61st Infantry Division (United Kingdom)

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For the equivalent formation in the First World War, see 61st (2nd South Midland) Division.
61st Infantry Division[1]
61st (Light) Division[2]
61 inf div -vector.svg
The shoulder insignia of the division. Mike Chappell states that the insignia was chosen as a variation of the 48th (South Midland) Infantry Division insignia.[3]
Active September 1939 – November 1945
Country  United Kingdom
Branch Flag of the British Army.svg Territorial Army
Type Infantry and Light infantry
Role Infantry, home defence, training, and deception
Size Division

The 61st Infantry Division was an infantry division of the British Army, raised in 1939 as part of the expansion of the Territorial Army in response to the Nazi German occupation of Czechoslovakia. The division was created as a duplicate of the 48th (South Midland) Infantry Division, and was assigned to home defence duties.

While the division was never deployed overseas, its headquarters staff was deployed to Norway and briefly fought in the Norwegian Campaign. Afterwards, the division was deployed to Northern Ireland for almost three years as a result of rumours of a German intention to invade. In Northern Ireland, the division manned static defences, conducted internal security, and trained for future operations. Returning to England, the division participated in numerous military exercises and was scheduled to join the 21st Army Group for the Operation Overlord; the Allied invasion of German-occupied France. By late 1943, this role had been taken away from the division and it was assigned to train replacements for combat units. Throughout 1944, the division aided Overlord in various deception formats while most of the men were posted to combat formations within 21st Army Group. In late 1945, the division was re-organized as a light division and was going to be deployed to the Far East to fight Imperial Japan. The Japanese surrender resulted in the move not being made, and in November the division was disbanded.


File:Hore-Belisha 1935.jpg
Leslie Hore-Belisha, the man responsible for the 1939 expansion of the Territorial Army, and ultimately the creation of the division.

Throughout the 1930s tensions built between Nazi Germany and the United Kingdom as well as its allies.[4] During late 1937, and throughout 1938, German demands for the annexation of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland led to an international crisis. In an attempt to avoid war, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in September and brokered the Munich Agreement. The agreement averted war and allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland.[5] While it had been intended as an agreement to reconcile differences, and for future issues to be resolved peacefully, relations between both countries soon deteriorated.[6] On 15 March 1939, Germany breached the terms of the agreement by invading and occupying the remnants of the Czech state.[7]

In response, on 29 March, the British Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha announced plans to increase the Territorial Army from 130,000 men to 340,000 and in so doing double the number of territorial divisions.[8][lower-alpha 1] The intended plan of action was for the existing units to recruit over their allowed establishments (aided by an increase in pay for territorials, the removal of restrictions on promotion that had been a major hindrance to recruiting during the preceding years, the construction of better quality barracks, and an increase in supper-time rations) and then form 'Second Line' divisions from small cadres that could be built upon.[8][13] As a result,the 61st Infantry Division was to be created as a Second Line unit, a duplicate of the First Line 48th (South Midland) Infantry Division.[1][14] In April, limited conscription was introduced. At that time 34,500 'Militiamen', all of the age of 20, were conscripted into the regular army with the intent of being trained for six months before being deployed to the forming second line units.[14][15] However, despite the intention for the army to grow in size, 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.[8][16]


Initial service

Despite the ongoing efforts and some regiments being able to recruit the required numbers to form new battalions, the whole process had – in the words of historian James P. Levy – "not progressed beyond the paper stage when [the Second World War] began in September."[16][17] By the outbreak of the war, the division was active, under the command of Major-General Robert J. Collins, and was composed of the 182nd, 183rd, and 184th Infantry Brigades and supporting elements.[18] Following the division's formation, it was assigned to Southern Command. At the end of November, Major-General Adrian Carton de Wiart took command.[18] The division was spread out, ranging from Birmingham to Portsmouth, and Cheltenham to Reading, and with the headquarters based in Oxford.[19] On 15 April, Carton de Wiart, as well as the divisional staff, were deployed to Norway, and Major-General Edmond Schreiber was given command of the division.[1]

Headquarters deployed to Norway

Further information: Norwegian Campaign
Major-General Adrian Carton De Wiart held command of the division from 29 November 1939 until April 1941.

