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Lest We Forget
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DIVISIONS OF THE BRITISH ARMY 1939-1945

Naval & Military Press Military History Books
These extracts taken from ‘AND WE SHALL SHOCK THEM - The British Army in the Second World War’ by David Fraser.
Published by Hodder & Stoughton - Appendix I

 

Apart from Home Defence “County” Divisions, and excluding divisions of the Indian Army and Colonial Divisions, the British Army formed forty-eight divisions in the Second World War.

Armoured Divisions

An armoured division’s organisation was frequently changed. Typical-ly, it consisted of one or more armoured brigades, each consisting of three or four tank Regiments: a total of some two hundred tanks, normally cruiser tanks. In addition, an armoured division had a support group, or lorried infantry brigade; and each armoured brigade had one or more “motor battalions” — infantry travelling in special vehicles designed for cross-country work and thus able to move with tanks. An armoured division had, normally, its own armoured-car Regiment, for reconnaissance. The divisional artillery, typically, consisted of field artillery Regiments of three batteries, each of eight guns; Regiments on a scale of one to each brigade of the division. The divisional artillery also frequently included an anti-tank Regiment and a light anti-aircraft Regiment. The divisional engineers normally comprised a field squadron for the close support of each brigade, and a field park of heavy and specialised equipment. Divisional Signals were responsible for communications down to and including Regimental and Battalion Headquarters: within the Regiment or battalion communications were a Regimental matter. There was also, on occasions, an independent machine-gun company.

An armoured division’s logistic troops included field ambulances and the ability to set up an advanced dressing station as well as support each brigade with posts for the immediate handling and clearing of casualties. There were a number of transport companies for the supply of the division forward of a distribution point which would be established and itself supplied by corps or army transport. There were Ordnance field parks — mobile distribution and supply centres handling the entire, huge business of spares replacement: and in an armoured division were field workshops, normally on a scale of one for each brigade, in addition to the fitters and detachments for “light aid” — immediate repair or preparation for backloading — attached to each unit. The division consisted of between 10,000 and 14,000 men and had a total of between 3,000 and 4,000 vehicles of all types. It needed about 140 miles of road for column movement. The British Army possessed or formed eleven armoured divisions during the Second World War, as listed below. In addition there were formed or deployed some fourteen independent armoured or tank brigades. In ordinary usage an “armoured” brigade was equipped with cruiser tanks, a “tank” or “army tank” brigade with “infantry” tanks (examples are the “Matilda” and the “Churchill” tanks), slow-moving, heavily armoured, designed for close support of infantry rather than for manoeuvre, and normally placed in support of a nominated infantry division. Some armoured brigades originally formed part of armoured divisions but were later made independent brigade groups and used as corps, army or army group reserves.

DIVISIONS

THEATRES OF ACTIVE SERVICE

COMMENT

Guards

North-West Europe

Formed from a number of Guards brigades in 1941, and engaged in the Battles of Normandy, the advance to the Nederrijn, the Rhineland, the crossing of the Rhine and the advance to the Elbe. All Regiments of the Household Troops were represented.

1st

France 1940,
Egypt and Libya
Tunisia
Italy

Formally the “Mobile Division”, a Regular division in the United Kingdom, the division moved to France in incomplete form in 1940. In November 1941 it moved to Egypt, and engaged in the Battles of Gazala and Alamein, advancing with Eighth Army to Tunisia thereafter. In Italy the division fought as part of Eighth Army once again.

2nd

Egypt

Formed in 1939, the division was divided on reaching the Mediterranean, and its 1st Armoured Brigade sent to Greece. The Headquarters was overrun in Cyrenaica in Rommel’s offensive of spring 1941 and the division was not reformed thereafter.

6th

Tunisia
Italy

Formed in 1940, 6th Armoured Division was among the first to reach Tunisia as part of First Army, and fought at Bou Arada and Fondouk. In Italy the division fought under Eighth Army to the end.

7th

Egypt and Libya
Tunisia
Italy
North-West Europe

The original Middle Last “Mobile Division” (General Hobart) was redesignated 7th Armoured Division in February 1940. The original “Desert Rats”, they fought in O’Connor’s first offensive which ended with the destruction or capture of the Italian Army at Beda Fomm; in the Western Desert battles of 1941 and 1942, culminating in the victories of Alam Li Halfa and Alamein; in the advance of Eighth Army to Tunisia; in the Salerno landings and the South Italian campaign; and were then transferred to England to take part in OVERLORD, the Battles of Normandy and the Low Countries, and the crossing of the Rhine.

8th

Egypt

The division was formed in England in 1940 and moved to Egypt in 1942: but never operated as a division and was disbanded in January 1943.

