The Infantry Battalion
The previous pages in this series have each attempted to
analyse the various subunits of the typical Infantry Battalion during World War
Two. Now comes the hard part;
trying to examine how those subunits operated together in the Battalion battle.
What complicates matters is the need to place the Battalion action in its
The Infantry Battalion continues to represent the basic
building block of any army today, just as it did during the Second World War.
Battalions and Regiments provided Generals with the tools of their trade,
the means to influence the enemy on the battlefield, but Battalions could not
operate in isolation. They formed
part of a much larger effort, usually undertaken by a Divisional sized
formation, which could itself often be reinforced by other arms.
It was rare for an Infantry Battalion to be expected to fight alone, such
a circumstance generally pointing to a severe reverse in the Divisional effort
or the most immediate response to a crisis situation.
Within a Division, an Infantry Battalion could be tasked with one of a
number of missions, and dependent upon circumstances could find itself quickly
having to shift from one to another.
In the offensive battle, the Battalion could be assigned to
one of roughly three important roles in the Divisional effort.
The first of these was the main assault upon the enemy line, for which
the Battalion could expect to be substantially reinforced by other Divisional
assets. The second was also the
assault role, however this was designed to pin down enemy forces and prevent
them from responding to the main effort, rather than actually attempting to
breach the line. The third was the
reserve, in which the Battalion had to stand ready to exploit gains made in the
assault, or react to unforeseen developments.
These neat and simple divisions often became blurred in the
reality of combat. When a main
attack became bogged down, those Battalions in the supporting role were called
upon to press forward and relieve pressure on the main effort.
The reserve, which was intended to stay out of contact until a
breakthrough had been made, often found itself being committed to secure that
breakthrough. As the war
progressed, shortages of replacements and divisional reorganisations saw some
units fighting without a reserve, placing even greater stresses on the assault
I do intend to try and explore the intriguing arena of
combined arms tactics in more depth in later pages, but it is impossible to
accurately examine the Infantry Battalion without some reference to it.
Likewise however, I do not want to stray too deeply into topics that are
deserving of more substantial coverage in their own right.
This segment then will concentrate on the general tactical handling of
the typical Infantry Battalion in both offensive and defensive operation.
If there is one thing this site can claim to have proven, it is that there was no such thing as a typical Battalion organisation. There were numerous differences in the allocation of support weapons, numbers of riflemen and other such details. What can be said though, is that there was some consistency in the overall Battalion structure deployed by the major combatant nations.
A typical Battalion would be administered by a
Headquarters, which controlled three Rifle Companies plus a Weapons Company.
Supply and communications elements would sometimes be gathered into their
own Headquarters Company (distinct from the overall Battalion Headquarters), or
administered directly from it. The
only major exception to this general rule was found in the British and
Commonwealth armies, whose Infantry Battalions maintained four Rifle Companies
throughout, though combat attrition could reduce this to three.
This was especially the case in Italy from mid 1944, when the bulk of
replacement troops were diverted to Normandy.
As previous segments have examined the combat subunits of
the Battalion (Rifle Squads, Platoons and Companies, plus the wealth of fire
support available), only three other units remain to explore.
The size of Battalion Headquarters fluctuated enormously
from as little as four to as many as fifty officers and men, dependent upon the
army involved. The larger units
tended to include a Medical Detachment, which in other Battalions was either
attached from a Medical Battalion, or divided out among the various Platoons and
Companies. Such units were also
normally swelled by a generous allocation of motor transport.
These differences aside, a Battalion Headquarters would contain three key positions regardless of which army was involved.
The Battalion Commander would normally be either a
Lieutenant Colonel or Major, though in some circumstances command could rest
with a Captain. With anywhere from
500 to 1000 men under his command there was little opportunity to exercise
effective solo leadership. He
was heavily dependent upon his subordinate Company and Platoon Commanders to see
through his orders if the Battalion objectives were to be met.
