53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division
53rd (Welsh) Division
53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division
Formation patch of the 53rd (Welsh) Division, World War II.
Robert Knox Ross
The 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division was an infantry division of the British Army that fought in both World War I and World War II. Originally raised in 1908 as the Welsh Division, part of the Territorial Force (TF), the division saw service in World War I, being designated 53rd (Welsh) Division in mid-1915, and fought in the Gallipoli Campaign and in the Middle East. Remaining active in the Territorial Army (TA) during the interwar period as a peace-time formation, the division again saw action in World War II, fighting in North-western Europe from June 1944 until May 1945.
The 53rd Division was temporarily disbanded at the end of the war, but was reactivated in 1947 when the Territorial Army was reformed and reorganised. In 1968 the division was finally deactivated, but its 160th Brigade remains in service today. As the name suggests, the division recruited mainly in Wales, but also in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire.
The division was raised in 1908 as part of the Territorial Force originally as the Welsh Division and had under command the North Wales Brigade, the Cheshire Brigade and the Welsh Border Brigade, together with support units of the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Royal Army Service Corps and Royal Army Medical Corps. The South Wales Brigade was also attached.
First World War
The Welsh Division was mobilised upon Britain's entrance into the First World War in early August 1914.
In 1915, the Welsh Division was numbered as the 53rd (Welsh) Division and the brigades became, respectively, the 158th (North Wales) Brigade the 159th (Cheshire) Brigade and the 160th (Welsh Border) Brigade.
The division sailed from Devonport, bound for Gallipoli via Imbros (now Gökçeada) on 19 July 1915 and landed at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 9 August 1915. The division was evacuated from Gallipoli during December 1915 and moved to Egypt. The evacuation was forced by a combination of combat, disease and harsh weather which saw the division reduced to just 162 officers and 2,428 men, approximately 15% of full strength.
On 26 March 1917, the 53rd (Welsh) Division bore the brunt of the First Battle of Gaza where the three brigades, along with the 161st (Essex) Brigade of the 54th (East Anglian) Division, had to advance across exposed ground, withstanding shrapnel, machine gun and rifle fire, to capture the Turkish fortifications. Despite gaining the advantage towards the end of the day, the British commander called off the attack so that the division's casualties, close to 3,500, were suffered in vain.
Other division actions included the Battle of Romani in August 1916, the Battle of El Buggar Ridge in October 1917 and the Action of Tell 'Asur in March 1918, where it fought off several counter-attacks by the Ottoman forces.
Order of battle
- 1/4th (Denbighshire) Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers (left on 6 November 1914 for 1st Division on the Western Front)
- 1/5th (Flintshire) Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers (until 2 August 1918)[a]
- 1/6th (Carnarvonshire and Anglesey) Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers (until 2 August 1918)[a]
- 1/7th (Merioneth and Montgomery) Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers (left 24 June 1918 for 160th Brigade)
- 1/1st Battalion, Herefordshire Regiment (joined on 24 April 1915 from 160th Brigade, left 1 June 1918 for 34th Division on the Western Front)
- 5th/6th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers (from 3 August 1918)[a]
- 158th Machine Gun Company, Machine Gun Corps (formed 26 April 1916, moved to 53rd Battalion, Machine Gun Corps 25 April 1918)
- 158th Trench Mortar Battery (formed 22 July 1917)
- 4th Battalion, 11th Gurkha Rifles (newly formed on 25 April 1918 and joined on 4 June 1918)
- 3rd Battalion, 153rd Rifles (newly formed on 25 April 1918 and joined on 10 June 1918)
- 3rd Battalion, 154th Infantry (joined from Mesopotamia on 3 August 1918)
- 1/4th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment (left 31 May 1918)
- 1/5th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment (left November 1914)
- 1/6th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment (left February 1915)
- 1/7th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment (left 1 June 1918)
- 2/6th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment (from November 1914 to April 1915)
- 2/5th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment (from February 1915 to April 1915)
- 1/4th Battalion, Welsh Regiment (from 17 April 1915)
- 1/5th Battalion, Welsh Regiment (from 17 April 1915, between 8 October 1915 and 20 February 1916 merged with 1/4th Battalion, fully amalgamated 30 July 1918)
