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date: 28 November 2022

Desert ratsfree

(act. 1938–1945)

Desert ratsfree

(act. 1938–1945)
  • Niall Barr

Desert rats (act. 1938–1945), was the nickname given to the personnel of the 7th armoured division, which fought throughout the Second World War in many of the British army's most famous campaigns.

The 7th armoured division had its origins in the mobile force that Britain deployed to watch the Egyptian frontier with the Italian colony of Libya. Major General Percy Hobart took command of the mobile force in 1938 and worked to ensure that the troops were well trained in desert manoeuvres and fighting. After a major row with his superior officers in Cairo, Hobart was replaced by Michael O'Moore Creagh (1892–1970) in December 1939. The mobile force was officially transformed into the 7th armoured division on 16 February 1940. The plain red and white badge of the mobile force was changed into the famous sign after Creagh's wife spent time observing the jerboa, the desert rat, in Cairo zoo. She sketched out a design that was then finalized by Trooper Ken Hill of the 50th Royal Tank regiment. From that time all vehicles of the division were painted with the red desert rat sign and all members of the division proudly wore the desert rat as a shoulder patch.

Over time, the term ‘desert rat’ came to be applied to anyone who served in Britain's desert army and became in the public mind (incorrectly) synonymous with a member of the Eighth Army. Similarly, the members of the 9th Australian division, who defended the port of Tobruk in 1941, were known by their German opponents as the ‘rats of Tobruk’, a name that became a matter of pride for the division. Matters were further confused by the feature film The Desert Rats (1953), starring Richard Burton and Robert Newton, which portrayed Australians under British command in Tobruk. However, the only soldiers who were able to describe themselves as true ‘desert rats’ served with the 7th armoured division.

The 7th armoured division became one of the most travelled and famous of any military formation of the Second World War and many British officers who gained fame during and after the war served in its ranks. In its early days in the desert two individuals stood out: William Henry Ewart (Strafer) Gott, who first commanded 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps in 1939 and rose to command the division in June 1941. After further promotion to corps command he was selected to command the Eighth Army but was killed in an aircraft attacked by German planes in August 1942. The other legendary figure of this time was John Charles (Jock) Campbell. He formed the first famous 'Jock columns' to harass the Italians around Sidi Barrani and later won the Victoria Cross for his outstanding bravery and leadership at Sidi Rezegh during operation Crusader. He was killed in a car accident at Halfaya Pass in February 1942 just two weeks after his promotion to command the division. It was during the fierce desert fighting that the officers and men of the division evolved a distinctive desert dress far removed from the regulation uniform worn in Britain. The informal, even scruffy, attire of corduroy trousers, suede boots, and Paisley scarfs worn by the officers of 7th armoured division became famous in the Two Types cartoons by W. P. J. (Jon) Jones.

Sir Frank Walter Messervy, an officer of the Indian army, commanded the division during the Gazala battles, in which he was captured but managed to escape by posing as a private soldier. He was replaced by James Malcolm Leslie (Callum) Renton (1898–1972) of the rifle brigade in June 1942. Renton commanded the division during the fierce fighting on the Alamein line in July 1942 but fell foul of General Bernard Law Montgomery when the latter arrived to take command of the Eighth Army in August 1942. Renton was replaced by John Harding, who had served in staff since the outbreak of war. Harding commanded the division during the second battle of Alamein but was badly wounded on the approach to Tripoli at Tarhuna on 20 January 1943. Sir George Erskine (1899–1965) commanded the division from Tripoli to Tunis and in the division's brief sojourn in Italy. He prepared the division for its new task in north-west Europe but was sacked by Montgomery after the failure at Villers-Bocage in June 1944. Gerald Lloyd Verney (1900–1957) was appointed by Montgomery on 4 August 1944 and reinstilled confidence and march discipline to the division. Lewis Owen Lyne (1899–1970) took command in November 1944 and took the division on their final advance through Holland and into Germany. The desert rats ended the war with the liberation of Hamburg on 3 May 1945 after one of the most remarkable military journeys in history. The division was rewarded with the honour of taking part in the victory parade held in Berlin on 21 July 1945.

Other soldiers who served in 7th armoured division achieved prominence later in their careers. Michael Carver began his service with the mobile division in 1938 and served in staff appointments throughout the desert war, and later became the youngest brigadier in the army, commanding 4th armoured brigade throughout the north-west Europe campaign. John Mogg served with the 9th battalion, Durham light infantry, in the division from Normandy and beyond. He was later adjutant-general when Carver was chief of the general staff. Sir John Winthrop Hackett served briefly with his regiment, the 8th King's Royal Hussars, in the division and also helped to support the long range desert group and Special Air Service, which achieved fame during the desert war. Service in the division was also responsible for the very rapid rise of George Phillip Bradley (Pip) Roberts, who began the war as a major working on the divisional quartermaster staff, later commanding 3rd Royal Tank regiment and the 22nd armoured brigade during the battle of Gazala. Roberts commanded 7th armoured division for a matter of days when Harding was wounded but later became the youngest divisional commander in the army when selected to command 11th armoured division in 1943. Roberts became 7th armoured division's first and only peacetime commander before the division was disbanded in January 1948. The traditions of the division have been maintained by 7th and 4th armoured brigades down to the present.

Many other individuals who served with the division later achieved prominence in other fields. Ian Bancroft, who later became head of the civil service, served from Normandy until the end of the war. John Guise Cowley, who rose to vice-quartermaster-general during the Suez crisis in 1956, served on the staff of the division. The future parliamentary draftsman Henry Peter Rowe, an Austrian refugee, served in the division in the Pioneer Corps and later became a dispatch rider in north-west Europe. The future university administrator Bill Williams served with the division before becoming Montgomery's intelligence officer.

Winston Churchill recognized the achievements and fame of the division and all who served in it during the war when he spoke at the opening of a soldiers' club in Berlin: 'Dear Desert Rats! May your glory ever shine! May your laurels never fade! May the memory of this glorious pilgrimage of war which you have made from Alamein, via the Baltic to Berlin never die!'