British 3rd Division, D-Day

FOR MANY PEOPLE an Infantry Division remains an abstract military term for a collection of arms and men; and a soldier is just as apt to have an inaccurate idea of a Division as a civilian.

The soldier sees a military formation from his own angle and gets a lopsided view, while the civilian sees it as a whole from outside, but how far outside! It will be easier to watch the 3rd Division in action if we know more of its physical shape and its spirit

Insignia of the 3rd Division from 1940

The size and shape, the strength of the Infantry Division, are fixed by the Adjutant-General’s branch of the War Office. On war establishment it was, at this time, roughly 17,000 strong. Of this number less than half are Infantrymen, and only one-quarter are officers and men of the rifle companies, the cutting-edge of the Division: the remainder support them and serve them with the means to fight. Readily enough the men of that minority spring into mind, and the Division is thought of in terms of its Infantry Battalions. This may seem unfair, but it is right, because the Division wins its reputation on the achievements of the Infantry: and, more important perhaps, from them comes the spirit of the Division.

 No need to labour this difference between front and rear: the story of the Division involves all component units. But there was a tendency in the Press to give the impression that because L-of-C troops were doing their job well they might be equated with any other trained troops who simply “did their duty.” It must be admitted that upon Lines of Communication major considerations of strategy depend. But the same may be said of those civilians who were not employed in work of national unimportance: they also served, and often under no less dangerous conditions than L-of-C troops: nor were they given campaign medals.

 While it is true, then, that the Divisional Services kept the front-line supplied and were invaluable, much of their fine spirit was derived from the thought of the Infantry who depended on them, who lived up against the enemy, and who went forward into one attack after another until it was all over. That was the relationship in which the 17,000 were bound together. There, is good reason to believe that the bonds uniting all the 3rd Division were especially close: they were tightened upon the stretch of beach between Lion and Ouistreham and in the savagely-held fields and woods on the ridge that shielded Caen.

 Those were days of effort and danger in which no one could fail to feel proud of his job; there was glory in driving a bulldozer to clear a beach-exit, in driving a lorry-load of ammunition or petrol down to the Pegasus bridge at Benouville and over to the ground held by the 6th Airborne Division, who were supplied by the 3rd Division’s R.A.S.C. transport until their own could be brought ashore ten days later.  “The enthusiasm of the drivers is terrific” is the typical note of one of their officers. If there was gladness in the performance of the individual task, it was increased with the chance to co-operate.

When a carrier or a tank became bogged, a R.E.M.E. recovery team would work with the crew and set the vehicle back upon firm ground. When Sappers were going to lay mines, they guided the R.A.S.C. drivers of the lorry-loads of mines through the darkness to the site of the minefield. When it became necessary to concentrate three Armoured Divisions across the Orne for the drive south of Caen and 750 shells and cartridges had to be dumped beside each gun in the Divisional Artillery ll in the course of two nights the movement of ammunition over the bridges had to be geared carefully into the armoured traffic: that it was accomplished without stoppage and almost unnoticed is an example of the finest team-work between Provost, the R.A.S.C. drivers, and the Gunners who went down to the Orne bank and guided the lorries up to the guns. When the Infantry are in battle it is well understood that the Artillery and Engineers will be working with them. When they are training together the expression marrying-up is used to describe the common efforts of the Gunners with the Infantry, and in action that union is in a sense consummated, strengthened by mutual confidence.

 Such understanding is expected of the “supporting arms,” the Machine-gun and Mortar Battalion, the Gunner Regiments, the Sapper Companies: in the event it was almost equally realised with units whose job it was not to supply support but the less spectacular commodities transport, rations, equipment, repairs to vehicles, even signposts for the Divisional axis of advance. The whole system of interdependence is exemplified by the existence in each unit of a Regimental Aid Post. No one feels independent of the Royal Army Medical Corps. But the bond is not just one of bloodshed. It may perhaps be best illustrated by the Royal Signals. It was the function of the Signallers to keep a communicating link open throughout the Division. When telephone-line could not be laid, wireless sets were opened up: the traffic of information and orders was incessant. No unit was outside this network. Everyone was kept in touch.