In their opening assault upon Norway, German troops had seized Trondheim. In response, the British Army planned to launch a two pronged pincer attack to retake the city.[20] The troops to undertake this attack came from the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division (a first line territorial division), which had already been earmarked for service in Norway prior to the German invasion.[21] The division was temporarily broken up, with its brigades acting as individual commands. The 146th Infantry Brigade, which would make up the bulk of Mauriceforce and form the northern pincer began landing on 17 April.[20] Due to time restraints and troops already assigned to the expedition, Carton de Wiart was not allowed to take the 61st with him, but was allowed to select his staff which he drew from the 61st divisional headquarters.[1][22] The southern pincer, 200 miles (320 km) to the south and separated by mountainous terrain and rivers, was to be undertaken by Major-General Bernard Paget's Sickleforce that had landed at Åndalsnes.[23][24][25]

Soon after arriving, the 146th's leading battalions began to move south. On 21 April, Carton De Wiart's troops engaged in the first encounter of the war between British and German troops. The British troops, largely confined to the road network and advancing in deep snow, were engaged by a slightly larger German force that was supported by artillery and air support. The Germans, utilizing sledges, motorcycles, and ski-troops were able to outmanoeuvre and force back the British. German follow-up attacks did not materialize, however the Luftwaffe heavily bombed the small port at Namsos.[24][25] Carton De Wiart cabled the War Office and stated "with my lack of equipment I was quite incapable of advancing on Trondheim and could see very little point in remaining in that part of Norway sitting out like rabbits in the snow."[26] The evacuation was not ordered until the end of the month and then completed in the early days of May, following the loss of 157 men of Mauriceforce. The lack of success in Norway, and the withdrawal of the forces attempting to retake Trondheim resulted in the collapse of Chamberlain's Government.[27] Carton De Wiart, considered a daring and aggressive commander, was – per historian Jack Adams – "hampered by ... climatic and geographic conditions" in addition to his troops being "inexperienced, poorly prepared and badly backed up".[23]

Deployment to Northern Ireland

Men of the 6th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment undertaking battle training at Coleraine, Northern Ireland, 16 June 1941.

As early as the middle of May, while the Battle of France was still being waged, the British Government began to fear that Germany would immediately launch an invasion of the British Isles. This fear was compounded by, as historian Paul McMahon commented, the "catastrophic Allied defeats" that soon followed, which produced "two hysterias in the summer of 1940: first, fear of imminent invasion and, second, a 'fifth column panic'."[28] The initial fear of invasion was aroused by the alleged capture of German documents, by the Dutch, which contained plans for a German invasion and also included information regarding a simultaneous attack on Ireland by paratroopers who were to be assisted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). This document, which no longer exists, caused panic within the British Government. This information was reinforced, in the following months, by reports warning of a German intent to invade Ireland from diplomatic missions and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).[29] On 14 May, following his return to the United Kingdom, Carton De Wiart resumed command of the 61st Infantry Division.[1] After the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from France, the British acted on the rumours of the German intent to invade Ireland, and the decision was made to reinforce the garrison (the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division) by deploying the 61st Infantry Division (Over the following 12 months, the division would be followed by the Followed by the 5th and 48th (South Midland) divisions and the 71st and 72nd Independent Infantry brigades).[30][31][32]

Men of the 6th Royal Berkshire Regiment, manning a roadblock, practice attacking German tanks.

McMahon commented that the SIS had a history of "furnish[ing] unreliable information on the IRA's foreign intrigues." Yet, these past failures were ignored as the reports reinforced the fears of invasion. MaMahon suggested that "It is even possible that the plans discovered in Holland were planted. Whether deliberate deception or not, British intelligence was well and truly deceived."[29] Historian Eunan O'Halpin argued that while the Dutch document could be seen as a British fabrication, "it is now known ... that German deception operations prepared in anticipation of Operation 'Sealion' included the manufacturing of rumours and stories of plans to attack Ireland as a feint during the build up to an invasion of Southern England."[33] Nicholas Mansergh commented that "Ireland had no place" in the initial Sealion plans, and it was not until 3 December 1940 that German planners even looked at the possibility before concluding that such an operation was not possible or if launched would result in failure.[34] In his memoirs, Carton De Wiart commented "I can never believe the Germans had any intention of invading Ireland but I am very grateful for any reason which sent us there, for it was an ideal training ground for troops and the division improved enormously from the moment of our arrival."[35]

