Brief History of the Desert Rats

Afrika A Brief History of the 7th Armoured Division “Desert Rats”

This famous formation first came into being in 1938, it was formed from garrison troops stationed in North Africa for the purpose of protecting the vital Suez canal from the growing Italian Empire which possessed Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Ethiopia.

Initially designated a “Mobile Force” in September 1939 they were renamed Armoured Division (Egypt). On 16 February 1940 they took their final name, which would last them until the end of the war, the 7th Armoured Division.

In 1938 “Mobile Force” was established on the Egyptian coast at Mersa Matruh, 120 miles west of Alexandria. The first units to make up what would become the “Desert Rats” were the 7th, 8th and 11th Hussars, and 1st Royal Tank Regiment (1 RTR) ably supported by the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery (3 RHA). Equipment was initially old and light with the 8th Hussars only having 15cwt trucks armed with machine-guns. In October 1938 they were joined by their first infantry unit, 1st Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps (1 KRRC).

They were commanded by Major General Percy Hobart who started a comprehensive training programme concentrating on coordination between the different arms of the Mobile Division. With the arrival of the 6th RTR he also reorganised the Division into three brigades consisting of a Light (Armoured Cars and MkVI tanks ~ 7, 8, & 11 Hussars), Heavy (A9 Cruisers ~ 1 & 6 RTR) and Pivot Group (1 KRRC and RHA).

Training continued in Cairo during the winter of 1938-39 and in May 1939 they went out into the desert to test all that they had learned. 

A Rolls Royce Armoured Car of the 11th Hussars
North Africa
A9 Crusier Tank as used by the 1st and 6th Royal TR

Hobart wanted troops that could survive and fight in the harsh conditions of the Western Desert and led by the extremely experienced 11th Hussars the men of the Mobile Division went about improving their desert craft.

With the outbreak of war in September 1939 the Mobile Division took a position on the Egyptian-Libyan border where they watched for signs of Italian activity. Unfortunately the extremely talented Hobart was relieved of his command after falling out with General Sir Henry Wilson. General Michael Creagh took command of the Division in December 1939 and with him came new and improved equipment. 

The Division also renamed its brigades once more, the Light became the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Heavy became the 4th Armoured Brigade and the Pivot Group became the Support Group with the 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade (2 RB) added.

The 16th of February 1940 saw the Division’s final name change when it was redesignated the 7th Armoured Division and at about the same time the Division also received its famous symbol, the Jerboa (desert rat), designed by Trooper Ken Hill of the RTR. The men soon took to the Jerboa and the Division was soon being referred to as the “Desert Rats”.

Finally in April 1940 the Italians started making moves up to the frontier near Sollum, and the Desert Rats began to prepare for the coming fight. The 11th Hussars (Armoured Cars) and the Support group made preparations at Mersa Matruh where they could reconnoitre the desert for Italian movement.

On 10 June 1940 the Italians declared war and the 11th Hussars who had been patrolling the border until then finally crossed it. From June until September the Desert Rats engaged and harassed the Italians in various raid taking supplies, ambushing patrols and taking numerous prisoners.

Commanders of the 7th Armoured Division

3 September 1939 Maj.Gen. P.C.S. Hobart
16 November 1939
(acting) Brig. J.A.L. Caunter
4 December 1939
Maj.Gen. M. O’M. Creagh
6 March 1941
Maj.Gen. Sir M. O’M. Creagh
1 April 1941
(acting) Brig. J.A.L. Caunter
13 April 1941
Maj.Gen. Sir M. O’M. Creagh
3 September 1941
Maj.Gen. W.H.E. Gott
6 February 1942

Maj.Gen. J.C. Campbell
(killed 6 Feb 1942)
23 February 1942
(acting) Brig. A.H. Gatehouse
9 March 1942  Maj.Gen. F.W. Messervy
19 June 1942
Maj.Gen. J.M.L. Renton
14 September 1942
Maj.Gen. A.F. Harding
20 January 1943
(acting) Brig. G.P.B. Roberts
24 January 1943
Maj.Gen. G.W.E.J. Erskine
4 August 1944
Maj.Gen. G.L. Verney
22 November 1944
Maj.Gen. L.O. Lyne

By 14th June, the 7th Hussars, with a company of the King’s Royal Rifle Corp and a battery of 4 RHA captured the Italian Fort Capuzzo. On the same night the 11th Hussars captured Fort Maddalena. 16 June saw the first tank battle in the Western Desert, the 7th & 11th Hussars fought a force of Italian tanks and truck mounted Infantry. After a sharp encounter the Desert Rats had knocked out twelve tanks and captured an entire infantry battalion. 