The feeling of detachment this generated from the action did not suit all
commanders, who felt they should not only lead from the front, but be seen to do
so. Such officers helped to greatly
inspire their men, but all too often were among the first to fall.
In the main then, the Battalion Commander would be found at
a Command Post (CP) established to the rear of the Battalion Area.
From here, he would be able to communicate with his Company Commanders
and his Regimental or Brigade superiors. There
is an argument that the esteem in which riflemen held their Battalion Commander
had a direct correlation with his willingness to leave the confines of the CP
and venture forward to the frontline.
The Battalion’s Second in Command or Executive Officer
served in a similar role to that of the Rifle Company.
He would assume command in the loss or absence of the Battalion
Commander, and also man the CP when the Commander was elsewhere.
He was also heavily involved in the planning for any assault.
Interestingly, the German Battalion had no 2inC at Battalion Headquarters
rather the senior Company Commander would take over the role as required.
The final almost universal position was that of the
Adjutant. An Adjutant would
generally be either a Lieutenant or Captain, whose purpose was to carry out
whatever task the Battalion Commander ordered.
This could vary from bringing back firsthand observations of the
situation at the frontline, to liasing with attached or flanking units.
Both British and American Battalions also included an
Intelligence Officer, or S2 in US terminology.
He was responsible for building up a picture of enemy dispositions
through information gathered from local reconnaissance and ‘intel’ passed
down from higher headquarters. There
was normally a small section of men to aid in this job, which included the
initial interrogation of captured enemy troops.
The Red Army had the unique distinction of including a Political Officer
on their Battalion staff. While his
Company level equivalents were seemingly deleted during 1943, the Battalion
Commissar endured throughout. His
precise function is difficult describe from a Western viewpoint.
His ostensible role was to maintain the political awareness of the troops
and constantly exhort them to aspire to the ideals of the state.
He could also interfere with the Battalion Commander’s direction of the
battle if he believed he was failing in his duty to the Motherland.
His presence can only have caused an unwanted distraction in what was
already a particularly lethal environment.
The Signal or Communications Platoon had a vital role in
the Battalion. They were largely
responsible for ensuring the Battalion Commander maintained contact with his
Rifle Companies and fire support assets. The
Platoon was generally equipped with a mixture of line and wireless sets, though
the latter were not found in the Red Army.
Line communications continued to provide the most reliable
and secure form of transmitting orders and reports throughout the war, and the
Platoon would lay a web linking the various units to the Battalion CP.
The Platoon’s radio sets were also usually more powerful than those
found in the Rifle Companies.
Non-combat Service and Support
The typical Infantry Battalion was the size of a small
village, and had needs similar to such a community. Each man had to be fed, clothed and equipped to fight.
Battalions routinely deployed a train of specialist personnel who could
keep the unit running, from tailors and shoemakers to cooks and armourers.
The Battalion Supply Officer, or Quartermaster, was responsible for
ensuring the unit had sufficient supplies of all items to function.
Achieving this was often far easier said than done, and many such
officers developed practices that were not necessarily found in Army regulations
to do so.
The Battalion in the Offence
The typical Infantry Battalion Commander of the period had
quite an array of weapons and subunits at his disposal.
His Great War contemporary had in effect been limited to four Rifle
Companies and a varying allotment of heavy machine guns.
By 1944 commanders could supplement this with medium, and sometimes,
heavy mortars, towed anti-tank guns, assault pioneers and even universal
carriers. Given the difficulties of integrating these diverse elements
into a cohesive force, it is perhaps not surprising some commanders found it
difficult to operate in more complex combined arms teams.
The first hurdle was becoming competent in the handling of the Battalion
as a whole, before attempting to introduce armour and close air support into the
The Battalion Commander was faced with two key
considerations in planning any assault. Principal
of these was the familiar question of how much of his force should he commit to
the initial offensive, and secondly how could he best employ his support weapons to aid them. At
the outset of the war, the perceived wisdom was that a typical three Company
unit would adopt the V shaped formation. Two Rifle Companies would advance abreast, with the third,
and where applicable fourth, held back in reserve.
