Late World War Two British Infantry

For the moment, this section only deals with platoons and companies. I expect to add details of battalions later. Typically, there would be three platoons to a company and three or four companies to a battalion. The illustrations show Indian Sikh troops. All Commonwealth troops were organised along the same lines, so what follows applies pretty much to troops from India, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada and other such countries.

By the second half of the war, most British sections had been reduced from their paper strength of ten men to seven or eight. Each section had a Bren gun team and rifle team, and this did not vary although the exact number of men in each team did.


Total number of men between about 29 and 32

HQ section

Platoon commander.
Most often a lieutenant, although sergeants often had to step in and remain in command after the officer became a casualty. The casualty rate amongst officers was very high. They were the top priority targets for enemy troops.

Commander's escort.
This was usually about three men, who would typically be armed with sten guns. They would act as runners, the commander's batman, and would often include the platoon sergeant whom the commander would send to jolly the men along. These would also help out in close assaults.

Platoon anti-tank weapon, crewed by two men.
Early in the war, this would have been a Boys anti-tank rifle, but these were soon obsolete, because the armour of the enemy tanks got so thick, especially on the Western Front. Out East, they were retained longer, and they were also retained for such work as dealing with snipers. AT rifles could fire through quite thick trees, and could injure snipers who took cover in rocky terrain, such as that on Crete. The Boys team would fire past the foe, to hit rocks behind him, and the flying shattered rock would do the job.

Late in the war, the AT rifle was replaced by the PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti Tank) for use against German tanks. This was a remarkable device. It was a spigot mortar, powered by a combination of a huge coiled steel spring, and something like a big shotgun cartridge. It fired a HEAT bomb that exploded on contact, and with its shaped charge, would melt a hole through four inches of armour plating. It was capable of knocking out any German tank. The British paratroopers fighting around Arnhem managed to knock out some King Tigers with PIATs, although they did shoot from behind, through the rear armour. The PIAT was accurate to about a hundred yards, though most operators preferred to shoot from more like fifty. It had many advantages over the rocket weapons used by the Americans and Germans. It did not have a dangerous back-blast. It did not give away the firer's position by creating masses of smoke. It could be fired from inside buildings. It was not popular, though, because it was heavy (32 lbs.), had a heavy recoil, and its Heath Robinson appearance did not inspire confidence. To fire the first shot, a man had to cock the powerful spring, which was often an awkward task. After firing, the recoil would re-cock the weapon for the next shot. Contrary to misconception, it could be fired downhill, and the bombs could be thrown or dropped onto a target by hand.

Platoon mortar, crewed by two men.
This was a two-inch mortar that was used mainly for providing the platoon with smoke cover. Typically, the two men would carry eighteen bombs between them, though sometimes the platoon commander might demand that other men carry a few more. Every army had an equivalent light mortar, but it seems that the British was the most successful largely because it was very simple. The British army today is still using a weapon almost the same, although now it has the stupid name of "fifty-one millimetre mortar" (51mm = 2"). Each bomb weighed 2.5 lbs. It also fired illumination flares. The minimum safe range for HE rounds is stated as 200m, bearing in mind that the blast radius was about 150m. The maximum range was about 525m. The operator placed the mortar's base plate firmly on the ground, knelt or lay beside it, loaded in a bomb, and then judged windage by pointing the thing in a direction which seemed about right (it had a white line painted on it to help), and judged range by angling the thing at what experience suggested was correct. He then pulled a lanyard cord to fire it. One smoke bomb would create a smoke screen that would last about two minutes, depending on weather conditions. A slight breeze was best. High wind blew away the smoke, and a total calm meant that the smoke wouldn’t spread out into a screen, and so more bombs were required. A good mortar firer was a valued asset in a platoon.

Platoon headquarters section

Platoon headquarters section, with officer (on round base - I gave him ginger hair and pink skin just to rub it in. What on Earth did men who couldn't tan do in hot countries at war, before the invention of sun block cream? Burn a lot, I suppose, or specialise in night patrols); sergeant, batman and runner (rectangular base); 2" mortar team, and AT rifle team (square bases). Figures by Britannia, except the officer, and the standing rifleman, by Lancashire.