On the 13 September 1940 the Italian 10th Army launched a counter-attack and by 16 September were in Sidi Barrani, and by 28 September they had halted 60 miles inside Egypt.

Capture of Fort Capuzzo
A10 Crusier tank

They had run low on supplies and were hemmed in by the 11th Hussar and the 7th Armoured Support Group. The Desert Rats had held them sufficiently thanks to the recent reinforcements of the 2nd and 7th RTR and 3rd Hussars with Matildas and A9 and A10 Cruisers.  

The Italian collapse and retreat was dramatic, over 20,000 prisoners were taken, the British forces suffering only 700 casualties. The Italian Army went into full retreat.

During their flight they were harassed by the 7th Armoured Support Group as well as the 11th Hussars. In the end the Italians had left behind 38,000 prisoners, 237 guns and over 70 tanks. Through out December the Desert Rats continued to probe the Italians. 

In January 1941 the Desert Rats took part in the capture of Tobruk and Bardia. The Western Desert Force was now renamed the XIII Corps and consisted of the 7th Armoured and 6th Australian divisions.

As the Italian 10th army was once more on the retreat from Tobruk, the Australians closely on their tail, the Desert Rats cut across 150 miles of desert to intercept the Italians at Beda Fomm on the coast 20 miles north of Agadabia. On 5 February the 11th Hussars and 2 RB arrived at Beda Fomm and halted the Italian columns on the road. The 4th Armoured Brigade joined them on 6 February. 

The Italians fought hard and only surrendered after their artillery was cleared off the dominating hill known as “The Pimple”. The Italian 10th Army had been all but destroyed.

After a hard fight and a long slog across the desert the Desert Rats were in need of refitting and returned to Egypt, being replaced in the line by the 2nd Armoured Division.

By April 1941 the Afrika Korps had arrived in North Africa, and while the Desert Rats were refitting in Egypt, the Germans and Italians attacked.

Italian Prisoners
The Desert Rats march to Beda Fomm

Rommel and his Afrika Korps had quickly overwhelmed the under strength 2nd Armoured Division (one brigade was in Greece) and cut off Tobruk. The 7th Armoured were once more called to the front to stop the tide.

On 14 May 1941 Operation Brevity was launched with the aim of taking Sollum and Fort Capuzzo and relieving Tobruk. Fort Capuzzo was quickly taken by the 11th Hussars, but a determined counter-attack by the Germans retook it. A halt was called to the advance and defensive positions were taken up around Halfaya Pass above Sollum.

It was defended by 4th RTR and 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards who held out against German attacks for two weeks before finally being pushed out. Brevity had failed.

Rommel fortified the Libyan frontier and waited for the next British move.

The next British operation was Battleaxe, it’s focus being an all out attack on the Axis positions with the possibility of relieving Tobruk. The 4th Indian Division had returned triumphant from East Africa and was to be supported by the 4th Armoured Brigade detached from the Desert Rats during the initial assault. The British were confident that the heavily armoured Matilda IIs of the 4th Armoured would be more than the Germans could handle. Once engaged the 7th Armoured Division would join the 4th Armoured for the breakthough on to Tobruk.

Fort Capuzzo after operations ’Brevity’ and ’Battleaxe’
Brevity and Battleaxe Operation Battleaxe was launched on the night of 14-15 June 1941. Rommel’s well organised defence and anti-tank guns quickly called a halt to the attack. The PaK 36 and 38s, and a few FlaK 36 88mm guns available proved more than enough to deal with the British tanks, even the mighty Matilda suffered.

The British persisted and attacked again the following day, but ran into Rommel’s counter-attacking forces. The 15th Panzer Division driving for Fort Capuzzo, while the 5th Light Division drove a right hook around the British flank striking the Desert Rats left flank. The 7th Armoured were pushed back to their starting positions of three days before hand.

November 1941 saw the next major British offensive, Operation Crusader. Before then both sides had been building up reinforcements. The Desert Rats now consisted of:
4th Armoured Brigade (‘Honey’ Stuarts)

2nd RHA
8th Hussars
3rd Royal Tank Regiment 
5th Royal Tank Regiment
2nd Scots Guards

Royal Engineers

4th Field Squadron
143rd Field Park Troop

7th Armoured Brigade (Crusaders, A10, A13)

7th Hussars
2nd Royal Tank Regiment
6th Royal Tank Regiment 

22nd Armoured Brigade (Crusaders)

2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars
3rd County of London Yeomanry
4th County of London Yeomanry

