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.
42 R.T.R. on Operations
The two pictures below are of great interest. They were almost certainly both taken in the vicinity of Bir Sherferzen, on the Libyan/Egyptian 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.
Matilda tank, named ‘Phantom’, of 42nd Royal Tank Regiment, 24 November 1941. The white/red/white special recognition sign for CRUSADER is clearly visible on Phantom. Courtesy of the IWM Collections.
Indian troops move forward in lorries, supported by Matilda tanks, 24 November 1941. Central India Horse with C Squadron 42 R.T.R. Courtesy of IWM Collections.
- 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.
Many thanks to Tom for providing me with the war diary of 42 R.T.R.
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“this supports the view of General Auchinleck, that the operation had to be postponed, something which Churchill was unwilling to accept”
Or it supports the view that the military authorities in the Middle East were not exploiting their reinforcements very well. Could 42 RTR have moved up earlier and borrowed a sqn’s worth of tanks from another unit in order to exercise at least at sub-unit level before November 41?
Maybe. But on the other hand, by mid-October (give or take a few days) they would still not have had tanks at all, reducing the number of available Matildas at the start of the operation by another 30, and the totality of tanks by about 200 (counting 22 Armoured Brigade), barring any other surprises to be found in the war diaries.
Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, they would have had to be equipped with new (or spare?) tanks for them to take part in an earlier operation. I guess what we need to discover is when the 8RTR Valentine tanks came in a new convoy. Any ideas? Come to think of it, why not give 42 RTR the Valentines?
By the way – great find with the photos; they bring the war diary entries to life!
In the S African history there is a good chunk quoted from 42 RTR History for the attack on the Omars – sobering stuff, especially for their first time in action.
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Good Afternoon, I am contacting you regarding an officer mentioned in this piece, namely Major Rawlins. He was my partners grandfather, her mother being his daughter. We were aware of some of the circumstances surrounding his death and the period leading up to them as they are referred to in a book of the period. However, it seems you may have more details. If so, we would be most interested to learn more. Major Rawlins was one of 3 sons who were all killed in a period of less than 12 months in 1941/42. One brother was also in a tank regiment in North Africa and the youngest brother was a bomber pilot in the RAF. I just “happened” upon your site and wish you all success with your book. It is a fascinating subject. Best, Bob Gray
Some details from the War Diary of 42 RTR:
“28 November 1941
2/Lieut. J.H. Reeves and 2/Lieut. J.S. Richings, together with the crews of four of the tanks that stayed behind on the night of the 24th were also at the Rail Head. Apparently when “B” Echelon left on the 24th, 7 ‘I’ Tanks under the command of Major R.M. Rawlins, took up positions along the wire from Sheferzen south, in order to hold the enemy’s advance eastwards. The night passed quietly, but early the following morning they were attacked by two enemy tanks. These were driven off and sometime later they were attacked by 16 enemy tanks. These they also managed to drive off. Later our 7 ‘I’ Tanks were attacked by approximately 50 enemy tanks. Once again the enemy was held off. He, therefore, started shelling our positions. At this time our tanks were ordered to withdraw eastwards. Five tanks, therefore, retired. Major Rawlins, with his crew, covered the withdrawal. The seventh tank was out of action and was, therefore, left. During the withdrawal one tank fell out and not trace has yet been found of it. The remaining four, two of the 44 R. Tanks, one commanded by 2/Lieut. Reeves and the other by 2/Lieut. Richings engaged the enemy during their entire withdrawal, during which time they were being continually shelled by mobile artillery. This party eventually shook the enemy off and reached the rail head. Since, Major Rawlins has been found and he, together with R.S.M. Davies and the driver were killed.
Major Rawlins and the tanks under his command, undoubtedly put up a magnificent fight against superior enemy forces, and in holding them up for 36 hrs must have saved many lives and much equipment.
All through the present campaign, Major R.M. Rawlins, has shown magnificent courage and daring. The unit has suffered a great loss in his death.”
There is more from an earlier action which Major Rawlins led – he was the O.C. of “A” Squadron.
Many thanks for your reply which is very much appreciated. We had some information on the action from the reference made to it in the book “With Pennants Flying” which you are no doubt familiar with. Now being able to read a first hand account from his colleagues makes his actions and those of the men with him, all the more remarkable.
Andreas has kindly indicated that he will complete his own analysis of this and other actions Bill Rawlins was involved in.
Hello. This is a message for Bob Gray. I came across your post while researching my family tree. If your partner’s grandfather was Major Rawlins then I think she may be my 2nd Cousin – either Philippa or Andrina. If so, I’d love to hear from her. My name is Sarah Pettitt and Major Rawlin’s wife Beryl was my mother’s aunt.
Have you had a reply?
All the best
Hi Andreas. Thanks so much for your interest. No, I haven’t had a reply yet – but I’m hopeful! I haven’t seen either of my cousins since we were children and I’d love to find them again. Best wishes. Sarah.