- 159th Machine Gun Company, Machine Gun Corps (formed 20 April 1916, moved to 53rd Battalion, Machine Gun Corps 25 April 1918)
- 159th Trench Mortar Battery (formed 28 June 1917)
- 3rd Battalion, 152nd Punjabis (from 4 June 1918)
- 2nd Battalion, 153rd Punjabis (from 5 June 1918)
- 1st Battalion, 153rd Punjabis (from 2 August 1918)
- 1/1st Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment (left February 1915)
- 1/2nd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment (left November 1914)
- 1/3rd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment (left February 1915)
- 1/1st Battalion, Herefordshire Regiment (to 24 April 1915)
- 2/4th Battalion, Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment) (from 24 April 1915, left 31 May 1918)
- 1/4th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment (from 24 April 1915, left 30 May 1918)
- 2/4th Battalion, Queen's Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) (from 24 April 1915, left 25 August 1918)
- 2/10th Battalion, Duke of Cambridge's Own (Middlesex Regiment) (from 24 April 1915, left 19 August 1918)
- 1/7th (Merioneth and Montgomery) Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers (joined on 24 June 1918 from 158th (North Wales) Brigade)
- 160th Machine Gun Company, Machine Gun Corps (formed 11 May 1916, moved to 53rd Battalion, Machine Gun Corps 25 April 1918)
- 160th Trench Mortar Battery (formed 26 June 1917)
- 21st Punjabis (from 26 May 1918)
- 110th Mahratta Light Infantry (joined from Karachi on 28 June 1918, left for 20th Indian Brigade on 19 July)
- 1st Battalion, Cape Corps (South African, joined 22 July 1918)
- 17th Infantry (The Loyal Regiment) (from 6 August 1918)
- 1st Battalion, 155th Pioneers (from 12 August 1918)
Between the wars
The division was disbanded after the war, along with the rest of the Territorial Force which was reformed in the 1920s as the Territorial Army, and created on a similar basis to the Territorial Force and the 53rd Division was reformed. The division saw a great change in its units between the wars.
Second World War
The Territorial Army and the 53rd (Welsh) Division, commanded by Major General Bevil Wilson serving under Western Command, was mobilised on 1 September 1939, the day the German Army invaded Poland, and two days later the Second World War officially began. The early days of the war for the 53rd Division were spent in training the divisions' 2nd Line duplicate, the 38th (Welsh) Infantry Division, created earlier in the year, and containing many former members and much equipment, of the 53rd Division. In October, just over a month after the war began, most of the 53rd Division was sent to Northern Ireland, coming under command of British Troops Northern Ireland.
After the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fighting in France and Belgium was evacuated from Dunkirk in mid-1940, the threat grew of a possible German invasion of Northern Ireland and so the 61st Infantry Division arrived to help defend it, with the 53rd Division charged with responsibility for the southern half of Ulster and the 61st Division the northern. They were both grouped together under command of III Corps. In March 1941, the garrison was reinforced with the 5th Infantry Division, a Regular Army formation that had fought in France in 1940. The 53rd Division took part in many numerous exercises, training by battalion, brigade, division or corps level. "It was a very different 53rd Division which returned to near its own countryside in November 1941, from the comparatively untrained one which had moved to Ireland in driblets between October 1939 and April 1940." The 53rd Division, now commanded by Major General Gerard Bucknall, returned to the Welsh Border counties again in November 1941, with the divisional HQ based in Whitchurch, Shropshire.
The division was again serving under Western Command. In April 1942 the division was sent to defend Kent in South-Eastern Command, under Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, between 1942–1943, joining XII Corps in an anti-invasion role, serving alongside both the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division and 46th Infantry Division. The 53rd Division was later earmarked to form part of the British Second Army for the upcoming invasion of Europe.
In September 1942, the division received a new GOC (General Officer Commanding), Major General Robert Knox "Bobby" Ross, an officer of the Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey) who arrived to replace Major-General Gerard Bucknall. Like most senior British commanders of the Second World War, he was a veteran of the Great War, where he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross. Before promotion to command of the 53rd, he had commanded the 160th Infantry Brigade and, before that, the 2nd Battalion, Queen's Royal Regiment in Palestine. He would command the 53rd (Welsh) Division for almost three years until August 1945, training the division to a very high standard in England and Kent and leading them throughout the campaign in North-west Europe.
