Guards Armoured Division

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For the equivalent formation in World War I, see Guards Division (United Kingdom).
Guards Armoured Division
British XXX Corps cross the road bridge at Nijmegen.jpg
Guards tanks cross the road bridge at Nijmegen during its capture.
Active 17 June 1941–12 June 1945[1]
Country United Kingdom
Branch British Army
Type Armoured Division
Size 14,964 men[2]
343 tanks[nb 1][nb 2]
Engagements Operation Overlord
Operation Market Garden
Battle honours 18–23 July 1944 Bourguébus Ridge[4]
30 July 9–August 1944 Mont Pinçon[4]
17–27 September 1944 The Nederrijn[4]
6 February–10 March 1945 The Rhineland[4]
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Sir Oliver Leese
Allan Adair

The Guards Armoured Division was a Second World War British Army formation.

The Guards Armoured Division was formed on 17 June 1941 from elements of the Guards units, the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Irish Guards. and Welsh Guards. The division remained in the United Kingdom, training, until 26 June 1944, when it landed in Normandy as part of VIII Corps. Its first major engagement was Operation Goodwood, the attack by three armoured divisions towards Bourguebus Ridge in an attempt to break out of the Normandy beachhead. That was followed by Operation Bluecoat, the advance east of Caen as the Falaise pocket formed. Transferred to XXX Corps, the division liberated Brussels. It led the XXX Corps attack in Operation Market Garden, the ground forces' advance to relieve airborne troops aiming to seize the bridges up to Arnhem, capturing Nijmegen bridge in conjunction with American paratroopers. During the battle of the Bulge, it was sent to the Meuse as a reserve in case the Germans broke through the American lines. It endured hard fighting in Operation Veritable, the advance towards the Rhine through the Reichswald, and again in the advance through Germany. The division existed until 12 June 1945, when it was reorganised as an infantry division, the Guards Division.

History[edit]

Sherman Firefly marked to represent one from the Guards Armoured Division.
The Guards Armoured Division vehicle insignia, on a Sherman Firefly preserved at the Bovington Tank Museum

The Guards Armoured Division was formed in May 1941 as a result of the shortage of armoured troops in England to face a German invasion. There was initially opposition to this move, as it was felt by the establishment that the height of the Guards—selected for height, amongst other criteria, as elite soldiers—would make them poor tank crew. The division originally consisted of two armoured brigades, the 5th and the 6th. These consisted of three tank regiments of Covenanter V tanks and a motor infantry battalion. A certain level of common sense was applied to these changes, with the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards being assigned as the motor battalion, due to the presence of King's Company. This group of men were all at least 6 feet tall and were expected to struggle to fit into tanks. Uniquely the Division also kept its infantry company structure, with the tanks organised into companies and battalions, rather than squadrons and regiments.[5]

At the end of 1942, the division was split in line with all armoured divisions at this time, with one armoured brigade replaced with a brigade of lorried infantry. At this point the 6th and the 5th Guards Armoured Brigades were separated. During this period the division re-equipped with Crusader III tanks, which were again replaced with Sherman Vs by 1944.

Normandy[edit]

The Guards Armoured division landed in Normandy at the end of June, and went into battle around Carpiquet Airfield soon after, with the infantry of the 32nd Brigade skirmishing with the 12th SS Hilterjugend. However this was only to last a couple of weeks before the armour arrived and the division was deployed further south to participate in Operation Goodwood.

The aim of this attack has been debated many times, but whether an attempt at a breakout or a more limited effort, it had the effect of drawing most of the German reserves towards Caen, aiding the Cobra offensive. Originally intended as a combined attack, it was changed to an armoured assault as the British had suffered heavy infantry casualties and were struggling to find replacements. As a result the attack was changed to one largely of Armoured Divisions, as lost tanks would be easier to replace.

The Guards Armoured Division joined with the 7th and 11th Armoured Division for this attack. The aim was to strike south out of the Orne Bridgehead on 18 July. The Guards Armoured Division was to advance south-east to capture Vimont and Argences. Prior to this attack the German defences were heavily bombed be the RAF. Unfortunately this was less effective than hoped against the dug-in defenders, both in the south of Caen and in Cagny and Emieville. All three of these areas were in the path of the Guards advance. The attack quickly bogged down and losses became heavy, the guards losing 60 tanks to a single battery of four Luftwaffe 88mm AA guns. In addition to this, a group of Tiger tanks of the 503, which had been completely knocked out in the bombardment, recovered enough over the course of the morning to stiffen the resistance against the Guards. In addition, the Guards were checked by a Schwere Panzerabteilung and a counterattack by the 12 SS 'Hilterjugend'. Novel tactics had to be employed to deal with the more heavily gunned and armoured Tiger, with one being rammed by a Sherman of the Irish Guards.

