Platoon and Bren Gun Myths


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).

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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.



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Angus McLellan
Angus McLellan
May 27, 2013 2:32 pm

An excellent piece of research there Phil, thanks for sharing it with us.

On the myth-busting front, have you seen this thesis on the Home Guard – – which shoots down quite a few old favourites?

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
May 27, 2013 3:10 pm

“…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”

Bloody hell, Phil. It’s like eating dry biscuits without any water.

(A bit of a ;) there, I was interested in your article, and thanks for it)

I can safely say that while being issued with lots of Pamphlets, I managed to avoid reading any. That was the Army’s fault – believing that if you issue a young officer with a Pamphlet, he will read it. I can sorrowfully report that mostly they get stored under the bed in your mess room, and completely forgotten about.

What the Pamphlets don’t tell you is how to teach a young soldier about beaten zones with a straw and a cheap milkshake (it’s a very effective demo, and intuitive), or why enfilade fire very often results in a threat to your own flank which you are poorly placed to react to, and how a can of coke and a small pack of baby wipes can greatly reduce your incidence of gas stoppages on the L7 GPMG.

Think Defence
May 27, 2013 3:20 pm
Reply to  Phil

Is that not a mess drinking came, cream crackers

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
May 27, 2013 3:40 pm

Seems a bit dull TD for a Mess drinking game.

You can start off with everyone having a drink whenever someone in Dallas had a drink (Christ knows what the plots were about, we were always blotto before the end credits), or there’s also a good stripping game where the girlfriends have to remove a piece of kit if you fail to remove a champagne cork cleanly with a single strike from a sabre. You and a mucker can get two girls completely naked for the price of half a case, and it’s a good evening.

paul g
May 27, 2013 3:49 pm

riding along in the desert, riding along riding along. CAMEL STOPS! jump off, hump off look inside. no food in hump change hump for full, hump on, jump on carry on riding (bren gun drills as taught to wide eyed young army cadet master g in the late 70’s)!!

Brian Black
Brian Black
May 27, 2013 4:29 pm

Hi, Phil. One of the aspects you seem to be looking at is the jarring discrepancy between peacetime theory and wartime reality that has continued long after WWII. Pre-war theories concentrate on neat tactics and marksmanship, while conflict suddenly focuses on the need for raw firepower.

The infantry section at the start of WWII has the gun group supporting the riflemen (including a bomber or two) with their fifty rounds apiece; when the British return to the continent you find the riflemen also carrying an ammo bandolier as a norm, and the dedicated grenadier disappears. You can also find references to larger D-day assault squads with two gun groups, as well as a section commander with a Thompson or Sten. But fast-forward to the Falklands, and you find LMGs being dug out of stores to supplement the sections’ GPMGs; additional HMGs also shoved into battalions. Despite that, a decade later, section machine guns have disappeared to be replaced with a couple of heavy-barreled rifles, only for belt-fed guns to reappear after further combat experience. I’m sure machine guns will again fade from prominence in training after the exit from Afghanistan.

Think Defence
May 27, 2013 4:47 pm
Reply to  Red Trousers

Didnt seem like the right place to mention soggy biscuit!

May 27, 2013 5:08 pm

Field manuals have limitations; often times they don’t reflect what was done or even only believed.

There was much talk in inter-war literature about sections centred on a LMG (French did it, too), but this was typical on-paper theory.
In actual assaults the LMG were required to suppress and riflemen were required to rush forward and hurl grenades. The section-level combined arms theory of rifle + grenade + LMG broke down. Assaults were combined arms on platoon level (LMG + rifles + grenades + 2″ mortar bombs).
Bren gunners best participated in an assault by moving only if a new firing position for continued supportive fires was needed.

Besides; British infantry training and doctrine was still very much a shame during mid-WW2, so the survivors among the infantry in front-line divisions naturally deviated a lot from both their doctrine and their often incomplete training.

BTW; nowadays the level of available firepower is so high that we can use dual role sections as originally envisioned during the Inter-War Years. Sections can serve as one base of (suppressive) fire or as an assault team, which enables much better reactions to unforeseen issues. What we lost is the agility of the relatively unencumbered assault teams of WW2.

May 27, 2013 6:36 pm
Reply to  Phil

All kinds of weapons get dumped. That’s why there were so many weapons captured in WW2.

I’ve read plenty modern and historical field manuals, including old ones (albeit they’re not all called or formalised the same). British infantry doctrine wasn’t particularly sophisticated, nor suitable for much small team manoeuvre. It wasn’t very important either, for wartime training was bad especially for troops of deployed divisions.

And yes, we’re still doing things wrongly. I can point you at many examples in German field manuals about wrong things, and there’s no doubt these wrong things are founded on WW2 or decades old thinking and failures.

