The Rifle Squad

The Rifle Squad, or Section in my native British terminology, provided the basic building block of any Infantry Battalion. 

Between them, the major combatant nations fielded three distinct types of Squad.  The version of most relevance to the Infantry was built around a base of fire provided by a single automatic weapon, and supplemented by individual arms such as rifles, grenades and submachine guns. 

The Wehrmacht was the first to amend this formula with the addition of a second automatic weapon to certain units, principally those operating with the Panzer arm.  While a seemingly simple step it had a notable effect on the internal dynamics of the Squad.  As the war progressed this tactic could be found among US Army and Red Army units, and most especially in the US Marine Corps.

The third and final variation is the most unusual, and seems to have been confined to German and Russian forces.  Entire Squads were rearmed entirely with submachine guns, sometimes retaining a light machine gun for balance.  Latterly, the newly developed German assault rifle was earmarked for these Sturm Squads, though how many were actually deployed is a matter of pure conjecture.

Each of these types will be examined in turn, beginning with the most numerous, that fielded by the Infantry.

Make-up of the 'typical' Rifle Squad

In essence, the typical Rifle Squad, regardless of national origin, was comprised of three elements; the Squad Leader, the Light Machine Gun team and the riflemen.

For ease of reference, I will refer to them as the Squad Leader, the Gun Group and the Rifle Group.  These are the British terms and I do not claim they were extended to other armies.  The US Squad referred to a leader, with scouts (Security), BAR team (Base of Fire) and riflemen (Maneuver).  Different terms, similar roles, my discretion.  German and Russian doctrine does not appear to specifically identify such formal distinctions within the Squad, however the division of roles (rifleman, gunner, leader) are accurate.  Their alternative tactics are discussed in more detail below.  

The Squad Leader

The Squad Leader provided the first link in the long chain of command that stretched all the way back to Divisional Headquarters and beyond.  The various manuals of the day extolled the virtues required of the successful Squad Leader; courage, selflessness, and of course, leadership.  The Squad Leader occupied a critical point in the chain.  It was his function to focus the efforts of his Squad on the mission in hand, be that offensive or defensive.  

It was not the primary concern of the Squad Leader to lead the fire fight by example.  Rather, he was to direct the efforts of his riflemen and machine gun team.  Tactics can only hope to provide men with some familiar points of reference to guide them through the inevitable chaos of combat.  In any engagement, there could be a host of possible targets for the members of the Squad to engage.  The key was to prioritise those targets and engage them in order of precedence.  To do that required one man to orchestrate the fire plan, that man being the Squad Leader.  Left to their own devices an inexperienced unit may concentrate their volley fire upon a single, seemingly worthwhile target, such as a light machine gun.  That may be all well and good, unless that gun was covering the advance of a half dozen hostile riflemen closing to effective grenade range unmolested.  

The philosophy was better lose one man from the fire fight to direct the efforts of the remainder, than have all the Squad engaged in an undisciplined free for all.  The temptation for the Squad Leader to join in the gun battle was always there, especially when armed with a rifle.  It was not surprising then that he was the first man to receive the new generation of submachine guns which appeared during World War Two.  By rearming the Squad Leader with a short-range weapon, it helped divert him from the lure of the longer range fire fight.  Also, it increased the firepower of the Squad in the close quarter battle, and put the weapon into the hands of the man tasked with leading it.  

Another responsibility of the Squad Leader was to husband the ammunition resources of the unit, as when operating in an advanced position it could be some time before re-supply would be effected.  There is an instinctive tendency for men in combat to loose off as many rounds as possible, irrespective of whether there is any target to hit.  A typical Rifle Squad carried between 1500 - 1600 rounds of rifle and pistol calibre ammunition.  Unchecked, they could expend a sizeable portion in a short time for little appreciable gain.  Leaders could even specify how many rounds should be fired at a particular target when assigning it to their riflemen (e.g. Enemy riflemen on the crest, Jones, Dawkins, Simpson, five rounds each, rapid fire!).

