What can a shooting competition tell us about innovation? In this blog, I offer up a short description of the British Army’s post-war attitude towards the infantry and show that these apparently inconsequential discussions continue to frame the selection of NATO weapons and tactics.
The poor standard of rifle shooting in the Army to-day […] is a matter of great concern to me.
Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, July 1949
In July 1949, Britain’s most senior Army commanders met at the Hotel Metropole near Whitehall. The meeting had been called to discuss Field Marshal Slim’s recent visit to the Army Rifle Association annual shooting competition at Bisley. At Bisley Slim had witnessed a ‘deplorable state of shooting’ by the Army; a humiliation that was only further compounded by the fact that the Royal Air Force had fielded over 1400 personnel and won several of the most important marksmanship competitions. Something had to be done because, as with Field Marshal Roberts following the Boer War, Slim believed that ‘accurate small arms will certainly play an important part in modern battle […].’
According to General Sir Richard Gale, the former commander of 1st Airborne Corps and Director General of Military Training, the problem with the Army’s shooting skills stemmed from a false belief that automatic weapons would replace the rifle. As far as he was concerned, ‘Compared with the rifle in capable hands, automatic weapons are poor killers and heavy users of ammunition’. Consequently, soldiers needed to be trained to kill ‘one shot, one man’ because the rifle was ‘still the main and most economical weapon for killing infantry’.
Surprisingly, however, Gale’s post-war view was totally at odds with the conclusions that had been reached by the Director of Infantry, Major-General Wilson, in 1944. According to Wilson the overall tactical objective was to ensure that, ‘[…] all the available infantry weapons [were] brought to bear upon the enemy, not only in the initial stage of the advance, but also up to the last possible moment so that the infantry can literally be shot into close quarters.’
For Wilson, it was important to equip the infantry with a weapon that could be switched from single shot aimed fire to automatic fire for close engagements. Supported by the analytical efforts of Operational Researchers attached to British armies in North Africa, North West Europe, and the Far East, Wilson pushed for the adoption of more automatic weapons for the infantry because he believed marksmanship did not lead to battlefield success.
Between Gale and Wilson what is clear is that despite six years of fighting, British commanders had not reached a settled view of the infantry battle. During the war itself, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery had squared these arguments away through force of character and authority that came from rank and winning in battle. For Montgomery a conscript Army built out of a limited supply of quality manpower could not be needlessly wasted at the altar of advanced infantry tactics. Non-professional Armies might learn how to survive and thrive in small unit encounters, but the battle needed to be prepared properly through the use of artillery and airpower. This was best achieved at the operational level where different branches of the military could be coordinated to deliver multiple blows to an enemy in advance of a wider assault.
In these circumstances Wilson’s belief in the sorts of advanced infantry tactics being taught by Major Lionel Wigram at the various Battle Schools was irrelevant. Montgomery had no interest in putting what limited manpower the United Kingdom could provide into direct battle with the Wehrmacht or adopt weapons that might enable the infantry to win more directly the firefight. After the war, this left the door wide open to those commanders who continued to assert that the infantry battle might be won through marksmanship: ‘one shot, one man.’
When it came to selecting innovative tactics and weapons, then, enough officers continued to view automatic weapons as a logistical nuisance. Unhelpfully for those infantrymen who wanted to adopt a more sophisticated approach to the infantry engagement Winston Churchill also took the view that logistics was more important than firepower. Thus, Churchill argued that:
The rate of fire is not […] important or usually an advantage. The existing rifles can fire away more ammunition in ten minutes than the soldiers can carry. Indeed, the practical problem has been, and I believe still is, to husband the use of ammunition by the forward troops.
With the election of the Labour Government in 1945, Churchill could not influence the debate within the Army either way. By late 1951, however, a Conservative Government was elected and once again Churchill could push his view of battle, supersede the preferences of Slim and in the process privilege American tactical perspectives.
The result was that the Army adopted the 7.62mm Self-Loading Rifle – a weapon it did not want – and NATO got locked into a conventional technology that it soon tried to abandon but which continues to shape small unit engagements across the world. For Churchill, tactical preferences were worth sacrificing because:
standardisation, not only of rifles but other weapons, must be regarded as a cardinal principle and aim among the Atlantic powers.
It is, of course, a great irony that despite Churchill’s commitment to the trans-Atlantic relationship, NATO struggled to deliver on the promise of standardisation, retaining four different types of small arms ammunition right the way into the 1980s.
Dr. Matthew Ford is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. For more on the culture of military innovation check out his next book, Weapon of Choice published by Hurst & Co this summer. Matthew is also the Editor-in-Chief of the British Journal for Military History, an open access peer-reviewed journal. Follow Matthew on Twitter: @warmatters