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The Grim Reaper – Tom Gregg

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Machine Guns at War 1914–45 Part Three

A British Commando at Anzio, 1943, kitted out for a patrol and armed with a Bren (Imperial War Museum)

Between the wars most armies adopted true light machine guns (LMG). The British Bren Gun, based on a Czech design, entered service in 1935. It was an air-cooled, magazine-fed weapon, fitted with a sling and bipod, and featuring a quick-change barrel. Lighter and more reliable than the Lewis Gun, the Bren soldiered through the Second World War and for many years afterward. Each section (rifle squad) of the British Army’s 1940 infantry battalion had one Bren, for total of 36 in the rifle companies plus an additional ten in the battalion headquarters company.

The US Army’s solution, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) was not entirely satisfactory due to its limited magazine capacity (20 rounds) and lack of a quick-change barrel. Still, it gave good service during and after the war. Like the Bren, the BAR was issued on the basis of one per rifle squad. Other armies followed suit, adopting similar LMGs that could be carried and fired by one man.

The German Army took a different approach, developing in the MG34 a general-purpose machine gun (GPMG). Featuring an air-cooled, quick-change barrel, it was light enough when fitted with a bipod, sling and drum magazine to be used as an LMG. Mounted on a tripod, fitted with a telescopic sight and fed by belt, it served as an HMG. In 1939 the rifle company of a 1st Wave infantry division had 9 x LMG (three per platoon) and 2 x HMG. An infantry battalion had 18 x LMG and 6 x HMG in its rifle companies plus a further 8 x HMG in a heavy weapons company (which also had 6 x 81mm mortars).

Tripod-mounted MG34. Note the telescopic sight. (PD-US / Wikimedia Commons)

World War II infantry tactics were based around the LMG. The 1939–41 German Army rifle squad, for instance, was organized with two NCOs (squad leader and assistant squad leader) an LMG section (gunner, assistant gunner, two ammunition bearers) with one MG34 or its successor the MG42, and a rifle section (seven riflemen). Usually the squad leader controlled the LMG section while the assistant squad leader controlled the rifle section. When defending, a position with the best possible field of fire was selected for the LMG section, with the riflemen positioned in support. When advancing, the squad would usually move by bounds, with one section covering the movement of the other. When assaulting an enemy position, the LMG section would provide covering and suppression fire while the rifle section closed in, often from a flank. At the platoon and company levels these tactics were replicated, and with minor variations they were employed by all armies.

The British, German and several other armies continued to group HMGs in battalions and companies. Each British infantry division had a battalion with 48 x Vickers HMG; armored divisions had a company with 12 x HMG. The German HMG battalions were motorized nondivisional units (Heerestruppen) with 48 x HMG. In the Red Army’s 1942–45 rifle division, each rifle battalion included a company with 9 x HMG. In the US Army, the weapons platoons of rifle companies had a squad with 2 x HMG, and the heavy weapons companies of infantry battalions had two platoons with 4 x HMG each. There were also significant numbers of vehicle-mounted .30-caliber and .50-caliber in US infantry units. The headquarters and service companies of an infantry regiment, for example, had a total of seven .50-caliber HMG mounted on trucks.

Graphic by Tom Gregg

Thus between 1914 and 1945 the machine gun revolutionized infantry tactics—first in its original form as a specialized defensive weapon, then as the infantry’s key weapon in both defense and attack. And despite all the advances in military technology since 1945, the machine gun retains its importance on the modern battlefield.

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