The efforts of the Squad Leader proper were reinforced by his Assistant, either a second NCO or a senior Private.  The Assistant Leader could be found among either the Rifle Group or the Gun Group, dependent upon the preferred placement of the Squad Leader.  In the absence of the Squad Leader, he would take over control of the whole unit.  If the Squad Leader fell, he would take over command, nominating one rifleman to act as his deputy and potential successor.

The Gun Group

The Gun Group served the Squad's base of fire, the Light Machine Gun.  Strengths varied, with a minimum of two men required to carry the gun and its various accoutrements, plus perhaps a third man to share the load.  Whether the Gun Group fell under the direct control of the Squad Leader, was delegated to his Assistant, or was retained by the gunner himself also varied.

The British placed the Group under the second in command of the Section, while the Germans preferred the Squad Leader exercise personal control.  In any event, the ability of the Squad to successfully prosecute the fire fight, and indeed to survive, rested heavily upon keeping the light machine gun in action.

The gun was the sole means by which the Squad could project sustained, accurate, automatic fire.  Every man in the Squad would be capable of operating the gun if necessary, and often would carry a share of the ammunition.  The light machine gun could sweep an area with fire in a way which individual riflemen could not.  It could dominate an approach in the defence, or by turn fix enemy defenders to allow the Rifle Group to close for the final assault.

The cuckoo in the nest for this theory was provided by the US Army.  In their Infantry Squad, the base of fire was provided by the Browning Automatic Rifle, in no real sense a light machine gun, and incapable of sustained fire.  This inability would, I suggest, have caused a shift in the base of fire away from the single BAR to the accompanying riflemen.  Both the Parachute and Ranger Squads carried a far more capable M1919A4/6 which relieved them of this imbalance.  The Infantry answer was seemingly nothing more than a slightly increased issue of the BAR following D-Day.

The Rifle Group

The Rifle, Manoeuvre, or Assault Group, could be called by many names.  Its size varied between six and eight men, dependent upon nation and, of course, casualties.  It was the manpower pool of the Squad, providing quite literally its bayonet strength. 

The employment of the rifleman was, as always, defined to an extent by his weapon.  For the vast majority of men, that meant a bolt action rifle, a slow firing, unwieldy device, but with the potential for great accuracy in the right hands.  This restricted them to engaging point targets, individual enemy soldiers in effect.  To lay down effective volley fire required the effort of the Rifle Group as a whole.  The semi automatic M1 Rifle of the US Army allowed their Squad to produce a far greater volume of fire, though the distinction between the two groups was retained.

The Rifle Group provided the Squad with its scouts, grenadiers and marksmen.  In the defence, the number of available riflemen helped determine the frontage the Squad could cover, while in the offensive they, under the direction of the Squad Leader, would actually advance to engage the enemy in close quarter combat. 

Since the introduction of the light or general purpose machine gun, there has been a tendency to describe the riflemen as virtual ammunition bearers and escorts for the weapon.  The evolution of tactics gives that argument some validity, but ultimately without the presence of the individual riflemen the Squad would prove a one dimensional tool.  Its strength lay in the co-operation of the Rifle Group and Gun Group, united under the direction of the Squad Leader.

The Squad in the Offence

Ideally, the Rifle Squad was not intended to act alone in the assault.  Even during the smallest operation, it could expect to act as part of a larger force.  But the ideal was not always realised in reality.  Despite its part as a small cog in a big machine, the Squad still had to be able to stand on its own two feet, more commonly referred to as fire and movement.

Fire and Movement

Fire and movement is one of the founding principles of assault doctrine, and can be applied all the way from two men covering each other in street fighting right up to higher formations.  The defender will seek to disrupt the assault on his position with accurate fire against the attacking troops.  To diminish the effect of his defensive fire requires a greater weight of offensive fire to be directed at the defenders.  This should encourage them to take cover, even if only temporarily.  During this disturbance, the assault troops attempt to close the distance to the enemy line and launch into the close battle.

At the Squad level, this was practiced using the combination of the Rifle and Gun Groups.  The Gun Group provided the base of fire, targeting known or suspected enemy positions.  This enabled the Rifle Group to break cover and advance towards the enemy line.  Ideally, the Gun Group would maintain covering fire until the riflemen were right on top of the enemy line.  In practice, this simple formula was not always easy to achieve.

