Revolution and Reform: Problems with British Infantry Training in the Second World War

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Please forgive the length of this post but there are some fairly complicated issues at work. As always comments are welcome!

When the Wehrmacht had thrown the BEF off the continent in 1940 with seemingly comparative ease, senior British commanders began to realise that perhaps, unthinkably, their troops were simply not as good as their German enemies. Training in the British Army remained ad hoc, and combat training was barely adequate. As often occurs in war, crises at the Front resulted in reinforcements being despatched with less and less training. According to Field Marshal Montgomery, the Eighth Army had in 1942 ‘suffered some 80,000 casualties since it was formed, and little time had been spent in training the replacements.’[1] For example, in September 1942, of 860 reinforcements posted to the 50th Division, Eighth Army, only one quarter had done any field firing at all, seven had never previously fired a rifle, nine had never fired a Bren gun, 131 had never thrown a live grenade and 138 had never fired a Thompson submachine gun![2] It was a similar case elsewhere within the army, Brigadier Money recognising that ‘the individual skill-at-arms of the average soldier is low and must be improved.’[3]

As part of the drive to improve training, and from 1941 new recruits still stationed in England were taught the new battle drill. The main aim of this was ‘infusing some of the realities of the modern battlefield into what many discerning commanders call the outworn pageantry of the parade ground.’[4] Officers and men embarked upon several exercises, including an assault course in full kit with loaded weapons. According to the desires for realism, live ammunition was fired at and around recruits as they went through manoeuvres for the first time. Firing live ammunition over the heads of trainees encouraged them to keep their heads down, and to keep themselves concealed. Another exercise was the ‘haunted-house’, designed to teach house-to-house fighting. A party of recruits was despatched with loaded weapons and live ammunition into a building filled with smoke as to reduce visibility. Figure targets of Germans popped up at the small squads of men as they made their way through the dim interior of the building, the object being to test reactions and fire-control, as it would be more than possible to hit an accompanying squad-mate in the confusion. These exercises were effectively drill under fire and duress, the exact conditions the soldiers would face in combat, and tested their skill and endurance levels, as well as creating a greater sense of comradeship.

The desire for realism also gave rise to the Divisional Battle Schools, set up by Lieutenant General Paget, Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces, in early 1942. However, rather than the individual soldiers who learnt the new battle drill, it was regimental leaders who went to divisional battle schools. They would then instruct those under their command with what they had learned, ‘for it is for the students to return to their units and spread the gospel.’[5] While this was the same, previously maligned, method as had been in place during the inter-war period, it was believed that now the students were being taught the correct message, it was an appropriate form of ensuring that the Army adopted that message at all levels. However, there was the potential for serious problems as no two schools were alike in their ‘personality and methods’[6] for teaching battle drill.

However, the new battle drill and Battle Schools obviously failed to revolutionise the Army immediately. When Brigadier Money attended a Battle School with several, though significantly not all, companies of his brigade, he found that ‘throughout the first camp and at the commencement of the second… an atmosphere of urgency, determination and reality was absent.’[7] Furthermore, the lessons of the Battle Schools were available only for those divisions fortunate enough to still be in Britain. Those on active service overseas persevered in their outdated, and inferior, training techniques. For Neil McCullum, fighting with the Eighth Army in North Africa, his training between combat comprised of re-learning petty drill such as correct posture when talking to superiors, or the correct way to fold a blanket, and ultimately surrendering the individuality the soldiers had lost at basic training but regained in combat.[8] Similarly, the War Diary of the 6th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, contains the ‘Training Programme for Week Ending 10th January 1942’ when it was stationed in Palestine, which reveals the predominance of ‘digging.’ For all four rifle companies, miscellaneous, unspecified digging was the primary training activity, interspersed with a few live action exercises, such as field firing for the mortar platoon and ‘mountain warfare’ for the rifle companies.[9] That the ‘Training Programme for Week Ending 18th January 1942’ was exactly the same suggests this was the normal course of events. While it would no doubt have been difficult to impart the lessons of the new battle drill to troops already overseas, the contrast between the lessons learnt at Battle Schools and those in Palestine with the 6th DLI demonstrates a marked change in how the Army approached infantry training in 1941-2.

There were also criticisms surrounding the sense of realism incorporated in the new battle drill. For example, when bayoneting dummies students were spattered in sheep’s blood. Recruits were also shown images of German atrocities, or attended lectures on such atrocities committed in conquered countries, such as Poland, by a member of that country’s embassy.[10] But most sinister of all, when carrying out exercises, students were actively encouraged to hate their enemy. One group completed an assault course, complete with bayoneting dummies and shooting targets while ‘a chant of “hate” superimposed on the sound track of the German film War in the West blared out.’[11] At another school, whilst on a march, a group of students were followed by ‘a burly subaltern of the London Irish who, his shirt torn to ribbons and brandishing a fighting knife at the heels of the pack, conducted a private hate campaign. “Hate! Hate!” he yelled – once in the faces of two solitary cows; and there was no doubting from their curses that the students’ blood was up.’[12] Recruits were, effectively, being whipped into a frenzy of blood lust. The sinister, and rather ludicrous nature, of such hate training was recognised by Montgomery, who severely disapproved. In an official memorandum, circulated to all senior officers, and therefore trainers, under his command, Montgomery stated that ‘any attempts to create an artificial blood-lust or hate training is worse than futile. Such an attitude of hate is foreign to the British temperament and attempts to produce it by artificial stimulus during training are bound to fail.’[13] In future, ‘officers and N.C.O.s must be made to realise the difference between this artificial hate, and the building of a true offensive spirit combined with the will-power which will not recognise defeat.’[14]