9th

Formed and disbanded in the United Kingdom.

10th

Egypt

Formed originally in Palestine from 1st Cavalry Division, was moved to Egypt and took part in the Battles of Alam El Haifa and Alamein, and thereafter moved to Syria. It was disbanded in Egypt in 1944.

11th

North-West Europe

Formed in England in 1941, 11th Armoured Division was, like Guards Armoured Division, retained in England for OVERLORD. The division took part in the Battles of Normandy, took Antwerp, advanced into the Low Countries and engaged in Operation VERITABLE.

42nd

Formed and disbanded in the United Kingdom, from 42nd (Infantry) Division, a first-line Territorial division from Lancashire (q.v.).

79th

North-West Europe

Formed in the United Kingdom in 1942, in 1943 79th Armoured Division was given responsibility for the development of all “special armoured vehicles” — amphibious tanks, minefield and obstacle-clearing tanks and assault engineer vehicles, flame throwers et al. As such it did not operate as a division but individual brigades, Regiments and squadrons supported particular formations in North-West Europe, dependent on the needs of the battle: and were crucial to its success.

Infantry Divisions

An infantry division normally consisted of three infantry brigades, each of three battalions, and with divisional artillery, engineers and communications on a scale comparable to an armoured division. Infantry divisions’ transport was mechanical throughout the war, although in some theatres there was extensive reliance on mule-pack companies in support. There was no troop-carrying transport established within the division: the infantry marched, unless transport was specifically allocated. Logistic services were, again, on a comparable scale to those in armoured divisions, although tonnages to be carried, whether as spares or in re-supply, were, of course, much less.

As with the armoured division many changes took place during the war, in the size and shape of infantry divisions. The division’s size increased as the war went on — at full strength it counted under 14,000 men in 1939 and over 18,000 in 1944. Vehicles increased from under 3,000 to over 4,000 (but including 1,000 motorcycles). There was little difference in vehicle count between an infantry and an armoured division. An anticipatory version of Parkinson’s Law applied, however, and stores increased to fill the carrying capacity available. A British corps of four divisions moving on one road would extend from London to Inverness.

It may be regarded as curious that the British Army retained certain divisions at home, and disbanded some during the war. The reason was shortage of manpower, and particularly of specialist power. It was more economic to reinforce existing formations even at the cost of breaking up others.

The British Army possessed or formed thirty-five infantry divisions in the Second World War, as listed below. In addition, there were formed nine County divisions, for coastal defence, each commanding a number of brigades but without the divisional troops which formed part of the establishment of field force divisions. The list of the field force given below does not include divisions of the Indian Army, nor the Colonial divisions. Nor are listed independent Guards and infantry brigade groups, which formed part of the field force and were placed in divisions as the need arose. Finally there was a large number of more or less static brigades for Home Defence, for the defence of Malta and other garrisons; numbering over forty in sum.

DIVISION

THEATRES OF ACTIVE SERVICE

COMMENT

1st

France and Belgium 1940
Tunisia
Italy

The division, one of the original Regular divisions of the army, was part of the BEF. Evacuated at Dunkirk, it later took part in the expedition of First Anny to Tunisia, and thereafter, in Italy, took part in the fighting at Anzio, the advance to Rome and the Battles of the Gothic Line. Like all infantry divisions its battalions, as the war went on, were a mixture of Regular and Territorial or wartime battalions.

2nd

France and Belgium 1940
Burma

An original Regular division and part of the BEF. The division moved from England to India in 1942, and was brought into the Battle of Kohima, taking part thereafter in CAPITAL in 1944.

3rd

France and Belgium 1940
North-West Europe

An original Regular division and part of the BEF. The division took part in OVERLORD. the Battles of Normandy, the advance into the Low Countries, VERITABLE and the crossing of the Rhine.

4th

France and Belgium 1940
Tunisia
Italy

An original Regular division and part of the BEF. The division took part in the Tunisian campaign in First Army, and in the Italian campaign as part of Eighth Army; and was moved to Greece in the crisis of December 1944.

5th

France and Belgium 1940
Sicily
Italy

An original Regular division and part of the BEF. Two brigades took part in the expedition to and fighting in Madagascar in 1942. In 1942 the division was sent to India, and thence to Persia, Iraq, Syria and thence took part in the landings in Sicily — HUSKY — and in the advance up the east flank of Italy to the Battles of the Sangro in 1943. In 1944 the division was engaged on the West Italian flank, in the crossing of the Garigliano, and the Anzio landings; and in the advance to Rome in summer 1944.