It was believed this formation struck the necessary balance
between committing sufficient force to the assault and maintaining a credible
reserve, while also proving easy to handle.
The two lead Companies would proceed on a twin axis of advance, observing
an imaginary boundary line between them to prevent losing their individual
cohesiveness. The actual distance
of the separation between the two units would vary greatly, the most important
determining factor probably being the nature of the terrain involved.
However, it could not be allowed to become so great that it would impair
the need for mutual flank protection between the Companies.
If the left flank unit encountered determined resistance, the right flank unit could support it by manoeuvring to threaten the enemy’s line of communication, thus hoping to force a precipitous withdrawal. In essence, it was the tried and tested combination of fire and movement found throughout modern tactical thinking. Likewise, the reserve Company kept its traditional role. Its primary function was to provide a fresh body of troops to exploit an opening forced by the leading echelons. To do so, it had to be kept out of contact with the enemy until the gap appeared. The reserve therefore had to remain mobile so it could move up quickly and deploy in good order as soon as possible. Once committed, the Battalion would have to form a new reserve, usually done by designating one of the former leading Companies as such, likely the unit that had forced the initial opening, allowing it time to regroup.
As the war progressed, the limitations of this approach
became increasingly apparent. The
German Army’s defence in depth proved notably effective in absorbing such
attacks. The leading Companies
would quickly encounter resistance. If
one attempted to outflank the initial position it would find itself drawing fire
from another position arrayed behind the first. If both Companies became pinned down by effective enemy fire,
they were robbed of their ability to manoeuvre. The only way to regain this was by committing the reserve,
either to bolster one of the lead Companies, or possibly by attempting to
relieve the pressure by launching its own attack.
In any event, the Battalion Commander would find all of his Rifle
Companies had quickly become entangled in the enemy’s defences, leaving him
with no reserve to fall back upon.
The obvious remedy to this was to keep the greater part of
the Battalion out of the opening stages of the assault.
Leading with just a single Company greatly reduced the Battalion
frontage, but helped to counter the defence in depth.
Instead of the Battalion effort being dissipated across a twin Company
frontage, the Commander could utilise all of his available firepower to support
the efforts of his single main effort Company.
As a result, they had far greater potential to win the firefight, and
quickly close with the enemy. The
second Company would follow hard on the heels of the first, ready to exploit the
breakthrough and move through the lead unit to continue the advance.
The third Company would then follow in their wake to repeat the process.
If the second Company had to pitch in to help the first secure the
breakthrough, the third would still be available for the exploitation phase.
This approach was not without its drawbacks though.
Principle of these was the much narrower concentration of troops than
with a two Company frontage. With a
smaller portion of the enemy line engaged, there was a greater chance for him to
move troops from other zones to support the point of attack.
By choosing to punch through at a single place, the key to success for
the attacker shifted to how quickly they could exploit that breakthrough,
pouring troops through the breach to compromise the integrity of the enemy line
across a far greater length than they had actually engaged it on.
It would take the efforts of two or more Battalions acting in concert to
open up the multiple gaps in the enemy lines that would cause the kind of
reverse the attackers were seeking to inflict.
Another key factor in the Battalion assault was integrating the various heavy weapons into the plan. The principal means of fire support available to the Battalion Commander throughout the war remained the guns of the Divisional artillery. Many armies supplemented these with further guns at Regimental level, the light calibres of which (75 mm), could often be found operating under the command of Battalions in the assault role. There were also the organic weapons of the Battalion itself. Key among these were the mortars.
As mentioned in previous segments, it was an option to
place several mortars under the direct command of the leading Rifle Company to
provide intimate fire support. The
balance of the Mortar Platoon would continue to remain under Battalion control
however, delivering concentrated barrages against enemy positions.
If a single Rifle Company was carrying the advance, it was relatively
easy for the Mortar Platoon to offer its undiluted support, normally via an
attached observer. Where the
advance was split between two Companies, it was important the Mortar Commander
understood the intentions of the Battalion Commander.
