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Brit infantry in WWII - what went wrong?


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Hi all,

I was interested to know your opinions on why British infantry units were so poor compared with their German opponents in WWII, up until 1943 at least. I know that the British were starting to have more success against the Germans by mid 1942, but unit for unit were generally less effective.

Was it equipment, training, or both?

I have read accounts which suggest that their general lack of "fire and movement" tactics made them slow in attack. In defence they didn't seem to be that flash either (at the strategic level particularly), but was that because they weren't very mobile and quickly outmanoevered by the Germans?

Another suggestion is their general lack of machine guns was a hinderance: only 4-6 MMG's per battalion and only the Bren at section level (often suggested to be too accurate to be a really good machine gun).

 

Any comments?

 

Cheers

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The Brits were devastated by WWI. Almost an entire generation was severely damaged. After only 20 years to have another go at it, was psychologically very tough. France took it even rougher. personally, I don't see how they they could do it again after only a 20 years respite. The only thing that I could see was that the Germans felt they got the short end of the stick after WWI. Otherwise, to go out and have another go, seems downright suicidal in my eyes.

 

So in WWII, the Brits largely dropped the bayonent nonsense and decided to do it logistically. Why people look down on this, leaves me thinking that just maybe, they haven't got any idea at all what it means to charge machine gun emplacements with bayonents. I will grant you that the Brits, who developed the tank, let Germany take over the concept but who the hell wants to think about war when you are in a depression both economically and mentally (Britain lost Ireland as well in this time frame, I believe). Any disputes on any of this?

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Part of the answer may have been in the way that the German government, post 1933, say education, as pronounced by Hitler in 'Mein Kampf'. He said that teh main purpose of education was to produce soldiers.

 

So, Germany raised a generation for war, whilst Britain educated for peace.

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H'mmm. I think it's true too say that the Brit infantry throughout WW2 were light in terms of organic firepower. It would also probably be true to say that while the regular army infantry was more than adequately competant the TA infantry and the expanding conscript army was undertrained until training methods and minor tactics were codified. The Brit infantry had an aversion to battle drills and it was a matter of fixing this plus the 'battle school' movement that finally put things on a more robust footing. Lets face it they eventually beat the Japanese, who were far better and tougher infantry than the Germans. I'd also argue that it's important to differentiate between the 'elite' infantry in the PzG units and the footsloggers.

 

I agree with the view that the WW1 thing is somewhat exagerrated. The post WW1 'noise' came from the literati for whom WW1 was a traumatic experience. But for the men taken from the land or factory it was rather less of a shock, they at least got regular meals of better quality and there were officers concerned for their welfare, the chance of sudden death was there but so it was working in a factory, mine, etc in days when OH&S was unheard of. For these guys it was rather less of a difference from their previous working life. The trenches weren't a picnic (remembering that men in a forward division spent 8 days in and 4 days out, and that only about half the divisions were forward at any one time) but neither were they total and continuous horror.

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Originally posted by D Simcock:

Hi all,

I was interested to know your opinions on why British infantry units were so poor compared with their German opponents in WWII, up until 1943 at least.  I know that the British were starting to have more success against the Germans by mid 1942, but unit for unit were generally less effective.

Was it equipment, training, or both?

I have read accounts which suggest that their general lack of "fire and movement" tactics made them slow in attack.  In defence they didn't seem to be that flash either (at the strategic level particularly), but was that because they weren't very mobile and quickly outmanoevered by the Germans?

 

Any comments?

 

Cheers

 

Yes I'd say that opinion fits neatly with British traditional, pernicious, modesty of their own achievements. As to it's cause, I don't know. I suspect it maybe linked to their long ingrained mistrust and dislike of the army, mass citizen armies in particular, or maybe this false modesty is just a useful defence against hubris

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Evolved stormtroop tactics were the reason for the difference in the offense.

German MG34&42 and prowess with mortars can be considered as part of the explanation for defensive power.

But the Brits were considered to have a very difficult and strong defense, so I'm not sure whether they were really inferior in this regard. Blunders happened to everyone sometimes.

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Very intersting thread.

On the WW I thing, I don't suppsoe any onme country was more 'traumatized' than the next? Not very sure about that explanation.