8th

Palestine

A Regular division before the war, the division was disbanded in Palestine in 1940

12th

France and Belgium 1940

A Territorial division, with Regiments mainly recruited in the Home Counties, the division moved to France for “labour duties” and was caught up, without supporting artillery, logistic or communications, in the campaign which began in May 1940. Disbanded in England in July 1940.

15th

North-West Europe

A Territorial division, 15th was a Scottish division, formed in the main from Scottish Regiments. An OVERLORD division it took part in the Battles of Normandy, the advance in the Low Countries, VERITABLE, and the Rhine crossing.

18th

Malaya and Singapore

A Territorial division, drawn from East Anglia, 18th was sent to India at the end of 1941 and immediately diverted to Singapore, where part of the division was deployed forwards to the mainland. The division was largely destroyed or taken prisoner in the fighting on Singapore Island.

23rd

France and Belgium 1940

A Territorial division, with North Country Regiments from Durham and Yorkshire, 23rd Division suffered the same fate as 12th (q.v.). It was disbanded.

36th

Burma

Originally an Indian division, 36th became a British division in 1944 and took part in the march south from the Northern Combat Area Command, joining Fourteenth Army in the Battles for Mandalay.

38th

A Territorial division, formed in 1939 and disbanded in England in 1944.

42nd

France and Belgium 1940

A Territorial division, almost entirely composed of Lancashire and Manchester Regiments, 42nd Division served in the BEE, and in November 1941 was converted into an armoured division (q.v.).

43rd

North-West Europe

A Territorial division, composed of regi­ments from the Wessex Counties, 43rd Division took part in OVERLORD, the Normandy battles, the advance in the Low Countries, VERITABLE, and the Rhine crossing.

44th

France and Belgium 1940
Egypt

A Territorial division, and part of the BEF in 1940, the division was composed of Regiments from the Home and Southern Counties. In 1942 the division was sent to Egypt, arriving for the Battles of Alam El Haifa and Alamein. It was disbanded in January 1943.

45th

A Territorial division, disbanded in England in 1944.

46th

France and Belgium 1940
Tunisia
Italy

Composed of Regiments from the Midlands and Yorkshire, 46th Division, a Territorial division, was part of the BEF, and then took part in the Tunisian campaign as part of First Army. The division landed at Salerno, and advanced up the west coast of Italy; and after the fall of Rome took part in the Battles of the Gothic Line.

47th

Originally the 2nd (London) Territorial Division, 47th Division was so designated in November 1940. It originally consisted primarily of London Regiments but at some time also included battalions from Scotland, Ireland and the West Country. It was disbanded in 1944.

48th

France and Belgium 1940

With Regiments from Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, as well as Irish and Scottish battalions at various times, 48th Division, a Territorial division, was highly representative and its designation of “South Midland”, applicable to its origins rather than its ultimate character. The division was part of the BEF and ceased to be a first-line division in 1942.

49th

Norway 1940
North-West Europe

49th Division, a Territorial division, was nominally a Yorkshire division but included battalions from Welsh and Midland Regiments as well. Although not fighting as a division, its brigades fought individually in the Norwegian Expedition of 1940. Thereafter it became an OVERLORD division, fought in the Battles of Normandy, and as part of I Corps in the operations to clear the Scheldt.

50th

France and Belgium 1940
Egypt
Libya
Tunisia
Sicily
North-West Europe

50th Division, a Territorial division, was rooted in the north. Its Regiments were largely from Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire. It had, however, as the war continued, brigades with London, Midland and Home Counties Regiments as well. Originally part of the BEF, 50th Division went to the Middle East in the spring of 1941 and was first sent to Iraq and Syria. Deployed then to Egypt it took part in the Western Desert battles of 1942, culminating in Alamein; advanced with Eighth Army to Tunisia; landed in Sicily; was withdrawn to England for OVERLORD, and took part in the Battles of Normandy, and the advance in the Low Countries.

51st

France 1940
Egypt
Libya
Tunisia
Sicily
North-West Europe

51st (Highland) Division, a Territorial division composed of Highland Regiments, was surrounded and forced to surrender at St. Valéry-en-Caux in June 1940. Reconstituted in England by the renaming, in August 1940, of 9th (Highland) Division, it moved to Egypt in August 1942 in time for the Battle of Alamein. Thereafter it advanced with Eighth Army to Tunisia, landed in Sicily, and was withdrawn to England for OVERLORD. The division took part in the Battles of Normandy, in Operation VERITABLE and in the Rhine crossing.

52nd

France 1940
North-West Europe

52nd Division, a Territorial division composed in the main of Lowland Scots and Glasgow Regiments, was sent to France to “start a new BEF” in 1940 and evacuated from western French ports in June. Thereafter the division was deployed to North­ West Europe in October 1944, took part in the clearance of the Scheldt, in Operation VERITABLE and in the Rhine crossing.

