|46th Infantry Division|
Formation sign of the 46th Infantry Division
|Size||War establishment strength:|
|Nickname(s)||Oak Tree Division|
|Engagements||St Omer-La Bassée|
The 46th Infantry Division was an infantry division of the British Army raised in 1939 that saw distinguished service during the Second World War, fighting in the Battle of France and the Battle of Dunkirk where it was evacuated and later in North Africa, Italy and Greece.
Throughout the 1930s, tensions built between Germany and the United Kingdom and its allies. During late 1937 and 1938, German demands for the annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia led to an international crisis. To avoid war, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in September 1938 and signed the Munich Agreement, which accepted that Germany would annexe the Sudetenland. Chamberlain had intended the agreement to lead to a further peaceful resolution of differences but relations between the countries soon deteriorated. On 15 March 1939, Germany breached the terms of the agreement by invading and occupying the remnants of the Czech state.
On 29 March, the British Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha announced plans to increase the strength of the part-time Territorial Army (TA) from 130,000 men to 340,000, doubling the number of divisions.[b] The plan was for existing TA divisions, which were referred to as the first-line, to recruit over their establishments; recruitment was aided by an increase in pay for Territorials, the removal of restrictions on promotion that had hindered recruiting, the construction of better-quality barracks, and an increase in supper rations. The units would then form a new division, which was referred to as the second-line, from cadres. This process was dubbed "duplicating". The 46th Infantry Division was to be created as a second-line formation, a duplicate of the first-line 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division. Despite the intention for the army to grow, the programme was complicated by a lack of central guidance on the expansion and duplication process, and issues regarding the lack of facilities, equipment and instructors. It had been envisioned by the War Office that the duplicating process and recruiting the required number of men would take no more than six months. In April, limited conscription was introduced; at that time 34,500 men, all aged 20, were conscripted into the regular army, initially to undergo six months of training before being deployed to the forming second-line units. The process varied widely between the TA divisions; some were ready in weeks while others had made little progress by early September 1939, when war on Germany was declared.
On 2 October 1939, the 46th Infantry Division became active. The division took control of the 137th, the 138th, and the 139th Infantry Brigades, in addition to supporting divisional units, which had previously been administered by the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division.Major-General Algernon Ransome, who was called out of retirement and had previously commanded a brigade in the British Indian Army during the mid-1930s, was made General Officer Commanding. The 137th Brigade had been created as the second-line duplicate of the 147th Infantry Brigade, and comprised the 2/5th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment; the 2/6th Battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment (2/6DWR); and the 2/7DWR. The 138th Brigade was raised as the duplicate of the 146th Infantry Brigade, and consisted of the 6th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment; the 2/4th Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (2/4KOYLI); and the 6th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment. The 139th Infantry Brigade was the second-line duplicate of the 148th Infantry Brigade, and on formation comprised the 2/5th Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment; the 2/5th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters; and the 9th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters.
Due to the lack of official guidance, the newly formed units were at liberty to choose numbers, styles, and titles. The division adopted the number of their First World War counterpart, the 46th (North Midland) Division. The division's battalions were largely drawn from the English North Midlands. To denote the association of the division with this area, a Sherwood Forest oak tree was chosen as the divisional insignia. The Imperial War Museum wrote that "in addition, the oak was seen as an emblem of strength and reliability."
The TA's war deployment plan envisioned the divisions being deployed, as equipment became available, to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) already dispatched to Europe. The TA would join regular army divisions in waves as its divisions completed their training, with the final divisions deployed a year after the war began. However, the 46th Division's men were ill-equipped, lacked transportation, were spread out, and were assigned to guarding strategically important locations known as vulnerable points. These tasks lasted until December 1939, when the division was assigned to anti-invasion duties. By December, the division was based in Yorkshire. On 5 December 1939, Major-General Henry O. Curtis took over command of the division; Curtis had previously commanded an infantry brigade within the BEF. At this point, the division was allocated a role within the defensive Julius Caesar anti-invasion plan.[c] Division assigned to this, were tasked with launching an immediate attack on German parachutists, or failing that, cordon off and immobilise any German invasion effort, until relieved by forces capable of launching a major counter-attack to defeat the Germans.
