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43rd (Wessex) Division/District
43 inf div -vector.svg
Formation patch of the 43rd Division, Second World War
Active 1908–1919
Country  United Kingdom
Branch  British Army
Type Infantry
Size Division
Nickname(s) "The Fighting Wessex Wyverns"
Engagements First World War
Second World War
Arthur Percival
Sir Ivor Thomas
Sir George Erskine

The 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division was an infantry division of the British Army. The division served with distinction in the Second World War on the Western Front from June 1944 until May 1945, suffering heavy casualties but gaining an excellent reputation and was known to the Germans as the Yellow Devils.

The division was disbanded and again reformed in the Territorial Army (TA) after the war. Beckett 2008 claims that Territorial Army units that were in suspended animation were formally reactivated on 1 January 1947, though no personnel were assigned until commanding officers and permanent staff had been appointed in March and April 1947.[1] On 1 May 1961 the division was merged with a district to become 43rd (Wessex) Division/District.[2]

Formation[edit | edit source]

The division was created in 1908, originally as the Wessex Division, as part of the Territorial Force. It had under command the Hampshire Brigade, the South Western Brigade and the Devon and Cornwall Brigade, along with numerous other support units of the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and the Royal Army Medical Corps.

First World War[edit | edit source]

On 24 September 1914, a few weeks after the outbreak of the First World War, the division accepted overseas service in British India in order to relieve regular units that were required for active service in Europe. The Divisional and Brigade HQs, both artillery and infantry, did not embark for India. The "Division" sailed on 9 October 1914 and arrived in India in November, where it remained throughout the war, reverting to peacetime service conditions. However, it supplied battalions and drafts of replacements for the divisions fighting in the Middle East, seeing no active service. In May 1915 it became the 43rd (Wessex) Division and the brigades were redesignated the 128th (Hampshire) Brigade, 129th (South Western) Brigade and the 130th (Devon and Cornwall) Brigade respectively.

Second World War[edit | edit source]

The 43rd Division was reformed a 1st Line Territorial Army formation after the war and was mobilised, as was the rest of the Territorial Army, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.[3]

In May 1940, the division was preparing to go overseas to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France and Belgium but the Battle of France and the BEF's retreat to Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation changed all that. The division then spent many years in the United Kingdom on home defence, anticipating the potentiality of a German invasion of the British Isles.[3]

Soldiers of the 4th Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment climbing up the sheer face of a chalk quarry during 'toughening up' training at Leeds in Kent, England, 18 September 1941.

In 1942, however, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the entrance of the United States into the war, the situation changed and the 43rd Division started training for offensive operations to return to mainland Europe. Throughout most of 1942, the division was part of XII Corps, serving alongside the 46th Infantry Division and 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division. XII Corps was, at the time, commanded by Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery.[3]

In March 1942, the division also gained a new General Officer Commanding (GOC) in the form of Major-General Ivor Thomas. Thomas was a decorated officer who had served as a young battery commander in the Royal Artillery on the Western Front during the First World War where he was twice wounded and awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order. He would command the 43rd Division until September 1945.[3]

In August 1942, the 128th Infantry Brigade (consisting of three battalions of the Hampshire Regiment) was transferred to the 46th (West Riding) Infantry Division, remaining with that division for the rest of the war. The 34th Tank Brigade arrived in September 1942 as part of an experiment with 'Mixed Divisions'.[3] However the experiment was abandoned (deemed unsuitable for the type of terrain in North-western Europe) in late 1943 and the 34th Tank Brigade was replaced, in October 1943, by the 214th Infantry Brigade, which was previously a Home Defence formation raised during the war. The 214th Brigade would remain with the 43rd Division for the rest of the war.[3]

The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, inspects men of the 4th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry during a tour of forces preparing to invade Normandy, 12 May 1944.

In June 1944, the 43rd (Wessex) Division was sent to Normandy, after the Allies invaded France on 6 June, where it joined the British Second Army and was initially earmarked as a reserve for Operation Epsom during the Battle for Caen. In July, it launched an attack, Operation Jupiter, against the German 9th SS Panzer Division on Hill 112, though it was beaten back after both sides had suffered horrendous casualties. The 43rd (Wessex) Division performed well in Normandy and was considered by many senior British officers to be one of the best divisions of the British Army during the Second World War. For the rest of the war Bernard Montgomery, commanding all British and Canadian troops in the campaign, preferred to use formations such as 43rd (Wessex) and 15th (Scottish) to spearhead his assaults. This was mainly due to issues of morale because veteran formations such as the 7th Armoured and 51st (Highland), both of which had seen extensive service in North Africa and the Mediterranean (and fought poorly in Normandy, according to senior officers), were judged as tired and war-weary with morale being almost dangerously fragile. With formations that had spent years in the United Kingdom training such as the 43rd (Wessex), 11th Armoured, 15th (Scottish) and 59th (Staffordshire) Divisions the problem of morale wasn't such an issue.[3]

A Loyd carrier of the 8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment advances during operations in the Odon valley, west of Caen, 16 July 1944.

