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What’s in a name? – The Desert Rats

We have all heard of the ‘Desert Rats’, but how much do we really know about them? We all link them to World War 2, but the Army units which evolved into the ‘Rats’ actually began as small armoured car forces in the Western Desert of Egypt during the First World War before going on to face the threat of Mussolini’s expanding African Empire.

Rolls Royce Armoured Car Bardia 1940

After the Munich Crisis of 1938 the British decided to strengthen their forces in North Africa to protect the Suez Canal if war should break out again. The result was the establishment at Mersa Matruh (on the Egyptian coast 20 miles west of Alexandria) of a Mobile Force of Armoured and Tank Regiments, together with Artillery, the Service Corps and a Field Ambulance Unit . During the winter of 1938-39 this new Division, under General Hobart, prepared their vehicles (fitting sand filters etc), learned to navigate in the featureless desert, and honed their survival skills.

Mersa Matruh

In December 1939 Major General Creagh replaced Hobart and oversaw the renaming of the Brigades which made up his Division – the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Heavy Armoured, the 4th Armoured Brigade, and a strong Support Group. At that time the Divisional badge was an uninspiring white circle on a red background.

It was not long (February 1940) before this badge became the more recognisable Jerboa Badge. In this extract from ITV Anglia News Len Burritt explains how he was with General Creagh when he first came up with the idea. Creagh saw a young local boy with a Jerboa (desert rat) in his pocket. He thought it would make a good identifying badge for his new Division and traced the shape of a Jerboa in the sand using stones. When a picture of this was approved by the officers and men of the Division the first six badges were sewn by nurses and distributed amongst the men of Divisional HQ.

The men soon became known as ‘The Desert Rats’, and although the 7the Armoured Division were the only ones to wear the insignia and think of themselves as the true ‘rats’, forces from other countries which fought in North Africa also describe themselves as Desert Rats – Australia even has a ‘Rats of Tobruk Association’. The Australia units involved in North Africa actually had a white kangaroo rather than a red rat as their identifying insignia. During April 1940 the Division prepared to face the increasing threat from the Italians, and when Italy entered the conflict on 10th June 1940, the Desert War began.

A series of engagements followed with the British taking large numbers of Italian prisoners during advances which led to the taking of Tobruk and Bardia, and to the eventual defeat of the Italians in February 1941. But although Mussolini’s forces were no longer leading the action the war in North Africa was far from over. With the arrival of Erwin Rommel to take charge of the Afrika Korps the battles for control of the desert ebbed and flowed until, by 12th May 1943, the whole of North Africa was in the hands of the Allies.

As most of the Division fought back and forth across the North African desert the 7th Armoured Brigade were shipped to the Far East after the Japanese  attack on Pearl Harbour and subsequent invasion of British territories in the far East. The Brigade arrived in Rangoon, Burma, on 20th February 1942 with their new Divisional sign in ‘jungle green’.

It was not long before the Brigade discovered that Burma was no place for tanks as they faced its paddy fields baked hard in the summer sun then under water after the monsoon. In difficult conditions against a fast and manoeuvrable enemy the 7th Armoured soon found themselves retreating towards India; so desperate were they to get as far as possible before the arrival of the monsoon that they had to leave their tanks behind, destroying them so that they could not be used by the enemy. The monsoon broke on 12th May as the 7th Armoured Brigade retreated on foot, marching in the morning and evening to avoid the midday heat, and surviving on half rations until they reached India. The attempt to hold Burma had been a bitter defeat for the Allies, but General Alexander praised the contribution of the 7th Armoured Brigade saying that they ‘showed the value of disciplined, experienced troops. They retained their fighting qualities and cheerful outlook throughout.’ 

Since the outbreak of the war ‘The Rats’ had fought in the hot sandy desert which gave them their name, and also the tropical jungles of Burma; they now moved closer to home and set foot in Europe where they began the long march up the west coast of Italy before being withdrawn to England in November 1943. From their training grounds in Norfolk the Division then landed on the Normandy Beaches late on D Day, 6th June 1944. From there it was a long hard push through northern France, Belgium and Holland, and on into Germany. On the way the final version of the Divisional badge was adopted.

In July 1945 the Division was ordered to Berlin to join the British Garrison there, and to also take part in the Victory Parade in front of the British Prime Minister. In Berlin Winston Churchill opened the “Winston” Club for the 7th Armoured Division Other Ranks.

Berlin Victory Parade

After the war the Division continued to serve in Germany, but in January 1948 it was disbanded, with the 7th Armoured Brigade taking its place. The Division was reformed in March 1949 and served with the British Army On the Rhine (BAOR) until it was finally disbanded in January 1957. In its entire history it had only been in the United Kingdom for about six months. Some of the regiments that served have been disbanded or merged over the years but the Jerboa emblem is still worn proudly by the men of the 7th Armoured Brigade. The other original Armoured Brigade (the 4th Armoured, now known as the 4th Mechanized Brigade) is also still serving in the British Army, and proudly wear a “Black Rat” badge in memory of their time in the desert.

On 23rd October 1998, a memorial to ‘The Desert Rats’ was dedicated at Mundford, in Thetford Forest, Norfolk, by Field Marshall Lord Carver, who served with the Division in 1944 and later Commanded the 4th Armoured Brigade. In 2004 an additional plaque was installed on the Memorial plinth, commemorating the Desert Rats from 1945 to 2003.

The British 7th Armoured Division is one of the most famous formations that ever served in the British Army, and there is no more fitting tribute to these men than the words of Winston Churchill in Berlin:

“Soldiers of the 7th Armoured Division. I am delighted to be able to open this Club and I shall always consider it a great honour that it should be named after me. I have, not of the first time, had the pleasure of seeing your troops march past, and this brings back to my mind the great many moving incidents in these last, long fierce years. Now, here in Berlin, I find you all established in this great centre, from which, as from a volcano, fire and smoke and poison fumes have erupted all over Europe twice in a generation. And in bygone times also German fury has been let loose  on her neighbours, and now it is we who have our place in the occupation of this country…Now I have only a word more to say about the Desert Rats. They were the first to begin. The 11th Hussars were in action in the desert in 1940 and ever since you have kept marching steadily forward on the long road to victory. Through so many countries and changing scenes you have fought your way. It is not without emotion that I can express to you what I feel about the Desert Rats.

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!

It is a march unsurpassed through all the story of war so as my reading of history leads to believe. May the fathers long tell the children about this tale. May you all feel that in following your great ancestors you have accomplished something which has done good to the whole world; which has raised the honour of your country and which every man has the right to feel proud of”.

You can find out more about The Desert Rats here.


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