Both Rifle Companies would be liable to call for support fire as they
advanced. If the intention was to
press home the assault via one particular Company this plan could be weakened if
the weight of fire suddenly shifted to the Company tasked with the supporting
action. The Battalion Commander
could exercise control through either a direct line of communication or via his
Weapons Company HQ.
While the mortars could fire from some distance behind the
frontline, the heavy machine guns and anti-tank guns had to be manoeuvred into
position alongside the Rifle Companies. Anti-tank
guns posed something of a problem. Their main role in an offensive action was to be ready to
respond to an enemy counterattack including armour.
They were too vulnerable and unwieldy in the towed version to accompany
the assault troops, largely necessitating their being held back along with the
reserve. They would be pushed
forward following a successful action to help consolidate the objective, but if
they were used in the initial firefight they risked exposing their position to
The heavy machine guns of the Battalion had to be pushed
forward if they were to offer real support to the advance.
The key was finding suitable positions from which the Platoon or Platoons
could deploy effective fire without endangering their own riflemen.
Once these positions were established, they would be difficult to move
however, given the sheer weight of guns, ammunition and other equipment.
Developing the Battle
Once the assault began, the Battalion Commander would have
to read the unfolding situation, trying to discern from the reports coming in,
or not coming in, the progress of the battle.
He was heavily reliant upon the actions of his subordinate Company
Commanders to achieve the Battalion aim, and would expect regular and accurate
situation reports from them. All
elements of the Battalion would have to function together; the Rifle Companies
closing with the enemy, the mortars and machine gunners keeping up a steady
stream of suppressive fire to cover their advance, the communications troops
keeping the CP in touch with every subunit, and the command staff constantly
monitoring the incoming reports from their own and neighbouring units.
Momentum is one of the intangibles of war that good
commanders can read and understand. Once
an assault force begins to lose it, it can be difficult and costly to regain.
The Battalion Commander constantly had to judge whether his efforts were
being directed against the correct area of the battlefield.
He knew that once the Rifle Companies moved into action, they would
gradually begin to weaken as men fell dead or wounded, and others left the fight
to aid them. There was the ever
present knowledge that this inevitable trickle of casualties could suddenly turn
into a flood if the enemy were allowed to strike a particularly lethal blow.
How the Battalion Commander interpreted the reports coming
in from his Rifle Company Commanders would depend largely on the individual
concerned, and equally as much on how the report itself was delivered.
A breathless Company Commander requesting substantial reinforcement
having barely made a hundred yards on his line of departure could be
exaggerating his position. Equally,
he could have encountered a numerically superior force and be clinging on by the
skin of his teeth to the small gains his men had made.
Deciphering such situations speedily and accurately was the job of the
One of the most vital decisions he could make was when to commit his reserve. The ideal time would already have been identified during pre-planning, usually signified by the capture of a primary objective allowing the exploitation phase to begin. Yet all too often enemy defences could withstand the initial assault, forcing the commander to consider their earlier use. The commander who had only committed one of his Companies to lead the assault had the breathing space afforded by having two or more in reserve from the outset. However, the decision on throwing in the reserve could be taken out of the Battalion Commander’s hands. His commanding officer could intervene to direct him to, perhaps believing his subordinate was being overly cautious, or to alleviate the pressure on another Battalion.
Following a successful assault, the Battalion would quickly
need to consolidate its newly won ground. The
primary task would be to establish a defensive perimeter, to prevent or deter
enemy troops from infiltrating back into their previous positions.
The situation around the Battalion would also need to be assessed.
Circumstances could arise where one Battalion had made far better
progress than those on its flanks in a major assault.
Any feeling of pride in such an achievement would be tempered by the
knowledge that the Battalion was actually more vulnerable as a result. It could find itself occupying a ‘bulge’ in the line,
meaning instead of there being friendly troops on both flanks there were in fact
The Battalion Commander would also have to decide whether
all the gains his troops had made were in fact defensible.