In March 1940, the division became caught up in an effort to address manpower shortages among the BEF's rear-echelon units.[d] More men were needed to work along the line of communication, and the army had estimated that by mid-1940 it would need at least 60,000 pioneers. The lack of such men had taxed the Royal Engineers (RE) and Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (AMPC) as well as impacting frontline units, which had to be diverted from training to help construct defensive positions along the Franco-Belgian border. To address this issue, it was decided to deploy untrained territorial units as an unskilled workforce; thereby alleviating the strain on the existing pioneer units and freeing up regular units to complete training. As a result, the decision was made to deploy the 12th (Eastern), 23rd (Northumbrian), and the 46th Infantry Divisions to France. Each division would leave their heavy equipment and most of their logistical, administrative, and support units behind. In total, the elements of the three divisions that were transported to France amounted to 18,347 men.[e] The 46th Division was deployed to Brittany. The 137th Brigade was sent to aid in the unloading of supplies at Saint-Nazaire and Nantes, as well as aiding in the construction of railway sidings in that area. The other two brigades were deployed to Rennes to aid the transportation of ammunition supplies and railway construction. The intent was that by August their job would be completed, and they could return to the United Kingdom to resume training before being redeployed to France as front-line soldiers.Lionel Ellis, the author of the British official history of the BEF in France, wrote that while the divisions "were neither fully trained nor equipped for fighting ... a balanced programme of training was carried out so far as time permitted". Historian Tim Lynch commented that the deployment also had a political dimension, allowing "British politicians to tell their French counterparts that Britain had supplied three more infantry divisions towards the promised nineteen by the end of the year".
General Edmund Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was opposed to such a use of these divisions. He reluctantly caved to the political pressure to release the divisions, having been assured by General Sir John Gort (commander of the BEF) that the troops would not be used as frontline combat formations. The 46th Division departed Southampton on 28th April, and arrived at Cherbourg the following day. Each battalion took with them four 2 in (51 mm) mortars, 18 Bren light machine guns, 10 Boys anti-tank rifles, and 12 trucks.
On 10 May 1940, the Phoney War--the period of inactivity on the Western Front since the start of the conflict--came to an end as the German military invaded Belgium and the Netherlands. As a result, the majority of the BEF along with the best French armies and their strategic reserve moved forward to assist the Belgian and Dutch armies. While these forces attempted to stem the tide of the German advance, the main German assault pushed through the Ardennes Forest and crossed the River Meuse. This initiated the Battle of Sedan and threatened to split the Allied armies in two, separating those in Belgium from the rest of the French military along the Franco-German border. The division was ordered to concentrate on the Belgian border, to act as a reserve to the BEF. As the German threat developed, Gort created an ad hoc force known as Macforce to protect the BEF's right rear flank and lines of communication, and deny the River Scarpe to the Germans.[f].
On 15 May, the 138th and 139th Brigades moved from the Rennes area. The men expected to be assigned to rear-area duties, such as clearing the lines of communication of refugees. After a day train journey they arrived, and were assigned to Macforce and ordered to take up defensive positions on the River Scarpe. These positions were occupied on 20 May. The river did not prove to be much of a defensive position, being less than 3 ft (0.91 m) deep. 137th Brigade and divisional HQ arrived in the Seclin area, on the outskirts of Lille, on 20 May. There, the division took command of the 25th Infantry Brigade and other assets assigned by Gort and were dubbed Polforce (after the town of St Pol were the units were waiting). These two brigades were assigned to defend the La Bassée Canal between Aire and Carvin, a front of 28 mi (45 km), on the flank of Macforce. With insufficient forces to cover the entire area, they had to defend and prepare to destroy 44 bridges. This duty was impeded by the stream of refugees moving through the area. The water obstacles posed the only natural barrier between the advancing German armour forces, and the rear of the BEF and potential catastrophic defeat.
