Sunday, 9 May 2021

Corrected 33 Armoured Brigade Arm of Service (AoS) numbers - Sept 1944 to Jan 1945

Hi folks,

Taking a bit of a break from hobby stuff to blog about something I frequently encounter when researching the 144th Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps, and 33 Armoured Brigade in particular. 

This involves the markings used by the brigade, and the repetition of a mistake so many times people take it as a fact. I hope to demonstrate, with evidence, that the information repeated in numerous sources in incorrect. 

First up, what information is commonly quoted but is correct? The 'standard' information is that prior to September 1944, the Brigade used the below AoS numbers. There is ample visual evidence of this AoS scheme in use by the brigade, which I won't show here as this information is not in dispute:

The issue arises from the restructuring of the Brigade following the disbandment of 148RAC and the joining of the East Riding Yeomanry (ERY) in August 1944. Most sources (in fact, every book I have that mentions the topic) then incorrectly state that the brigade used the AoS numbers 151 to 154. 

Here is my own mock up of these incorrect AoS numbers, which the sources say were in use from August/September 1944 until January 1945:

I strongly dispute this information. No a single image exists which supports the use of the 151 to 153 AoS numbers by this formation. There is no actual evidence that these number were ever put on 33AB vehicles. I am unsure where the notion that these numbers were used originates, but I suspect some early post war source made a mistake that has been reported as a fact ever since.    

What does exist is a whole range of historical images of tanks from the various units in 33AB, from October 1944 onward, showing an AoS range of 50 to 53 in use. So from September 1944 till January 1945 the markings of the unit were actually (correctly): 


I've accumulated a few images to back this assertion up. These are mainly from trawling Imperial War Museum (IWM) footage, as well as various websites relating to the regiments of the brigade, or units they served with. I claim no ownership of these images and are using them for educational purposes only. Where I've been able, I've linked the source of the image. 

It should be noted for clarity that in the NWE campaign 33 Armoured Brigade were the only Sherman equipped unit that used the 'diablo' hourglass sign. While 31 Tank Brigade did use the same shape (all in green), they were equipped with Churchills. 

First up, 33AB HQ - according to all of the various sources, tanks of this brigade HQ unit should have  the AoS of 151 and the black and green diablo. That's not what we can see, however:


Taken from here, specifically dated 23 October 1944. AoS of 50 on left and the 33AB Diablo sign on right. The AoS of 50 is clearer in the film, as the tank is moving. 


Another image of a brigade HQ tank, taken from here and specifically dated 25 October 1944. Again, AoS of 50 on left and the Diablo sign on right. Both this and the other HQ tank is a Sherman I Hybrid with the cast front hull. However, they do not appear to be the same vehicle. 

Therefore there are multiple images taken on different dates in different locations in October 1944 showing 33AB HQ tanks with the AoS of 50 - not 151.  

Next up, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, who according to the sources should be using an AoS of 152:


Taken from here, and specifically dated 30 October 1944. Three tanks pass the camera, but this is the clearest image of the AoS markings (you have to be quick on the pause button! It's the first tank after the jeep). Text for the film is "three Sherman tanks belonging to the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry's 'B' squadron bound for Raamsdonck and a jeep carrying the CO of the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders drive through Loon-op-Zand shortly after its capture". The AoS of 51 can clearly be seen, as can the 33AB diablo sign. 

We're unable to tell from these images whether 1NY was still using turret numbers at this time, due to the added camo on the turret. If they were, they would likely be red with a white outline. 


The 33AB symbol on the above tank is hard to make out, but the AoS number is very clear. Taken from here and dated 23 October 1944, the text describes "Firefly and a Humber scout car from the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry and an M5 half-track OP from the 126th Field Regiment RA" while the units war diary supports the fact it was fighting in this area at the time, and other units of the brigade are filmed around the same area on the same dates. The images of the Humber are too fast to make out details, however I also found this image on another website.


