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3rd (UK) Division
3rd (UK) Armoured Division
"The Iron Division"

The 3rd (UK) Division is the only division at continual operational readiness in the United Kingdom. Based in Bulford, Wiltshire, England, the Division is made up 1st Mechanized Brigade, 4th Mechanized Brigade, 12th Mechanized Brigade, and 19th Light Brigade. It is also supported by the 101st Logistic Brigade, technically assigned to Headquarters, Theater Troops, as well as its own divisional troops.

In the planned Third Division, the only area of weapons system to weapons system overmatch is probably the very high degree of protection that is designed into the Challenger 2 tank. Challenger 2 has a good gun, a 120 millimetre. It probably overmatches most Russian 125 millimetre guns, but of course it has fewer of them. The division has quite a few Javelin anti-tank guided weapons, which is a very effective anti-tank guided weapon, but an equivalent Russian formation has about four times the number of vehicles that can fire anti-tank guided weapons, and from underneath armour. That includes the T-72 tank and the other tanks, all of which can fire a missile from their main gun.

One weakness of the British division compared with an equivalent Russian division is artillery. Broadly speaking, Russian brigades and divisions have three times as much gun and rocket artillery as their NATO equivalents. Whereas a British armoured infantry brigade would be supported by a single AS-90 regiment, a Russian motor rifle brigade would have two battalions of gun artillery and a battalion of multiple rocket launchers. There is another area in which the British Army is overmatched, and that is ground-based air defence. Broadly speaking, the Army has two regiments of ground-based air defence, one of Rapier and one of Javelin. The can assume that Rapier would be behind the division, but Javelin would be with the division. Most Russian brigades have an air defence battalion and divisions have air defence brigades. They have an impressive array of layered air defence. Many of their missile and radar systems are very capable.

That is important, because it would complicate efforts to use fixed-wing air power to help offset Russian numerical superiority. It is also important because it would limit the options for manoeuvring Apache helicopters around the battlefield to attempt to apply their tank-killing power to the battlefield. This is not just a British Army problem. It is a NATO land forces problem.

Future Developments

The most challenging peer adversary for the 3rd Divisions’ capability is Russia. To match Russian tank or motor rifle formations, in 2025, the division will need to exploit its strengths, but find ways of overcoming its weaknesses. It will have two armoured infantry brigades with Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs). It will have many Javelin anti-tank guided weapons (ATGW), but its adversary would have many armoured vehicles with integral ATGW that can be fired from under armour. The British division has no such capability. The division’s anti-armour capability would be greatly enhanced by allocating it the Apache helicopters of the British aviation brigade. Whilst the division’s armoured engineer capability is a strength, its organic artillery is outnumbered and outranged by much more numerous Russian artillery. This could constrain armoured manoeuvre. The obsolete FV 432 and Spartan AFVs currently filling many support roles would be particularly vulnerable to indirect fire. Modernising British artillery does not appear to be funded.

In 2025, the division will have re-organised an armoured infantry brigade into a strike brigade. This will have much greater operational and strategic mobility than the formation it replaces, increasing options for rapid deployment of medium armour over extended distances, including in Europe. But reducing tank strength by one third means that divisional anti-armour capability, particularly against tanks, will be less. Over time, Russian AFVs are increasingly likely to be fitted with active protection systems (APS) that would reduce the effectiveness of British Javelin and Hellfire ATGW. The disruptive challenge to the effectiveness of ATGW posed by APS does not appear to be publicly acknowledged by most NATO armies, including the British.

The armoured division is focussed on defeating the enemy armoured threat, hence it consists primarily of main battle tanks and IFVs. A warfighting division contains other brigade level capabilities to deal with a broader range of threats and tasks. The exact composition of the division is determined by several factors including threat, task and geography. Various elements could be in the warfighting division.

