The British Armoured formations of the Second World War refers to the Armoured Divisions and Independent Armoured and Tank Brigades deployed by the British Army during the Second World War. They had two types of armoured vehicle. The Infantry tank which was heavily armoured and slow, designed to support infantry movement. The Cruiser tank was faster and only lightly armoured with its aim being to exploit any breakthrough in an attack.
At the start of the Second World War, the United Kingdom already possessed two armoured divisions; a further nine would be raised by the British Army during the war, of which only two would not see service. The first formation formed had been the Mobile Division in October 1937 followed a year later, in the wake of the Munich Crisis, by the Mobile Division (Egypt). In April 1939 the Mobile Division was renamed the 1st Armoured Division and the Mobile Division (Egypt) was named The Armoured Division (Egypt) on the outbreak of war before being renamed the 7th Armoured Division on 16 February 1940.
Following the outbreak of war, the headquarters of the 2nd Armoured Division was activated on 15 December 1939. The first troops however were only attached to the division the following month and then in part from forces released from the 1st Armoured Division following a divisional reorganisation. During 1940 a further three armoured divisions were formed; the 6th Armoured Division on 12 September, the 8th on 4 November and followed by the 9th on 1 December. Four more divisions were activated during 1941; the 11th Armoured Divisions on 9 March, and the Guards Armoured Division on 17 June. The 10th Armoured Division was formed on 1 August following the reorganisation and renaming of the 1st Cavalry Division. The final division formed that year was the 42nd Armoured Division, activated on 1 November, after the 42nd (East Lancashire) Infantry Division was similarly converted to armour. The final armoured division raised during the war was the 79th Armoured Division, established on 14 August 1942; the following April the division was assigned to the development and use of specialised armour and never acted as a division.
Between May 1939 and May 1945 there was nine changes in the organisation of the divisions. In most instances the changes were made before or after their authorisation. When first formed the Mobile Division had six light tank regiments in two cavalry brigades and a tank brigade of three medium regiments. The division was supported by a Pivot Group of two motorised infantry battalions and two artillery regiments. Mobile Division (Egypt) consisted of a light armoured brigade, a cavalry brigade, a heavy armoured group of two Royal Tank Regiments and a Pivot Group. On 25 May 1939 the Army decided that the organisation should change to an armoured division of a light and a heavy armoured brigade, each of three armoured regiments, totalling 349 tanks; 159 light cruisers, 108 light tanks, 58 heavy cruisers, and 24 close support tanks. The two armoured brigades would have a Support Group that contained the division’s artillery regiment, a mixed light anti-aircraft/anti-tank regiment, two motorised infantry battalions and the division’s engineers. The support group 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.
The next change (on paper) was made in April 1940; the established tank strength of the division was reduced to 340 tanks by changes in the armoured regiments, the two armoured brigades now became homogeneous, dropping their prefixes and the division’s engineers were removed from the Support Group becoming divisional troops under their own headquarters. Following the Battle of France the Army realised that mixing light and cruiser tanks in the same brigade had been a mistake and that there were insufficient infantry and support units within the division. In October changes to the armoured division's organization were authorised. The Support Group’s motorised infantry battalions were transferred to the armoured brigades, each receiving one while the Support Group was given a lorried infantry battalion, increasing the infantry strength of the division to three battalions. The mixed anti-aircraft/anti tank regiment was replaced by two specialised regiments. More engineers were added to the division. In the United Kingdom an Armoured Car regiment was placed under the command of the division but not in the Middle East. While these theoretical changes were made, they did not reflect the armoured divisions' composition; in July, the 7th Armoured Division only had 65 cruiser tanks, lacking spare parts (some even lacking proper armament) while the division was operating two armoured regiments in each of its brigades. In January 1941 the 1st Armoured Division, the best equipped armoured division in the United Kingdom, was 30 per cent below its tank establishment and was equipped with many obsolescent light tanks.
