History of the Foot Guards
Second World War
Image: American paratroops riding Guards Churchill tanks of the 6th Tank Brigade during the final advance into Germany
Following the declaration of war against Germany a British Expeditionary Force including Guards Battalions headed to France. During the so called ‘Phoney War’ they defended the French borders but there was no major fighting. However in April 1940 a Guards Brigade went into action in the ill-fated Norway campaign, which failed to prevent German invasion. This first taste of fighting against the Germans showed how unprepared the allies were for the new tactics being used against them.
Within three weeks of the German invasion of Holland in May 1940 the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from the beaches of France and Belgium. The Guards had mounted spirited defences at Boulogne, Arras and Dunkirk; upholding their tradition of discipline under fire in the face of tanks and air attack.
While Britain braced itself for invasion, Mussolini’s Italian forces attacked towards Egypt but were soon pushed back by the British. When Rommel’s Africa Corps joined the Italians the fighting began a period in which it swept back and forth across North Africa with first one side then the other having the upper hand. 22 Guards Brigade fought alongside other allied units to halt Rommel’s advance on Egypt. This was not the chivalrous campaign that it is often said to be, but hard and brutal fighting in a very inhospitable environment. Both in defending at the Knightsbridge Box and Tobruk and attacking at the Bou and Mareth the Guards suffered heavy losses and fought tenaciously. In May 1943 the total defeat of the enemy in North Africa was seen as the first major allied victory in the War.
From that point, growing in strength since America’s entry into the War in December 1941, the allies went onto the offensive. Many of the Guards who had fought in North Africa soon went on to the Italian Campaign. 201st Guards Brigade landed at Salerno and fought their way from the beachhead, later British and American troop landed at Anzio but a cautious advance allowed the Germans to mount a heavy defence. From this point on the allies had to fight all the way as they moved northwards. 1st Guards Brigade fought amid the ruins of Monte Cassino where the Welsh Guards radio traffic in Welsh was mistaken for Indian by the Germans who dropped propaganda leaflets to them in Urdu. The winter of 1944 was one of the worst on record and the Guards Brigades fighting in the Apenine hills had the worst of it. In spring the allied advance continued and in April the Grenadier Guards crossed the river Po, which was the German’s last line of defence. When the Germans surrendered on 8th May the Guards were on the Italian-Austrian border having completed a hard won advance up the length of Italy.
In Western Europe the Guards began another most interesting period of their history. Being infantry soldiers they often moved by vehicle but always fought on foot. This changed in 1941 when the Guards received tanks, and formed their own Division for the first time since the First World War. The new Guards Armoured Division adopted the old Guards Division emblem, the ever open eye, which was redesigned by the artist Rex Whistler who was serving in the Welsh Guards. After lengthy training the Division landed in France in July 1944 and took part in the heavy fighting to take the key town of Caen. They then moved into the Bocage area, which was ideal for the Germans to defend. High thick hedges and narrow sunken lanes around small fields created a maze of obstacles for tanks and men to manoeuvre in. In the battle for Hill 309 6th Guards Tank Brigade managed to reach the hill and occupy it but their infantry support was left behind fighting in the fields. The tanks held the hill overnight on their own despite heavy counter attacks by enemy tanks, until the infantry arrived next morning. In August the German defences began to collapse and by September the Welsh and Grenadier Guards were both racing to liberate Brussels. The Welsh Guards got their first and this is still commemorated every year when the townspeople dress the famous Mannekin Pis in a Welsh Guards uniform.
On 16th September Field Marshal Montgomery launched Operation Market Garden, his bold attempt to cross the river Rhine in Holland. This is commonly known from the point of view of the airborne forces that landed to capture the bridges on the route to Arnhem and the Arnhem bridge itself. But the aim of this was to allow armoured troops of XXX Corps to reach Arnhem and ultimately cross into Germany. The Guards Armoured Division led the 64 mile advance from the Belgian border towards Arnhem but the German defence was heavier than expected. Much of the route was on narrow roads which could only take tanks in single file and because they were raised above the flat land the tanks stood out as easy targets for German gunners. Once one vehicle was hit the whole advance was delayed till it was cleared and heavy fighting in Nijmegen slowed the advance further. American Para troops seized the far end of Nijmegen Bridge having crossed the river under intense fire and held on till 3 Grenadier Guard tanks dashed over the bridge to link up with them. But the force was too small and lacked support so it halted temporarily. Despite reinforcements the advance was unable to cover the last miles to Arnhem due to the stiff German defence. The Para troops there managed to evacuate but many were taken prisoner and casualties had been high.
In 1945 Guards tanks were the first British to cross the Siegfried Line on the German border and in March Guards units quickly advanced deep into Germany, despite many of their tanks being slow Churchill types. Interestingly, the Coldstream Guards used a captured German Panther tank for a short while, which was named Cuckoo.
Having advanced so far in their new armoured role it was a sad reality that once the war ended that the Guards tank units reverted back to Infantry and staged a Farewell to Armour parade in June 1945.
No Guards formations fought against the Japanese in the Far East.