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"You can keep your atom bombs, your tanks and your airplanes: you'll still have to have some little guy with a rifle and bayonet who winkles the other b*****d out of his foxhole and gets him to sign the Peace Treaty."
That quote from a US General is perhaps the most succinct description of the pivotal role played by the infantryman during World War Two.
When considering the unprecedented numbers of tanks and aircraft which seemed to dominate the battlefield, it is all too easy to overlook the immense contribution of the foot soldier. The simple fact is that without the infantryman, all the exertions of the tankers, gunners and pilots they fought with would have counted for nought. Time and again it was proven that a nation could be bombed to oblivion, but would not admit defeat until its citizens looked out to find foreign soldiers on their streets. Reaching those streets was the job of the infantryman.
The role of the Infantry in World War Two
The role of the infantry in World War Two was the same role they have fulfilled throughout warfare; to close with the enemy and destroy him. That is a polite way of saying killing him. For the soldier in a Rifle Platoon, the tools of his trade necessitate he close to extremely short range to carry out this task. The range at which one soldier can lethally engage another has grown apace over the centuries, largely spurred on by developing tactical doctrines. I wonder though whether there is not some sub-conscious attempt to divorce men from the grim reality of their actions.
Airmen and artillerymen rarely saw the catastrophic effects their fire had on the enemy. Most pilots after the event related how they were intent on destroying the machine, not the souls inside. For the gunners, the distance at which they engaged meant they seldom saw the enemy during combat.
For a tank crew, there was an odd detachment to contend with. Increasingly, they fought alongside dismounted infantrymen, but their chief asset was being cocooned inside a metal box. Once 'buttoned up' there was little scope for interaction with the men outside.
The arena the infantryman inhabited was a far more visceral one. He was vulnerable to every weapon on the battlefield, starting with the bayonet and working right up to the heavy bomber. The introduction of firearms had rendered most forms of plate body armour obsolete centuries earlier. The steel helmet was only reintroduced during the Great War to offer some small guard against shell splinters. It continued to provide the infantryman with his sole form of protection during the next war. On the battlefield, no one was immune to harm, but the infantryman was uniquely well acquainted with it.
Why use Infantry?
Given the immense number of ways devised to kill the infantryman, the question has to be asked: why bother to deploy him? The answer lies not so much in the limitations of the foot soldier, but in those of the arms which accompanied him.
The infantryman differs from the tanks, guns and planes of the other fighting arms in one key respect which ensured he would never be usurped from the World War Two battlefield, and probably never will be. The infantryman is a human. As such, he can go wherever other humans can. Into the depths of the Burmese jungle. Up the almost vertical slopes of the Italian mountains. Over the shifting sands of North Africa or the Pacific Islands. Through the hedgerows of Normandy, or the sucking mud of Holland's flooded fields. Into any and every town, city and village.
He could fight in these varied environments twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty two weeks of the year. Regardless of the season, the climate or the terrain, the infantryman could and did fight. It has been sometime since an infantry battle was called off due to adverse weather conditions. Yet those same conditions could ground planes, whose pilots were unable to accurately navigate to their targets because they could not even see the ground below them. Mud and snow and sand could halt tanks and trucks, their own weight dragging them deeper into the clinging morass. As long as the gunners could haul their massive field pieces to within range they would always be there to provide support. But at the sharp end, the infantryman was still called upon to fight alone.
What do the Infantry do?
In a word, everything. Broadly speaking, Generals fought World War Two on the basic principle of possession. War is in essence an exercise in violation. It is the ultimate manner in which one nation imposes itself upon another. To do so effectively requires a physical presence which provides a sustained occupation of territory. That is done by the infantryman.
The frontline is delineated by the positions the infantry occupy. Tanks are designed on the three precepts of firepower, protection and mobility. Tying them down to fixed fortifications destroys the finely balanced calculations. Artillery is by its nature a tool of long range engagement. Guns need to be placed towards the rear area so they can offer a wide field of fire and are cushioned from direct assault. When these basic rules are ignored it usually means the defensive battle is going badly, or that commanders sense their offensive needs one final push to overwhelm the enemy.
Offence and defence
Perhaps the greatest asset of the infantryman was his ability to turn from offensive action to defensive in a heartbeat. As mentioned above, tanks do not fair well in static operations. The German Army took to digging Panzers into the ground or even bricking them up in buildings. It was an acute sign of desperation. Tanks are offensive machines, once immobilised they become sitting ducks for the gunners.
The infantryman was equally useful in defence as he was in attack. Indeed, it defined his role on the battlefield. In defence, their job was to deny the enemy the ground they occupied. Just holding onto a particular feature could derail the enemy commander's plans. The mere presence of even a small group of infantry could have an effect far greater than their numbers would suggest.
