Editorial Note. It was not until 18 September 1945 that the use of the word Battalion in our titles was officially discontinued. Then 4th and 7th Bn RTR became 4 and 7 RTR. However the latter was regularly in use before that date and for editorial simplicity I have anticipated the word of command in this history.
Apart from some cavalry reconnaissance regiments 4 RTR (Fitzmaurice) and 7 RTR (Heyland) were the only British armoured regiments available to face Germany's ten armoured divisions with 2,574 tanks, when on 10 May 1940 they struck Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg.
As the Seventh's main parties were settling in, and before the crews had even had time to practice driving on the right of the road, Germany invaded the Netherlands.
Both regiments were rushed forward to hides in the Brussels Soignie Forest, near Waterloo.
1st Army Tk Bde was ordered to re-deploy South West by train from nearby Halle and Enghien. But there were no flatbed trains available and Enghien had been badly disrupted by Stuka attack, so the Brigade was ordered to drive South West on the main road towards Tournai.
The journey quickly turned into a nightmare. JU 87 dive bombers with their terrifying screaming sirens were in constant action so that in every direction smoke arose from burning villages and towns. On 19 May the RTR suffered the first dead of the War when four soldiers of the Fourth died in a Stuka attack at Cysoing, just inside France.
Vast crowds of refugees on foot, in cars and on farm carts choked the cambered and cobbled roads which played havoc with the Matilda Mk I's flimsy tracks. Overhead ME 109 strafed troops and refugees alike, deliberately generating chaos.
Twice the column was turned back on some false alarm. So meagre was the information from the French high command that on 17 May the fourth's Recce Troop of four light tanks was dispatched daily at 0400 hrs till dusk with orders to range eastwards to find the French rearguard or the head of the German advance, the Recce Officer (2/Lt Vaux) was ordered to be in direct contact with Bde HQ on one of his powerful HF No 9 Sets.
Panzer Corps Guderian now did what the British tank visionaries had been preaching. With well-rehearsed control and administrative support they broke through and then broke out. Fourteen days after crossing the start line the Southern thrust came close to Calais. But before they reached Calais and Dunkirk Hitler, at 11.30 am on 24 May, imposed a stop order on all Panzer Divisions, thus permitting the great allied escape. We are about to see why.
On the afternoon of 20 May 4 RTR Recce Troop, on a ridge near St Amand, made visual contact with an advancing German armoured column, probably the advance guard of 5 Pz Div. On exchanging fire the German advance guard deployed. Pausing only to send a morse contact report, 4 RTR Recce Troop withdrew in search of the Regiment.
2 Lt Vaux found RHQ 4 RTR late on 20 May at Petit Vimy. Lt Col Fitzmaurice knew by this time that hundreds of enemy tanks were approaching Arras. "I shall have work for you tomorrow, so get some food and into that bed at once." Knowing that there was only one bed Vaux protested that the CO should have it, but he replied "You are worn out; do what you are told". The CO then got blankets and went to sleep on the floor; it was to be his last night alive.
The small but costly counter stroke that was about to be mounted at Arras by a scratch force under Maj Gen Franklin led by 4 RTR and 7 RTR against three German divisions including Rommel's 7 Pz Div, would trap the nerve of the German High Command at a critical moment in history.
The scratch British "Frank Force" was ordered to attack around the West of Arras with a start time of 0500 hrs 21 May. The objective was to cut the German columns and exploit to the East. 4 RTR was to be on the left with 6 DLI; 7 RTR on the right with 8 DLI plus supporting arms. 4 RTR had thirty five fit Mk 1 Matildas.. 7 RTR had twenty three Mk I and sixteen Mk II Matildas. Six of the latter, under Maj Hedderwick were lent to 4 RTR. By 0500 hrs it was clear that the Force was not ready. Some of the tanks were still arriving; the DLI having lost their transport to air attack were still marching towards Arras; some French tanks made a brief appearance but withdrew; no artillery support was forthcoming.