It would was highly unlikely that all his subunits had advanced to the
same depth. Some units would
undoubtedly be pushed further out than others, making for an uneven perimeter.
Some units may have to be pulled back to remedy this, a galling prospect
for men who had fought hard to take a particular feature only to be told to
abandon it shortly afterwards. There
was an equally unappealing converse to this situation.
His troops may have gained a tenuous hold on a particularly important
piece of terrain, pulling back from which would offer the enemy a notable
advantage, such as high ground for artillery observers.
A renewed localised assault could be required to improve the position, or
the troops in place simply ordered to hold on until relieved.
The intention was always to replace troops recently
involved in an assault with fresh men to hold their gains. This was not always possible of course, and often the unit
involved was tasked with the defence.
Just as with the assault, in the defence the Battalion
Commander was faced with the need to keep a portion of his force out of enemy
contact and bolster his defensive lines with fire support.
In the defence, the Battalion would usually deploy two
Rifle Companies to form the defensive line, leaving the third in reserve, or at
the minimum a single Platoon from the third Company if the area was extensive.
The full weight of firepower of the Weapons Company could also be brought
to bear. Its heavy machine guns
would be placed among the riflemen manning the forward positions, with
commanding fields of fire. Further guns would be placed in depth and kept out of the
initial action to deal with any major incursions into the position.
The Mortar Platoon would be able to fire on pre-determined targets and
the anti-tank guns would be at their most effective, operating from camouflaged
If the defence were to be protracted, the entrenchments
would be complemented by arrays of barbwire and minefields.
The latter proved to be particularly effective and hazardous obstacle to
an assault force. Mines could not take the place of defenders, but they could
be used to augment the capabilities of a relatively small number of such.
A well prepared minefield could slow a potentially swift advance to a
snail’s pace, keeping the attackers in the defender’s gun sights for what
could seem an eternity. Minefields
could also be used to funnel an assault into a place of the defenders’
choosing, allowing the latter to mass machine guns and mortars against the point
Where circumstances allowed, and the defensive line was not
stretched to thinly, the Battalion could arrange its defence in depth.
This would involve two or three distinct lines of defence.
The first of these would be the unenviable chain of outposts established
beyond the main line. These would
function as both means of early warning and intelligence gathering.
Defence did not necessarily mean sitting around waiting for the enemy to
attack. ‘Aggressive Patrolling’
involved troops undertaking forays into enemy positions during a static period,
normally at night. While by its
very nature too limited to prevent large scale actions, it could disrupt
preparations and alert the defenders to the threat.
The outposts could not themselves hope to hold any assault.
Their purpose, as discussed in previous segments, was to act as a
tripwire, robbing the attacker of surprise.
This was largely redundant in an offensive preceded by heavy shelling.
In this instance, any surviving outposts could better serve in passing
back details of the advance in their area, allowing the Battalion staff to
assess where the main blow was to be directed.
It was usually intended that the outpost troops would fall back to the
main defensive line once the pressure exerted against them grew too great to
withstand. Actually getting back
however was another matter entirely.
The action fought by the preliminary line of defence would
buy enable the main line to prepare. Most
men would have sat out the incoming artillery fire in prepared shelters, or at
least curled up in their trenches. Once the barrage lifted they would need time to return to
their firing positions, clear any debris from the heavy weapons and make them
ready for firing. Messengers from
the outpost line could already be making their way back and their reports would
have to be passed on through Company to Battalion headquarters. Portions of the main line would seek to hold their fire to
convince the attackers their locality was sparsely defended, while observers
would be trying to identify concentrations of enemy troops on which to direct
mortar and artillery fires.
The Battalion Commander would need to monitor events
closely, not only in his area of concern but also on his flanks.
He needed to maintain the integrity of his line.
It was not a reasonable expectation to hold the enemy assault on the
preliminary line of outposts. Ultimately,
the main line would have to withstand the blow.
