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1st Canadian Armoured Brigade

1st Canadian Armoured Brigade
 
Formed: 11 February 1941 (GO 79/41)

The 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade was an armoured formation formed for service the Second World War. It was one of only two Canadian independent armoured brigades to see combat.

Army Tank Brigade

A 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade was formed on 13 August 1940, comprising the Fort Garry Horse, the 1st Canadian Mechanized Cavalry Regiment, The Ontario Regiment, and The Three Rivers Regiment. The Brigade was later reconstituted as the 1st Canadian Armoured Division was formed, then renamed to become the 5th Canadian Armoured Brigade.

The 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade was created in February 1941 from active units mobilized by The Calgary Regiment (Tank), The Ontario Regiment (Tank) and The Three Rivers Regiment (Tank), three of the former Militia infantry regiments that had been designated as tank battalions in the 1936 reorganizations.

General Order 79/41 organized the brigade as as follows:

  • Serial 583 - Headquarters, 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade

    • Serial 229 - 11th Army Tank Battalion (The Ontario Regiment (Tank))

    • Serial 108 - 12th Army Tank Battalion (The Three Rivers Regiment (Tank))

    • Serial 582 - 14th Army Tank Battalion (The Calgary Regiment (Tank))1

The units were renamed Canadian Tank Regiments (CTR) and wore insignia identifying them as such.

The Ontario and Three Rivers units had originally mobilized to serve with the 1st and 2nd Divisions, but had not gone overseas in the wake of reorganizations. A brigade headquarters squadron was also mobilized from The New Brunswick Regiment. The formation trained at Camp Borden using a handful of American training tanks and some Canadian-made Valentine tanks, before being shipped to the United Kingdom in July 1941, where the brigade received Matilda tanks.2

The Ontario Regiment received four Churchill tanks, and other units of the brigade began to be equipped with Churchill tanks beginning in November 1941. The tanks proved mechanically unreliable and required constant maintenance.3

Dieppe

One regiment, the 14th Canadian Tank Regiment (Calgary Regiment) saw action at Dieppe, where 417 officers and men participated in the landing at the main beach. Twelve were killed, including their commanding officer, and 161 captured (127 of these wounded). Only two soldiers who had landed on the beach were actually evacuated back to England - 244 soldiers had remained afloat throughout the operation. Of the 30 tanks that did land, two were drowned before reaching dry land, one was unable to land and returned to the U.K., and the remaining 27 were abandoned on the beach, only 15 having crossed the sea-wall. The Calgary Regiment was not brought up to strength after Dieppe until 23 October, when sufficient replacement tanks could be provided.4

While the British Army retained the Churchill in independent tank brigades throughout the war, the Canadian Army did not follow suit, and at the start of March 1943, the Churchills began to be exchanged by units of the 1st Brigade for Ram tanks as a prelude to re-equipping with the Sherman tank. The Three Rivers regiment turned in their entire allotment of 43 Churchills on 29 March 1943, and the Ontario Regiment had slowly begun to re-equip also, with "B" Squadron of the Ontario Regiment being the last to retain theirs while on loan to the British School of Infantry in Yorkshire until 11 May 1943.5 The brigade did not receive light tanks for the reconnaissance troops, apparently using universal carriers instead.6

Sicily

The Three Rivers Regiment saw much action in support of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division during the Battle of Sicily, as well as the independent 231st Brigade of the British Army. The remainder of the brigade (including Brigadier Wyman's headquarters, The Ontario Regiment, The Calgary Regiment and sub-units of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps, and Royal Canadian Army Service Corps) sailed on follow-up convoys, arriving in Sicily from 13 to 17 July 1943 and found themselves attached to the British 13th Corps.7

The brigade (less The Three Rivers Regiment) went into 8th Army reserve and placed under command of the British 7th Armoured Division. The brigade remained in the area of Cassible, nine miles southwest of Syracuse. On 21 July the brigade began to move to the Scordia area, covering a gap in the line between two corps of the 8th Army along the Dittaino River. The brigade was made ready to fight off a German armoured counter-attack which never occurred. The Ontario Regiment went forward at the end of July to assist the British 5th Division in defending the western flank of XIII Corps. This left on the The Calgary Regiment and the brigade headquarters and support elements remaining at Scordia.

The Ontario Regiment supported units of the British 13th Brigade in operations across the Dittaino River, and in further offensive operations. All three regiments were reunited at Scordia by 11 August, and for the first time since leaving Scotland the three units were concentrated together.