* Field fortifications without micro terrain flanking AKA use of parapets
* Wrong ratio (reversed!) of base of fire and assault team in infantry assault (Stoßtrupp)
* Tank plt movement guidances only suitable against long-range threats, completely disregarding infantry AT capabilities and AT mine threats. The guidance for tactical movements should be threat-specific, as different threats require very different routes.
* Critical disregard of human and organisational nature in the official Jagdkampf doctrine

Even worse is the mountain of omissions that cannot be explained with secrecy because relevant unfriendly military establishments no doubt know about them.

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
May 27, 2013 6:54 pm


I think you are right, and no doubt the Pamphlets have a purpose for some.

I think there’s a wider context however. There are two informal means of training that are very widely used, and frankly in my (now receding, at least 10 years ago) 20 years of experience of both being trained, and training others, these are the gold nuggets.

1. A cadre of hard as nails senior NCO instructors with in depth expertise gained over multiple operational tours. In my day, it was NITAT for training pre-deployment to the Province. You and your troop spent nearly 24 hours a day with a single SNCO for about 3 weeks. His experience was the point of the time, not so much the slightly forced exercise scenarios.

2. Squadron Leaders taking their young officers away from the tank park almost every day, and out into the hills on our feet or on bikes or sometimes in the Rover. We’d do lots of exercise, but there’d be 5 or 6 times a day when you’d stop and have a seminar about how to attack a particular bus stop, how to cross a defile without being spotted. One used to make us do logistical calculations, and stalks to creep up unobserved. Once, we re-fought the Battle of Minden on the ground itself. With my Squadron, I had a day each week – normally a Friday – to do this with all of the vehicle commanders. We’d start at about 6.30 in the morning, and I’d knock them off at 3 pm (but we were normally about 20 miles from the barracks by then, and it took a couple of weeks for the slowest among them to realise that I expected my recce car commanders to cheat and have their own transport pre-arranged). A few weeks of that and you know all of your commanders inside out, their strengths and weaknesses, and they know yours’. You don’t need Pamphlets.

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
May 27, 2013 7:58 pm


God knows what a CZP is when it’s at home. I think I know MPI is a mean point of impact, but honestly, who cares? I wouldn’t have had any NCOs in my Troop or later Squadron who spoke with me about those things. I’d rather look him in the eyes and ask him an unexpected question to see how he reacts, and know if he was going to be useful on the battlefield, and if not, get rid of him.

I was once extremely close to being got rid of myself, when I’d sacked 4 soldiers on what was meant to be standard Troop training on Salisbury Plain (sacked from my Troop, not the Army. A Troop Leader has little power). I got shoved up in front of the Colonel at about 4 in the morning and told to explain myself. I told the Colonel I would not, and he either endorsed me, or got rid of me. He kept me on, and indeed a couple of years later made me his Ops Officer. But he also invited me to supper in his quarter just after the exercise and told me I was on extremely thin ice, and the Brigade Commander had asked him about the “young officer who was making waves”. So I learned to reel my neck in a little bit.

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
May 27, 2013 9:00 pm


you are probably correct, but it’s depressing if these things take up more than the first serial of the day.

I had a Scimitar gunner in my Troop who was not trying hard enough to shoot straight, which is outstandingly easy to do on the old 30mm sniping rifle. His wagon failed CABF (Confirm Accuracy by Fire, pretty much the APWT for Scimitar) several times, so I took him and the vehicle commander for some re-education and a reading of their future careers, which was a bit sweaty and they found unpleasant. They passed next time around, once they had been concentrated. The Troop as a whole came second in the annual Castlemartin accuracy competition (to a Troop of German Leopard 1s, bastards (and their Troop Commander had a proper von title), but they had fire control and could shoot on the move, I think it was ’85 or ’86), and all was forgiven.

May 27, 2013 9:17 pm

; I’m not sure where your obsession with non-dumped Bren guns comes from. Save for few examples such as Chauchat or Dragon, dumped weapons are unremarkable. It happens a lot with every kind of weapon, that’s all a matter of accelerated withdrawal.
German K98 losses were greater than rifleman losses, but nobody claims K98 was ill-regarded. Nor has it any bearing on tactics of its employment.

And I didn’t mean “complicated” with “sophisticated”. Sophistication in infantry tactics is about the dynamics and psychology of combat. Many field manuals even of today are extremely deficient in such sophistication. The manuals were apparently written for the dumbest NCOs, not the median or smartest ones.

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
May 27, 2013 9:56 pm

SO, have you ever seen the infantry in combat? “Sophistication” is not a word that I would use.

It’s jolly nice to sit back in an armchair with a whisky and talk about Pamphlets, or possibly median intelligence NCOs, but it’s all bollocks really.

May 27, 2013 10:19 pm

I had not actually heard that the deficiencies in British small unit / infantry tactics were somehow based around the machine gun issue in WW2.

