MilSurp: British Infantry Weapons of World War II: The Tools Tommies Used to Beat Back the Bosche

On the night of June 5th, 1944, a force of 181 men commanded by Major John Howard lifted off from RAF Tarant Rushton aboard six Horsa gliders. Their force consisted of a reinforced company from the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry along with twenty sappers drawn from the Royal Engineers. Their objective was to seize the bridge over the Caen Canal and subsequently secure the eastern flank of the Allied landings at Sword beach. Theirs was arguably the most critical piece in the entire D-Day invasion.

The Webley revolver was a break-open double action design that fired a relatively anemic .38/200 rimmed cartridge.

Any amphibious operation is tenuous until a lodgment is established. At first the advantage always goes to the defender. No matter the intensity of the pre-operation bombardment, the outcome ultimately turns on the fortitude of the attackers pitted against the fortitude of the defenders. This bridge was the choke point for German armor that might have attempted to reinforce the defenders on the beach.

The invasion, code named Operation Overlord, was indeed an iffy thing. Had the Allies hit the beaches and found them populated with the fully armed tanks of the German 21st Panzer Division then they very likely could have been pushed back into the sea. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, had actually prepared a letter assuming full responsibility for the failure of this operation had this been the case. Thanks to Major Howard and his 181 British Glider-borne soldiers this letter went unused.

Five of the British gliders landed as close as 47 meters to the objective at 16 minutes past midnight. Considering these glider pilots made a silent unpowered approach in utter darkness this represents some of the most remarkable pilotage of the war. These brave British soldiers poured out of their wrecked gliders and took the bridge in short order.

The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) was a superb bolt-action design that served the British well during the First World War.

Lance Corporal Fred Greenhalgh was thrown clear of his glider on impact and knocked unconscious. He landed face first in a shallow pond no more than six inches deep but subsequently drowned. Lieutenant Den Brotheridge stormed the bridge firing his Sten gun and throwing grenades until he was mortally wounded by German machinegun fire. Greenhalgh and Brotheridge were the first Allied soldiers killed on D-Day.

The SMLE also saw extensive service, particularly early on, during the Second.

At around 0200 the lead armored vehicle of German 21st Panzer rounded a corner and drove between two buildings that defined the approach to the bridge. Alerted by the sound of tracks in the darkness, Major Howard had dispatched Sergeant Charles “Wagger” Thornton with the unit’s last operational PIAT launcher and two hollow-charge projectiles. Thornton covered himself in garbage and had been in place around three minutes when the first tank arrived.

There is a dispute as to the type of vehicle involved. It has been reported to be either a Panzerkampfwagen Mark IV or a Marder open-topped self-propelled gun. Regardless, no doubt thoroughly terrified, Sergeant Thornton loosed his PIAT bomb at a range of 27 meters and center-punched the vehicle, igniting its onboard ammunition. The destroyed vehicle subsequently effectively sealed off the approaches to the landing areas from reinforcing German armor. As a result, Sergeant Thornton’s single desperate PIAT shot very probably saved the entire invasion.

The Lewis gun was an American design that was used extensively during WW1. Obsolete by 1940, the Lewis nonetheless soldiered on in second-line applications throughout the war. The most distinguishing characteristics of the Lewis were its bulbous barrel shroud and top-mounted pan magazine.


That the British Army survived the evacuation at Dunkirk is a legitimate modern-day miracle. While more than 300,000 troops survived, they arrived in Britain exhausted, demoralized, and bereft of their weapons. Desperate to refit and re-equip in the face of an expected German invasion, the English military leadership initiated a crash program to produce small arms in breathtaking quantities.

It is easy to disparage the quality of British small arms from the comfort of our living rooms. However, the British people rightfully feared imminent invasion. Had Hitler not foolishly launched Operation Barbarossa in an attempt to conquer Russia they would have undoubtedly seen German troops on British soil. As a result, the British endured some shortcuts in both the quality and design of their small arms. That they still fared so well is a testimony to the grit and tenacity of the British fighting man and his leadership.