Whilst taking part in Operation Goodwood east of Cagny, Lt John Gorman who was a Troop Commander in the 2nd Armoured Battalion was probing forward in his Sherman tank 'Ballyragget' when suddenly he found himself broadside to a German King Tiger, the massive German tank that no-one had yet seen. On seeing the tank he gave the order to fire his 75mm gun at it but it just bounced off the armour of the great German monster. On giving the order to fire again he was informed by the gunner that the gun was jammed and could not fire again. By now the German Tiger Tank was traversing his 88m gun onto the defenceless Sherman tank. On seeing this Lt Gorman ordered his driver L/Cpl James Brown to ram the Tiger Tank. Ballyragget struck the German tank amidships disabling the tank and causing its crew to bail out. After seeing his own crew to safety, Lt Gorman commandeered a Firefly, 'Ballymena', whose commander had been killed and continued to fire at the Tiger tank with his new-found 18 pounder gun until its destruction was complete. For this action Lt John Gorman was awarded the Military Cross and his driver L/Cpl James Brown was awarded the Military Medal, being the first of the Allied Expeditionary Forces to take out the Feared Panzerkampfwagen VI B King Tiger Schwere Panzer.

The next day enough progress was made to allow the Guards to reach Bourgebus Ridge and support the 7th and 11th Armoured Divisions, however German reinforcements started to arrive and the attack ground to a halt. Fighting continued until 20 July, when the gains were consolidated by infantry and the attack died off. The battle, while not a success from the operational point of view, was a battle in which the Guards acquitted themselves satisfactorily. The operation also drew off most of the German mechanised reserves, being convinced that the allies planned to breakout from Caen. This left little for reinforcements, when the Americans unleashed Operation Cobra on 25 July.

After Goodwood the Guards Armoured Division was reorganized into unofficial battlegroups. Goodwood had shown the undesirable effects of not having supporting infantry with the tanks. Consequently the two Grenadier battalions were formed into a battlegroup, with the Coldstream infantry attached to the Irish Guards Tanks and the Coldstream Guards tanks split into two groups and used to support the Irish and Welsh Guards battalions. The units were not organized in any formal way at this point, but rather by who happened to be closest at the time. This organisation was not unique to the Guards, the 11th Armoured also adapted the formation for Bluecoat, apparently on General Richard O'Connor's orders. After this reorganisation, the Guards Armoured Division took part in Operation Bluecoat.[6]

Operation Bluecoat was launched on 30 July in support of the Americans taking part in Operation Cobra. Rather than continue to try to push past Caen where the majority of the German armour had redeployed after Goodwood, this attack switched back towards Villers-Bocage to support the Americans and to capture the road junction at Vire and the high ground at Mont Pincon. While the opposition was initially two weak infantry divisions (326th and 276th), they were well dug in, having prepared minefield and other defences. The terrain was bocage which also slowed down the speed of the attack. Initially the Guards supported the 11th Armoured Division who were the spearhead of the attack by protecting their flank, however they took over the spearhead duties themselves on 1 August, fighting in the bocage until 15 August against elements of the 326th and 276th Infantry, 21st Panzer and 1st, 9th and 10th SS-Panzer divisions. This was to prove challenging to the Guards who complained that they "had been brought up indirect shooting at two miles, none of this fifteen yard business". The Germans ended up committing their tanks piecemeal, and as a result there was no defensive line as such. Instead common opposition would consist of a small mobile group of infantry supported by a few tanks or self-propelled guns. Snipers and mortars were a particular problem in this terrain, with field modifications added to the tank to try to reduce the damage. Due to the difficulty of completely clearing the enemy from a particular area and of supplying sub-units, the attack ground to a halt on 4 August. On one occasion German tanks nearly overran a field battery but were beaten back by the Division's Achilles self-propelled 17 pounder guns, one shooting through both walls of a barn to knock out a Panther.