In 1942 the Army decided that an infantry brigade was needed in each division and on 27 February 1942 the next change was made for divisions operating in the Middle East; an armoured brigade would be replaced by an infantry brigade. The Support Group would be disbanded while an armoured car regiment would be added to the division. For tactical reasons the battle formation in the Middle East became the Brigade Group, the division would now operate two Brigade Groups. The armoured Brigade Group would have three armoured regiments, a motor battalion, an artillery regiment (including an anti-tank battery of 16 guns; either 2 pounders or 6 pounders) as well as its three batteries of 25 pounder gun-howitzers, a light anti-aircraft battery of 18 guns, a field squadron of Royal Engineers and various other administration units. The infantry Brigade Group would consist of three motorised infantry battalions, an artillery regiment also with an integrated anti-tank battery, a light anti-aircraft battery, Royal Engineers and administration units. The division’s headquarters was given more staff and signal units and a headquarters was formed to control the artillery. Due to some armoured regiments being re-equipped with American tanks the establishment of the division could vary between 130 and 150 tanks. In the United Kingdom the Brigade Group was not adopted but the Support Group was abolished and an infantry brigade was added to the division to replace the second armoured brigade. The two artillery regiments, the anti-tank regiment and light anti-tank regiment were placed under the command of an artillery headquarters unit while additional administration units were attached to the division. Further changes were made to the armoured regiments and anti-aircraft tanks were incorporated into the division bringing the established strength to 227 tanks; 26 anti-aircraft tanks, 18 close support tanks and 183 cruiser tanks. Prior to the Battle of Alam el Halfa the armoured divisions in North Africa were again authorised to change; the armoured division became the basic battle formation again and the Brigade Groups were reorganised as they had previously. The artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft regiments would be put under the control of the Royal Artillery divisional headquarters and would be reinforced with additional batteries, the Royal Engineers would be reinforced and returned to the divisional engineer headquarters. The division’s tank establishment was increased and anti-aircraft tanks were also allocated to the division, the tank establishment now set at 186 tanks.
In April 1943 the Armoured Car Regiment was removed from the division structure and replaced with an Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. Additional troops were allocated to the infantry brigade. The artillery regiments were also reorganised, one would now be equipped with self-propelled guns while the other would keep towed guns. The tank establishment was increased to 278 tanks; 214 cruisers, 34 anti-aircraft tanks and 30 close support tanks. In the United Kingdom the 7th Armoured Division was re-equipped with Cromwell tanks, the only division to use them as their main battle tank while the others would use M4 Sherman tanks. The Cromwell was used also by the armoured reconnaissance regiments of the 7th, 11th and Guards Armoured Divisions.
During March 1944 further amendments were made; the additional troops allocated to the infantry brigade the year before were removed while, for the divisions allocated to the 21st Army Group, an Independent Machine Gun company was allocated to the division. Various changes were made to the armoured and armoured reconnaissance regiments increasing the tank establishment of the division to 343 tanks; 223 cruisers, 25 anti-aircraft tanks, 24 close support tanks, 63 light tanks, and 8 Observation tanks.[nb 1] The self-propelled artillery regiment consisted of 24 25-pounder self-propelled guns, the anti-tank regiment consisted of 48 6-pounder or 17-pounder guns, and the light anti-aircraft regiment consisted of 54 Bofors 40 mm guns. During the Battle of Normandy, the 7th Armoured Division instituted a flexible structure prior to the Battle of Villers-Bocage in early June 1944. Similar structures would not be adopted by the other armoured divisions until after Operation Goodwood, when Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor ordered the Guards and 11th Armoured Divisions to organise themselves similarly. The divisions operated from then on as two brigade groups; each of two combined arms teams, both made up of one tank regiment and one infantry battalion; the armoured reconnaissance regiment was matched with the armoured brigade’s motor battalion to provide the fourth group. Towards the end of the Normandy campaign the 11th Hussars, an armoured car regiment, was placed back under the command of the 7th Armoured Division. The final authorised change came in February 1945 but was not implemented until May 1945, following the end of the war in Europe; the division would retain the organisation approved in March 1944 but the armoured reconnaissance regiment would be converted into a fourth armoured regiment but not placed within either brigade. The tank establishment was also lowered to 338 tanks; 234 cruisers, 44 light tanks, 28 anti-aircraft tanks, and 9 Observation tanks.
In 1939 the armoured division comprised 9,442 men all ranks, this increased to 14,964 men all ranks by 1944; however of this latter figure the division had a combat strength of around 7,000 men with only 3,400 of these men being in the division's nine rifle companies compared to a combat strength of around 5,000 men in the American armoured division, of which 3,000 were in the rifle companies. This resulted in a numerical inferiority to the number of infantry available to a Waffen-SS Panzer Divisions; the 1st and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, at the beginning of June 1944, were both around 20,000 men strong with a combat strength of around 12,000 men of which roughly 7,000 men were based within the 24 infantry companies. In 1944 the British armoured division could field more medium tanks than the 186 tanks of the paper strength German Panzer Division or the 168 medium tanks of an American armoured division (251 tanks in total).