In order to protect the light machine gun, alternative fire positions needed to be used.  Once the Squad's weapon opened fire, it naturally made itself a target for retaliatory enemy action.  If it stayed in the same spot for too long, return fire could be accurately and effectively zeroed in.  Where possible, every advantage was taken of terrain and surroundings to allow the gun team to disengage and move to an agreed second location, without breaking cover.

During this time, the riflemen were not idle.  If the distance to the enemy line was too great to cross in a single bound, they would seek a defensible position.  Once reached, this would enable the gun team to make their switch.  Now it became the turn of the riflemen to provide cover fire, ideally directed against the enemy position of the greatest threat to their now vulnerable gun team. 

Once the light machine gun had reached its secondary position, the crew could recommence fire, this time from a different angle, thus forcing the return fire to be redirected.  The riflemen could now attempt to move forward again, either to a new firing location or to assail the enemy line directly.  The gun team was continual seeking new locations which allowed them to lay fire down for as long as possible before the advancing riflemen risked crossing their path.  This process could be repeated as many times as was necessary to put the riflemen into a position for them to make the final assault.

British depiction of the 'ideal' Section assault, demonstrating the deliberate nature of the advance 

This deliberate form of advance was used by both the British and Americans.  The advantage was it provided men with a simple, repeatable formula by which to conduct the advance.  The single automatic weapon covered the movement of roughly two thirds the strength of the Squad.  They then returned the favour, using their numbers to create a more effective volume of fire from inferior weapons.  The continual changing of the position of the base of fire reduced the effectiveness of return fire, and most importantly every man was encouraged to use terrain to shield his movements until the final rush.  The British described the technique as always having 'one leg on the ground', an apt slogan as the advance did imitate walking.  The problem was that walking is by no means running.

Marching Fire

The interpretation of fire and movement described above had several drawbacks in the execution.  Chief among these was speed.

The 1944 British manual (above) illustrates this type of Section assault with the men using a conveniently placed hedge line for cover.  This would allow for the continual movement of the groups shielded from direct observation by the enemy.  Repeating the action on a terrain devoid of such cover, apart from natural depressions or shell craters, would be a very different proposition.

Depending upon the distance to be covered, the need to swap fire positions to maintain cover for as long as possible could also slow the advance.  The longer the assault took, and with any lessening of cover fire from supporting arms, the greater the chance for the enemy to target the attackers and inflict losses.  If the Gun Group became pinned down, the riflemen would have to make the last bounds on their own.  Worse still, if the riflemen were taken under fire from an unexpected source, such as a concealed machine gun, they could be stranded in No Man's Land, with no option other than a costly withdrawal. 

The alternative lay in marching fire.  In this concept, the Squad advanced as a single entity.  All arms were brought to bear on the enemy during the advance.  The key to success lay in overwhelming supporting fire delivered from artillery, mortars, machine guns and ideally accompanying tanks.  There was no subtlety involved whatsoever.  The advantage was speed.  Using such shock action, a line of riflemen could advance quickly to the enemy line and move into the close combat phase.  It harnessed all the momentum of the attack, and if pressed resolutely could be astoundingly successful.  

German doctrine was founded on a much more aggressive use of the Squad light machine gun.  The Squad was handled as an indivisible unit, with no distinction between rifle and machine gun groups.  In the assault, the light machine gun would lead the advance, under the personal direction of the Squad Leader.  It was regarded as the primary arbiter of the fire fight.  The fire of the individual riflemen was not deployed until the close assault stage, when it was thought to prove more effective.  The translated manual makes only passing reference to the Squad advancing by bounds using reciprocal support.  Instead, they were intended to advance under the cover of heavier weapons outside of their own structure, though their organisation and equipment would allow for it.

The Red Army manual emphasised the Squad making the close assault lead by the light machine gun, but did encourage the mutually supporting advance to reach this point.  It may seem a logical compromise, but the idea of splitting the attacking force was to prevent the defender concentrating his fire on one target.  The advantages gained by the covered approach to contact seem squandered if the final advance was made unsupported.  Perhaps the scale of Red Army casualties would support this assumption, without purporting to be the major contributing factor.  