The 61st moved to Northern Ireland, and came under the command of Northern Ireland District on 20 June.[36] The division was responsible for manning the static defences across Northern Ireland and defending Belfast, as well as being responsible for the internal security of the country. While based across most of Northern Ireland, it was largely positioned within County Antrim, County Londonderry, and County Tyrone, with the divisional headquarters at Ballymena.[37][38] The division trained to repel seaborne invasions from German forces, in addition to airborne landings and small raids. The beaches of County Antrim and Londonderry were seen as the most likely areas for an invasion, and by the end of autumn, concrete pillars, barbed wire entanglements, and camouflaged firing positions had been constructed.[39] During the division's stay in Northern Ireland, Lieutenant-General Henry Pownall took command of British forces in the country. His appointment resulted in Carton De Wiart losing command of the division on grounds of his age (one month shy of his 61st birthday).[40][41] Carton De Wiart was replaced by Major-General Charles St Quentin Outen Fullbrook-Leggatt, who assumed command on 6 April 1941, and was in turn followed by Major-General John Owen Carpenter on 15 September 1942.[1]

Return to England, training, and Operation Overlord

The division returned to the England on 4 February 1943, and was placed under the command of XI Corps and based in Essex.[36][42] Between 4–12 March, the division participated in Exercise Spartan; the largest military exercise ever held in the United Kingdom. David French commented that the exercise "was designed to analyse the problems that would arise after a force had landed on a hostile shore and was advancing from a bridgehead." The exercise revealed weaknesses in elements of the senior leadership, in particular the officers in overall command of the armies deployed for the exercise, and highlighted the improvements made in general by the infantry.[43] In May, the division was transferred to II Corps and moved to Kent following-which Major-General Charles Wainwright took command.[18][42] The division was earmarked for an role in Operation Overlord[44] and Marcus Cunliffe wrote that Exercise Spartan "seemed to be every indication that" the division was to be a front line unit.[42] In September, the division in conjunction with the 1st Polish Armoured Division was placed under the control of II Canadian Corps for Exercise Link.[45] In the months following the exercise, the division was relegated to 'Lower Establishment' status.[42][44] This meant that the division was now to be strictly used for home defence in a static role compared to 'Higher Establishment' divisions that were intended for deployment overseas and combat.[46][47][48] As part of this change in priorities, the division also became a training formation and one intended to find suitable replacements for fighting formations.[38][44] By October, the division had also been assigned to anti-invasion duties in Kent.[49] While based there, German cross-Channel guns periodically shelled the area, and in 1944 V-1 flying bombs became a minor issue.[50] In December 1943, the division (reinforced, for the exercise, by the 31st Tank Brigade) played the defending force in Exercise Vulcan; a four-day training exercise aimed at improving the attacking process of the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division.[51]

Men of the 4th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment training in Omagh, Northern Ireland, 5 February 1942

During 1944, the division aided Operation Overlord in a number of formats. On 9 April, the 183rd Infantry Brigade ceased to exist as an formation and formed HQ Residue Concentration Area[lower-alpha 2] to aid the invasion preparation.[53] The 4th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment and the 10th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment were attached to 21st Army Group to aid 185th Camouflage Field Company, Royal Engineers. The men of the 4th Northamptonshire Regiment created 150 fake Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs), made from steel tubing and canvas, and positioned them along the River Deben at Ipswich, as well as at Oulton Broad, Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. The 10th Worcestershire Regiment constructed fake landing craft at Dover, Folkestone, and Harwich, in addition to fake LCTs on the River Orwell. By 6 June, the battalion had constructed 122 such dummy displays.[54] In May, as part of Operation Fortitude, Joan Pujol Garcia (the British double agent known as Garbo) reported to the Germans that the division was ostensibly based around Brighton and Newhaven. Here, in addition to 45th Infantry Division and Royal Marines, it allegedly took part in the build-up of the notional First United States Army Group (FUSAG).[55][lower-alpha 3] The division was then made part of the fictional British VII Corps, part of the equally fake Fourth Army, and 'travelled' to Scotland before returning south to FUSAG.[58][59][60] Furthermore, signallers from the division maintained wireless traffic to give the Germans the impression that VII Corps also included the notional 80th Division.[61]

