This series of short articles is about looking at some of the more persistent myths surrounding the British Army during the Second World War. In this first of three it concerns the position of the Light Machine Gun (aka the Bren gun) in British Army thinking and employment during this time at the Platoon level.
The author has always been quite suspicious of claims surrounding the superiority of German infantry over British infantry during the War and thus anything on this subject matter piques interest.
Whilst the issue of relative effectiveness between British and German infantry in the Second World War is one that could fill a multi volume work, it is more manageable, and arguably still enlightening, to shine a light on small focused aspects of the debate and to see what scurries out. This is the objective in this first article.
Now a short aside: the author has read many a revisionary history book that present histories that oppose historiographies that were mainstream in 1965 and trumpet their own work as striking gold and overthrowing a misleading paradigm. All this whilst happily ignoring the 40 years of historical research that agrees with them – they are thus arguing against phantoms. Therefore, am I arguing against a Phantom long since dispelled? I think not, whilst I am sure someone else has probably come to the same conclusions, a quick Google search will still bring up many links talking about how German machine gun employment was ahead of the game and there are a number of books as well that berate the British Army for lack of vision in this regard. I am sure the claim rings familiar to many reading ears here so I do not think I am arguing old ground. That now said.
One of the more persistent myths concerning both armies infantry forces is the different ways the German and British infantry used automatic fire and how it was embedded at the Platoon level, or if you like, at the sharp edge of the infantry force. The author has seen it claimed time and time again that one of the advantages of the German system was that it built its infantry around the machine gun: in other words that the Platoon was there to support the machine guns, and not the other way around.
The British Army meanwhile, this argument goes, stuck during the inter-war period to a system that emphasised the rifleman as the primary weapon of the infantry: a doctrine that remained ascendant due to the Colonial nature of most of the British Army’s role in the inter-war period (which emphasised small unit action and marksmanship); and the persistence in a conservative organisation of an idealised ‘Old Contemptible’ narrative that drew on the effectiveness of pre Great War infantry expertise with the rifle – an expertise summed up in the idea of the ‘mad minute’.
(Above is a video of a “civilian” mad minute going down-range incase the reader is unaware of what the ‘mad minute’ was supposed to be or look like. It is also of interest as the video shows a respectable number of rounds going down range from the rifles which is food for thought over how much more effective a US Army squad armed with M1 Garands might have been over a British Army section with bolt actions.)
Therefore it is argued in this myth, that the British emphasised prowess and marksmanship with the bolt action rifle and bayonet, over a modern belt fed, air cooled machine gun which could deliver enormous local fire-power. So rather than, as in the German system, the Platoon being a force to support a machine gun, the light machine gun supported a primary force of riflemen who would winkle out the enemy in close combat. In sum, the British Army was backward and looking to fight the last Colonial action.
Now the author stumbled upon this lovely little seam of primary source material on British Army small arms training pamphlets from pre-war years and during the war years too. And what the author found within shows without doubt that the British Army’s thinking on automatic fire-power was not as presented by this myth. Now there are limitations to the author’s arguments. As many know there is no shortage of finely worded documents that prescribe actions that have no basis in the reality of the organisation’s day to day operation. So the documents can only tell us what the British Army’s official opinions and thinking was in terms of automatic fire-power at the Platoon level – they cannot tell us if the ideas were translated into action on the battlefield. However, it is argued that in this context it is very likely that employment did correspond to doctrine most of the time as (a) the doctrine was linked to the practicalities like the scales of issue, ammunition issue and stores (so the high words were accompanied usually by the correct scaling of LMGs and ammo) ; (b) these documents represent doctrine presented and embedded in lesson plans thus increasing the likelihood of practical knowledge transfer and (c) the doctrine and thinking was based upon hard-won inferred instrumental experience from the Great War and the use of the Lewis Gun (in other words, the light machine gun became central not because somebody thought it should be, but because people found it WAS and thus it would again automatically become central because it was a useful solution to the same problem of enemy fire-power restricted manoeuvre).
So what evidence do we find that the LMG was utilised in the British Army in the same fashion as is argued the MG was in the German Army?
We start in PAM No 1, the 1937 version. And in it from Page 15 we find the model Skill At Arms training programme for new recruits. What we find is that the LMG is already in 1937 an integral part of the training programme for new infantry recruits. It is not taught as an “alternative weapon” and neither is it taught merely to assigned gunners: all infantry were to be trained to the same standards on the gun. Furthermore, we can see that there are 39 hours dedicated to LMG training through Recruit and Infantry training programmes compared to 56 hours on the rifle: a favourable comparison especially since, as the PAMs go on to say, a lot of the basic rifle lessons will cover subject matters applicable to the LMG thus allowing a reduction in hours (theory of a group for example).
Next we move onto PAM No 14 which describes the pre-war equivalents to the modern range qualifications (the old APWT to those in the know). We see that after depot all eligible soldiers were to fire a course of fire on the Rifle of 75 rnds and a course of fire on the LMG of 135 rnds in the 1938 version. By 1942 the model allocation saw double the number of LMG rounds fired to rifle rounds fired.
Next PAM No 4, the LMG training lessons where the most compelling evidence resides. Here we see in Section 5 the following text: “The light machine gun is the principle weapon of the infantry and every man will therefore be trained to use it”. It goes on, “the rifle is the personal protective weapon of the individual, it may be needed, in an emergency to augment the fire of the section…”. Thus it is here we find solid evidence for the thinking behind the employment of the LMG in the British infantry Platoon, in a pre war version of the PAM.
We find that British thinking was precisely that of the German Army: that the Platoon was based around the LMGs and not the rifleman. Also, incidentally, in the same section we find text that shows that “infiltration tactics”, another supposed German staple, was also present in British Army thinking at the time: “this phase demands skill in the use of ground and a correct appreciation of how to apply all the available fire-power to penetrate between localities held by the enemy…”.
Also in PAM No 4 is the model ammunition scaling of an infantry section. What we see is that each rifleman was to carry only 50 rnds for his rifle – thus fitting in with the idea of the rifle being a personal self defence weapon. The 25 magazines allocated to each LMG was to be distributed between the section with each man carrying notionally, 90 rnds for the LMG in 3x magazines (although the model allocation changed over time and no doubt in practise).
With each man trained on the LMG, and with each man carrying its ammunition, it can be seen how the Section was there to support the LMG and not the other way around. At the start of the Great War the individual BEF infanteer was to carry 120 rnds for his rifle: by 1939 it was 50 rnds for his rifle and 90 rnds for the LMG. We don’t see the LMG ammo added on top of the old 120 rnd rifle scaling – instead we see a de-emphasising of the rifle in the infantry platoon with LMG ammunition displacing the rifle ammunition. More evidence for the centrality of the LMG to British infantry Platoons.
Therefore, in summary, what we find in the pamphlets is excellent, primary source evidence for contemporary British Army thinking on the employment of the LMG at Platoon level. It cannot be definitive evidence of how it was used in practise but it is highly likely that, generally speaking, practise conformed to doctrine since the doctrine had been translated into practical lessons and was based on instrumental experiences.
We find that British Army thinking, even pre-war had already emphasised the central and fundamental role of the LMG and had prioritised it over the rifle and employed it as the primary weapon of the infantry. We thus find that British Army thinking was the same as German Army thinking – the (L)MG was supported by the Platoon and not the other way around.