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.

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