An example of deployed decoy Landing Craft Tanks

By mid-1944, the five 'Lower Establishment' divisions allocated to home defence duties (the 38th (Welsh), the 45th, the 47th (London), the 55th (West Lancashire), and the 61st) had a combined total of 17,845 men. Of this number, around 13,000 were available as replacements for the 21st Army Group fighting in France.[48][lower-alpha 4] The remaining 4,800 men were considered ineligible at that time for service abroad for a variety of reasons, including a lack of training or being medically unfit. Over the following six months, up to 75 per cent of these men would be deployed to reinforce 21st Army Group following the completion of their training and certification of fitness.[63] For example, those eligible for overseas service from the 9th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment were transferred to 21st Army Group. The battalion was then tasked with training those who were considered unfit, re-training soldiers who had recovered from wounds, and training men from anti-aircraft units to become infantry.[lower-alpha 5][50] On 18 July, HQ Residue Concentration Area reverted to its former infantry role. Two days later, the brigade staff of 184th Infantry Brigade became the headquarters of 183rd Infantry Brigade and likewise the headquarters staff of the 183rd became HQ 184th Infantry Brigade.[66] In August, the 4th Northamptonshire was transferred to Force 135 that was planning to end the German occupation of the Channel Islands. Such an attack did not materialize, and the entire force was transferred to Europe to reinforce 21st Army Group.[67] On 1 September, the 184th Infantry Brigade (while remaining part of the division) was transferred to the Orkney and Shetland for a two-month stint as the defensive garrison.[68] Over the remainder of the year, and into 1945 the makeup of the division changed. However, the role of the division remained the same. For example, the 4th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment role was find drafts for other battalions fighting overseas.[69]

Light division, and disbandment

In August 1945, following the conclusion of the war in Europe, the division was reorganized as a light division.[36] The light division concept had been undertaken during the Burma Campaign following the initial defeats. Historian F.W. Perry commented that the British Indian Army concluded that "existing Indian formations were over-mechanised and road-bound." Therefore, the surviving 17th Indian Division was reorganised as a light division.[70] This included being reduced to two infantry brigades, all non-cross country capable vehicles being replaced with mules, jeeps, and four-wheel drive trucks, and the field artillery either completely replaced by pack howitzers or mechanised. These changes greatly increased the off-road mobility, and the increase in pack animals allowed it to operate away from a road network for an extended period of time.[70][71]

The 61st retained its three infantry brigades, although there were changes to the divisional troops along the above lines.[36] It was intended that the division would be able to be transferred by air to any theatre of war, and it's personal trained to fight in any terrain encountered. Once on the ground, the entire division would be mobile utilizing only jeeps. To help adapt to this new role, training exercises were carried out. The initial destination for the division was the Far East to support the fight against Imperial Japan. However, the Japanese surrender resulted in the move being cancelled, and the division never left the United Kingdom.[50][72][3] In November, the division was disbanded.[73]

General officer commanding

Appointed General officer commanding
3 September 1939 Major-General Robert Collins[1]
29 November 1939 Major-General Adrian Carton De Wiart
26 April 1940 Major-General Edmond Schreiber[1]
14 May 1940 Major-General Adrian Carton De Wiart[1]
6 April 1941 Major-General Charles St Quentin Outen Fullbrook-Leggatt[1]
15 September 1942 Major-General John Owen Carpenter[1]
17 May 1943 Major-General Charles Brian Wainwright[1]

