Book review: Second World War Infantry Tactics by Stephen Bull

‘Battles and wars are not won unless the infantry is standing on the land that once belonged to the enemy. They live under the hardest conditions and suffer the most danger. It is the pits, a place to stay out of...’

Monday, 30th April 2012, 7:00 am

The combat-hardened words of US foot soldier Radford Carrol will ring true with warriors of every nation. Since time immemorial, the ‘poor bloody infantry’ has done the dirty front-line work of war.

They bear the brunt of fighting and often suffer disproportionately in comparison with the other arms of service, and yet the history of infantry tactics is too rarely studied and often misunderstood.

Curator of military history and archaeology for Lancashire Museums, Stephen Bull sets the record straight in this fascinating, in-depth account of the fighting methods of the infantry during the Second World War.

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He focuses on the infantry theory and the combat experience of the three major players, the British, German and American armies, while his close analysis of the rules of engagement, the manuals, the training and equipment is balanced by vivid descriptions of the tactics as they were tested in action.

These operational examples show how infantry tactics on all sides developed as the war progressed and give a telling insight into the realities of infantry warfare.

So how did an infantryman function in combat when whole belts of ammunition and train loads of shells were meant not merely to kill him, but blow him to pieces?

The answer, says Bull, is by being taught to fight in very specific ways, not just to pull the trigger or control the desire to run. Chaotic as combat often is, the models for infantry actions are a complex choreography.

During the Second World War, infantry techniques changed over the six years between 1939 and 1945 with armies learning from each other and becoming more similar in their tactical outlook.

Whilst we tend to think of this war as a period of technological leaps – radar, atom bombs and submarines – the truth is that troops still had to advance, take ground and cities, kill and be killed.

As the British Operations manual of 1939 noted, it was infantry that confirmed success, compelled the withdrawal or surrender of the enemy, and held objectives.

But this meant the fighting foot soldiers inevitably absorbed most of the punishment. In Normandy alone, British infantry represented about 70 per cent of the army’s losses even though only one in four men was actually in the infantry.

Bull says that the outcomes of combat can never be predicted however many calculations are made because, in reality, men are not numbers and do not always act in accordance with theories.

He claims that very often individual soldiers cannot see, or perhaps do not understand, the bigger picture. Some do not know they are in range, ‘others can clearly see the gates of heaven, or a quick way home. Others are too tired or hungry to care.’

Bravery in battle, he says, is often depicted as ‘suicidal’ in histories and novels but mostly is a response to their training, battle ‘fever’ and traumas. What injuries soldiers most fear also has an impact on what they might do in combat, or are prepared to venture.

A major pitfall in the study of tactics, says Bull, is the idea that there are tactical absolutes, some perfect movements that, if only they could be discovered and applied, would always prove successful.

Every age is different, with important factors like economics and technology changing rapidly. New weapons and training can appear very quickly in times of war, weather can have a massive impact and, most importantly, people change too...

Bull’s excellent book focuses on the infantry’s role in the infamous blitzkrieg and on the growing significance of sections and squads. He emphasises the increasing importance of combat in urban areas – in buildings, sewers and rooftops – which evolved through the experience gained in bitter protracted urban battles like Stalingrad.

Accessible, well-researched and wide-ranging, Second World War Infantry Tactics is an enthralling introduction to the methods of the opposing ground forces as they confronted each other on the European battlefields of 70 years ago, and a tribute to the men who fought and died.

(Pen&Sword, hardback, £19.99)