Our overall performance sucked, but that was for a whole lot of reasons, starting with motivation and moving on to training, and the leadership from 2nd Lt upwards. It did not help that much of our equipment was comparatively less that stellar, (with the honorable exception of our artillery). There was learning curve and it has to be said that despite war weariness, the Army of late 44 had come to know its business, generally, and was a much tougher force than it had been a scant 18months or so earlier. But even its most ardent supporters at the time,* accepted that unit for unit it was not a match for similar fully fit/ equipped German units; and was lucky that it faced so few of them.

However insofar as it existed, surely much of the historical ‘machine gun’ confusion may be because apples were not being compared with apples. However excellent the seemingly sainted Bren Gun was, it was no match in firepower for an MG42. Especially as the Germans by the middle of the war were deploying them with up to 6 men

1 firing
1 loading
1 swapping and cooling barrels, and helping out the next guy who was-
1 preparing ammo belts for loader
1 spotting
1 section commander.

The sustained firepower of that lot made a magazine fed Bren look a bit anemic.

I know we used the Vickers for that sort of thing but the Germans used the 42 in both roles. it was after all along with its 34 ancestor the first true GPMG.

All of this anyway pales into irrelevance, coz when the bullets start flying units in every war immediately arm themselves with every extra weapon they can carry/ lay their hands on*. captured or whatever. I have some photo’s somewhere of Tommies ‘ pouring it on’ some French farm house with an MG42….

*My favorite story was the USMC who captured some boys antitank rifles from the Japanese who had captured them from the British. The leathernecks stuffed them in an armoury ‘Out East’ and when the Korean war kicked off dusted them down re chambered them for 50 cal and used them to snipe at the north Koreans!

* GEN Sir David Frasier states as much in his war history ‘And We shall Shock Them’ and he commanded troops in Northern Europe so he should know!

May 27, 2013 10:33 pm

I strongly doubt you understand what I meant with “sophisticated”.

In fact, this sophistication is on the non-bollocks side. Bollocks is to write recipes and routines only without teaching under which circumstances they work. Sadly, that’s how field manuals usually look like. One size fits (supposedly) all – there’s rarely ever an alternative mentioned to the one size recipe.

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
May 27, 2013 11:00 pm


well best try to communicate clearly, if you have a point you wish to make. Try to not use the word “sophisticated” in a way that obfuscates its’ plain english meaning, and not to segment NCOs’ intellect into statistical divisions.

If you wish to be “sophisticated”, try using some proper grammar. It is not “with”, but “by”.

If you wish to opine about combat, tell us a little about what you know of it (and not from books, or Field Manuals, but about smelling the copper taste of blood, or looking into a man’s eyes as the light goes out from them, or smelling the stench of excreta as his bowels relax). Have you fixed a bayonet, joined in with the tribalistic screaming on an objective, talked a section onto a trench over the radio, ground your tracks onto a living human?

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
May 27, 2013 11:21 pm

@RT – been at the Sven Hassel novels again old chap? I am still boggling at the prospect of @SO with tracks…presumably as opposed to feet?

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
May 27, 2013 11:49 pm

No GNB, no need of fiction. It does put you off your breakfast when you find a hand and half a lower arm in your track when in the morning you are doing the first parade on your tank, and you have to extract it using a screwdriver. You bury it in a small hole dug with your boot, and kick some sand over it before thinking too deeply about where the rest of the body was.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
May 27, 2013 11:56 pm

@RT – I can rather see that; I think I’d be taking my breakfast out of a glass with ice and a little water…

May 27, 2013 11:59 pm

(of a person, ideas, tastes, manners, etc.) altered by education, experience, etc., so as to be worldly-wise; not naive: a sophisticated young socialite; the sophisticated eye of a journalist.
pleasing or satisfactory to the tastes of sophisticates: sophisticated music.
deceptive; misleading.
complex or intricate, as a system, process, piece of machinery, or the like: a sophisticated electronic control system.
of, for, or reflecting educated taste, knowledgeable use, etc.: Many Americans are drinking more sophisticated wines now.”

I used the 1st and 5th, not 4th.

The “with” was an occasional literal translation error.

I “opine about combat” in whatever way I like. I’m not going to play by ambiguous rules set by others, but by the widely accepted respect for arguments. Feel free to falsify the four examples of representative field manual deficiencies I mentioned earlier on, for example.
You cannot convincingly oppose my assertion that field manuals are too dumbed down and deficient if you cannot falsify them. At the very least my point stands for the manuals which include the mentioned problems.
In fact, it’s an obvious fact that FMs are not perfect, and it’s obvious that they’re not the most ambitious publications, but are written to be understood by a wide audience. likewise, it would be quite daring to dispute that actual infantry combat has a huge room for improvement.
Back to LMG employment; the two really important points about it are that
(1) the gunner is a chosen fellow who is not easily scared in combat
(2) the small unit leader is in control of its employment, which includes having a good understanding about the situation all-round. The gunner has a tunnel vision and that’s OK, but the small unit leader must not have one.
The latter point has morphed a bit towards a general squad fire control topic with the introduction of assault rifles and quite accurate grenade launchers. Temporary loose control is fine, but the leader needs to be able to redirect or stop the fires almost in an instant.

