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A Short History of the 8th Armoured Brigade

CHAPTER 1

 

1939 to 1942.

At the outbreak of war the 6th Cavalry Brigade, consisting of the Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire Yeomanry, and under command of Brigadier H.O. Wiley, M. C., formed part of the 1st Cavalry Division. The formation went overseas to Palestine in January of 1940, taking their horses with them. Within six months the horses began to disappear from the Division, but the 6th Cavalry Brigade remained mounted carrying out police duties and quelling the outbreaks of disturbance between Arabs and Jews. The Brigade was commanded by Brigadier J. Crystal up till May 1941 when Brigadier "Rosey" Lloyd took over command.

Early in 1941 elements of the Brigade, mounted now in 15-cwts and a few armoured cars, took part in the Syrian-Iraq-Iran campaign. Their route led them through the waterless desert by way of Habbaniya, Rutba Wells and the world-famed ruins of Palmyra. In far off Teheran they were the first troops to make contact with the Russians.

They returned in July of 1941 to find the Division deprived of its horses and its title changed. The old "First Cav Div" had become the 10th Armoured Division. The 6th Cavalry Brigade were also included in the mechanisation resulting in the birth of the 8th Armoured Brigade. The 168 (City of London) Light Field Ambulance and the 552 Company Royal Army Service Corps, both of whom had sailed from England with the 1st Cavalry Division, were now allotted to the Brigade, the latter being designated 8th Armoured Brigade Company Royal Army Service Corps. 8th Armoured Brigade Workshops also joined at this juncture. In the meantime the Sherwood Rangers who had "been on their feet" for over a year acting as Gunners had been split with one detachment in Crete and another which fought at Benghazi and Tobruk. Under the command of the Australians they defended that port with 4 and 6 inch Naval Guns, one 155 mm Italian piece and anything that they could lay their hands on down to 75mm.

In October 1941 Brigadier E. C. N. Custance came to take command of the Brigade, which now included as Motor Battalion The Household Cavalry Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Ferguson. Armoured training commenced in earnest with a complement of three Honey tanks per Regiment. This continued till the Brigade moved to Khatatba on the edge of the Western Desert some 30 miles North-West of Cairo in February of 1942. The Household Cavalry Regiment remained in Palestine and their place was taken by the 1st Buffs who had been in the Middle East for several years, being commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Sewell Knocker.

M3A1 Light Tank, known as Honey The Spring and early Summer of 1942 were spent in arduous desert training during which time the Brigade was brought practically up to strength in Grant and Honey tanks. Here they were joined by 911 Company Royal Army Service Corps, who never failed to keep the Brigade supplied with petrol throughout the 2,000 miles of Desert which lay ahead. June, however, brought grave disappointment. The Brigade, now in the 8th Army, was assembled for battle outside Mersa Matruh and action seemed imminent, but at the last moment all tanks were removed to other units and the formation was moved back to Tahag Camp, near Ismaihia, leaving The Greys behind. Here they were joined by the 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment under command of Lieutenant-Colonel "Pip" Roberts who was later succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel "Pete" Pyman. The 1st Buffs were now commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Smith-Dorrien.

On August 15th the Brigade, as part of the 10th Armoured Division, moved to Berg al Arab coming under command of 30th Corps. This constituted the first union between the "Pig" and the "Fox", an association destined to a great future.

The Brigade came into action for the first time at the end of the month at Bir Ridge against the right flank of Rommel's abortive attack. The Kent Yeomanry were under command as 25 pounder Gunners for this action. The Light Squadron from each Regiment in the Brigade with a Battery of Guns in support formed a composite force which continued the battle for a week in the area of Himeimat. in mid-September the Brigade moved back to Wadi Natrun for further training and Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Eadie took charge of the Staffordshire Yeomanry from Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon Cox-Cox. During September the 1st Royal Horse Artillery joined the Brigade and remained with the Brigade throughout the Alamein battle which was now being planned.

M3 Grant, 75mm sponson, 37mm turret Following six weeks of intensive training, on the night of 23rd October 1942 the 8th Armoured Brigade, still with the 10th Armoured Division commanded by Major-General Gatehouse, supported the infantry assault in this historic battle. After about four days hard fighting the Brigade was withdrawn and formed up to take part in operation "SUPERCHARGE" which broke through to Tel el Aqqaqir ridge. Here the Sherwood Rangers distinguished themselves by finding a gap in the enemy defences; as a result an attack was made which completely broke through and started the rout of the Afrika Korps, culminating in the capture of Von Thoma. On the next day the Brigade was ordered to find the Southern flank of the enemy. Across country which was at last free from mines and wire, it streamed off into the desert like a convoy at sea. The Coast Road was reached the following day at Galal and the German retreat was cut in two. Here the Brigade destroyed 54 tanks and a large number of enemy guns and transport without loss to themselves and in addition took 1000 prisoners.

On 5th November the Brigade captured the high ground West of the station at Fuka and with it some 700 prisoners. A terrific downpour of rain followed that night and the desert became a quagmire. All formations were held up but the Brigade managed to move up the Coast Road to the defences of Mersa Matruh where they were held up by anti-tank guns. During the night the 1st Buffs forced a way through the minefield and at daylight the Brigade entered Matruh to find it abandoned. Anxious to push on the Brigade formed up with enough petrol to reach the frontier but were ordered to halt while other formations moved past. Here they remained static for 14 days during which time the 10th Armoured Division returned to the Delta taking with them the 1st Royal Horse Artillery. The 8th Armoured Brigade now became "independent" but retained the sign of the Fox's Mask. On 26th November the Brigade was ordered to join the 7th Armoured Division, commanded by Major-General Harding, at Jedabaya. They were joined by the 5th Royal Horse Artillery and moved by bounds to the frontier, El Adem, Msus, and Agedabia eventually relieving the 22nd Armoured Brigade just South of Mersa Brega.

The 15th December saw a stiff engagement in the sand dunes South of El Agheila followed the next day by a further fight West of that place. This battle opened the road past Marble Arch to Nofilia, which was entered without opposition. The Germans had evaded the enveloping operation carried out by the New Zealand Division and the Royal Scots Greys, with a squadron of the Staffordshire Yeomanry on the left.

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