The British Infantry Battalion, 1939 to 1940
In early 1940 the British Army sent the bulk of its recently mobilised units to France following the declaration of war against Germany. They took with them the larger part of the Army's motorised transport, infantry and cruiser tanks, and the heavy guns of the artillery. The campaign they fought in lasted barely a month. Those men who survived it largely came back to Britain with only the clothes they stood in, sometimes not even that. Practically all their heavy equipment and vehicles littered the roads and fields of France, marking the withdrawal to the beaches of Dunkirk.
Few of the Battalions committed were fully up to strength as regards transport while support weapons, such as anti-tank rifles, 2-inch mortars, and even the vital Bren guns were often in short supply. Where weapons were available there were sometimes crucial shortages of ammunition rendering them useless. The paper allocations are therefore included below, however there was considerable variation in what units actually had to hand.
The Infantry Battalion, circa 1939 to 1940
Battalion Headquarters (4 Officers, 43 men)
Headquarter Company (6 Officers, 215 men), comprised of;
Company HQ (1 Officer, 6 men)
Signal Platoon (1 Officer, 33 men)
Anti-aircraft Platoon (16 men)
Mortar Platoon (17 men)
Carrier Platoon (1 Officer, 29 men)
Pioneer Platoon (20 men)
Administrative Platoon (3 Officers, 94 men)
Four Rifle Companies (3 Officers, 97 men), each comprised of;
Company HQ (2 Officers, 10 men)
One Rifle Platoon comprised of;
Platoon HQ (1 Officer, 5 men)
Three Rifle Sections, each comprised of 8 men
Two Rifle Platoons, each comprised of;
Platoon HQ (5 men)
Three Rifle Sections, each comprised of 8 men
Total Strength of 668 all ranks (22 Officers and 646 men)
Points of note
During the early years of the war, not all Platoon sized units of the British Army were commanded by junior commissioned officers. The rank of Warrant Officer III, also known as a Platoon Sergeant Major (or a Troop Sergeant Major in some arms) was held by two of the three Rifle Platoon commanders in each Rifle Company, as well as several Platoon commanders in Headquarter Company.
Anti-tank guns were not issued directly to the Infantry Battalion until later in the war. During the campaign in France, each Infantry Brigade included an Anti-tank Company of three Platoons, each Platoon equipped with three 25-mm guns provided by the French, and one such Platoon could be attached to each Battalion.
The elements of the Battalion
Battalion Headquarters - the Battalion was commanded by a Lieutenant-colonel, with a Major as his second-in-command, plus an Adjutant and an Intelligence Officer, usually a Captain and Subaltern respectively. The attached Medical Officer was counted in the Admin Platoon. The other ranks provided clerks, batmen, orderlies and the like, plus twenty stretcher bearers.
Signals Platoon - maintained radio, wire and telephone communication between the Battalion and higher and parallel formations.
Anti-aircraft Platoon - the AA Platoon was commanded by a Platoon Sergeant Major, and included four trucks, each fitted with a single Bren gun on a 'Motley' mounting and carrying a Boys anti-tank rifle.
Mortar Platoon - the earliest Battalion Mortar platoon was commanded by a Platoon Sergeant Major, and operated just a pair of 3-inch mortars. Each detachment was commanded by a Sergeant and provided with a 15-cwt truck to transport mortar and ammunition, while the crew had to march. The Platoon was authorised a single anti-tank rifle for defence.
Carrier Platoon - the Bren carrier was an attempt to provide a fully tracked, lightly armoured vehicle, which could transport a Bren gun team across exposed ground and set up a firing position to support the advance of the Rifle Platoons.
In its earliest form the Platoon operated ten Bren carriers, with a HQ and three Sections of three carriers each. Platoon HQ had a single machine crewed by the Platoon Commander, driver-mechanic and batman. Each of the three Sections had three carriers, with an NCO, rifleman and driver-mechanic in each vehicle. The first carrier was commanded by a Sergeant, the other two each by Corporals. Each carrier mounted a Bren gun, and one in each Section also had an anti-tank rifle. There was also a 15-cwt truck with its attached driver from the Admin Platoon.
Pioneer Platoon - the Pioneer Platoon remained largely unchanged through the war, with ten Pioneers plus tradesmen. It included a motorcycle for the Platoon Sergeant Major and a truck with attached driver for stores and equipment. During the early stages of the war, the Pioneer Platoon was also responsible for anti-gas and decontamination duties.
Administrative Platoon - provided the bulk of the Battalion motor pool, plus the various cooks, fitters and tradesmen required to keep the unit functioning. It also counted on its strength all the drivers of the four-wheeled vehicles (8-cwt and 15-cwt trucks) allocated to the other subunits of the Battalion.
The Rifle Company – each of the four Rifle Companies in the Battalion included a small HQ element commanding three Rifle Platoons.
The Rifle Section of the 1940 campaign was eight men strong, and consisted of a Section commander, either a Corporal or Lance-corporal, and seven men, each man armed with a rifle. The British Army began the Second World War using much the same rifle it had concluded the First World War with. The Lee-Enfield Mk III was a bolt action weapon with a ten round internal magazine that proved both reliable and accurate. Two men in each Section acted as gunner and loader for the Section’s single Bren light machine gun. The Bren was derived from the Czech ZB26 and began to enter service in 1938, replacing the previous Lewis gun, another Great War veteran. The adoption of the Bren would prove to be an inspired choice. Three such Sections served under a Platoon HQ, which differed slightly dependent upon whether the Platoon was commanded by an Officer or an NCO.
HQ for the first Platoon in each Company included an Officer armed with a pistol. He was aided by a Platoon Sergeant, batman, orderly with bicycle and a two man team for the Platoon’s 2-inch mortar. All these men carried rifles, as was the driver attached from the Admin Platoon for the Platoon’s 15-cwt truck, which carried equipment and the Platoon anti-tank rifle. The second and third Platoons in each Rifle Company were commanded by Platoon Sergeant Majors rather than commissioned officers. The Platoon Sergeant Majors were equipped as officers, but had no batman so their Platoons were twenty-nine strong as opposed to thirty, excluding the attached driver.
Company HQ included the commander, a Major or Captain, and his second-in-command, along with batmen and orderlies, and added both an 8-cwt truck and a 15-cwt truck to the Company transport. Throughout the war, every Rifle Company HQ included both a Company Sergeant Major and a Company Quartermaster Sergeant, the latter responsible for messing facilities.
The original Infantry Battalion was found to be notably lacking both in manpower for its Rifle Sections and firepower, especially in mortars and anti-tank weapons. For its time though, it was a highly ambitious unit, including a level of motorisation unseen in any other standard Infantry Battalion of the day, with over fifty vehicles, plus Bren carriers and motorcycles. Despite this, almost 500 men of the Battalion still marched.
In April 1940, the War Office gave approval to increase the size of the Rifle Section from eight to eleven men. Each Section was to be commanded by a Corporal, with an additional three riflemen added. Whether any units had opportunity to enact this amendment is debateable. Barely a month later the Wehrmacht would sweep into France and the Low Countries at a time when the BEF was still bringing units up to strength on the previous establishments. Shortly afterwards it was also proposed to replace all eleven Platoon Sergeant Majors by Subalterns, adding a batman to each Platoon previously commanded by WO IIII. Along with three extra cooks in the Administrative Platoon this would have increased the Battalion to 33 Officers and 757 men, 790 all ranks. It is highly doubtful any unit attained this level before the German offensive began four weeks later.
The British Army
The British Infantry Battalion
British Divisional Organisations