53rd

North-West Europe

A Welsh Territorial division, composed of Welsh Regiments, 53rd Division crossed to Normandy in June 1944 and took part in the Battles of Normandy, the advance in the Low Countries, VERITABLE and the Rhine crossing.

54th

A Territorial division, based in West Lancashire, 54th Division remained in the United Kingdom.

56th

France and Belgium 1940
Burma

Originally 1st (London) Territorial Division, 56th Division was largely composed of London and Home Counties Regiments although commanding also, at various times, Scottish battalions and a Guards brigade. Part of the BEF in 1940, the division was sent to India in 1942, and thence to the Kohima Battle in 1944, fol­lowed by CAPITAL and the campaign for Mandalay in 1945.

59th

North-West Europe

A Territorial division, primarily of Staffordshire but also of Lancashire Regiments, the division took part in OVERLORD and the Battles of Normandy, and was disbanded in October 1944.

61st

A Territorial division, formed in September 1939, and retained in the United Kingdom.

66th

A Territorial division, formed in September 1939 and disbanded in the United Kingdom in June 1940.

70th

Egypt
Libya
India

Originally a Regular division — 7th Division — in Egypt, and then redesignated 6th Division until October 1941. 70th Division formed part of the garrison of Tobruk, and took part in the CRUSADER battle when Tobruk was relieved. Thereafter the division was sent to India and formed the basis of “Special Force”, the Chindit Long Range Penetration force. The division was disbanded as such in November 1943.

76th

Formed in England in 1941 and disbanded in 1944.

77th

A career exactly parallel to that of 76th Division (q.v.). These divisions were redesignated from the “County” division formed to act as immediate defence on the coast, against invasion in 1940; and, like several other divisions, were ultimately disbanded in order to provide reinforcements for other formations.

78th

Tunisia
Sicily
Italy

78th Division was formed in England in 1942, with Regiments from several parts of the United Kingdom, with a Guards brigade, and no clear Territorial affiliation. The division took part in the Tunisian campaign as part of First Army, in the landings in Sicily, and in the Italian campaign as part of Eighth Army, until the final act.

80th

Formed in 1943 and disbanded in 1944 in the United Kingdom.

Airborne Divisions

The airborne division, an innovation of the Second World War, was the outcome of extensive experiment during the war and in battle itself. The general pattern was that of parachute troops dropping — or, at least, trained and equipped to drop — by parachute, and airlanded troops arriving by glider or by (later) transport aircraft. The establishment provided for two parachute and one airlanding brigades.

Supporting arms and logistic services were based on a comparable scale to other divisions — a field squadron or company of engineers, a field ambulance, supporting each brigade for instance; and those supporting the parachute brigades were themselves parachute troops. The armoured reconnaissance and artillery Regiments (including antitank artillery) were airlanded. An airborne division consisted of 12,000 men: 1,000 scout cars (lightly protected); 3,000 bicycles; 1,000 motorcycles; about six hundred “soft skinned” vehicles; and twenty-two light tanks.

The British Army formed two airborne divisions in the Second World War. They are listed below. Parachute brigades were switched between divisions, or fought as infantry in other, non-airborne, divisions.

DIVISION

THEATRES OF ACTIVE SERVICE

COMMENT

1st

Tunisia
Sicily
Italy
North-West Europe

1st Airborne Division was formed in 1941. Brigades took part in the North African landings as part of First Army: the Sicilian landings as part of Eighth Army: the Italian landings (from the sea) and the Italian campaign until the spring of 1944. The division was reassembled in England as Part of I (Airborne) Corps and took part in MARKET GARDEN, being dropped at Arnhem. Thereafter, after heavy casual ties, the remainder were withdrawn to England.

6th

North-West Europe

6th Airborne Division was formed in 1943. It took part in OVERLORD, attacking ahead of the seaborne assault on D Day. After the early Normandy battles, the division was withdrawn to England, and again deployed to North-West Europe in reserve during the Ardennes offensive of Christmas 1944. Withdrawn again to England in February 1945, the division took part in the Rhine crossing, as a division and in the airborne role.


Foonote

Operation keyewords used

CAPITAL

British offensive in Burma, December 1944

CRUSADER

British offensive in the Western Desert, November 1941

HUSKY

Allied invasion of Sicily, July 1943

MARKET GARDEN

Army offensive to cross the Meuse, Waal and Nederrijn Rivers, September 1944

OVERLORD

German offensive in Tunisia, February 1943

VERITABLE

British and Canadian offensive between Meuse and Rhine, February 1945

Last updated 5 March, 2009

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