78th Infantry Division (United Kingdom)

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
78th Infantry Division
78 inf div -vector.svg
Formation sign of the 78th Infantry Division
Active 25 May 1942[1] – August 1946[2]
Country  United Kingdom
Branch  British Army
Type Infantry
Size Division, at war establishment strength 17,298-18,347 men[lower-alpha 1]
Nickname(s) Battleaxe Division[4]
Battle honours 1942: Tebourba Gap[5]

1943: Oued Zarga, Medjez Plain, Tunis, Adrano, The Sangro[5]
1944: Cassino II, Liri Valley, Trasimene Line, Advance to Florence[5]

1945: The Senio, Argenta Gap[5]
Major-General Vyvyan Evelegh
Major-General Charles Keightley

The 78th Infantry Division, also known as the Battleaxe Division, was an infantry division of the British Army during the Second World War that fought, with great distinction, in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy from late 1942–1945.


Following the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain, the Western Desert Campaign in North Africa became the primary focus of British military operations during the Second World War.[6] Between 1940 and 1942, British Commonwealth forces fought a back and forth campaign with Italian and German troops across Italian Libya.[7] Under the command of General Erwin Rommel, the Italian-German force gained the upper hand during the Battle of Gazala and inflicted a major defeat upon the British Eighth Army. The battle resulted in the fall of the port of Tobruk, a calamity second only to the fall of Singapore in February. The Eighth Army retreating from its gains in Libya over the Frontier Wire into Egypt, where several battles were fought that culminated in the Second Battle of El Alamein (23 October – 11 November).[8][9]

On 7 December 1941, the Empire of Japan entered the war by attacking the British colony of Malaya and the United States's naval base at Pearl Harbor.[10] Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States bringing the Americans into the European conflict.[11] The American military favoured Operation Sledgehammer, a cross-channel invasion of German-occupied France.[12] Such a move was opposed by the British, who acknowledged the military weakness of the Allies to undertake such an endeavour, especially as the British Army would have to provide the main force for such an operation. In July 1942, the Anglo-Americans met in London and agreed that Operation Roundup, Sledgehammer's successor, would be postponed and joint operations would begin in North Africa.[13]

During 1941, planning took place for a proposed British landing in French North Africa. This operation, codenamed Gymnast, aimed to support a successful Operation Crusader offensive in Cyrenacia by drawing off Axis reinforcements, then in conjunction with the Eighth Army would defeat the Axis forces in North Africa. Following the American entry into the war, the United States Army developed the British plan into "Super Gymnast". This plan assumed that the Vichy French garrison would invite the Allied force to land and then rejoin the Allies. The combined force would then defeat the Axis forces in North Africa, but lack of shipping, setbacks for the Eighth Army, and a lack of co-operation from the French in North Africa, led to planning being suspended on 12 March.[14][15] During the Anglo-American meeting in London, in July 1942, Operation Gymnast was revived. The revised plan, known as Operation Torch, sought to clear Africa of Axis forces and release Allied shipping, relieve pressure on the Soviet Union, and allow American ground forces to engage the Germans.[14][16][lower-alpha 2]



The 78th Division was formed, in Scotland, on 25 May 1942,[1][18] specifically as an assault formation for Operation Torch.[19] At the time, the war establishment, the on-paper strength, of an infantry division was 17,298 men.[3] The units selected for the division (1st (Guards) Brigade, the 11th Brigade, and the 36th Brigade) were all veterans of the fighting in France and had taken part in the Dunkirk evacuation. Each had also been, since 1941, trained in amphibious warfare in anticipation of such an operation.[19] The division held a single divisional exercise, Operation Dryshod, during August before embarking on 16 October for North Africa.[5][20]

The divisional insignia, representing a battle axe as used by a crusader, was selected by Major-General Vyvyan Evelegh. A variant of the insignia featured the battle axe on a circular background. All versions displayed the blade facing to the left.[18] The insignia gave rise to the formation's nickname: Battleaxe Division. Mike Chappell comments that the insignia "was proudly worn on just about all forms of dress" and to the exclusion of other insignia such as "regimental titles, [and] arm-of-service strips".[4]

Operation Torch

A map of the Torch landings. (Click to enlarge)

