70th Infantry Division (United Kingdom)

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70th Infantry Division
British WWII 6th Infantry Division.png
Mike Chappell comments that "The red four-pointed star chosen as a divisional sign for the 6th (and 70th) was painted on vehicles, etc., but was probably never worn" on the uniform of the soldiers.[1]
Active 10 October 1941 - 24 November 1943[2]
Country United Kingdom
Branch British Army
Type Infantry

War establishment strength 17,298 men[a]

During the Siege of Tobruk: ~28,000 men[4]
Engagements Siege of Tobruk
Operation Crusader
Ronald Scobie

The 70th Infantry Division was an infantry division of the British Army that saw active service in both the Middle East and the South-East Asian theatres of the Second World War.


Arab Revolt in Palestine[edit]

During 1936, the Arab Revolt broke out in the British Mandate of Palestine.[5] British troops were dispatched and by the end of 1936, the "first phase of the revolt" had come to an end.[6] Fighting soon resumed, and reached its zenith during the summer of 1938. However, with rising tensions in Europe, the British began to withdraw troops from Palestine for use elsewhere.[7] The conclusion of the Munich Agreement - on 30 September 1938 - "dispersed the clouds of war over Europe and made the resumption of a military build-up in Palestine possible".[8]

The 7th Infantry Division was formed the following month, and placed under the command of Richard O'Connor.[9] The division was deployed to Palestine on internal security duties[10] as part of a build-up of 18,500 men in the region.[8] This force then began the "slow process of suppressing the revolt". Meanwhile, Palestinian guerrillas had overrun the Old City of Jerusalem. O'Connor's men proceeded to sweep the area, declaring the Old City free of militants on 19 October.[11] By early 1939, the organized revolt had been destroyed largely by the actions of the 8th Infantry Division under Bernard Montgomery.[12]

Second World War[edit]

Infantry camouflage a gun position at Mersa Matruh

On 1st September 1939, the Second World War began.[13] The previous day, the headquarters of the 7th Infantry Division gave up command of all troops it had previously presided over. O'Connor and the divisional staff then left Jerusalem bound for Cairo, Egypt. From Cairo, the men moved forward to Mersa Matruh arriving on 7 September. The headquarters was then assigned all troops—with the exception of the 7th Armoured Division—based there.[10] This decision was undertaken to relieve the burden on Henry Wilson, General officer commanding British Troops in Egypt, of "direct control of operations which had been his in addition to the command of all troops in Egypt".[14] Due to the logistical problems in maintaining substantial forces on the Libya-Egypt border, Mersa Matruh, 200 miles (320 km) west of Alexandria and 120 miles (190 km) from the border, was the forward British base of operations in the Western Desert and was supplied by rail. The location, chosen to shield forward Royal Air Force landing strips behind it and to defend the Nile Delta, offered the British the strategy of drawing Italian forces (as the most likely opponent in North Africa would be) forward to them and running into supply difficulties, then counter-attacking.[15][16]

On 3 November, the division was renamed the 6th Infantry Division.[17] On 10 June 1940, Italy declared war upon Britain and her allies.[18] Seven days later, the 6th Infantry Division was dissolved and its headquarters transformed into the Western Desert Force.[14][2] In early September 1940, Italian forces based in Libya invaded Egypt. Three months later, the Western Desert Force began a limited raid, Operation Compass. This raid evolved due to early successes, in two months the Western Desert Force had advanced 500 miles (800 km) occupying the Italian province of Cyrenaica and destroyed the Italian 10th Army. The operation was halted in February 1941 to give priority to the Battle of Greece.[19]

British infantry question captured Vichy French troops, near Damascus.

On 17 February 1941, the 6th Infantry Division was reformed.[2] Lacking artillery or other supporting arms, the reforming division trained for "landing operations in the Dodecanese".[20] The deteriorating situation in North Africa, which saw Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps retake the territory lost by the Italians during Operation Compass, resulted in the 6th Infantry Division being reassigned to defend Egypt.[21] The division had been earmarked to deploy to Crete, where its 14th Infantry Brigade was based and would defend the airfield at Heraklion during the Battle of Crete, instead took up defensive positions at Mersa Matruh.[22]