Role and tactics
The doctrine of the British Army in 1938 was for Army Tank Brigades, attached as Corps troops, to work alongside the Infantry divisions and break into the enemy defensive positions. The Mobile Division, supported Territorial Army Motor divisions each of two motorised infantry brigades supported by two artillery regiments but no tanks, was to then to create a breakthrough. Initially the mechanised cavalry regiments of the division, were designed as reconnaissance not fighting formations. The motorised infantry, according to John Burnett-Stuart on 8 September 1937, was not meant to fight side by side with the tanks they were to protect them during resting and replenishing periods.
Historian David French states that the Army's intention had been to create balanced all-arms formations; however following the formation of their first armoured divisions they had instead created tank-heavy divisions with too few infantry or supporting arms. He also notes that the reforms that took place in 1940 forfeited yet another opportunity to transform the tank-heavy armoured divisions into a balanced all-arms force.
Brigade and regiment structure
Like the division the armoured brigade went through nine changes to its basic organisation while the tank brigade went through four changes before a complete conversion of its role. However these authorised changes to the basic structure did not mean the brigades conformed to each paper reorganisation and the actual changes sometimes took place prior or after their authorisation.
The two basic armoured brigades at the start of the war were the light and the heavy brigade. The light armoured brigade would be made up three light armoured regiments each consisting of 22 light cruisers, 36 light tanks, 4 officers, and 492 other ranks. The brigade headquarters had six light cruisers and four heavy cruisers allocated to it while each regimental headquarters had four light tanks. The three sabre squadrons of each regiment consisted of two light tank squadrons, made up of five troops of three tanks and a squadron headquarters of three tanks, and one light cruiser squadron, made up of five troops of three light cruisers, and a squadron headquarters of three tanks. The heavy armoured brigade, laid out the same as the light armoued brigade, had 157 tanks, with each regiment made up of 26 light cruisers, 15 heavy cruisers, 8 close support tanks, 30 officers and 573 other ranks. Each regiment contained a headquarters with two light cruisers and two close support tanks, three squadrons each made up of a squadron headquarters, of one light cruiser and two close support tanks, a light squadron, with three troops of two light cruisers with a squadron headquarters of one light cruiser, and a heavy squadron, of two troops of two heavy cruisers, and squadron headquarters of one heavy cruiser.
In May 1940 the armoured brigade became homogenous and were reorganised; all now would contain 10 cruisers within the brigade headquarters while the regimental headquarters would have four cruisers. Each regimental headquarters would control a headquarter squadron and three sabre squadrons; each of which consisted of a squadron headquarters, with two cruisers and two close support tanks, and four troops each comprising three cruisers. In total each regiment would consist of 46 cruisers and 8 close support tanks, 31 officers and 546 other ranks, with the brigade being able to muster 166 tanks. The October 1940 authorised changes allocated an infantry battalion to the brigade but made no other changes.
The early 1942 Brigade Groups have already been described, however the regiments were organised on two bases: those equipped with American tanks and those equipped with a mixture of American and British. The American equipped regiments, totalling 44 tanks, were organised as such: four M3 Stuarts allocated to the regimental headquarters, which controlled three sabre squadrons; one squadron of four troops of four Stuarts and a headquarters with a further four Stuarts, and two squadrons composed of M3 Grants each consisting of three troops of three tanks and a squadron headquarters of a further three Grants. The mixed regiments were laid out the same except with one squadron made up of Grants and two squadrons made up of Crusader tanks bringing the total to 48 tanks; 36 Crusaders, and 12 Grants. The changes in late 1942 reverted the structure of the brigade and regiments to their 1941 layout but also increased the regiment to 52 tanks, 4 anti-aircraft tanks, 54 officers and 600 other ranks. The regiments were to be equipped with M4 Shermans as they became available. The brigade headquarters would now only have 8 tanks alloacted to it while the regimental headquarters remained the same, but they were each given four anti-aircraft tanks. In the United Kingdom and the 6th Armoured Division two additional troops were attached to each Sabre Squadron along with eight anti-aircraft tanks being attached to the regimental headquarters bringing the regiment’s strength up to 55 cruisers, 6 close support tanks, 8 anti-aircraft tanks, 36 officers and 644 other ranks.
