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World War Two: The Desert Rats
In July 1945, amongst the battered ruins of Berlin, the leaders of the victorious Allied powers of World War 2, gathered for a victory parade. The long conflict against the Nazis was over and the war in the Pacific against the Japanese was drawing to a close. Central to that victory parade, were the men of the 7th Armoured Division nicknamed 'The Desert Rats', for their famous exploits in Egypt and Libya. They were watched by their commander, Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery. It was the end of a long and bloody campaign for the Desert Rats that had begun in 1940 in the deserts of North Africa.
They had been fighting there for nearly two and a half years when they were sent on another hard fought campaign to the deserts of Tunisia. They then crossed the Medittaranean Sea to fight in Italy and then on to France, Holland and finally Germany. Now, this elite fighting unit stood at the ruins of Berlin, capital of the enemy that they had fought so bravely.
Born In The Desert
The building of the Suez Canal in 1869 had massively shortened the passge from Britain to it's Indian Empire and the Far East. This meant that Egypt had become militarily vital to the British. The beginnings of the 7th Armoured Division was therefore built within this region of North Africa. When the Second World War became increasingly likely, Egypt came under severe threat. Italian dictator Mussolini planned to widen his African empire, consisting of Libya, Egypt, the Sudan and territories around the horn of Africa (Eritrea, Samaliland and Abyssinia), they quickly overran the country and subsequently annexed it.
The British in Egypt now found themselves under threat from a significant Italian enemy who were based in nearby Libya. Simultaneously, the expansion of Hitler's armies caused the British to re-arm. They decided to create a mobile division in Egypt. Major General Percy Hobart was a leading expert in tank warfare and was sent to Egypt to form the unit. Within one year this unit had become a confident and considerable force capable of fighting in the desert. However, by mid 1940 he had fallen out of favour with the British commanders in Egypt and was forced to retire from the army, but the men he had trained never forgot what he had taught them.
In February 1940, the mobile division had been re-named the 7th Armoured Division and had adopted the Gerboa (affectionately known as the Desert rat) as it's symbol, which was still cherished by the division's descendant, the 7th Armoured Brigade, in the Gulf war, fifty years later.
The original 7th Armored Division had three main elements, there were two armoured brigades - the 4th and the 7th, each of which consisted of three regiments with a total of 150 tanks and a battery of 12 two pounder anti-tank guns. The tanks used were the Mark 6, three man light tank armoured with only a machine gun as it was designed for reconnaissance. There was also the larger four man cruiser tank armed with a 2 pounder gun that fired armour piercing rounds.
The third element was the Support Group which consisted of two motorised infantry battalions and a regiment of twenty four 25 pound guns. There was in addition, the 11th Hussars, a recognaissance regiment with it's Rolls Royce and Morris armoured cars. The 11th would remain with the division for the duration of World War 2.
The original Desert Rats were professional regular soldiers who had signed up for a minimum of six years. From the beginning they had been considered as an elite unit as they were the first totally armoured division in the British Army.
By the beginning of World War 2 when the division was sent to what was known as 'The Wire' - a stretch of land dividing the borders of Egypt and Italy's colony of Libya - the British were outnumbered by the Italians by 250,000 to 30,000, but for the first nine months of the conflict, Italy stayed out of the war, so the Desert Rats could only watch and wait while Hitler launched his 'Blitzkreig' across Western Europe in 1940.
War Begins In Earnest
On the 10th June 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France, the very next day the Desert Rats' fight against the Italians began. Patrols of the 11th Hussars crossed 'The Wire' and carried out a series of ambushes. More than 70 Italian soldiers were immediately captured and over the next few weeks the Desert Rats attacked a number of Italian forts and defensive positions as they waited for the numerically superior Italian forces to invade Egypt.