There were very few maps; some tanks lost direction during the approach and there were some collisions between columns. Wireless silence imposed on the Brigade made the confusion worse. Only the four Recce Tp sets were already netted. The 4 RTR Recce Officer (Lt Vaux) lost one of his four light tanks to the CO, a second to the Adjutant and the third was detached to liaison. In the event the 6th and 8th DLI arrived late and exhausted.
There was no air support. The German Fiesler Storch OP planes were flying overhead with impunity but fortunately they were unable to communicate directly with their ground forces.
After many changes of H Hour it was settled that the Start Line would be the Arras-Doullens railway, to be crossed by the tanks at 1400 hrs and by the infantry, if they could make it, by 1430. Wireless silence was not to be lifted until sets were netted on the Start Line; any tactical benefit this might have yielded was to be far outweighed by the consequences.
4 RTR reaching the Start Line on time were shelled. They crossed the railway line two squadrons abreast and, climbing a slight crest, struck the flank of SS Totenkopf Div followed by 6 Rifle Regt of 7 Pz Div. Without wireless communication squadron control was very difficult; tank commanders fought almost independently. The fourth achieved significant kills as they drove through the enemy towards Telegraph Hill. WO III Armit destroyed a number of A Tk guns with his .50 HMG.
7 RTR were late on the Start Line but had better communications, and made good progress Eastwards. Major King and Sergeant Boyle,(later awarded a DCM) in their Matilda Mk IIs, found and destroyed a battery of A Tk guns and stalked and destroyed an 88 mm gun. Casualties were heavy and by 1600 hrs the COs of both Regiments were among the dead. The body of Lt Col J.G. FITZMAURICE, MC. (CO 4 RTR) was eventually interred in Dunkirk Town Cemetery. The grave of Lt Col H.M. HEYLAND, DSO (CO 7 RTR) is uncertain. It is known that he was killed at Belloy Farm, near Wailly and among those buried in Wailly Communal Cemetery is "an officer known to God." who could not be positively identified. The DLI arrived at 1630; despite their fatigue both battalions fought bravely and effectively.
Maj Gen Rommel, GOC 7 Pz Div, was appalled at the poor showing of the SS. His Pz Regt and its artillery were well ahead in Wailly and were being attacked by tanks of 7 RTR. Lt Tom Craig (a future CO of 4 RTR) had actually entered Wailly in his Matilda Mk II and was creating havoc including destroying a command armoured car. But eventually he, too, was brewed up.
Gen Rommel and his ADC, Lt Most, gripped the battery of anti-tank guns and, indicating targets personally, they brought the 7 RTR threat to a smoking halt. It had been a very close thing and Lt Most was killed in the process. He was buried with the Seventh crews in the Wailly Cemetery.
Meanwhile the Fourth, reaching the valley below Telegraph Hill, came under sustained 105mm fire. Major Hedderwick was killed in his Matilda Mk II on the same spot where he had fought in April 1917. Lt Peter Vaux, finding that he could not raise the CO (who, it will be remembered, was in one of his Recce Tp tanks), was called down into the valley by the Adjutant. He found the CO and twenty other 4 RTR crews dead in their knocked-out tanks. His moving account of this moment in the battle is attached as Annex A to this history. Having helped the Adjutant (Capt Cracroft) to destroy some of the German A Tk guns and infantry hiding in the forward edge of the wood, they withdrew under heavy fire.
At dusk "Frank Force" withdrew to rally at Achicourt with the now very depleted infantry battalions. They were subjected to dive bombing and attack by tanks from 5 Pz Div which they successfully drove off. The Seventh War Diary records that by this stage they had four officers killed, four wounded and three missing, and twenty five other ranks killed, ten wounded and sixteen missing. "Frank Force" had achieved the aim but at a heavy cost.
