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Desert Rats redirects here. For other meanings see desert rat (disambiguation).
7th Armoured Division
Active 1938–1958
Country United Kingdom
Branch British Army
Type Armoured Division
Size Second World War: 14,964 men[1][nb 1]
Nickname(s) The Desert Rats
Mascot(s) Jerboa
Engagements Second World War
North African Campaign
North West Europe
Percy Hobart
William Gott
Jock Campbell

The 7th Armoured Division was a British armoured division which saw service during the Second World War where its exploits made it famous as the Desert Rats.

After the Munich Crisis, the division was formed in Egypt during 1938 as the Mobile Division (Egypt)[2] and its first divisional commander was the acclaimed tank theorist Major-General Sir Percy Hobart. During January 1940, the name of the unit was changed to the 7th Armoured Division.[2] It was during this period that the nickname "Desert Rats" was coined.

The division fought in every major battle during the North African Campaign; later it would land and fight in Italy before being withdrawn to the United Kingdom where it prepared to fight in North West Europe. It began landing in Normandy during the afternoon of 6 June and fought its way across Europe ending the war in Kiel and Hamburg, Germany. The 7th Armoured Brigade was detached from the division during early 1942 and fought the Japanese during the fighting in Burma before it returned to the Mediterranean Theatre and fought in Italy.

Although the division was disbanded during the 1950s, the history, name and the famous 'Desert Rat' flash is carried on by the 7th Armoured Brigade.[3]



When Italian troops were massed for the invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 a Mobile Force was assembled in Egypt in case the war spread. When rain and sandstorms led to vehicles being bogged down, it became known as the "Immobile Farce" within the ranks.[4]

After the Munich Crisis, elements of what would become the 7th Armoured Division arrived in the Middle East in 1938 to increase British strength in Egypt and form a Mobile Division The 'Mobile Force' - initially the "Matruh Mobile Force" - was established on the coast some 120 mi (190 km) west of Alexandria. It was formed from the Cairo Cavalry Brigade (three armoured regiments: the 7th Queen's Own Hussars, the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars, and the 11th Hussars) and the 1st Royal Tank Regiment; and supported by the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, a company of the Royal Army Service Corps and a Field Ambulance unit. The Force was organised as a cavalry brigade (the Hussar regiments with Light Tanks, 15-cwt Ford vehicles, and armoured cars), a tank group (older medium and light tanks and latest Light Tanks) and a "pivot group" (artillery with 3.7 inch Mountain guns and tracked vehicles to tow them). It was joined by the 1st battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps from Burma and then its first commander, Major-General Percy Hobart. Hobart was an armoured warfare expert and saw that his troops were properly prepared to fight in the desert despite their poor equipment. Stewart Henry Perowne, the Public Relations Attaché at the British Embassy in Baghdad, perhaps uncharitably referred to the unit as the "Mobile Farce" because it included some obsolete tanks like the Vickers Medium Mark II.[5]

The King's Royal Rifle Corps battalion joined the pivot group as a Motor Battalion. By September 1939 the artillery was equipped with 25 pounder gun-howitzers and 37mm anti-tank guns. The next month the first cruiser tanks were issued.

North Africa

In December 1939, Major-General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh succeeded Hobart, who had fallen afoul of his superiors.

The unit was meant to be equipped with 220 tanks. However, at the outbreak of war the 'Mobile Force' had only 65. Most of the unit's troops had already been deployed for two years by 1940 and it took as long as three months for mail to arrive.

On 16 February 1940, the Mobile Division, which had changed names during the middle of 1939 to be called the Armoured Division,[6] became the 7th Armoured Division.[2] The Desert Rat divisional flash was adopted about the same time. It originated from a sketch of a jerboa drawn by the divisional commander's wife after a visit to the Cairo Zoo.

After the Italian declaration of war, the Western Desert Force was massively outnumbered. However, the Italians proved to be no match for the British. The Western Desert Force captured 250,000 Italians in the early engagements in 1940.