While hate training was eliminated from the infantry’s programme of training, one place it remained, and indeed intensified, was the Home Guard. Some members of the Home Guard, particularly those who had served in the Great War, but whose services were no longer required by the Government, took training the Home Guard very seriously. While the popular view today of the Home Guard is that espoused by the television show Dad’s Army, the Home Guard of the early 1940s was very different. In the case of invasion, the Home Guard would, its more vocal supporters argued, become a guerrilla force capable of terrorising the invader. Major Armour was one such supporter. He argued that ‘the Home Guard at night should be a terror to the enemy’[15] He also asserted that there were men in the force ‘who get a “kick” out of crawling up on sentries in the dark and “pig-sticking” them.’[16] Armour’s guerrilla force would operate by the simple rule of ‘get your enemy by any means but – GET HIM.’[17] For Armour, suitable training for such ruthless methods should include men of the Home Guard visiting the local slaughterhouse ‘and practice sticking their knives into carcasses to get used to the resistance which meets the knife: to rub blood on their hands and faces and get used to this, and to generally harden themselves.’[18]

It would be easy to dismiss Armour as an over-eager and bloodthirsty armchair general, but he was not alone. Indeed, Edward Hulton, owner of the Picture Post founded his own Home Guard School at Osterley Park, with the co-operation of the landowner Lord Jersey, as early as July 1940 in order to train the Home Guard in irregular warfare. It was early September 1940 when the War Office recognised the value of such a school and took over its running. In defence of Osterley and the philosophy of warfare it taught, Tom Wintringham, one of its ‘instructors’, wrote, shortly before the War Office took over the school, that ‘any weapon is good enough to kill Germans with, if you know its value and limitations,’ and called for the Home Guard to be enlarged to four million men by 1941.[19] It is easy to understand the extreme views put across by both Armour and Wintringham; when they wrote, Britain faced the threat of invasion, where any man who could would be called upon to try and repel the Nazi invader. The extreme consequences of a successful Nazi landing in Britain called forth extreme means to repel them, something Armour and Wintringham advocated teaching from an early stage.

Thus, the British Army struggled enormously with how best to prepare their men for combat. But was blood and hate training truly ridiculous? It ‘surely sprang from the fear that troops were being given no real preparation for the horrors of the battlefield.’[20] It was an extreme reaction to the under prepared and inadequate nature of pre-war training. The desire to create realism provided an image of war so distasteful, so accurate, that Whitehall superiors felt seriously threatened that the men of the British Army were becoming similar to their German enemy in more than one way; they were at risk of taking on the ‘cold, diagrammatic, pedantic, unimaginative, and thoroughly sinister’ nature with which the German soldier was described; he was human, whereas the Japanese were ‘animals of an especially dwarfish but vicious species’, but a perverse type of humanity.[21]


[1] Bernard Law Montgomery of Alamein, The Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery (London, 1958), p. 119.

[2] PRO WO 201/2590 Major-General J. S. Nicols, ‘State of Training of Reinforcements’, 21 September 1942.

[3] IWM 72/14/1 Papers of Brigadier H. D. K. Money, ‘Lessons from Training Camps and Advance Guard Exercises – 2 October 1942’, p. 4.

[4] ‘The New Battle Drill: A Conquest of Tradition in Training’, The Times (Tuesday, November 25, 1941), p. 5.

[5] ‘Realism in Training: New Methods at a Battle School’, The Times (Monday, April 27, 1942), p. 2.

[6] Ibid., p. 2.

[7] IWM 72/14/1 Papers of Brigadier H. D. K. Money, ‘Lessons from Training Camps and Advance Guard Exercises – 2 October 1942’, p. 1.

[8] McCullum, Journey, p. 117.

[9] PRO WO 169/5007 War Diary, 6th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, January – April 1942.

[10] ‘Realism in Training’, p. 2.

[11] Ibid., p. 2.

[12] ‘The New Battle Drill’, p. 5.

[13] IWM 72/14/1 Papers of Brigadier H. D. K. Money, ‘Memorandum on Battle Drill.’

[14] Ibid.

[15] Armour, Total War Training, p. 36.

[16] Ibid., p. 44.

[17] Ibid., p. 46.

[18] Ibid., p. 46.

[19] Tom Wintringham, ‘The Home Guard Can Fight’, Picture Post, Vol. 8, No. 12 (September 21, 1940).

[20] Timothy Harrison Place, Military Training in the British Army, 1940 – 44: From Dunkirk to D-Day (London, 2000), p. 57.

[21] Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (New York, 1989), p. 120.

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