Sergeant Clifford Brown of the Somerset Light Infantry quenches his thirst with other members of his platoon during the attack on Mont Pincon, 7 August 1944.

The 43rd (Wessex) Division was the first British formation to cross the Seine river, with an assault crossing at the French town of Vernon opposed by the 49th German Infantry Division (see 'Assault Crossing, The River Seine 1944' by Ken Ford). This crossing enabled the armour of XXX Corps, under Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, to thrust across northern France into Belgium.

Still, with XXX Corps, the division later played a major role in Operation Market Garden as the support to the Guards Armoured Division. During Market Garden, the 4th Battalion, Dorset Regiment of the 130th Infantry Brigade, successfully crossed the Rhine as a diversion, so that the battered remnants of the airborne troops of 1st Airborne Division, virtually destroyed as a fighting formation during the Battle of Arnhem, could withdraw more safely; yet the cost was high as many men of the 4th Battalion, Dorsets were themselves left behind on the north bank of the Rhine when the 43rd Division was forced to withdraw.

Universal Carriers and DUKWs carry the men of the 5th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry into battle during Operation Market Garden, September 1944.

After Market Garden the division garrisoned "The Island" and later participated in Operation Clipper alongside the U.S. 84th Infantry Division. The division then later played a comparatively small part in the mainly American Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle on the Western Front during the Second World War, where it was placed on the river Meuse as a reserve. The 43rd later played a large part in Operation Veritable attached to First Canadian Army, again as part of XXX Corps. They then crossed the River Rhine as the Allies invaded Germany itself.[3]

Memorial to the 43rd (Wessex) Division on Hill 112.

By the end of the war in Europe, the 43rd Division had reached the Cuxhaven peninsula of northern Germany. Throughout the North West Europe Campaign the 43rd (Wessex) Division, like so many other Allied divisions that fought from Normandy to Germany, had suffered very heavy casualties with the majority of them, 80% in some units, being suffered by the average Tommy in the infantry battalions. From June 1944 to May 1945 the 43rd (Wessex) Division, or the Yellow Devils or British SS Division as known by the Germans, had suffered well over 12,500 casualties, with almost 3,000 killed in action.

Order of battle[edit | edit source]

The 43rd Infantry Division was constituted as follows during the war[4]

128th Infantry Brigade (left 6 June 1942)[5]

  • 1/4th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment
  • 2/4th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment
  • 5th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment
  • 128th Infantry Brigade Anti-Tank Company (formed 19 June 1940, disbanded 20 December 1941)

129th Infantry Brigade[6]

130th Infantry Brigade[7]

  • 7th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment
  • 4th Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment
  • 5th Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment
  • 130th Infantry Brigade Anti-Tank Company (formed 17 May 1940, disbanded 20 December 1941)

25th Tank Brigade (from 1 June 1942, left 2 September 1942)[8]

34th Tank Brigade (from 3 September 1942, left 10 September 1943)[9]

214th Infantry Brigade (from 5 September 1943)[10]

Divisional Troops

After the war[edit | edit source]

The division was reactivated after the Second World War again as part of the Territorial Army. On 1 April 1967 the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers absorbed 43rd Wessex Division RE (TA).[11] All TA divisions were disbanded by 1968.

Commanders[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Beckett 2008, 169.
  2. Beckett 2008, 183, 185, and regiments.org (archive), South Western District 1905-1972, accessed September 2012.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 "badge, formation, 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division". Imperial War Museum. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30071750. Retrieved 4 August 2017. 
  4. Joslen, pps. 69-70.
  5. Joslen, p. 313.
  6. Joslen, p. 314.
  7. Joslen, p. 315.
  8. Joslen, p. 203.
  9. Joslen, p. 207.
  10. Joslen, p. 377.
  11. "Corps of Royal Engineers, Volunteer Regiments". Archived from the original on 22 September 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20070922082458/http://www.win.tue.nl/~drenth/BritArmy/Lineage/RE/index.html. Retrieved 16 September 2016. 

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Ian F.W. Beckett, 'Territorials: A Century of Service,' First Published April 2008 by DRA Printing of 14 Mary Seacole Road, The Millfields, Plymouth PL1 3JY on behalf of TA 100, ISBN 978-0-9557813-1-5, 175, 180.
  • Joslen, Lt-Col H.F. (2003) [1st pub. HMSO:1960]. Orders of Battle: Second World War, 1939–1945. Uckfield: Naval and Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84342-474-1.

External links[edit | edit source]

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