 

On the firepower difference, was there anything liek a fiarly consistent TOE at the squad/plt/coy level in WW II for Brits and Germans ? (at least within a period/theater of ops?).

 

I have read several times that the German MGs did provide, especially defnesively, a lot more firepower and also that until 'battle schools' were isntituted the UK regiemtns tended to be light on the TTP side with the mass inflow of recruits.

 

Lastly, it would appear that,a t elast at a combined arms elvle, the Germans were, on average, better than most/all other combatants, no? A couple of comments here indicate that the infantry was not so great, any info to back that up?

 

I recently read an article in 'Armor' about the Sedan breakthrough and the degree of initiative and independence from corps commanders down to NCOs seems glaringly superior to any other army of the time.

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The quality of the German infantry in 1940 varied a lot and is roughly related to the time when the division was raised. The later ones had the oldest men. Many of them were demoralized by WW1 and ill-trained for mobile warfare. The lack of conscription between 1919 and IIRC 1933 or 1935 meant that among 28-3x yrs old men there were lots with no military background before 09/1939.

 

Some infantry divisions were offensively useful, some only for limited offensive ops, some only for defense (with counter-attacks) and some barely for static defense at best.

 

Actions like Sedan were fought by first-rate troops.

 

But the mission oriented commandeering and stormtroop tactics as well as some organic weapons like infantry guns and universal machineguns gave them the edge vs. otherwise comparable opponents.

 

 

BTW, the Japanese, Finnish Armies were also quite good at the 'software' level at that time.

 

[Edited by lastdingo (16 Dec 2004).]

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I'd argue that the main element was money. The army got last bite of the treasury's miserly allocations and the infantry got the last bite of the army's scraps. The British Army spent much of its money on motorisation, artillery and tanks.

 

One could argue that this was money well spent in theory. In practice, the lack of combined arms ethos and training resulted in faulty cooperation that exacerbated the shortcomings of the infantry.

 

Take tanks for example. North Africa clearly showed up the problems created by a lack of combined arms ethos with many infantry columns figthing without tank support and vice versa, usually with predictably bad results. The Western Desert Force was actually better than the stuff that repalced it in this regard.

 

One area which still flummoxes me was the doctrinal resistance to using armoured infantry as such rather than as glorified motor infantry in halftracks. This is one of the big beefs I ahve with WWII UK doctrine and organisation....and why I consider the UK Armoured Divisions to be archaic and inflexible. Units formed extemporised battlegroups but these were nowhere as flexible as the US Combat Command organisarion.

 

The Indian Army used this chud organisation to devastatingly awful eefect in 1965 by fighting the Lorried brigade and the Tank brigade seprately as intended.

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It isn't my impression that British infantry in WWII was any worse than all the others that met the Germans. Actually I recall having read something somewhere about the Germans in general having the greatest respect for British infantry. US infantry wasn't all like 101st AB at Bastogne either, although it is mainly those we hear about.

 

In early WWII I definately think we can label the British Infantry as of very high quality, also equipment wise. But like most others their doctrines were stuck back in WWI. Later doctrines got better, but war exhaustion and manpower shortages also began to be felt.

 

Regards

 

Steffen Redbeard

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Originally posted by LucaJJ:

Very intersting thread.

On the WW I thing, I don't suppsoe any onme country was more 'traumatized' than the next? Not very sure about that explanation.

 

 

England and France were arguably traumatized more then Germany was by WW I. As someone mentioned in England the elites were particuarly hard hit. Corelli Barnett and Paul Fussell have written some interesting stuff on it.

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Originally posted by pi:

England and France were arguably traumatized more then Germany was by WW I.  As someone mentioned in England the elites were particuarly hard hit.  Corelli Barnett and Paul Fussell have written some interesting stuff on it.  

 

 

That institutionalized trauma lead to an aversion to repeat WWI and can be seen in the pre-war doctrine of both countries. France went with the Maginot Line, England went with air power. In an attempt to fight a 'clean' war, the English in particular allocated a lot of resources to air power (Bomber Command) in the hopes of avoiding the mud and blood on the continent. Like the French Maginot, the technologies and tactics weren't mature and didn't come to fruition as forecast.

