The Sale Collection is a remarkable series of photographs taken by Major ‘Jimmy’ Sale, and a number of his comrades, between 1938 and 1945. Comprising 24 albums of over 5,000 images, it charts the odyssey undertaken by their unit, the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters), during the Second World War (1939-45).
After travelling the length and breadth of Britain - an island under siege - the men of the Sharpshooters set out for North Africa in 1941. Their journey took them to the barren deserts of Egypt and Libya, then across the Mediterranean Sea to the blood-soaked battlefields of Sicily and Italy.
By June 1944, they had returned to Britain, but were soon transported across the Channel to the beaches of Normandy. Driving inland through the testing ‘bocage’ landscape, they later fought through North West Europe, across the River Rhine and into the devastated heartland of Germany.
The incomplete war diaries of the Sharpshooters provide a detailed narrative of their contribution during the conflict. But Sale’s photographs provide a much richer insight into the humanity and humour that helped sustain British troops throughout the war.
‘From Alamein to Berlin, the Sharpshooters left their dead in many lands.’
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery of Alamein, 1964
The Sale Collection is a hugely valuable resource for military historians, providing a unique record of Britain at war in the 1940s.
It demonstrates how some regiments flouted the ban on front-line photography by appointing their own unofficial unit photographers. Sale's superiors turned a blind eye to his work, perhaps wanting to record for posterity their unit's role in the epic struggle unfolding. The inclusion of photographs of unit grave markers may also suggest Sale had a semi-official role in recording his unit’s casualties.
The photographs show the Sharpshooters’ own transition from armoured cars to tanks. They also illustrate the rapid development of the armoured fighting vehicles of the Royal Armoured Corps during the war, from light tankettes and cruiser tanks to the upgraded Sherman variants in which they fought their way into Germany.
As the war of attrition against the Axis powers spread across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the toll on machines and infrastructure - and, more importantly, the human cost - was a heavy one. This is only too apparent in Sale's images.
The temporary graves of tank crewmen that appear with increasing frequency in the later albums represent real people. These are individuals whose names and faces can often be traced back in time to the many cheerful group photographs featured in the earlier albums.
Their names can also be cross-referenced in the casualty lists of the unit’s war diaries, and their final resting places confirmed by the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The early group photographs reflect the camaraderie and high morale within the Sharpshooters. They perhaps also reveal the naivety of a generation of young men who, unlike many of their fathers, had not yet experienced the horrors of war.
The number of these large group photographs dwindles in the later albums. Instead, they are replaced by photographs of tight-knit tank crews, clearly dependent on each other, and the machines they stick close to for survival.
But, first and foremost, the Sale Collection is a remarkable resource because it demonstrates the everyday life of the British soldier during the Second World War. From the mundane and the mischievous, to the tragic and terrifying, it illustrates themes from recreation to remembrance.
The images show how soldiers lived, how they trained and let off steam, and how they fought and died, serving their country and supporting each other through truly desperate times.
The 3rd County of London Imperial Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) was formed in 1901. The unit drew heavily on veterans from the ranks of the Imperial Yeomanry, a volunteer force established during the Boer War (1899-1902).
Four battalions of Imperial Yeomanry ‘Sharpshooters’ were raised in 1900, consisting of the most skilled marksmen and horsemen of the Imperial Yeomanry. The new unit adopted this elite epithet and became part of the Territorial Force in 1908.
During the First World War (1914-18), the 1/3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) served at Gallipoli, in Egypt, Salonika and Palestine. The unit was merged to form E Battalion, Machine Gun Corps, and served on the Western Front until the end of the war.
After the First World War, the reconstituted Territorial unit was absorbed into the Royal Tank Corps, with Rolls Royce armoured cars replacing its horses.
As a result of mechanisation, the unit’s attire was a composite of elements from its former cavalry uniform, including boots and spurs, and the Royal Tank Corps uniform, with its black beret and badge.
From 1935, the unit was commanded by Major RK ‘King’ Jago and the section commanders included his brother Captain William ‘Bill’ Jago, and Captain Terence Green. These three part-time officers were all civil servants and former members of the South Irish Horse.
In the mid-1930s, as the 23rd (London) Armoured Car Company, the unit was a somewhat exclusive club, with a select membership.
However, writing in the introduction to Andrew Graham’s unit history ‘Sharpshooters at War’ (1964), an officer named Oliver Woods attributed its outstanding ‘esprit de corps’ partly to the fact that its officers were mainly commissioned from the ranks.