 Quickness to co-operate was nothing exclusive, confined within the Division. We shall trace it in Combined Operations with the Navy and the Air Force, as well as with the other land formations. It is not the whole story. If it were, something would have changed the British soldier; and it would take more than the greatest military operation in history to do that. He did all the things that are attributed to him in this book and very much more, but he also said and thought things that may better be imagined than chronicled. If he were living in a muddy slit-trench with death in the air around him, he undoubtedly wished himself elsewhere and thought disparagingly, if anything, of the soldier whose lot was less unhappy. If he was a technical soldier, say a Craftsman in a Brigade Workshop a mile or two back, he undoubtedly thought less than he should have done of the poor beggar who was just creeping forward on a reconnaissance patrol, and got on with his welding job. Whatever his separate feelings, he had a corporate feeling as well. He still excelled in co-operating when there was need. Everyone knows the large part of School and Army training that is devoted to team-work. The results may best be observed on active service: they are heartening to see and inspiring to share in.

The main point that has emerged is that the spirit of a Division appears in action. With the 3rd Division a new spirit was born in the early hours of 6th June, 1944, that was conceived on the shores of Scotland the previous autumn and carried securely through a wild, northern winter. With all infants, we are told, the early period is the most impressionable, when the character is formed. So it was with the Division. The most formative influence was the restricted size of the lodgment-area for the first month in Normandy, which, so far from producing inhibitions, moulded the finest feeling of common endeavour in the presence of a tangible enemy ; it reshaped the Division’s character. And no one who was with the Division at that time will deny that a new spirit was abroad. This was no new Division (was there not a 3rd Division in action on the left of Wellington’s line for the last great battle with Napoleon?), but the point is that, as they were our forefathers who fought at Waterloo, so, in a sense, the men who fought with the Division back to Dunkirk in 1940 were the fathers of the aggressive spirit of the Assault Division.

It is true that the 3rd Division has an unbroken tradition from the time of the Haldane Reforms, a tradition hallowed from the outset of the War of 1914-1918 by its valour in the retreat from Mons. Since then the composition by battalions had been completely changed. In the burning summer’s heat of 1940 the Division withdrew gallantly from Louvain to Fumes and Dunkirk.  They were fighting then under Major-General B.L. Montgomery, D.S.O., who expressed resentment at being forced back across the Channel in the only terms the Germans could understand. His Division were among the last to leave Dunkirk. After four years they led the way back.

So this is a different story. Mr. Arthur Bryant claims for the British Army that “the episodes in its past on which English historians linger most fondly are those when it was most out-numbered, most lacking in might, and therefore, by our reckoning, most glorious and true to itself orke’s Drift or Mons or Dunkirk or the Rifles dying at Calais . . .” But there is a danger in that distinguished legend: to foster it is extravagant in human lives. We must cherish it only as history, not as a policy we can afford to cultivate. This is the story of how we fought when given strength to match the might of Germany: it yields a more profitable lesson.

 The unit composition had changed again since 1940: 185 Infantry Brigade, from the 79th Armoured Division, took the place of the 7th Guards Brigade who had fought alongside the 8th and 9th Brigades up till Dunkirk. So that 8, 9 and 185 Brigades are the three points of the Divisional Triangle. The Triangle, or more precisely the geometrical design of one triangle divided off into three black triangles by a red one, appears on the jacket of this book. It was painted proudly upon all the Naval Landing-Craft that took the Division into action, and bravely carried by every vehicle that went into action, on Queen Beach: it is worn no less proudly on every sleeve in the Division. It was stencilled on hundreds of small metal discs and used to mark the Division’s route from the Norman shore to Bremen. The explanation most usually given, if you ask the meaning of the sign, is that the black triangles represent the three Brigades of Infantry; the red is blood. *1*

