British tanks in May 1940

By the time World War Two had come around, the design of the tank had shifted from its uses as a terrain covering vehicle, and the full potential of the tank as an armoured, combat vehicle had been realised.

Since the infantry tanks were to work at the pace of the infantry units, which would be attacking on foot, high speed was not a requirement and they were able to carry heavier armour. 

The Infantry Tank came about as a result of a 1934 requirement by the General Staff for a tank that would directly support an infantry attack. Armament would consist of a machine gun and an overall speed of a walking man when moving. Vickers designed an inexpensive (cost was a serious consideration) pilot which was delivered and accepted in 1936. Although heavily armoured it was slow and under-armed. Most would be lost or left behind in France.

The first purpose-designed infantry tanks were the Matilda I armed with a machine-gun and Matilda II, which was armed with a machine gun and a QF 2 pounder anti-tank gun. It was quickly seen that the Matilda I, with only a machine gun, was inadequate for its intended role. The second Matilda was ordered directly off the drawing board in 1937. During its production years of 1940 to 1943, 2,987 of these sturdy tanks were built. Though small, the tank presented a massive appearance due to its armoured skirts and cast armour. The Matilda 2 totally dominated all Italian armour and could claim title to "Queen of the Desert" until the arrival of German tanks in North Africa.

The British Army were pioneers in tank combat but by 1939 it could be argued they were behind the times in terms of strategy and tactics, their methods based on the trench warfare of World War One. The British Army entered the Second World War with an array of poor designs and hobbled by poor doctrine. According to the theories of Captain BH Liddell Hart and Major-General Sir Percy Hobart, they split their tank force into two groups; Infantry tanks and Cruiser tanks. British tank use focused on cavalry-type missions and infantry support without the focus on the combined-arms tactics that dominated German and Soviet thinking.

The result was a series of under-armed, mechanically unreliable designs such as the A9 which Sir John Carden of Vickers-Armstrong produced in 1934 and A10 and Crusader (A15) cruiser tanks, and the Matilda (A11) also by Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd, began in 1935 and Matilda II (A12) infantry tanks, and a series of deathtrap light tanks, the Light Tank Mk I built earlier by Vickers Armstrong from 1929, up to the Light Tank Mk V produced during 1936, that were suitable for reconnaissance work only.

                                            Matilda Mk I (A11)

                                                    Matilda Mk II (A12) 

The Matilda Mk I, (A11) and Matilda II (A12) infantry tanks fought together in France as part of the 1st Army Tank Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force in the Battle of France. They participated in the defence and counter-attack operation at Arras against the invasion by Nazi Germany in May 1940, temporarily discomfiting the 7th Panzer Division under Rommel. 

In the battle, elements of motorized SS regiment "Totenkopf" (later to be expanded into SS-Division Totenkopf) were overrun, their standard 37 mm PaK 36/37 anti-tank guns proving ineffective against the heavily armoured British Matilda tank. Rommel committed some of his armour to local counterattacks, only to find the guns of the Panzer II and Panzer 38(t) tanks could not penetrate the Matildas' armour. 

Desperate to prevent a British breakthrough, Rommel ordered the division's 88 mm FlaK 18 anti-aircraft guns and 105 mm field guns be formed into a defensive line and fire anti-tank and HE rounds in a last-ditch effort to stop the Matildas, and this stopped the British tanks. 

The attack made the German commanders nervous, and the battle is historically credited with shaking the confidence of the German High Command (OKW) and it may have been one of the factors for the surprise German halt on 24 May that gave the BEF the slimmest of opportunities to begin evacuation from Dunkirk. The main British force consisted of only 58 machine gun armed Matilda Is and 16 QF 2-pounder gun armed Matilda IIs supported by a few lighter armoured vehicles.

                                                      Vickers 6 tn tank (T-26 was license)

During the summer of 1939, an amazed German military attaché in Britain watched troops on manoeuvres, march with gas pipes and pieces of wood to represent anti-tank rifles and carry blue flags to represent trucks they rode in. One lieutenant stuffed his holster with paper because he had no pistol and one soldier who joined the Royal Artillery in April did not receive his uniform until July. There were immense pressures to produce equipment, which led to a rapid increase in output. 

