Battle School: The 'Real Thing' in Training

The War Illustrated, Volume 6, No. 131, Page 14, June 26, 1942.

Much has been heard recently of the new battle drill which is now an established part of the training of the British Army. Below we give some account of its origin, of what it attempts to do, and of how it does it; and more may be learnt from the series of photographs which are given in the pages immediately following.

Up a slope towards us twenty men are running slowly and heavily. They wear a kind of combination overall and battle-dress, black and shiny with water, streaked with dull red, daubed with mud. Some of their faces are purple with extreme exertion, others are white or yellow. Round them three or four instructors prance and skip, gesticulating with short sticks, and shouting hoarsely: "Hurry, hurry, hurry! On, on! There are Huns at the top of the hill! Get at them! Kill them - hurry! They'll get you if you don't get them. On, on!" The men stumble to the top of the hill and stand swaying wearily and begin to take their muddy rifles to pieces and clean them. When they've done that a whistle blows and they close together automatically, and stumble away at the double.

So Richard Sharp of the B.B.C. describes the conclusion of the "assault course" at one of Britain's new battle schools. There are a number of these new schools now, one in every Command, and all are under the direct control of General Sir Bernard Paget, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces. For the most part they were started by individual commanders, and they still retain a distinct individuality in the methods adopted and turn out officers and men capable of standing up to the test of modern war. In them battle drill is carried to a high pitch of realistic perfection, although it is now being extended to all the infantry.

What is battle drill? In brief, it is the training of men in the circumstances as near as may be of actual battle, so that when they are confronted with the "real thing" they will know instinctively what to do and how to do it. It dates to about the time of Dunkirk, when there were so many officers who realized from their experience of the fighting in France that the British soldier, although as brave as the bravest, a good shot with the rifle, and a handy fellow enough with the bayonet, was hardly to be compared with the Germans in the tactics of modern warfare. He knew little of infiltration, and as often as not his handling of his weapons -other than the rifle- left something to be desired. (This was hardly to be wondered at, since the number of Bren guns, anti-tank rifles, etc., issued before the war, was very limited.) Chief of those who urged the modernization of training was General Sir H. Alexander, upon whose tactical notes drawn up after Dunkirk the new methods are largely based.

The old formal drill of the barrack square was, in fact, the battle drill of Waterloo. A new age has brought with it a new kind of war, and a new kind of war demands new methods. So new battle drills have been, and are being, devised. Details vary, but in general the section adopts arrow-head formation, in which each man has a designated task, whether it be as leader, Bren gun 1 and 2, grenadier, sniper and so on. Special drills have been worked out for clearing forests and crossing rivers; and so complex and various are they that the full course at a battle school may take the whole of a very full and arduous sixteen days.

There are both offensive and defensive drills for sections and platoons, companies and battalions, and all through the aim is to ensure that each man, from the private to the colonel, shall know automatically what part he has to play in battle. Not the least of the difficulties which distinguish the new drill from the old, is that it involves the use of live ammunition from all infantry weapons, while the men engaged are also exposed to very realistic dive-bombing by aircraft.

To return to Richard Sharp's description, the particular battle school he visited has for its commander a lieutenant-colonel of twenty-one, and in the class were majors, captains, lieutenants and sergeant-majors. All were dressed alike in impersonal denim, with no marks of rank, and all were treated alike. The day which ended with that charge up the slope had begun with a lecture on hate, delivered in the "hate room", which is hung with photographs from Nazi-occupied Europe, of people starving and sick, of the dead lying in heaps. The commandant explained that if you hate your enemy you are likely to kill him more quickly and efficiently. After the lecture the men, with rifles, bayonets fixed, and packs on their backs, had run a sort of race. First they had lain on their backs and clawed their way with bleeding hands under a nest of barbed wire ten yards wide. They had gone under and over the low hurdles, throwing themselves at them; then through burning paraffin, wincing and screwing up their eyes, but hurrying on; then through deep water, and under more barbed wire with Bren-gun bullets cutting a crease in the grass just in front of them.

Another "hazard" is the "haunted house". It is a cottage filled with booby-traps and supposed Germans -cardboard figures which pop up from behind shelves and peer round chimneys, lie in wait behind closed doors and in cupboards or lurk on the dilapidated stairs. As you push open the front door, a mine goes off, filling the little room with smoke. A soldier with a tommy-gun lets fly -with live ammo- and with grim determination makes his way from room to room, upstairs under a hail of tins and buckets of dirty water, whirling around and tut-tutting with his gun as enemy figures appear with disconcerting suddenness, in front and behind, at this side and on that. Altogether, then, an immense amount of ingenuity has gone into the planning of the battle drills and the assault courses in particular, and it is not unnatural that the men who take part in them, however sceptical and "browned off" they may feel at the beginning, soon show they most eager interest. But the course at the battle schools is a grueling one; not all the students can manage to make the circuit, and those who fail -usually for physical reasons- are at once returned to their units.

General Paget recently wrote to all the Army Commanders strongly condemning the use of strong and offensive language to urge students to greater efforts during training. "While troops will respond to a lead," he said in a letter to the Army Commanders, read at the Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, "they will not be driven on by abusive language. When such language is used by N.C.O.s to officer-students, I consider it is most harmful to discipline." A second point he criticized was "the attempt to produce a blood lust, or hate, during training. Such an attitude is foreign to our British temperament and any attempt to produce it, by artificial stimulus, is bound to fail. Officers and N.C.O.s must be made to realize the difference between this artificial hate and the building up of a true offensive spirit, combined with the will-power which will not recognize defeat."