 The three points of the Triangle, then, were 8, 9 and 185 Brigades, and each was made up of three battalions. These battalions are not to be lumped together and given a label. A man’s pride in his battalion is a main element of success in the fight. That is one of the few principles which has rested unchallenged since the Napoleonic Wars.  The famous and redoubtable Rifleman Harris, tracing so vividly the ordinary soldier’s life through the Peninsular Campaign, leaves us in no doubt that the finest army in the world was that which Wellington led, that the finest regiment in that army was the 95th, and that the best battalion in that regiment was that his major commanded. Similarly Quartermaster-sergeant James Anton made no secret of the fact that there was no English regiment to equal a Scottish one, and no Scottish one to equal his own, the 42nd (now the Black Watch). And Captain Mercer, writing of Waterloo, held the view no less firmly that G Battery had the finest horses, equipment, men and discipline, not merely in the British Army but in any army in history. These are natural sentiments, and prevailed in all regiments, it will be seen, no less in 1944 than in 1815.

But Eric Linklater has claimed ” a curious thing ” apropos of the 51st (Highland) Division: that “their regimental pride was largely replaced by a greater pride in their Division.” The same is not quite true of the 3rd Division, where you never failed to detect an Infantryman’s pride first and foremost in his particular regiment. If he were talking to someone from outside of the Division, then you would hear about the 3rd Division. But this would not mean that his regimental pride had been replaced by pride in his Division, for the obvious reason that the exploits of his battalion are nearly all part of his own personal experience, while the exploits of the rest of the battalions are incidental, and gratifying to him only inasmuch as he and they all had a place in their Divisional plan. *2*

Perhaps Mr. Linklater was hinting at a supreme pride in the common origins of the Division. It may not be denied that home ties are of the utmost value to territorial units, but it is doubtful whether as much may be claimed for a Division ven a Territorial Division specially when it has seen action and received reinforcements. The 3rd British Infantry Division had no claim to a birth and upbringing in some exclusive comer of the British Isles, nor had they need of such a claim.

 As a result of reforms towards the end of the last century and again after our temporary but long-remembered loss of face in the South African War, the regular battalions of the line became known as the 1st and 2nd Battalions of a Regiment, the 3rd (Militia) Battalion became the Special Reserve, and the 4th and subsequent Battalions were Territorial Battalions. The nine battalions of the 3rd Division were all either 1st or 2nd Battalions of their respective Regiments. But by 1943, at the time when our narrative begins, of the Infantrymen no more than an average of one in three were regular soldiers. Nominally a Regular Division, then, the 3rd Division inherited the traditions of the oldest regular County Regiments and proceeded to carry on those traditions with the prowess of regular, volunteer and conscript soldiers together, fighting together in the same platoons, bringing the guns into action together.

It is evident, then, that the battalions are not to be labelled collectively (as is the fashion with Territorial Divisions) according to some ancient political boundary such as Wessex or Northumbria. *3*  But this is not for want of such a boundary. The Danelaw territories of Scandinavian conquest and settlement along the East Coast in the two centuries before William the Conqueror landed from Normandy幼onformed almost exactly with six of the counties whose regiments made up the fighting force of the Division. In fact, a convenient way of remembering the Battalion component is to think first of the East Coast from Suffolk right up to Berwick, where the 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers have their depot. The base of the Divisional Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment is Northumberland they are the 3rd Reconnaissance Regiment, R.A.G. (Royal Northumberland Fusiliers), and one of the two Territorial units in the Division. That North Sea coastline also joins up the 1st Suffolk, 1st Royal Norfolk, 2nd Lincolnshire, and 2nd East Yorkshire Battalions. In the North “the Danes came to the West Coast, reaching, if not controlling, that part of Lancashire which is represented by the 1st Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment. And with Regiments covering the Danelaw area so conveniently, the Division can immediately take pride in the tremendous fighting and seafaring (Combined Ops) qualities, and the spirit of independence that characterised the Norsemen. This seems appropriate enough. But, as we have seen, the futility of trying to identify formations with territory is at least twofold: in battalions the men who actually came from the area were in the minority: in the Division the battalions themselves are in a minority, albeit an important one. The men of the Division came from the length and breadth of Great Britain.