With assets being moved between Polforce and Macforce, the division was unable to fight as a cohesive entity. The divisional history, wrote by staff of the division, stated the brigade's fought "confused, independent and one-sided" battles. Most notably, they record the 137th Brigade suffering "grievous casualties" when German forces broke through their positions on the La Bassée Canal. Meanwhile, with the BEF completely surrounded and the military situation in Flanders having deteriorated, the decision was made to evacuate the BEF from Dunkirk, the only remaining port in British hands. The remnants of the three brigades retreated north towards the port. On 29 May, the division was assigned to defensive positions along the Canal de Bergues and Nieuwpoort-Dunkirk Canal, on the Dunkirk perimeter. On 1 June, the British history of the fighting reported the division faced a major German attack during the day, which involved bitter fighting, artillery barrages, and heavy casualties. During the day, the division withdraw into Dunkirk were they were subsequently evacuated via the mole or from the beaches. The 2/4KOYLI, the 2/6DWR, and the 2/7DWR had become separated from the division during the move from Rennes. They were now located on the southern side of the German advance into France, and unable to evacuate via Dunkirk. These battalions retreated across France, with the 2/4KOYLI notably being heavily engaged in the defence of bridges crossing the Seine at Pont-de-l'Arche. These battalions continued their retreat towards Cherbourg and Saint-Nazaire, eventually being evacuated as part Operation Aerial.
After returning to the United Kingdom, the division moved to Manchester to start the rebuilding process, and Curtis was assigned to the 49th Division. On 5 July, Major-General Desmond Anderson (previously commanding the 45th Infantry Division) took command. In late July, the division relocated to Scotland, and was placed under the authority of Scottish Command. The Royal Artillery field regiments from the 49th Division were then assigned to the division, replacing those the division had been separated from since before their departure to France. This was followed by the engineer, signal, and other support units being brought up to full strength. The divisional history recorded "within little more than a month of Dunkirk", the division "was better equipped than it had ever been in the dark days in France." On 27 July, Lieutenant-General Alan Brooke, the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, visited the division. He recorded in his dairy that he found the division "in a lamentably backward state of training, barely fit to do platoon training and deficient of officers."
Initially the division was based around the Fife coastline, assigned to prevent any potential German landings. In the autumn, the division moved to Dumfries. Here, it spent the remainder of 1940 training. On 14 December, Major-General Charles Edward Hudson replaced Anderson as GOC; Hudson was a highly distinguished First World War veteran and a recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC), and who had previously commanded the 2nd Infantry Brigade during the fighting in France. In January 1941, the division left Scotland and travelled to Cambridgeshire, and was assigned to II Corps on 6 January. Subsequently, it moved to Norfolk where it undertook varying duties alongside training; anti-invasion duties that included a month spell manning coastal defences, airfield defence, and training Home Guard battalions. The division also conducted field exercises across East Anglia. On 22 May, Major-General Douglas Wimberley briefly took command of the division.[g] In June, Major-General Miles Dempsey replaced Wimberley. In November, the division became part of XII Corps and moved to Kent. At the same time, Major-General Harold Freeman-Attwood became GOC. In Kent, the division established a 'Battle School', and spent the remaining part of 1941 and the majority of 1942 training and undertaking exercises. During this period, the division was also brought up to full strength.[h] Notably, the division conducted an exercise on Lewes Downs that was watched by Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower. On 19 July, the 137th Brigade left the division temporarily reducing the division to two brigades. It was replaced on 15 August, by the 128th Infantry Brigade. This brigade was composed of the 1/4th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment (1/4HR), the 2/4HR, and the 5HR.
In late 1941, following Operation Crusader in the Egyptian-Libyan Western Desert, the British military proposed Operation Gymnast; a landing in French North Africa and subsequent advance into Tunisia. After the United States entry into the war, this plan was expanded into Super Gymnast, but subsequently abandoned by April 1942. Due to American pressure, Allied planning efforts focused on an assault on German-occupied France; codenamed Operation Roundup. Additional proposals for an assault on France included Operation Sledgehammer. In July, Super Gymnast was revived as Operation Torch, Sledgehammer had been cancelled, and the assault on France had been postponed. By September, a final plan for Torch had been issued. This also involved the formation of the British First Army. On 24 August, the division was assigned to the First Army, but was not allocated to the initial invasion of French North Africa. The division remained in the United Kingdom until the end of 1942, assembling at Aldershot in December. During the month, the division was inspected by George VI, who the divisional history recorded "wished us all "Good Luck, a victorious campaign and a safe return home"."