(1) is a central issue and to be learned at NCO courses, but it would be nice to see it at least once in a squad FM. (2) is a popular topic in German FMs, cannot remember it from foreign ones.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
May 28, 2013 12:03 am

@RT – I can quite see that – I think I’d be taking my breakfast in a glass with ice and a little water myself…

May 28, 2013 9:49 am


Superb article and very well written. You clearly put time and effort into that.

You’re absolutely right too. The search for and acquisition of the Bren gun was a carefully thought out programme and absolutely made a section-level machine gun the focal point of infantry fire and manoeuvre tactics. The Bren served Army very well until the GPMG arrived – and the latter really only differed in being belt fed as opposed to being magazine fed.

The concept of laying down suppressive fire at ranges of up to 1,000 yards while the rifle group manoeuvred into position had become universal tactic for every major army by 1939. The advantage of the Bren gun over the German MG42 was a slower rate of fire. This allowed it to maintain suppression for longer periods of time. Typically the RoF was 600-700 rounds per minute whereas the MG42 fired at around 1,000 rounds per minute. It took a lot of ammunition to keep an MG42 ‘fed’ and, certainly, in Italy, one tactic in assault was to prolong a firefight and wait until the Germans ran out of ammunition before assaulting.

Of course, these pamphlets don’t tell the whole story. By the outbreak of war in 1939, the need for an automatic rifle at section level had also been identified. We might well have adopted the M1 30-06 Garrand had we not had huge stocks of .303. The US seriously contemplated adopting a lighter cartridge in the interwar years, the .276 Pedersen, and an automatic rifle was developed to fire it. This became the M1 Garrand. (The UK’s abortive EM-2 and .280 ammunition of late 1949 showed exactly how our thinking evolved during the war.)

Ultimately, the 7.62 mm SLR and GPMG were modern interpretations of the .303 No. 4 rifle and the .303 Bren gun. The tactics behind the use of both remained the same. Gun group of two or three men, and rifle section of six or seven, depending on whether you had an 8 or 10 man section.

The section structure only changed when we adopted 5.56 mm ammunition and the SA80. Having eight automatic weapons in the section provided a massive boost to firepower, resulting in an equal split of two x 4-man fire teams. The way in which a modern infantry section is used today is the same as it would have been in 1944. Of course, what we gained with with automatic 5.56 mm weapons in 1986 was a loss of the effective range we had enjoyed since 1900.

I was talking the head of the Infantry Trials and Development Unit at the School of infantry Warminster two years ago. Our modern pamphlets never changed the requirement to engage targets at 300 metres for individual riflemen, 600 metres for the section firing collectively and 800 metres for the Light machine Gunners. The assumption is that we need both 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm to achieve the effective application of fire. For many serving soldiers the wholesale return to 7.62 mm weapons and a single GPMG supported by 7 automatic rifles would be ideal.

disgusted grange over sands
disgusted grange over sands
May 28, 2013 8:08 pm

Not really relevant – but some time ago I was sat drinking tea with other volunteers at North of England Mill Engine Society – my only military background is CCF and cert A – the rest were all NS men.
The subject of Brens arose and someone said piston, then round the table went – barrel , butt , body , bipod followed by ‘the first four inches don’t count’ from at least voices together!

June 7, 2013 9:30 pm

Very much enjoyed this post and the comments – I have a love of MTP’s myself (I know, very sad?!). Some of my thoughts to throw into the debate:

Phil you are spot on with regards to the role of LMG’s as laid out in MTP’s of WW1 and post WW1, e.g. :

SS 143 – Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action, 1917: “The rife and bayonet, being the most effiecient offensive weapons of the soldier, are for assault, for repelling attack or for obtaining superiority of fire….
The Lewis Gun is the weapon of opportunity”
SS 143 – Platoon Training, 1918 – “The rifle and bayonet is the infantryman’s chief weapon”

Infantry Section Leading 1938 – “The light machine gun is the principal weapon of the infantry”

However, given the difference in the empahsis on the rifle/LMG, the essential platoon drill outlined in SS143 and in the pamphlets of the inter-war years / early years of WW2 was almost identical. The platoon was expected to be able to fight its own way forward, by fire and movement, using its own weapons – rifles, grenades, LMG’s and mortars.

The origins of fire and movement and infiltration in repsect of modern warfare are still argued over today – was it the Germans or French in WW1 who first came up with them? At first the British were way behind, we had a large conscript army to train in the basics let alone advanced tactics. However, after the Somme we clearly lead the way – SS143 was ground breaking in the sense of training a platoon to fight its way forward with its own weapons was to apply THROUGHOUT the Army. The German method relied upon the training of special ‘shock troops’, although by 1918 Ludendorff did relalise the need to train all his troops in shock tactics for the 1918 offensives.

This was too little too late, the elite ‘shock troop’ units had already received the best men, training and weapons. These elite ‘shock troops’ were deployed time and time again with tremendous loss; in many cases the troops following behind the ‘shock troops’ advanced in dense masses as in 1914!