It could be allowed to bend, but not break.
Ideally, some redundancy would be built into the defensive scheme,
allowing his men to fall back to deeper positions without allowing the enemy to
open up a salient in his lines. Contact
would have to be maintained between units to prevent elements of the main line
being isolated and overrun. Breakthroughs
would have to be dealt with by local reserves formed by the Rifle Companies and
Platoons. Many armies enthused that
the purpose of the defence was to develop the conditions needed for the
counterattack. The scale of such an
action was largely constrained by the size of the available reserve, which as
mentioned could be anything from a full Company to a single Platoon.
On the local level, any counterattack could only realistically hope to
recover lost ground, or at least prevent the enemy from making a decisive
breakthrough. But senior commanders
were always aware that an enemy who had been decisively repulsed and had no
extensive lines of defence on which to fall back himself was acutely vulnerable
to a rapid counter stroke.
The Encounter Battle
Not all battles fit the straightforward description of
attacker versus defender. On
occasion, two units would encounter one another in the act of advance.
Such a meeting engagement would be difficult to control as neither side
would be fully aware of the scale of the force they were facing.
The difficulty in managing such a battle was the knowledge that the enemy
had probably not yet presented the greater part of its forces.
Unlike running into a rearguard, which was protecting a retreating foe,
the encounter battle was fought by two units leading an advance. That could only mean that there was a far larger force
following close behind and standing ready to deploy.
At the Battalion level, the advance would be conducted with a single Rifle Company in the vanguard. The remainder of the Battalion would follow either in column or in arrowhead formation. The latter was more likely as the Battalion approached areas they were uncertain of, as the Rifle Companies could deploy much quicker. Such encounters were as much about manoeuvre as they were firepower. The action would begin at the lowest level, likely two groups of scouts running into one another. From there, the vanguard would deploy, seeking to outflank and encircle the enemy. What differentiated an encounter battle was that, rather than attempting to defend their line or fall back slightly, the enemy would be doing the same thing.
Such battles could quickly develop into a general
engagement as more units were fed in, commanders searching for an open flank
they could exploit to the full. Senior
commanders could be tempted by the possibility of ‘rolling up’ the enemy
line before they had opportunity to establish a secure defensive position.
The frontline would often be fluid, as it had yet to be truly delineated.
These conditions served to complicate matters considerably for the
Battalion Commander. If he moved
quickly, there was the chance his troops could cut off the enemy vanguard from
its main force, rendering them blind to an extent, but in so doing he exposed
his own men to a similar fate. Equally,
a superb chance to send the enemy reeling back could be lost if he opted for
caution. It was an awesome decision
to be faced with and much rested on the ability of his intelligence resources to
accurately estimate the size of the force he was facing.
The proximity and likelihood of reinforcement for his command were also
The Infantry Battalion was, like all the other units
detailed in this series, but one part of a greater whole.
It was though, and remains, a vitally important one.
The Battalion brought together all the tools of the infantryman’s
trade; rifles and grenades, mortars and machine guns.
It was the unit tasked with the job of prising open the enemy’s line
and forcing their retreat. It also
had to rise to the pursuit role where armoured units were unavailable or the
difficulty of the terrain constricted their use.
It had to be ready to shift from attack to defence and back again at the
shortest notice. And above all, it
provided a home for the most precious commodity of any army of the day, the
riflemen of the Squads, Platoons and Companies.
But the rifleman does not stand alone on the battlefield. Without the necessary support of the other arms, all his exertions and sacrifice will count for nothing. During World War Two, the infantry had to forge relationships with new and relatively untested partners such as tanks and air support, as well as renewing their centuries old acquaintance with gunners and engineers. The complexities of combined arms operations would test armies to the limit, but events quickly showed that only those who rose to the challenge would be able to carve out victory on the birthplace of the modern battlefield.
The Rifle Squad
The Rifle Platoon
The Rifle Company
Small Unit Formations
Infantry Tactics of World War Two