By late April, British attention had shifted to the Middle East due to the Anglo-Iraqi War, although the situation was resolved by the end of May. More concerning was that German and Italian forces had intervened in Iraq, using bases in Vichy Syria. With the threat that the Germans and Italians may gain full control of the French territory, thus jeopardizing the British position in the Middle East, Operation Exporter was launched.[23] On 8 June, the Allied invasion of Syria began. In the face of stiff resistance from the French troops garrisoning the territory, it was realized that additional allied forces would be needed.[24] On 13 June, the 6th Infantry Division (with two infantry brigades) was ordered to reinforce the effort.[24] The leading elements of the 16th Infantry Brigade arrived on 17 June and captured Kuneitra. The division then took part in the Battle of Damascus.[1] The campaign ended on 14 July, and the division remained in Syria.[25][26]

Operational history[edit]


Main article: Siege of Tobruk
Men of the 2nd Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment, during the Siege of Tobruk.

During March and April, the counterattack launched by Italian troops and the Afrika Korps across Cyrenaica had forced the British and Commonwealth forces into retreat.[27] Notably, Richard O'Connor—now General Officer Commanding British Troops Egypt—had been captured. The Australian 9th Infantry Division fell back to the fortress port of Tobruk[28] and the remaining British and Commonwealth forces withdrew a further 100 miles (160 km) east to Sollum on the Libyan-Egyptian border.[29]

These moves initiated the Siege of Tobruk. Although isolated by land, the garrison was supplied by the Royal Navy. Despite initial attempts, Axis forces were unable to take the port. This failure was significant; Erwin Rommel's front line positions at Sollum were at the end of an extended supply chain that stretched back to Tripoli and was threatened by the Tobruk garrison.[30] Besieging Tobruk also required a substantial commitment of troops and prevented Rommel from making further advances into Egypt.[31] By maintaining possession of Tobruk, the Allies had regained the initiative.[32]

Australian policy for the use of the Second Australian Imperial Force (2AIF), was to have all forces concentrated in an Australian Corps, under Australian command.[33] By June, Australian troops were dispersed throughout the Middle East, Cyprus and North Africa.[34] The subject had been of concern to the Australian Government since 18 April.[35] The issue came to a head on 18 July, when Thomas Blamey[36] (commander of the 2AIF, and deputy commander Middle East Command[37]) wrote a letter to Claude Auchinleck—the new commander of all forces in North Africa and the Middle East—stating

... the agreed policy for the employment of Australian troops between the British and Australian Governments is that the ... troops should operate as a single force.

— Blamey[36]

Blamey also highlighted that the troops in Tobruk were showing a decline in health, due to the siege and that the attrition rate they were suffering would result in "considerable" casualties, if they were not replaced by fresh troops.[36] This caused a diplomatic row between Winston Churchill and the Australian Government, which would continue post-war and resulted in turning a "reasonable request in July" into "a risky one in October".[38]

A Matilda, and its crew, inside Tobruk.

The relief of the garrison and replacement with fresh troops, was finally agreed. The first stage saw the 1st Polish Carpathian Brigade replace the 18th Australian Infantry Brigade. Next came the 6th Infantry Division's 16th Infantry Brigade, during late September, with elements of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, in lieu of the 24th Australian Infantry Brigade.[39] On 10 October, for security reasons and in an attempt to confuse Axis intelligence when the division was fully redeployed, the 6th Infantry Division was renamed the 70th Infantry Division.[2][40][41] Major-General Ronald Scobie was given command.[2]

The final stage of the relief effort took place between the 12 and 25 October. The remaining elements of the 70th Division were transported into Tobruk and the remaining Australian garrison (save the 2/13th battalion and elements of the 2/15th battalion) were shipped out.[42] In total, the relief effort evacuated 47,280 men (including prisoners) and brought in 34,113 men; it also brought the garrison's armour strength to 126 tanks.[43] On 22 October, the 32nd Army Tank Brigade was attached to the 70th Division.[44] With the relief effort over, command of the garrison was given to Scobie.[42] Investing Tobruk were the Italian 27th Infantry Division Brescia, 25th Infantry Division Bologna, 17th Infantry Division Pavia and the 102nd Motorised Division Trento motorized division and some German infantry.[45]