On 17 May 1942 the 53rd (Welsh) Division was reorganised, its 159th Infantry Brigade detaching to help form the 11th Armoured Division ("The Black Bull"), with the 31st Tank Brigade taking its place as part of an experiment with 'New Model Divisions' (or 'Mixed Divisions') of one tank brigade and two infantry brigades. However, the experiment was abandoned in late 1943 (being judged as unsuitable for the terrain in North-western Europe) and the 31st Tank Brigade was replaced by the 71st Infantry Brigade (containing the 1st East Lancashire Regiment, 1st Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and 1st Highland Light Infantry, nicknamed the 'Foreign' or 'International' brigade), from the disbanded 42nd Armoured Division, in October. The division spent the remaining period in the build-up to the invasion of Normandy in intensive training.
After several years of training, the 53rd (Welsh) Division landed in Normandy on 28 June 1944, the second last British infantry division to land, and was placed under command of XII Corps, now defending the Odon Valley position. The division was involved in heavy fighting in this area, with the 158th Brigade detached to fight with the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division in the Second Battle of the Odon (Operation Greenline) in the days leading up to Operation Goodwood in mid-July. In August it began to push out of the Odon region and crossed the river Orne, helping to close the Falaise Pocket. It was during this fighting that Acting Captain Tasker Watkins, Officer Commanding (OC) B Company of the 1/5th Battalion, Welch Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first and only to be awarded to the regiment and division during the war, as well as the only Welshman of the British Army during the Second World War to be awarded the VC.
On 2 August, the GOC, Major-General Ross, decided that, due to the casualties suffered by the division in Normandy and an acute lack of infantry replacements, the battalions of 158th Brigade (consisting of the 4th, 6th and 7th Battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers) were replaced and sent to other brigades of the division, the 4th RWF transferring to 71 Brigade and 6th RWF to 160 Brigade while the 7th RWF remained in 158 Brigade. "It was found that with three Battalions of one Regiment in the same Brigade – as in the case of the 158th Brigade with its three Battalions of Royal Welch Fusiliers – difficulties were experienced in providing reinforcements in the event of heavy casualties. This was particularly so with Officer reinforcements." (Curiously though, this did occur with the 131st (Queen's) Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division). By 31 August 1944 the 53rd (Welsh) Division had suffered heavy casualties; in just over two months of fighting 52 officers and 533 other ranks were killed in action with a further 145 officers wounded and 18 missing and 2,711 other ranks wounded and 360 missing in action, for a total of 3,819 casualties. However, the division had managed to capture over 3,800 prisoners of war (POWs).
The division took part in the Swan (swift advance) through Northern France into Belgium where heavy fighting took place to secure an important bridgehead by crossing the Junction Canal near Lommel. The 53rd Division then fought hard to expand the salient south of Eindhoven in conjunction with the Market Garden offensive, which ended in disaster due to events at the Battle of Arnhem in late September, where the British 1st Airborne Division was virtually destroyed in severe fighting. Advancing into the Netherlands, 53rd (Welsh) Division liberated the city of 's-Hertogenbosch in four days of heavy fighting from 24 October.
In December 1944, attached now to XXX Corps, it was one of the British divisions that took part in the mainly American Battle of the Bulge, helping to cut off the northern tip of the German salient. After the battle the division, for the next few weeks, began absorbing large numbers of replacements and training the newcomers. Still with XXX Corps, which was attached to the Canadian First Army, it was later sent north in front of the Siegfried Line to take part in Operation Veritable (also known as the Battle of the Reichswald Forest) in February 1945 where the division, supported by Churchill tanks of the 34th Armoured Brigade, was involved in some of the fiercest fighting of the campaign thus far, against determined German paratroopers and fighting in terrain similar to that found at Passchendaele 27 years before, but with the addition of the cold of "winter rain, mud and flooding", where the mud was knee-deep. The Commanding Officer (CO) of the 1st Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment described the fighting in the forest as a "terribly wearing business for the men. Psychologically and mentally. It was nearly all bayonet, Sten and grenade fighting. The Bosch reserves fought very well, stubborn and had to be dug out with the bayonet." Throughout Veritable the 53rd Division suffered almost 2,500 casualties (including psychiatric casualties), roughly a quarter of what they suffered throughout the entire campaign. However, they captured over 3,000 prisoners.
