Many of those interested in the British Army and the development of armoured warfare pre WWII have heard of British experiments in the 1920s and 30s with the Experimental Mechanised Force and the later Armoured Force. I suspect far fewer will have heard of the Experimental 6th Infantry Brigade which was formed in 1935 as an experiment in infantry reorganisation, being part of the 2nd Infantry Division. Some of the lessons learned certainly had an impact on British organisation and doctrine in 1940 and for some time thereafter.
The Brigade was based near Camberley, Surrey at Dettingen Barracks, Blackdown. At the time it was the Headquarters of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and is now better known as Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut – the home of the Royal Logistic Corps.
Its commander was Brigadier H. M Wilson D.S.O. late of the Rifle Brigade. In WWII he was better known as ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, serving as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of British Troops in Egypt in 1939-41, GOC Middle East Command in February 1943 and Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean in the closing stages of the war, from January 1944. He retired as a Field Marshal.
The 2nd Division, the Brigade’s higher formation, was at the time commanded by the then Major General Archibald Wavell. It was regarded as an elite division to be used as a test bed for new ideas.
Composition of the Brigade
6th Brigade comprised Brigade Headquarters and Signal Section, three rifle battalions and a machine gun battalion.
The three rifle battalions were:
- 2nd Battalion, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment
- 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry
- 1st Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment
The 1st battalion of the Durham Light Infantry formed the machine gun battalion. If it seems odd now to convert a light infantry battalion to the more static tasks of a machine gun battalion, this view was shared by the battalion itself at the time. However the Regimental Journal from January 1935 suggested that, having been selected, it was up to the battalion to ‘infuse MG tactics with the light Infantry spirit.’ There is some evidence that the 1st Battalion DLI was something of a showcase battalion, having already being chosen to trial the experimental 1932 infantry uniform (with ‘deerstalker’ hat), which, with modification, later evolved into the 1939 battledress.
The Rifle Battalions
Each was to comprise
- Battalion Headquarters
- Headquarters Company
- Four Rifle Companies
The War Establishment of a rifle battalion was to be 26 officers and 705 other ranks: That of a company four officers and 118 other ranks. Sections were to fight at a strength of not more than one Corporal or Lance-Corporal and six men.
Each rifle company was to consist of four platoons, each of three sections. All the men of every section were to be armed as riflemen, with each section also having one light automatic weapon. This was to be the ZGB (original Czech precursor to the Bren gun) rather than the Lewis Gun. The ZG was a Czech manufactured weapon and ZGB was the designation for the version produced for trials with the British Army.
The Headquarters Company in the rifle battalion included a mortar platoon of four three inch mortars and an anti-aircraft platoon with four light automatics (ZGBs again ?) on AA tripod mountings.
The establishment for rifle companies included an MG (unspecified) on the OC’s armoured carrier and a Hotchkiss machine gun acting as a ‘token’ for an anti-tank rifle (the Boys Mk 1 ATR first entered service in 1937). This mention of ‘tokens’ illustrates the point that not all equipment specified in the establishment of the Brigade was, in practice, available to it and that proxies were used.
Certainly in the 1936 organisation for the 1st DLI MG Battalion, Austin cars stood in for scout cars, Carden-Loyd carriers for armoured carriers, Hotchkiss guns as anti-tank rifles and Vickers guns as proxy anti-tank guns. The DLI Journal for April 1936 states that ‘Unfortunately very little of the new material will be available for these experiments and there will be a good deal of improvision (sic) and use of ‘token’ transport and weapons.’
Mobility of the Brigade
The Brigade was not completely mechanised – i.e. not all personnel were carried in some sort of motor vehicle. The only completely mechanised sub-units were to be:
- Brigade Headquarters
- Brigade Signal Section
- The anti-tank company of the M.G. Battalion.
Except for officers, who all had Austin cars to replace their horses, all the personnel of the MG and rifle companies would still walk.