During the January 1941 Italian retreat, Major-General Richard O'Connor, the Western Desert Force commander, ordered the Desert Rats to travel south of the Jebel Akhdar and cut off the Italian forces at Beda Fomm, while Australian forces pushed the Italians west. On 7 February, as the tanks were unable to travel fast enough, the manoeuvre was led by an ad hoc brigade of armoured cars, towed artillery and infantry which completed the trip in 30 hours, cutting off the Italian retreat and destroying the Italian Tenth Army. Lieutenant-Colonel John Combe led this ad hoc group which was known as "Combe Force" after him. After this, the tanks of 7th Armoured Division, after eight months of fighting, needed a complete overhaul and the division was withdrawn to Cairo and temporarily ceased to be available as a fighting formation.[7]

The Italians had proved so weak that Hitler was forced to send the Afrika Korps as reinforcements under the command of General Erwin Rommel. In April 1941, the allied troops in Tobruk were cut off by the Germans and Italians. In June the 7th was again prepared for battle as part of Operation Battleaxe having received new tanks and additional personnel.[8] In the attack plan for Operation Battleaxe, the 7th force was divided between the Coast Force and Escarpment Force. However, this Allied push failed, and the 7th was forced to withdraw on the third day of fighting.[9] On 18 November, as part of Operation Crusader the whole of the 7th Armoured Division was concentrated on breaking through. They faced only the weakened 21st Panzer. However, XXX Corps commander Norrie, aware that 7th Armoured division was down to 200 tanks decided on caution. During the wait, in the early afternoon of 22 November Rommel attacked Sidi Rezegh with 21st Panzer and captured the airfield. Fighting was desperate and gallant: for his actions during these two days of fighting Brigadier Jock Campbell, commanding 7th Support Group, was awarded the Victoria Cross. However, 21st Panzer, despite being considerably weaker in armour, proved superior in its combined arms tactics, pushing 7th Armoured Division back with a further 50 tanks lost (mainly from 22nd Brigade).[10]

The Western Desert Force later became HQ XIII Corps, one of the major parts of Eighth Army. The 7th Armoured Division took part in most of the major battles of the North African Campaign, including both Battles of El Alamein (see First Battle of El Alamein and Second Battle of El Alamein for details). It also participated in the destruction of Axis forces in North Africa in Tunisia in 1943.


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The division was not an assault force in the invasion of Sicily but did participate in the battle for Italy. It came ashore at Salerno on 15 September 1943, to help repel heavy German counterattacks, then as part of U.S. Fifth Army's British X Corps and supported by the 46th (North Midland) Division, drove on and took Naples. The Desert Rats, used to fighting in the desert, had to adjust to the confined Italian roads. The division crossed the river Volturno in southern Italy, constructing a pontoon bridge. This paved the way for many divisions heading north.

North West Europe

The division departed from Italy in November 1943, the last of the division arrived in the United Kingdom on 7 January 1944.[11][12] The division was reequipped with the new Cromwell cruiser tanks and in April and May received delivery of 36 Sherman Vc Fireflies; enough to organise each troop so that they had a complement of three 75 mm gun Cromwell tanks and a 17 pounder gun Firefly.[11] 7th Armoured was the only British division to use the Cromwell as their main battle tank.[13]

The division was one of the three British follow-up divisions of the two British assault Corps earmarked for the Normandy Landings.[14] The 22nd Armoured Brigade embarked on 4 June and most of the division landed on Gold Beach by the end of 7 June.[11][15] The division initially took part in Operation Perch and Operation Goodwood, two operations that formed part of the Battle for Caen. During Perch the division was to spearhead one arm of a pincer attack to capture the city. Due to a change in plan elements of the division engaged tanks of the Panzer-Lehr-Division and the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101 in the Battle of Villers-Bocage.[16] Following the capture of Caen the division took part in Operation Spring, intended to keep German forces pinned to the British front away from the Americans who were launching Operation Cobra and then Operation Bluecoat, an attack to support the American breakout and intercept German reinforcements moving to stop it. The division then took part in the Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine.

