42 R.T.R. was a battalion of territorial army soldiers equipped with Matilda Mk. II Infantry Tanks. It formed part of 1 Army Tank Brigade, together with 44 R.T.R., also with Matilda Mk. II tanks and 8 R.T.R, with Valentine Infantry Tanks Mk. III, the successor to the Matilda, and arguably the best tank of the war. (kidding – or am I?) In a prior post (at this link) I have written about what happened to the tanks of the regiment undergoing repair during Rommel’s ‘Dash to the Wire’.
It’s task was to support the infantry of 7 Indian Infantry Brigade in its assault on the border fortifications of Sidi Omar, in the starting phase of Operation CRUSADER. This was a critical assignment in that it would threaten the main installations of Panzerarmee and put pressure on the Axis tank forces to come to the rescue of the border fortress. Given this, it is astounding to see the preparation that the battalion was given. I knew that it was incomplete at the start of the operation, with C Squadron only arriving in the battle area on 25 November. What I had not realised was that the battalion had in fact only received a full squadron of tanks (albeit missing a lot of equipment) by 12 October, six weeks before the start of the operation, and the tanks needed to equip the second squadron were only received by 11 November, one week before the start of the operation. In consequence, there was no opportunity for this battalion, which had never seen action, to prepare for its task by training with the infantry it was to support. Moreover, many tanks had been taken over from 8 R.T.R., which itself had been equipped with the new Infantry Tank Mk. III, the Valentine. These tanks were not only missing equipment, but some of them seem to have been mechanically a bit worn out, leading to breakdowns during the approach march.
One has to wonder if this contributed to the extremely heavy casualties (22 out of 28 I tanks were lost) suffered in the assault on Sidi Omar. But in any case, this supports the view of General Auchinleck, that the operation had to be postponed, something which Churchill was unwilling to accept.
Details of tank arrivals
B Squadron reported to be completely equipped by 12 October 41, although many tanks were missing equipment.
A Squadron was supposed to be equipped in the ‘near future’ on October 29, and began equipping on 7 November.
C Squadron joined 1 Army Tank Brigade with all tanks by 25 November.
The battalion (minus C Squadron) came under command 1 Army Tank Brigade on 11 November, by which time A Squadron had been partially equipped.
4 November – 7 light tanks were received. These were Vickers Mk.VI, and were used for liaison and reconnaissance duties.
7 November – 2xMk. IIA+, 1xMk.IIA for A Squadron
8 November – 8xMk. IIA+, 1xMk.IIA, from 8 R.T.R., 1 Mk.IIA+ from T.D.S.
On the same day, B Sqdr. is reported with 15 I tanks.
9 November – 24 bottles of Whiskey are arriving for the officer’s mess, leading to ‘scenes of great jubilation’
11 November – Nine I tanks arrive from 8 R.T.R.
12 November – Three more tanks arrive on transporters. A and B Squadrons now have 15 I tanks each.
14 November – C Squadron has been issued transport, but does not have tanks yet. A Squadron has 16 I tanks, B Squadron 15 I tanks, Battalion HQ has 2 I tanks, and 6 light tanks are with the battalion. Distributed as follows: HQ – 4; A – 1; B – 1.
25 November – C Squadron is arriving, fully equipped.
The two pictures below are of great interest. They were almost certainly both taken in the vicinity of Bir Sherferzen, on the border.
The first shows the RHQ of 42 R.T.R., with the five remaining tanks of the regiment. Major Rawlins had spent 24 hours trying to recover tanks and wounded who were left close to Axis positions after the attack of 22 November, and burying the dead.
I would be grateful if anyone could identify the officers in the picture, in particular if one of them is Major Rawlins, who was killed the next day while engaging a German armoured column. I will write a separate post on that battle later.
The second picture almost certainly shows the lorries of the two columns of the Central India Horse reconnaissance regiment moving up to Bir Sherferzen, with the Matilda tanks of C Squadron 42 R.T.R. under command. Note the very poor dispersion.
Many thanks to Tom for providing me with the war diary.
Sources used are War Diary 42 R.T.R. for June – November 1941; War Diary HQ 1 Army Tank Brigade for November 1941; War Diary Central India Horse for November 1941. All are held at the UK National Archives at Kew.