On 7 August the Guards had a short break as the Germans concentrated their forces on a counter-offensive against the Americans at Mortain. On that day the Guards were given the 11th Armoured Divisions area to defend as well, freeing up the 11th Armoured. While not actually trying to launch a major advance, attacks in the local area were fierce, particularly around Chenedolle. Support from other arms was also provided, with the Welsh infantry regiment supported be Churchill tanks of the 6th Guards Tank Brigade and the Household Cavalry deploying as infantry in the line for a brief period.

On the 15th the Germans started to withdraw but were caught in the Falaise pocket, allowing the Guards to recover for a refit. Bluecoat had been a success and the combined arms of the battlegroup concept had been proven. This would be the way the Guards Armoured Division would operate from now on. The division took heavy losses in the operation, though the allies had enough replacements that they could lose six tanks for every German tank destroyed. Crew were a different matter, however, and a consequence of the operation was the removal of the Crusader AA tanks, possible due to the lack of air opposition; their crews were used to man the replacement Shermans provided to the division.

The Guards were not committed to the fighting in the Falaise pocket, but instead got a chance to rest and regroup. On the 27th they were transferred to XXX corps under Lt-Gen Brian Horrocks and advanced on the Seine. Due to the near total collapse of the German Army in France they reached and crossed the river on the 29th. Here some more changes were made to the Guards organization. The use of an Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment had not proved successful, while armoured cars had prove more adapt at the role, despite the disadvantage of being more tied to the road network. Consequently the 2nd Household Cavalry were formally attached as the official division reconnaissance element. This freed up the Welsh Guard tank crews for other duties, and formal battlegroups were formed. These were far more organized than the previous ad-hoc affair, with each regiment's battalions being merged to form a battlegroup. The Grenadier battlegroup consisted of the tanks of the 2nd Battalion and the Motor Infantry of the 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards. The 1st Grenadier were a special case, as they traded in half their anti-tank guns to form extra infantry from the crews to give themselves the manpower to achieve this task. This required some rearranging of the division: although occasionally altered, the Grenadier and Irish groups formed the 5th Brigade, and the Coldstream and Welsh groups made the 32nd brigade. Machine-gun support was provided by the Grenadier Guards for the 5th brigade and the Northumberland Fusiliers in the 32nd. The heavy 4.2-inch mortars were kept at divisional level and allocated where required.

Sherman Firefly in the Bovington Tank Museum, painted to represent Sergeant Robinson's tank of the 2nd Grenadier Guards, the first British tank to cross the Rhine at Nijmegen during the Arnhem Operation in 1945.

Having broken out from Normandy, the terrain change and the countryside became much more open and flowing. The advance was now generally along a road, with the lead elements and Typhoon air support brushing aside most opposition before it could delay the column. The population was grateful for their liberation; the 2nd Household Cavalry, who were generally first into the town, had to keep a sharp eye on stowage and aerials on the exterior of the vehicle lest it be taken as a souvenir. In one town, only the intervention of the police prevented a scout car having its wheels removed. The population were starving, having been deprived of food by the Germans, and supplies and chocolate were dished out to the grateful population. On 3 September Brussels was liberated by the Guards Armoured Division after a high-speed run, the division advancing 75 miles in one day. The division could not rest long however, pushing further into north-east Belgium against stiffening German opposition. After gaining support from the 11th Armoured Division, the Guards reached the border with the Netherlands, the Irish Guards under JOE Vandeleur seizing "Joe's Bridge", a bridge over the Meuse-Escault canal in a surprise assault.

Holland & Germany[edit]

Churchill tanks of 4th Grenadier Guards assemble for the advance on Liesel, Netherlands 1 November 1944.

The Guards Armoured Division was then withdrawn from the line to prepare for Operation Market Garden. They formed the spearhead of the attacks into the Netherlands, with the Grenadier Guards managing to seize the Nijmegen Bridge with the help of the American 82nd Airborne Division.[7] Following this they spent the winter in the Netherlands and Germany, before being moved into Belgium as a reserve against the Battle of the Bulge. The infantry of the Welsh Guards were also replaced by the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, due to a severe lack of replacements in the British Army at the time. Following this the division participated in Operation Veritable, the operation to clear the Reichswald forest. Due to the weather and the Germans flooding the area, only the infantry ended up playing an active part. After this the towed batteries of the Royal Artillery anti-tank guns were converted to infantry for the lack of targets. The division then supported the push over the Rhine before breaking into Germany and fighting up towards the Netherlands and along the German coast. Two Victoria Crosses were awarded to the division for the fighting during this period; neither recipient survived the war.

