Tactics

Tea and Terriers: The British Infantry Section in Normandy

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.

Universal carriers and infantry of 10th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment advance ‘under fire’ during training near Sudbury in Suffolk

Universal carriers and infantry of 10th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment advance ‘under fire’ during training near Sudbury in Suffolk – 10 June 1942

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.

A Bren gunner from 50th Division opens up during the battle for Caen, June 1944

A Bren gunner from 50th Division opens up during the battle for Caen, June 1944. The Bren Gun was the chief means of fire support for the British infantry 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.

PIAt

A PIAT team take aim at an armoured target during training, May 1944

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.

Led by their piper, men of 7th Seaforth Highlanders, 15th (Scottish) Division advance - 26 June 1944

Led by their piper, men of 7th Seaforth Highlanders, 15th (Scottish) Division advance – 26 June 1944

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.

Men of the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry resting somewhere behind the lines - 26th October 1944

Men of the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry resting somewhere behind the lines – 26th October 1944

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!

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Doughboys: The American Infantry Section in France, 1944

The American infantry section in Normandy is a very different beast to it’s German counterpart covered in our last Devblog. For one, the American section tends to be bigger at 12 men rather than the German 10, and the doctrine of it’s employment very different. From a US field manual first issued in 1944, “The rifle squad consists of a sergeant (squad leader), a corporal (assistant squad leader and antitank rifle grenadier), an automatic rifle team (automatic rifleman, assistant automatic rifleman, and ammunition bearer), and seven riflemen, two of whom are designated as scouts.”

The Section

The American Infantry Section, from an American training manual published in May of 1944

Nominally, on paper, this section has no submachine guns, although in practice section leaders and their assistants would often carry the M4A1 Thompson into combat to augment the offensive fire-power of their section. Nominally, the section support weapon is the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, a steady fire-rate long rifle fed by 20 round clips. In the assault, the Americans suffered from a lack of offensive fire capability despite their semi-automatic M1 Garand rifles, which lead to some sections substituting the BAR for the M1911a1 Light Machine Gun.

American Infantry

American infantry training ‘somewhere in England’ prior to D-Day.

In theory, the section broke into three sections for the attack. The grenadiers and BAR team covered the assistant squad leader or squad leader and manoeuvre section (riflemen) in the advance. This rarely worked, as the above mentioned shortage of offensive fire-power seriously hampered the ability of sections to lay down effective fire to cover the assaulting section. As such, American sections learned quickly that a setup using 2 BARS, spilt into two teams with the Section Leader and his Assistant mutually supporting each other worked far better, with the teams covering each other in the advance.

 

Troops of US VII Corps move over the seawall as part of the assault up Utah beach, June 1944

Troops of US VII Corps move over the seawall on UTAH beach, 1944

American sections in Normandy tended to be inexperienced, as for many (although not all) formations Normandy was the first real action of the war. As such, casualties were relatively high in comparison to their British allies, whose Normandy contingent consisted mainly of battle hardened troops from North Africa and Italy. As such, American infantry were used to shooting at paper targets at known ranges, and their training rarely employed any live fire field exercises to test the initiative of the section leaders. Therefore US riflemen were often unwilling to put fire on all known and more importantly, suspected enemy locations during combat on the off chance their ranging was off. This was overcome to a certain degree, but was never entirely obviated with experience.

Captain Robert C. Crisson briefing his company on their role in the invasion of Europe - May 1944

Captain Robert C. Crisson briefing his company on their role in the invasion of Europe – May 1944

It is also worth noting that the American experience of Normandy was an experience of facing German second-line troops. In Normandy, the Germans considered the British army group the chief danger to their occupation and position, as it was a veteran formation with experience and will to win over that of it’s American counterpart. The US forces were seen as ‘the secondary flank’ and, as such, had secondary troops committed to it.

The first line troops the Germans possessed, such as the SS Panzer Grenadiers and more experienced formations, almost always tended to be employed against British or Canadian formations, and not against the American sector. As such, the American lightning advance so often lauded by Academics as showing American prowess is nothing of the sort, only the sweeping aside of second-line units whilst the real fighting was taking place to the north among the Canadian and British units.