The division, now under command of XII Corps, under Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie, later crossing the Rhine and advancing into Germany, where they ended the war. Throughout its 10 months of almost continuous combat, the 53rd (Welsh) Division had suffered nearly 10,000 casualties: 113 officers and 1,396 other ranks killed, 387 officers and 7,221 other ranks wounded and 33 officers and 1,255 other ranks missing. However, of these declared missing, 3 officers and 553 other ranks rejoined their units, bringing the total casualties for the division to 9,849 killed, wounded or missing. As with most divisions, the majority of these casualties were sustained by the average "Tommy" in the infantry–nicknamed the PBI or "Poor Bloody Infantry"–who had sustained more than 80% of the total losses. However, the division, throughout the entire campaign, had, according to Major-General Ross, "captured some 35,000 prisoners of war and probably accounted for the same amount in dead and wounded."
Order of battle
The 53rd Infantry Division was constituted as follows during the Second World War:
- 4th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers (left 3 August 1944)
- 6th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers (left 3 August 1944)
- 7th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers (left 27 April 1945, rejoined 14 June 1945)
- 158th Infantry Brigade Anti-Tank Company (formed 3 July 1940, disbanded 16 February 1941)
- 1/5th Battalion, Welch Regiment (from 4 August 1944)
- 1st Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment (from 4 August 1944)
- 2nd Battalion, South Wales Borderers (from 26 April 1945)
- 4th Battalion, King's Shropshire Light Infantry
- 3rd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment
- 1st Battalion, Herefordshire Regiment
- 159th Infantry Brigade Anti-Tank Company (formed 29 June 1940, disbanded 15 February 1941)
- 4th Battalion, Welch Regiment
- 1/5th Battalion, Welch Regiment (left 3 August 1944)
- 2nd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment
- 160th Infantry Brigade Anti-Tank Company (formed 1 July 1940, disbanded 15 February 1941)
- 6th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers (from 4 August 1944)
- 1st Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment (left 3 August 1944)
- 1st Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
- 1st Battalion, Highland Light Infantry (left 17 August 1945)
- 4th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers (from 4 August 1944)
- 1st Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment (from 17 August 1945)
- Shropshire Yeomanry (Divisional Cavalry Regiment, left February 1940)
- 5th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment (joined as Machine Gun Battalion, from 11 November 1941, left 1 October 1942)
- 1st Battalion, Manchester Regiment (joined as Support Battalion from 1 October 1943, became Machine Gun Battalion from 27 February 1944)
- 53rd Battalion, Reconnaissance Corps (formed 1 January 1941, became 53rd Regiment, Recce Corps 6 June 1942, became 53rd Recce Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps 1 January 1944)
- 81st (Welsh) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
- 83rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
- 133rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
- 71st (Royal Welch Fusiliers) Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery (from 31 October 1940, left 11 April 1941, rejoined 20 June 1941)
- 63rd (Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars) Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery (from 12 April, left 20 June 1941)
- 116th (Royal Welch Fusiliers) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery (from 3 April 1942, disbanded 2 December 1944)
- 25th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery (from 1 December 1944)
- 244th (Welsh) Field Company, Royal Engineers
- 245th (Welsh) Field Company, Royal Engineers (left 8 October 1939)
- 282nd Field Company, Royal Engineers
- 555th Field Company, Royal Engineers (from 30 December 1939)
- 285th Field Park Company, Royal Engineers
- 22nd Bridging Platoon, Royal Engineers (from 1 October 1943)
- 53rd (Welsh) Divisional Signals Regiment, Royal Corps of Signals
The division ended the war in 1945 in Hamburg. It served later as a peacekeeping force in the Rhineland, then disbanded to reform the 2nd Infantry Division in Germany in early 1947. It was reactivated later that year, serving as part of the peacetime TA. The 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division was finally disbanded in 1968.
There remain a few remnants of the division in the TA. The 160th Brigade is the regional brigade responsible for the administration of all TA units in Wales, while 53 (Welsh) Signal Squadron are the descendant formation of 53rd (Welsh) Divisional Signal Regiment, and continues to serve in a very similar capacity, providing communications support to the 160th Brigade.