The casualty lists for the three tank regiments reflect the different operational roles which each had been called upon to undertake. The Calgaries had only eight wounded in Sicily; the Ontarios one killed and 13 wounded; while the Three Rivers Regiment, which was in almost continual action throughout the campaign, lost 21 killed and 62 wounded.8

Armoured Brigade

Southern Italy

In late August 1943, the brigade was redesignated 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, and the Tank Regiments were redesignated Armoured Regiments. According to the Official History of the Canadian Army:

On 26 August 1943 H.Q. 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade was redesignated H.Q. 1st Armoured Brigade, and its three regiments became the 11th Armoured Regiment (The Ontario Regiment), 12th Armoured Regiment (Three Rivers
Regiment) and 14th Armoured Regiment (The Calgary Regiment) Canadian Armoured Corps. It was November before the new designations were adopted in the field.
9

The formation landed in southern Italy in September 1943 and its tanks supported Canadian infantry at Potenza, Termoli and Ortona. The first major tank-vs.-tank encounters came at Termoli in early October where the Three Rivers, in support of the British 78th Infantry Division, exchanged six of its Shermans for an equal number of Panzerkampfwagen IVs of 16. Panzer Division. The Three Rivers were also prominent at Ortona, in particular "C" Squadron, which deployed its vehicles directly in the ruined city. "Losses were heavy, and throughout the period the three units each averaged 35 tanks, in effect operating at half strength."10


Brigadier Murphy of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade holds an "O" Group near Aquino, Italy on 23 May 1944. LAC photo.

In early 1944, light tanks arrived to replace the carriers in the reconnaissance troops.

This period also marked the end of the permanent association between the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade and the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade. Apparently Major General Vokes, commander of the (1st Canadian Infantry Division) became very critical of Brigadier Wyman...As a result it was decided to assign the Canadian armoured brigade to support British divisions. This decision stood even after Wyman left to command the 2nd Armoured Brigade in the United Kingdom (in February 1944), since the Canadians had by this time brought the tricky role of infantry support to perfection. No doubt the lack of cavalry heritage in its regiments helped. As a result, the next battle saw the brigade supporting the 8th Indian Division in its assault across the Gari River in May 1944 in the opening stages of the last battle for Cassino. The Calgary Regiment added to the reputation of the brigade by manning several improvised bridging tanks.11

Kept in the front line until July 1944 in support of various formations, including the British 78th Division, 1st Canadian Infantry Division and British 4th Division, the formation was by the summer of 1944 considered "the most experienced armoured brigade in Italy" in the words of the 8th Army's commander, and thus "in great demand."12 From June 1943 to July 1944 the brigade had lost 168 Sherman tanks (41 completely destroyed) and 18 Stuart reconnaissance tanks. Many of the latter had by the summer of 1944 also been modified into "recce" variants by the removal of the turrets and addition of a .50 calibre machine gun. After a short time out of the line, the brigade was once again in support of the infantry of the 13th Corps, with each armoured regiment assigned to a different division for the fighting for the Gothic Line. Each regiment also now received 105mm howitzer armed Shermans to supplement their role as artillery.13

In October 1944 a long, hard winter began for the brigade:

Since the end of October (1944) Brigadier Murphy's three armoured regiments had found their support of the 13th Corps reduced almost to a static role. Worsening ground conditions had brought a further deterioration in communications, and supply routes could only be maintained with the utmost difficulty. On 7 November the diarist of the Three Rivers Regiment noted that a horse was being sought for the use of ... the Commanding Officer...The extreme case occurred in the 1st British Infantry Division's sector, where The Ontario Regiment's "A" Squadron, sent to relieve an American unit on Mount Grande had to take over the U.S. tanks in situ, since movement by armour over the snow-blocked mountain trails was impossible. Under such conditions the Ontarios could at best provide artillery support for the limited attacks made by the infantry. On at least one occasion "B" Squadron, in the divisional "Gun Line" west of Gesso, fired at ranges of from 8000 to 11,000 yards, obtaining sufficient elevation for these distances by running the noses of their tanks up a steep bank.

...Apart from The Ontario Regiment's move there was little change in the dispositions of the Canadian armour during the last two months of 1944. The Three Rivers Regiment, supporting the 78th Division and the 6th Armoured Division in the Santerno valley, spent Christmas at Castel del Rio, with two troops of tanks frozen in at Gesso and the balance of its forward squadrons at Fontanelice on the Imola road. On the 13th Corps' extreme right flank "B" Squadron of The Calgary Regiment assisted Gurkhas of the 8th Indian Division in cleaning up around Modigliana in mid-November, and on the 25th it crawled forward another two miles toward Faenza. By this time, however, the Polish Corps' westward drive on the Eighth Army's left was carrying it across the Indian front, which by 17 December was held by only one brigade. "To reach the enemy we would have had to cut North-West into the mountains and bare escarpments," wrote the Calgary diarist on the 8th. "This we could not do . . . Our usefulness to 8th Indian Division was ended."

For the rest of December Lt.-Col. Richardson concentrated his regiment in the Marradi area, to await the next move. This was not long in coming. At Christmas the threat against the Fifth Army's left flank sent the bulk of the 8th Indian Division...hurrying westward to Lucca, and on 30 December the Calgaries began moving into a rest area... The perilous journey over the eighteen miles of treacherous mountain roads...took seventeen hours...

