II Corps (United Kingdom)

The II Corps was an army corps of the British Army formed in both the First World War and the Second World War. There had also been a short-lived II Corps during the Waterloo Campaign.

Assembling an army in the Southern Netherlands to fight Napoleon’s resurgent forces in the spring of 1815, the Duke of Wellington formed it into army corps, deliberately mixing units from the Anglo-Hanoverian, Dutch and German contingents so that the weaker elements would be stiffened by more experienced or reliable troops. As he put it: ‘It was necessary to organize these troops in brigades, divisions, and corps d’armee with those better disciplined and more accustomed to war’.[5] He placed II Corps under the command of Lord Hill. However, Wellington did not use the corps as tactical entities, and continued his accustomed practice of issuing orders directly to divisional and lower commanders. When he drew up his army on the ridge at Waterloo, elements of the various corps were mixed up, and although he gave Hill command of the left wing, this included elements of I Corps. Subsequent to the battle, the corps structure was re-established for the advance into France, and Wellington issued orders through Hill and the other corps commanders.[6]

After the Waterloo campaign the army corps structure disappeared from the British Army for a century, except for ad hoc corps assembled during annual manoeuvres (e.g. Army Manoeuvres of 1913). In 1876 a mobilization scheme for eight army corps was published, with 'Second Corps' based at Aldershot and composed of regular and militia troops. In 1880 its organization was:

This scheme had been dropped by 1881.[7] The Stanhope Memorandum of 1891 (drawn up by Edward Stanhope when secretary of state for war) laid down the policy that after providing for garrisons and India, the army should be able to mobilise three army corps for home defence, two of regular troops and one partly of militia, of three divisions each. Only after those commitments, it was hoped, two army corps might be organised for the unlikely eventuality of deployment abroad. The 1901 Army Estimates introduced by St John Brodrick allowed for six army corps based on the six regional commands, of which only I Corps (Aldershot Command and II Corps (Southern Command on Salisbury Plain) would be entirely formed of regular troops. However, these arrangements remained theoretical. The Haldane Reforms of 1907 established a six-division British Expeditionary Force (BEF) for deployment overseas, which did not envisage any intermediate headquarters between GHQ and the infantry divisions.[8]

On mobilisation in August 1914 it was decided that the BEF would have two-division army corps like the French armies with which the BEF was to operate but only one corps HQ existed, two were improvised.[9] II Corps proceeded to France in August 1914 under the command of Sir James Grierson but Grierson died suddenly on the train to the front on 17 August. Sir John French (GOCinC BEF) wanted Sir Herbert Plumer to succeed Grierson, but the secretary of state for war, Earl Kitchener, instead chose Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, transferred from Southern Command. Smith-Dorrien caught up with his HQ at Bavai on 21 August.[10] II Corps was first engaged two days later at the Battle of Mons and remained on the Western Front throughout the war.

The composition of army corps changed frequently. Some representative orders of battle for II Corps are given here.


Order of Battle on the Somme (Battle of Bazentin Ridge 14–17 July 1916)


Order of Battle at the start of the final advance in Flanders (27 September 1918)

On the outbreak of the Second World War, II Corps was mobilised at Salisbury with two unprepared infantry divisions, under the command of Lieut-General Sir Alan Brooke from Southern Command. II Corps' insignia, designed by its Chief of Staff, Vyvyan Pope, was a visual pun on the name of its commander, who was also a keen fisherman: it depicted a red leaping salmon upon three wavy blue bands against a white background, all in an oblong red border. The corps crossed to France to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at the end of September 1939 and at once moved up to the French frontier.[15] It took part in the advance into Belgium, and was then pushed back with the rest of the BEF to Dunkirk. During the retreat, II Corps covered the vulnerable left flank of the BEF. On 29 May 1940, Brooke was ordered back to Britain to form a new force, and he handed over temporary command of II Corps to Maj-Gen Bernard Montgomery of 3rd Division.[16] Under Montgomery, II Corps was evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940.

Order of Battle at Dunkirk[17]
GOC: Lieutenant-General Alan Brooke (until 30 May 1940)
Maj-General Bernard Montgomery (acting from 30 May 1940)

After commanding forces in the United Kingdom, from Lower Hare Park near Newmarket within Eastern Command,[26] II Corps was being disbanded in early 1944 when selected to be one of the two corps comprising the notional British Fourth Army, which under the deception plan Fortitude North was supposed to attack Norway.

For this operation II Corps was supposedly headquartered at Stirling in Scotland, and notionally consisted of the genuine 3rd Infantry Division (shortly replaced by the notional 58th Infantry Division), the genuine 55th (West Lancashire) Infantry Division in Northern Ireland, and the genuine 113th Independent Infantry Brigade in Orkney. Under Fortitude North II Corps was supposedly to attack Stavanger, with the 3rd Division (later the 58th) and supporting commandos and paratroops seizing the airfields, the 55th (West Lancashire) Division joining as followup; the genuine U.S. XV Corps from Northern Ireland would augment the force, which would advance on Oslo.

The corps was transferred to First United States Army Group (FUSAG) in early June 1944 and moved to Lincolnshire; restored to Fourth Army when that formation joined FUSAG for Fortitude South II, headquarters now at Tunbridge Wells in Kent, with under command the British 55th and 58th divisions and the British 35th Armoured Brigade. It was notionally transferred to France in late September, consisting of the essentially notional 55th Division, the genuine 79th Armoured Division, and the notional 76th Infantry Division; also apparently at times the genuine 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division, disbanded but notionally kept alive. It was notionally part of First Canadian Army in the deception Operation Trolleycar II (threatening an attack on the Germans in the Netherlands) in November 1944.

After the Second World War, as a genuine corps it was based in the Middle East, controlling British forces around the Suez Canal. Following the British withdrawal from Egypt, II Corps was also the controlling force for the invasion of the country during the Suez Crisis, seemingly controlling 3rd Infantry Division and 16th Parachute Brigade.[27] Lt Gen Hugh Stockwell commanded the corps during 'Musketeer.'