The Machine Gun Platoon

The heavy machine gun still had a major part to play in World War Two, despite early assertions that the tactics of Blitzkrieg and armoured warfare had reduced its importance. 

Platoon organisation was somewhat varied, with the four gun version being the most common, pared back to three in the Red Army and augmented to six for a period by the Germans.  The number of Platoons deployed by a Battalion also fluctuated, anywhere from one to three being found in different formations at different times.  The British Army persisted with the use of specialist Machine Gun Battalions, which would normally provide one four gun Platoon to each Infantry Battalion within a Division.  All other armies regarded the Machine Gun Platoon as organic to the Infantry Battalion. 

Deployment considerations

The Machine Gun Platoon required a large amount of equipment to sustain it, principally ammunition, which necessitated a large number of men to haul it.  However, a four or five man team could realistically transport a gun, tripod and some 1000 rounds, which would enable the weapon to operate for a reasonable duration while further supplies were brought up.

The machine gun crew had to be in direct line of sight with their target to deliver effective fire.  The machine gun was capable of high angle fire against targets beyond obstacles such as trees or buildings, but such fire was largely speculative and judged wasteful of ammunition. 

The principle consideration in deploying machine guns was ensuring they had a commanding field of fire.  The strength of the weapon was that it could literally sweep an area with automatic fire, completely dominating a whole expanse.  Such areas could range from locales as different as rolling fields to city streets or jungle paths. 

Offensive fire

Machine guns were not naturally offensive weapons.  To operate effectively they needed a fixed position and access to a ready supply of ammunition.  That largely limited their use in the ideal fast moving infantry attack.  The infantrymen themselves represented something of a problem in that they placed a notable restriction on the gunners’ field of fire.

While mortars fired at high angle over the heads of their advancing infantrymen, machine guns needed to see their target area.  A two gun Section supporting the advance of a Rifle Company in either V shape or arrowhead was faced with a peculiar problem.  Once the riflemen left the start line, at which the machine guns were located, they would quickly begin to obscure the field of fire.  Unless the guns could be sited in some elevated, and by definition vulnerable position, their fire would have to be restricted to certain ‘lanes’.  These would mark the boundaries between the advancing Rifle Platoons, and would have to be kept completely clear if the gunners were to operate.  Such circumstances notably compromised the effectiveness of the machine guns.

The solution was flanking fire.  This harked back to the basic fire and movement techniques described in the Rifle Squad segment.  The Section would set up position to either the left or right of the Company it was detailed to support.  From here, it could deliver suppressive fire against the target for a longer period before the advancing infantry risked crossing its path.  Generally speaking, a Rifle Company tasked with an assault role could expect the support of a four gun Platoon, which enabled a Section to be sited on each flank taking the target under crossfire. 

Defensive fire

It was in the defensive that the machine gun truly came into its own.  A key principle in resisting an enemy assault was to keep his riflemen at arms length.  That was precisely what the machine gun was designed for.

When deployed as part of a fixed line of defences, the crews were relieved of the necessity to ‘shoot round’ their own troops.  They could then exploit the weapons ability to saturate a whole area with automatic fire, making it impossible for any living thing to move within this beaten zone.  Such an area could extend for a depth of well over 500 metres and a breadth of several hundred more.  That a single gun team of three or four men could accomplish this released at least a Squad of riflemen to bolster either the line or reserve.

Machine guns operated best in pairs.  In the defence their placement was such that any attempt to outflank one gun brought the assault troops into view of its partner, and vice versa.  Well dug in posts could hold up an advance for an age, normally necessitating the use of mortar or artillery fire to suppress the threat.

Allocations to Rifle Companies

The variations in the numbers of machine guns issued to Infantry Battalions makes discussion on this point tricky.

Machine guns could still be used effectively when dispersed.  Even so, during an offensive action a Battalion Commander would want some portion uncommitted to allow for any unforeseen events, such as a flank assault, which the weapons were well equipped to halt.  During a defensive action their deployment would largely be governed by the nature of terrain, the fields of fire offered and the numbers of riflemen available to hold the line.

Summary

Generally speaking, the heavy machine gun was not afforded the same opportunities for mass slaughter as it had been during the preceding Great War.  But in those lunatic moments when men were urged forward without the benefit of covering artillery fire or tank support, it could wreak the same havoc among their ranks as it had at Verdun or on the Somme.

The Weapons Company

Heavy Machine Guns

Small Unit Formations

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Infantry Tactics of World War Two

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