On September 13th 1940, the Italians finally began their offensive. The British felt that they must conserve their smaller forces, so the Desert Rats fell back whilst keeping in contact with the advancing enemy. After three days the Italians halted 60 miles inside Egypt and began to build a series of fortified camps. Two weeks later, the British received a welcome boost with the arrival of a convoy of 150 tanks from Britain. They would now organise a counteroffensive to force the Italians back.
Pursuing the Italians
At the end of November 1940, the Desert Rats began the first of two exercises. The first was a dress rehearsal for the upcoming counter offensive. The second was the deployment for the actual assault, although the troops were not informed of this until they crossed the start line on the 9th December.
The British morale was high even though they were considerably outnumbered. The Italians stance of halting and digging in meant that they had lost momentum and initiative. Supported by Matilda tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, the 4th Indian Division had little trouble in overpowering the enemy and advancing to the coast.
The Desert Rats simultaneously covered the open desert flank by the 20th december, no Italians other than P.O.W's and the dead were left on Egyptian soil. A force of the 6th Australian Division were sent to reinforce and renew the offensive by capturing the Libyan ports of Bardia and Tobruk. The Italians, pursued by the Australians, began to flee along the coast road to Benghazi, capital of the Eastern Libyan province of Cyrenaica.
The Desert Rats were now sent to the base of the Cyrenaican Bulge. The 4th Armoured Brigade carried out an epic march through almost impassable terrain and arrived in time to cut off the Italian withdrawal south of Benghazi. the following three day battle that followed, completed the total destruction of the remaining Italian Army.
A force of just 3,000 Desert Rats captured 20,000 enemy soldiers as well as a masive haul of enemy tanks, guns, vehicles and other equipment. It was the first British land victory of World War 2 and was met with jubilation back home in Britain, the legend of the Desert Rats had begun.
A New Enemy
But the euphoria was short lived, a new factor in the desert war had emerged. Hitler sent Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps to assist his Italian ally in Libya. The scene was now set for an epic contest between two elite forces, a scene which would ebb and flow across 1,000 miles of desert terrain for over two years.
The Desert Rats had been sent back to Egypt to refresh and refit themselves. Their place was taken by the 2nd Armoured Division that had been recently sent out from Britain. However, part of this division was subsequently sent on to Greece, seriously weakening the British force in Cyrenaica.
Quickly seizing the initiative, Rommel took advantage of this misjudgement and attacked at the end of March 1941. He swiftly managed to force the British out of Egypt. The port of Tobruk, mainly in Australian hands, remained the only Allied foothold in Libya and it had become under close seige.
In the summer of 1941, the Desert Rats returned to action and were pitted against the dreaded 88mm German anti tank guns, capable of destroying any British tank from a distance of 2,000 yards. In two attempts to drive Rommel's Afrika Korps back, the Desert Rats suffered heavy losses.
They would not attack Rommel again until they were heavily reinforced , rebuilt and renamed the 8th Army. They were built up of Indians, Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders and British all serving in it's ranks. There was also a brigade of Free-French and Poles who were part of the Tobruk garrison. The core though, remained the 7th armoured Division, the original Desert Rats.
Rats Against The Fox
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At Home In The Desert
The Desert Rats lived entirely off their vehicles, water was strictly rationed and after the troops had washed in it, it would feed the vehicles radiators. Food was on the whole tinned, fresh bread, fruit and vegetables were a rare luxury and the diet was monotanous. Tea was their staple drink and they were lucky if they got more than four hours sleep a night, but amazingly the troops remained fit and healthy with a good morale.
Many of them viewed the war in the desert to be a 'clean war', meaning that not many civilians suffered and the moments of extreme danger and discomfort were few and far between. It was a pure soldiers' campaign played out on a vast desert expanse with very few civilians or distractions to get in the way.