The November 1943 organisation removed a number of anti-aircraft tanks from each regiment and added a reconnaissance troop to the regiment bringing its strength to 55 cruisers, 6 close support tanks, 11 light cruisers and 6 anti-aircraft tanks. Each regiment would be manned by 37 officers and 655 other ranks. By June 1944 the sabre squadrons in North West Europe, were operating four tank troops. All Sherman equipped units, including the 7th Armoured Division’s sabre squadrons but excluding the Armoured Reconnaissance Regiments were equipped with Sherman Fireflys; 36 were generally provided to each brigade, enough to equip each troop with one. Later in the campaign as more Fireflys became available the troops were issued with two. The final change to the brigade and regiment was authorised on 18 January 1945 but was not implemented till May; it was to standardise all armour and tank brigades and regiments. No changes were made to the layout of the regiments however three tanks were removed from the brigade headquarters, two anti-aircraft tanks would be added and eight Observation Post tanks would also be allocated to the brigade.
The initial April 1938 Tank Brigade establishment was for the brigade to muster 175 tanks; each of its three battalions comprising 57 tanks, 29 officers, and 484 other ranks. The brigade headquarters would contain four tanks but could vary depending on the situation, while the battalion headquarters would contain two infantry tanks and four light tanks. Under the command of the battalion was three companies; each consisting of a headquarters, issued with one infantry tank and one light tank, and five sections, each mustering three infantry tanks. On 7 April 1941 the first change was made; the formations would drop army terminology and adopt cavalry terms. The brigade would now be able to muster 178 tanks, with each battalion made up of 58 tanks, 35 officers, and 547 other ranks. The brigade headquarters was issued four cruiser tanks and the battalion headquarters four infantry tanks. The battalion’s three squadrons would comprise five troops, each of three infantry tanks, and a squadron headquarters of one infantry tank and two close support infantry tanks. The battalion remained the same through to August 1942 when each battalion headquarters was given an anti-aircraft troop of eight anti-aircraft tanks raising the battalions strength to 66 tanks, 37 officers and 588 other ranks.
In November 1943 each brigade was allocated two anti-aircraft tanks and three bridge laying tanks while each tank battalion headquarters had its anti-aircraft tanks taken off it and allocated two observation tanks. The headquarters of sabre squadron was allocated six anti-aircraft tanks as well as 11 light tanks while the squadrons themselves remained unchanged. Each battalion could not muster 52 infantry tanks, 11 light tanks, six close support tanks, six anti-aircraft tanks, two observation tanks, 38 officers and 670 other ranks. The brigade totalling 240 tanks. Later in the year the observation tanks would be removed from the battalion headquarters and eight would be assigned to the brigade headquarters. In January 1945 the final change was made to the tank brigade, they were to be redesignated armoured brigades and be reorganised along to the final armour brigade structure as authorised on 18 January.
Independent armoured and tank brigades
The independent armoured brigades could in most cases trace their formation to an armoured division, 4th and 7th brigades to the 7th Armoured, 8th Brigade was part of 10th Armoured, before it was disbanded. 23rd Brigade part of 8th Armoured and 27th Brigade the 9th Armoured. Only 33rd Brigade was not originally part of an armoured division but was a tank brigade converted to an armoured brigade.
