British 7th Armoured DivisionThe 7th Armoured Division (The Desert Rats) of the British Army was the most famous unit of its type in British service during World War II. It was a regular division in the Middle East, designated the Mobile Division at first, renamed the Armoured Division (Egypt) in September 1939, and finally 7th Armoured Division on 16th February 1940.
At first, it was one of only two British Empire formations in Egypt. The other was an Indian Army formation, which was then replaced with an Australian division. The two divisions formed the core of the Western Desert Force (WDF). The division had arrived in the Middle East in 1938 (See: the Munich crisis). The unit was intended to possess 220 tanks; however, at the outbreak of war they 7th Armoured Division had only 65. Most of the unit's troops had already been deployed for 2 years by 1940 and it could take as long as three months for mail to arrive.
When conflict broke out between British and Italian troops in June 1940, after the Italian declaration of war, the Western Desert Force was massively outnumbered. However, the Italian forces proved to be no match for the British forces. The Western Desert Force captured 250,000 Italian prisoners in the early engagements in 1940.
During the 1941 Italian retreat, WDF commander Major-General Richard O'Connor ordered the Desert Rats to travel south of the Jebel Akhdar and cut off the Italian forces at Beda Fomm, while Australian forces continued to push the Italians west. As the tanks were unable to travel fast enough, the maneuver was led by a brigade of armoured cars, towed artillery, and infantry, which completed the trip in 30 hours, cutting off the Italian retreat and effectively destroying the Italian Tenth Army. The rest of the force arrived sometime later.
The Italians proved so weak that Hitler was forced to send reinforcements to stiffen them under the command of General Erwin Rommel.
The Western Desert Force later became HQ XIII Corps, one of the major parts of Eighth Army. 7th Armoured Division took part in most of the major battles of the North African Campaign, including both at El Alamein. It also participated in the final destruction of Axis forces in North Africa in Tunisia in 1943.
7th Armoured Division then took part in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, and also the early part of the campaign in Italy. Along with other veteran formations, it was withdrawn from Italy in late 1943 to go to the United Kingdom to prepare for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. This was the only time in the division's existence when it was in the United Kingdom.
The division formed one of the follow up formations in Normandy. Although regarded as a veteran and elite formation it had, but this time, started to become seriously burnt out. Its performances in Normandy and the rest of France did not match those of its earlier campaigns, even taking into account the unsuitability of Normandy as tank country. Within 21st Army Group it took part in the liberation of Belgium, Holland and northern Germany. It remained in Germany as part of the occupation forces and into the 1950s as part of the British Army of the Rhine standing watch against the Soviet Union. As the British Army became smaller in the later years, its higher numbered divisions were removed from the order of battle to make way for lower numbered formations. 7th Armoured Division's long and illustrious career finally came to an end in this fashion.
Notable Members of the 7th Armoured Division