At a time when the entire world was issuing autoloading handguns, the British persisted in issuing revolvers that were state of the art during the previous world war. Given the desperate pressures under which they operated British industry simply continued producing the handguns they were already tooled up to produce. Webley and Enfield revolvers were morphologically similar. Both were break-open designs that incorporated an automatic ejector to remove empty shell casings. While some earlier versions were chambered for a powerful .455 round, most WW2-era versions were .38’s.

Early WW1-era Webley Mk I’s fired the rimmed .455 round. However, many were subsequently converted to fire rimless .45ACP ammunition by having the faces of their cylinders shaved down appropriately. Rimless .45ACP rounds were subsequently managed via moon clips. This conversion allowed the continued issue of .455 Webleys after the supply of .455 rimmed ammunition was exhausted.

The star-shaped ejector on the Webley and Enfield revolvers automatically expelled the empty cases when the gun was broken open for reloading.

The most common WW2-era Webley was the Mk IV chambered for the .38/200 round. This round is 9x20mm and is interchangeable with the .38 S&W cartridge. By comparison the ubiquitous .38 Special is 9×29.5mm and much more powerful. The No2 Mk 1 Enfield fired the same round. However, the hammer was bobbed on the Enfield to affect double action only. This weapon was intended for use in tanks, aircraft, and vehicles for applications that might require that a sidearm be used one-handed.

The 4-1-1 on Handguns During Combat

Handguns of any sort seldom affect the big picture in combat. They serve as badges of rank or security talismans, but the pistol does not win wars. As such, though their revolvers were dated when compared to other autoloading designs, this made little difference in the grand scheme.

The PIAT was a monstrosity of a weapon that used a spring-driven piston to fire shaped-charge antitank warheads.


The British began World War 2 with the SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield). This superb bolt-action design armed British Tommies in the fetid trenches of World War 1. As the SMLE cocked on closing it provided a greater rate of fire than other designs that cocked when the bolt was opened. As the scope of the war and its commensurate logistics demands grew, however, the British Army needed something cheaper and easier to produce.

The British Sten gun was simple, inexpensive, and effective. Sporting a left-sided magazine and remarkably sedate rate of fire, the Sten was found throughout all combat theaters of World War 2.

The No 4 Mk 1 Lee-Enfield was a product-improved version of the SMLE. This rifle retained the 10-round magazine and .303 chambering of the SMLE. And it deleted the SMLE’s magazine cutoff and, ultimately, its complicated adjustable sight. The No 4 was heavier and slightly more robust than the SMLE, but it was much easier and faster to produce.

The rimmed .303 cartridge was obsolete by World War 2. However, like the Lee-Enfield rifle, this was what British industry was tooled up to produce. As a result, both the No 4 Lee-Enfield and its tired round soldiered on through WW2 and well beyond. Once again, the English were forced to make do with what they had.

Submachine Guns

The British had no general-issue submachine gun at the beginning of the war. They made do with expensive, heavy, and obsolete Thompson guns purchased from the United States. In desperate need of something inexpensive and easy to build, English gun designers Major Reginald Shepherd and Harold Turpin set out to contrive the ultimate mass-produced pistol caliber submachine gun. The name Sten is drawn from the first letters of the designers’ names along with Enfield.

The Bren Light Machinegun was arguably the finest LMG of the war. Portable and reliable, the Bren offered dismounted Infantry a mobile base of fire that could accompany troops in the assault.


The British produced the Sten gun using components produced in tiny shops across the island. There were seven marks and around four million copies rolled off the lines. Unit cost in WW2 was around $10 or $156 today. Most Stens used a simple drawn steel tube as a receiver and fed from the left side via a double column, single feed 32-round magazine. All Stens were selective fire. Most incorporated a rotating magazine housing that could be positioned to seal the ejection port from battlefield grunge.


The Mk IIS included an integral sound suppressor, a revolutionary feature for the day, as well as a bronze bolt. The Mk III was the simplest of the lot and incorporated a simple welded on magazine housing and a pressed steel receiver. The Sten was not the most reliable gun on the battlefield but it was widely distributed through both British combat formations as well as underground partisans operating in occupied territories.

The sole safety on the Sten was a notch to hold the bolt to the rear.


