Posted: Sat Jan 16, 2021 11:56 am Post subject: Battledrill - It didnt work as described in the manual
Found this original WW2 text a few years back and found it very interesting as it describes how the British platoons was observed to fight in reality.
In a lot of cases that was widely different from what the manuals on infantry described.
As requested I am appending (In its original form this epistolatory opening runs straight on into the body of the report.) a report of the lessons of the Campaign in SICILY as they have occurred to me. As you know owing to the kindness of the Div Comd I was allowed to come over to SICILY as an observer at the beginning of the Campaign, subsequently rejoining 78 Div on its arrival. As a result of this I was able to see some eight or nine different Bns in action, and to study and compare their various methods. I was also able to meet a very large number of old students from BARNARD CASTLE of all ranks. I was able to discuss all the points I am making below with a large number of officers with considerable experience in battle, and I find that there is general agreement. As you know it also transpired owing to the fortunes of war that I found myself at different times commanding a Section, a Platoon, a Company and finally a Bn, and I was thus able to get first hand experience of many of the matters to which I refer.
1. ATTACK BY INFILTRATION
The Germans have undoubtedly in one way scored a decided success in SICILY. They have been able to evacuate their forces almost intact having suffered very few casualties in killed and wounded. They have inflicted heavy casualties on us. We all feel rather irritated at the result, well as we have done.
Why has this happened? One hears it said on all sides that the country is mountainous and difficult, and therefore ideal for defence, impossible for attack.
In my view this is a completely erroneous impression of the country. It is true that the country is mountainous but it is everywhere close. Every hill is covered with olive groves, plantations standing crops etc, and in addition the system of irrigation by deep ditches, high stone walls and a great number of ditches and wadis makes the country perfect for individual infiltration. It is quite easy for the Germans to defend by maintaining a very thin screen of MGs and gunner and mrtr OPs sited on the reverse slope of the hills and to get magnificent cross-fire shoots both by day and by night. If we attack such positions frontally even with Hy Arty Supp we play right into his hands. He maintains his screen until the last moment inflicting heavy casualties, then as our attack pushes in, pulls out to take up a further position in the rear. So we find invariably that he has gone, and the small number of dead bodies found and the small number of Prisoners taken tell their own story.
To my mind we have not yet in our training put into practice the lessons learnt in the Battle of FRANCE, and more especially in the battles of MALAYA against the Japs. In MALAYA our own position was very similar to that of the Germans in SICILY. We had prepared our withdrawal from hill to hill expecting the Jap to attack us. He did nothing of the kind. By employing minute parties of specialist tps armed with TGs and MGs he filtered through the cover by night in ones and twos and was able every morning to establish road blocks in our rear to shoot up our tpt and communications, to pick off OPs and W/sets, and so to disorganise us that we were compelled to withdraw in disorder from position to position without getting a sight of the enemy: His tps who carried out this work suffered very few casualties.
I think that the whole key to our future success in the coming battles of EUROPE will lie in the organisation of similar forces. From now on the Germans are going to fight a series of rearguard battles wherever they happen to be. If each Bn could produce one or two Pls trained, I suggest, to work in threes, each group of three carrying one MG and one TG and each being prepared to work entirely on its own, the problem would be solved. As soon as contact is gained these tps would be sent out at dusk and would be in position behind the enemy by first light. This would invariably compel the enemy to withdraw.
I make the following points in regard to these suggestions:
(i) I am convinced that we have been too ambitious in trying to teach each soldier the art of infiltration. Even fanatics Like the Japs and Germans found that only a few men could be trusted to do this job, and they have always left it to specialists. It is an impossible ideal to hope to train the Army as a whole in it.
(ii) yet our men can do this job. Instance the Bn I am at present commanding, at RIVOGLIA Bn HQ was being constantly menaced by enemy snipers and MGs hidden in the rocks and trees at the foot of Mt. ETNA. I sent off a young Pl Comd to deal with the matter. He first of all tried to use his whole Pl but subsequently picked four men and with them fought an individual infiltration battle against the Germans which lasted the whole day. The result of the battle was as follows
- Our casualties nil Germans 3 killed for certain, 6 prisoners captured. German equipment captured - 2 heavy MGs and large quantities of sniping gear. I saw these men when they returned, they said they had been very frightened at first, but as the day wore on and they realised what rotten shots the Germans were they got a feeling of superiority and towards the end were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
I think that every Pl could find a few men like these.