On the 18th Novemeber 1941, the British offensive began. The objective was to relieve the troops at Tobruk and push Rommel out of Cyrenaica. The 7th Armoured Division fought a harsh and unyeilding tank battle for control of a strategic airfield 25 miles southeast of Tobruk. It was to be one of the Desert Rats most epic operations. The battle on the 21st November earned them 3 Victoria Crosses. Eventually the garrison at Tobruk managed to link up with the rest of the 8th Army. Although managing to drive Rommel out of Cyrenaica, they did not strike the killer blow and the ebb and flow of the desert war continued.
Forced Back Again
Rommel attacked again in 1942, pushing the Briitish back to a defensive line at Gazala. Both sides planned a renewed offensive,but Rommel struck first in May, outflanking the British line at Gazala. The British tanks were widely dispersed and were quickly set upon by the German Panzers. In June, there were many desperate tank battles,followed by withdrawals as Rommel kept up the intense pressure. Tobruk inevitably fell and the 8th Army were pushed back to El Alamein, the last defensive line before the Suez Canal.
On the 1st July, Rommel attacked, but was unable to break through. Attempts by the British to push the Afrika Korps back were equally unsuccessful and by the end of the month, both sides were exhausted. In August, Prime Minister Winston Churchill came out to visit the brave, but battered 8th Army. He brought with him a new Commander In Chief. Harold Alexander and Bernard Law Montgomery were to take charge of the 8th Army.
Montgomery already had a dynamic reputation amongst the troops. His first priority was to restore the flagging self-confidence of the 8th Army and convince them that Rommel and the Afrika Korps were not invincible. By now the Desert Rats were organised and equipped very differently than they had been in 1941.
They still had two armoured brigades - the 4th and 2nd, but they now had a lorry brigade in the 131st Queens Infantry Brigade. The division was also re-equipped with two new American tanks, the Grant and the Sherman, both more than a match for the German Panzers, but were still far outranged by those 88mm anti tank guns.
Rommel attacked again in August 1942 at El Alamein, Montgomery however, was waiting for him. The 22nd Armoured Brigade bore the brunt of the attack and repulsed it, destroying 40 German tanks. Once again, the Desert Rats had been in the right place at the right time.
Although Montgomery's forces well outnumbered the Axis armies, they were up against a well- entrenched enemy. The need to get his army through Rommel's defences meant a vital role for the Desert Rats.
On the night of the 23rd October 1942, the Desert Rats and other units of the 8th Army prepared for battle. Montgomery's assault at El Alamein began with a barrage of 900 guns, then sappers went forward to clear lanes through the Axis minefields. The infantry set up bridge-heads the other side of the minefields. after savage and intense fighting for five days, the tanks managed to get through. However, due to stubborn Axis resistence, the Desert Rats were unable to break out.
Huns On The Run
The German 88mm anti tank guns took a savage toll until Montgomery decided to switch the attack from the South to the North. Gradually Rommel's defences were worn down and by the 4th November, the Axis forces were in full retreat. Churchill proclaimed this to be "the end of the beginning" and for the next two and a half months, the 8th Army pursued it's fleeing enemy with the Desert Rats often the lead pursuer.
They entered Benghazi on the 19th November after covering a distance of 450 miles from El Alamein, but every so often Rommel would turn and mount a stubborn rearguard in an attempt to keep the British at arms length, before withdrawing once more.
But on the 23rd January 1943, the Desert Rats entered Tripoli, the Libyan capital. They had advanced more than 1,000 miles in just 11 weeks. The Union Jack was triumphantly raised over the port in which the Afrika Korps had arrived at to begin the epic confrontation. The battle had swung back and forth for over two and a half years across the deserts of Libya and western Egypt, and was finally over.
Back on the 8th November 1942, British and American forces had landed at the other end of North Africa at Morrocco and Algeria and had advanced into Tunisia to battle Axis forces that had been redeployed from Europe to prevent Rommel being attacked from the rear.
The Axis forces managed to halt the Allies just 20 miles from Tunis. A deadlock then arose lasting until February 1943 when the Axis forces launched an attack on the Allies in western Tunisia. The Americans were surprised by this and suffered heavy casualties.