Support Group

3rd RHA
4th RHA
1st Kings Royal Rifle Corps
2nd Rifle Brigade
60th Field Regiment RA
One Bty, 51st Field Regiment RA

Divisional Troops

102nd RHA 
King’s Dragoon Guards 
11th Hussars 
4th South African Armoured Car Regiment 
1st Light AA Regiment RA 
Division Signals

The attack was underway on 18 November; the Desert Rats hooked around the open desert flank of the Germans and by 20 November had overrun the airfield at Side Rezegh with 6th RTR. All three tank brigades were now engaged on the high ground spread along the Trigh Capuzzo road, all fighting battles of their own against counter-attacking German forces. At the end of 21 November the Desert Rats had beaten off the attacking 21st and 15th Panzer Divisions, but only with heavy losses of both men and tanks.

On the morning of 22 November, the Panzers were once more ready to attack. 25pdrs quickly engaged them follow by a spirited attack by the 2nd RTR with their 12 remaining tanks. Chaos erupted all around the airfield as the other brigades of the Desert Rats converged on their comrades. 

Crusader II
Movements around Sidi Rezegh

At dawn of 23 November the 7th Armoured Division withdrew to the ridge above Sidi Rezegh. Later the 22nd Armoured Brigade went to the relief of the 5th South African Brigade, attacking again and again; unfortunately they were unable to save the South Africans.    

On to 1942

The Axis were on the attack again in early 1942, but the Desert Rats were absent once more getting refitted after the battles of Operation Crusader. They returned to the fighting at the front in April. In May they took part in the battle for Gazala Line.

The Gazala Line was a series of defences running between Gazala on the coast and Bir Hacheim in the desert. 

The defences had been set up by the British between January and April 1942. The Gazala Line was held by the XIII Corps while the XXX Corps (including both the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions) was positioned in the desert to the south.

On the evening of 26 May the Germans attacked the Gazala Line assaulting it frontally while at the same time sending a hook around the desert flank. The speed of the German advance caught the Desert Rats off guard and their scattered Brigades found themselves fighting in isolated pockets. By the afternoon of 27 May the Desert Rats were widely scattered and in no position to resist, the Germans then turned their attention to 201st Guards Brigade in the Knightsbridge defensive box further north along the Gazala Line. They also attacked the 9th KRRC at Retma defensive box, pushing them back to Bir El Gubi.

The Battle for the Gazala Line
Desert Rats Crusader II

The Germans had extended as far as their supply lines would allow them around the southern flank so the focus now switched to the area around the positions of the 150th Brigade to the east of Rotunda Mteifel where the Germans had cleared mines either side to shorten supply lines. On 28 May the 4th Armoured Brigade attacked the German 90th Light Division stopping the advancing enemy. By 29 May the German advance had stopped due to fuel shortages and they went about clearing mines and preparing defences.

British counter-attacks continued through 29 to 31 May, and just as the British thought they had Rommel cornered his Italian allies were finally able to punch through a supply column and save his force. Re-fuelled and re-supplied Rommel set about attacking once more. The struggle continued through to 7 June.

The area of the whirling tank and anti-tank melee became known as The Cauldron. Despite reinforcements from the 22nd Armoured Brigade the Desert Rats once again were scattered by the assaulting Germans on 6 June.
The battles of the Cauldron continued until the British finally withdrew on 17 June and after some delaying action withdrew back across the Egyptian border to take positions along the line between the Qattara Depression and El Alamein. By 1 July 1942 all the units of the Desert Rats were on or behind the El Alamein Line.

The success of the Axis at the Gazala Line and the subsequent taking of Tobruk buoyed their confidence and Rommel was determined to take the line at El Alamein despite the serious losses inflicted on them by the 7th Armoured and the rest of 8th Army.

Order Of Battle - April 1942 (Gazala)

4th Armoured Brigade

1st RHA
8th Hussars
3rd Royal Tank Regiment
5th Royal Tank Regiment
1st Kings Royal Rifle Corps

7th Motor Brigade

4th RHA
9th Kings Royal Rifle Corps
2nd Rifle Brigade
9th Rifle Brigade

Divisional Troops

102nd RHA 
King’s Dragoon Guards
15th Light AA Regiment RA

Royal Engineers

4th Field Squadron 
143rd Field Park Troop

1st El Alamein

The German attack (1st El Alamein) was launched on 1 July, with just the 15th Panzer, 21st Panzer and 90th Light Divisions against the South Africans and Indians. Tenacious defence and the timely arrival of the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades stopped them. By 3 July Rommel’s Afrika Korps was down to 26 running tanks, but despite this they were able to inflict heavy loses on the 1st Armoured Division before stopping.

