70th Infantry Division (United Kingdom)

70th Infantry Division
British WWII 6th Infantry Division.svg
Mike Chappell comments that "The red four-pointed star chosen as a divisional sign for the 6th (and 70th) was painted on vehicles, etc., but was probably never worn" on the uniform of the soldiers.[1]
Active10 October 1941 – 24 November 1943[2]
Country United Kingdom
Branch British Army
TypeInfantry
Size

War establishment strength 17,298 men[a]

During the Siege of Tobruk: ~28,000 men[4]
EngagementsSiege of Tobruk
Operation Crusader
Battle honoursDefence of Tobruk[5]
Tobruk, 1941[6]
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Ronald Scobie
George Symes

The 70th Infantry Division was an infantry division of the British Army that fought during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. What would become the 70th Division originated with the 7th Infantry Division, which was formed in 1938 to serve in the British Mandate of Palestine during the Arab Revolt. This division then transferred to Egypt on the outbreak of the Second World War and soon became the 6th Infantry Division, which went on to take part in the Battle of Crete and the Syria–Lebanon Campaign. On 10 October 1941, the 6th Division was re-created as the 70th Infantry Division, in an attempt to deceive Axis intelligence concerning the strength of British forces in the Middle East.

The Royal Navy transported the division to Tobruk from 19 September to 25 October, in a politically controversial move to relieve the mainly Australian garrison which had been defending the port for almost seven months, since the beginning of the Siege of Tobruk. Under daily aerial and artillery attacks, the division defended the port and conducted nightly offensive patrols against German and Italian positions. On 18 November, the British Eighth Army launched Operation Crusader. The division was tasked with breaking out of Tobruk, following the destruction of the Axis armoured forces. Following unexpected early success, the division began its attacks on 21 November, before the armoured formations of Germans and Italians had been defeated. Heavy fighting soon followed as the division captured several well-defended and dug-in German and Italian strong points. The looming threat of the Axis tanks ended the break-out offensive the following day. Renewed fighting on 26 November saw the division link up with the approaching New Zealand Division, cutting the Axis lines of communication. In response, the Germans launched several counter-attacks to throw back the 70th Division from the territory they had gained. The failure of these attacks had a lasting strategic impact on Operation Crusader; the Axis forces began their retreat and lifted the siege of Tobruk. Two men—from units attached to the division—were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions during Operation Crusader.

Following the fighting at Tobruk, the division was withdrawn from the front and placed in reserve. When Japan entered the war, the division was transferred to India. It was considered the most experienced and best trained British formation available in Asia. In India, the division formed a reserve to counter possible Japanese landings while it trained in jungle warfare. It also served as a police force, protecting railways and being used to suppress civil disobedience caused by the Quit India Movement. While it was requested that the division be sent to the front line in Burma, it was instead transferred to Special Force, commonly known as the Chindits. Such a move was opposed by the highest military commanders in India and Burma, and proved controversial with the troops themselves. Despite their pleas, the division was broken up and officially ceased to exist on 24 November 1943. Historian Woodburn Kirby and Lieutenant-General William Slim (who led the British troops in Burma) believed that the division could have had a greater impact against the Japanese had it been retained as a single formation.

Background

Arab Revolt in Palestine

In 1936, the Arab Revolt broke out in the British Mandate of Palestine.[7] British troops were dispatched, ending the first phase of the war by the close of the year.[8] Fighting soon resumed and reached its zenith during the summer of 1938. With rising tensions in Europe, the British began to withdraw troops from Palestine for use elsewhere.[9] The conclusion of the Munich Agreement—on 30 September 1938—calmed the rising tensions in Europe and averted war, allowing the British to resume their military build-up in Palestine.[10]

The 7th Infantry Division was formed the following month and placed under the command of Major-General Richard O'Connor.[11] The division was deployed to Palestine on internal security duties as part of a build-up of 18,500 men in the region.[12][10] This force then began to suppress the revolt. Meanwhile, Palestinian guerrillas had overrun the Old City of Jerusalem. O'Connor's men proceeded to sweep the area, declaring the Old City free of militants on 19 October. The same day, the division seized Acre and by the end of the month were clearing Jaffa of rebels.[13][14] Many Palestinians were detained and rebel activity significantly dropped off in the area.[14] In the north, the 8th Infantry Division, under Major-General Bernard Montgomery, and Special Night Squads engaged in counter-terror operations, with O'Connor writing that one brigadier "always encouraged his men to be brutal". General Officer Commanding British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan Robert Haining wrote in late 1938 that "unnecessary violence, vindictiveness ..., [and] killing in cold blood" had to be curbed. O'Connor was likewise opposed to the measures in the north, and wrote "harshness and unnecessary violence on the part of our soldiers" had to be curbed.[15] During the operation in Jerusalem, only four to nineteen guerrillas were killed.[16][17] In early 1939, the revolt finally came to an end.[b]

Second World War

Four soldiers standing around an obscured gun position.
Infantry camouflage a gun position at Mersa Matruh.