Lt Vaux and his driver, Cpl Burroughs, with Major Fernie on board, became separated from the remnant of the Fourth and survived a series of hair-raising escapes. Surrounded by German units, and with no ammunition or fuel left, they destroyed their tank to prevent capture and set out to escape. Eventually, having killed a German officer in a face to face shoot-out, and having swum across a river during which Cpl Burroughs was drowned, Lt Vaux reached a French unit and was evacuated.
In this baptism of fire the Fourth and Seventh crews had proved themselves more than a match for the enemy, but attrition had reduced the two Regiments effectively to one squadron. Rommel, well forward, was convinced then and thereafter that the British force was much larger than in fact it had been. The Arras counter attack had consequences far beyond and above the units involved.
Field Marshal von Rundstedt Commander in Chief of the Army Group said of the attack
"A critical moment in the drive came just as my forces had reached the channel. It was caused by a British counter-stroke southwards from Arras on May 21. For a short time it was feared that the panzer divisions would be cut off before the infantry divisions could come up to support them. None of the French counter attacks carried any serious threat such as this one did."
On 22 May, the day after the counter attack, 7 RTR mounted a successful counter-attack at Souchez, seven miles North of Arras, before withdrawing, severely bloodied to Carvin where a composite force was formed from the remaining serviceable tanks of both regiments.
The severely mauled remnants of the Fourth, less the crews of the battle-worthy tanks, crossed the Channel on 27 May in the "Mona's Isle", an Isle of Man Ferry. Shelled from the shore and dive bombed, RSM Sinclair (featured in slide 8 of Chapter 2)was among the 23 killed. Most of the dead were buried near Dover.
Meanwhile Major George Parkes, 7 RTR, who had been awarded an immediate DSO for his conduct at Arras, took command of the remaining serviceable tanks from both regiments and fought a series of delaying actions including a successful counter-attack at La Bassee. What was left of the composite regiment eventually reached Dunkirk in the closing stages of the evacuation with only two operational tanks, and many troops unaccounted for.
Liddell Hart comments: "It may well be asked whether two battalions have ever had such a tremendous effect on history as 4 RTR and 7 RTR achieved by their action at Arras. Their effect in saving the British Army from being cut off from its escape port provides ample justification for the view that if two well equipped armoured divisions had been available the Battle of France might also have been saved."
Both Regiments were immediately reconstituted as Matilda II regiments.
The 7th sailed from Liverpool on 21 August 1940 for Egypt, their new Matilda Mk 2s sailing at the same time in a fast merchant ship. The small convoy, escorted from Cape Town by the appropriately named Australian cruiser "Hobart", arrived at Port Said on 24 September.
The Regiment was moved forward under great secrecy to Bagush where all tanks were concealed in "Bedouin tents" by day; movement was allowed only at night, and traces of movement were erased before dawn. The Mk 2 Matilda was ideally suited to the moment, being superior to the Italian Fiat tanks in terms of protection, firepower and mobility. Moreover they were almost impervious to the Italian anti- tank guns.
Colonel Jerram DSO MC had shown himself to be a gifted and demanding sub unit tank commander in 1918 and a keen student of the lessons learned from the Blitzkreig. He placed special emphasis upon the break-in, shock action and an absolute insistence upon a prompt rally after the attack.
All these operating procedures were soon to be put to the test when the Western Desert Force under Lt Gen Richard O'Connor moved against the large Italian Army advancing across the Libyan border into Egypt.
In November 1940 General O'Connor ran a major exercise to prepare the Western Desert Force (WDF) for the forthcoming battle against the much stronger Italian force. It involved a forty mile approach march and then a series of attacks against dummy strong points. As a result of lessons learned 7 RTR was to play a central role in the actual attack. This began on 5 December with the WDF making a long approach march towards Sidi Barrani. The WDF was in position after dark on 8 December, a diversionary attack concealing the noise of the tracks as 7 RTR moved into final deployment at Alam el Illiqiya.