The division's performance in Normandy and the rest of France has been called into question and it has been claimed they did not match those of its earlier campaigns.[citation needed] In early August George Erskine the division's commander, Hinde, the armoured brigade commanding officer and up to 100 other officers were removed from their positions and reassigned. Historians largely agree that this was a consequence of the "failure" at Villers-Bocage and had been planned since that battle.[17][18][19][20] Historian Daniel Taylor is of the opinion that the battle's result provided an excuse and that the sackings took place to "demonstrate that the army command was doing something to counteract the poor public opinion of the conduct of the campaign".[19] Historian Mungo Melvin has commented approvingly of the 7th Armoured Division's institution of a flexible combined arms structure which other British armoured divisions did not adopt until after Operation Goodwood.[21]

Cromwell tank with Challenger tank behind of 8th Hussars, 7th Armoured Division, outside Hamburg Dammtor station, 5 May 1945

Following the advance across France, the division took part in the Allied advance through Belgium and the Netherlands; liberating Ghent on 6 September. The division then took part in the advance to and securing of the River Maas. In January 1945 the division took part in Operation Blackcock to clear the Roer Triangle, followed by Operation Plunder; the division crossed the Xanten and Wesel rivers and advance on the city of Hamburg its destination, part of the Western Allied invasion of Germany.

The replacement of the division's commanding officer, following Normandy, did not change the performance of the division and in November 1944, Erskine's replacement Major-General G.L. Verney was relieved after he "was unable to cure the division's bad habits well enough to satisfy Montgomery and [Lieutenant-General Miles] Dempsey."[22]

No doubt the division suffered from collective and cumulative battle fatigue. As Verney put it, with some prescience: "There is no doubt that familiarity with war does not make one more courageous. One becomes cunning and from cunning to cowardice is but a short step."[23]

Post war

The Division remained in Germany as part of the occupation forces and then into the 1950s as part of the British Army of the Rhine standing watch against the Warsaw Pact. As the British Army became smaller, its higher numbered divisions were removed from the order of battle. The Division's long and illustrious career finally came to an end in this fashion, in April 1958, when it was converted into 5th Division. However, the traditions and iconic nickname ("Desert Rats") of the Division are maintained by 7th Armoured Brigade, which forms part of 1 (UK) Division.

General Officer Commanding

Commanders included:

Appointed General Officer Commanding
3 September 1939 Major-General Percy Hobart[24]
16 November 1939 Brigadier John A. L. Caunter (acting)[24]
4 December 1939 Major-General Michael O'Moore Creagh[24]
1 April 1941 Brigadier J.A.L. Caunter (acting)[24]
13 April 1941 Major-General Michael O'Moore Creagh[24](replaced after failure of Battleaxe)
3 September 1941 Major-General William Gott[24] (promoted to command of XIII Corps)
6 February 1942 Major-General John Campbell VC (killed in motor accident 23 February)[24]
23 February 1942 Brigadier A.H. Gatehouse (acting)[24]
9 March 1942 Major-General Frank Messervy[24] (dismissed after battle of Gazala)
19 June 1942 Major-General James Renton[24]
14 September 1942 Major-General John Harding (wounded on 18 January 1943)[24]
20 January 1943 Brigadier George Roberts (acting)[24]
24 January 1943 Major-General George Erskine[24]
4 August 1944 Major-General Gerald Lloyd-Verney[24]
22 November 1944 Major-General Lewis Lyne[24]
1947 Major-General George Roberts[25]
March 1949 Major-General Robert Arkwright[25]
May 1951 Major-General Charles Jones[25]
November 1953 Major-General Kenneth Cooper[25]
March 1956 Major-General John Hackett[25]
February 1958 Major-General Geoffrey Musson[25]

Notable Members of the 7th Armoured Division


There is a monument to the 7th Armoured at Brandon in Thetford Forest where the 7th trained prior to D-day.