Clothing items were one example of this, greatcoats and boots being produced at up to fifty times the normal peacetime rates. Twenty-five years of greatcoats were produced in six months and 18 months' army boots were turned out in one week but shortages remained. After the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries in May 1940, only three officers of the 5th Battalion, Green Howards, a TA unit, had pistols and the unit similarly lacked compasses and binoculars.

Following the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, the BEF was despatched to France and sent to the Franco-Belgian border. Advanced parties of troops left Portsmouth on 4 September under Plan W4 and the first troops convoy left the ports on the Bristol Channel and Southampton on 9 September, the landings taking place at Cherbourg on 10 September and Nantes and St Nazaire the next day. 

German submarines had been limited by Hitler's orders to avoid provoking the Allies and only a few mines were laid near Dover and Weymouth. By 27 September, 152,000 soldiers, 21,424 army vehicles, 37,000 t tons of ammunition, 25,000 t of petrol and 61,000 t of frozen meat had been delivered to France by the Navy and the Merchant Navy.

By 19 October, the BEF had received 25,000 vehicles to complete the first deployment. The majority of the troops were stationed along the Franco-Belgian border; the 51st Highland Infantry Division was reinforced and called Saar Force served with the French Third Army on the Maginot Line. Belgium and the Netherlands were neutral countries and no troops were stationed in them. 

For those troops along the Maginot Line the inactivity and an undue reliance on the fortifications, which it was believed would provide an unbreakable defence, led to "Tommy Rot" – as portrayed by the song "Imagine Me on the Maginot Line". Morale was high amongst the British troops but the small-scale actions of the Germans by 9 May, had led many into assuming that there would not be much chance of a big German attack in that area.

Over the next few months, more troops and equipment began to arrive in France and by 13 March 1940, the BEF had doubled in size to 394,165 men. By May 1940 the BEF order of battle consisted of 10 infantry divisions in I Corps, II Corps and III Corps, the 1st Army Tank Brigade, the BEF Air Component Royal Air Force (RAF) detachment of about 500 aircraft and the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) long-range bomber force. 

These were commanded by General Headquarters (GHQ) which consisted of men from Headquarters (HQ) Troops (consisting of the 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards, the 9th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment and the 14th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers), the 1st Army Tank Brigade, 1st Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade, HQ Royal Artillery and the 5th Infantry Division.

This period leading up to 10 May was known as the "Phoney War", as there was little combat apart from minor clashes of reconnaissance patrols. The first BEF fatality was 27-year-old Corporal Thomas William Priday, from the 1st Battalion, King's Shropshire Light Infantry, attached to the 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, killed on 9 December 1939, when his patrol set off a booby-trap and was fired upon by friendly troops.

At the start of the war, the British Army possessed only two armoured divisions: the Mobile Division, formed in Britain in October 1937, and the Mobile Division (Egypt), formed in the autumn of 1938 following the Munich Crisis,

These two divisions were later redesignated the 1st Armoured Division, in April 1939, and 7th Armoured Division, in January 1940, respectively.

During the war, the army raised a further nine armoured divisions, some of which were training formations and saw no action. Three were formed from first-line territorial or Yeomanry units. Six more were raised from various sources. As with the infantry divisions, not all existed at the same time, as several armoured divisions were disbanded or reduced to skeleton establishments during the course of the war, as a result of battle casualties or to provide reinforcements to bring other formations up to full strength.

The structure of British armoured divisions changed several times before and during the war. In 1937, the Mobile Division had two cavalry brigades each with three light tank regiments, a tank brigade with three medium tank regiments, and a "Pivot Group" (later called the "Support Group") containing two motorised infantry battalions and two artillery regiments. The Mobile Division (Egypt) had a light armoured brigade, a cavalry brigade, a heavy armoured group of two regiments and a pivot group.

By 1939, the intention was for an Armoured Division to consist of two armoured brigades, a support group and divisional troops. The armoured brigades would each be composed of three armoured regiments with a mixture of light and medium tanks, with a total complement of 220 tanks, while the support group would be composed of two motorised infantry battalions, two field artillery regiments, one anti–tank regiment and one light anti–aircraft regiment.

In late 1940, following the campaign in France and Belgium in the spring, it was realised that there were insufficient infantry and support units, and mixing light and cruiser tanks in the same brigade had been a mistake. The armoured divisions' organisation was changed so that each armoured brigade now incorporated a motorised infantry battalion, and a third battalion was present within the Support Group.

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