The start line was secured by 2 Camerons. A Sqn 7 RTR (OC Major Rew MC, a former England Rubgy International) then led in Phase 1, followed by RHQ, B and D Sqn. The Italian tank squadron were ill-prepared and all twenty three of the Fiats were quickly dispatched. Only one Matilda was penetrated on the approach to Nibeiwa when a driver opened his hatch prematurely. A round passed through and shattered the foot and ankle of the operator. Subsequently the pain was so great that the wounded operator tried to shoot himself in the ambulance but he was restrained by two wounded Italians. He survived and, thirty years later attended the inaugural 4th/7th Reunion at Catterick in 1973.
Tackling the main Nibeiwa position 7 RTR came under accurate but largely ineffective artillery fire, some directed by Italian CR 42 AirOP aircraft.
It took A and B Sqn and the Indian infantry until 10.00 to subdue the division sized force in Nibeiwa. The haul included 4,000 Italian prisoners, twenty three tanks and countless guns and equipment. Sadly among the two members of 7 RTR killed was Major Rew who had stood proud of the turret cupola when the fighting was at its hottest.
While the lead elements went beyond Nibeiwa to the Rally where they were refuelled and re-armed, Colonel Jerram with the Commander 5 Inf Bde set off for the next objective, Tummar West. The attack went in at 1300 hrs with D Sqn leading plus 9 tanks from A and B Sqn.
Despite a courageous performance by the Italian artillery Tummar West also fell with 2,000 prisoners against the loss of only four 7 RTR injured crewmen. The Brigade Commander kept all but seven tanks to guard against counter-attack.
These seven tanks rallied North of Tummar West at 1500 and were joined by two repaired tanks from the earlier attacks. Three of these remaining tanks had jammed turrets but Colonel Jerram decided to press on to attack Tummar East. One troop went off course but successfully attacked Tummar Central. In failing light Tummar East fell to the composite half squadron. Many 7 RTR tanks needed urgent repair during the hours of darkness, one of them having thirty eight scars.
On 10 December in support of 16 Inf Bde the remaining eleven 7 RTR tanks, including CO and Adjt, broke through the Italian artillery batteries and reached the sea by 0900, the CO at one stage dismounting to cut telephone wires to a Italian artillery OP which was enabling accurate fire to be brought down on them. But they were not supported and had to withdraw after destroying all seven Italian guns. Sidi Barrani was eventually taken at dusk.
Col Jerram was awarded a bar to his DSO. The citation read.."During the 9th and 10th December 1940 at Nibeiwa, Tummar and near Sidi Barrani the work and leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Jerram was an inspiration to his regiment; to him is due the great part played by the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the operations. His personal initiative near Sidi Barrani on 10th December largely influenced the battle in that locality."
By 27 December 7 RTR had twenty two Matildas. On that day the Regiment closed up to Sollum, three miles East of Bardia and 90 miles West of Sidi Barrani . In support of the leading battalion of 6th Australian Div they broke in and forced the surrender of the Bardia garrison on 4 January. The bag was large – 40,000 prisoners, 127 tanks, 462 guns, and nearly 700 trucks. Those taking part included Capt Farnell Watson and 2/Lt Craig, both future COs 4 RTR.
Major General I G Mackay, the Australian Division Commander, said that each Matilda of the Seventh was worth a whole battalion to him. (It was at this time, and allegedly at the suggestion of the Australians, that the song "Waltzing Matilda" was taken into use as the Seventh's Quick March.)
Maj Gen Beresford-Pierce, GOC 4th Indian Div, wrote in his Order of the Day "7 RTR by their five successful assaults, their high morale, and their unceasing repair have merited the laurel crown."
General O'Connor wrote to Col Jerram, "It has been a wonderful show, and you are more than ever responsible for the success."
On 21 January 1941 the assault on Tobruk was launched. Working with 16 and 19 Aust Inf Bdes the Regiment, now down to eighteen Matildas, made the decisive penetrations.
