Battle School Training
James Goulty is a military historian and author with an interest in twentieth century warfare, particularly the training and combat experience of the British Army. He holds a doctorate in Military History from the University of Leeds, and is a member of the Army Records Society, Western Front Association, and a Friend of the Centre. He has published books with Pen and Sword Ltd, including Second World War Lives: A Guide for Family Historians (2012) and The Second World War through Soldiers’ Eyes: British Army Life c. 1939-1945 (2016). James’s latest book, Eyewitness Korea (Pen and Sword, 2018) discusses the experiences of American and British troops during the Korean War 1950-1953. In the following article, he outlines the importance of battle school training in the wartime British Army during the Second World War.
The demands of modern warfare ensured that soldiers required thorough training to be effective. Apart from instilling discipline and dealing with fundamental matters such as drill and physical fitness, training had also to prepare troops to handle a wide range of weapons and equipment, ranging from rifles to wireless/radio sets and vehicles. Knowledge of these in turn had to be set against a tactical framework that was understood by every soldier. This article provides an overview of battle drill and battle school training, something that was especially relevant to the infantry during the period between Dunkirk in 1940 and the opening of the Second Front in June 1944. However, first background on infantry weapons and organisation is provided, as these had a bearing on infantry tactics.
A wartime infantry platoon consisted of thirty men (increased to thirty-six in May 1940), and was divided into three sections of eight (later ten) men, and in each section there was one Bren light machine-gun served by two soldiers. This was chambered to take .303 calibre rounds, weighed twenty-three pounds, and had an effective range of around 800-1,000 yards. Although a fully automatic weapon, soldiers were often encouraged to fire in single shots or short bursts.
There were three platoons in each rifle company, and four rifle companies per battalion. Apart from the Bren gunners, individual soldiers were usually armed with Lee Enfield rifles and section commanders often carried a sub-machine gun. Initially platoon HQs held a Boys 0.55-inch anti-tank rifle, a weapon that proved unpopular with many troops, not least owing to its wicked recoil which tended to bruise the shoulder of the soldier firing it. In 1943 it was replaced by the PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank), a spring loaded hollow charge bomb thrower that many troops again found difficult to master. Private Bill Titchmarsh, a veteran of the Italian campaign, vividly remembered that during his training in the UK an instructor died of internal injuries when during a ‘demonstration on cocking the PIAT,’ its fearsome spring mechanism hit him full in the stomach.i
Another weapon held by platoon HQ was the light-weight two-inch mortar. Resembling a small piece of drain pipe, it was capable of lobbing a smoke or high-explosive bomb to a distance of around 500 yards. Theoretically this should have been an asset, but in reality few wartime soldiers viewed the weapon with much enthusiasm. Infantry battalions had two (later increased to six) three-inch mortars as well. This was a heavier and more formidable weapon, with an effective range of 1,600 yards. By the outbreak of war, Bren gun carriers provided another addition to the armoury of the infantry battalion. These were small, box-like tracked vehicles, ultimately deployed in a wide variety of roles by British and Commonwealth units.
As historian Timothy Harrison Place stated, the above equipment ‘boosted mobility, fire-power and sophistication of infantry, but didn’t alter the core principle of fire and movement, essential to most infantry tactics’.ii In other words, as Richard Phillips, an NCO with 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers explained, every time a unit moved, fire support had to be available. So if one section from a platoon was advancing, the other two would provide covering fire.iii
During the post-mortem that occurred within the army in the wake of Dunkirk, battle drill was introduced, based around contemporary weapons and organisation. It offered a practical means of imparting knowledge of infantry minor tactics i.e. those conducted at platoon and section level on the battlefield. Crucially it also acted as a means of instilling infantry with an effective practical understanding of what was meant by fire and movement.
Teaching battle drill
According to Major Frederick Myatt ‘this was a laudable attempt to teach simple tactics on the parade ground with a view to training the soldier to react quickly and correctly when actually under fire.’iv While other skills, such as fieldcraft, remained vital for infantrymen to grasp, every action that could be was packaged as a drill and taught as such. There were drills for how to advance; reacting to enemy fire; mounting an assault; breaching obstacles; and even on topics such as issuing orders; co-operating with tanks; patrolling and how to organise a defence. The drills aimed to simplify procedures, and saved time by speeding up troop’s actions/reactions. Crucially they ensured all personnel were taught a common procedure that should have enhanced co-operation in battle, something that was appreciated by many senior commanders, including Field Marshal Montgomery, widely recognised as an effective trainer of men.