However as is often said, we may have won the War but we lost the peace. The Infantry suffered the worst out of all the Armed Forces in the inter war years: “For twenty years a public that remembered Passchendale had been accustomed to think of the PBI as the victims, not the arbiters of war; a kind of helpless sheep sent to the slaughter” – Arthur Bryant, The New Infantry Man, 1944. The most able men of the interwar war years who joined the Forces elected to join the RAF, RAC or artillery and not the Infantry. By the time we had woken up to the threat of Hitler, it was the RAF and Navy that underwent modernisation and exapansion largely at the expense of the Infantry.

After Dunkirk we faced the same problem as in WW1 – having to raise and train a new Army. It was recogonised early on that the baulk of our newly raised Infantry, who had never seen action, would be at great disadvantage if having to face a German Army with battle experience in France, Africa, Russia etc. Hence Battle Drill was introduced to give more realism to training as well as to introduce some set piece drills of fire and movement and infiltration, all based around the LMG (i.e. the Bren). These drills were not expected to be followed blindly but were expected to give junior commanders a good background on which to make decsions based on actaul conditons.

That was the theory. In practice the British Army did not perform that well in Normandy – one of the reasons put forward by T Harrison Place is that despite this new drill, we still relied upon the set piece attack with strict artillery programmes that were expected to put the Infantry upon thier objective – i.e. the methods of the Somme in 1916! He goes on to quote Maj-Gen Boucher, writing in the Army Quarterly in 1948 : “if fire is required its production is not the job of the Infantry, it is the job of the other arms, particularly the Royal Regiment and the MG Battalions”. In effect a senior commander AFTER the War is saying fire and movement tactics at platoon and comapny level were wrong in priciple!

So to conclude, as has already been stated in this thread, the theory in MTP’s was not necessarily what was practised on the ground.

June 7, 2013 10:18 pm

Good post, MrT.

Of course, the principles of fire and movement were well known to the British infantry pre-WWI and the Old Contemptibles were expert at it (albeit in a pre LMG way), but the pre-war army had effectively gone by the autumn of 1915 and the new armies prepared for the 1916 offensive were judged, perhaps unfairly, insufficiently trained to even be asked to use the principle (there is Correspondence between Haig and Rawlinson to this effect).

Regardless of the contents of SS143 in 1917, reading of the actions on the Somme in 1916 shows that at company and platoon level the importance of the Lewis Gun was very well understood and one can see the origins of infantry coalescing around the LMG when in action. A tendency that increased as the war went on and tactics were refined.

As for WW2, I think you are being a bit unfair to the infantry in Normandy. The UK was desperately short of infantry by that time and it was policy, even doctrine (so far as the British army ever has any), to use artillery to its maximum effect so as to minimise casualties in the most precious resource. Mind you casualties in Normandy, post D-Day, were still bloody awful (well up to WW1 standards) so maybe training/tactics/leadership could have been better.

June 7, 2013 10:46 pm

“The origins of fire and movement and infiltration in repsect of modern warfare are still argued over today – was it the Germans or French in WW1 who first came up with them?”

A French captain published an innovative pamphlet which was distributed among front officers (and captured by Germans), but it was not about infiltration tactics. IIRC it was mostly about dispersion and otherwise about stuff that didn’t succeed or was known in well-trained regiments prior to 1914 (not all regiments were unable to leap frog and crawl in 1914).

I’d rather propose the Russians as a suspect. The Brussilov offensive included guidance and at least early on some tactics quite similar to what Stoßtruppen did later. Both Austrians and Germans took notice, but Germans had their own insights from the Western Front laboratory (from often only platoon-sized raids and assaults).

June 8, 2013 4:40 am

On a pedantic point, the Indian Army did not adopt the Bren, but they ended up with lots because they couldn’t produce enough of their chosen LMG.

The key question is the extent to which the SAT pams were used. My guess would be ‘not too much in service units’. The extent of use in recruit trg is a tricky question, given that each regt ran its own. It may have depended on the extent of Inspector-General oversight, if there wasn’t much of this then its quite possible that the training closely followed the CO/OCs fetishes. I’d guess that often the SA trg concentrated on qualifying the recruits on rifle shooting.

Re arty, the purpose of covering fire (incl at the Somme) is to get the infantry onto their objective with minimum casualties. Once there they apply minor tactics to secure it. Of course Baucham late 1944 against German AB tps showed that arty can conquer if you use enough of it.

Lional Wigram had some views on the motivation and aggression of Brit infantry in WW2.

June 8, 2013 11:07 am

“Of course Baucham late 1944 against German AB tps showed that arty can conquer if you use enough of it.”

The purpose of competence is to succeed under adverse conditions.

Dave haine
Dave haine
August 8, 2013 6:51 pm

Hi there
I’m new to this site, and my experience is not operational, but more academic.

