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11th Armoured Division

Overlord

The Black Bull:
History of the 11th Armoured Division

11th Armoured Division was widely recognized as one of the best British armoured divisions in the second world war, earning its spurs in all of the most famous actions of the North West European campaign. Commanded by the desert legend Pip Roberts and incorporating the mighty 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, 11th Armoured was a flashing rapier that cut into the heart of German defences in many battles including Goodwood, Epsom, Market Garden, The Battle of the Bulge and many more.

Before D-Day

The 11th Armoured came into life in 1941-42 under the command of Major General Hobart, who later went on to 19th Armoured Division where he became famous for the use of “funnies” in the D-Day landings.

Essentially, the division was a green unit that had little in the way of battle experience. However, in 1943, a favoured tactic was used where green units were reinforced with a spine of experienced old hands. In the 11th Armoured’s case this included Pip Roberts as CO, Roscoe Harvey OC 29th Armoured and finally the incorporation of 3rd RTR, probably the most illustrious of the desert armoured regiments.

This general lack of experience might have worried other commanders but when Pip Roberts first took over the division he noted that “In unblooded 11th Armoured I found everyone raring to go and with a few experienced officers in important positions, this was the ideal solution”. 

Normandy

Operation Epsom
The division got its first real blooding in Operation Epsom. The operation was designed as flanking move to unseat the Germans holding Caen.

11th Armoured Division light mortar team
The VIII corps, which consisted of 15th Scottish, 11th Armoured and the 43rd Wessex Divisions along with the 4th Armoured brigade, were charged with crossing the Orne and Odon rivers. 11th Armoured was let loose at around 12:30 on the 26 June 1944 on a wild charge to the Odon with 2nd Northants Yeomanry, the Cromwell armed Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment in the vanguard, supported by 23rd Hussars, 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and 3rd RTR respectively. Unfortunately the attack was hampered from the start by the poor quality of maps and also the fact that, although the division had trained extensively in tight infantry/tank combined operations, there was none as such planned in this operation.
Pip Roberts

As 26 June progressed Cheux became a thorn in the divisions side. The 23rd Hussars were ordered to bypass the village, but ended up in thick bocage countryside. Fighting soon erupted around the Caen-Villers railway and Carpiquet aerodrome with the Northants Yeomanry losing a squadron of tanks whilst Fife and Forfars lost 9 tanks and the 23rd Hussars lost 4 tanks. The case was made worse by the fact that the 15th Scottish Division, 4th Armoured Brigade and the 11th Armoured were all operating in the same vicinity around Cheux and by days end the ill planned battle continued with little success and much bloodshed.

The second day of Epsom proved much more favourable to the 11th Armoured Division.

The 2nd Fife and Forfars fought hard around Grainville in a grinding battle whilst the division’s infantry regiments supported by the 75th Anti-tank Regiment fought a winning action against German Tigers and Panthers around Norrey-en-Bessin. The real cherry on the cake for the 11th Armoured during day two of the operation was the progress made by the 23rd Hussars. They managed to fight all the way to the Odon between Mouen and Mondrainville where they continued to pick off targets on the opposite side of the river, losing a few tanks to accurate 88 fire. Late in the afternoon the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of 15th Scottish Division captured an intact bridge over the Odon at Tourmauville and by 17:30 the leading elements of the 23rd Hussars swept across the river Odon. By 19:00 two squadrons were across and 8th Rifle Brigade were guarding the valuable crossing. By the end of the day the 23rd Hussars had been involved in some of the bitterest fighting east of Cheux and around Mondrainville and Tourmauville resulting in 24 killed, 24 wounded and 5 taken prisoner.

Day three of Epsom probably resulted in the most famous action of Epsom, Hill 112. 23rd Hussars and a company of 8th Rifles fought all day to dislodge stubborn defenders, including half a dozen well dug in Tigers. The units were strafed, shelled and assaulted continually all day long. By nightfall, 23rd hussars had been in their tanks continuously for 27 hours and were replaced by 3rd RTR in support of 8th Rifles. By nightfall, it was decided to pull of the hill in lieu the mounting casualties and material damage. The hill remained a no mans land continually bombarded by stonks from the Divisions 25 pdrs.

Day four of Epsom led to much of the same for 8th Rifles. After fighting so hard the day before and then moving back during the night, they were ordered back up onto hill 112.