On 24 December 1942, 4,000 men of the 139th Infantry Brigade and supporting forces (70th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (RA); 229th Anti-Tank Battery, RA; 379th Light AA Battery, RA; 270th Field Company, Royal Engineers; 183rd Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps; 139th Brigade Company, Royal Army Service Corps; 139th Brigade, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; and C Squadron, 46th Reconnaissance Regiment, Reconnaissance Corps) departed from Liverpool. The convoy arrived in Algiers, French Algeria, on 3 January 1943. After a 500 miles (800 km) road and rail journey, the brigade arrived at the frontline near Sedjenane, French Tunisia. Meanwhile, on 6 January, the 128th Brigade departed from Gourock, Scotland, and the 138th Brigade departed from Liverpool. The brigades arrived in Algeria on 17 January. While the 138th moved across land, the 128th Brigade re-boarded ships and were transported further down the Algerian coast to Bône. During this move, an Axis air attack resulted in one ship being sunk and the loss of materiel. Both brigades moved up to the front during February.
On 10 January, the 139th Infantry Brigade attacked Italian positions on a hill to their front. Exploitation of this attack was postponed by the Axis offensive, starting with the Battle of Kasserine Pass. The 2/5th Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment (2/5LR), along with anti-tank guns and artillery pieces from the brigade, were moved 150 miles (240 km) south to Thala to bolster Allied positions. Once at Thala, they covered the withdrawal of American and British forces, repulsed a German tank attack late on 20 February, and aided in the subsequent defence of the town. The fighting cost these units over 400 casualties. To the north, patrols from the 5th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment (128th Infantry Brigade) clashed with their German counterparts near Sidi Nsir. On 26 February, the battalion became embroiled in opening moves of Operation Ochsenkopf, another major German attack; Ochsenkopf aimed to capture the town of Béja. In the initial fighting three German tanks were disabled by anti-tank gunfire, and 20 more held up for several hours before the anti-tank gun positions were silenced. In the meantime, Axis infantry attacks were made. The German attack steadily forced the battalion back, after a 24-hour battle. The following day, the Germans pressed their attack towards Hunt's Gap, where the 128th Brigade was concentrated, reinforced by the 2/5LR and as many anti-tank guns as could be assembled. Rather than a coordinated combined arms attack, the German vanguard consisted of tanks, and other armoured vehicles, that were knocked out or forced to retire from the British positions. By the end of the day, the division claimed a further 11 German tanks destroyed. Largescale German combined arms attack were launched over the following two days, involving back and forth fighting, heavy casualties, and the division losing men as prisoners of war. The brigade was assisted by the North Irish Horse, equipped with Churchill tanks, and by 3 March had stopped the German effort to capture Béja.
It then took part in the Battle of Sedjenane. The campaign finally came to an end in May 1943, with the surrender of nearly 250,000 German and Italian soldiers.
From there on the 46th Division, from August under the command of Major-General John Hawkesworth, fought throughout the Italian Campaign in late 1943 with both the U.S. Fifth Army and the British Eighth Army, fighting in tough battles such as that at the initial Salerno landings in September 1943, followed by fighting at the Volturno Line, the Winter Line, the Bernhardt Line, First Battle of Monte Cassino and later the Gothic Line. During the fighting in Italy the 46th Division suffered over 9,200 casualties, including 1,447 officers and men killed in action, with a further 6,476 wounded and 1,957 missing.
In late December/early 1945, the division, now commanded by Major-General Stephen Weir, a New Zealand Army officer, was sent to re-occupy Greece, where they came under command of Lieutenant-General Ronald Scobie's III Corps.
|Appointed||General officer commanding|
|2 October 1939||Major-General Algernon Ransome|
|5 December 1939||Major-General Henry O. Curtis|
|5 June 1940||Brigadier John Gawthorpe (Acting)|
|5 July 1940||Major-General Desmond Anderson|
|14 December 1940||Major-General Charles Edward Hudson|
|22 May 1941||Major-General Douglas Wimberley|
|15 June 1941||Major-General Miles Dempsey|
|28 October 1941||Brigadier Thomas Daly (Acting)|
|3 November 1941||Major-General Harold Freeman-Attwood|
|25 August 1943||Major-General John Hawkesworth|
|28 April 1944||Brigadier Geoffrey Harding (Acting)|
|29 May 1944||Major-General John Hawkesworth|
|6 November 1944-7 September 1946||Major-General Stephen Weir|
|September 1946||Major-General John Frederick Boyce Combe|