(iii) All the evidence points to the fact that the Germans at any rate in SICILY do not withdraw on a timed schedule but `under pressure'. There is no recorded instance of them standing to fight to the last round and to the last man. They always cleared out as soon as they were really menaced, and the morale of those captured was decidedly low. This strengthens my view that they would clear out even more quickly if attacked from the rear (or merely threatened from the rear).
(iv) It has several times been suggested that the same object could be achieved by infiltrating whole Bns round to the rear. This may be so, but I do not think it would be nearly as successful and it would result in heavy casualties as the German always protects his flanks by MGs and gunner OPs. I do not think that even a Coy or a PI could do it successfully except on very favourable grd.
(v) Until we have these little groups trained I do not think Comds have any option but to continue the present costly methods. The matter is just one of training and I am sure it would only take a few days. I would very much like to have the opportunity of training and organising a force of this kind. There are all sorts of small points - camouflage, admin, comns etc.
2. ATTACK - BATTLE DRILL
It was my chief concern to see the application of Battle Drill to battle and I watched it very closely. I have come to the conclusion that a number of revisions are necessary if we are to deal with realities.
There is nothing wrong with Battle Drill in theory, but it presupposes that you have a PI team in which every individual knows his job and his place, and in which every man is brave enough and experienced enough to do as he is told. Of course in practice you have no such thing. Probably about half the Pl really understand the Battle Drill thoroughly, and as I shall show below in any case quite a number of the men in the Pl cannot be relied upon. I have, therefore, come to the conclusion that Battle Drill as at present taught is very useful training, and will give first-class results when applied by regular Bns who have practised it for many months, but we need something very much simpler for this war.
I want first of all to describe how Pls are fighting at the moment. Attacks are invariably carefully prepared, the tps go forward under arty concentrations or a barrage. When the barrage lifts (if the enemy has not gone) he opens up with his MGs, and it is here that the Pl battle starts and it is here that the battle itself is lost or won.
In very rare instances Pl and Coy Comds have applied some sort of Battle Drill to knock out these enemy MGs. Where they have done so they have invariably succeeded in taking the position with very few casualties.
But, in the very large majority of cases, no sort of Battle Drill is used. No attempt is made at Fire and Movement. The positions are taken by what I call `Guts and Movement'.
The battle goes something like this:-
Enemy MGs open fire, the whole PI lie down except the PI Comd and three or four gutful men. Five or six men start making tracks for home, meanwhile the gutful men under the PI Comd dash straight in to the enemy position without any covering fire and always succeed in taking the position. In some instances some positions are taken by as few as two men, and every Bn Comd will confirm that it is always the same group of nine or ten who are there first, and on whom the battle depends.
I have personally seen this method of attack used in all, except one, of the battles in which I took part, and this explains one of the mysteries I have never been able to solve before - that is the saying of many experienced soldiers that `you must never allow men to lie down in a battle'.
This method of attack is peculiarly British and from the point of view of sheer courage it really has no equal. I am convinced however that we can find other and better methods, and I make the following observations:
(i) Some Comds say that this method is successful with few casualties. This is true if you speak of casualties in quantity, but it is far from true if you speak of casualties in quality. The PI in action is almost invariably twenty-two strong and of whatever Regt good or bad, every Pl can be analysed as follows:
Six gutful men who will go anywhere and do anything, 12 `sheep' who will follow a short distance behind if they are well led, 9-6 who will run . away.
I have discussed these figures with many people and they all agree, although there is some slight disagreement on figures. These figures are roughly accurate as shown by the number of Court-Martials for running away that follow every Campaign. Every Bn has between forty to sixty and there are, of course, many others who aren't caught.