The dynamic commander of 6th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Paul Bryan, fought in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. He compiled various notes on tactics and maintained that during 1941-1942, the introduction of battle drill, with its emphasis on the platoon, section and even individual soldier ‘as the smallest tactical unit in battle,’ was honed by ‘constant practice of fire and movement on the parade ground’ which ‘taught each man his role in the phases of battle.’v
General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley joined the army as a teenage soldier during the war, and provides a good example of how basic battle drill worked in practice.
‘A rifle section would form up on the parade square and on the command from an instructor each soldier would shout out his individual role: ‘section commander; No. 1 on the Bren; No. 2 on the Bren; second in command; No. 1 rifleman-sniper; No. 2 rifleman-bomber; No. 3 rifleman; No. 4 rifleman-rearguard.’ Subsequently, on the command ‘Observe,’ every man ‘would turn to the arc allotted to his task,’ making sure sufficient overlap was allowed for over 360 degrees, in case of casualties. The section then advanced and would adapt its formation to the ground as described by the instructor e.g. close country or an urban area. When the instructor shouted: ‘Under Fire,’ the section responded by calling-out: ‘Down-crawl-observe-take up firing positions,’ and carried out the appropriate actions to match these words. The section commander was then expected to issue appropriate orders to carry out his tactical plan.vi
As the war progressed it became an accepted part of battle drill that orders would be simplified, so all a platoon commander had to do was order something snappily such as: ‘right flanking’ or ‘Bren group take up covering position,’ rather than rely on a lengthy alternative.
As an NCO with 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry (DLI), Martin McLane, a veteran of the 1940 French campaign, first encountered battle drill while training in India during 1942. He considered it an effective means of controlling sections in action that was an improvement on earlier methods of instruction he’d experienced as a regular soldier of several years’ service. It fostered fire and movement, and he found it encouraged troops to make better use of ground, not least by getting the Bren group to take up an enfilade position from which to engage the enemy, while the riflemen moved forward in bounds and attacked the enemy.vii
Panacea for all ills?
However, not all soldiers had such a favourable opinion of battle drill. Although he’d admired it as a basic teaching technique, Major Myatt was aware that inexperienced junior commanders could view it as ‘a panacea for all ills,’ regardless of the terrain and other factors that impact minor tactics in battle.viii He was far from alone in this, and many regular officers and even the War Office expressed similar concerns. A platoon commander from 4th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, who served throughout the campaign in North-West Europe 1944-1945, maintained that had he ‘slavishly followed’ the drills he’d been taught in training, his platoon ‘would not survive another major battle.’ix
Concerns that battle drill would produce stereotyped or wooden tactics and ‘drain officers and men of tactical flair’ were valid.x Yet, there was clearly a need for the sensible application of the various battle drills. Echoing the sentiments of Field Marshal Montgomery, one training manual stated: ‘Battle drill must be our servant and NOT our master. It must be wisely used and applied.’xi The basic movements taught in training were supposed to be adapted to the ground and specific tactical situations encountered in action, rather than simply employed unthinkingly.
Battle School training
Having especially admired the work of 47th Division in Sussex, during late 1941 Lieutenant- General B. C. T. Paget (C-in-C Home Forces) ordered that battle schools should eventually be established in every division. These acted as a conduit for teaching battle drill, provided tough, physical training, and exposed troops to live fire. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan, they were intended to ‘reproduce the physical conditions’ and ‘mental terrors of war.’xii Many junior officers and NCOs found this inspiring and a welcome change from normal regimental soldiering, plus they were often able to take the initiative on returning from courses and instigate training in their units. Contrastingly, senior officers frequently resented personnel being dragged away from their units so that they could attend battle school courses.
Reflecting on the physical demands of battle school training, another officer commented that he and other trainees experienced an ‘attack on our bodies.’xiii Typically, there were challenging assault courses, and cross-country runs, often carrying much equipment. Initially this was sometimes done to demonstrate how unfit trainees were, but as courses continued the accent on physical activity built them up and instilled confidence. Trainees were taught methods of crawling, while keeping their weapons ready and free from dirt, an essential skill for the combat soldier to master. Crossing barbed wire obstacles formed another strand to battle school training. Often this was done using a ‘human bridge’ where one man flung himself over the wire for others to cross. Likewise, trainees learnt that hedges could be tackled by charging through them, rather than being more cautious, and this resulted in fewer injuries.