A German Mortar round hits a division vehicle
All day long all units were engaged in the Odon bridgehead ( as it had become known) 3RTR and 8th Rifles captured positions on the south of the hill whilst 2nd Fife and Forfars made headway to the East. The Herefords beat off a counter attack on the bridgehead from the south. By daybreak of the next morning, 11th Armoured were again ordered to come down off the hill as the operation ground to a halt. By the end of the operation 11th Armoured had 240 men killed in action.
A Cromwell of teh Recce Regiment is welcomed as liberator Goodwood
On the 18 and 19 July, the 11th Armoured Division provided the vanguard units that spearheaded the advance to the Bourguebus ridge in the face of determined defence from 21. Panzerdivision, 1. SS-Panzerdivision and elements of 2. SS-Panzerdivision. Like the experiences with Epsom, the division was severely hampered by a significant lack of coordination in terms infantry and armoured units being assigned separate objectives. Right from the start of the operation, the division was held-up by a well placed 88 battery located in Cagny that accounted for a whole squadron of the 2nd Fife and Forfars. Other major problems were encountered at Le Mensil-Frementel where the division first encountered fire from Becker’s 200. StuG battalion of the 21. Panzerdivision.
After surmounting the considerable obstacles of the two major railway lines that bisected the battlefield, the 11th Armoured Division reached the Bourguebus villages of Bras, Four, Solliers and Hubert-Folie. They would spend the next two days pounding at the these villages in an attempt to establish the division on the vital Bourguebus ridge which had a commanding view of the good tank country east of Caen. After bypassing Cagny and Le Mensnil-Frementel, which was later taken by 8th Rifles, 3rd RTR smashed into strong defensive positions around Bras and Hubert-Folie and were soundly stopped by accurate anti-tank fire from Panthers, Tigers, Stugs and 88s dug in along the ridge and well concealed in the villages. Near the end of the day 3rd RTR was down to only 5 effective tanks and was forced back to defensive positions. 2nd Fife and Forfar then took the lead and tried to penetrate the lines between Soliers and Four in an attempt to reach the village of Bourguebus. Unfortunately the attack was broken-up and brought to a halt. The 23rd Hussars attempted an attack on the same axis and were also beaten back. By this time the division was exhausted so Pip Roberts ordered 2nd Northants Yeomanry into action against Bras in an attempt to break the deadlock. Unfortunately this also resulted in failure after a sharp exchange between the leading elements and a number of panther tanks brought the thrust to a stop.

By the end of the day’s action only 41% of the division’s tanks were operational. Over night these were augmented by a commendable effort from recovery crews and from the stockpile of 500 replacement tanks held in the Allied beachhead.

Day 2 of Goodwood went better for the 11th Armoured Division. A combined attack by 2nd Northants Yeomanry and 8th Rifle Brigade took Bras in the face of stiff opposition from 1st SS which was quickly followed up by and attack by 2nd Fife and Forfar who took Hubert-Folie. By the end of the operation the 11th Armoured Division were clearly established on the Bourguebus ridge and had captured or killed huge amounts of German personnel and equipment.

A Firefly crosses a pontoon bridge
Although there was a shocking loss of tank numbers, all of these were replaced, and actual losses in terms of men which came to just 210 killed for the biggest capture of French real estate since the landings.
A Sherman of the 11th Armoured Division Bluecoat
On the 30 July, Monty launched his next major offensive in Normandy. Operation Bluecoat was designed as a thrust toward Vire. The 11th Armoured Division was assigned the task of protecting the right flank of the 6th Guards Tank Brigade and 15th Scottish Division and to liaise with the 5th American Infantry Division. Unlike previous operation Pip Roberts was given the freedom to plan the battle with more control and decided to put into practice the wisdom that was hard won in the battles of Epsom and Goodwood. Roberts decided to from four battle groups which would remain the favourite modus operandi for the rest of the war. Indeed, some of the battle groups became incredibly tightly knit in terms of operational understanding.

The battle groups formed were 23rd Hussars with the 3rd Monmouthshires, 2nd Fife and Forfars with the 4th Kings Shropshire Light Infantry, 3rd RTR with the 1st Herefords, and the 2nd Northants Yeomanry with the 8th Rifles.

The attack did not set off with the greatest success as the Monmouthshires and Herefords suffered heavily from enemy mortar fire before they even crossed the start line. Moreover, the advance was hampered by the heavy Bocage countryside and also the multitude of American, German and British mines that had been laid in the area. Although they faced significant hurdles the advance went slowly and surely. During the day the division managed to take all the original objectives and by nightfall 8th Rifles had pushed on as far as the Caumont-St Martin road.

The morning of day 2 opened with 4th Kings Shropshire Light Infantry and a squadron of the 2nd Fife and Forfars attacking St Martin which they took by 11:00 for the cost of 9 killed and 11 wounded. 2nd Northants were dragged into a fire fight on the outskirts of St Martin and things were beginning to become confused. Luckily at that time the divisional reconnaissance found a deserted track and managed to proceed 2 miles behind the German defences without any issues. It turned out it was the boundary line between the defending 3. Fallschirmjäger and 326. Infanterie divisions and was totally undefended.