Summary list of armoured formations
|Guards Armoured Division||17 June 1941||12 June 1945||Division reorganised as the Guards Division|
|1st Armoured Division||October 1937||11 January 1945||Division ceased operations on 28 October 1944|
|2nd Armoured Division||15 December 1939||10 May 1941||Divisional Headquarters captured on 8 April 1941|
|6th Armoured Division||12 September 1940|
|7th Armoured Division||Autumn of 1938||Formed as the Mobile Division (Egypt), redesignated as The Armoured Division (Egypt) on outbreak of war and the 7th Armoured Division on 16 February 1940.|
|8th Armoured Division||4 November 1940||1 January 1943||Division never operated as a single formation during its time overseas|
|9th Armoured Division||1 December 1940||31 July 1944||Division did not serve overseas|
|10th Armoured Division||1 August 1941||15 June 1944||Formed from the reorganisation and designation of the 1st Cavalry Division|
|11th Armoured Division||9 March 1941|
|42nd Armoured Division||1 November 1941||17 October 1943||Formed from the 42nd (East Lancashire) Infantry Division and never served overseas|
|79th Armoured Division||14 August 1942||Administrative formation for specialist vehicles. Never acted as a division.|
Independent armoured brigades
|1st Armoured Brigade||Pre-War||21 November 1942||Fought as an independent armoured brigade, under Eighth Army and XXX Corps, during the Second Battle of El Alamein|
|2nd Armoured Brigade||Pre-War||Fought as an independent armoured brigade, under Eighth Army and XIII Corps, from 5 May 1945 till the end of the war|
|4th Armoured Brigade||Pre-War||Became an independent formation in June 1942|
|7th Armoured Brigade||1938||Detached from 7th Armoured Division at the end of 1941 and acted independently thereafter.|
|8th Armoured Brigade||1 August 1941||Reorganized as an independent armoured brigade on 19 November 1942|
|9th Armoured Brigade||3 August 1941||Reorganised as an independent formation from 19 March 1942 till 12 November 1942, then again from 28 May 1943|
|20th Armoured Brigade||3 September 1939||30 April 1943||An independent formation from 24 April 1942 until it was disbanded, never saw service outside of the United Kingdom|
|23rd Armoured Brigade||1 November 1940||Reorganised as an independent formation on 12 July 1942|
|27th Armoured Brigade||26 November 1940||30 July 1944||Reorganised as an independent formation on 15 October 1943, under I Corps, to lead Normandy landings|
|33rd Armoured Brigade||17 March 1944||22 August 1945||Formed by renaming the 33rd Tank Brigade and acted as an independent unit from formation|
|34th Armoured Brigade||2 February 1945||Formed from the 34th Tank Brigade and acted as an independent unit from formation|
|137th Armoured Brigade||20 July 1942||26 September 1943||Formed from the 137th Infantry Brigade; acted as an independent unit from formation but was never deployed overseas|
Independent tank brigades
|1st Army Tank Brigade||Pre-War||18 November 1944||Brigade operated independent of divisions during various periods of the war, on 23 April 1944 the brigade was redesignated 1st Tank Brigade and placed in suspended animation on 18 November 1944 after its personnel were provided to other units as reinforcements.|
|6th Guards Tank Brigade||15 September 1941||17 June 1945||Reformed from an armoured brigade on 15 January 1943 and became an independent formation in September 1943|
|10th Tank Brigade||25 July 1942||25 November 1943||Formed from reorganisation of 10th Armoured Brigade, operated independently during various periods of its existence; it never served overseas|
|21st Army Tank Brigade||3 September 1939||11 June 1945||Independent formation bar when attached to 4th Infantry Division from 6 April 1942 to 12 December 1943; was redesignated as the 21st Armoured Brigade on 11 June 1945|
|23rd Army Tank Brigade||3 September 1939||1 November 1940||Independent formation from formation but did not serve overseas, was redesignated as the 23rd Armoured Brigade and reorganised|
|24th Army Tank Brigade||3 September 1939||1 November 1940||Independent formation from formation but did not serve overseas, was redesignated as the 24th Armoured Brigade and reorganised|
|25th Army Tank Brigade||3 September 1939||5 January 1945||Independent formation for most of its existence, the brigade headquarters was redesignated as the 25th Armoured Assault Brigade Royal Engineers on 5 January 1945|
|31st Army Tank Brigade||15 January 1941||2 February 1945||Became an independent formation following September 1943, was reorganized as an armoured brigade in February 1945|
|34th Army Tank Brigade||1 December 1941||2 February 1945||Redesignated 34th Tank Brigade in June 1942, it became an independent formation following September 1943 and was reorganised into an armoured brigade on 2 February 1945|
|35th Army Tank Brigade||1 December 1941||14 July 1945||Independent formation from creation, was formed from conversion of 225th Independent Infantry Brigade and was converted into an armoured brigade on 14 July 1945. It never served overseas.|
|36th Army Tank Brigade||1 December 1941||31 July 1943||Formed from conversion of 205th Independent Infantry Brigade and was disbanded on 31 July 1943 having never been posted overseas|
- Australian armoured units of World War II
- British Army during the Second World War
- Panzer division
- Italian armoured divisions during the Second World War
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