- First World War
- Battle of Gallipoli
- First Battle of Gaza
- Battle of Beersheba (1917)
- Battle of Mughar Ridge
- Battle of Jerusalem (1917)
- Battle of Megiddo (1918)
- Second World War
- Battle of Normandy
- Battle of Falaise
- Battle of the Bulge
- Battle of the Reichswald
- Crossing of the Rhine
- Brigadier-General Augustus W. Hill: April 1908-January 1909
- Major-General Francis Lloyd: January 1909-September 1913
- Major-General the Hon. John E. Lindley: October 1913-August 1915
- Major-General William R. Marshall: August–December 1915
- Major-General Alister G. Dallas: January 1916-April 1917
- Major-General Stanley F. Mott: April 1917-July 1919
- Major-General Cyril J. Deverell: July 1919 – 1921
- Major-General Sir Archibald A. Montgomery: March 1922-June 1923
- Major-General Sir Thomas O. Marden: June 1923-June 1927
- Major-General Thomas Astley Cubitt: June 1927-October 1928
- Major-General Charles P. Deedes: October 1928-June 1930
- Major-General Charles J.C. Grant: June 1930-December 1932
- Major-General James K. Dick-Cunyngham: December 1932-June 1935
- Major-General Gervase Thorpe: June 1935-June 1939
- Major-General Bevil T. Wilson: June 1939-July 1941
- Major-General Gerard C. Bucknall: July 1941-September 1942
- Major-General Robert K. Ross: September 1942-August 1945
- Major-General George W. Richards: 1945-1946
- Major-General Philip M. Balfour: 1946-February 1947
- Major-General Christopher G. Woolner: January–August 1947
- Major-General George N. Wood: August 1947-March 1950
- Major-General Ernest E. Down: March 1950-October 1952
- Major-General Edric M. Bastyan: October 1952-March 1955
- Major-General William R. Cox: March 1955-January 1958
- Major-General Lewis O. Pugh: January 1958-February 1961
Victoria Cross recipients
- List of British divisions in World War I
- List of British divisions in World War II
- British Army Order of Battle (September 1939)
- Baker, Chris. "The Royal Welsh Fusiliers". The Long, Long Trail. Retrieved 23 April 2015.
- "Royal Welsh Fusiliers". Forces War Records. Retrieved 23 April 2015.
- Baker, Chris. "The 53rd (Welsh) Division in 1914-1918". The Long, Long Trail. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
- James 1978, p. 67
- James 1978, p. 117
- Becke 1936, p. 121
- "53 (Welsh) Division (1930-38)" (PDF). British Military History. 20 March 2016.
- Joslen, p. 87
- Barclay, p. 26.
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- Delaforce, p. 13.
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- Joslen, p. 87
- Barclay, p. 47.
- Barclay, p. 52.
- Delaforce, p. 23.
- Joslen, p. 302.
- Barclay, p. 60.
- Barclay, pps. 66-67.
- Barclay, p. 66-67.
- Delaforce, p. 85.
- Barclay, p. 69.
- Joslen, p. 87.
- Delaforce, p. 151.
- Barclay, p. 125.
- Delaforce, p. 160.
- Delaforce, p. 162.
- Barclay, p. 147.
- Delaforce, p. 219.
- Barclay, p. 178.
- Joslen, pp. 87-88.
- Joslen, p. 346.
- Joslen, p. 347.
- Joslen, p. 348.
- Joslen, p. 204.
- Barclay, p. 199.
- Barclay, C. N. (1956). The History of the 53rd (Welsh) Division in the Second World War. London: Wm. Clowes & Sons. OCLC 36762829.
- Becke, Major A.F. (1936). Order of Battle of Divisions Part 2A. The Territorial Force Mounted Divisions and the 1st-Line Territorial Force Divisions (42–56). London: His Majesty's Stationery Office. ISBN 1-871167-12-4.
- Delaforce, P. (2015) . Red Crown & Dragon: 53rd Welsh Division in North-West Europe 1944–1945 (Thistle ed.). Brighton: Tom Donovan. ISBN 1-91019-863-3.
- James, Brigadier E. A. (1978). British Regiments 1914–18. London: Samson Books Limited. ISBN 0-906304-03-2.
- Joslen, Lt-Col. H. F. (2003). Orders of Battle, United Kingdom and Colonial Formations and Units in the Second World War, 1939–1945. Uckfield: Naval & Military. ISBN 1-84342-474-6.
- Westlake, Ray (1996). British Regiments at Gallipoli. Barnsley: Leo Cooper. ISBN 0-85052-511-X.
- History of the 53rd (Welsh) division on memorial-montormel.org
- Baker, Chris. "The 53rd (Welsh) Division in 1914-1918". The Long, Long Trail. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
- History of 555 Field Company Royal Engineers in WW2