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United Kingdom: Desert Rats

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Desert Rats by Edward Mooney, 10 January 2001

A neighbor of mine when I was a kid used to tell me stories about fighting with the British 7th in North Africa in WWII. He had the flag (pennant?) attached hanging in his garage. I found this image in the Eyewitness Series Book by Knopf entitled "FLAG" [cra89g], and it matched my memory of the flag I saw years ago.
Edward Mooney, 10 January 2001

See also:

Desert Rats: first design

The "Desert Rats" were the 7th Armoured Division of the British Army, not to be confused with the 8th Army or any regiments. The 7th Armoured were the first to enter the desert war against the Italians in 1941, where they soon earned the nickname "desert rats". The "formation sign" of the 7th Armoured was originally a white circle inside a red square (see note below). This was identical, except in proportions, to the 7th Infantry Division of the First World War. The formation sign was painted on vehicles and worn as a cloth patch at the top of the sleeve of all personnel. The 7th Armoured participated in the invasion of Italy, but were then withdrawn and sent to NW Europe instead a month after D-Day. It was there that the red jerboa (desert rat) first started to appear in the white circle of the formation sign. Shortly afterwards, the sign was changed to a red jerboa outlined in white on a black rectangle.

The standard identifying symbol of a British division in WW2 was a red swallow-tail flag. Individual divisions mounted their formation sign on this flag. Brigades which had fought with the 7th Armoured Division in the North African desert and subsequently became independent took with them the jerboa symbol. The 4th Armoured Brigade had a black jerboa on a white square. The 7th Armoured Brigade, which went to Burma and called themselves the "jungle rats", had a green jerboa in a red circlet on a white background.

Attached is an approximation of the 7th Armoured Division flag at the end of WW2, based on photographs of other divisional flags and photographs of the 7th's formation sign.

T.F. Mills, 10 January 2001

Note 1.

It was on a red oblong not square and originally worn on the Topee ( I still have mine) not on the top of the sleeve, that came much later.
Ernie Huntley, 6 December 2002

Later design

Desert Rats by Todd Mills, 10 January 2001

The 7th Armoured Division Formation Sign was a red jerboa in a white circle on red square. Later it was a brown jerboa fimbriated white on black.
David Prothero, 10 January 2001

In William Crampton: "The World of Flags", Studio Editions, 2nd edition, London 1992, there is a picture on page 142 of General Mongomery in front of a Jeep with the flag and shield of the Eighth Army. The flag is on a small staff in the middle of the front of the car, it is horizontally divided red-black-red with a black square in the middle on which is a white shield with a yellow cross. The shield is on the left side of the car's front, it's like on the flag but on a blue background.
Elias Granqvist, 10 January 2001

The black-red-black horizontally-striped British army flag designated an army headquarters. The jerboa was a divisional symbol in Montgomery's army.
Jack Kowalski 10 January 2001

The first UK brigade to deploy to Saudi Arabia after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait evidently descended from one of Montgomery's divisions (same number) and used the same organizational emblem, a silhouette of (I believe) a jerboa rat. I think I saw flag versions of this on British vehicles in Saudi Arabia in fall 1990 but I don't remember the colors and don't know if it was also used in WWII.
Joe McMillan 9 January 2001

Origin of the Desert Rats

The term Desert Rat was given to the British 8th Army under the command of General Montgomery and derives from the Jerboa, a largely nocturnal rodent native to North Africa that hops like a Kangaroo. Soldiers of the 8th Army never actually wore a desert rat insignia in North Africa.

The 4th Armoured Brigade, formed after Munich in Egypt in 1938, lays claim to the original desert rat name.

The 7th Armoured Division preceded the 4th Armoured Brigade back to England in preparation for the Second Front Normandy Landings.

The 4th Armoured Brigade left N. Africa to join the Italian campaign before returning for the Second Front after fighting the battle on the river Sangro,on Italy’s Adriatic coast.

The 4th Armoured Brigade arrived back in England to find that the 7th Armoured Division had already produced a badge, and so created their own caricatured version.

NB. A division comprises 2 or more Brigades, the 4th became an independent Brigade.

Wing Commander PM Gosse MC(Retd), 7 July 2002

Reference to the 4th Armoured Brigade in 1938 is an error, for I served with the Heavy Armoured Brigade under Brig. Caunter during the Italian Campaign.  At that time the 7th Armoured Division had two armoured brigades, the Light Armoured (L.A.B, formed mainly of the 7th Hussars) and the Heavy (H.A.B.). Later the names were changed, the LAB became the 7th Armoured Brigade and the HAB, the 4th Armoured Bde.
E.W.H. Huntley6 December 2002