A Note on the British Army Regiment
The core unit in the British Army has long been The Regiment. It is the Regiment’s history and deeds that are recognized as a point of pride, and regardless of what other insignia may be donned, the soldier’s Regimental cap badge is his identifier.
While some regiments are specialized or have a unique past, for close to 3 centuries, the British Army consisted of line infantry regiments associated with a county or region from which the men were recruited. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were mainly known by a number (e.g. 67th regiment of foot), but soldiers would have been familiar with the county or city associated with that regiment. Going into the 20th century, many numbered regiments were consolidated and given county names officially.
Up through WWII these regiments would consist heavily of men from the home county.
The Hampshire Regiment
The Hampshire regiment was typical to British Army regiments. It was formed in 1880 as a combination of the 67th Regt. of Foot (S. Hampshire) and 37th Regt. of Foot (N. Hampshires).
Each of these regiments brought with it a rich history, but the 21 years of Indian service by the 67th led to the selection of the Tiger as the new Regiment’s symbol
The regiment would go on to serve across the empire, many battalions being raised for The Great War, and up to 10 battalions (peace time standard is 2) formed for the Second World War.
After WWII the Regiment was given the designation of “Royal” for conspicuous service and The Royal Hampshires would see action in smaller, cold war and modern conflicts up until the army reorganized in 1992.
The regiment would be combined into the Prince of Wales Regiment which carries a banner for the Tigers today.
World War II Service
The 1st Battalion
This unit is our primary focus for living history so we have worked to give a thorough picture of their deployment and service. Other Battalions do figure in our discussion of history, and are also covered below in brief.
The War Begins – Empire Service and the Defense of Malta
In the time leading up to the war, the 1st Battalion was on duty in the empire. Peace keeping in Palestine had become a serious concern as a large influx of Jewish settlers clashed with those already living there. It also oversaw Italian prisoners captured in the early stages of the North Africa campaign
In February of 1941, the Battalion joined the 1st Malta Infantry Brigade and formed a part of the bristling defenses that would keep the island nation out of Axis hands. This was key as Malta served as what Churchill called an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” the RAF control of Mediterranean air space, and naval resupply options offered by Malta were key in maintaining British strength in North Africa and later the Italian campaigns.
The Tip of the Spear – Amphibious assaults in Sicily and Italy
In April 1943, the 1st Battalion Hampshire and the rest of the 1st Malta would be re-designated as the 231st Brigade and would return to Egypt for assault training. Eventually it took part in the amphibious invasion of Sicily in July . Landings went smoothly, but tough fighting against a German parachute division would be the first of many hard knocks for the Battalion, suffering over 300 casualties in just a few weeks.
The late summer of 43 would see the battalion’s second amphibious action, landing in mainland Italy. It would help secure a foothold there before returning to Britain in the fall.
The Big Show – D-Day and Northwest France.
the 231 brigade would be refitted and allocated to the 50th Northumbrian Infantry Division. Troops, like the 1st Bn Hampshires were picked for this division to take part in the Invasion of France. The next six months would be spent in assault training and drills for the Normandy Invasion to come.
On June 6th, 1944, the 1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment landed on the far right (West) of Gold Beach. Many British and Canadian landings encountered German 716th Division. This division had very little will to fight, consisting of elderly Germans, and conscripted men from Ukraine and countries Germany had invaded. In the face of shelling, bombing, and the landings, most gave up quickly or offered little resistance when not under direct threat of German commanders. However, being as far west as they were, Hampshires and the Commandos landing nearby faced experienced and ready elements of the 352nd Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht. These same soldiers had seen heavy action on the Eastern front and would make Omaha a vicious killing field further West in the landing areas.
The local challenges included a heavy brick hospital from which the Germans could direct fire and murderous mortar barrages onto the beach. Finally this building was destroyed by an AVRE tank, and the Battalion was able to complete its objectives of securing a radar station, the town of Arromanches, and pressing inland to secure the immediate area. On D-Day alone, the battalion suffered 182 casualties, 64 of them being KIA. Many of those lost were among the most experienced and long time field officers and NCOs. Historic accounts mention that despite rapid reinforcements, the battalion was never really the same. This aspect would only be further cemented in the action to come.