Order of Battle

See also



  1. The Territorial Army was a reserve of the British regular army made up of part-time volunteers. By 1939, it's intended role was to be the sole method of expanding the size of the British armed forces (compared to the creation of Kitchener's Army during the First World War). First Line territorial formations would create a second line division using a cadre of trained personal, and, if needed, a third division would also be created. All Territorial Army recruits were required to take the general service obligation meaning that, if the British Government decided, territorial soldiers could be deployed overseas for combat. (This avoided the complications with the Territorial Force, whose members were not required to leave the United Kingdom unless they volunteered for overseas service.)[9][10][11][12]
  2. The elements of the assault divisions, which would not be needed during the initial phase of Overlord, were detached and based in 'residue' camps awaiting the order for embarkation to join their parent units following the assault.[52]
  3. 'Fortitude South' aimed to convince the Germans that FUSAG had 500,000 men in more than fifty divisions and would launch the main Allied invasion in the Pas de Calais, 45 days after the Normandy landings. The goal of the operation was to persuade the Germans not to move the 18 divisions of the 15th Army to Normandy.[56][57]
  4. The war establishment—the paper strength—of a "Higher Establishment" infantry division by this point in the war was 18,347 men.[62]
  5. By this point in the war, the British Army was facing a manpower crisis as it did not have enough men to replace the losses to front line infantry. In an effort to alleviate the issue, men the Royal Artillery and Royal Air Force were retrained as infantry.[64][65]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 Joslen 2003, p. 95.
  2. Molesworth 1951, p. 258.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Chappell 1987, p. 37.
  4. Bell 1986, pp. 3–4.
  5. Bell 1986, pp. 258–275.
  6. Bell 1986, pp. 277–278.
  7. Bell 1986, p. 281.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Gibbs 1976, p. 518.
  9. Allport 2015, p. 323.
  10. French 2001, p. 53.
  11. Perry 1988, pp. 41–42.
  12. Simkins 2007, pp. 43–46.
  13. Messenger 1994, p. 47.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Messenger 1994, p. 49.
  15. French 2001, p. 64.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Perry 1988, p. 48.
  17. Levy 2006, p. 66.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Joslen 2003, pp. 95–96.
  19. Carton De Wiart 1950, p. 164.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Fraser 1999, p. 38.
  21. Fraser 1999, pp. 32–38.
  22. Carton De Wiart 1950, p. 166.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Adams 1989, p. 38.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Fraser 1999, pp. 36–41.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Derry 1952, pp. 94, 142–144.
  26. Haarr 2010, p. 128.
  27. Derry 1952, pp. 142–144.
  28. McMahon 2008, p. 305.
  29. 29.0 29.1 McMahon 2008, p. 314.
  30. Collier 1957, pp. 136–137.
  31. Joslen 2003, pp. 80 and 96.
  32. Barton 1995, p. 92.
  33. O'Halpin 2006, p. 207.
  34. Mansergh 1968, pp. 72–73.
  35. Carton De Wiart 1950, p. 176.
  36. 36.0 36.1 36.2 36.3 Joslen 2003, p. 96.
  37. Carton De Wiart 1950, pp. 176–177.
  38. 38.0 38.1 "Badge, formation, 61st Infantry Division". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 4 April 2016. 
  39. Barton 1995, p. 93.
  40. Carton De Wiart 1950, p. 179.
  41. Zabecki 2015, p. 251.
  42. 42.0 42.1 42.2 42.3 Cunliffe 1956, p. 73.
  43. French 2001, p. 209.
  44. 44.0 44.1 44.2 Neville 1951, p. 252.
  45. Stacey 1955, p. 252.
  46. French 2001, p. 188.
  47. Perry 1988, p. 65.
  48. 48.0 48.1 Hart 2007, p. 52.
  49. Birdwood 1952, p. 224.
  50. 50.0 50.1 50.2 "9th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment - 1939 to 1945". The Worcestershire Regiment. Retrieved 8 April 2016. 
  51. Place 2000, p. 22.
  52. Ruppenthal 1995, p. 358.
  53. 53.0 53.1 Joslen 2003, p. 358.
  54. Barbier 2007a, pp. 76–77.
  55. Barbier 2007a, p. 100.
  56. Barbier 2007b, p. 172.
  57. Zabecki 2015, p. 1485.
  58. Barbier 2007a, pp. 100 and 132.
  59. Crowdy 2008, p. 293.
  60. Holt 2004, p. 914.
  61. Hesketh 2000, p. 296.
  62. Joslen 2003, pp. 130–131.
  63. Hart 2007, pp. 48–51.
  64. Messenger 1994, p. 122.
  65. Allport 2015, p. 216.
  66. Joslen 2003, pp. 358–359.
  67. Joslen 2003, p. 307.
  68. 68.0 68.1 Joslen 2003, p. 359.
  69. "The 4th, 6th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 30th Battalions The Devonshire Regiment in World War Two". The Keep Military Museum: Home of the Regiments of Devon and Dorset. Retrieved 8 April 2016. 
  70. 70.0 70.1 Perry 1988, p. 109.
  71. Moreman 2014, pp. 55–56.
  72. Chaplin 1954, p. 438.
  73. Birdwood 1952, p. 255.
  74. Joslen 2003, p. 357.