See also


  1. This is the war establishment, the on-paper strength, of the division for 1944/1945; for information on how the division size changed over the war please see British Army during the Second World War and British Armoured formations of the Second World War.
  1. Joslen, p. 129
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Welcome to the new British Army Website - British Army Website[dead link]
  3. Welcome to the new British Army Website - British Army Website
  4. British and Commonwealth Armoured Formations 1919-1946
  5. Kelly, Saul, The Lost Oasis, p. 121
  6. Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C.; with Flynn, Captain F.C. (R.N.) & Gleave, Group Captain T.P. (2009) [1st. pub. HMSO:1954]. Butler, Sir James. ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume I: The Early Successes Against Italy, to May 1941. History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Uckfield, UK: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-065-3. 
  7. Wavell, Archibald (1946). Operations in the Middle East from 7th February to 15th July 1941. Wavell's Official Despatches.  first published in the "No. 37638". 2 July 1946. , p. 2 (see "No. 38177". 13 January 1948. )
  8. Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; with Flynn R.N., Captain F.C.; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshal S.E. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1956]. Butler, J.R.M. ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume II The Germans come to the help of their Ally (1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-066-1.  pp. 1–2, 32, 163–164
  9. Liddell Hart, Basil H.. The Tanks: The History of the Royal Tank Regiment and its Predecessors, Heavy Branch, Machine-Gun Corps, Tank Corps, and Royal Tank Corps, 1914-1945, pg. 90
  10. Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 103-105
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Fortin, p. 4
  12. Delaforce, pp. 1–2
  13. Taylor, p. 6
  14. Ellis, p. 79
  15. Forty, p. 36
  16. Buckley, pp. 23–27
  17. Fortin, p. 10
  18. Forty, p. 104
  19. 19.0 19.1 Taylor, p. 84
  20. Wilmot, p. 398
  21. Buckley (2006), pp. 28–29
  22. D'Este, Carlo (1983). Decision in Normandy. London: William Collins Sons. p. 286. 
  23. D'Este, p. 273
  24. 24.00 24.01 24.02 24.03 24.04 24.05 24.06 24.07 24.08 24.09 24.10 24.11 24.12 24.13 24.14 Joslen, p. 19
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 Army Commands


  • Gootzen, Har. Connor, Kevin. "Battle for the Roer Triangle", Creative, 2006. ISBN 978-90-902145-5-9
  • Delaforce, Patrick. Churchill's Desert Rats: From Normandy to Berlin with the 7th Armoured Division, Sutton Publishing, 2003
  • Forty, George. Battle Zone Normandy: Villers Bocage. Sutton Publishing, London, 2004. ISBN 0-7509-3012-8
  • Fortin, Ludovic. British Tanks In Normandy, Histoire & Collections (30 Nov 2004). ISBN 2-915239-33-9
  • Foster, R.C.G. History of The Queens Royal Regiment: Volume VIII 1924-1948, Gale and Polden, 1953
  • Graham, Andrew Sharpshooters at War, The Sharpshooters Regimental Association, 1964
  • Jentz, Thomas L. (1998). Tank Combat In North Africa: The Opening Rounds, Operations Sonnenblume, Brevity, Skorpion and Battleaxe, February 1941 - June 1941. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7643-0226-4. 
  • Joslen, Lt-Col H.F. (2003) [1st pub. HMSO:1960]. Orders of Battle: Second World War, 1939–1945. Uckfield: Naval and Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84342-474-1. 
  • Joly, Cyril, Take These Men - The campaign of the Desert Rats from 1940 to 1943. Penguin Books, 1956.
  • Kelly, Saul. The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura. Westview Press, 2002. ISBN 0-7195-6162-0 (HC)
  • Lindsay, Martin and Johnston, M.E. History of the 7th Armoured Division June 1943 - July 1945 first published by BAOR in 1945, reprinted in 2001 by DP & G for the Tank Museum
  • Mollo, Boris. The Sharpshooters 1900-2000, Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Trust, 2000
  • Neillands, Robin. The Desert Rats : 7th Armoured Division, 1940-1945, Aurum Press Ltd (29 Aug 2005), ISBN 2-913903-13-4
  • Playfair, Major General I.S.O.; Brigadier C.J.C Molony, Captain F.C. Flynn, R.N. and Group Captain T.P. Gleave, C.B.E. (2006) [1954]. Mediterranean and Middle East Volume I: The Early Successes Against Italy (to May 1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84734-426-7. 
  • Playfair, Major General I.S.O. (2004) [1956] (hardback). The Mediterranean and Middle East Volume 2: The Germans Come to the Help of Their Ally, 1941. History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. East Sussex, UK: Naval & Military Press. pp. 406 pages. ISBN 1-84574-066-1. 
  • Playfair, Major General I.S.O. (2004) [1960]. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume 3: British Fortunes Reach Their Lowest Ebb. History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Military Series. Uckfield, UK: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-067-X. 
  • Playfair, Major General I.S.O. (2004) [1966]. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume 4: The Destruction of the Axis Forces in Africa. History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Military Series. Uckfield, UK: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-068-8. 
  • Rommel, Erwin (1982) [1953]. B H Liddell Hart. ed. The Rommel Papers (reprint ed.). New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80157-0. 
  • Verney, G.L. The Desert Rats: the History of the 7th Armoured Division 1938 to 1945, Hutchinson, 1954, Reprinted 2002 by Greenhill Books

External links

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