The 2nd Northants Yeomanry battle group was pushed down the road with much haste and managed to capture the bridge over the river Souleuvre at Beny Bocage.

M10V 18 pdr SP

The capture of this vital bridge was quickly followed up by the rest of the division who occupied the high ground around the bridgehead and by nightfall the division had experienced its first real liberation parade as troops were mobbed in La Ferriere-Harang.

The breakthrough experienced on day 2 of Bluecoat was exploited with much dash in many directions as the battle groups of the division thrust deep into the German defences. Many encounter actions and fierce fire fights took place as armoured columns met. 2nd Northants Yeomanry had an especially bad time of it on the 4th day of the operation as they were engaged by the 102. schwere SS-Panzerabteilung in the outskirts of Vire and lost many tanks and men. At one point Regimental HQ was threatened when a column of Tigers crept up behind B Squadron on the Vire to La-Bistiere road causing much devastation. By day 9 of the operation the 11th Armoured Division had thrust a large salient into the German defences and were sorely pressed by many German units, among them the 9. and 10. SS-Panzerdivisions. The division held firm in two defensive boxes centred around the small villages of Chenedolle, Presles, Burcy, Pavee, Le Bas Perrier, Le Moulin and Le Grand Bonfaits. The division had managed to tie down significant German units in order to facilitate a huge breakout by the Americans via St Lo. This came at a cost of 200 men killed in action.

Sherman during the winter of 44/45

After Bluecoat, 2nd Northants Yeomanry were so depleted, mainly due to the action around Vire, that it was formerly disbanded. Some of the remaining 200 soldiers of the regiment went as replacements to the 1st Northants Yeomanry and some went to the 7th Armoured Division. The unit was replaced by 15th/19th Kings Royal Hussars.

After Normandy
After Normandy and the collapse of the German army around Falaise, 11th Armoured Division took part in the mad dash to Antwerp via Brussels and took Antwerp against overwhelming odds in a text book coup de main. During Market Garden the division was assigned to cover the right flank of XXX corps and advanced on the main axis.

The division advanced all the way to the River Maas and holed up in Helmond. The division continued to fight through Holland with brief diversions such as the efforts to combat the Northern thrust of the Battle of the Bulge. The division took part in Operation Blockbuster and the Hochwald battle as well as the Reine crossing and the battle of Teutoburger Ridge. More harrowing in the division’s history was the liberation of Belsen. The division ended up pushing on to the Baltic coast where it finished sitting near Hamburg and Lubeck.

Conclusion
11th Armoured Division surely earned its monika of the Black Bull. After painful beginnings in Operation Epsom it learnt its lessons and evolved tactics and doctrine throughout the war, including the conversion of most of its Stuarts to Jalopies before Goodwood and the tight co-operation employed between infantry and armoured units after Goodwood. It continually hounded the German units facing it and crashed through defences on numerous occasions thanks to superb leadership at all levels and also a dash, élan, skill and determination that could be matched by few other divisions during the war. It can truly be recognized as one of the prize armoured divisions of the British army at its Zenith during the later part of the war.
Armed with the superior Comet towards the end of the war

Organisation in Normandy

29th Armoured Brigade
23rd Hussars (Shermans)
3rd Royal Tank Regiment (Shermans)
2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry (Shermans)
8th Rifle Brigade (Motor Battalion)

159th Infantry Brigade
3rd Battalion the Monmouthsire Regiment (Lorried Infantry)
4th Battalion the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry (Lorried Infantry)
1st Battalion the Herefordshire Regiment (Lorried Infantry)
2nd (Independent) Machine Gun Company of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers

Divisional Troops
2nd Northants Yeomanry - Divisional Reconnaissance (Cromwells)*
15/19th Kings Royal Hussars – Divisional Reconnaissance (Cromwells)**
13th (Honorable Artillery Company) Field Regiment RA (Sextons)
151st Ayreshire Yeomanry Royal Artillery (25 Pdrs)
75th Anti-tank Regiment Royal Artillery (M10 17 pdr and towed 17 pdrs)
58th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment
13th Field Squadron Royal Engineers
612th Field Squadron Royal Engineers
The Inns of Court Regiment (Armoured car Squadron)***

11th Armoured Division Shoulder Patch

* The unit was disbanded after Operation Bluecost due to horrific losses around Vire.
** Replaced 2nd Northants Yeomanry as the Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment after operation Bluecoat.
***Not an official part of the OOB for 11th Armoured Division but were a semi-permanent fixture in many of the operations that 11th Armoured took part in. They were part of XII corps and retained their markings until the end of the war.


Last Updated On Wednesday, July 10, 2013 by Blake at Battlefront