The British had a chance to destroy the Afrika Korps, but despite the resources of two Corps were unable to destroy the Germans.

El Alamein
Desert Rats Grants

All three German Divisions were able to withdraw west. Fighting continued for a further two months with both sides being too disorganised to take any real advantage of success.

Once more after the ferocious fighting of May, June and July the Desert Rats were due for a refit.

The El Alamein positions were unique from previous defensive positions as there was no open southern flank. The Qattara Depression proved hazardous and only crossable by light vehicles. The British settled in and started to prepare for attack. 

On the night of 30/31 August the Germans attacked the lines once more, this time they encountered trouble crossing the minefields and were shelled by the 7th Armoured and 2nd New Zealand Divisions while trying to cross. In general the German attack wasn’t as hard pressed, their lack of fuel limited their movement. The 6pdrs of the Rifle Brigade knocked out 12 tanks near Himeimat.

By 1 September the Germans were withdrawing again.
’Honey’ Stuarts of the Desert Rats

After much training, preparations and build up it was finally the 8th Armies turn to strike. On 23 October 1942 the (2nd) Battle of El Alamein began.

Desert Rats at El Alamein 

4th Light Armoured Brigade

3rd RHA
One Squadron - 8th Hussars
4th Hussars
Royal Scots Greys 
2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry
1st Kings Royal Rifle Corps

22nd Armoured Brigade

1st Royal Tank Regiment
5th Royal Tank Regiment
4th County of London Yeomanry
4th Field Regiment RA
97th Field Regiment RA 
1st Rifle Brigade 

131st (Queens) Brigade

1st/5th Queens Royal Regiment
1st/6th Queens Royal Regiment
1st/7th Queens Royal Regiment 
53rd Field Regiment RA
60th Field Regiment RA
Two Bty, 57th Anti tank Regt. RA
11th Field Company RE Light AA

Royal Engineers

4th Field Squadron
21st Field Squadron
143rd Field Park Squadron

Divisional Troops

11th Hussars
15th Light AA Regiment RA 
65th Anti tank Regt. RA (Norfolk Yeomanry) 
44th Reconnaissance Regiment 
Division Signals 

El Alamein

The 7th Armoured Division was deployed on the southern flank supported by the Free French Brigade, both units were to capture Himeimat Hill and contain the 21st Panzer Division while the Australians and Highlanders on the Northern flank broke though the defences to let the 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions pour through the gap.

Initial progress was slow, after the Free French got a foot hold on the Himeimat Hill they were thrown off again. The Desert Rats stopped to regroup and on the night of 24/25 October the 131st Brigade secured a bridgehead to the west of the minefields. The next day the 44th Division took control of the bridgehead and the Desert Rats were withdrawn to the reserve.

On the night of 29/30 October the Desert Rats conducted a mock attack to divert attention from elsewhere and on the 31st the division moved north.

By 3 November it seemed the Axis forces were about to crack, so an offensive thrust by the 7th Armoured, 1st Armoured and 2nd New Zealand Divisions (Operation Supercharge) was planned.
   
On 4 November the divisions advanced with the Desert Rats’ 131st brigade and 22nd Armoured brigade, led by the 11th Hussars advanced through El Aqqaqir with orders to advance on Daba and cut off the Axis retreat along the coast road. Once in the open desert little enemy presence could be found, the Axis forces had withdrawn and were in full retreat. 

The Armoured divisions continued to follow the Germans as they fled west taking all available transport with them abandoning the mostly Italian foot troops to their fate. 

By early 1943 the Desert Rats were refitted once again and ready for the final push to force the Axis from North Africa. The 7th Armoured now came up against the Mareth Line of defences built by the French along their border in Tunisia for protection against the Italians in Tripolitania. The Desert Rats helped fend off one German counter-attack at Medenine on 6 March, but it was not until 23 March that the Mareth Line was breached and the Desert Rats were on the move again.

The Desert Rats left the 8th Army and joined the 1st Army for the breackthrough drive from Medjez El Bab in northern Tunisia, on the doorstep of Tunis. Once the breach had been made by the 4th British and 4th Indian Divisions, supported by the Churchills of the 25th Army Tank Brigade, the 7th and 6th Armoured Divisions raced for the Tunisian capital and final defeat of the Axis in North Africa.

The Desert Rats served briefly in Italy after the Salerno landings before heading back to Britain to make preparations for the coming landings in France.

But that’s another story...

An abandoned 15cwt CMP truck, a victim of the Desert War


Last Updated On Wednesday, October 26, 2011 by Blake at Battlefront