 The battalions that had no place in the Viking theory are no disproof of the spread and depth of the Division’s roots in the British Isles.  The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles brought to the Division the spirit and stamp of an Irish regiment: but it was an imported English modesty that prompted their battalion historian to state that “the war was over, and the Battalion felt satisfied with the part it had played in winning it”: they certainly had valid grounds for satisfaction. So, indeed, had the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The latter may claim to represent the heart of Shakespeare’s England, the former the heart of Housman’s. Finally amongst the Infantry Battalions we are to meet a famous London battalion, the 2nd of the Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own), who with machine-guns and mortars were the Division’s Support Battalion.

It should perhaps be insisted that the three points of the Triangle represent the Brigade Groups and not just the Brigades. For in every event it is in the order of things that the Gunners are “tied up” with the Infantry. And though for administration the Regiments of Artillery have their own R.A. brigade organisation it will be seen how the 76th Field Regiment were in support of 8 Brigade, 33rd Field Regiment of 9 Brigade and 7th Field Regiment of 185 Brigade, continuously from the first great assault to the Cease Fire. Furthermore, one battery of each regiment was virtually in continuous support of “its own battalion. The 76th (Highland) Field Regiment and the 3rd Recce Regiment were the only two major Territorial units in the Division: the Territorial members of the 76th Field Regiment were from Fife and Angus, with their depot at Dundee. The batteries of the 20th Anti-Tank Regiment, R.A., were “Brigaded ” in the same way as the Field Regiments: so to a less extent were the batteries of the 92nd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, R.A. 92nd L.A.A. Regiment had been converted from the 7th Battalion of The Loyal (North Lancashire) Regiment to RA in November, 1941. Those Gunners who had been Infantrymen still kept a strong “Loyals” spirit alive in the Regiment.

 The complete Order of Battle of the Division may be seen in the second part of Appendix A [NOTE: See above]. Its operation will become familiar in the course of the narrative, and no more need be said by way of introduction to individual units. The important idea is that the Division develops its whole personality in battle, when ordeals are shared, and commanders win confidence.

 The 3rd British Infantry Division was styled British when it was known that the 3rd Canadian Division was chosen as the flanking division in the assault on the Atlantic Wall. The object was to avoid confusion which might have arisen from the proximity of the two 3rd Divisions. (The coincidence was not confined to the numbering of the Divisions: each had a 9th Brigade commanded by a Brigadier Cunningham!) It is naturally accepted as a compliment when the Division is referred to as “the Ironsides” or “the Iron Division.” But they are compliments that were earned by quite different groups of units in quite different circumstances, not by the 3rd Division in its Assault form. “Ironsides” is surely another not entirely justifiable reference to East Anglia, where Cromwell did his recruiting; and Iron, a symbol of the strength and resolution of the 3rd Division in the Four Years’ War,  *4*  can also suggest inflexibility and cruelty, rust and robots. The distinction of being British, on the other hand, is open to only one interpretation. It is the most suitable of all titles. There was only one 3rd British Division fighting in Europe, and from D-day until the Germans were defeated the men of the Division deserved the honour of their name.


*1*  The explanation given by an adjutant in a harassing moment was that the three brigades are joined by red tape. Field-Marshal Lord Montgomery, who as Div Commander devised the sign with the help of his AQ,, meant just “to indicate the combination of threes “the 3rd Division, the three brigades and the three battalions in each brigade.

*2*  Mr. Nigel Nicholson, in a recent admirable article in the Spectator on Regimental Traditions, adds an interesting observation: that, supposing the greatest stimulus to military loyalty to be the sharing of recent experiences, then, “if a company or a battalion has a run of ill luck, the men’s loyalty will shift temporarily to the next higher group which can claim an over-all success.” 

*3*  It is of interest to note the War Office proposal of 1946 to group together Regiments of adjacent counties in order that, where they are unable to recruit from their own counties, Regiments may preserve some territorial character by recruiting from their neighbours.

*4*  Lieutenant-Colonel T. F. Fumell, O.B.E., M.C., Hon. Secretary of the Association of the 3rd (Iron) Division (1916-18), in a very moving speech on behalf of the guests at the first Reunion of the 3rd British Division (1939-45) Officers’ Association, said: “You of the 3rd British Division have more than lived up to the tradition of the Iron Division.” This was the highest tribute that he could have paid, and was greatly esteemed, but it remains true that the circumstances of the two wars were extremely different.