 

I'd speculate that the lack of development of the early war British army may have had something to do with the thought, or hope, that they'd never be needed on a large scale. There were playing a game of catchup by the time the necessity of continental invasion became certain.

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The Bomber Command was so poorly equipped and moderate in numerical strength that it can hardly have been the object of such favors.

 

There were some theories spinning around that the one with the strongest gas-bomber force at the beginning of the war wins - but the influence on real equipment strength was quite moderate.

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Originally posted by D Simcock:

Hi all,

I was interested to know your opinions on why British infantry units were so poor compared with their German opponents in WWII, up until 1943 at least.  I know that the British were starting to have more success against the Germans by mid 1942, but unit for unit were generally less effective.

Was it equipment, training, or both?

I have read accounts which suggest that their general lack of "fire and movement" tactics made them slow in attack.  In defence they didn't seem to be that flash either (at the strategic level particularly), but was that because they weren't very mobile and quickly outmanoevered by the Germans?

Another suggestion is their general lack of machine guns was a hinderance: only 4-6 MMG's per battalion and only the Bren at section level (often suggested to be too accurate to be a really good machine gun).

 

Any comments?

 

Cheers

 

Sure, I've got a comment, or a question and a comment really. On what are you basing your opinion that the British infantry were poor in relation to their German equivalents, and what exact level are you referring to? I've seen this claim a lot, not least from the Germanophile end of the spectrum, but I've not seen much hard evidence to back it up. I have, however, seen a fair bit of evidence to contradict it. I could prolly cite evidence to refute most if not all of your specific points cited above, for example.

 

all the best

 

BillB

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I have read that the Germans had mentioned the various qualities of each allied soldier. It went something like this:

 

British: Tough defender, difficult to break, once broken took time to regroup. Good assault but poorly led, rather inflexible in tactics

 

American: Broke sooner than the Brits, but regrouped faster, good assault troops, flexible in the attack

 

Canada/Australia: Both good in both assault and defence, considered as very good assault troops, however they didn’t think much of Canadian leadership.

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Sure, I've got a comment, or a question and a comment really. On what are you basing your opinion that the British infantry were poor in relation to their German equivalents, and what exact level are you referring to? I've seen this claim a lot, not least from the Germanophile end of the spectrum, but I've not seen much hard evidence to back it up. I have, however, seen a fair bit of evidence to contradict it. I could prolly cite evidence to refute most if not all of your specific points cited above, for example.

 

Well, like when Patton begged Ike to turn him loose and let him "drive the Brits back into the sea" during the Normandy campaign.

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Originally posted by lastdingo:

The Bomber Command was so poorly equipped and moderate in numerical strength that it can hardly have been the object of such favors.

 

There were some theories spinning around that the one with the strongest gas-bomber force at the beginning of the war wins - but the influence on real equipment strength was quite moderate.

 

The other servies weren't in very good condition either

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The British Army sucked hind teat in budget Between The Wars (and throughout AFAIK), so they lacked equipment, especially heavy infantry weapons. IIRC, the RAF got about 50% of the military budget BTW, the RN got 40% and the Army got 10%. As the RAF and RN were not exactly rolling in dough, you can see there the Army was penniless.

 

The British (most especially Ivor Maxse) had worked out excellent assault doctine and training during WW. I would rank the British and Commonwealth troops the best during the 1918 offensives (Allied, not German ones, although the troops were not to blame for German successes during the Ludendorff Offensives).

 

However British Goverment policy until February 1939 was that the British Army would be Colonial Police Force, and "There will never be another BEF" - IOW, Continental warfare was out, don't bother us for weapons and training budgets to prepare the Army to fight in Europe again.

 

So the Army dutifully concocted doctrines and trained (and some excellent concocting and training was done) for Colonial Policing. The Government's about-face in 2/39 (prompted by the French announcement that they were not going to defend Britain to the last Frenchman) caught the Army in the midst of a massive influx of conscript manpower and attempts to mechanize the whole Army - after a 20-year hiatus in doctrine (doctrine actually regressed from that used in 1918) and training. For 20 years no one had trained the trainers who would have to train the new conscript Army, and equipment was lacking. They had to learn the new rules before they could even start playing catchup.