A Daimler Scout Car in action beside the Highland Division - note the clear AoS of 51 and the 33AB formation sign. This image came from here and is from an action which took place between 14th and 26th of November 1944 involving the Highland Division and 33AB, and specifically mentioning 1NY. 

Then we have the East Riding Yeomanry. According to the sources, this unit should have an AoS of 153:



Different images of the same tank from here, dated 23 October 1944. Again, the images are clearer in the footage as the tank is moving. Notice the hull numbers on the side (44), and the AoS of 52 alongside the 33AB formation marking. The IWM has a whole series of films from this operation, in which the East Riding Yeomanry is described as being present, but only the hull numbers on the Shermans really mark them out. There are a few instances where you can make out either the formation sign or the AoS of 52 on the tanks. I'm unaware of any other British units in NWE using identifying numbers on their hull like this. 

These hull numbers would likely have been in yellow, with a white edging. 


As an example, the image above taken from a film doesn't show the 33AB formation sign, but does show the same style and placement of hull number, along with the '52' AoS, and is filmed in the same area as 33AB were operating. The footage does show other identifiable 33AB tanks. Therefore it's reasonable to consider that this is an ERY tank showing the AoS of 52. 


Another image of a ERY tank in action in Holland - note the 33AB formation sign and AoS of 52 and the presence of a squadron geometric marking (a square) in the central rear hull. This image is extremely clear, showing the turret number (which would be yellow with a white surround). It looks like the tank is actually parked in a petrol station, and those kids are being carried past in a hurry. 


Another image of ERY Shermans, this time in a more wintery setting (November/December 1944?). While unclear, the formation sign can be made out on the left of the 2nd Sherman. A zoomed in image...


...shows the vague hourglass formation sign on the left, the same square marking mid rear as the petrol station tank, the faint '52' on the right rear and the hull numbers spoken about above faintly visible between the extra hull armour plates.  

A similar image to the one above...

Again, faintly you can see the 33AB hourglass on the rear left, the same (petrol station tank) square squadron marking mid rear and a faint 52 on the right rear. Also identifiable are the side hull numbers discussed above. This image is sometimes described as being an American unit, which can be discounted as the Americans didn't use Fireflies. 

Then we have 144RAC who according to the various sources should have an AoS of 154 by October 1944. However, here we have an image from 'Blue Flash', Colonel Jolly's written account of the regiments actions. This picture was taken at the same time and place as much of the IWM footage above was taken, during the fighting in the Netherlands:

Quite clearly, the regiment is using an AoS of 53 in October 1944, the formation sign is also clear on the left and the turret number is visible on the rear of the turret. This would have been blue with probably a white edging at this time. Another change from the Normandy period is that the tank number was previous also displayed on the side of the turret, but is not visible in these later pictures. Possibly when they had to paint the new (blue) numbers on, they only did them on the turret rear. 

Another image, dated 25 October 1944, and found here - the description wrongly attributes these tanks as being ERY, however the AoS of 53 marks these as 144RAC tanks, in company with a 33AB Brigade HQ tank. Again, the turret numbers would be blue with a white edge. 

A little later, during the fighting in the bulge, this Pathe film shows some 144RAC sliding about:


In this image, the 53 is nice and clear, and the hour glass formation sight can be seen on the left above and below the tool attached to the hull. 


A different tank, and only a brief moving view of the rear. However the AoS of 53 is clear, and the hour glass formation sign can be made out to the left of the tool head. 


Another moving image, with a fuzzy AoS of 53 and formation sign. 33AB did take part in the Battle of the Bulge, with them being engaged in a few notable actions with the 51st Highland Division.  

Unfortunately, the 33AB Diablo sign shows much better on the footage than it does on the still images I have taken, as the tanks are moving in the footage. However, it is clear that these images taken between October and December 1944 demonstrate that 144RAC tanks were not bearing the AoS 154.  