  • Divisional Headquarters. This provides the command and control for the warfighting division.
  • Armoured Infantry Brigade (Challenger 2, Warrior). An Armoured Infantry brigade consists of armoured capabilities such as tanks and IFVs, armoured engineers, armoured artillery and signals assets. It is designed to counter enemy armoured forces through greater levels of protection and firepower.
  • Strike Brigade (Ajax and Boxer). The Strike brigade is a new concept designed to be more mobile than the Armoured Infantry brigade, to allow rapid deployment and re-deployment, while still possessing sufficient firepower to deal with the enemy's less well protected assets and threats that do not include heavy armour or where direct confrontation with heavy armour can be avoided. The Strike Brigade will also gather information and intelligence for the divisional commander, manoeuvre critical assets into a position of advantage and disperse widely, to seek to cause uncertainty in the mind of the enemy.
  • Air Assault Brigade. The Air Assault brigade can move at very high readiness using transport aircraft or heavy lift helicopter aviation. It provides the means to demonstrate intent ahead of the divisional main body's deployment, and secure vital battlespace for the division until it can link up with other forces.
  • Combat Aviation Brigade. The Combat Aviation brigade is anticipated, by 2025, to include upgraded Apache Attack Helicopters grouped with Wildcat reconnaissance helicopters, providing vital air support to troops on the ground.
  • Divisional enablers. Divisional enablers comprise a significant part of the warfighting division (c. 40% of the troops) and consist of: Signals, Artillery, Air Defence, Engineers (including Explosive Ordnance Disposal), Aviation, Royal Military Police, Medical, Logistics and REME.
SDSR15 envisaged that Army would be able to field a ‘division with three brigades including a new Strike Force’. The division described in SDSR15 drew on two armoured infantry brigades and two new Strike Brigades to deliver a deployed division of three brigades. The two Strike Brigades were envisaged to be able to deploy rapidly over long distances using the new Ajax armoured vehicles and new mechanised infantry vehicles. By 2025, the Army will be able to field a war-fighting division optimised for high intensity combat operations, consisting of a single Manoeuvre Brigade (Armoured Infantry) and an interim Manoeuvre Support Brigade (from Strike and Light Infantry). The Interim Manoeuvre Support Brigade will be equipped with Ajax, the first Boxer (Mechanised Infantry) platforms and the in-service Protected Mobility vehicles. Boxer will be at full operating capability in the early 2030s allowing the remaining protected mobility vehicles to be replaced and the full Strike Brigade ambition to be achieved.


On 2 July 1809, the 3rd Division was formed tactically on the frontier of Portugal and Spain. This was part of developments in the early years of the Peninsular War, when the future Duke of Wellington decided to adopt, for the first time in the British Army, a permanent divisional structure to help him combat the French. By the winter of 1811, the 3rd Division was generally known by the nickname 'The Fighting Division', since it always seemed to be in action against the French enemy. Between 1809 and 1815, the 3rd Division took part in the following battles: Talavera on 28 July 1809, Bussaco on 27 September 1810, Torres Vedras during Winter 1810-1811, Sabugal on 3 April 1811, Fuentes D'Onoro on 5 May 1811, Cuidad Rodrigo on 19 January 1812, Badajoz on 6 April 1812, Salamanca on 22 July 1812, Burgos between September and October 1812, Vittoria on 21 June 1813, Pyrenees on 30 July 1813, Quatre Bras on 16-17 July 1815, and Waterloo on 18 July 1815.

The 3rd Division, along with the rest of the British Army, had a rather uninspired campaign in the Crimea between 1854 and 1855. The Division participated in 3 battles during the conflict: Alma on 20 September 1854, Inkerman on 5 November 1854, and Sebastopol during 1854-1855.

The 3rd Division deployed to southern Africa to participate in the Boer War between 1899 and 1900. During that conflict, the Division participated in another 3 battles: Stormberg on 10 December 1899, the advance into the Orange Free State on 12 March 1900, and Reddersburg on 3 April 1900.

The 3rd Division deployed to France during the Great War and it was during that war that the Third Division's gained the nickname 'The Iron Division'. During the Great War, the Division was present at numerous battles, including Mons in 1914, Ypres in 1915, the Somme in 1916, Arras in 1917, and was finally part of the occupation force of the Rhineland during 1918 and 1919.

The Division's participation in the Second World War had 2 distinct phases. Firstly it was part of the British Expeditionary Force to France to stem the German advance, but having fought hard yet ultimately unsuccessfully, it was evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940. The Division went on to lead the assault on Sword Beach on the coast of Normandy, France on D-Day. The Division participated in the fighting around Caen during the breakout from the beachhead. After the landing and the breakout, the Division continued fighting as part of 21st Army Group across northern Europe. It went on to participate in Operation Goodwood and Operation Market Garden. The Division ended the war with fighting in the Rhineland in Germany in 1945.

In the post war years, the Division had many roles. The Division saw service in Palestine from 1945 and 1947, at which point it was disbanded. In 1951, the Division was reformed and became part of the Army Strategic Command, an element of the UK's Strategic Reserve. As part of the Army Strategic Command, the unit deployed for the Suez Crisis in 1956 and for peacekeeping duties in Cyprus in 1964.

In 1978, what had become the 3rd (UK) Armoured Division had moved to Korbecke on the Mohnesee in the Federal Republic of Germany to become part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) with 3 armoured brigades, the 4th, 6th, and 33rd Armoured Brigades. There it remained until the decision was made following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 to dramatically reduce the size of the BAOR. The unit was subsequently restructured to a mechanized division and relocated to Bulford, Wiltshire, England.

The Division was deployed as part of peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s and as a headquarters to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2001. The Division headquarters was also deployed to Iraq in 2003, 2006, and 2008.

The headquarters also force generated and prepared 12th Mechanized, 52nd Infantry, 19th and 11th Light Brigades for operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan and took command of 4th Mechanized Brigade on their return from Operation Herrick's rotation 13 in 2011.

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Page last modified: 05-05-2021 19:35:04 ZULU