It was necessary to lend lorries to the Brigade to carry its dismounted personnel, weapons and A and B echelon transport in order to enable it to increase its pace on the road from about 3 mph to 12 mph. This accepted that, tactically, any increase in its speed could still only be achieved by:
- A higher standard of training
- A higher speed in reconnaissance (for which the Austin cars might or might not prove suitable)
- Reducing the load on the soldier (which the motor transport should facilitate)
- A higher degree of physical fitness
Issues for Investigation
Special features of the new organisation (the Experimental Brigade) were to be:
- The use of wireless in brigade communications
- The mechanisation of all front line transport
- The substitution of Austin cars for officers’ chargers (horses)
- The concentration of all machine guns into one battalion – the Machine Gun Battalion
- The inclusion of an anti-tank company in the Machine Gun Battalion
- The introduction of a new type of light machine gun, the ZGB in rifle battalions
- The arming of sections in rifle battalions so that they could function either as light machine gun sections or as rifle sections
- In the Machine Gun Battalion, a machine gun company and an anti-tank platoon would each be self-contained, both tactically and administratively, so they could, when required, operate independently of their respective parent unit
The MG Battalion
My personal interest in the Brigade concerns the Durham Light Infantry, my local regiment. As briefly mentioned above this light infantry battalion was seleceted for conversion to become the Brigade’s MG Battalion. The remainder of this article will therefore concentrate on developments concerning that unit – in two phases as, in 1936 a new establishment was introduced for the MG Battalion, which was very different to the initial 1935 organisation.
Motor Transport of the MG Battalion
The vehicles shown on the War Establishment of the Machine Gun Battalion at the start of 1935 comprised:
- One four seater car (Battalion HQ)
- 33 two seater Austin cars (Austin 7 Tourers) – chiefly for officers
- Motorcycles – signallers and AT coy
- 49 tractors with trailers (guns, MGs and ammunition)
- 16 lorries (cooks, greatcoats, petrol, fitters)
- 4 12 cwt vans (one per anti-tank platoon for distribution of rations).
Of these, the tractors could move at walking pace without harm. The other vehicles could not. To drive and maintain these vehicles (and allow for a working reserve of trained drivers) required an establishment of 120 motor drivers in the unit. This quota of drivers were to be trained to drive and maintain the establishment of motor vehicles, which the battalion hoped to receive in June 1935. The types of vehicles with which the battalion was to be issued were not known and, in any case, were likely to be the subject of experiment.
On an exercise lasting ten hours in May 1935 the fully mechanised MG company covered no less than 160 miles.
The Machine Gun Battalion (1st Btn DLI)
- All ranks apart from the usual exemptions had to be trained in the use of the rifle
- All ranks of the machine gun and anti-tank companies had to be trained in the use of the machine gun (whichmay suggest that the anti-tank company was, pro tem, equipped with MGs as proxies for their guns)
- All ranks of the anti-tank company would have to be trained in the use of the machine gun, once approved and issued (see note above)
- Many men of all ranks would have to be trained in the use of the revolver
- No training would be carried out with the light machine gun in the machine gun battalion (the LMG was exclusively the province of the rifle battalions, in the same way as all Vickers Gun MMGs in the Brigade were concentrated in the MG battalion
Some points raised at the time for consideration
- The machine gun battalion commander automatically became the Brigade Machine Gun Officer with powers of command over MG units. How would this affect his working with the Brigade Commander and rifle battalion commanders and what would his principal duties be?
- How would the machine gun battalion be distributed for movement on roads? How and where would all the lorries and cars be moved which could not go at infantry marching pace?
- Would the MG battalion depend on Brigade communications or its own? By wireless, line, visual, motor despatch riders or cyclists?
- Would the Austin car satisfactorily replace the horse?
- How, and under whose orders, would the anti-tank usually function? Would this be by a lorry, with the gun mounted on it, carrying the team or a number of small cars?
- Would the mortars best be included in the machine gun battalion or, as present, in the rifle battalions?
- Should the anti-tank company form part of the machine gun battalion? If not, where in the Brigade should the anti-tank guns be placed?
- How would the new organisation affect Brigade tactics?
Early in 1936 it was announced that the DLI had not been selected to become one of the fifteen permanent machine gun battalions and therefore it would revert to being a rifle battalion after the present(1936) training season. However this would see it carrying out further experiments as an MG unit prior to (re)conversion with a new establishment and with very different equipment and transport.