After the German surrender the Guards were mostly involved in mopping up operations and occupation duties. A small detachment was used to test the new Centurion universal tank, six of which had arrived in Germany, too late to be used in the conflict. Eventually the division was selected for conversion back to infantry, and held a "goodbye to armour" parade on 9 June; Field-Marshal Montgomery took the final salute.

Order of battle[edit]

Although its paper organization remained one armoured brigade and one mechanized infantry brigade, after Normandy the division generally fought as four combined-arms battlegroups, two under each brigade headquarters.

A Loyd Carrier of the anti-tank platoon of 3rd Battalion, Irish Guards explodes during 30 Corps advance up the Eindhoven road at the start of Operation 'Market-Garden'. 17 September 1944
Sherman tanks of the Irish Guards Group advance past others which were knocked out earlier during Operation 'Market-Garden'. 17 September 1944
A Sherman Firefly tank of the Irish Guards Group advances past Sherman tanks knocked out earlier during Operation 'Market-Garden'. 17 September 1944
Sherman tank of the 1st Coldstream Guards, fitted with 60lb aircraft rockets on the turret sides, crossing a pontoon bridge over the Dortmund-Ems Canal, 6 April 1945.

Division Headquarters & Staff
General Staff Officer 1st grade (GSO1)

Lt.Col. D.S. Schreiber (01.07.1942 - 05.06.1944)
Lt.Col. P.R.C. Hobart (06.06.1944 - 02.09.1944)
Lt.Col. J.D. Hornung (03.09.1944 - 05.05.1945)

5th Guards Armoured Brigade

32nd Guards Brigade

Component units[edit]

Artillery[edit]

Engineers[edit]

  • 14th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers 04/08/41-11/06/45
  • 15th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers 01/08/45-22/02/43
  • 615th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers 01/03/43-11/06/43
  • 148th Field Park Squadron, Royal Engineers 04/08/41-11/06/45
  • 11th Bridging Troop, Royal Engineers 01/10/43-11/06/45

Signals[edit]

Recce / Scouting forces[edit]

Divisional infantry[edit]

Brigades[edit]

Higher formations served under[edit]

General Officer Commanding[edit]

The Guards Armoured Division only had three General Officer Commanding, during its existence:

Appointed General Officer Commanding
17 June 1941 Major-General Sir Oliver Leese, 3rd Baronet[1]
12 September 1942 Major-General Allan Adair[nb 3]
December 1945 Major-General John Marriott[9]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

Footnotes
  1. ^ 63 light tanks, 205 medium tanks, 24 close support tanks, 25 anti-aircraft tanks, and 8 artillery observation tanks.[3]
  2. ^ These two figures are the war establishment, the on-paper strength, of the division for 1944/1945; for information on how the division size changed over the war please see British Army during the Second World War and British Armoured formations of the Second World War.
  3. ^ Adair initially took over as the acting General Officer Commanding on 12 September 1942 and officially took command on 21 September. On 12 June when the division was reorganised as an infantry division, Adair remained as the General Officer Commanding.[8]
Citations
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Joslen, p. 11
  2. ^ Joslen, p. 129
  3. ^ Joslen, p. 9
  4. ^ a b c d Joslen, p. 12
  5. ^ Osprey Elite Series 61 - The Guards Divisions 1914-45, Mike Chappell
  6. ^ Osprey Vanguard 9 - British Guards Armoured Division 1941-45, John Sandars
  7. ^ Osprey Men-at-Arms - The Grenadier Guards, General Sir David Fraser
  8. ^ Joslen, pp. 11 and 34
  9. ^ Army Commands

References[edit]

  • Boscawen, Robert. Armoured Guardsmen: A War Diary, June 1944-April 1945. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword, 2001.
  • Joslen, Lt-Col H.F. (2003) [1st. pub. HMSO:1960]. Orders of Battle: Second World War, 1939–1945. Uckfield: Naval and Military Press. ISBN 9781843424741. OCLC 65152579. 
  • Sanders, J, British Guards Armoured Division 1941-1945, Osprey Vanguard, 1979