In any variation, the problem in this philosophy was the ever present danger of losing momentum.  Maintaining covering fire in a pre-planned assault should be no matter for a professional army.  The key was to make that fire effective.  A line of infantrymen, forgoing the use of cover in order to advance swiftly, made the kind of target machine gunners wished for.  If that gunner were given the opportunity to unleash his fire, even if only for a few seconds, it could be devastating.  The only defence was for the riflemen to go to ground, take themselves off the horizon.  If the gunner was in a particularly well concealed location, he could pin them down until his fire was suppressed or neutralised.  As long as this was the case, the advance was going nowhere.

Prosecuted against hastily erected defensive positions or a confused enemy, the tactic could be profitable, even without overwhelming fire support.  But against positions held in depth, by a determined defender they could prove costly.

Post Assault

Whatever kind of assault was used, the mission continued following a successful conclusion.

Having taken an enemy position, the Squad could not relax.  They needed to regroup, assess the cost of their attack, prepare for possible counter-attack, tend their wounded and consider any prisoners they may have taken.  This would inevitably deplete the Squad even if the assault had not, as the PoWs would need escorts back to the rear.  Ammunition supply needed to be ascertained and redistributed where necessary, the light machine gun being a prime recipient.  

If swift reinforcement by fresh troops was forthcoming, they could use the newly acquired position as a springboard for their own advance, allowing the original units time to regroup before moving in behind them to take over in turn.  If such was not the case, and further advance was necessary, the Squad would have little time to make its preparations before resuming.  It was during this point the Squad was most vulnerable to counter-attack, occupying unfamiliar ground the enemy knew well, having expended ammunition, energy and quite likely blood to get there.

Troops were trained to begin to dig even if the objective they had taken was but one of several they were tasked with that day.  This was the only response to the inevitable bombardment they would shortly endure from the defender's artillery.  If no immediate advance was to be ordered though, a more thorough consolidation could begin, shifting quickly from attack to defence.

The Squad in the Defence

Compared to the complexities of the assault, the defence is quite straightforward; resist the attacker and hold the ground you have.

Again, the Squad was but part of an overall defensive network, but perhaps even more so than in the assault it was vital for each unit to achieve its goal.  In the advance, it is possible to bypass certain obstacles, or at least fix them with fire.  In the defence, any reverse gives the attacker a toehold in the position.

In a defensive position, the Squad would seek to neutralise the offensive tactics described above.  The key to any successful defence is preparation.  During World War Two, the second most important item of equipment to any soldier, after his weapon, was his entrenching tool.  Artillery and mortar fire would be the prelude to any attack, excepting a night raid.  The only way to survive its effects was to dig, deep.  During Normandy, Allied troops learned to dig at least shallow pits the moment they halted in expectation of the coming barrage.  The Germans rarely disappointed.  Their own troops too were taught the value of digging in having taken their objectives.

Whether in a hastily improvised defensive position, or a thoroughly prepared one, the concept was the same.  Very roughly speaking, a Squad could be expected to hold a frontage of between 30 and 40 metres.  This would vary with circumstances and the number of troops available for the overall defence.  In order to effectively cover this frontage, the men had to be deployed so that every possible avenue of approach could be taken under fire.  The light machine gun again provided the lynchpin of the defence as in the attack.  An ideal position would enable it to take the approaching enemy from one flank, rather than simply head on.

The riflemen would be dispersed in entrenchments, normally two man rifle pits.  These positions would be sited in such a way that any assault on one would leave the attackers open to fire from a supporting trench.  Troops were encouraged to dig dummy emplacements in front to confuse attackers as to which ones were occupied.  Also, fallback positions were prepared to allow the defenders to shift quickly to new firing locations. 

The use of outposts is better discussed separately as it cannot be properly considered outside of the larger defensive plan.  Likewise, within this same plan, Squads would be held back in reserve, tasked with the eviction of any attackers who managed to penetrate the defences. 

Movement by Formations

Anyone who has seen the contemporary manuals of the period will be familiar with the drawings indicating how the Squad was expected to move across terrain.  On closer inspection, there is a surprising similarity between them.