Types and manufacturers of vehicles
In 1936 it was expected that the Morris truck would be the vehicle in general use and some were expected to be in service by April, with at least as many as were needed to replace the utility tractors and Hillmans of A company. As Hillman did not make trucks in the 1930s these would have been cars – either the 16 or the 20. The Morris truck was almost certainly the new CS8 15 cwt platoon truck. The Noel Ayliffe-Jones article ‘Infantry Vehicles of the 1930s’ in Airfix Magazine of September 1979 includes a photograph of three Utility Tractors of B Company along with a Morris CS8 15 cwt platoon truck.
Scout Company 1936
The main organisational change in 1936 was the inclusion of a scout company in the battalion achieved through the conversion of C Company under Major J.E.S. Percy MC. It consisted of three platoons, each of three patrols. Each patrol had two scout cars, each carrying a Bren gun and a motorcycle for communication and control. This was a genuine light infantry role and so drew some friendly jealousy from the other companies in the battalion. It is interesting that the Bren is specifically mentioned here in April 1936, rather than the ZGB, since the Bren Mk 1 did not officially enter general service until 1937.
M.G. Companies 1936
B Company (Capt. C.R. Battiscombe) and S Company (Major E. Dryden MC) each had four platoons. Each platoon had two sections of two guns, each on an armoured carrier, with an additional Vickers gun on the platoon commander’s armoured carrier. Each company would therefore have twenty M.G.s – all on armoured carriers.
The armoured carriers may have been intended to be the Vickers Machine Gun Carriers, which were introduced in 1937. We know the battalion received some Carden Loyd Mk VIs as proxies for armoured carriers around April 1936. The Vickers Utility Tractors were a stop gap, proxies in the experimental brigade for the intended equipment of an operational brigade. These may not have been entirely replaced by the Carden Loyds in 1936.
As Ayliffe-Jones points out, the Government bought 149 Tractors Light GS Mark 1 from Vickers between 1933 and 1936. They were powered by a 52 hp Ford petrol engine and had a top speed of 20 mph on the road. The combination of a very short wheelbase and narrow width made them unstable and the cross country ride was uncomfortable. They were not armoured and provided no protection for the machine gun and crew, either from the elements or from hostile fire. However, they only cost the taxpayer £375 each with no research and development costs, as they had been designed as a commercial venture by Vickers.
The Machine Gun Carrier Mk 1 was derived from a Vickers commercial project VA D50, which was intended to be able to fulfil the roles of both machine gun carrier and tractor to tow a light field gun. It was a prototype vehicle with Horstmann-type suspension with a solid idler wheel and two return rollers on each side. There was an armoured box in the front which enclosed the driver and front machine-gunner and a bench seat with folding back on each side behind this compartment, to carry the rest of the MG unit or the field gun crew. These seats were either side of the Ford V-8 engine, which was positioned centrally.
The MG carrier version had stowage bins fitted on either side of the armoured box for the driver and machine gunner and the engine was protected by steel plates mounted on a frame. This then became the MG Carrier No.1 Mark 1, which abandoned the idea of carrying an independent machine gun crew. The crew of the vehicle was reduced to three, dispensing with the folding sides and adding a compartment for the third crew member on the left side of the superstructure. A small batch (13) of these vehicles was built in mild steel and these seem to be the vehicles which entered service with 1st DLI in 1936.
The MG Carrier was the immediate precursor to the early war Bren, Scout and Cavalry carriers and, with further development, the Universal Carrier later in the war. The first operational use of the carrier was therefore in the experimental MG Battalion in 1936.
The anti-tank company (A company, Captain R.J. Appleby MBE) was reduced to three platoons but with a more powerful gun envisaged (2 pdr?). This begs the question of how the company was already equipped. They might possibly have had either Oerlikon tracked 20mm guns or Vickers MGs as proxies or even a mixture of both. Platoons were intended to consist of two sections each of two guns under a sergeant, who would ride a motorcycle.