Montgomery now began his advance into Tunisia from the east and Rommel turned his attention to the advancing 8th Army. On the 6th March at Medenine, the two forces met once again. The six pounder guns of the Desert Rats' Queen's Brigade forced the Germans to halt in their tracks. One gun in particular managed to take out no less than 14 German tanks.
Whilst the 1st Army advanced from the west, the 8th Army pushed forward through Tunisia's narrow coastal plains, overwhelming Axis forces along the way. At the end of March, the Desert Rats met up with the American units of the 1st Army. However, when the Desert Rats linked up with the British units of the 1st Army, the contrast between the two were plain for all to see.
The 1st Army had dark green vehicles, conventional uniforms, had a tendency to toe the line and do things in a regimented manner. Whereas the Desert Rats were tanned, had sand coloured vehicles and had a relaxed and cheerful manner.
Eventually the 8th Army were halted at Enfidaville at the top of the coastal plains and were told to move forces to the coast to link up with the 1st Army before the final assault through Tunisia. Amongst these were the 7th Armoured Division who helped to lead the advance on Tunis, and the Queen's Hussars were among the first troops to set foot in the Tunisian capital.
The Axis powers in North Africa finally surrendered on the 11th May 1943 and 250,000 prisoners were taken by the Allies. The subsequent lull in combat enabled the Desert Rats to be reorganised once more. Two brigades remained, the first, the 22nd Armoured Brigade consisting of three tank regiments totalling 150 tanks and a motor battalion and the second, the 131st Queen's Brigade with three motor battalions and a machine gun battalion. it was also an opportunity for the Desert Rats to relax and recuperate, taking leave in Cairo. However, the prospect of returning to Britain was still a distant hope.
The King's Salute/Entering Italy
In June 1943, they received a boost with the visit of KIng George V1, who came to pay his respects to this now legendary unit. The completion of the North African campaign was a defining moment in the story of the Desert Rats. For the first time they were to leave North Africa where they had built their reputation and were now crossing the Medittaranean Sea to land in Europe as part of the invasion of mainland Italy.
The objective was for Montgomery's 8th Army to land in Sicily in the south whilst the U.S. 5th Army landed in the west at Salerno. The Desert Rats were asigned to support the American landings and so, surprisingly, would not be fighting with the British 8th Army. The first U.S. troops ashore were met with fierce resistence, but units of the Queen's Brigade were able to land safely and secure an assembly area for the division, five days later after the initial assault, the tanks of the Desert Rats came ashore.
They were then involved in the advance North to Naples, conditions were very different to that of North Africa. The terrain was mountainous with roads winding their way across steep slopes and bridges that were continually blown up to slow the Allies, so patience and ingenuity would be required to keep up the advance.
However, the Desert Rats were able to enter Naples on the 1st October and continued northwards, although they now had to deal with the autumn weather and were continually bogged down in mud. There was also a number of rivers to be crossed and after three months of fighting, most of the division was put into reserve. The next month Montgomery left the 8th Army to take command of the 21st Army Group in preparation for the invasion of western Europe. But Montgomery insisted on taking three of his crack divisions with him. The 51st Highland, the 50th Northumbrian and the Desert Rats.
When they arrived back in Britain in January 1944, many of the veteran Desert Rats had been away for more than four years. They had left their equipment behind in Italy and had to start again for the upcoming invasion in Normandy.
The Desert Rats continued to serve under Montgomery's overall command and they welcomed his morale-boosting visits. At the end of May they moved to sealed tented camps near the south English coast where they would be briefed on their role in the invasion plans before being loaded onto the ships at the embarkation ports.
The Desert Rats were not involved in the initial assault on D-Day, but their tanks came ashore the following day and moved swiftly into action. They played a major role in fighting off the armoured German assaults trying to destroy the Allied beach-heads. Once again they had to adapt their tactics to a new terrain, the dense Normandy countryside known as the Boccage had a claustrophobic feel, with it's high hedges, narrow lanes and small fields, it gave an overwhelming advantage to it's German defenders.
