53rd Welsh

A World War II Living History Group

Equipment and Uniforms

This section offers an indepth look at the uniforms and equipment of the British infantryman.

Uniform and Webbing

The basic uniforms of the British soldier fighting in Northern Europe consisted of either the 1937 or 1940 pattern battledress. This uniform was made of wool and was quite hard-wearing, if sometimes uncomfortable and hot during the summer months.

 The main difference between the two types of uniform was in the quality of production. Naturally, the 1937 pattern battledress was produced prior to the outbreak of war, and had pleated pockets and concealed buttons. As the effects of the U-Boat offensive in the Atlantic began to bite, the 1940 pattern was produced to economise production. This battledress was simpler, being made of a slightly cheaper material and having flat pockets and buttons that were not concealed.

In practice however, a wide variety of uniforms was worn by the British soldier during the North-West European campaign, a mixture of 37 and 40 pattern and other styles, including the denim "work uniform", which was cooler to wear during the hot days of the summer of 1944.

For colder weather, British soldiers were generally issued greatcoats or leather jerkins (waistcoats) and gloves. When the 53rd Welsh fought during the "The Battle of the Bugle" in the winter of 1944/45 there was insufficient winter clothing and the men had to scrounge warm clothes for themselves, as well as improvising winter camouflage.

Webbing

A soldier carries the equipment he needs to surive in his webbing. This includes food, ammunition, medical supplies and other important pieces of kit. 
 

The standard webbing worn by the men of the 53rd Welsh was of the 1937 pattern gear. At its most basic this consisted of two large "Universal" pouches which were worn over the front of the uniform and could hold either four magazines for the Bren gun or magazines and rounds for the standard Lee-Enfield rifle. The pouches could also accomodate grenades. They were suspended by two straps that ran over the shoulders and clipped to the webbing belt worn around the soldier's waist. This belt also held the waterbottle and bayonet "frog" which were attached either by clips or canvas loops.

In addition to this equipment, the soldier also wore an entrenching tool (a small spade) which could be broken down into two pieces to be carried in a canvas cover. The spade head fitted inside the cover, while the shaft was attached by two loops on the outside.

In order to increase his carrying capability, the soldier also wore a small pack which clipped to the suspenders and could hold spare clothing, food, personal possessions and other items. Sometimes soldiers would supplement their entrenching tools by pushing a larger spade behind the small pack.

 Footwear

The standard boot of the British infantryman was the ammunition boot. This had hobnails on the bottom and could also have a steel toe-cap for extra protection. The upper sole was made of "pebbled" leather.

In order to prevent the bottom of the trousers snagging while he moved, the soldier wore a pair of canvas "gaiters". These wrapped around the top of the boots and the bottom of the trousers and kept them secure and tidy.

 

 

Weapons

The British infantryman was organised into sections, numbering between 8-10 men, although after combat this number could be considerably smaller. The section was commanded by a Corporal who was in charge of the six riflemen and the three-man Bren gun team, commanded by a Lance-Corporal.

The section used a variety of weapons, which changed little during the course of the war.

Lee-Enfield Rifle

During the First World War the British soldier had been equipped with the excellent Lee-Enfield rifle. This rifle continued in British service into the early years of the Second World War, where it was manufacted as the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, or SMLE, Mk III*. SMLE's remained a large part of Britain's armoury throughout the Second World war as a whole, particularly in theatres that were harder to resupply such as North Africa and Burma.

However, while the SMLE had performed well during the First World War and continued to do so, there was still a need for a rifle more suited to mass production. In 1928 the Lee-Enfield Rifle, No.4 MkI was developed and first issued. The No.4's action was similar to that of the Mk III* but stronger, and most importantly, easier to mass produce. It was the same length as the SMLE but about 1lb heavier with the new, weighter and more accurate barrel.

A simple and straightforward aperture backsight was introduced with the new rifle which was far easier to train with. The No.4 fired .303 calibre ammunition from a 10-round magazine, which could either be recharged by 5-round "stripper" clips carried in a bandolier or by a completely fresh magazine.

Because the No.4's barrel protruded beyond the end of the rifle, this prevented the use of the SMLE's sword bayonet, and so a new bayonet was designed to go with the rifle: a spike, nicknamed the "Pig Sticker" by troops. It was essentially a steel rod with a sharp point, simple but effective.

Mass manufacture of the No.4 Rifle commenced at Long Branch, Canada and Savage Arms, America, in 194 and it was issued directly to the Canadian Army and the units on Home Service, preparing for the invasion of Europe. Further production continued at Royal Ordnance Factories throughout the UK.

The Prime Minister inspects a Lee-Enfield No.4 with attached spike bayonet while visiting the 53rd Division in Kent, November 20th 1942. (IWM)

The Bren Gun

The Bren Light-Machine Gun was the main support weapon of the British infantry section, replacing the Lewis Gun in the support role. The Bren was an evolution of teh Czech ZB V26 light machine gun, which was trialed and tested by the British Army in the late 1920s and 1930s. Following development of this Czech weapon at the Royal Small Army Factory at Enfield Lock, the Bren Gun was born in 1937 (the "Br" suffix represents "Brno", signifying the Czech roots of the gun, while the "En" suffix signfies the Enfield factory).

The Bren Gun fired .303-calibre ammunition from a 30-round magazine that fed from the top. The Mark I had a "drum" sight that was offset to the left of the gun, but following the loss of a significant number of Brens during the evacuation from Dunkirk, a simplified Mark II version was produced with an aperture sight and single carrying handle on the top of the barrel.

The Bren gun fired around 500 rounds per minute, quite small in comparison to the German MG42's 1,200. However, the Bren Gun was a more flexible weapon, easier to redeploy, and it remained in service in the British Army until well after the war.

Soldiers from the 53rd Division practise firing a Mark I Bren Gun (note the drum sight) from a concealed position whilst on excercise at the Divisional Battle School at Sevenoaks, Kent, 20th July 1942. (IWM)

The Sten Gun

The British Army had long been deficient in sub-machine guns, and the evacuation of Dunkirk and the loss of so many weapons decided the government that the Armed Forces needed to develop an effective SMG, like the Germans MP38 and MP40.

Answering this need were Major R.V. Shepherd and Mr. H.J. Turpin, who worked at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock. Using the German MP38 as their inspiration, they crafted a weapon made entirely of steel pressings that was simple to produce and use.  The Sten Gun was born, and following a demonstration in early 1941 was adopted swiftly.

The early Mark I Sten was quickly replaced by the Mark II which was very easy to produce and was commonly seen throughout the war. The Mark II had a perforated barrel and either a "T"-shaped or skeleton stock, as well as a magazine housing that could be rotated to close the feed and ejection ports to prevent fouling. Unfortunately, the bolt mechanism was still exposed to the elements and could frequently jam, and the gun would often go off randomly if carelessly handled. However, while it lacked the high production values of its German and American equivalents, the Sten was nonetheless an effective weapon and manufactured in its millions, supplied to the British and Commonwealth Armies in all theatres and to the partisans in occupied Europe. It fired 9mm rounds from a 30-round magazine that slotted at the side. The Sten Gun would be carried by officers, "support personnel" (such as Military Policemen") and Non-Commissioned Officers in infantry units.

A British soldier in Holland in 1945 with a Mark II Sten Gun in what is obviously a posed photograph. (IWM)