The Tobruk garrison capitulated at 1700 hrs 22 January. The bag amounted to 25,000 prisoners, 87 tanks and 208 guns. The Seventh had only sixteen battle-worthy Matildas.
Liddell Hart, the military historian wrote
"This crowned the most striking sequence of successes achieved by any regiment in the RTR, or in the RAC, or in the British Army – during the war. Indeed the history of warfare shows no case of a single fighting unit having such a great effect in deciding the issue of battles and of a campaign. The record of 7 RTR in this campaign is peerless – by any measure, and in the strictest sense of the term".
The historian Bryan Perrett wrote of this sequence of operations,
"There has never been a story quite like that of 7 RTR in December 1940 and January 1941 and, since war has changed so much since then, it seems there never will be again."
The historian Bryan Perrett wrote of this sequence of operations,
The Matildas of the Regiment were spread across the scene of operations from Bagush to Mechili. Thirty one were collected up and shipped from Tobruk to Alexandria. The remainder limped back to Mersa Matruh to be sent on rail flats to Egypt for refit. Most of the Matildas had covered more than 1,200 track miles.
The C-in-C congratulates Colonel Jerram,CO 7 RTR, on the Regiment's "noble" showing in the battle.
On 28 February the following immediate awards to members of the Seventh were announced:
Meantime 4 RTR had been stationed at East Grinstead. In October 1940 B Squadron (Major I T Clement) was ordered to move at short notice to Eritrea. Sixteen Matilda Mk 2 were shipped to Port Sudan. On arrival it was discovered that the sixteen tons of spares were for Light Tanks Mk VI and were thus useless. The Squadron was moved South to Kassala on rail flats and then set off Eastwards by road.
8 Tp B Sqn 4 RTR (2/Lt J G McGeoch) led the road march, some 130 miles, to Agordat which they reached on 30 January 1941. Immediately they knocked out thirteen Italian tanks. Tpr Baker,One of the gunners, said "I saw one shot go right through three Italian tanks. Their armour was like tin."
The mechanical problems were immense. Capt Cunnington (the OME), got permission to cannibalise one of the Matildas to provide parts for the others. The main problem was the big brake-bands for the Rackham steering gear. These were replaced in some cases by goatskins and transmission belts looted from an Italian factory.
Despite repeated mechanical problems the remainder of the Squadron also moved from Kassala to Agordat where 9 and 10 Tp completed the rout of the Italian tanks. The approach to Keren was hopeless tank country. Lt Glover, a troop leader, recounted that "the battle itself was an absolute infanteer's triumph, but the Divisional Commanders were using Matildas as armoured jeeps..."
"They were used for every conceivable task for which they were not intended. They were sent up and down the valleys, halfway up mountains, they were used for carrying dynamite and artillery ammunition; they were even used to make the Italian gunners disclose their positions. The mileage covered during the many weeks before the Keren battle was quite amazing and without doubt the heroes were the fitters, the LAD and echelon vehicles and the drivers."
It wasn't until 15 March that Keren fell. Two weeks later, on 1 April, the Garrison Commander at Asmara surrendered his fort to Sgt Hick's troop, handing over his sword and flag.
Another word from Glover.
"The battle for Massawa was short and sweet with the Matildas marauding over the plains outside the city like giants. The Italians had no answer and on 9 April B Sqn led the Force into Massawa. Without doubt those 12 tanks that started from Kassala must have shortened the campaign by many weeks. Thus the Eritrean campaign was completed.
This campaign by a single squadron was unique in the Royal Armoured Corps; above all it was a triumph for the drivers and the fitters. Capt Cunnington, the OME was made an MBE. Lts McGeoch and Redhead were awarded the MC and McGeoch's Tp Sgt, Appleby gained an MM, being later commissioned. Sadly the OC Major Clement, both Tp Ldrs and Sgt (later Major) Appleby were killed in subsequent North African battles.
The Keren War Cemetery where the dead of 4 RTR are laid.
In Chapter 4 we see both regiments in action in North Africa.