A rifle squad dug in on a ridge could call in accurate artillery fire on targets unseen to the gunners, if they could maintain their position and communications with the batteries. Even with no guns to call on, their presence would compromise any attempts at concealed movements by the attackers. The mere presence of entrenched infantry required they be evicted. That task, of course, routinely fell to other infantrymen.
The image of soldiers defending barren locations marks the low point of the infantryman's existence. So deployed, they become subject to the attentions of all hostile arms; artillery fire, tank attack and aerial bombardment. But these methods found themselves curiously impotent at removing them. The classic actions undertaken by infantry units often centred on their defence in the face of overwhelming firepower. The only way to surely overcome such stubborn resistance was through infantry assault itself.
The offensive role of the infantryman is easy to overlook. Mobility was restricted to walking pace, or at best what approximated running burdened by his equipment. Yet infantry assault was the only kind that would stick. Tanks could cut deep into the enemy's rear, disrupting supplies and threatening encirclement. But encirclement would not become a reality until a commander found infantry established along his lines of communication. Once infantry appeared, the frontline shifted. Behind their protective screen the attackers could establish guns, supplies and mass armour.
But the infantry offered far more than a convenient blind. In the attack, the same men who had held onto their own positions were needed to abandon them and surge forward to those occupied by the enemy. As the quote which opened this articles rightly says, they needed to winkle the enemy infantry out of their foxholes, cellars and caves. The sweeping armoured thrusts of Blitzkrieg obscured the contribution of the traditional infantryman. Huge pockets of resistance were by-passed by the tanks who then pushed ever deeper to confound the enemy. But those encircled forces could not be ignored less they themselves cause havoc among the German supply lines. Their reduction ultimately feel to traditional infantry attack.
Equally important was that the infantry, once they had cleared the enemy from their objectives, were the troops best suited to defend the new possessions. The inevitable counter-attack stood its best chance against infantry still pressing their original assault. Caught in the open, a combination of tanks and infantry could push the assailants back before they had had opportunity to consolidate their new positions.
Overrunning the enemy positions was all well and good, but without infantry to garrison them their former occupants would simply infiltrate back in darkness to reoccupy them. In the assault role, the infantryman had to be ready to dig in and defend his conquered territory, re-establishing the fluid frontline.
The flexibility offered by the infantryman was enormous. The comments above should not be thought to relate only to the men of Infantry Divisions. They are equally applicable to Paratroops, Air Landing and Glider formations, Marines, Commandos and Rangers. And within every Armoured Division were found infantrymen, riding a combination of lorries and armoured halftracks. Infantry could be delivered by land, sea or air, regardless of the absence of natural harbours or passable roads.
There are many reasons though why the infantryman is regarded as having one of the worst jobs on the battlefield. His acute susceptibility to being murdered or maimed has already been mentioned. If there is one adjective which describes the various tasks which fell to him though I would pick gruelling.
Despite appearances, the infantryman was and is a specialist. It is all too easy to dismiss him as a 'walking musket' or mere cannon fodder. Effective infantry needed to be smart soldiers. They needed to be able to act independently of other arms and often on the initiative of Sergeants, Corporals or even senior Privates. That required intelligent, capable young men.
The trouble was, once it became clear a man met these requirements, he was unlikely to be removed from combat other than through death or injury. The infantry is as loathe to part with its best soldiers as any other arm. Once a man was posted to a Rifle Platoon, there were few avenues for his exit that did not involve some degree of mutilation. Riflemen and machine gunners were taught their trade on the firing range and obstacle course. They only truly graduated when they survived their first combat. The importance of experience in warfare cannot be overestimated. Armies were keen not to dilute that immeasurably valuable pool of knowledge by rotating combat troops out of the forward units and into the rear echelons. A commander could place more responsibility on a single veteran Rifle Company than a newly arrived Battalion.
But time is unkind to the infantryman. It is recognised that there is a finite period in which an infantryman is at his most effective. Beyond this span, he begins to realise the reality of his situation and has opportunity to dwell on it. Most men inevitably reached the conclusion that whatever charm had carried them this far must be close to exhaustion. When that occurred, they naturally became more cautious, less daring, more concerned with survival than victory. Having lost so many friends in such a short time, what other reaction could be expected?
Sustaining the fight British and American commanders were keenly aware of the casualties they would suffer in the invasion of Europe. Italy had shown the greatest danger in the West was no longer the mass slaughter of a Great War style offensive, but the slow bleeding of an army hung up on a static front. In the East, there was a more casual attitude to the loss of life, but even the Red Army began to realise it was becoming impossible to sustain her vast armies.