Looking at these figures it will be seen that the group from which casualties cannot be spared is the gutful group, yet I would say that casualties in this group are often 100 per cent per month. We must find a method of fighting which is more economical. .
(ü) Battle Drill or Fire and Movement is Not applied because in its present form it is too complicated, and it presupposes that when a Section is told to do a thing that it will do it whilst in actual fact, as the above Pl figures show, they will probably do little or nothing.
What we need is an extremely simple Battle Drill which takes cognisance of the fact that there are only 9--6 men in the PI who can be absolutely relied on to do as they are told under enemy fire.
The following is my suggested drill:-
(a) Night attack behind arty concs or barrage (commonest standard stroke employed out here).
The Pl of 22 men is divided up as follows:- •
1st group - All the riflemen under the Pl Comd.
2nd group - 3 Bren groups (3 men to each gun) comd by the Pl Sgt. 3rd group - two-inch Mtr team follows up in rear of group 1.
The leaders of the above three groups have absorbed three of the reliable men in the P1. The other three reliable men will act as 2nds in comd to take over if the leader is killed or wounded.
The method of movement is simple as the Pl is handled as a Section. The rifle group will be in fairly tight night formation (patrol). (This is essential to make sure that nobody drops out.) The Bren groups will be in a similar formation and the two groups will move side by side (preferably Bren groups a little to the rear) with a gap of about 50 to 100x (according to the visibility between the two groups). The two-inch mrtr group keeps about 50x in the rear of the Rifle group.
As soon as the barrage lifts and the Rifle group is fired on, the Rifle group goes to ground. The Pl Sgt (who can really be relied on) at once gets his three Brens into action shooting at the enemy MG or MGs. This will invariably silence the enemy guns for the time being. I have made particularly careful observation on this point and have checked it up with a large number of Pl Comds. As soon as our MGs open up the Germans (who are always using tracer) stop. I think they do this because they are nervous or in order to observe our fire. They always keep quiet until we have finished our hate, then as soon as there is a lull they open up again. One almost never sees or hears Spandau and Bren firing together at the same time. It is always one followed by the other. Even inaccurate fire from our Brens will quieten the Spandaus until we have finished firing.
As soon as the Brens have quietened the enemy MGs the PI Comd gets on his feet, persuades all the rest of the riflemen to do likewise, and leads them straight into the enemy position under cover of the Bren fire. He may tell the
Mrtr to put down a bomb or two also if necessary. He will nearly always be able to make the enemy position in a single bound as the Germans, as a rule, hold their fire (particularly at night) until we are within 200x. If he cannot make it in a single bound he will have to lead his men forward into cover, open up with his two-inch mortar and get his Brens forward in this manner. This will complicate the operation but will rarely be necessary.
(b) Day attack with Arty concentrations
Same method of grouping, but groups move much more dispersed, men being at 5x intervals 1s. If forward movement is across country likely to be covered by enemy the PI Comd tells the Pl Sgt to position his Bren groups before moving himself, and the Pl advances by Fire and Movement handled as a Section in every way.
c) Day attack, little battle without Hy Arty concs (e.g. A single Coy sent up to picket a height.)
All Pls in the Coy will be organised as suggested above, and the leading Pl will move forward as described in (b).
If the leading Pl comes under fire from more than one enemy MG post it will be regarded as pinned and the Coy Comd will deploy the rest of his Coy round whichever flank offers the best cover. This sort of battle requires the most inf skill, and it should be practised at home as I think it will be often needed.
NOTES(i) There is this further practical point on grouping the Brens collectively. In
hilly country the speed of the Bren is far different from the speed of the rifleman with the result that it almost always happens that when the riflemen are caught under fire there is a frantic scream for the Brens who invariably are found to be a long way in the rear. With the system advocated the Pl Comd can watch the progress of the Brens so that he does not get out of touch with them. It may be argued that the Section Comds should be able to do this but, in fact, they are not able to do so.
Team work between the Pl Comd and the Pl Sgt is about 10 times more likely to succeed than team work between the Sects - that is my strong point for this very simple drill.
3. BATTLE INOCULATION
The Battle Schools have not gone far enough into this important subject and have missed the big point of it.