A typical formation was lead by the Squad Leader.  A distance behind him came the Gun Group, ready to bring quick supporting fire.  The riflemen followed the gun team, with the Assistant Leader bringing up the rear in the German and American model to close up the formation.  British and Russian variations placed him with the Gun Group. 

This column formation was favoured during the advance to the combat zone.  It was not a fighting formation, merely a travelling one.  In those areas where it was uncertain precisely at what point the Squad could expect to encounter resistance, one or two men would go forward as scouts.  The US Squad routinely placed two men at the fore of the column in front of the Leader.

Prior to combat, or after coming under unexpected fire, the Squad would deploy.  The riflemen would form a skirmish line, either centred around the light machine gun, or flanking it on one or other side, depending upon the favoured doctrine.  To reduce vulnerability to enemy fire, this skirmish line would spread out, leaving some 3 to 5 metres between each man.

In reality, movement was more dictated by terrain, conditions and enemy action.  Men learned to break up the intervals between groups, as well as to avoid bunching up.  This was a cardinal sin, as to submit to the temptation of sticking close to a friend in front meant a far greater chance of both falling victim to a single shell or machine gun burst.  

In the advance to the start line for an assault, there was room for the more formal interpretations of movement, but once in action terrain and enemy fire became the primary factors.  Men would always seek to advance under cover of trees, hedges, walls, defiles, streams, natural depressions, anything that would place a barrier between them and the enemy's line of sight.  But the ground was not always kind, and at some point would come a tract of land with no discernable cover.  And only the most charitable or incompetent of enemies would fail to cover that tract with fire.

Negotiating passage over ground under fire called for speed and suppression, but how was the infantryman to quell the barrage of distant artillery?  Unless his own guns were mounting counter battery fire, the only solution was to wait for a pause and then rush forward, striving to make the next cover before the shells rained again.  If the fire was more localised, a lone enemy machine gunner, quick dashes by ones or twos could work, so long as the distance to be covered was minimal, crossing a gap between buildings for example. 

Of all the conditions to attempt to describe, formation at Squad level is the most varied.  The basic principle was to maintain the integrity of the Squad, not let the men group too close while not letting them drift too far apart.  With at most a dozen men the Squad could ill afford to divide itself over too great a distance.  Even with the Gun Group providing fire from an alternative position to the Rifle Group, that separation should be no greater than the effective range of the machine gun, ideally not more than a hundred metres.  Individual riflemen could only be detached to perform necessary duties such as scouting or message carrying.  Even if a couple of men were allowed to break off to attempt to outflank an enemy post, they would still have to remain within range of effective cover fire.

Alternatives to the typical Rifle Squad

As mentioned previously, the typical Rifle Squad could be amended by a different issue of weaponry.

Dual base of fire

The most obvious way to increase the firepower of the Squad was by the allocation of a second light machine gun.

This was sometimes only done with a number of the Squads in the parent Platoon, in which case it can be better examined in the Platoon segment.  However, it was standard practice in German Panzer Grenadier units and from 1943 US Marine Squads, who took the principle one stage further the following year.

The most straightforward way to absorb the extra firepower was to issue the gun to the Rifle Group.  This had the advantage that the existing fire and movement principle could still be followed.  The Rifle Group was now more capable of giving effective cover fire when the dedicated Gun Group changed position.  There was also an appreciable thickening of fire from the Rifle Group in its final advance to contact.  This was perhaps the method employed for the issue of unallocated Browning Automatic Rifles to US Infantry Companies in mid 1944.

When the Squad advanced deployed, German theory placed the two guns flanking the Leader in its centre.  But the most innovative approach saw the Squad itself realigned.  The division between a Rifle and Gun group was discarded in favour of the Fire Team.

The fire team rebuilt the Squad around two machine gun teams, each team with a gunner and loader serving one weapon.  The Squad Leader and his Assistant each took control of one group, while the riflemen were split evenly between them.  Now the fire and movement approach became a more balanced exercise, as each team or group was equally capable of laying suppressive fire. Used boldly, and with the appropriate weapons, the Squad could even attempt to mix marching fire with the advancing group and more traditional covering fire with the other.