I would like to congratulate Phil on a very well written and researched piece. I certainly wouldn’t take issue with his central argument that the publications indicated how the army thought, with regard to LMGs within infantry sections. All the information I have read certainly indicated that many army officers were thinking long and hard about weapons, equipment and tactics (we mustn’t forget Hobart, Liddell-Hart, et al, and their exercises on Salisbury plain in the thirties, on the use of armour and all-arms operations/formations).

I would certainly say that the early wars army was struggling with very rapid expansion, conscripts and poor quality leadership (to quote Spike Milligan “a bunch of officers hanging round waiting to see off the Bosch”) and a difficult transition to a war stance, after years of underfunding and political interference. There were units that did well, funnily enough the ones where the CO had an idea of what it was all about, and I suspect had read the manuals.

Dunkirk was more than a highly successful f**k up, it was the catalyst for a clear out of the ‘Bosch huntin’ walrus -moustached, old guard. New broom….

However, the assertion by one of the correspondents that the British army didn’t do very well in Normandy, was not born out by any decent analysis. Certainly there was some units (51st highland division, 7 armoured) that had their commanders replaced, but generally you could say that the infantry gave as good as it got.

We must remember that by summer ’44, Britain’s services had reached the absolute maximum manpower the country could sustain: there were only 44,000 army reserves of all ranks available for attrition replacement. Conservation of manpower became a factor in operations.

Sound familiar?

dave haine
dave haine
August 15, 2013 11:11 am

Phil…nail on the head.

Funnily enough the two formations I mentioned in my post were largely composed of units that had been pulled from the Italian campaign to ‘bolster’ the D-day landings, and, of course, as we all know most of the commonwealth units that started the Italian campaign had been in the western desert previously…having read some personal accounts of these units- there was very much a feeling of ‘why us- we’ve done our bit’. (Incidently- if you can get hold of it there’s a CD of WW2 canteen songs called ‘Come On Lads’. Listen to Track 24 – The Highland Divisions Farewell to Sicily-it says all you need to know about the feeling amongst that unit).

Re-inforcing your point about supporting arms and breakout. The ‘Falaise gap’. Ok it was aeroplanes, RAF Typhoons to be precise, firing rockets, but certainly CAS as it should be.

I’m going to disagree with about the 1918 British Army and Normandy- I think they would have done very well after the breakout too. After the german 1918 offensive collapsed the british army went on the offensive and took more ground in that short space than they had in the entire western front campaign up to that point, sending the german army reeling. I understand that the Allanby campaign in Palestine was almost required reading amongst staff officers.

Funnily enough, if you read a number of the French generals on the 1918 German offensive- They put it’s collapse largely down to using aeroplanes, giving enough time for ground units to re-establish a front line, and bring up reserves. CAS again

Dave haine
Dave haine
August 15, 2013 6:57 pm

I don’t know if there was a general study, I seem to recall some stuff saying that the AWOL Rate in units returned from Italy was running at nearly 30%, rising further the nearer they got to D-Day. (if I remember correctly the ‘acceptable’ rate within the army at that time was something like 10%). As for battle casualties, I haven’t seen any breakdown by unit in an awful long time, and my memory being a few pints the other side, can’t remember. But, I seem to remember that in WW1, it was considered that a subaltern took six weeks to become proficient, six weeks being efficient, and six weeks degrading to the point of uselessness. (Siegfried Sassoon). 5 months s**t to bust. Maybe a bit longer in WW2, but still gives you an idea of how being in continuous action degrades a junior officer.

Didn’t the RAF do some research into combat fatigue? which is why they fixed bomber command 1st tours at 30 ops and second at 20. (not that many survived the 1st tour)?

I’m still sure that the army of 1918 would have done quite well in Normandy- post break out…the commanders were experience, able chaps and the army was imbued with a will and determination to win. The germans didn’t just turn round and go home- it was a fighting retreat. I also think they would have sensible enough to not out run their supply chain.

Mind you, how would the army of 1918 done with the equipment of 1944?

August 15, 2013 7:33 pm

Never min experience, the average turnover for an Infantry division in Northwest Europe between D-Day and VE day was 100%. The US 4th Infantry division experienced turnover of 2 and half times its paper strength. There was one platoon of the 4th Bn Kings Own Scottish Borderers, who lost all bar 4 men in six months. Major Benson, 1st Bn Black watch, claimed that if new officers and soldiers could get through 3 weeks then their chances of continued survival went up, through acquired combat experience and conversations with NCO’s and men.

Sounds a lot like the stories that resound around the air theatre and the submarine theatres. That being that the USAF Red Flag is designed to put pilots through ten simulated combat missions, because experience has taught them that a pilot with ten missions under his/her belt sees his survival rate under combat conditions go up dramatically. It was the same with the U-Boats during zee war if I remember correctly. After a certain number of missions the quality of the crews went up significantly, especially the boats captain upon which so much rested.