Prior to their withdrawal, the Australians inducted their British reliefs on life in the fortress. The men of the division then took over the positions the Australians had manned and settled into their task of defending Tobruk with a sense that it was "the main post of honour open to the British fighting man."[46][47] Besieged, life was uncomfortable. Fresh water was scare, washing was a luxury and done via sea-water, razor blades were in short supply, meals were basic and sand storms were common.[46] The troops were engaged in a dull repetitive routine: daily artillery bombardments by both sides, Axis air raids every night on Tobruk harbour and for the infantry, nightly patrols.[46][48][49][50] These patrols, described as "pure 1914–18 warfare", varied from reconnaissance missions—to identify what was located at a certain position—to capturing enemy soldiers and large scale raids on enemy positions.[46][51][52] Meanwhile, Rommel "planned a renewed assault [on Tobruk] for the period 20 November – 4 December", while Auchinleck planned Operation Crusader to be launched slightly earlier.[53]

Operation Crusader[edit]

Main article: Operation Crusader
Battle Area of Operation Crusader (click to enlarge)

Auchinleck's plan was to advance his armoured forces around the undefended southern Axis flank, south of Sidi Omar, before moving towards Tobruk and engaging the German-Italian armoured units in battle. Once the Axis armour was defeated, the British force would attack towards Tobruk aiming to capture Sidi Rezegh, while the garrison broke out aiming to capture Ed Duda, cutting the German-Italian lines of communication.[54][b]

On 18 November, Auchinleck's Eighth Army began the offensive.[56] Rommel, believing the attack was an attempt to hinder his own plans to assault Tobruk, did little to initially intervene with the British offensive. This led to the capture of Sidi Rezegh and the suggestion that the 70th Division should begin its attack on 21 November, before the Axis armour had been defeated.[57] Scobie's plan for breaking had been well rehearsed by his troops. The 2nd Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, 2nd Black Watch and 2nd King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) would lead the attack with tanks of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade in close support.[58]

Ronald Scobie, General Officer commanding the 70th Infantry Division and the Tobruk garrison.

During the cover of darkness, the men moved forward creating gaps in the barbed wire and minefields in front of their positions and bridging the Tobruk anti-tank ditch.[59] At 06:30, on 21 November, the division began its attack assaulting positions of the Bologna Division and the German 90th Light Division (although the latter was not expected). The Axis positions were well dug-in behind mines and bared wire and supported by machine guns and artillery. The first position, codenamed 'Butch', was captured by 09:00, shortly followed by 'Jill'. However, two attempts to capture 'Tugun' were repulsed by the Italian defenders. The mix of Italian and German troops holding 'Tiger' offered up the most resistance of the day. The supporting Matilda tanks ran into undetected minefields and were engaged periodically by Axis anti-tank guns. The Black Watch, under flanking fire from other Axis strong points and being fired upon directly from the defenders of 'Tiger', led a bayonet charge to the sound of bagpipes that captured the position, in conjunction with elements of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment (1 RTR) and 4th Royal Tank Regiments. The Black Watch suffered suffered 75 per cent casualties, being reduced to 165 men.[60][61][62][63]

Despite the losses, the Black Watch launched an additional attack to capture 'Jack'. Major Meythaler, the commanding officer of the German sector under attack, was positioned in 'Jack' and reported nine more British tanks lost to mines. Minutes after his report, at 10:30, the Black Watch had overrun the strong point. 1 RTR proceeded to overwhelm 'Wolf' but were repulsed by anti-tank fire when they attempted to attack 'Freddie'. During the afternoon, a "more elaborate attack" was launched that captured half of 'Tugun' but further progress was impeded by heavy Italian artillery fire. The planned final thrust, to seize Ed Duda, was called off, due to the changing situation to the south. By the end of the day, a salient 4,000 yards (2.3 mi) deep and wide had been created, 550 German and 527 Italian soldiers had been captured, although 59 tanks of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade had been lost (half were repaired). The war diary of the German 90th Light Division described the days actions as "very serious" concluding "that the next day 'would probably bring a crisis'".[60][61][62][63]

The following day the division "improved its position in the Tobruk salient". Due to the tank battle raging to the south, between the British and German armour, Scobie was ordered not to make any further advances.[64] To their south, having temporarily defeated the British armour, Rommel launched the Afrika Korps and the Italian mobile divisions towards Egypt. Known as the 'Dash to the Wire', Rommel sought to relieve the besieged Italian garrisons along the border, cut the British supply lines and inflict an overwhelming defeat upon the Eighth Army. Despite causing panic amongst rear echelon troops, the attack was weak and ran into difficulties against prepared positions. Taking advantage of the situation, Auchinleck ordered Scobie to resume his breakout.[65][66] After linking up with the Eighth Army, the Division was sent back to Alexandria and then shipped to India after Imperial Japan entered the war by attacking British, Dutch and United States territories in South East Asia and the Pacific Ocean.