The cruel fact was that in preparation for the assault on Europe, the Allies selected their bravest and best to lead the way. Numerous formations were assembled specifically for the task, their raw recruits being stiffened by an influx of experienced men from other theatres. Every one of these units had, in the final analysis, to be counted as expendable. Once in the frontline, there would be little opportunity for them to be rotated out again. A conscious effort was made at the outset, but as the campaign dragged on the periods spent on the line became ever longer. It was far easier to feed new recruits into committed Divisions than to commit entirely new Divisions.
In the air war, losses among bomber crews were so great quotas were imposed on how many missions needed to be flown to complete a 'tour'. US pilots had to make 25 trips, RAF crews 30. Given the odds of survival, you may have well as added a zero to either total. On the ground, the same was true. The most fitting reward for the infantryman who carried the war would have been the guarantee of relief after a finite period. The longer an infantryman was asked to serve the higher the likelihood he would fall. New men were needed to take the places of the veterans who had done their share.
New men were not forthcoming. The British Army demobilised two of its ten Infantry Divisions in the West to alleviate the shortages in the remainder. The Red Army simply scaled back the size of its units as losses mounted. The Germans sought volunteers from the peoples they had occupied and when still undermanned conscripted them. They 'combed out' the supply troops, always an immense portion of the Wehrmacht and redeployed them as infantrymen. The Americans belatedly realised they had not mobilised enough men the sustain the near hundred Army and Marine Divisions they had raised.
It was an old story. If a conflict is not won within a few months of its opening, it will inevitably descend into a war of attrition. The only way to keep pace is to rush new recruits into the fighting, often at the expense of completing their training, and hope the veterans will be able to impart the means of survival before they run out of luck. The mixing of old heads and young blood did not always work. Veterans developed a habit of largely shunning the new arrivals, knowing their inexperience cast them as likely victims. Having seen the ranks of their own drafts thinned over time they had no desire to repeat the experience of making friends who would be gone the next day.
The frontline infantryman continued to shoulder the burden of war despite the emergence of armour and airpower as decisive tools. There should be no suggestion that in some way the pilots and tank crews had an easier time. They did not. Airmen, both bomber and fighter, were as reliant upon luck as any foot soldier. Both were blighted by the same manpower shortages which affected the infantry. There was no shortage of planes for the Allied air forces in 1940, the French finished the campaign with more than they started. But neither they nor the RAF could replace the lost pilots.
Tanks went from enjoying early invulnerability to becoming the target of a bewildering variety of weapons and experienced crews were every bit as important as infantrymen. Time and again, tired men and unreliable or obsolete machines were thrown into offensives against well prepared defences and paid the price.
But this page is about the infantryman.
In the scheme of things, the efforts of a single foot soldier with a rifle and bayonet seem insignificant. Seen in isolation, how could the duel between an Allied Sergeant and a German sniper be of any consequence outside of their own situation. The answer is because that same duel, in an infinite variety of forms, was what brought the Germans and Japanese to the brink of victory, and subsequently rolled the tide of conquest back to whence it came.
If proof were needed of the importance of the infantryman during World War Two, a brief examination of the ratio of infantry to armoured divisions should be of use.
In Europe, the British Army fielded fifteen infantry to five armoured. The US Army deployed almost seventy infantry to twenty armoured. The Germans assembled some forty two Panzer divisions, but some could not even muster a single armoured battalion. By comparison there were roughly five hundred other divisions mobilised during the war. The figures for the Red Army are oddly similar.
This brief summary does not take into account the numerous independent armoured formations, but likewise excludes the separate infantry ones. Many divisions that were not armoured contained tanks or at least self-propelled guns, but I think the overall numbers speak for themselves.
The infantrymen of the Second World War carried on the same traditions founded centuries, if not millennia previously. Few of those young men who marched off in Rifle Platoons at the outset of their particular nation's war were to be found still in them at its conclusion. They endured some of the most appalling conditions imaginable, fighting in climates and regions which are regarded as uninhabitable in every sense. They travelled countless thousands of miles to parts of the world many probably could not even find on the map in civilian life. And when it was over, they handed in their rifle and grenades, picked up a carton of cigarettes and went home.
What they saw, suffered, and did in those stolen years of their lives would stay with them forever.
A retired US Officer who I've had the immense good fortune to correspond with as a result of these pages offered the below link. I have held off adding it, because it is intimately related to the experience of the US soldier. This site is, I hope, no more biased to the US war than it is to my native British, and I have done my best to treat all the combatants featured equally. But if you have any interest in the humble, determined foot soldier, regardless of his army or his war, it is well worth a look. You can easily replace the names of the battles with countless others and the words will hold true for those who endured them, be it Minden, Albuera, Borodino, Wavre, Waterloo, Islandwhana, Ypres, Verdun, Dieppe, Stalingrad, Kharkov, Kohima, Caen, Dien Bien Phu, Gloster Hill, Goose Green; the list is endless.
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