The Brits used Vickers and Lewis guns at the beginning of the war, some of which served until the armistice. The Vickers was an English adaptation of the same Hiram Stevens Maxim design that drove the German Maxim MG08 guns during WW1. Heavy, water-cooled, and imminently reliable, the Vickers was a superb sustained fire weapon when employed from vehicles or static mountings. It was useless in a mobile ground assault, however.

The Vickers machinegun.

The BREN gun was arguably the finest light machinegun used by any major combatant. A license-produced copy of the Czech ZGB-33, the Bren fired from the open bolt and fed from top-mounted 30-round box magazines. It had a rate of fire of around 500 rounds per minute. The BREN gave the dismounted Infantry squad a portable base of automatic fire that could maneuver with dismounted ground forces. Though heavy by today’s standards, the BREN was rugged and dependable.


The weapon Wagger Thornton used to save D-Day was the Projector, infantry, Anti-Tank. This monstrosity of an anti-tank weapon was actually a handheld spigot mortar. The PIAT incorporated a spring-driven piston that extended into the base of its hollow-charge projectile. It would then ignite a propellant charge. The prodigious recoil of the shot should theoretically recock the heavy spring action. The PIAT weighed 32 pounds and had a maximum effective range of 115 yards. Sergeant Thornton later described the PIAT as “Rubbish, really” in a post-war interview.

The Vickers machinegun was a water-cooled belt-fed behemoth intended to be fired from fixed positions.

The PIAT was a monstrosity of a weapon that used a spring-driven piston to fire shaped-charge antitank warheads.


The British fought and won WW 2 with a hodgepodge of obsolete weapons mass-produced via a disseminated industrial base with their backs literally against the sea. While they lacked a semiautomatic handgun or an autoloading Infantry rifle, their Bren gun was enormously effective. And the PIAT did indeed save D-Day. In the final analysis, it was the men behind the weapons, and not the weapons themselves, that wrested control of mainland Europe from the grip of Nazi tyranny.

{ 35 comments… add one }
  • TRUBRIT March 5, 2018, 7:44 am

    Informative and interesting article. Thank you for sharing.

  • OFBG March 4, 2018, 9:42 pm

    “The No 4 was heavier and slightly more robust than the SMLE…” No, they are about the same weight, 9 pounds or so. The No. 4 was “…easier and faster to produce” however, because of the reduction in the number of parts required, while not the complexity of the machining, to produce it.
    “…it was the men behind the weapons, and not the weapons themselves, that wrested control of mainland Europe from the grip of Nazi tyranny” is quite correct. “While they lacked a semiautomatic handgun or an autoloading Infantry rifle,” however, is a ridiculous statement. While Germany fielded semiauto handguns, they relied on the tried-and-true bolt-action K98 as their primary infantry rifle. The USA was the only nation with first-rank autoloading battle firearms.

  • AK February 27, 2018, 11:08 pm

    The guy with the Bren looks like Michael Palin from Monty Python.

  • John Stephen February 27, 2018, 4:56 pm

    “The Brits won the war”. Really? They contributed. I believe that the German MG42 was probably the best “light” machine gun of the war. (jmnsho)

  • Evan February 27, 2018, 11:49 am

    I’ve seen many a picture of WWII Brits with Browning Hi-Powers.

  • Big John February 27, 2018, 9:47 am

    Great article as usual Doc, thank you.

  • Patrick Duffy February 26, 2018, 9:18 pm

    A great article – Thank you!

  • Patrick Duffy February 26, 2018, 9:17 pm

    The Home Guard, regularly ridiculed, were mainly ex WW1 soldiers too old to enlist. In Greenwich a small detachment used their SMLEs in rapid fire to bring down a German Bomber over Greenwich. At Dunkirk that method was used to try to bring down diving Stukkas. That must have been terrifying to stand there in a group rapid firing with a rifle.