There are a number of later IWM films of these units/the brigade, which are unfortunately still to be digitised. I'm confident, however, that when they are digitised and available I will be able to add further evidence that the brigade did not use the AoS number range of 151 to 154. It appears fairly nailed on that they did in fact use the number range 50 to 53 for the various units in the brigade. 

Another incorrect piece of  often repeated information is that the unit used the 'Corps' marker of a white bar under the AoS number. As you can see from the images, there is no evidence of any such addition from October 1944 onwards. While this should have been in use, given the nature of the 33AB as an independent Corps level asset, for some reason the brigade did not include this signifier on their tanks. It should also be noted that there is no evidence of this bar being added below the AoS number in Normandy either. 

In checking the historical images, I will accept that I have been unable to locate any pictures or film footage of tanks from the brigade between late August to September 1944 (during which time they took part in the siege and liberation of Le Havre). 

It is theoretically possible the the brigade used the 151 to 154 AoS range for a very short time in September before changing to 50 to 53 in October. However, my belief is that the brigade took up the 'standard' AoS numbering system of the Armoured Division armoured brigades upon restructuring in early September 1944. I have a memory of an official order issued during the Normandy fighting to this effect for all of the independent armoured brigades, but have been unable to confirm or locate this.

The ERY did join 33AB at the end of August 1944, during which time the brigade was taking part in the 'big swan' after the hectic actions in closing the Falaise Gap. The ERY was a more senior regiment in the British Army, and it's joining the brigade would have necessitated a reorganisation of the AoS numbers and tactical colours fairly rapidly in order that 144RAC take up a more junior position in the brigade. In addition, with the disbanding of 148RAC there would have been an integration of crew and vehicles into the remaining 33AB units. 144RAC had a period of around 10 days at the beginning of September where they were undertaking maintenance and rest (their first such period since 7 August 1944). The rest of the brigade were in much the same position. My feeling is that during this time, and prior to the attack on Le Havre, the AoS numbers and tactical symbols for the various regiments were updated. Obviously, footage of 33AB tanks during the Le Havre operation would help clarify this, but so far I have been unable to find any. 

From a credibility point of view, there is zero evidence that the AoS range of 151 to 154 was ever used by the brigade. Those same sources make no reference to the 50 to 53 range which there is evidence of, and as such cannot be determined to be credible. A case of a mistake repeated enough times, contrary to the evidence, that other publications repeat the same mistake without checking. Which makes me wonder what other such errors exist. 

**Edit 11/5/2021**

I've come across a picture of a tank bearing the AoS of 148RAC crossing a pontoon bridge over the Seine on 2/9/44. However, 148RAC had been disbanded by that date, which suggests that this tank has been re-assigned to another unit. 1NY were supporting 152 Brigade around this time, and according to their war diary did cross this bridge around the date shown. 

This is the latest identifiable picture I have found with the old three digit AoS. 


The IWM image is much clearer, and on a zoom in you can make out '175'. 

This suggests that there were 33AB tanks in early September which still had the older style of AoS numbers and needed re-doing, so we can assume that the new number system was not in effect before this date. 

Having also re-visited 'Blue Flash', it appears that 144RAC spent almost a month following the fall of Le Havre resting. During this time (between the 13th September and 11th October 1944), the regiment undertook "a general domestic overhaul. Inspections, vehicle maintenance and administrative reorganisation were the order of the day" and "Nor was it a slack period for the squadron fitters and R.E.M.E. personnel of the L.A.D. During battle they were busy; out of battle they were more busy than ever. They looked on a period like this as a God-sent opportunity for taking those tanks to bits which they knew 'were getting a bit ropy' so as to make sure that they were as ready as possible for the next party, whenever it might be". This explains the lack of photos, as the Brigade was well behind the lines and resting - although it appears that this may have been partly enforced by the allied supply situation and mention is made in Blue Flash of the regiment having to temporarily give up it's trucks to help move supplies forward during this period. However, this longer period of restructuring, domestic upkeep and maintenance would appear to be the perfect time for new tactical markings to be painted. 

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