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Last Updated: Friday, 28 March, 2003, 16:40 GMT
The Desert Rats: From Berlin to Basra
By Andrew Walker
BBC News profiles unit

The Desert Rats: Still in business after 65 years

The UK's fabled 7th Armoured Brigade is, once again, in action in the desert. But this time, the battlefield is around Basra in southern Iraq, and not North Africa, the scene of the World War II battles which made the first Desert Rats a legend.

The original desert rat, the jerboa, is a tiny unassuming creature; its namesakes are members of one of the most highly-trained, and lethal, fighting units in the world.

The Brigade's 120 Challenger 2 tanks, armed with 120mm cannon, are capable of destroying all known armoured vehicles and tanks with just one hit.

Its Warrior infantry fighting vehicles and AS90 self-propelled guns give it both mobility and firepower.

And the 17,000 Desert Rats, currently serving in the Gulf, are the heirs to a tradition spanning seven decades.

Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery
Monty: the Desert Rats' charismatic commander

It was the Munich crisis of 1938 - when the UK and France agreed to a Nazi takeover of much of Czechoslovakia - which precipitated the formation of a Mobile Force, an amalgam of several armoured regiments, to protect the Suez Canal.

Mocked by some as the Immobile Force, because of the poor quality of much of its equipment, the 7th Armoured Division, as it became in the early days of World War II, soon earned popular respect.

According to Field Marshal Lord Carver, himself a former Desert Rat, the division's name and emblem were inspired by a pet jerboa kept by a regimental signaller.

After Alamein, we never had a defeat
Winston Churchill

Seeing the beast, the division's then commander, Major-General "Hobo" Hobart, is said to have remarked, "This little animal should become our emblem. We must learn to live as he does, the hard way, in the desert."

And, having trained its men to fight and win battles in the vast Western Desert, the division played a crucial, and decisive, role in the North African campaign.

Three times - in 1940, 41 and 42 - German and Italian forces attempted to take control of the North African coast. Three times they were driven back, by the UK's Eighth Army, the heaviest fighting taking place near Tobruk in Libya.

Erwin Rommel
Rommel; The Desert Fox

The German commander, Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel - the charismatic and respected Desert Fox - promised his men that, if they took Tobruk, he would build a monument to commemorate the victory.

If they lost, though, the Afrika Korps would bury its dead there.

The German cemeteries still to be seen on the Libyan coastline bear mute testament to Rommel's failure and the Desert Rats' hard-won success.

But it was victory at El Alamein in October 1942 - which came after one of the biggest artillery barrages of the war - which sealed Rommel's fate in North Africa and brought the Desert Rats, the Eighth Army and its commander, General Bernard Montgomery, eternal fame.

Victory parade

Even so, the cost was huge, and the battle claimed around 35,000 lives.

However, it was a turning point in the war.

For the first time in the conflict, church bells were sounded across the UK and, as the then prime minister, Winston Churchill put it, "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat."

Desert Rat soldier in action
A Desert Rat in action

But the Desert Rats' war did not end there. They fought in some of the war's bloodiest battles; at Salerno, in Normandy and crossing the Rhine into Germany.

And they ended the war by marching in the victory parade at the very heart of the Third Reich, Berlin itself.

Part of the division, the 7th Armoured Brigade - from which today's Desert Rats are directly descended - was posted to Burma early in 1942 and fought with distinction in the Middle East and Italy.

Historic regiments

During the dying days of the war, Churchill addressed the 7th Armoured Division in these ringing tones: "Dear Desert Rats! May your glory never fade! May your laurels never fade!

"May the memory of this glorious pilgrimage of war which you have made from Alamein, via the Baltic, to Berlin, never die! It is a march unsurpassed in the history of war."

A Desert Rats vehicle near Basra
Desert Rats armour near Basra

But, in 1959, the original Desert Rats were no more. The 7th Armoured Division was disbanded, though the smaller brigade remained in Germany, where it was substantially reformed in 1981, and still wears the jerboa emblem.

The brigade is currently composed of a number of elements, including the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the 1st Battalion The Black Watch, each with its own unique, and long, history.

Since then it has served in the 1991 Gulf War and in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Macedonia and, in June 1999, it became the first British brigade into Kosovo.

And today, with its troops still fighting - and dying - on foreign fields, the history of the Desert Rats has never been more immediate or important.

Monty addresses the Desert Rats before Alamein
"If we can't stay here alive, then let us stay here dead."

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