 

The infantry lacked equipment, doctrine, and training for cooperation with Armor, the RAF refused to provide air cooperation, there were inadequate training areas in England for division-sized all-arms maneuvers, and the 1940 invasion scare meant troops watched beaches instead of training in new methods.

 

All this meant that the British needed time to catch-up. They weren't given the time.

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Originally posted by Simon Tan:

In practice, the lack of combined arms ethos

 

Actually combined arms was the centrepiece of all the Field Service Regulations from 1919.

 

One area which still flummoxes me was the doctrinal resistance to using armoured infantry as such rather than as glorified motor  infantry in halftracks.

 

Doctrinal resistance that included the creation of the first dedicated Armour Personnel Carrier Regiments and the first use of armoured infantry 'en masse'?

 

This is one of the big beefs I ahve with WWII UK doctrine and organisation....and why I consider the UK Armoured Divisions to be archaic and inflexible. Units formed extemporised battlegroups but these were nowhere as flexible as the US Combat Command organisarion.

 

The later organisation of the British Armoured Division enabled a commander to "switch his troops rapidly, attacking with tanks only, tanks and infantry, or infantry supported by tanks, according to the situation" as per Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks. How can that be less flexible than the inherent rigidity of the US Combat Command organisation?

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The 2pdr was arguably the best AT gun in widescale issue in 1940. The problem was that is wasn't wide enough...resulting in the need to use the flimsy but not altogether pointless 25mm Hotchkiss.

 

The RAF got the lion's share of the rearmament effort and it spent most of it on Fighter Command and infrastructure to defend the Home isles from the expected onslaught of the Luftwaffe. Most people would agree that was very good in 1940.

 

Noone had anything like decent AA capability integral to infantry in 1940. Indeed the only people who got much by way of integral AA in infantry units were the german gepanzert from 44 onwards with the SdKfz 251/21 Drillings.

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Originally posted by TSJ:

Well, like when Patton begged Ike to turn him loose and let him "drive the Brits back into the sea" during the Normandy campaign.

 

Well, if that is the best you can do, I'll get my coat...

 

BillB

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The Armored Personnel Carrier Regiments that came 3 to every US Army Armored Division in the form of Armored Infantry battalions that moved and fought with their halftracks as opposed to offering a taxi service.

 

Ah...but as we know, tank and infantry always attack together. The better UK Armoured Divisions like the Black Bull and Guards (yes, they were actually quite good) fought in extemporised groups of paired tank and infantry regiments. Not unlike the Combat Commands which incidentally generally settled into 1:1 because it was the easiest way to carve up the division.

UK Armorued Divisions could be formed into 4 pairs..but lacked enough HQs to go around since they only had 2 Bde HQs.

Fought by the book, the UK Armoured Division was unbalanced and cumbersome.

 

The British Army may have paid lip service to combined arms but there's no doubt that their ability to implement these ideas was somewhat limited in the earlier period.

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I too question the proposition that British infantry were inherrently inferior. In 1940-41 they suffered in some regards from poorly worked out doctrine -- but so did the Germans in 1939-40. It is more accurate to say that the Brits started out a year or so behind in actual combat experience, and took 18-24 months to catch up.

 

Also, the firepower argument is flawed in that it assumes that a specific technological solution was optimal. Nothing could be further from the truth. US rifle companies had only two light machineguns, and the technical shortcomings of the BAR are widely lamented by the RPM crowd. But no one in authority seriously suggests that US infantry was markedly inferior for it -- their equipment and tactics were synchronized, and thus worked for them. The same could be said for the British with their ubiquitous Brens but relatively few Vickers and mortars, or the Germans with their MG34/42s and mortars by the dozen.

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Well, if that is the best you can do, I'll get my coat...

 

Insert sense of humor here:

 

But, but, Bill, I wuz hopping that you could explain why the Bren gun was too accurate to be a machine gun? And why didn't it have a belt feed mechanism? And a removeable barrel? ANd why did the magazine stick up into the line of sight? And gosh darn it, why did Patton say those awful things? Maybe the Brits were right, we didn't need to encircle those Germans at Normandy?

 

[Edited by TSJ (16 Dec 2004).]

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