  • Patrick Duffy February 26, 2018, 9:08 pm

    In Sept 1939 my father was marching through France as 2nd Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry, part of the BEF. He was evacuated wounded in May 1940 from Dunkirk having spent 5 days on the beaches under attack by German planes mainly. He was armed with a .455 Webley from WW1. He said the worst thing he had to do was shoot a wounded horse. PS when Germany lost the Battle of Britain they could not attempt a seaborne attacked. The RN vastly outnumbered them in ships. My Aunt was one of the girls who manned the Fighter war room controlling the flights to intercept the bombers

  • Thomas Fowler February 26, 2018, 5:15 pm

    The most important action of D-Day? Really? Good grief. Try telling that to the men who assaulted Omaha Beach…

    • Patrick Duffy February 26, 2018, 9:13 pm

      Well HMS Belfast led the task force and fired the first salvo. Omaha beach was made worse as the US rejected the mine flails and some other technology the British used as “not necessary”. The practice assaults were made on Slapton Sands in Devon. Some 900 US soldiers died under a surprise attack by E-Boats. A US Tank is in the carpark at Torcross in memory of them.

      • Big John February 27, 2018, 9:46 am

        Not to mention US bombing runs and naval artillery fell too far inland missing their targets on the beach.

    • Jonny5 March 4, 2018, 5:51 am

      You didn’t read the article, did you. The author posits that without that German armoured vehicle being knocked out on the approach to the bridge at Caen and subsequently blocking it, the D-Day landings could have been severely jeopardised by the free movement to the landing areas of large amounts of German armour. He has suggested that because of the tactical importance of this one tank kill, the landings were “easier” than they might have been.
      I’m pretty sure every person on the amphibious landing would have recognised the value in that pivotal engagement had they known at the time.

  • KMacK February 26, 2018, 12:50 pm

    “…to beat back the Bosche”? Did you mean “…to show Gerry what for?” Oddly, the SMLE and its variants were somewhat more effective than the K-98 due to cartridge they fired. The German 7.92mm round was a full power cartridge and had a nasty recoil if you hadn’t buried the stock in your shoulder like you should. The .303 rimmed was a medium power cartridge that not only was more intrinsically accurate than the 7.92 but generated less of a kick than the German round. This was important when one is firing a Vickers or a Lewis machine gun – less recoil means less bounce and better accuracy.
    Virtually all the British weapons of WWII were near perfect for combat, being simple, reliable, accurate enough, easily built and most of all, cheap to make. Since Great Britain was all but bankrupt when the European war ended, the latter was very important.
    You mention that the sights on the SMLE vs. those on the LE No.4 Mk1. Yes, the sights on the SMLE were more costly to make, but they supported the spooky accuracy the SMLE was capable of providing in the hands of a competent shooter. I’d have no problems recommending the British armory in WWII as being the best available at the time. Being a small and not-very-wealthy island nation apparently stimulates creativity during wartime, at least in Britain’s case.

    • Mike luebking February 26, 2018, 5:41 pm

      I didn’t see anything about the jungle carbine

      • Martin B February 28, 2018, 2:19 pm

        Probably because there wasn’t too much jungle in Normandy – apart from the hedgerows.

    • Martin B February 28, 2018, 2:26 pm

      And why was Britain (no longer Great) bankrupt after this mid century conflict? Maybe because Roosevelt and most of the American leadership didn’t believe Britain could survive, and didn’t want to bet on a losing horse. Every single available offshore island was signed over to US ownership, and the last of Britain’s gold reserves were shipped from South Africa to the US. Only after the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain was Lend Lease initiated to provide miltary aid without payment. Of course, after Pearl Harbor, the us couldn’t do enough to help. Better (very) late than never.

  • davud February 26, 2018, 11:52 am

    *** Had Hitler not foolishly launched Operation Barbarossa in an attempt to conquer Russia they would have undoubtedly seen German troops on British soil. ***

    far from certain. the germans had no landing craft to cross the channel, the kriegsmarine was inferior to the royal navy and knew it, and the luftwaffe could not achieve the first objective and linchpin of the plan, air superiority. hitler turned to barbarossa because operation sealion could not be mounted.