This practice reduced the friction and barriers that could sometimes arise between officers and other ranks. Jimmy Sale himself was a non-commissioned officer at the start of the Second World War and rose through the ranks to end it as a major.
The first album in the Sale series reflects the calm before the storm as war with Germany approached. By 1938, the regular Spring and Summer Territorial camps were being replaced by more intensive training. At the Budleigh Salterton camp in Devon, the Sharpshooters trained with its regular Army 'parent' unit, the 12th Lancers (Prince of Wales's).
But pre-war training in England was not without risk. Lanchester armoured cars replaced the unit’s old Rolls Royce cars, and the album contains several images of accidents as the troops got used to their new vehicles.
This includes a picture of a Lanchester car on its side after rolling down an embankment. The car was apparently being driven by a member of the 12th Lancers who fell asleep after 18 hours at the wheel.
In 1939, as the Munich crisis developed, a squadron was kept in readiness ‘in support to the civil powers’ back in London.
That same year, the Royal Tank Corps became the Royal Tank Regiment, part of a new Royal Armoured Corps. The Sharpshooters were officially restored to regimental status as 23rd (London) Armoured Car Regiment (Territorial Army) and the unit retained its Royal Tank Corps badge.
Prior to the outbreak of war, the unit was expanded to two full regiments. The first took on the First World War title, the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters). Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Carr, an ex-Sharpshooter, had trained with the unit while with the 12th Lancers. Carr, with a cadre of officers and non-commissioned officers from the 3rd and his own regiment, took command of the second regiment, the newly recruited 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters).
Prior to mobilisation in September 1939, the 3rd and 4th County of London Yeomanry regiments trained at Popham in Hampshire for two weeks each, with a crossover period to help the new unit get up to speed.
The photographs at Popham illustrate how the Sharpshooters had to train with ageing vehicles and equipment, as all the latest resources were sent to France with the front-line forces.
A headquarters staff was formed, drawing heavily on regular cavalry officers from the London clubs. Adverts were placed in London’s evening press, and the rank and file of the two regiments were recruited from the city's garage mechanics, office workers, retail and hotel staff.
On 1 September 1939, the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) was mobilised. But even before the soldiers received official notification, many officers and men reported for duty at their drill hall in St John’s Wood, alerted by the BBC.
War was declared two days later. The 3rd and 4th County of London Yeomanry, together with another Territorial Army unit, the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, were brigaded as 22nd Heavy Armoured Brigade, under the command of Brigadier John Scott Cockburn, part of the 2nd Armoured Division.
The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France and Belgium spent the autumn and winter preparing to engage the Germans in Western Europe. The Sharpshooters, however, moved from London to the somewhat more sedate West Country, where they remained until the end of 1939.
Although lacking equipment, the units trained in gunnery, wireless operation, driving and vehicle maintenance, as drafted men began to swell the ranks. While in Devon, they were supplied with a variety of armoured cars and tanks as they became available.
At the end of December 1939, the Sharpshooters and their motley array of vehicles were moved on icy roads and rails to Whitwell in Derbyshire.
In early 1940, training continued at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire, now home to the Queen’s Royal Lancers and Nottinghamshire Yeomanry Museum.
In May-June 1940, the German 'Blitzkrieg' overwhelmed the BEF and its Western European allies. Following the fall of France, the unit moved to East Anglia as Britain braced itself for an attack from occupied Europe.
During this period, Sale refers in his captions to a number of ‘flaps’, presumably security alerts relating to possible invasion or airborne assaults by German forces.
In June and July 1940, both Sharpshooter units were in camp in Northamptonshire, where they received a full complement of Mk VI light tanks, as well as visits from notables including Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and the Duke of Gloucester. The units took part in regimental and divisional exercises in preparation for the expected German attack.
By mid-August 1940, the Sharpshooters were in Cambridgeshire undertaking more training, but still primarily equipped with light Vickers tanks.
The war diary of the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) mentions ‘A’ Squadron billeting ‘on a farm at Chilford Hall’ during the high summer of 1940.
Despite the stress and strains of training to face an invasion, Sale still found time to include a series of photographs showing farm animals, tractor rides, and the warm welcome he and his colleagues received from this farming family.
Over the following months, the regiment continued its training. By the start of 1941, the invasion threat had receded. But new dangers awaited the men of the 3rd County of London Yeomanry as they prepared for their first overseas deployment of the war.