Mental or psychological training formed another aspect of battle school programmes. This included lectures dealing with important subjects, such as how to cope with fear and questions of morale. For green troops such topics had particular resonance. Hate training was employed to inculcate a sense of loathing for the enemy, sometimes via lectures on atrocities by Axis forces. More commonly instructors, exhorted trainees to be ‘aggressive,’ as they tackled assault courses and so on. One former battle school trainee recounted how instructors, ‘constantly reminded us that we were working against the enemy, the unspeakable Boche.’xiv However, many trainees appear to have found that efforts at inducing hate were ‘childish.’ After being granted a commission into the Coldstream Guards in 1941, Christopher Bulteel noted, that on his battle school course they were encouraged to ‘remember Hong Kong’ (after it had fallen to the Japanese), even though none of them had actually been there. Subsequently, during bayonet practice they charged sacks painted to look like Japanese soldiers and were marked by their instructors for the level of ‘hate’ they demonstrated.xv
A further aspect of hate training was the use of blood, intended to condition troops to the horrors of war. This was curtailed after a short period as it was deemed counter-productive. As the former Deputy Assistant Director of Army Psychiatry explained, battle school trainees were taken to slaughter houses and animal blood liberally thrown around during exercises. However, investigation revealed that concentrating on the ‘more sadistic aspects of war…upset many students,’ and increased the likelihood of men suffering a breakdown, rather than helping them to cope with the stress of battle.xvi
Live fire or ‘battle inoculation’ was another key ingredient of battle school training. As historian David French has demonstrated this was used ‘to help counter the often exaggerated fears’ of inexperienced troops ‘by providing a gradual introduction to the sights and sounds of the battlefield.’xvii Accordingly it could be deployed to overcome specific challenges, such as fear of being over-run by tanks, or worries over exposure to small arms and artillery fire. While it was impossible ‘to reproduce the actual dangers of war,’ battle schools could simulate battle-like conditions, including letting off explosives near to troops or using small arms to fire live ammunition.xviii It was relatively straight forward for example, to set-up a Bren or Vickers machine-gun to fire live rounds on a fixed line over the heads’ of troops and give them the sensation of coming under fire, such as a unit would experience in an attack on a defended position. At other times the battle school trainees themselves were able to employ live ammunition using their weapons, during what was termed field firing.
At one battle school, with ‘live ammunition whistling round their ears’ and ‘instructors yelling at them,’ trainees were made ‘to do the most frightful things, such as jump into deep water’ or ‘run through a house on fire.’xix Doctor Ian Campbell served with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and attended a course run by the King’s Royal Rifle Corps where, ‘they really got us to understand what fire under rifle ammunition was like and it was pretty hectic.’xx This was not untypical, and such training clearly had inherent risks. Although battle schools attempted to keep them to a minimum, it was accepted that casualties might occur. During the war many senior commanders also welcomed a loosening of safety precautions as this helped to provide more realistic training.
In 1943 Eric ‘Bill’ Sykes was serving with a young soldiers’ battalion (70th DLI), when that unit was posted as the demonstration battalion to the School of Infantry at Barnard Castle. He never forgot the day he had to serve as part of a burial party after an accident on one exercise. Troops had been supposed to advance behind a creeping barrage laid on by 25-pounder field guns. Owing to an error these fired onto rather than over a group of soldiers, tragically causing many casualties.xxi
Men into soldiers
By teaching battle drills and providing tough, realistic training, battle schools assisted in turning men into soldiers. According one historian it ‘raised the British Army’s game enormously.’xxii This was important given that by 1942 the army contained large numbers of civilians pressed into uniform. Such individuals didn’t necessarily have any natural aptitude for picking up the martial skills with which to take on the Axis powers. Neither were conscripts necessarily as accepting of army/regimental traditions and discipline as their regular counter-parts. However, most were determined ‘to do their bit’ and attempt to defeat the ‘beastly Boche’ or ‘ferocious Jap,’ and appear to have welcomed battle school training and the experience it gave them.
During late 1944 the teaching of battle drill seems to have fallen into decline as a method of teaching infantry minor tactics, although battle schools continued to operate and perform a valuable training role. After the war, divisional battles schools were maintained as part of divisional reinforcement and holding units, but normally only to be authorised in times of war. During the Korean War 1950-1953, for example, a successful battle school was run by 1st Commonwealth Division, which again provided troops with rigorous training under simulated battlefield conditions.
As a teaching method battle drill was primarily concerned with infantry units, especially at platoon and section level. It did not necessarily factor in the support provided by other arms such as artillery and tanks. Instead it encouraged infantry to make progress in battle under their own steam i.e. using the organic weapons of infantry battalion that were outlined above. However, as many studies have shown the wartime British Army was wedded to a methodical way of offensive warfare, making use of timed fire-plans and elaborate preparations that risked suppressing initiative, including potentially eradicating the need for battle drills, at least in the minds of commanders.