The plan for Torch called for American landings on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and near Algiers and Oran along Algeria's coastline. The British role in the initial landings called for an assault by elements of the 78th Division (9,000 men of the 11th and 36th Brigade Groups), near Algiers, alongside Commandos and the US 39th and US 168th Regimental Combat Team (RCT).[21] The assault called for the 11th Brigade Group to land to the west of Algiers and secure a beachhead, before advancing south to capture the Blida airfield and then push east to secure Bir Touta, southwest of Algiers, to control the road network. The 36th Brigade Group was to wait off shore as in reserve. To cover the eastern flank of the landing, the 39th RCT was to land and advance south, while the 168th RCT was tasked with the capture of the city itself. Resistance by the French army and air force was expected to be slight, although the same could not be said of the Vichy navy.[22] Once Algiers was secured, the Anglo-American force would come under the command of the British First Army and was tasked with rapidly move eastwards to enter French Tunisia.[23]

After sunset on 7 November, the invasion fleet moved into position. At 11:50, 45 landing craft took the 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment and the 5th (Huntingdonshire) Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment towards the Algerian coastline. The first wave landed at 01:00, 8 November.[24] No opposition was met by the 11th Brigade Group, who completed their landings by noon.[25] Resistance was mixed at the other Anglo-American landing sites around Algiers. While this fighting took place, American Major General Charles W. Ryder entered the city and opened negotiations with General Alphonse Juin (Commander-in-Chief of French Forces in North Africa), who had been granted permission to do so by Admiral of the fleet François Darlan (Commander-in-Chief of the French Armed Forces).[26] A ceasefire was agreed to, and Algiers was occupied at 19:00. Darlan issued a general ceasefire, across Morocco and Algeria, on 10 November ending all fighting.[27]

Operation Torch had achieved complete surprise, and was a success.[28][16] While some Allied commanders, such as Admiral Andrew Cunningham, believed that landings should have been conducted along the Tunisian coastline such a move had been ruled out during the planning of the operation due to the threat of Axis aircraft, submarines, and a shortage of Allied shipping.[29][30] On 9 November, General Kenneth Anderson landed in Algiers and activated First Army. On 11 November, having sailed down the coast, the 36th Brigade Group landed in Algeria and captured Bougie.[31] In response to the Allied landings, Axis troops and aircraft were flown into Tunisia where they met no opposition from local Vichy French forces. On 14 November, Anderson ordered the 78th Division to move east - along with other American and British forces within the First Army - to seize Bizerta and Tunis; aiming to achieve this goal before the end of the month, initiating the Run for Tunis.[32]

Tunisia Campaign

Thereafter the division had a prominent role in the Tunisia Campaign, gaining a formidable reputation.

Subsequent operations

Infantrymen of the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles, part of 38th (Irish) Brigade of the 78th Division, move forward through barbed wire defences on their way to attack a German strongpoint on the southern bank of the River Senio, Italy, 22 March 1945.

The 78th Infantry Division then fought through the Allied invasion of Sicily, and then fought on the Italian Front, before eventually arriving in Austria for the end of the war. Units also saw action in Greece, Palestine, and Egypt. Notable engagements include in Tunisia the Battle of Longstop Hill, in Sicily the Battle of Centuripe and in Italy the assaults on the Viktor Line (Battle of Termoli), the Moro River Campaign, the Barbara Line and the River Sangro (Gustav Line) as well as the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Trasimene Line, the Gothic Line and Battle of the Argenta Gap, and finally Operation Grapeshot.

The 78th Division gained notoriety when on rest in Egypt, by starting the Cairo riots. Some divisional signs are known to have included 'Cairo' as a mock battle honour.[33]

The 78th was also considered to be one of the best divisions of the British Army during the Second World War due to its high morale and excellent leadership, and the best mountain warfare division in the British Eighth Army. This view was shared by many senior commanders such as Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Walter Allfrey, commander of V Corps, part of the British Eighth Army, who claimed the 78th Division was the "finest fighting division of any that I had the privilege to have in 'V' Corps."[34]

Two members of the 78th Battleaxe Division were awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War. They belonged to Major Wallace Le Patourel of the 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment,[35] in December 1942, and Fusilier Frank Jefferson of the 2nd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers in May 1944.[36]

General officer commanding

Commanders included:

Appointed General officer commanding
14 June 1942 Major-General Vyvyan Evelegh[1]
13 December 1943 Major-General Charles Keightley[1]
9 July 1944 Brigadier Robert Keith Arbuthnott (acting)[1]
30 July 1944 Major-General Charles Keightley[1]
1 August 1944 Brigadier Robert Keith Arbuthnott (acting)[1]
21 August 1944 Major-General Donald Clunes Butterworth[1]
10 October 1944 Brigadier Robert Keith Arbuthnott (acting)[1]
17 November 1944 Major-General Robert Keith Arbuthnott[1]

Order of Battle

See also


  1. The first figure is the war establishment, the on-paper strength, of an infantry division formed during or after 1941. The second figure is the on-paper strength of a division following 1944. For information on how division sizes changed over the war please see British Army during the Second World War.[3]
  2. On 22 June 1941, Germany and her allies invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa with over 3.5 million soldiers, which inflicted huge defeats upon the Red Army in the opening months of fighting.[17]
  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 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 1.28 1.29 Joslen 2003, p. 101.
  2. Ford 2003, p. 273.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Joslen 2003, pp. 130–131.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Chappell 1987, p. 38.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Joslen 2003, p. 102.
  6. Fraser 1999, p. 113.
  7. Fraser 1999, pp. 113–130, 155–180.
  8. Weinberg 1994, pp. 350–352.
  9. Fraser 1999, p. 241.
  10. Weinberg 1994, p. 260.
  11. Weinberg 1994, p. 262.
  12. Weinberg 1994, p. 358.
  13. Weinberg 1994, pp. 358–359.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Chant 2013, p. 273.
  15. Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 120–123.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Weinberg 1994, p. 359.
  17. Weinberg 1994, pp. 264–265.
  18. 18.0 18.1 "Badge, formation, 78th Infantry Division & 11th Infantry Brigade". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 18 August 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. 19.0 19.1 Ford 2003, p. 1.
  20. Laplander 2014, p. 45.
  21. Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 125–126.
  22. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 141.
  23. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 125.
  24. Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 142–143.
  25. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 144.
  26. Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 134, 145.
  27. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 145.
  28. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 152.
  29. Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 124, 152.
  30. Weinberg 1994, p. 434.
  31. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 153.
  32. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 169.
  33. Fulton (2011), pp.92-94
  34. Ford, p. 5.
  35. http://1rhamps.com/Reg_History/VictoriaCross.html
  36. http://www.lancs-fusiliers.co.uk/feature/jefferson/Frankjeffersonvc.htm
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 Joslen 2003, p. 249.
  38. 38.0 38.1 38.2 38.3 Joslen 2003, p. 284.
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 39.3 Joslen 2003, p. 373.


  • Chant, Christopher (2013) [1986]. The Encyclopedia of Codenames of World War II. Routledge Revivals. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-71087-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Chappell, Mike (1987). British Battle Insignia 1939–1940. Men-At-Arms. 2. London: Osprey. ISBN 978-0-850-45739-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Fulton, Fergus (2011). A Waggoner's War. Woodfield Publishing. ISBN 1846831164.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Ford, Ken (2003). Battleaxe Division: From Africa to Italy with the 78th Division, 1942-45. Stroud: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0-750-93199-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Fraser, David (1999) [1983]. And We Shall Shock Them: The British Army in the Second World War. London: Cassell Military. ISBN 978-0-304-35233-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Joslen, Lt-Col H.F. (2003) [1960]. Orders of Battle: Second World War, 1939–1945. Uckfield: Naval and Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84342-474-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Laplander, Robert J. (2014). The True Story of the Wooden Horse. Barnsley: Pen & Swords Books. ISBN 978-1-783-83101-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Playfair, Major-General I. S. O.; Flynn, Captain F. C.; Molony, Brigadier C. J. C. & Gleave, Group Captain T. P. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1960]. Butler, J. R. M., ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East: British Fortunes reach their Lowest Ebb (September 1941 to September 1942). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. III. London: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 978-1-845-74067-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Playfair, Major-General I. S. O.; Molony, Brigadier C. J. C.; Flynn, Captain F. C. & Gleave, Group Captain T. P. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1966]. Butler, J. R. M., ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East: The Destruction of the Axis Forces in Africa. series=History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. IV. London: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84574-068-9. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. (1994). A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-44317-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>