Although the concept of armoured vehicles had been established since the times of Leonardo da Vinci, it was the First World War that saw the first use of armoured vehicles in action: the British had introduced the tank in 1916, in the Battle of the Somme, and armoured cars had been used from the beginning, by the British and both their allies and enemies. At the end of the war, the British Army in France had 12 companies of armoured cars on the Western Front. The end of the horsed soldier was only a matter of time.
The 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) had spent the war as part of the 1st Cavalry Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, seeing action as cavalry, as infantry and as pioneers, but in March 1928, the regiment (based then at Aldershot) were informed that they were to become an armoured car regiment: the horses, after 213 years, were to go.
The Eleventh had been selected because they and the 12th Lancers were the junior cavalry regiments not to have been amalgamated in a recent round of cuts to the army. Furthermore, the traditional role of Hussars was reconnaissance, which was exactly the job done by armoured cars
News of the proposed mechanisation was broken to the officers of the regiment on 10th March, 1928, by Major General T T Pitman, Colonel of the Regiment. Despite the shock with which the announcement was greeted, every officer of the regiment agreed to remain with the Eleventh. It was confirmed in April that the regiment’s name would remain the same.
Selection as the first regiment to be mechanised was seen to be an honour; the 12th Lancers and the 11th Hussars were the first cavalry regiments in the world to be mechanised. The 12th Lancers were based in India at the time, so the 11th Hussars were able literally to ‘write the book’ about the use of armoured cars – The Armoured Car Manual for Tactical Handling and Drill – with great effect, as the war years were to show.
An article in the Regimental Gazette of April 1938 summed up the regiment’s feeling thus: ‘The choice of two regiments of special distinction for the first step in the real transformation of the cavalry is a tribute to the wisdom of the responsible
military authorities . The best, and not the worst, should have the honour of leading the way, though it is doubtful whether the personnel can yet realise
that the reorganisation brings honour to them. Regrets for the past and the present must fade in new hopes for the future.’
The last mounted parade was held at Aldershot on 10th April 1928. It was reported in ‘The Times’ that the drum horse refused to carry the kettle drums and had to be replaced! Within a few days, all but 50 horses had been sent to the Army Remount Depot at Melton Mowbray. The Inspector of Remounts wrote: “I have been Inspector of Remounts for seven years, and I have never seen horses returned anything like so good as the Eleventh Hussars’ were.” The Eleventh were determined that their reputation as a cavalry regiment was not going to slip away.
By 1929 the regiment had replaced its horses with 117 vehicles, including 10-year-old armoured cars, 30 motor cycles, 16 Austin 7 cars, and some six-wheeled lorries. Initially Rolls Royce armoured cars were received (some having been used in the First World War), with the modern Lanchester design arriving slowly over 18 months. Interestingly, the Rolls Royce type was still used by the regiment in 1940-41 fighting in North Africa while the Lanchester was taken out of service quite quickly.
Substantial help was received from the 3rd Tank Battalion and the 12th Armoured Car Company as the Eleventh embarked on a strenuous programme of training – driving, vehicle maintenance and operating machine guns amongst them. The regiment was split up between the various training schools for nearly a year before being reunited. In October 1930 the Eleventh went to Tidworth, currently home of The King’s Royal Hussars. There they were to remain until sailing for Cairo in November 1934, not to return to the UK until they came home to prepare for D Day in 1944.
The experience the Eleventh gained, first in the UK, and then in Palestine and Egypt, was to stand them in good stead. In 1940 they were in Egypt, facing, almost alone, the first attacks by Italian troops from Libya. History was to prove that when the 11th Hussars were selected as the first cavalry regiment to be mechanised, the authorities made the right choice: the regiment swiftly established a reputation as the best armoured car regiment in the British Army, leading the way across North Africa, into Italy and then from the D Day beaches to Berlin.
It should also be added that the 10th Royal Hussars (Prince of Wales’s Own) returned from India in 1936, being posted to Tidworth, where they were mechanised in 1937, initially receiving only lorries. These were replaced by obsolete tanks (18 years old!) in 1938. In 1940, the regiment was in France, facing the German Blitzkrieg with tanks which, although newer, were still woefully inadequate for modern warfare. The Tenth fought with a variety of tanks in North Africa and then in Italy until the end of the war. These tanks included the Crusader, General Lee tank (pictured), Grant and Sherman.