There would be three of these, each with:

Section commander
An NCO, typically a corporal, put in command of a section. He was issued a sub-machine gun as standard, a sten or an American Thompson, but very often would prefer a SMLE rifle. All sub-machine guns were short-ranged. Thompsons were heavy and noisy. Worse still, the enemy soon learned to shoot the man in the section with the SMG first, as he was usually the commander. Opinions vary a great deal over how good the sten gun was. It was a successful design. Huge numbers were made, and every major warring nation copied the design or made designs influenced by it (the Germans made some copies so accurate that one might describe them as forgeries - right down to the British serial numbers - purpose unknown). Its greatest strength was its simplicity. It was cheap, and looked cheap, and did not always inspire confidence in its users. The final mark is described by some writers as perhaps the finest submachinegun of the war. It was more accurate than most SMGs, with an effective range often said to be as much as 55 yards, whereas most SMGs are considered to be effective only to 30 yards or so. Some writers contend that it was reliable and easy to clean, while others stress that it was horrendously unreliable. Certainly some marks were better than others. Sten and German MP40 ammunition were compatible, so the Brits could load captured MP40s with sten rounds. With most marks of sten, it was possible for the gun to fire a round accidentally if the bolt got knocked, which didn't go down too well with the men.

Three or four men armed with .303" Short Magazine Lee-Enfields (SMLE).
By the later part of the war, this would probably be a bolt-action "Rifle Number Four" which was an updated version of the rifle used earlier in the war and during World War One. This was very popular weapon, as it was reliable, very accurate, powerful, and easy to use. With the right technique it could be fired very quickly. Germans often reported wrongly that the British were using automatic weapons. It carried a magazine of ten rounds (the German equivalent rifle had five) in two clips of five, which could be topped up during a fight (American rifles had to run out of ammunition entirely before they could be reloaded). Fifty rounds were carried in a cloth bandoleer, which is something seldom pictured, but was standard issue. I suppose it doesn't look very parade-ground-fashion. The rifle would have a bayonet, which early in the war would be a sword type, like a big knife. Later bayonets were the "pig-sticker" type - a simple blunt-sided spike, which was stronger and more effective.

Each man would also carry one grenade as standard issue, and before a planned attack would probably have one or two more. These were most commonly the "Number 36" or "Mills Bomb", which was a very reliable and powerful splinter grenade, far more powerful than the American equivalent. It could be fired from the rifle using a simple adapter.

The main job these men had during an attack was to close with the enemy, and defeat him with grenade and bayonet.

A Bren gun team
The Bren gun was the standard British light machine gun of the war, and was based on a Czechoslovakian design. It is widely regarded as the best gun of its type. It was light, reliable, easy to maintain, and very accurate. In fact, its accuracy was sometimes regarded as a drawback, as a burst from it would often send all the bullets to one place, instead of scattering them around a "beaten zone" which is better for getting enemy infantry to seek cover. It had a slower rate of fire that the German spandau, but this meant that it used up ammunition more slowly, which was a good thing. Each man in the section would carry ammunition for the Bren gun, carried in 30-round magazines. The Bren gun itself could be fired by one man quite easily, although he always had a second man (armed with a SMLE) who carried amongst other things a spare barrel for the gun, in case the first over-heated. The team would often be escorted by a rifleman as well.

In attack, the main job of the Bren gun team would be to give covering fire to the men of the rifle team as they closed with the enemy. In defence, the Bren gun would be set up where it has a good field of fire, and could shoot at any enemy who showed themselves.

One section

One section, with Bren team (the early marks of the Bren gun had a shiny silver barrel. later ones had blackened barrels), rifle team, and NCO with submachinegun. Figures by Lancashire except NCO and rifleman in front of him (Britannia), and prone Bren gunner (Wargames Foundry).


Total number of men about 100

A company would have a company commander and his deputy. The company commander would typically go forward to conduct the action of his platoon commanders, while his deputy would normally hang back a bit, and be near the company radio. The deputy would monitor the battle, inform his CO of developments, oversee the co-ordination of units on call by radio (air support etc.), and be ready to step into the CO's shoes if the company commander got shot. Both commanders would have about three men with them as aides. These men would act as runners, to take messages about the field, and would carry and operate the radio.

Company commander and aides

Company commander, on octagonal base, with his aides. Senior officers in the Indian army were almost all pale skinned native Brits, but junior officers were a mix. In front of these figures you can see some of my plaster castings. These were made by converting a bought figure into a dead pose, and then mounting this on a base, and making a mould with latex (see here for details of this process), and casting the result in plaster. I use these to mark pinned (no blood) and suppressed (splatter of glossy red gore) units. Figures by Lancashire except commander (Britannia).