After spending most of January at San Donato the Calgaries embarked upon what was to prove their final operational role in Italy. A long rail trip by way of Arezzo and lesi brought them to the Forli area, where they came under command of the 5th Corps and were assigned to support the 56th Division in its Senio positions opposite Cotignola.80 Here the squadrons spent the first three weeks of February in a more or less static role, occasionally carrying out individual tank shoots which were usually followed by reports of "Jerry stretcher bearers carrying away casualties." Late in January the remainder of the armoured brigade had received orders to concentrate on the Adriatic coast for a period of rest and training at Porto San Giorgio... This would make the Canadian armour available for the Eighth Army's spring offensive acid preclude the necessity of the hazardous journey across the mountains when the winter snows were melting. As it was, the Three Rivers Regiment was forced to leave to the 78th Division the six immobile tanks in the Gesso area. The transfer to the coast began on 31 January, with the Ontarios being the first to ship their tanks. Four days later, however, as Brigadier Murphy's headquarters was preparing to leave Borgo San Lorenzo, further movement of the brigade was suddenly cancelled.14

Operation GOLDFLAKE

In concert with the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 5th Canadian Armoured Division as part of I Canadian Corps, the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade moved from Italy early in 1945 to rejoin First Canadian Army in North-West Europe. The tank regiments left behind their vehicles, however they retained their 105mm-gun armed Shermans, as they were not standard issue in 1st Canadian Army. The three armoured regiments received new Shermans, including two 17-pounder ("Firefly") Shermans per troop.


Technical Quartermaster Sergeant O.T. Hanson of the Calgary Regiment checks vehicle kit as the regiment re-equips with Sherman Vc tanks, at Dottignies, Belgium on 22 March 1945 as part of the move to North-West Europe. LAC photo.

The brigade supported both the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 49th British Division in the closing battles of the war in western Netherlands.

Composition July 1943 - February 1945

  • 11th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Ontario Regiment)

  • 12th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Three Rivers Regiment)

  • 14th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Calgary Regiment)

Commanders

Commander Date Biographical Information
Brigadier R. A. Wyman, E.D15 2 Feb 1942 - 26 Feb 1944

Brigadier Robert Andrew Wyman was born in 1904 and commanded the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade in Sicily and Italy, as well as acting as Brigadier, Royal Artillery for First Canadian Army in the UK before going on to command the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade.16

Brigadier W. C. Murphy, E.D 27 Feb 1944 - 25 Jun 1945 Brigadier W.C. Murphy served as GSO I of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division before assuming command of the 1st Armoured Brigade.

Uniform Insignia

Soldiers of the First Canadian Army Tank Brigade (later redesignated Armoured Brigade) wore a red and black geometric formation patch on their uniforms. Previously, a Ram badge was also selected to be worn on the upper left sleeve by all ranks of the brigade on Service Dress and Battle Dress uniforms. The badges don't appear to have been worn overseas.

Regimental shoulder titles were worn, probably from mid-1941 when the rest of the Army was designing and adopting similar titles. The Tank Badge was worn on the right sleeve of Battle Dress and Service Dress.

The diamond shaped formation patches were adopted in late 1942. Some units seem to have worn them in conjunction with the Canadian Armoured Corps title on the upper sleeve, others with a plain CANADA title.

Photo courtesy Bill Alexander

Artifacts and images courtesy Bill Alexander.

Insignia of the 11th Canadian Army Tank Regiment /11th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Ontario Regiment); 12th Canadian Army Tank Regiment/12th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Three Rivers Regiment)/ 14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment/ 14th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Calgary Regiment). Photos and artifacts courtesy Bill Alexander and Dwayne Hordij.

Notes

  1. Tonner, Mark W. On Active Service (Service Publications, Ottawa, ON) ISBN 1-894581-44-X

  2. Hughes, David The British Armies in World War Two: An Organisational History Volume Six: The Canadian Army (The Nafziger Collection, Inc., West Chester, OH, 2003) ISBN 1-58545-105-3 p.55

  3. Tonner, Mark W. The Churchill Tank and the Canadian Armoured Corps (Service Publications, Ottawa, ON, 2011) ISBN 978-1-894581-66-00 p.34

  4. Tonner, Ibid, pp.43-62

  5. Ibid, pp.69-70

  6. Hughes, Ibid, p.55

  7. Ibid, p.55

  8. Nicholson, Gerald Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War: Volume II: The Canadians in Italy (Queen's Printer, Ottawa, ON, 1957), p.168

  9. Ibid, p.276

  10. Hughes, Ibid, p.55

  11. Ibid, p.55

  12. Nicholson, Ibid, p.465

  13. Hughes, Ibid, p.56

  14. Nicholson, Ibid, pp.655-656

  15. Nicholson, Ibid

  16. Some biographical info on commanders from Blatherwick, John and Hugh Halliday. Courage & Service: Second World War Awards to Canadians (Service Publications, Ottawa, ON) ISBN 1894581229


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