Exercise Spartan tests D-Day forces in Britain

6-pdr anti-tank gun in action during Exercise 'Spartan', 9 March 1943.

6-pdr anti-tank gun in action during Exercise ‘Spartan’, 9 March 1943.

A Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun uses a hayrick for camouflage during Exercise 'Spartan', 9 March 1943.

A Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun uses a hayrick for camouflage during Exercise ‘Spartan’, 9 March 1943.

Valentine bridgelayer passing through a village during Exercise 'Spartan', 6 March 1943.

Valentine bridgelayer passing through a village during Exercise ‘Spartan’, 6 March 1943.

Plans for the invasion of occupied Europe were now advancing in Britain. Although much remained to be decided, the long term objective of the Allies was to strike, over land, at the heart of Germany itself.

In preparation for this the largest offensive military exercise ever undertaken in Britain was mounted in the first half of March 1943. Large numbers of tanks were involved in making an ‘armoured thrust’ across the south of England. Bridges that had been ‘destroyed by the the enemy’ were replaced with temporary military structures.

In ‘Spartan’, Headquarters First Canadian Army (styled for exercise purposes Headquarters Second Army) functioned for the first time in the field:

Only the highlights of the exercise can be given here. In the opening phase G.H.Q. Home Forces, which was directing the exercise, made things hard for the Second Army by allowing the “German” army to advance twenty-four hours before the time (first light on 5 March) previously notified to General McNaughton for the beginning of his operations.

The “British” force was not permitted to move until the Germans had been on their way for some hours. This enabled Gammell’s units to make contact with McNaughton’s farther south than the latter had appreciated to be probable, and incidentally they were able to “demolish” a great number of bridges.

In spite of these initial disadvantages, General Crerar’s well-trained Corps in the centre got forward rapidly and on 5 March smashed the “hinge” in the Reading area on which General Gammell had planned to pivot his defence. The 2nd Canadian Corps was held back until 7 March, when General McNaughton ordered it to make a wide enveloping sweep to the westward.

The armoured divisions’ progress, however, was disappointingly slow; there were bad traffic jams and petrol shortages; and for a time there was a complete breakdown in communications between Corps and Army Headquarters. This last was not surprising, since 2nd Canadian Corps Signals was neither fully equipped nor fully trained. It should moreover be remembered that this was the first occasion on which the whole of the 5th Division was actually exercised together as a formation.

See the Canadian Official History Six Years of War. The results of the Exercise were closely scrutinised and ‘lessons learnt’ but the outcome for some of the senior officers involved was not always positive.

General McNaughton was criticised by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Sir Alan Brooke recorded in his diary that McNaughton was ‘quite incompetent to command an army. He does not know how to begin the job and was tying up his forces in the most awful muddle’. By contrast he was complimentary about General Crerar. McNaughton was quietly sidelined later in 1943 whilst General Crerar went on to command the First Canadian Army in Normandy. See Alanbrooke War Diaries.

Churchill IV tank enters a village during Exercise 'Spartan', 9 March 1943.

Churchill IV tank enters a village during Exercise ‘Spartan’, 9 March 1943.

Covenanter tanks harboured by the side of a road during Exercise 'Spartan', 6 March 1943.

Covenanter tanks harboured by the side of a road during Exercise ‘Spartan’, 6 March 1943.

Canadian Churchill tanks during Exercise 'Spartan', 9 March 1943.

Canadian Churchill tanks during Exercise ‘Spartan’, 9 March 1943.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Norman Hope November 3, 2016 at 7:55 pm

I was at an auction house last week in Liskeard and bought a box full of WW2 documents, The item was listed as “war books and ephemera”, I placed a bid as i was unable to attend and won the item. What a surprise when I got home and went through it. WW2 Maps of the Normande beaches Dated May 44 and marked “Top Secret”, Maps of German towns and their defences, Also documents relating to the Ox and Bucks regiment and a detailed map of Ouistreham covering the two bridges, one over the canal and the other over the river Orne also dated May 44. if you know your history you will know it as “Pegasus Bridge”, captured by Maj. John Howard and his team of parachutists at 00.16 on the morning of JUNE 6TH 1944, First fighting force to set foot on Occupied French soil on “D” DAY.
Some of the other stuff relates to a certain Lt, Col. B**** who was in the Ox and Bucks Regiment, Ration cards, Mess bills etc. and a book listing ALL the officers and their addresses.
To say I was pleased with my find is an understatement of the highest order.

Got carried away there for a minute, what I should have added is that along side all the Ox and Bucks stuff there was a very large scale map of southern England, detailing in Red where troops and vehicles armoured or not could and could not go during the excercise.
the map is headed .. MAP “A” issued with “G.H.Q. Excercise “SPARTAN” and dated 43.
the south of England is split into three areas, “Westland”, “Eastland” and “Southland.
The map is 2ft 10″ by 3ft 6” and scaled to “Quarter inch to One Statute Mile. 1/2534440. It covers London in Eastland to Tenbury in the Westland and from Derby in the North of Eastland to the Isle of Weight in Southland.

Ken Jones July 19, 2016 at 11:00 pm

The Bridgelayer is on a Covenanter chassis – not a Valentine.

Editor July 15, 2016 at 4:15 pm

@Helana

Photographs on this site:

There area number of different aspects to this question which I have summarised on my FAQ Page.

Please see

http://ww2today.com/faq

Helena Collinge July 13, 2016 at 4:34 pm

Is there any way I can find out who the people are in the pictures… I think one of the men in the tank at the front is my grandad… He looks the spitting image of old pictures I have

Roger Bruton March 17, 2016 at 1:03 pm

I too had never heard of Exercise Spartan until the programme. As I now live in East Yorkshire I would like to find out more about the training and exercises that went on on the Yorkshire Wolds. I believe that at one stage farmers suddenly had to move all their livestock.

Roger Bruton June 22, 2015 at 10:07 pm

I thought I was fairly knowledgable about WWII but I never heard of Exercise Spartan until I watch “The BBC at War” last week.

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