Deputy commander, plus aides and FOO

Deputy commander, on six-sided base, with his aides, including radio operator. Also here you see a forward observation officer (FOO) and his aide. They are equipped with a field telephone and a long reel of wire (black cotton on a little removable bobbin). Land-line communications were more common than radios for artillery communications, and much more reliable. As the figure move around the table, the black cotton is reeled out behind them. If the enemy crosses this line, he might cut it. Figures by Lancashire except radio operator (Britannia, but I didn't like the radio he came with, so I converted an Esci plastic German one), and the FOO's helper(FAA).


Machine gun platoon

A machine gun platoon would be attached to a unit by a senior commander. Sometimes the whole platoon would be attached to a company. Sometimes one section might be attached to one company, and one to another.

A machine gun platoon was armed with .303" Vickers medium machine guns (MMGs). These were a design used in the First World War, and a very successful one. They had a jacket full of water around the barrel to keep it cool. The water, if it reached boiling point, would form steam that would carry heat away from the gun down a rubber hose, and this would condense in a tin which sat on the ground. The jacket was topped up with water via a cap on top. The Vickers was possibly the best weapon of its type, and was loved by its operators, despite its great weight, and was capable of sustaining continuous fire for hours on end. Other MGs used this way would overheat quickly. It was peerless in reliability. A unique feature of the gun was that it could be used for indirect fire. It had a special sight for this, and was often ordered to support troops further forward by firing bullets high into the air, to plunge down on the enemy and hamper his operations. The weapon was belt fed by an assistant to the right of the gun. It would take the bullets out of the cloth belt and fire them, and the spent cartridges would fall out of the bottom of the gun (so strictly speaking the piles of spent cases you see on the bases of my models should be directly under the gun, not to the side, but perhaps my gunners have cleared them away for convenience).

The difference between a medium and a heavy machine gun is that an MMG fires ordinary rifle-calibre bullets, and an HMG fires larger rounds, about .5" calibre, which have a better performance against armoured targets. Vickers also produced an HMG, but this was not standard issue to infantry units. A light MG also fired rifle bullets, and was different from an MMG in that it was an infantry section weapon, to be carried quickly, and deployed in the blink of an eye, usually on a bipod, and usually fed by magazine, not belt. A Bren was an LMG.

Machine gun platoon

Machine gun platoon. The officer is on a round base. Three riflemen stand by to defend the guns from flanking attacks, and to help carry ammunition to keep the guns fed. The two sections of two guns each have been set up facing in slightly different directions. Figures by Lancashire except the MMG team second from the right (Wargames Foundry). I bent the legs of gunners and their assistants, so that each is in a different position.


Occasionally, assault engineers would be attached to units, for particular jobs. These men were trained to go forward and blow things up. Lancashire Games produces figures for these men, and I couldn't resist getting a few, and here they are leading an advance.

Section of assault engineers

They are equipped with "Bangalore torpedoes", which are poles covered with packs of explosive. These were good for blowing paths through barbed wire, or shoving through firing slits of pillboxes and the like. I don't know whether they were invented in Bangalore, and so named after the place, or whether they were named after the fact that when one detonated one, there were bangs galore to be heard. They also have "satchel charges" which were satchels with big bombs in them, handy for blowing up the engine deck of a tank, or putting a hole through a fortification.

Behind the engineers are men from a section of ordinary riflemen. One is carrying a Vickers-Berthier LMG, which was a weapon very similar to the Bren gun, sometimes used in the same role by Indian units. The magazines for it are carried in brown leather curved pouches on the gunner's chest, where the usual grenade pouches would be.

Leading these men is a Sikh officer by FAA. The angle of the photograph has not been kind to this figure, but I have to say that these figures are the least good of my Sikhs, being rather crude and lacking in detail. The Wargames Foundry figures have the nicest sculpting, but are difficult to get hold of and have a limited range (they don't wear shorts). The Britannia Miniatures figures are useful in that they provided me with the 2" mortars, AT rifles and radio operators missing from the Lancashire Games range, but they are rather large and cartoony for my tastes (huge heads and hands, and preposterously large weapons). The bulk of my Sikh figures are by Lancashire, and these come in economical army packs. The knees and ankles are a little weak, but they are nice enough figures.

I have painted the webbing on my Sikhs with the paint by Miniature Paints called "coffee". It is not white, nor anywhere near white, but it is pale. All the photographs one sees of Sikhs shows them with very pale webbing. This may have started a darker khaki, but then got bleached in the sun. Sikhs were proud of their appearance, and Indian troops in general were very smart and neatly turned out. The British army did not divide troops on strictly religious grounds, and Sikh regiments had men in them of other religions. A person in the know could tell a man's religion and caste by the particular way he tied his turban. I notice that the figures by Britannia seem to have their turbans all tied a different way from the other Sikhs I have.



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