Battalion Level Organisations in World War Two
Any attempted analysis of Infantry units serving in World
War Two has to recognise the two conceptions of what made an Infantry Battalion,
that is the contradiction between its Authorised Strength, and its actual strength.
All armies produce what are normally called War
Establishments or Tables of
Organisation and Equipment for the units which make up its whole.
These tables describe in minute detail the numbers of men assigned to a
unit, and give the totals and types of weapons and vehicles provided to them to
accomplish their task.
These lists are often compiled in peacetime.
They may include items intended for issue, but that
were not necessarily in the hands of the troops at the time or the levels
They show the ideal composition of units.
The reality could often be very different.
The most striking examples of intended versus actual that I
know of relate not to WW2, but the Napoleonic Wars. A British Infantry Battalion of the day should have numbered
above 1000 men all ranks. Its
French equivalent (circa 1809) was 840 men.
In the field, British Battalions often showed between 600 and 700 men.
The average when taking in chronically under strength units was around
550. For the French, Battalions
rarely deployed more than 600 men, and extremes of around 300 to 400 were
Similar problems faced Battalion commanders during WW2.
The fact is once a unit enters combat, its carefully constructed
organisation begins to fray. A Battalion would haemorrhage men in any number of ways.
Take 800 men recruited from the varying climes of Britain, Germany and
the United States. Transport them hundreds or thousands of miles away to the
unfamiliar and inhospitable conditions of North Africa, the Far East or the
Russian Steppes and disease and illness will take its toll. A unit can be debilitated by an unhealthy billet before it
evens sees the enemy.
Likewise, a new unit arriving in theatre may lose personnel
to existing formations desperate for reinforcement. Whole companies can be detached for other duties.
And that is assuming all the elements of the Battalion arrived together.
Constraints on transport might mean a unit will arrive in waves,
intending to link up later on, but other matters may disrupt this plan.
Even a passing acquaintance with parachute troops of the period shows
just how dramatic the consequences of this can be.
And, above all, the single greatest threat to unit integrity remains enemy action. Units which had suffered a severe mauling were often thrown back into the line simply because there was no one else available. Replacements were almost never sufficient to cover losses. Some armies, most notably the Russians, authorised reduced strength organisations to give the appearance of normality. The burden of command often fell on junior officers at Company level and Sergeants and Corporals when Platoon officers were lost. After a short time in combat, few rifle squads would be at strength.
Another complication concerns the issue of weapons. Practically every army underestimated the level of firepower its troops would require. Some took belated steps to increase this, while in others it fell to the soldiers themselves to seek solutions. When national weapons came up short, redress was often sought from captured enemy stocks. British units fielded captured medium mortars in North Africa to alleviate the short range of their own. US troops turned 8.8-cm anti-tank projectors against their former German owners in the West. And everywhere, the German Army stripped the arsenals of the nations they occupied to equip their own legions. Rifles, submachine guns, anti-tank guns and even tanks themselves were pressed into service. There was nothing the German Army declined to use.
The descriptions of units contained in this site are taken from the officially authorised organisational tables. How closely particular units resembled these descriptions was purely arbitrary. A British Battalion commander in France in 1940 would almost certainly have found himself operating under strength. Allocation of men and equipment would be split between existing and still forming units. Production was at no level to meet demand for all needs. By comparison, his German counterpart would probably be approaching full strength. He would never have enough motor transport, but men had been mobilised for war in advance of the invasion, and if he were in a frontline unit his weapons would be modern and plentiful.
Four years later, on the eve of D-Day, their mutual positions would be reversed. The British commander would have his unit at practically full strength. There would be no shortage of weapons and equipment for his men to undertake the long awaited assault. By contrast, his German opponent would now be in a weary army. He may be lacking several types of weapon he should have issued on paper, his transport would be almost exclusively horse drawn and he would never have enough men to fill his ranks. At the end of the Normandy campaign, the British commander would have seen his men suffer horrendous casualty rates. The German, if he withdrew before the Falaise Gap closed, would no longer realistically be able to call his unit a Battalion.
The role of the Infantry soldier is that of war itself,
namely to close with the enemy and destroy him.
Infantry units are ephemeral entities.
The men who served in the squads, platoons and companies of Infantry
Battalions of all nations had a limited life expectancy.
They provided the leading edge of every offensive.
They were in constant contact with the enemy
and were vulnerable to every weapon deployed by the enemy, from bayonet
to bomb, and their sole protection was a steel
The reality of war for an Infantryman is that luck is often
thing keeping him alive. A
man can follow his training to the letter, and still fall to a single bullet
before he even reaches the enemy line. Or
he can disregard all thought for his own safety and charge towards them firing a
Bren or a BAR from the hip, and somehow overcome superior numbers.
I could honestly, and gladly, write reams about them.
The more I read and learn, the more I marvel at how these men forced
themselves up from the relative safety of trenches or foxholes, and launched
themselves into the firestorm which was unleashed in that last hundred yards to
the enemy objective.
They were not the supermen of the movie screen or todayís Special Forces. They were ordinary men called upon to do extraordinary things. Some were fired with obscene political fervour that tarnishes the heroism they showed, others were seeking only to secure the freedom, which we enjoy today. They were plucked from a host of unknown towns and villages, and died in a host of unknown towns and villages. There is an argument that todayís aware and independent society would never be able to emulate their actions. I think it is a valid point, but more recent events and sacrifices of the 21st century have demonstrated there remain individuals prepared to risk, in the truest sense, life and limb, to confront totalitarian ideologies that brook no opposition to their aims.
As regards past conflicts, I canít help but wonder what drove a man, or probably still only a boy, from Lancashire, or Delaware, Bavaria, or Siberia, to stand up in the face of enemy fire, and charge. If it came to the crunch, I donít know I could do it. I wonder how they managed to. I hope I never have to find out.
The British Army
The United States Army
The United States Marines
The German Army
Infantry Weapons of World War Two
Infantry Tactics of World War Two
Published works and Websites