If anyones interested, the data at the top comes from Bull and Rottmans excellent work “Infantry Tactics of the Second World War”. Might treat myself to another Stephen Bull book this week actually.

August 15, 2013 8:58 pm

@ Phil,

The scary thought is that the only reason we didn’t experience similar turnover rates is because we just disbanded units that were too far gone and shipped people off to new ones. Had the units run on the US system and just kept feeding new recruits into the mill we probably would have those same ridiculous turnover rates (200%+).

One of the few organisations that came close to solving the problem was the US Navy, which made a habit of rotating people out of combat. Forget what the ratio was, but I remember reading that their combat pilots were regularly rotated back to the US, where they then took on replacements and trained them up.

The USAF had chronic problems with battle fatigue, exasperated by the refusal of many men to take a second tour once their first was up, depriving them of many experienced pilots. But then the length of the first tours was the main cause of that.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that giving people a short, sharp tour (3-4 months) is enough to get the best out of them before pulling them out of the line and giving them an equally long break to rest, take on replacements and train, after which they’re mostly ok with being sent back in. But the demands of industrial scale warfare…

August 15, 2013 9:01 pm

erm, where did my comment go?

August 15, 2013 9:05 pm

Obllocks. Just lost a resonably long post. Long story short,

– British disbanding units with heavy casualties was only thing that avoided the 200% style US figures,
– Evidence to suggest that a 3-4 month tour followed by a 3-4 month rest period (including taking on and training up replacements) is ideal balance, but the demands of industrial war often prevent this,
– USAF had chronic problems with battle fatigue and getting pilots to agree to second tours, if they even survived the first,
– US Navy by comparison did quite well, especially with the rotation of its carrier squadrons,

August 15, 2013 9:07 pm

Two comments gone? What’s happening?

Think Defence
August 15, 2013 9:11 pm
Reply to  Chris.B

Am babysitting a new SPAM tool, bear with me chaps

August 15, 2013 9:13 pm

ah ha.

Think Defence
August 15, 2013 9:42 pm
Reply to  Phil

What did the Russians do, was it nothing!

August 15, 2013 10:11 pm

This was the major dilemma the USAF had. Just couldn’t muster up the numbers of replacements quick enough while still meeting the constant demands for combat missions. Wonder how the bombing campaign might have gone if – say – the unit tour was limited to ten missions, then pull back to a field in Northern England to rest, take on replacements and train? Might the bombing accuracy have gone up a little and the quality of the aerial gunnery? Less aircraft wandering out of formations, which were the prize targets for German fighters?

By comparison you look at the North Africa campaign on the ground. Just wasn’t the time to be rotating units in and out of the battle line, all hands to the pump and all that. The question is does the continued mass overcome the loss of efficiency as the troops begin to tire? If the enemies under pressure too, they get no rest either. Having a larger number of men in the line, albeit mentally exhausted, might count for something as opposed to having a smaller, but fresher force?

August 15, 2013 10:30 pm

I once read something along the lines of

* troops are best (veterans) after 90 days of combat
* they are still fine (at least for defence) after 120 days of combat
* they are basically useless after 150 days of combat

I’m not sure if this is OK or if this was one of SLA Marschall’s debunked claims.
Supposed ‘crack’, veteran army divisions often disappointed during offensives, as most long-time survivors (veterans) had survived primarily because they were cautious enough.
Another rule of thumb: Half of fighter pilot losses occurred during their first four air combats.
USN had limited its submarine commander patrols to four each, which was probably too few even given their length. Some captains succeeded to game the system and get more patrols.
U.S.A.A.F. bombers crews flew 30 combat missions and were lucky if they survived (and rarely made another tour). Missions over relatively harmless regions such as France ’44 counted only 1/3rd, so this could actually be 90 missions facing AAA almost every time and fighters rarely.
The Russian approach was indeed to send units into battle till they were exhausted (or needed in the strategic reserve), then refresh them in the rear. Germany did similar, but wasn’t as ruthless until ’43.

August 16, 2013 11:55 am

The needs of the country outweighs the needs of the individual? In a war of that scale, probably true.

August 16, 2013 5:13 pm

” you’re there and there’s other people behind you when you fall. Very dehumanising”
= the very definition of total war

August 16, 2013 7:36 pm

Sad but true.

Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
August 16, 2013 10:02 pm

Read this awhile back – don’t know if its an answer but at least recognises the question:

August 16, 2013 10:04 pm

Never!! ;)

August 16, 2013 10:16 pm

That’s basically triplex acies all over again.

Patton once explained that he did nothing extraordinary for his successes. He was merely well-read in the military history and theory classics and did largely what had been done before.
The USMC probably did quite the same. They had an intellectually quite fruitful period from the late Banana wars period till Pearl.

August 17, 2013 1:10 am

Think the Russians an Germans had it right.

If a unit isnt much cop after 150 days combat. Use it up somwhere in the front line rather than waste good troops. Cold blooded i know but in a total war situation those are the breaks.

