“A year ago I hadn’t expected to be learning how to fire a Bren gun – but one of the advantages of working at an institution like the Royal Armouries is the opportunity for experimental, as well as theoretical, research.”
This blog is part 2 of 2 concerning Alexander’s AHRC-funded Innovation Placement at the Royal Armouries. You can read his first post here.
Dr Alexander Shaw
WRoCAH Alumnus (2015 Cohort)
University of Leeds
War is not pleasant but the history of the world is intimately connected with conflict. Territorial boundaries, technological innovations, popular culture, the spread of language – all have been affected by wars. That is why institutions such as the Royal Armouries are so important. It is not morbid to dwell upon the history of weapons and warfare: it is a way of understanding our species, its achievements and its mistakes.
The Second World War remains unparalleled in scale and intensity. Having started working at the Royal Armouries in March 2019, my colleagues and I faced the daunting task of distilling this event into a compact gallery space.
Fortunately, Jonathan Ferguson, the Keeper of Firearms and Artillery, had a plan. As the national museum of arms and armour, it is not our purpose to tell the story of the entire Second World War (I personally doubt any museum or book could). By focusing on themes relevant to our collections (in this case, mainly firearms), we could create an exhibition which would explore how the war was fought and experienced by those wielding these deadly weapons; and, to a lesser extent, those who made them.
Our first big theme was that of ‘fighting philosophies’. Exploring the types of weapons adopted by different nations, how they organised them into their armies, and how soldiers were trained to use them tells us how the wartime combatants conceptualised warfare. Beyond the grand ideas of men in the War Office, it also helps us imagine the conditions in which the fighting man carried out his duty.
In conducting research into this theme, I focused on ‘minor tactics’. In British military parlance, this refers to the tactics designed around the smallest units on the battlefield: the infantry squad and platoon. Within the British army, the squad is called a section. During the Second World War, a section consisted of around 8-10 men (sometimes fewer) who lived and fought together.
I began my research into the organisation, training, equipment and combat experience of the British infantry section and its German equivalent (the ‘gruppe’). Both section and gruppe were based around a single machine gun supported by a team of riflemen. Despite some core similarities, the distinctions between Britain and Germany’s fighting philosophies make things interesting.
The ideal British squad in 1942 consisted of a section leader armed with a Thompson ‘gangster gun’, a Bren gunner operating the Bren light machine gun, and 6 riflemen. The Bren was a very accurate light machine gun, suited to providing firepower on the move. British tactics revolved around the Bren. Everyone was trained to use it in case the section Bren gunner was killed, and everyone carried ammunition for it. Britain’s fighting philosophy thus emphasised mobility and cooperation.
In contrast, the German gruppe was armed with the MG 34 (later the more potent MG 42) dual purpose machine gun. This weapon could be operated like a light machine gun, or it could be used in the role of a medium machine gun. The latter involved firing from a fixed position and throwing out fire over a large area. The German MG was less accurate than the Bren, but it had a much higher rate of fire. Because this was a different weapon, Germany had a distinct fighting philosophy. Their section was sub-divided into a more distinct rifle team and machine gun team. Whereas British riflemen were principally there to support the Bren and maintain its supply of ammunition, the German rifle team operated more independently. The MG 42 was the superior technological development – the forerunner of today’s general purpose machine guns. Yet British tactics were arguably more sophisticated. Germany’s fighting philosophy had changed less from the way weapons were employed in the First World War. This is somewhat surprising given the common image of Germany as innovating new techniques of war (typified by the blitzkrieg). When you get down to the smallest unit level of frontline infantry, the British embraced a more mobile and targeted approach to combat.
Some of our other themes include the increasing focus on killing in the British military, the ways in which civilian industry was co-opted into war production, and how all nations crossed boundaries by using weapons which they previously held as morally objectionable. As for our other stories… I won’t spoil the surprise. You’ll just have to come and see the exhibition when it opens in 2020. What I can promise is that it will challenge what you know about how the Second World War was fought and won.
Working at the Armouries has been a consistent pleasure and an enjoyable challenge. A year ago I hadn’t expected to be learning how to fire a Bren gun – but one of the advantages of working at an institution like the Royal Armouries is the opportunity for experimental, as well as theoretical, research. The team I worked with ensured things were never dull and always welcoming, and it is with sadness that I now leave them to finish off the war alone and without me… a bit like Britain in 1940. If you believe that particular war myth… However, like the Grand Alliance between Britain and the United States, our relationship will continue after the Innovation Placement is over. I am going to be writing a book about the British infantry section and its weapons, and I await with eager anticipation the opening of the exhibition which I have been proud to help create.
My work at the Royal Armouries ended where it all began. Quite literally. In my final few days, I visited the ruins of Westerplatte with one of my curatorial colleagues. Westerplatte was a Polish military depot in Gdansk which came under attack from the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein in the very first action of the war. Amongst those haunting ruins, I felt overwhelmed by the enormous implications of the place in which we found ourselves. The most destructive and transformative conflict in human history began in this place. It is a story of tragedy (the Polish defenders were defeated) but also heroism (they held out for a week against the odds); of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. That is what the Second World War means to me. So as the world still struggles to come to terms with the realities of the Second World War, I encourage you to visit Westerplatte and ponder for a while on everything our world lost as a result of what started there.