Unlike the majority of European armies of the time, Britain’s was composed wholly of volunteers. Admittedly in a number of cases the ‘voluntary’ part may have been the choice given to petty criminals by a magistrate, to either sign-up or go to prison. Enlistment was for seven years and overall pay and conditions were little changed from those of 1914. The result was that often those who enlisted were generally too ill-educated to gain better employment in civilian life. At the other extreme the officer corps was largely drawn from the social elite, who with the exception of those families with a tradition of military service, saw the army as a place for sons unlikely to shine in any other civil service or professional role.
While such conditions of service were unattractive in the main and indeed recruitment was a significant problem for the army, even during the worst of the depression, it gave the British Army a significant advantage over its opponents. The typical European army was composed of conscripts, serving for periods varying between one year and two, with only the higher ranks of non-commissioned officers being career-soldiers in the main. Each service period of seven years would almost invariably involve at least three years abroad in either India or the Middle East.
A fair proportion of men in the ranks of Britain’s army might have 14 or even 21 years of service and the non-commissioned officers from sergeant upwards certainly would. The average British soldier therefore typically had twice to three times the service and often infinitely more combat experience, than the typical French or Italian conscript; a factor which cannot be ignored.
After 1918 the army had, as one subaltern put it ‘returned to real soldiering’; the policing of Britain’s extensive empire. For most regiments this meant service in India, but Egypt and Palestine also had somewhat considerable military garrisons too, at least in terms of the size of the British Army, which had actually shrunk below the numbers it had possessed prior to mobilisation in 1914. Mechanisation had largely been thwarted and then resisted by the conservative majority within the high command.
In 1935 however ‘the dam’ broke and general mechanisation was commenced across the army as a whole, rather than just in terms of supply and field artillery formations. The cavalry and artillery were to be wholly mechanised, while the infantry would be provided with sufficient transport to transport a brigade at a time in each division. Such changes would not take place overnight however and along the road there were traps and pitfalls; not least the contrariness of some commanders, who seemingly took great delight in posting troops trained for mechanisation abroad to postings where they had to re-learn the use of animal transportation.
The end of the Great War saw the infantry organised for a war in the trenches. Within platoons each section had a specific role and support elements had been centralised so as to concentrate them to best effect. With no new war envisaged, this structure was virtually swept away overnight and replaced with one better serving the return to Imperial Service. That is not to say however that all the lessons learnt were abandoned, but that each battalion was now to be self-sufficient in terms of its operations and how they were supported.
Unlike the French who retained and improved on the methods they had pioneered in the Great War, the British modified theirs to the point that there was almost a step-backwards. The four-section platoon was retained, but instead of the Pre-War ‘square’ platoon of equal sections, pairs of sections, one providing a base of fire and equipped with a light machine gun, the other conducting the assault, replaced the individual section roles developed by 1918. All things being equal however, the new structure served the army’s needs far better, without substantially reducing its fire-power, nor the need to deploy a whole platoon, when half of one could fulfil the same function.
Continuing up the organisational ladder, the square platoon was grouped into a square company with three other platoons, all of which contained no support weapons other than its light machine guns. Three such companies composed a battalion, with the addition of a support company and a headquarters wing. The Support Company became home to the weapons that had formerly been concentrated under higher command, but which were now to be de-centralised.
Firstly there were three platoons of Vickers medium machine guns, each consisting of two sections of two gun teams each. These could either be deployed as a ‘grand battery’ to provide a heavy amount of direct or indirect fire in support of the whole battalion, or detached in one platoon units to each of the rifle companies, to be used in like manner. While units overseas still relied on horses or mules for transporting these units, the use of Vickers Carden-Loyd tankettes, or Vickers General Service Light Tractors, along with ammunition and crew trailers, was being slowly being rolled out across the army in the United Kingdom.
The second element of the Support Company was the medium mortar platoon, again of two sections, each operating two Ordnance ML 3” Mortars MK.I (the original Great War Stokes Mortar), or the newer MK.IIs as they were introduced. Again the use of mechanised transport in the same manner as in the machine gun platoons was also being introduced into UK units.
The HQ Wing possessed the typical command, communication and administrative elements in one group, and the supply, transport and ‘trades’ (i.e. the cooks, cobblers, carpenters, sappers and others) in another. To this was added ‘No.2 Group’, better known as the Anti-Tank Platoon.
No.2 Group was composed of a small HQ and three gun-teams. While the intended gun was to be the Ordnance QF 2-pounder, this weapon had not been accepted for service by the time the Abyssinian Crisis arose. The army had some twenty or so SEMAG-Becker ‘L’ 20mm dual-purpose weapons purchased for the ‘mobile division’ experiments of the late 1920s in storage, but otherwise had nothing to substitute in the role.
More recently a ‘motley’ 3pdr anti-tank gun had been created so as to familiarise such groups for their new role. The 3pdr was created by the expedient of mounting the same 3pdr gun as used on the Vickers export ‘6-tonners’ on the bed of a modified GS trailer. With a graduated battle-sight (a steel bar with precision drilled holes as used on older artillery pieces) and traversing performed utilising the same shoulder pad used on the tank gun, it was far from ideal. The army’s response was to immediately purchase sufficient of the new French 25mm anti-tank guns to outfit the initial wave of reinforcements and those battalions already in the Middle East.
The army was also intent on replacing the Lewis Gun with a new section light machine gun, the ‘Bren Gun’. This had been accepted for service, but had only begun to be issued to cavalry units. The Lewis Gun had a similar rate of fire, but its weight unloaded, let alone with a 45 or even a 90 round drum mounted, made it difficult for the infantry to carry with any reasonable mobility. Typically the Lewis Gun required two men to operate it and a further three to carry its ammunition in special webbing and to serve fetching ammunition and re-loading empty drums during action. Each weapon also had a mule and a handler to carry the additional ammunition.
The Indian Army had selected the Vickers-Berthier light machine gun instead of the Bren and quickly equipped units with the weapon. Despite being an older design, to all intents and purposes it was similar. Indian light machine gun sections dispensed with the mule and handler, and only had a two man crew for the weapon. Spare ammunition in magazines were distributed across the section as a whole and collected by the gun crew immediately prior to action. The Indian section was therefore somewhat fleeter of foot and could present a firing line of the light machine gun and six rifles, as compared to the British firing line of a light machine gun and three rifles.