India and disbandment[edit]

Men of the 2nd Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, previously part of the 70th Infantry Division, rest while on a patrol in Burma.

During the night of 7/8 December 1941, one hour prior to the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the Empire of Japan entered the war by invading Malaya.[67] On 15 January 1942, the Japanese attack was expanded as their troops invaded Burma.[68] Then, on 15 February, Singapore fell to the Japanese. On 17 February, the order was given for the 70th Division to be redeployed to India. The next day, George Symes was given command of the division and it departed Egypt on 28 February.[69] The 16th Infantry Brigade was detached and the rest of the division reached Bombay on 10 March.[69] With a Japanese invasion of British Ceylon expected, the 16th Brigade was diverted as reinforcement and arrived on 15 March, until 1943 when it rejoined the division.[70][71][72]

In August 1942, Mahatma Gandhi's Quit India Movement resulted in civil disobedience spreading across Bihar, Orissa, and Bengal. The division was deployed throughout these areas repressing the civilian population and protecting the railways of Bihar.[73][74][75][76][77] The division was seen as a well-trained "crack formation" and was initially placed in reserve at Ranchi, with the 23rd Indian Division as a mobile reserve, against a Japanese landing or advance through Arakan in Burma.[78][79][80][81] At Ranchi, the division also engaged in jungle warfare training.[82] A member of the division, writing in May 1943, commented that it would not be

... enough for us to rest on our Middle East laurels [despite them being] "well deserved"....those days should only be regarded as a starting point in efficiency for only 100% trained tps ... will defeat the Japanese in Arakan or in any other theatre of operations.[83]

During May 1943, the 23rd Infantry Brigade was deployed on the Arakan front.[84] On 14 February 1943, Brigadier Orde Wingate had launched Operation Loincloth. This operation saw the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade operate behind the Japanese lines, supplied via air drops, ambushed Japanese troops and destroyed rail lines. The force returned to Allied lines during April, having lost nearly a third of its troops and a large number of the remainder "crippled by exhaustion, malnutrition, dysentery, and malaria." Despite this, the operation was deemed a success.[85] In August 1943, Wingate (now a Major-General) was sent to attend the Quebec Conference. Churchill and the Americans were so impressed by Wingate that Special Force, commonly known as the Chindits, were ordered to be expanded. This expansion would see the 70th Division be broken up and its units transferred to Special Force.[78][86]

Auchinleck, now Commander-in-Chief, India, strongly opposed such a move preferring to retain the division as a single entity. Instead, he proposed that the newly arrived 81st (West Africa) Division could be used in place. Despite his arguments, and the end of the division's availability for operations against the Japanese-occupied Ramree Island, he was overruled by London.[78][79][87] On 6 September, the division began reorganizing for long-range penetration. It had been estimated that 10 percent of the men would be unsuitable but this had been based on an erroneous report given in London (believed to be from Wingate) that the division was not first class, when the standard of its infantry was high.[88] On 25 October, the division was broken up and all troops were transferred to Special Force.[89][87]

Symes became Wingate's second-in-command and tried to prevent the further breakup of the division's units to retain the traditions, histories, and esprit de corps of the army's regimental structure, which reconciled his men and helped to ensure a smooth transition to Special Force.[90] Having ceased to exist, the 70th Division was officially disbanded on 24 November.[2] In 1961, Woodburn Kirby wrote, in the Official History, that the best-trained and most-experienced British division had been broken up to reinforce the Special Force, which eventually absorbed one-sixth of the infantry subordinate to South East Asia Command. Had the division been retained it could have reinforced the Fourteenth Army, making the defence of Imphal and Kohima-in 1944-easier.[91]

General officer Commanding[edit]

Commanders included:

Appointed General Officer Commanding
10 October 1941 Major-General Ronald Scobie[2]
10 February 1942 Brigadier Cyril Lomax (acting)[2]
18 February 1942 Major-General George Symes[2]

Order of Battle[edit]