Durham County Records Office holds an extensive collection of photographs relating to the DLI and a search of this collection using the term Blackdown (which is how the Dettingen Barracks is referred to in the contemporary records) turned up a number of photos of 1st Battalion at the time. These included several of individual companies of the battalion drawn up with all their transport. These of the anti-tank company show no anti-tank guns of any sort which reinforces the suggestion that perhaps machine guns were used as proxies.
Transport and equipment
The DLI Journal of January 1935 stated that little of the new material would be available for the 1935 experiments and therefore there would be a good deal of improvisation and of token transport and weapons.
- Austins (Austin 7s?) as token scout vehicles
- Carden Loyds as token armoured carriers (MG carriers?)
- Hotchkiss guns as token anti-tank rifles (one each in the scout and MG platoons)
- Vickers guns as token anti-tank guns
Nevertheless it was expected that the transport to be issued would enable the whole battalion to be ‘off its feet’. The Morris Truck (Morris Commercial CS8?) would be the vehicle in general use.
Contemporary Press Coverage
The Experimental Infantry Brigade was covered in the contemporary press in the period 1934-1936.
- The reorganisation of 1934, resulting in the establishment of the Experimental Infantry Brigade, was reported on 17 August 1934, in the Western Morning News and the Dundee Courier. These reports were very similar, suggesting perhaps that they relied heavily on press briefing by the War Office
- The Belfast Telegraph reported on 14 February 1935 on the introduction of the ZBG light machine gun and the motorisation of the machine gun battalion
- The Sunderland Echo reported on 23 December 1935 on a reorganisation which included the conversion of fifteen rifle battalions into machine gun battalions; converting the Cavalry Division and Tank Brigade into a mechanized Mobile Division and that all mechanised cavalry units would eventually divided into three types (cavalry armoured car regiments, motor cavalry regiments and cavalry light tank regiments)
- The Army Manoeuvres of 1935 and 1936 were heavily reported, for example in the Scotsman, the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer and the Western News. The role of the Experimental Infantry Brigade and its MG Battalion were prominent. In 1936 Wavell’s 6th Division provided the Westland forces and the use of 70 Sussex green buses to represent the new RASC troop carrying companies was particular noted, including the mobility provided, but also the dangers of road congestion and the need to reconnoitre routes.
The Experimental Brigade paved the way, among other things, for the introduction of the Bren gun into rifle battalions, the conversion of new machine gun battalions from existing infantry units, the introduction of the forerunners of the BEF carriers (Bren, Cavalry, Scout) and increased mechanisation of the infantry.
In the same way as the experimental mechanised and armoured force, it was marked by the use of proxies for some equipment and materiel – e.g. the issue of Carden Loyds to stand in as light tanks and, sometimes even, trucks labelled ‘tank’ on exercises. This ddoes not appear to have interfered with experiments with organisation and tactics but would have limited the Brigade’s operational effectiveness if deployed in action.
This need for proxies was partly because the vehicles required by the tactics of the new formation were simply not yet developed but also by the all-consuming pressure on the defence budget of the time. It would also be a result of the experimental nature of the brigade, which would be intended to reveal new requirements.
The 1936 reorganisation of the MG Battalion establishment demonstrates that lessons were being learned and implemented, even within the limited (two year) lifetime of the experiment.
Possible future avenues for exploration and research
Research into the experience of the three rifle battalions in the Brigade in 1935 and 1936.
Durham Light Infantry Regimental Journal
Durham County Records Office
Photographic records of 1st Battalion DLI.
Noel Ayliffe-Jones, Infantry Vehicles of the 1930s
Airfix Magazine, September 1979 – includes photos of B Company Tractors Light GS Mark I
Faithful: The Story of the Durham Light Infantry
S. G. P. Ward, Nelson 1962
Reprinted Naval and Military Press 2005
Tommy Tries It Out – Uniform Trial 1932
Army Exercise in Sussex 1936 -includes B Company 1st DLI and MGs on Tractors Light GS Mark 1
AFV 1919/40 British Armoured Fighting vehicles
Edited by Duncan Crow, Profile Publications 1970
With grateful thanks to:
- Peter Nelson, Lead Volunteer at the DLI Collection
- The staff of Durham County Records Office
- Jim Hale
Article by Clive Smithers.