Even tps who have been in quite a number of battles are unable to distinguish between Bren and Spandau fire, between the whistle of our own shells and those of the enemy. They go to ground as soon as there is any noise of firing, although it is not directed at them. This often disorganises an entire battle, especially at night.
Comds come back to find their men, but they are seated at the bottom of deep holes and their Comds cannot find them and, because of the noise, they do not answer when called. This problem of offrs and NCOs losing all or a substantial part of their men in night attacks is a very real one and it happened in all the Bns I was with at some time or other. Tps coming up from the rear e.g. tpt, A tk guns etc, ordered to be up for consolidation at first light were particularly bad - there were often considerable delays because of the mere noise of firing.
It is only fair to say that the German appears to be the same. The noise of firing keeps him quiet for a very long time.
(a) I suggest that at all Battle Schools there should be the following deity Battle Inoculation. Every student to listen to the noise of the Bren; Spandau; Schmeiser and Tommy-gun.
(b) Advancing men to have firstly fire not directed at them, then directed over them, so that they acquire sufficient skill to know whether or not they are being shot at.
(c) It must be impressed on the men every day that . they have got to learn the difference between the mere noise of battle and fire directed at them. The have got to learn to keep moving fwd as fast as possible despite any noise so long as they themselves are not the target.
4. INCENDIARY AMN
Events in this Campaign have proved that despite 'very heavy shelling a small remnant of the Boche will stay put. It is this small remnant that causes all the trouble. I have seen a lucky shot from a 25-pr set the ground on fire. The Germans immediately went although they were well dug in. I am sure that one of our best weapons is the three-inch mrtr smoke bomb used as a lethal weapon, that is fired directly at the enemy so setting the area alight with the burning phosphorus.
If we could throw some inc amn in our 25 prs we should have no further trouble with the Boche, and I suggest that something on the lines of the RAF oil bomb would be most effective. We can't blast him out but we could easily burn him out.
5. BDE ORGANISATION
This is already out of date, and I hope the authorities at home realise it. The Bde Supp Gp is probably all right so far as the MGs are concerned although every Bn Comd to whom I have spoken would prefer to have the MGs in the Bn. The remainder of the Bde Supp Gp is unnecessary and quite useless for the following reasons:-
Four point two-inch Mortars
Very inaccurate - not as quick into action as 25 prs. There is nothing they do which the 25 prs do not do better. If OPs are difficult to come by they are yet another group of people occupying valuable space.
When suitable targets presented themselves they were far out of range, or could be adequately dealt with by the 25 prs. During a three-day battle when I was almost continuously at an OP, the 4.2 mrtrs fired no rounds during the whole period.
They have been used to thicken up fire when concentrations are being put down, but as there is nó shortage of guns it is rather a drop in the ocean to add 4.2-inch mortars to, say, 6 Fd Regts and 2 Med Regts. When they are so used they can be very dangerous as they are not accurate enough to do barrage work. During one attack of this kind we were continuously shelled by something very heavy on our own side and we all thought that this was the 4.2-inch mrtr (this may be doing them an injustice).
20 mm A/A
General Montgomery said at the beginning of the Campaign `I have no intention of starting the land battle until I have won the air battle.' This is obviously the policy which will be continued and as a result the 20 mm A/A is a complete anachronism. These guns were ordered at a time when our Forces
in N. AFRICA were without adequate air cover and were suffering severely. This picture has now changed. These guns have hardly fired a shot and I suggest we cannot afford to tie up such a large number of men in a defensive role of this kind, whilst the inf remain desperately short in other ways.
I suggest that the bodies saved by doing away with the 4.2-inch mrtr and the 20 mm A/A gnns should be used in the following manner:(a) to provide an establishment for Pls of Specialist Infiltration Tps as referred to above.
(b) to in ease the size of the Section which is still always woefully short in actual fact when it gets into battle.