Next time: Terriers and Tea: The British Section in Normandy

Kampfgruppen, Panzers and Heer: German Infantry and their Doctrine in Normandy

Going to change things up a little for this Historical post, as today I’ll be starting a 3 blog series talking about the doctrine and tactics of each planned nation. We’ll be covering the American infantry, German line and panzer grenadier infantry, and British armoured and line infantry. This week, the German Army.

The German Infantry Platoon

german-infantry-plt

The German infantry platoon tends to operate the same way as an infantry platoon in any other army of the 1930s & 1940s – The platoon has 3 (sometimes 4) sections, as above, and a light mortar which in practice is attached to the platoon headquarters. The platoon leader tends to be an officer, usually a Leutnant, although it is not uncommon especially in the German army of the period for warrant officers to be platoon leaders. It has its own transport: for line infantry horse and cart, for Panzer Grenadiers a light truck, nominally an Opel Blitz.

The German Infantry Section

german-infantry-squad

The infantry section in the German army, whether it is Panzer Grenadier or Schutzen, is 9 men strong. It consists of 5 riflemen supporting a 3 man machine-gun team with a section leader managing the movements of the whole.  German strategists realised after analysing the performance of the infantry in the First World War that a well-trained machine-gun team were arguably a more valuable resource than 10 riflemen due to the fact that crews were less likely to fall prey to covering instead of firing. The establishment of buddy teams manning the machine-gun also added to the effectiveness, as the men would know and like each other, not wanting to let each other down.

German infantrymen scan the skies for Allied aircraft in Normandy, (after the invasion) June 1944.

German infantrymen scan the skies for Allied aircraft in Normandy, (after the invasion) June 1944.

As such, the axis of offensive action for German infantry revolves around the machine-gun within the squad, and the role of the riflemen within a squad is to support the machine gun, not vice versa. The role of the machine-gun is to fix the enemy, and eliminate them through superior fire if possible. If this cannot be achieved, the enemy is suppressed until the rifleman supporting the machine gun can close to grenade and bayonet range, and eliminate the enemy that way.

German Soldiers of the 709 Infantry Division, abandon their refuge and rush to their positions in Montebourg, Normandy in June 1944.

German Soldiers of the 709 Infantry Division, abandon their refuge and rush to their positions in Montebourg, Normandy in June 1944.

The Wehrmacht in Normandy in this regard is not too different to the Wehrmacht of the early war exploits, trained to be taking the fight forever to the enemy, meeting attack with counter-attack, advance with counter-charge and the like. Panzer Grenadiers, the infantry trained specifically for close operation with German armoured formations, tended not to operate any differently to their regular Schutzen counterparts, other than moving close to the enemy by trucks or halftrack as part of a wider offensive before dismounting and fighting.

The OSS produced a film to educate their agents on the way German infantry fought. It’s a fantastic period source to show how the Americans in particular understood the doctrinal requirements of the German Army.

Co-operation with other arms

German infantry tended to grasp inter-arm co-operation a lot better than the British or American infantry did, especially earlier in the war. German infantry and armour commonly worked together in both training and combat, meaning that commanders of both branches often knew enough of their counterpart role to complement each other in the attack. These ‘Kampfgruppen’ were generally thrown together from units the same general area to complete a specified task, i.e. the defence of a strategic locality or for an offensive action.

A Panther Ausf.A transports troops as part of a Kampfgruppen 1944, Alsace-Lorraine, France

A Panther Ausf.A transports troops as part of a Kampfgruppen 1944, Alsace-Lorraine, France

The Kampfgruppe was essentially a mish-mash of different branches (armour, artillery, infantry etc) organized quickly in accordance with tactical and strategic situation at hand. Kampfgruppen were usually named for the superior officer, and they are exceedingly common in in Normandy as infantry fought pitched battles with the resources they had to hand. Although very little official doctrinal texts survive concerning them, they occasionally pop up in unit war diaries and in the regimental and official histories of the units concerned.

Next Week: American infantry doctrine in Normandy