At the end of the Great War in 1918 the British Army went, as one officer put it, “back to proper soldiering”. In essence this meant disbanding the additional formations raised during the conflict, shedding surplus weaponry and re-structuring what remained for its Pre-War role of policing the Empire. Despite the introduction of tanks and armoured cars, it was a widely held view that the Army should return to the traditional divisions between infantry, cavalry and artillery. Advocates for change (not least the Tank Corps itself) repeatedly called for more mechanisation. While certainly a high degree of conservative thought opposed this, there were also practical considerations to consider.
The Army rotated its assets through the three main centres of its responsibility; the United Kingdom itself, India and the Middle East. While indeed few doubted that a future European war would involve motorised and armoured forces, their use in remote parts of the Empire was problematic without the same infrastructure. Mules, horses and in some cases camels were far more useful. Training units for mechanisation, only to have them rotated overseas to serve without their vehicles, was wasted cost and effort.
As successive defence budgets favoured the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, the Army had little to spend on vehicles when the supporters of mechanisation grew in numbers.
The problem of imperial defense limited change after the Great War. Since 1868, most British troop units stationed at home exchanged places with units overseas on a regular basis. In particular, a large portion of the British Army was always stationed in the Middle East and India. These overseas garrisons required large numbers of infantrymen to control civil disorders and made logistical support of elaborate equipment and weapons difficult.
Consequently, a unit in the British Isles could not be motorized or mechanized without considering the effect of this change on that unit’s performance in low intensity, imperial police operations. This did more than delay mechanization. It also meant that in designing armored fighting vehicles the British were often thinking about the requirements of warfare against relatively unsophisticated opponents, and not against well-armed European forces.
Despite these limitations on innovation, British doctrine did not stand still during the 1920s. A repetition of World War I seemed unthinkable, so positional warfare rapidly declined in British doctrine to the status of a special case. Instead, the British returned to the concepts of open, maneuver warfare that had been common before 1914, updating those concepts only to allow for the effects or firepower and motor vehicles.
In 1921 the equipment of the Army and its effectiveness for modern war differed little from that of 1918, except in numbers. The only branches in which mechanical vehicles existed for transport purposes were the Anti-Aircraft Artillery, the Royal Tank Corps and the Royal Army Service Corps. The Royal Artillery had only some 15 anti-aircraft lorries, of an old type. The Royal Tank Corps was equipped with old-time war tanks and four-wheeled armored cars.
The 1924 Field Service Regulations considered infantry support to be the chief mission of tanks but also recognized the possibility of tanks attacking the enemy flanks and rear to disorganize the opponent, as envisioned by Fuller. These regulations showed a serious and practical concern with the problems of antitank and antiaircraft defense of all arms, although actual weapons for these problems were slow to appear. By 1929, British regulations had abandoned the old belief in the primacy of infantry, which instead became “the arm which confirms the victory and holds the ground won” by a close cooperation of all arms. Still, this cooperation was apparently to be achieved by detailed, meticulous planning or the 1918 variety. Coordination in encounter battles was much more difficult.
The British, despite significant budgetary restrictions, were able to motorize parts of their artillery and supply units and to continue development of the small Royal Tank Corps. In 1927-28, an Experimental Mechanized Force conducted brigade-level exercises in Britain. This force included a light tank battalion for reconnaissance, a medium tank battalion for assault, a machine gun battalion for security and limited infantry operations, five motorized or mechanized artillery batteries, and a motorized engineer company.
Unfortunately, the equipment used varied greatly in its cross-country mobility and reliability. The vehicles were a mixture of tracked and wheeled, experimental and well-developed equipment that could not move together except at very slow speeds. As a result, some officers of the Royal Tank Corps decided that the other arms were incompatible with armored operations and focused their attention on almost pure tank formations.
While Britain drifted in the area of mechanization, developments in the more traditional arms were equally mixed. Cavalry merged into the mechanization process, although too late to learn all the mechanical and tactical differences between horses and light armor. Infantry was saddled with inappropriate weapons throughout the 1920s. It had no useful antitank capability, and the Lewis machine gun was really too heavy to maneuver as a squad weapon.
Between 1936 and 1939, new equipment and organization finally restored the fire-power and mobility of British infantry, but at a price. While each squad in a rifle platoon had been reduced in size, each had a Bren gun. In addition the platoon now had a two-inch smoke mortar and a .55 calibre Boys antitank rifle for deployment as required.
The battalion consisted of four rifle companies, plus a headquarters with platoons of machine gun carriers, two-pounder antitank guns, three-inch mortars, and anti-aircraft machine guns. Heavy machine guns and 4.1-inch mortars were centralized into separate support battalions. The result was that the Infantry battalion was much lighter and more mobile than it had been, but it had a somewhat reduced firepower and only limited antitank capability.
On the eve of World War II, the inadequacies of the Boys rifle rapidly forced the artillery to assume primary responsibility for antitank defence. The artillery had indeed developed excellent pieces that had an additional antitank capacity. In the process, however, the British had largely neglected the scientific procedures of indirect fire developed during World War I. Only the School of Artillery continued to teach these techniques, so that a few officers were familiar with them. In 1939, the prejudice of many artillerymen against artillery survey techniques led to a reorganization that briefly eliminated survey parties from artillery headquarters.
Thus, by 1939 the British Army had lost much of its pioneering advantage in both equipment and technology. Outside of the infantry battalion, cooperation between different weapons systems and arms was little better than it had been in 1914.