their rifles. The division was moved to the region around St Pol to build airstrips, this was to be inter-spaced with continued military training.[10]

The German advance until noon, 16 May 1940

After the threat from the German breakthrough became apparent to the British, on 17 May the partly trained division was ordered up to defend a 16 miles (26 km) front along the Canal du Nord 6 miles (9.7 km) west of Cambrai, forming the right of the British line.[11] The canal was dry and there were no tools with which to prepare further defences. in addition its right flank was open.[12]
After only one day in these positions the division was ordered to a new line, the 69th Brigade to Saudemont 15 miles (24 km) east of Arras and the 70th initially to Thélus 5 miles (8.0 km) north of Arras. On 19 May while the 70th was moving, new orders were received transferring them to the south west of Arras to a line between Saulty and Beaumetz-lès-Loges (14 miles (23 km) and 7 miles (11 km) south west of Arras respectively). In order to spare his already fatigued men more marching, Brigadier Kirkup used as much transport as he could acquire to move the battalions in relays as they marched west in the early hours of 20 May.[11]
First light on 20 May found only brigade headquarters and part of 10th and 11th D.L.I. in their intended destinations and the Tyneside Scottish still in Neuville Vitasse, having been joined by a number of Ordnance and Pioneer Corps men, mostly unarmed.[13] Soon the remainder were marching west on the roads south of Arras in open formation and at wide intervals due to the presence of German aircraft.[14] Later that morning the 8th Panzer Division fell on the Tyneside Scottish and the 7th Panzer Division and SS Totenkopf Division clashed with the marching and motorised columns and a series of confused company actions was fought out in the villages of Wancourt, Neuville Vitasse, Mercatel and Ficheux.[15] In this battle, the Tyneside Scottish were reduced to around 100 uninjured men,[16] C company of 11th D.L.I. was killed or captured in its entirety and B company was reduced to a platoon in strength.[17] By mid afternoon the survivors extricated themselves and some were directed to Lattre-Saint-Quentin (9 miles (14 km) west of Arras) and the advance parties of the 10th D.L.I.[18] Some 233 officers and men including engineers reached Houdain (15 miles (24 km) north west of Arras), where the Brigade headquarters had been forced to, from its original location in Gouy.[19]

The official history says of this battle (and of the 12th Division's fight further to the west):

One of the Territorial battalions which indeed fought courageously and suffered heavily claimed afterwards with pride that they had delayed the German advance for five hours. It is a modest estimate of what these two Territorial divisions did to damage and delay the enemy's forces. But it may be perhaps accepted, with this important rider - at this time every single hour's delay was of incalculable service to the rest of the British Forces in France.

Also on 20 May the 8th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers had been ordered into Arras as reinforcements for the defenders, who were known as Peterforce, (the 1st Welsh Guards and the 5th Green Howards).[20]

The German advance up to 21 May 1940

Those men who had reached Houdain were cut off from the Division headquarters and were swelled by more stragglers until they numbered approximately 800 including the Brigade headquarters. These men were organised into four rifle companies and came under command of the 46th Division for the rest of the campaign.[21] The others, most of 10th D.L.I. and two companies from the 11th, under Colonel Marley had passed through the German's reconnaissance screen on the night of 20 May and arrived in Gondecourt (6 miles (9.7 km) south west of Lille) on 22 May. Known as Marley Force this unit remained under orders of the 23rd Division.[22]
On that day the 69th Brigade was pulled back to a line on the Scape river around Rœux.[23] In spite of collecting or being issued with more of the heavier infantry weapons they were forced back by German shelling and air attack. On 23 May the Brigade was ordered north to Gravelines 10 miles (16 km) west of Dunkirk, transported in three ton trucks, only the 6th Green Howards succeeded in reaching there due to German air attack blocking the roads.[24] That evening Peterforce was ordered to leave Arras, being nearly surrounded.[20]
At Gravelines the 6th Green Howards, with French Infantry and a few British Tanks, held off German probing attacks for two days, taking casualties from bombing and fire from 88mm guns and mortars.[25] They were then sent to Haeghe-Muelen 8 miles (13 km) south east of Dunkirk in the company of Welsh and Irish Guards. After a further two days of attacks by the Germans and more casualties, on 29 May the battalion was ordered to hand over their Bren guns and ammunition to the Welsh Guards and retire to Dunkirk,[26] where they rejoined the rest of the Division on the beaches on the morning of 31 May.[27]
The remainder of the Division had been ordered north on 26 May to the Dunkirk perimeter. A rear guard of about 100 men from Marley Force guarding the bridges on La Bassée canal was killed or captured during this movement. On reaching Killem 10 miles (16 km) south east of Dunkirk on 29 May the remaining transport and unnecessary baggage of the division was destroyed, and the next day it was moved into positions behind the 50th Division. Some 100 men from the 11th D.L.I. were used to reinforce the 8th D.L.I. in the 50th Division.[28]
The Division was evacuated from Mole in Dunkirk in the evening of 31 May.[29][30]