The Hedgemaze Hell
As British forces pressed inland, pivoting Southeast on the hinge that was the stronghold city of Caen, the fighting continued to be fierce and treacherous. The Norman countryside was a tight network of ancient hedgerows (small farms separated by a meter high earthen/root wall capped with thick trees and hedges. This honeycomb of farms and villages would grant the defenders every opportunity to stealthily advance, ambush, and then slip away when force shifted to that area.
The Battalion was charged with taking a small village area called Hottot near Villier’s Bocage. The series of fierce attacks were met with everything from concealed field guns and armor, to night time ambushes and raids from German soldiers. Before the strategy was finally changed and the rounds of attacks lifted the Battalion would be reduced from a fighting force of ~600 men to under 200.
Eventually the Battalion was disengaged and replenished with reinforcements along with the rest of 50th Division. Upon return to the line, they were motorized and essentially rode in carriers and trucks all the way to Belgium unbothered, the breakout of Operation Cobra and other spearheads having broken the mini-Great War scenario in the hedgerows.
Holding the Corridor – Operation Market Garden and a farewell to Europe.
The battalion would remain part of 50th division but would be temporary organized under the Guards Armoured Division for Operation Market Garden. The Battalion, now heavily consisting of fresh reinforcements would serve admirably to try and open the way to Eindhoven. When Market Garden failed, they would move up to hold open the corridor at Nijmegen while Allied command considered if another attack could me mounted from this isthmus into enemy territory.
In November, the 50th Division which had joined the Battalion in the bridgehead defense zone was rotated out. Many of its elements, including the Battalion, were a patchwork of reinforcement and improvised structure and fresh divisions would take its place for the final efforts of the war. The Division returned to the UK and would begin training up new companies. It would be re-formed and designated to go to the Pacific by August of 1945, but would be held at Malta when the war ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs and the USSR declaring war on Japan. They would actually return to Israel in Jungle Green uniforms, in a complete loop from where the Battalion began the war.
Over 10 Battalions of Hampshires would be raised during the war. many of them never were fully staffed or were re-organized, combined, provided reinforcements to other battalions or served in administrative capacities. Here are some of the more notable formations.
The Second Battalion would begin the war as a Territorial counterpart to the 1st Battalion. In peacetime, men would train with the second, go on foreign service and then return when their time expired or if their duties changed.
Being at home and full of experienced soldiers, it was activated as part of the 1st Guards Division in 1939 and went to France as part of the BEF. It sat through the phony war, and while making the same fraught march to the sea as other BEF elements, its position in reserve meant it saw very little action and was one of the first groups evacuated.
The Battalion would return to the fray in 1942 in North Africa. However, this was to be short lived. They were formed out on the far left flank of a division formation. in a lightning-fast move, just days after their arrival, the town of Tebourba where they were stationed, was set upon by a massive German force. The Battalion held the town and defended its artillery emplacements at extremely close range for several days allowing the rest of the division to retreat and reform along stronger lines. Reports of bayonet charges and ocunter charges express the intensity of close combat. However the after 3 days they found themselves entirely cut off and scattered in the night. Many were captured. Of the 689 man battalion only 194 would make it back to British lines and this remnant was withdrawn and would reform, later reinforcing the 128th Brigade in 1943.
The 128th Infantry Brigade – The Tiger Brigade
A brigade was formed from the heavily recruiting Hampshire Battalions, Much ware preparation re-shuffling means that about 5 different battalions were designated to the brigade (which only consists of 3 nominally). Eventually the 5th, the 1/4th, and 2/4th Battalions (historic designations revived from the Great War)
The Brigade would fight bravely in the face of fierce German attacks in North Africa, suffering heavy casualties to delay the German advance through Sidi Nsir and Hunt’s Gap. It was under these intense onslaught’s that 2nd Battalion, still training behind the lines would be returned to action.
Heavy action and high casualties would see the units reorganized and 2/4th diminished into a static defense group, the rest of the brigade, (now 1/4, 2, and 5 Bn) would go on to fight in some of the roughest landings in Salerno, and would make up typical hard fighting units that would claw up the rocky spine of Italy in the drive to the Gothic Line. Battle honors include the assault of Monte Cassino and assault river crossings, and suffered so heavily it had to be reformed again in the middle-east.
D-Day Dodgers indeed