Infantry in Defence

“Here we find ourselves suddenly on what is actually the front line” and at any moment we may “have to fight and stay fighting – no withdrawal” – commanding officer, 7th Manchesters, 9th July 1940

It is first worth stating the obvious – given the length of the British Coast, defences could not be sited to cover all potential landing places. However Churchill remarked that as many troops as possible should be organized for counter attack and not employed in Beach defence – as troops garrisoned for beach defence in areas not affected by any invasion attempt would be as useless as those in the Maginot Line.

The policy was to use “Beach” divisions for the defence of the bulk of the Coast – these were partially trained and had little training in mobile operations. They were employed in a static role of beach defence and were expected to hold to the last - by doing so they would disorganize the enemy, interfere with his mobility and reinforcement and cause a loss of time, vital to gain as much time for mobile reserves to deploy and counter attack the enemy. Field Forces were to hold the especially vulnerable beaches of Suffolk, Kent and Sussex. The defenses were to consist of defended localities situated in depth within a battalion front. Defended localities were to be established at company / platoon strength. Within a platoon locality section posts would be sited for all round fields of fire and mutually supporting.

If the invasion had taken place, the battle would have largely been fought at section and platoon level as the platoon locality was to be the smallest defended locality (e.g. 6th K.O.S.B War Diary). It is worth then looking at the organization of the battalion down to section level. Each battalion consisted of Headquarters’, a Headquarters ‘company and four companies. The Headquarter Company consisted of six platoons (signals, AA and ground defence, mortar, carrier, pioneer and Administrative). Each company consisted of a Headquarters’ and three platoons. A platoon was organized into a Headquarter and three sections and a 2” mortar detachment (two men). Each section consisted of an NCO section commander and seven privates.

It is likely that Division Headquarters would have selected battalion areas and battalion commanders selected platoon localities. Each battalion would have been given some specific tasks (e.g. defence of vulnerable points, nodal points etc). Once the battalion commander had decided his plan and platoon localities this would cascade down to individual sections been given specific arcs of fire and perhaps specific fire tasks (e.g. cover a particular beach exit). The defence of beaches was considered a special case and the forward section posts would have been established on forward slopes in order to gain maximum observation and fields of fire, with concealment from the enemy being of secondary importance. 55th Div issued orders that no section post was to be garrisoned by less than six men.

By the end of 1940, a linear strip of platoon localities had been established along the Suffolk Coast. Although theses were sited for all round defence it was recognized that any attack from the rear would divert fire power from covering the beaches. Throughout 1941 platoon localities were developed further inland to give depth to the defence and fight the “Western Battle” i.e. enemy attacks from the rear.

The battalion Defence Scheme would have been produced with consideration of the artillery fire plan to ensure a continuous belt of fire could be produced on the battalion front, although during the summer of 1940 equipment shortages would have probably meant this was not fully achieved. The battalion commander would have at his disposal the 3” mortar detachment. This mortar could be laid on fixed lines. Also the battalion fire plan would take into consideration all obstacles to ensure they were covered by fire.

Of primary importance was the siting of medium machine guns, the most powerful weapon of the infantry. Medium machine guns were given both a beach defence role and also used to cover the rear of the front line section posts. Machine guns would be sited where possible to cover their selected target with either enfilade or oblique fire. Section posts would be mutually supporting and each platoon commander would make arrangements for support from platoons on his right and left. The fire plan of the section's rifles and light machine guns would be co-ordinated with that of the medium machine guns and artillery, the artillery also given a role to cover any gaps in the front line of infantry posts.

A section post could consist of a pillbox and supporting earthworks, just earthworks, or breastworks made from sandbags (e.g. on seafronts). Posts would have to be substantial enough to hold at least seven men, guns and ammunition and food and water (11th Highland Light Infantry stipulated food and water for seven days).The fully developed post would consist of sections of fire trench or fire positions, latrine, food, ammunition and water storage shelters. In many cases pillboxes would no doubt have been used for storage and, for those sections located in towns, buildings and cellars also.

It is worth noting that no standard design for a section post could be laid down – positions and designs would have to suit ground conditions. However some general principals were universal: a post would be set out to allow the section commander to give verbal firing orders; weapons-pits / fire trenches would be dug square to the principal fire task. Every section post was to be fully wired in.

Evidence of how substantial section posts could be to accommodate troops can be gauged from 2/4th South Lancs diary: “In the interior there is plenty of room and the men are very comfortable when they have to sleep at their posts.”

Each section’s fire power consisted of six rifles and one lmg, a Bren gun, but following the equipment losses the BEF suffered in France, many Lewis guns were issued as replacements (e.g. 1st Liverpool Scottish Operational Instruction No 3 notes Lewis guns will be issued as substitutes for Brens in order to put the battalion on an operational basis). 11 Corps instructions stated that maximum use of concrete pillboxes was to be made to house the lmg (and anti-tank rifles). In some cases arrangements would be made to lay the lmg on a fixed line. The fire task of the section post would be aided by producing a range card, which would have marked the ranges of positions likely to be occupied by the enemy or of points which he is likely to pass. Range cards were to be kept in all section posts (e.g. Operation Instruction No 2, Apr 20th 1941, 6th Royal Sussex).

  Range card, Section Leading 1938 Two examples of Range cards - these are for a Vickers machine gun and are marked
  above the embrasures in a pillbox (Fraisthorpe, Yorkshire)

Method of application of fire by a section :-

Fire control by a section would either be concentrated fire (where the section directs all its fire to the same point) or distributed fire (where the section engages a wide target such as enemy lining a hedgerow). The lmg would fire bursts at irregular intervals between the limits of the target (the "Layer System"). This would prevent the enemy from being able to predict the next burst (as would be the case if the lmg engaged in systematic traversing of the target).

  left: Fire Control - distributed fire and the "Layer System" - Small Arms Training
  Vol 1 Pamphlet No 2 1942

  Right (below): The 2" Mortar which could be carried by one man

The platoon commander would have a two inch mortar at his disposal. In defence it could bring HE fire onto enemy troops that may have penetrated the defence. The 2” mortar could not be laid on fixed lines. It could also be used to support a counter attack by providing cover with a smoke screen or to bring HE fire onto any point holding up the counter attack.

Battalion orders laid down instructions for the dawn and dusk stand to. For example 2/8th Lancs stated 90% of troops standing to during the morning (at a time stipulated by battalion orders) for one hour and 20% of troops during the evening stand to. During air raid warning “Red” 100% of troops would man posts (although only sentries need stay awake).

Detailed instructions were also issued on how far troops were to be from posts. The 1st Liverpool Scottish Defence Scheme states 25% of troops to be at immediate call to man posts. Those not on immediate call should be within four hours notice by day and two hours at night

The 10th Cameronians Defence Scheme notes that 30% of troops to be employed in vicinity of defence positions with the rest to be within 30 minutes of battle positions. During the night 30% of troops were to be in battle positions (60% in bad visibility), with 100% of troops on the dawn “stand to”.

Each battalion would have maintained a reserve, usually comprising of the carrier platoon, HQ platoon and one other company. This would be utilized to reinforce any part of the battalion perimeter under threat or to organize counter attacks. Division and Corps also maintained reserve formations.

Infantry Section Leading, HMSO, 1938
10th Cameronian papers, TNA
1st liverpool Scottish papers, TNA
2/8th Lancs papers, TNA
2/4th South Lancs papers, TNA
Small Arms Training, vol 1 Pamphlet No 2 Application of Fire, HMSO, 1942
Field Service Regulations Vol II, HSMO,1935


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