In the last of our blogs on doctrine and tactics of the major contributors to the Normandy campaign, we’re going to be focusing on the British infantry section, and how it fights.
The British infantrymen sent to Normandy, unlike their American allies, were on the whole experienced veterans of a long 4 years of conflict. Often having returned from other theatres, the British were skilled, trained and possessed a fantastic esprit de corps. The formations also were raring to go into battle – The 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment had only just returned from Italy when they were grouped with 50th Division for the Normandy landings, and were very keen to get to grips with the enemy! Despite this, they were mostly all civilian solders, men who saw themselves as civilians in uniform rather than soldiers having enlisted only for the duration of hostilities. This is where the term ‘Terrier’ comes from – Terrier was the nickname for the Territorial Army, the reserve component of the British Army.
The British infantry section in Normandy, as a general rule, consisted of 10 men. The whole, lead by a Corporal armed with a Sten machine carbine, consisted of a rifle group and a Bren group. The Corporal would lead the rifle group of 6 whilst his 2iC, a Lance Corporal would supervise the actions of the Bren group, consisting of 2 men. The effectiveness of a British section depended on the effectiveness of their Bren group, with the Bren group supporting the riflemen in the attack and acting as the centre of fire for the section in the defence. Trained Bren gunners were someone to be held on to for many platoon commanders, with their skill and experience sometimes being the difference between a desperate defence and a definite rout. In order to keep the Bren in action, every member of the rifle group carried 2 Bren magazines, with the Bren team carrying an additional 18 on their person for a total of 32 28 round magazines in a section.
Beyond the bog standard section you had the HQ section. Consisting of the Platoon leader and his personal assistant or ‘Batman’ who carried the 38 set radio, it also included the Platoon Serjeant and the platoon’s support assets. Additionally, the HQ section was the focal point for the PIAT, 2 Inch Mortar and any marksmen on attachment to the platoon. As the possibility of encountering German armour in the British sector was consistently high, every platoon would carry at least 1 Projector Infantry Anti-Tank, or PIAT, for anti-tank defence. The PIAT is effectively a giant spring, capable of lobbing a shaped charge warhead up to 140 yards. It was at the same time universally despised and universally loved – despised for it’s short range, loved for it’s ability to knock out armour reliably if you could somehow close the range.
Additionally, every platoon carried a 2 inch mortar for the provision of organic fire support. Although mortar is a kind term for what is effectively a length of lead pipe with a trigger, the 2 Inch was designed to lob smoke, illumination and occasionally HE at targets of opportunity. With no means of aiming the mortar other than with eye and a white line painted on the side, it was relatively inaccurate at firing HE and for this reason the HE rounds tended not to be used.
The British in Normandy arguably had the hardest of the fighting. As we examined in our analysis of the Americans in Normandy, the Germans saw 21st Army Group and the British as their main concern, pitting mainly second line units against the Americans and throwing SS Panzer units at the British and Canadians around Caen. Casualties in British and Canadian units tended to be higher than that of their American counterparts for less gain in ground.
The experience of British infantry sections in Normandy was a war of short-range engagements, bayonet fighting, false surrenders from the enemy and a hard fight. This was compounded for the British by American commanders, particularly Patton, taking American credit for British successes. There is a reason that American and British personnel had to be kept apart when on leave in Britain – there were a lot of inter-allied bar fights!