On 1 September 1939, the Second World War began with the German Invasion of Poland, and two days later the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.[19] On 31 August, the headquarters of the 7th Infantry Division gave up command of its troops. O'Connor and the divisional staff then left Jerusalem bound for Cairo, Egypt. From Cairo, the men moved forward to Mersa Matruh arriving on 7 September. The headquarters was then assigned all troops based there, with the exception of the 7th Armoured Division.[12] The British Official Historian, I. S. O. Playfair, comments that this decision was undertaken to relieve the burden on Lieutenant-General Henry Maitland Wilson, GOC British Troops Egypt, of "direct control of operations which had been his in addition to the command of all troops in Egypt".[20] Due to the logistical problems in maintaining substantial forces across the Western Desert and on the Libya–Egypt border, Mersa Matruh was the forward British base of operations and supplied by rail. Positioned 200 miles (320 km) west of Alexandria and 120 miles (190 km) from the border, the location had been chosen to shield forward Royal Air Force (RAF) landing strips behind it and to defend the Nile Delta. Mersa Matruh also offered the British the strategy of drawing Italian or other forces forward to them, to allow a counter-attack after they ran into supply difficulties.[21][22]

On 3 November, the division was renamed the 6th Infantry Division. The division initially commanded rear area personnel and the 22nd Infantry Brigade. Over the coming months, the 14th and 16th Infantry Brigades were assigned to the division as they arrived in Egypt from Palestine.[20][23] On 10 June 1940, Italy declared war upon Britain and her allies.[24] Seven days later, the 6th Infantry Division was dissolved and its headquarters transformed into the command staff of a corps known as the Western Desert Force (WDF).[2][20] In early September 1940, Italian forces based in Libya invaded Egypt. Three months later, the WDF began a limited raid, Operation Compass. The raid succeeded and was expanded; in two months the WDF advanced 500 miles (800 km), occupied the Italian province of Cyrenaica and destroyed the Italian 10th Army. The operation was halted in February 1941 to give priority to the Battle of Greece.[25]

Two British soldiers face right while they talk to two French soldiers (centre). A third British soldier stands in the background, and a fourth stands on guard behind (to the left) of the French troops.
British infantry question captured Vichy French troops, near Damascus.

On 17 February 1941, the 6th Infantry Division was reformed in Egypt. It was initially made up of the 16th and the 22nd Guards Brigade, who were based in Egypt, but lacked artillery or other supporting arms. The 22nd Guards Brigade was soon withdrawn, and the division was assigned the 14th and 23rd Infantry Brigade. Here, the division trained for amphibious operations in the Dodecanese.[26][27] The deteriorating situation in North Africa, which saw General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps retake the territory lost by the Italians during Operation Compass, resulted in the 6th Infantry Division being reassigned to defend Egypt.[28] The division had been earmarked to deploy to Crete, where the 14th Brigade had been based since November, but instead took up defensive positions at Mersa Matruh.[29] The 14th Brigade later defended the airfield at Heraklion during the Battle of Crete when 2,000 German paratroopers landed in the area on 20 May. The Germans were able to penetrate into Heraklion, before Anglo-Greek forces cleared the town following heavy fighting. Despite many losses, the paratroopers were able to dig-in on ridges around the brigade's positions.[30] Due to the deteriorating situation on Crete, the 14th Brigade was evacuated by Royal Navy ships on 29 May.[31] En route to Egypt, they were repeatedly bombed by the Luftwaffe, suffering 800 casualties.[32]

By late April, British attention had shifted to the Middle East due to the Anglo-Iraqi War, although the situation was resolved by the end of May. A greater concern was that German and Italian forces had intervened in Iraq, using bases in Vichy Syria. With Germans and Italians threatening to gain full control of the French territory, thus jeopardising the British position in the Middle East, the Allies invaded Syria (Operation Exporter) on 8 June.[33] In the face of stiff resistance from the Vichy French, the British realised that reinforcements were needed. On 13 June, the 6th Infantry Division (with two infantry brigades) was ordered to reinforce the effort.[34] The leading elements of the 16th Infantry Brigade arrived on 17 June and captured Kuneitra.[1] The 23rd Infantry Brigade arrived on 28 June.[35] The division then took part in the Battle of Damascus.[1] The campaign ended on 14 July and the division remained in Syria.[36][37]