6. TRAINING AT HOME
My principal object was to get careful first-hand notes of actual battles with maps, copies of orders, details, history of events so that our Training Schools at home could base their training on reality. I have kept very full notes of all battles I have seen, and feel at home these battles can be practised on similar ground and the lessons learnt with an accuracy which it has not been possible to achieve in the past. I think that the Campaign in SICILY has really been ideal from a training point of view. We have had every kind of battle - the advance to contact, the prepared attack on a big scale, the Pl and Coy battle, the pursuit and even the flank protection role. In addition we have been able to study the German methods of conducting a rearguard action in detail.
7. MISC POINTS
(1) Value of Smoke
Smoke has been little used in the Campaign, I feel that it might have been a great deal of use. It was used very successfully in the battle of RIVOGLIA by your Bde as you know.
(2) Drawing Fire
If the German sees a tank or some smoke he fires everything he has got at it always. This gives us two very useful openings:(i) a diversion
(ü) to locate his positions
I have tried out both these ideas successfully. They are old lessons but worth repeating.
(3) Patrolling ,
When ordered to send out patrols to regain contact with the enemy who had retired we tried out the idea of sending with them an 18 Set, borrowed from one of the Coys, which was in communication with another l8 Set close to the gunner OP. Whilst the patrol was moving out (in daylight) I manned the OP and carefully registered all likely places where the enemy might bc. As soon as the patrol came under fire they wirelessed back to me and we at once brought down the fire of one Fd Regt on the suspected place. This was always effective in silencing enemy fire, and it enabled the patrol to move forward about two miles and to occupy a good position forward of our line for 36 hrs without sustaining casualties.
(4) A Tk guns
It is almost a universal custom out here to group A tk guns under Bde collectively, and to make the Bde A tk regt comd responsible both for their training and their handling in war.
This method works extremely well and it relieves the Bn Comd, who has very many other things to do, of the job. Everyone says, also, how much better
gunner A tk gunners are than the inf, and I would suggest that these facts be recognised and the guns organised on a Gunner basis entirely.
The present system creates numerous admin difficulties as the guns a handled by Bde, but administered by the three separate Bns.
(5) Three-inch Mortars and Carriers
These were hardly ever used throughout the Campaign as the country was quite unsuitable for Carriers (movement off the rds was impossible), and the three-inch mrtrs invariably found that targets offered were out of range.
Our three-inch mrtrs (5 Buffs) did not fire a single rd throughout the Campaign. r
Whatever we say about it at home the facts are that a Bn leaves a certain nucleus out of battle.
This usually comprises the 2 i/c, 2 i/cs of each Coy, and about six NCOs or men per P1. This practice should also be recognised at home, and Bns handled in training minus these percentages.
The size of the Sec should be increased if possible to allow for it a; the present size was determined on the assumption that there would be no LOB.
(7) Panic and Hysteria
When heavy shelling or mortaring starts it is not unusual to find some men here and there who lose complete control and start to clear out. These men are invariably known beforehand. Their actions may often have the most demoralising effect on the whole P1, which would otherwise behave very well.
I used to think that it was right to make chaps like this go into battle and take their medicine like everyone else, but I am quite sure now that : was wrong. They are too dangerous and can do too much harm.
Nearly every Bn has now come to this conclusion. They know they have about, say, 20 men who are definitely unreliable and they leave them right out of battle. This will now have the effect of greatly reducing the number a Court-Martials in this Campaign but it has not really solved the problem. I fee that a Bn Comd should be able to get rid of men like this simply by certifying that in his opinion X is not suitable for front-line inf fighting.
( System of Reinforcement
I do feel that this militates against highly skilled inf methods. Men an first dumped into reinforcement pools, then drafted anywhere. If this system is essential, it very much strengthens my case for specialist infiltration tps.
8. TAKING THE LESSONS HOME
The Div Comd has agreed to allow me (subject to tpt difficulties) to use the present lull to go back for a few days to explain the lessons and to bring out training both in N. Africa and in England into line. Would you be kind enough to let me have your own frank comments on the above together with any additional points so that I can be quite sure that we are really training a the right lines.
(Sd) L. Wigram, Lt-Col.
Comd 5 Buffs, 36 Bde
In the Field 16 Aug 43
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