On its return to Britain, the 23rd Division was disbanded on 30 June due to the heavy losses it had suffered.[7] Its component units, however, would go on to see further action. The 69th Infantry Brigade, the 233 Field Company, R.E. and the 124th Field Regiment R.A. were assigned to the 50th Division, the division's 1st-Line counterpart. They would fight in North Africa, Italy, Sicily and North-West Europe.[31] The 70th Infantry Brigade was subsequently assigned to Alabaster Force for the Occupation of Iceland, together with most of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division. The Brigade joined that division in May 1942 and fought in Normandy until it was disbanded, as it was a 2nd line formation, in August 1944 to reinforce the rest of 2nd Army.[32]

The 8th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers would convert to the 3rd Reconnaissance Regiment, Reconnaissance Corps serving in the 3rd Infantry Division until the end of the war, fighting in north west Europe.[33]

The 9th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers joined the 18th Infantry Division as division machine gunners[34] together with the 125th Field regiment which had converted into the 125th Anti-Tank Regiment,[35] both were captured in February 1942 during the Battle of Singapore with the rest of the division.

The remaining engineer companies joined the Home Forces. The 507th Field Company joined the 47th (London) Infantry Division and the 508th Field Park Company serving with VIII Corps. The latter converted to a Field Squadron for service with 79th Armoured Division in September 1942. The 508th converted back into a Field Park Company in 1943, rejoined VIII Corps, and served in North-West Europe.[36]


Order of battle

69th Infantry Brigade

70th Infantry Brigade

Divisional troops

See also


  1. In the First World War the 2nd line duplicate of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division was the 63rd (2nd Northumbrian) Division. This lead an undistinguished career in the Home forces before being disbanded in July 1916.[1] The number was reused by the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division. The 23rd Division was a Kitchener's Army Division which served on the Western Front and Italy, its men winning nine V.C.s. Although not designated a 'Northern' division, it contained many of the same infantry regiments as the 50th, Northumberland Fusiliers, Durham Light Infantry and Green Howards (known as The Yorkshire Regiment pre 1920s) .[2]
  2. On 31 January 1940 after becoming a Tyneside Scottish battalion the 12th DLI was transferred to the Black Watch.[5]


  1. Baker, Chris. "The 63rd (2nd Northumbrian) Division.". Retrieved 4 December 2016. 
  2. Barker, Chris. "23rd Division". Retrieved 4 December 2016. 
  3. Ward p. 460
  4. Joslen pps. 299, 301
  5. Ward p. 461
  6. Cheall pp. 4-6
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Joslen p. 62
  8. Ellis, France & Flanders, p. 21.
  9. Niehorster, Leo. "23rd Division BEF". Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  10. Rissik pp. 8-9
  11. 11.0 11.1 Rissik p. 36
  12. Ellis p. 78
  13. Thompson p. 82
  14. Rissik p. 37
  15. Thompson pp. 81-82
  16. Rissik p. 43
  17. Rissik p 38
  18. Rissik p. 39
  19. Ellis p. 79
  20. 20.0 20.1 Takle p. 28
  21. Rissik p. 42
  22. Rissik p. 42-43
  23. Cheall p. 11
  24. Cheall p. 13
  25. Cheall pp. 13-15
  26. Cheall p. 17
  27. Cheall p. xi
  28. Rissik pp. 43-44
  29. Rissik p. 45
  30. Cheall p. xii
  31. Joslen p. 81
  32. Joslen p. 304
  33. Joslen p. 43
  34. Hewitson p. 153
  35. Evans, Nigel F. "Anti-Tank Regiments". Retrieved 26 December 2016. 
  36. 36.0 36.1 Richard A. Rinaldi, Royal Engineers, World War II at Archived 4 December 2014 at the Wayback Machine.


External links

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