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27 (Machine Gun) Battalion

APPENDIX — The Vickers Gun in the Second World War

page 515

The Vickers Gun in the Second World War

In the First World War the machine gun held ‘the premier place among the death-dealing instruments of modern warfre’;1 against its concentrated fire the unprotected infantry, usually at fearful loss of life, had made short advances across the chaos of shell holes and swamp created by the artillery. Tanks, used at first in small numbers, were introduced to protect and support the infantry against the machine gun; later, in the Spanish Civil War, the Germans developed the technique of the blitzkrieg or swift break-through by many tanks supported by lorried infantry and dive-bombing aircraft—a technique perfected in 1943 by the British at Tebaga Gap in Tunisia. The tanks, however, could not hold the ground they won; this was still the role of the infantry, who needed the protection of minefields, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and field artillery, mortars and machine guns.

In the Second World War the Vickers medium machine gun was capable of producing a greater volume of sustained, concentrated, small-arms fire than any other weapon. It was still an admirable defensive weapon: with a well-dug gunpit and an ample supply of ammunition it required few men to operate it, and it could be knocked out only by a direct hit. Groups of guns could be sited to gain the fullest use of enfilade fire; they could be mutually supporting, and could give depth to the defence.

The Vickers also could be used as an offensive weapon: it could give the infantry covering fire before, during and after an advance. With overhead, indirect and night fire it could harass the known and suspected enemy positions and lines of communication before the attack, support the attacking infantry by firing on roads, houses or other targets ahead of the artillery barrage, or along the flanks of the advance, and on call from the infantry could engage points which might be holding up the advance; it could go forward to support the reorganisation immediately the objective had been taken, and could help to break up any counter-attack the enemy might attempt.

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Nevertheless 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion was converted into infantry at the beginning of 1945. The battles of 1944 had shown the need for a higher proportion of infantry in the Division. Some machine-gun officers believe, however, that the change would not have taken place if the potentialities of the Vickers gun had been fully appreciated. They maintain that too often the pattern followed had been to allot a machine-gun company to a brigade and the platoons of that company to infantry battalions; that this decentralisation of control frittered away fire power and prevented the fullest use being made of the guns' capabilities. This decentralisation also denied the commanding officer of the machine-gun battalion a say in the tactical employment of his forty-eight guns; often he was further handicapped by being given other duties, such as the command of divisional reserve group, which left him practically no time to consider how his guns were being used.

A company commander who had a very long experience with the battalion believes that, while the Vickers gun ‘has no peer’ in defence when well dug in and served with ample ammunition, the technique of using it in mobile warfare had not been fully mastered. ‘Whilst two men could carry the gun well forward into action, the portage of amn was another question. This meant that, for ample supplies of ammunition, it largely had to rely on getting its transport well forward and this transport had to compete with other much needed stores, anti-tank guns, etc, to be got forward. Faced with this problem, many commanders allotted low priorities to the gun trucks. Again many of our attacks were made in darkness and it is impossible to make the most of siting a gun until daylight gives some visibility. Many MGs have faced the task of digging in where they can, only to turn to and move the gun a small distance as soon as daylight gives visibility….

The 15 cwt truck, whilst a useful transport for the gun and crew, was somewhat cumbersome and was also a light skinned vehicle. Probably either a lighter or more mobile form of transport would be better, or one giving better cross country performance whilst providing some form of protection for the crew.2 One thing must be remembered, however: full value of page 517 the gun can seldom be realised until the gun is on the ground, well sited and very well dug in.’

It has been suggested that the tank could replace the Vickers gun, that it was virtually a mobile medium machine gun and anti-tank gun, which could get into position so much earlier. Against this it can be argued that the tanks might be called away for another task just when their protection was needed and that they usually retired to the rear at night to laager and for maintenance and refuelling. Nor were they always in position so much earlier. At least they were not at Ruweisat Ridge (where the machine-gunners were described as being the infantry's main defence until overrun by tanks and armoured cars), Wadi Matratin, and the Roman Wall in Tunisia, for example. When the Germans counter-attacked 5 Brigade at night at Orsogna, the artillery, tanks and machine guns all helped to beat them off; the Vickers, with company shoots, were able to break up the concentrations of infantry following the enemy tanks.

When the Vickers were sited well forward in support of the infantry, some battalion commanders were reluctant to allow them to fire when all was quiet; their harassing fire might achieve no visible destruction, and the enemy almost invariably retaliated. Machine-gun platoons under the command of infantry battalions, therefore, sometimes did very little firing unless the battalion was actually attacked.

One of the virtues of the 4500-yard range of the Mark VIIIZ ammunition was that the guns did not always have to sit in the midst of the infantry they were supporting; they could be sited in rear where they would not draw retaliatory fire on the infantry. Also, at the longer range the steeper trajectory enabled them to reach targets which otherwise would have been shielded.

Some infantry battalion commanders, who were all for hitting the enemy with everything available, encouraged the use of the Vickers gun whenever possible. One of them writes: ‘where it was desirable, M.M.Gs. were requested and included in my plans. My views were not always acceptable…. following one request I was asked … why M.M.Gs. were wanted and whether I had ever seen an enemy killed by M.M.G. fire. The simple answer is, to my knowledge, whenever M.M.Gs. were used, the enemy sought them diligently. There is so much M.M.Gs. can do that I fail to understand why they should be in the discard. … for weight of firepower and cheapness of operation M.M.Gs. could not be bettered. An infantry battalion from its own page 518 weapons could not undertake the indirect and overhead fire tasks of M.M.Gs. With the standard of training achieved in the 2 N.Z.E.F. and attainable by any efficient unit, commanders could with confidence call for flank or overhead fire down to safety angles on start lines, in D.F. & S.O.S. tasks and receive it, particularly the latter, in an amazingly short time.

‘We tried to hit the enemy with all we had and the M.M.G. used at least by platoons but preferably by companies, was a weapon to be reckoned with…. I am a great believer in the fire power of the M.M.G. To you who supported us so often and so devastatingly I am most grateful.’

1 J. H. Luxford, With the Machine Gunners in France and Plaestine, P. 15.

2 The MMG can now be carried by truck, jeep (Landrover) or carrier. There are few places where one or other of these cannot go; in such places pack mules may be used. The machine- gunners are not the only people who many have difficulty in carrying their equipment and ammunition into position; the crews of three- inch mortars and rocket-launchers have similar promblems.