I was always interrested in the ‘Army of psychopaths’ argument.

The WW2 and later research showed that most of the fighting within a unit was done by about 10% of the men the rest at best gave covering fire; or more often used up supplies and got in the way. The 10%or so usually exhibited signs of being psycopaths.

It hs been postulated that the fury of ghe fighting on the eastern front and the aggression shown by both sides; was caused In no small part by the dehumanising effects of the wanton cruelty, and feelings that we are all dead anyway by the troops involved.

Certainly German troops transferred from the Eastern to Western front thought all the allied troops timid and slow to react 8n trying to take objectives.

I recall an account of the Hurtegen Forrest campaign; where an American general despared of ever having an order to take a position carried out. He fumed about whole platoons staying in their foxholes; and hav8ng to deploy wholw companies with fire support to take single postions.

In the meantime the 10% of psychos are having whale of a time.

Perhaps we shoild be handing out recruitment bounties to those with proven personality disorders???

Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
August 17, 2013 9:33 am

Reminds me of a joke (I hope) about the French riot police; they have to take a psych test when they apply – if they fail, they’re in!

IIRC the 10% was 5% genuine heroes, motivated by the danger to their mates/men, etc, the remaining 5% were sociopaths and of them 2% were psychopaths. But that was from conscript total war armies; modern armies train differently to get more out of their troops. Of course volunteer armies might attract more sociopaths…

Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
August 17, 2013 9:47 am
August 17, 2013 11:52 am

@Swimming Trunks & Phil

I read it and wasn’t convinced by the argument either.

I think the general, overall argument that the US contribution to the defeat of axis powers, although important, has tended to be overstated is a valid one. The sheer amount of literature and film produced in the last 70 years has tended to paint to picture that accentuates American importance whilst downplaying British Empire, Russian and Chinese contributions.

However….their are some facts you just can’t ignore. Sure we all know that they didn’t reach full strength until 1944, but when they did they had a LOT more divisions in combat than we did, and if you don’t trust the reliability of divisions being a marker of strength then you can simply look at how many more men they had in contact with the enemy as well (in the ETO alone 2+ million men by late 1944 as apposed to less than a million British/Canadians).

Of course the British Empire/Commonwealth forces hit their peak in 1943, but between mid 1940 and mid 1942 only around 12 divisions actually fought the German and Italian forces, and even then not as the same time. By 1943 to be fair another dozen British divisions and few more Empire and Commonwealth formations were engaged both in the Mediterranean and Burma, but you can’t ignore the fact that up until 1943-44 a large proportion of our forces were on the defensive, fulfilling static roles, which although important didn’t actually take the fight to the enemy and progress the outcome of the war.

One thing I find interesting which I don’t think the article mentioned is the fact that the British contributions to the Italian and N.W Europe campaigns from 1943 onward featured quite a lot more combat power than the number of divisions implies. 21st army group alone had 8 armored/tanks brigades, 2 commando brigades, 6 artillery groups, 6 engineer groups and initially a special assault infantry brigade. That’s the equivalent of half a dozen or more divisions present that aren’t actually counted in the British/Canadian divisional total. It was a similar story in Italy.

August 17, 2013 1:04 pm

Another problems is that a lot of our Brigades weren’t even uniform, with many being “over strength” at times.

Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
August 17, 2013 1:04 pm

I agree; his main argument is probably flawed but some points are interesting – the time it took for the US to reach full power even without disruption from strategic bombing, the size of the “Empire” contribution as well as other countries, and the effect of of combat losses on units as discussed above.

August 17, 2013 2:14 pm

Yep, we tended to be far more brigade orientated, with formations moving around and being at varied strengths, especially from 1944 on-wards when the the manpower crises really started to hit home.

As you say in looking at British combat strength you also need to factor in the defense of the UK and the plethora of imperial garrisons which diverted a significant chunk of manpower whereas the Americans could channel enormous resources into the major campaigns.

I believe they activated a 15th army in early 1945 to help in enveloping and containing the Ruhr pocket as well as providing rear area security. That means 12th army group eventually had a whopping 40+ divisions in 4 armies! It must be said that although the Americans had over 60 divisions in N.W Europe by the end of the campaign quite a few arrived in the last few weeks and had a negligible impact on events, but with even 50 or 40 divisions making a significant contribution they clearly dwarfed our Anglo/Canadian 21st army group which never rose above 18, albeit with the extra formations and firepower previously listed.

Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
August 17, 2013 5:41 pm

Didn’t we do something similar by halving the TA units to double our numbers but reduced their quality with all the new volunteers?

Sven O
Sven O
August 17, 2013 6:31 pm

It’s common practice to multiply divisions like bacteria; split, grow, split, grow, rinse, repeat.

Germany did it in the 30’s, Americans did it in the early 40’s. It’s a successful method at a certain pace (neither the fastest nor the slowest pace).

Julian Shales
Julian Shales
January 19, 2014 6:53 pm

Excellent background information and explanation. Many Thanks

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