They laid in wait and ambushed the Allied forces from almost point blank range with the same formidable 88mm guns that had proved so effective in the deserts of North Africa. In addition, they were also faced with the deadly Tiger tanks equipped with the 88mm gun and it's armour plating was impervious to any Allied tank gun.
In July 1944, 7th Armoured Division took part in 'Operation Goodwood', the massive Allied push to the city of Caen. This was designed to draw the bulk of the German tanks to the British sector, enabling the American forces to break out from Normandy. The operation was preceeded by a massive assault by RAF Bomber Command on the German lines. Initially things went to plan and many German troops, surprised and battered by the Allied bombing, were taken prisoner. However, the enemy soon recovered and halted the Allied advance. Despie this 'Operation Goodwood' enabled the Americans to successfully achieve their breakout and the German defences were soon overrun by General Patton's U.S. 3rd Army.
Now came a pursuit of the Germans, reminding the Desert Rats of their pursuit of Rommels' Afrika Korps across Libya after their victory at El Alamein. On the 28th August, 7th Armoured Division crossed the River Seine after advancing more than 120 miles. In the following 9 days they managed to advance a further 200 miles to liberate the ancient Belgian city of Ghent.
As the Allied forces advanced through France and Belgium in late summer 1944, their supply lines from Cherbourg in northwestern France became increasingly stretched, until finally they were cut off and the race to Germany was halted. For the Desert Rats, who had managed to advance across the Dutch border, this meant a period of static warfare.
Autumn turned to winter and the 7th Armoured resumed it's advance, although it was slow going as German defences had on the whole recovered from the battering of the summer. Some of the Desert Rats managed to get home on leave to celebrate Christmas, but most had to remain on the front line.
Despite the setbacks, the end of the war looked ever more likely and the epic journey of the Desert Rats was not forgotten. On Christmas Day, Corporal Bob Pass, who had fought with the 7th Armoured Division all the way from El Alamein, was selected to broadcast a Christmas message on the BBC. Tragically, within a few weeks, Bob Pass would be dead, killed as he went forward to take the surrender of some German troops hidden in a wood.
The final stages of the second world war for the Desert Rats, began in January 1945, when the division took part in intense fighting in order to clear the approaches to the river Rhine. They crossed the Rhine on March 25th and the advance into Germany had begun.
Fierce battles still raged as many Germans refused to accept defeat, although the war was as good as lost. They didn't hold up 7th Armoured Division for long however. On the 16th April they liberated a prisoner of war camp at Fallingbostel. Among the prisoners were many original members of the division who had been captured earlier in the war, as well as paratroopers from the Arnhem campaign.
The crowning moment for the Desert Rats was when they led the taking of the official surrender of German troops at the port of Hamburg. As they advanced northwards, they found themselves responsible for ensuring the safe passage of the enemy delegation that negotiated the surrender of the German forces facing Montgomery's 21st Army group.
The official surrender was signed on the 4th May and three days later the war was at an end, but for the Desert Rats, their journey was not quite over. After a month of occupation duties, they received the honour of protecting the majority of the British zone in Berlin.
A Long & Hard Fought Victory
The Desert Rats entered Berlin on the 4th July, with their Commander In Chief Lou Line taking the salute. They were again on parade on the 21st July enjoying a victory march past Winston Churchill, Alexander and Montgomery. Churchill later personally addressed the division with these words:
"Dear Desert Rats, may your glory never fade, may your laurels never fade, may the memory of this glorious pilgrimage of war which you have made from Alamein, via the Baltic, to Berlin, never die. it is a march unsurpassed in the history of war"
No finer tribute could have been paid to this heroic unit, whose spirit and bravery personified all that was best in the British Army in World War Two.