    • Patrick Duffy February 26, 2018, 9:01 pm


    • Martin B February 28, 2018, 2:39 pm

      This is a complicated issue. Hitler never intended to invade Britain. He had a lot of affection for the British, regarding them as fellow Aryans, of German descent. And remember, he visited his uncle in Britain before World War One. He also never expected Britain to declare war along with the French when he invaded Poland. But he could also never tolerate any form of opposition, and he considered his attacks on Britain as appropriate punishment for their temerity in resisting his invasion of France. He had always desired to invade Russia, as part of his loathing of Communism and the “untermenschen” he wanted to eliminate to make room for German expansion eastward. He had even written this intention in Mein Kampf. But nobody believed him at the time. He also fumed at France and never forgave them for the Versailles Treaty. He could have retained most of Europe and sat still for a year or two. He made not only one but two major errors. He declared war on the USA after the Japanese attacked, and then invaded Russia. Both assured his doom. He then took charge of his military, and this guaranteed his downfall due to his extremely limited military talent. Churchill forbade any assassination attempts because he could see that Hitler was his own worst enemy. Thank God we have no modern equivalent.

  • Guns2317 February 26, 2018, 11:02 am

    I have had the chance to visit Pegasus Bridge. Fascinating little museum and a must see place if you are touring the Normandy battlefields. The original bridge is set off to the side and you can walk it and see where the bullet strikes were from the battle, and there are some great artifacts in the museum itself. Also recommend reading Pegasus Bridge by Stephen Ambrose.

    Some incredibly brave men did great work that night, both there and everywhere else the Airborne troops landed.

  • Chad February 26, 2018, 8:28 am

    I too enjoyed this article, very informative for both world history and as well for firearms history.
    P.S. the word “eminently” (very) should be used instead of “imminently” (very soon) reliable. Yeah I had to look it up.

  • Bob February 26, 2018, 8:16 am

    Substitute “The Commonwealth fought and won WW2” instead of “The British fought and won WW 2 ” and you have a really good article.

    • Ron February 26, 2018, 9:06 am

      More like,”they watched the U.S. win the war for them”.

      • Chuck February 26, 2018, 10:35 am

        Spot on.

      • Thomas Fowler February 26, 2018, 5:41 pm

        Agreed; the British paid a terrible price, but the USA won that war for them.

        • Jonny5 March 4, 2018, 5:54 am

          Yeah, cheers for rocking up a bit late as usual. Once you’ve worked out which way the wind’s blowing…

      • Patrick Duffy February 26, 2018, 9:02 pm

        you have watched too many movies

      • AK February 27, 2018, 11:10 pm

        American logistics won the war for all the Allies.

      • Martin B February 28, 2018, 2:52 pm

        Statistically this is not true. Nine out of every ten Germans killed during World War Two died with a Russian bullet or shell fragments in them (or maybe the severe cold did it). Nine out of ten Japanese who died were killed by the Chinese. Western perspectives of this war are massively skewed because we simply never saw most of the actions fought. No doubt our troops fought extremely bravely and skillfully, but if American and Commonwealth troops had faced the full force of German and Japanese forces in their entirety, they would have been slaughtered. Those are simple facts. Because both Axis powers decided on wars on two fronts, they diluted the forces available to face the Allies, and suffered accordingly. Because they emphasised their wars of conquest, they were unable to effectively defend themselves against attack. Had they retreated more effectively and conserved their forces, there would have remained a question of who would have won. But they didn’t. And they lost. Lucky for us.

        • OFBG March 4, 2018, 9:52 pm

          While your “statistics” may be correct, you forget that the USA’s “Arsenal of Democracy” was largely, if indeed not entirely responsible for supplying the Russians and Chinese with both the weapons and ancillary support that allowed them to pursue (to paraphrase your comment) their “brave and skillful” fight against the Axis powers.

  • Karl February 26, 2018, 5:47 am

    Good article but can I direct you to the existence of the John Ingalls produced Browning Hi-Power?

  • leland wade February 22, 2018, 12:44 pm

    I found the article very interesting, wondered at the possibility of finding some of the rifles for sale

    • S.H. Blannelberry February 22, 2018, 2:17 pm


    • Warren Domke February 26, 2018, 5:42 am

      The Lee-Enfield SMLE rifles aren’t hard to find, although many have been sportorized. Most Commonwealth countries manufactured them and—during World War I—a number were manufactured in the U.S. Conditions vary. Some gun or pawn shops may occasionally get them. I bought mine online. It was made in India in 1963. I really enjoy mine but have had to work on it to improve reliability and accuracy, mainly due to its having been stored.

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