The US Marine Corps went the extra mile with the establishment of a three team Squad in 1944, under the direction of an independent Leader.  This allowed the Squad to deploy a reserve element which could be used either as fire support or to exploit gains, but this 'two up, one back' theory is more correctly examined in the Platoon segment.

Given the advantages it seems puzzling why the twin base of fire was not more widely used, the British never officially adopted it for example.  But it had some drawbacks.  Primary of these was the loss of riflemen.  No new men were provided to a Squad to man its second gun, so two riflemen were re-assigned as gunner and assistant.  To adequately serve the second gun, yet more ammunition needed to be carried, increasing the load of every man even more.  There may also be a case to suggest that with the increase in firepower came a temptation to pay less attention to manoeuvre.  Why feel your way around obstacles when you could saturate them with machine gun fire?  A more realistic barrier was the simple matter of producing enough guns to satisfy demand.

In the defence, there were no negative arguments.  The use of two guns allowed a much more aggressive response to attackers, and more flexibility in meeting them.  Two guns could create a crossfire into which no one could advance.  Equally, keeping the second gun 'silent' in German parlance could draw attackers to use an approach covered by the second weapon as they sought to avoid the first.  When it suddenly burst into fire the results could be devastating.

Submachine gun or Sturm Squads

The most intriguing rearmament of the Squad was first practiced by the Red Army.  A one hundred man strong Submachine Gun Company was attached to the Rifle Regiment for deployment as shock troops.  Every single man of this formation was armed with the excellent PPsh41.  It completely flew in the face of established fire and movement techniques, as with the best will in the world the men could only reasonably effect fire to some 50 metres.

The key to its successful deployment lay in its use as part of a combined force, operating closely with the riflemen and heavy machine gunners of the Regiment.  Gradually though, the tactic became a cheap way of increasing automatic firepower, and eventually certain Battalions were so equipped (maintaining their support weapons it should be stressed).  By 1944 the Germans were incorporating the approach into their Volks Grenadier units to compensate for poor training and marksmanship.

Such a Squad was only of use in the close quarter battle.  The dreadful effect a group of six to ten men opening fire on their enemy at short range with fast firing automatic weapons can be imagined.  Getting them that close was another matter of course.

The subject is better treated in the Platoon segment, as in German thinking such Squads were fielded along with more traditional rifle units.  Red Army doctrine also placed the Squads either in Rifle Companies or in the above mentioned Regimental structure.  In the broadest sense though, the Squad combined the use of overwhelming firepower with a swift, remorseless advance conducted under the heaviest support, classic shock tactics.  In the defence, it could not truly be considered capable of holding an attacker at distance.  It was simply too short ranged for that.  The Russian view recommended the Squad be kept in reserve and used to smother any breakthrough with brute weight of fire, delivered at such close range the attacker could not manoeuvre to regroup.

The final evolution was the German Sturm Squad, more usually equipped with the MP40, but intended to deploy the revolutionary Sturmgewehr assault rifle.  Here, the Squad combined the advantages of the automatic weapon with the ability to engage accurately at up to 500 metres.  Interestingly, the light machine, the lynchpin of previous German tactical thinking, was removed from the Squad excepting the third in each Platoon.  The belief was the leading Squads could cover their own advance sufficiently while the third detachment offered more conventional support. 

The relatively small numbers of assault rifles actually deployed meant this tactic was of marginal consequence to the conduct of operations, but it had a profound effect on their development.  Today, a typical Squad will field two Fire Teams, each based around a 'squad automatic weapon', while the remainder of the men are armed with assault rifles.  The journey to this modern ideal began fifty years ago in the cauldron of World War Two infantry combat.


The Rifle Squad presents a contradiction in that, while never intended to operate in isolation, it had to be capable of so doing. 

Its leader had to direct his men to achieve their goals in a far more hands on manner than any other commander above him.  To survive, it needed to use terrain and supporting fire to the maximum effect.  It was vital to maintain its integrity, operate as a single entity even when men were separated by distance.  That distance had to be monitored closely by the leader who could only effect control through vocal commands or hand signals.

To more fully understand the Squad, it has to be seen in the context of its parent unit, the Rifle Platoon.

The Rifle Platoon

The Rifle Company

Small Unit Formations

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Infantry Tactics of World War Two

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