  1. ^ This is the war establishment, the on-paper strength, of an infantry division formed during or after 1941, but before 1944; for information on how division sizes changed over the war please see British Army during the Second World War.[3]
  2. ^ Once the breakout had occurred, the garrison would come under the command of XXX Corps led by Willoughby Norrie.[55]
  1. ^ a b Chappell 1987, p. 19.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Joslen 2003, p. 49.
  3. ^ Joslen 2003, pp. 130–131.
  4. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 25–26.
  5. ^ Bar-On 2006, p. 21.
  6. ^ Bar-On 2006, p. 26.
  7. ^ Bar-On 2006, pp. 27–32.
  8. ^ a b Bar-On 2006, p. 35.
  9. ^ "7th Division Commander". The Times. 5 October 1938. 
  10. ^ a b Joslen 2003, p. 51.
  11. ^ Bar-On 2006, pp. 35–36.
  12. ^ Bar-On 2006, pp. 37–38.
  13. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 58.
  14. ^ a b Playfair et al. 2004, p. 97.
  15. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 4.
  16. ^ Grehan & Mace 2015, p. 6.
  17. ^ Joslen 2003, pp. 49, 51.
  18. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 100.
  19. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 362–366, 371–376.
  20. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 2.
  21. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 32–33.
  22. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 125, 127.
  23. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 182, 196–197, 203.
  24. ^ a b Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 207, 209.
  25. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 221.
  26. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 2.
  27. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 19–40.
  28. ^ Latimer 2001, pp. 43–45.
  29. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 33–35.
  30. ^ Latimer 2001, pp. 48–64.
  31. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 41.
  32. ^ Jentz 1998, p. 128.
  33. ^ Maughan 1966, pp. 307–308.
  34. ^ Freudenberg 2015, p. 293.
  35. ^ Maughan 1966, p. 307.
  36. ^ a b c Maughan 1966, p. 310.
  37. ^ Freudenberg 2015, pp. 259, 293.
  38. ^ Freudenberg 2015, pp. 295–305.
  39. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 24–25.
  40. ^ Lord & Watson 2003, p. 35.
  41. ^ Morris 1989, p. 215.
  42. ^ a b Playfair et al. 2004, p. 25.
  43. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 26, 30.
  44. ^ a b c d Joslen 2003, p. 205.
  45. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 6, 19–20.
  46. ^ a b c d Messenger 1994, p. 70.
  47. ^ Thompson 2011, pp. 84–86.
  48. ^ Thompson 2011, pp. 84–87.
  49. ^ Sheffield 1930–1956, p. 88.
  50. ^ Rissik 2012, p. 62.
  51. ^ Thompson 2011, pp. 89–90.
  52. ^ Rissik 2012, pp. 62–65.
  53. ^ Windrow 2005, p. 12.
  54. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 6–7.
  55. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 7.
  56. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 38.
  57. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 41–42.
  58. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 43.
  59. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 44.
  60. ^ a b Murphy 1961, pp. 92–94.
  61. ^ a b Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 45–46.
  62. ^ a b Ford 2010, p. 47.
  63. ^ a b Stewart 2010, p. 21.
  64. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 48.
  65. ^ Macksey 1997, pp. 81–82.
  66. ^ Wilkinson-Latham 2005, p. 9.
  67. ^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 121.
  68. ^ Holden-Reid 1993, p. 83.
  69. ^ a b Joslen 2003, pp. 49–50.
  70. ^ Woodburn Kirby 2004, pp. 56–57, 110.
  71. ^ Joslen 2003, p. 258.
  72. ^ Jackson 2006, p. 316.
  73. ^ Green 2014, pp. 5–6.
  74. ^ James 1988, p. 65.
  75. ^ Messenger 1994, p. 105.
  76. ^ Moreman 2014, p. 64.
  77. ^ Allen 1984, p. 93.
  78. ^ a b c Jackson 2006, p. 376.
  79. ^ a b Moreman 2014, p. 12.
  80. ^ Moreman 2014, pp. 61–62.
  81. ^ Roy 2012, p. 146.
  82. ^ Moreman 2014, p. 61.
  83. ^ Moreman 2014, p. 79.
  84. ^ Joslen 2003, p. 267.
  85. ^ Chant 2013, pp. 117–118.
  86. ^ Rooney 1997, pp. 64–65.
  87. ^ a b Rooney 1997, p. 65.
  88. ^ Woodburn Kirby 2004a, p. 36.
  89. ^ Joslen 2003, p. 50.
  90. ^ Anglim 2010, pp. 275–276.
  91. ^ Woodburn Kirby 2004a, pp. 442, 445.
  92. ^ a b c Joslen 2003, pp. 49 and 253.
  93. ^ a b c Joslen 2003, pp. 49 and 257.
  94. ^ a b c d e Joslen 2003, pp. 49 and 267.
  95. ^ Joslen 2003, p. 482.


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