In reality, while sometimes attacks could be hammered home using devastating levels of fire-power, and infantry used to secure an objective on the back of a barrage in frontal assaults, there were still occasions when infantry had to close with the enemy unaided. Even the heaviest of bombardments was no guarantee that an enemy force would be entirely destroyed. Depending on the conditions, flanking attacks and pincer movements favoured by battle drills could still prove relevant.
On active service battle drill was found useful by some units, despite the criticisms leveled against it. After experiencing combat in Sicily, the commanding officer of 9th DLI found that in his unit battle drills helped save time. All leaders needed to be familiar with them; along with understanding the need for personal initiative; making rapid decisions; knowledge of the terrain and enemy methods; and how to apply fire and movement.xxiii Similarly, during the hellish fighting in the Bocage of Normandy, 50th (Northumbrian) Division discovered that their existing drills were unsuitable for tackling German defences in the hedgerows, not least because it was difficult to locate where enemy fire was coming from. Sand was obtained from the beaches, and new battle drills worked out on sand models, and implemented by teaching them to all platoon commanders, a move thought to have saved many lives.xxiv In other words 50th Division was not entirely bound by its previous training or lacked initiative, and units proved able to modify their tactics to the specific problems they encountered.
Battle drill certainly wasn’t a tactical panacea, but together with battle school training regimes, it would seem to have been of assistance to many of those citizen soldiers serving in ‘Churchill’s Army.’
i Author’s Interview: Pte Bill Titchmarsh (2/6th Queen’s Regiment), Royal Hospital Chelsea, 18/8/10.
ii Timothy Harrison Place, Military Training in the British Army, 1940-1944: From Dunkirk to D-Day (London: Frank Cass, 2000), p. 41.
iii IWM DS Acc. No. 31401, Interview Reel 3: Richard Phillips (Pte & NCO 2nd SWB, UK & NW Europe, 1939 -1945).
iv Frederick Myatt, The British Infantry 1660-1945: Evolution of a Fighting Force (Poole: Blanford Press, 1983), p. 211.
v Paul Bryan, Wool, War and Westminster (London: Tom Donovan, 1993), p. 54. (NB The papers of Lt. Col Sir Paul Bryan DSO, MC can be seen in the SWWEC archives Acc no. 2000-608).
vi A. R. Farrar-Hockley, Infantry Tactics 1939-1945 (New Malden: Alnmark, 1976), pp. 20, 22.
vii IWM DS Acc. No. 10165, Interview Reel 33 Martin McLane (NCO 2nd DLI, UK, France, NW Europe, India and Burma 1939-1945).
viii Myatt, The British Infantry 1660-1945, p. 211.
ix Sydney Jary, 18 Platoon (Privately published, 1994), p. 6.
x See for example, Harrison Place, Military Training in the British Army, 1940-1944, pp. 53-54, 64-65.
xi WO Code 7589, Infantry Training Pt. VIII, Fieldcraft, Battle Drill Section and Platoon Tactics, 4 March 1944, Ch. 4 The Battle Drills for the Attack, Section 21, p. 47.
xii Bryan, Wool, War and Westminster, p. 54.
xiii Denis Forman, To Reason Why (London: Andre Deutsch, 1991), p. 41. (NB Sir Denis Forman was commandant of a battle school and served as a major in 6th RWK in Italy. His papers are held by SWWEC).
xiv Forman, To Reason Why, p. 41.
xv Christopher Bulteel, Something About A Soldier (Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 2000), p. 34.
xvi Robert H. Ahrenfeldt, Psychiatry in the British Army in the Second World War (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1958), p. 199.
xvii David French, Raising Churchill’s Army: The British Army and the War against Germany 1919-1945 (Oxford: OUP, 2000), p. 206.
xviii Ahrenfeldt, Psychiatry in the British Army in the Second World War, p. 203.
xix Forman, To Reason Why, p. 54.
xx SWWEC, Typed Transcript of Taped Interview-Tape 1383, Dr. Ian D. Campbell, April 2002, p. 4.
xxi Durham County Record Office, D/DLI 2/9/342, Account by Eric ‘Bill’ Sykes (70th DLI & Parachute Regiment, 1942-1949).
xxii Harrison Place, Military Training in the British Army, 1940-1944, p. 62.
xxiii DCRO, D/DLI 2/9/257 (1), Lessons from Ten Days’ Close Country Warfare in Sicily, Catania-Riposto by Lt. Col. J. R. Woods DSO, MC (9th DLI), 20/8/43, Conclusion: paragraph 9.
xxiv John A. English, On Infantry (New York: Praeger, 1981), p. 141.