Earlier this year I had the pleasure of travelling to the Tank Museum to film some segments for the new documentary on the Rhineland Campaign – ‘Rhineland 45‘. We looked at various small arms used during the campaign ranging from Panzerfausts and Bazookas to MG-42s and M1A1 carbines.
Not all of the segments we filmed discussing the weapons could be included in the finished documentary, so I’m pleased to share a couple here. This one Brings Up The PIAT!
The Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank was used extensively during Operations Veritable and Varsity in March 1945. British and Canadian troops put them to use against enemy armoured vehicles and defensive positions within the forests, towns and villages of the Rhineland.
If you’d like a copy of my book on the PIAT you can pick one up here.
Thanks again to Real Time History for inviting me to contribute, check out the documentary here.
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In this video/article we will examine some rare footage of the Covenanter Bridgelayer in action. The footage is available to watch on the BFIs website and originally comes from the Wessex Film and Sound Archive. The 16mm film was filmed at some time in August 1942 but little else is said about locations in the BFI archive entry for the footage.
The tank’s hull number is visible as T.18434 which I think would make it one of the earliest English Electric-built Covenanters. The covenanter was developed in the late 30s as a cheaper cruiser tank. It entered service in 1940, but saw limited active service – instead being largely used in training roles. The bridge element of the vehicle was a Scissors Bridge 30ft, No. 1. – it was deployed and recovered by a clutch and 2 to 1 reduction gear, it was powered directly from the tank’s engine.
A US report on the Covenanter Bridgelayer explains how it worked:
“The opening of the bridge begins after the launching mechanism has begun to pivot on the rollers of the launching frame. Since the cables are of fixed length, they act to open the bridge as it is pivoted about the rollers. Having been laid across the obstacle, the bridge is disengaged from the prime-mover [the tank itself]. The bridge is then ready for the passage of other vehicles. To retrieve the bridge, the prime-mover crosses the bridge to the far side of the obstacle, hooks up to the bridge, pulls it back to the traveling position, and is then ready to proceed to the next obstacle.”
The bridge had a span of 34 feet and vehicles up to 30 tons could cross it. It could be deployed in under 3 minutes and in total the bridge and the system which launched it was 3.5 tons. The vehicle had a two man crew, with a driver and a commander.
Above is a British Pathe newsreel that gives us a closer look at some of the Bridgelayer’s mechanism at work.
The US report also noted that “In one case 1,200 successful launchings and recoveries were made by one vehicle without undue maintenance.” The system was only mounted on a small number of Covenanters. One source suggests 20 Covenanter I and 60 Covenanter IV tanks were converted into Bridgelayers. Far more Valentines were equipped with them and subsequently the Churchill AVRE became the British Army’s primary bridging tank.
No location is given for the footage but the presence of a number of barrage balloons to the rear is intriguing! It may have been filmed at the Royal Engineers Establishment at Christchurch or at another demonstration elsewhere. Scissor Bridges, with similar basic designs remain in service with numerous militaries around the world today.
With the UEFA European Football Championship (the Euros) starting this week we thought what better time to tackle a curious John Huston film staring no less than Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow, Sylvester Stallone, Pele and half of the Ipswich Town football club! It is of course ‘Escape To Victory’, a film which mixes football with a POW escape movie! We are joined by Ipswich Town fan and host of the excellent WW2TV, Paul Woodage, who brings his expert Ipswich Town knowledge to help us breakdown this unconventional war film!
A few people very kindly sent me some other contemporary photos showing other ad hoc STEN front grips so I thought a follow up video was needed. I also found a group of photographs taken in June 1943 at the Combined Training Centre at Kabrit, in Egypt. The photos show groups of Commandos and the Royal Navy’s Naval Beach Parties armed with Stens with a pretty standardised style of front grip.
In these photos we can see the men training with the STENs and the front grips are quite clear. It’s especially interesting in that it isn’t just the Commandos who have the front grips but also men of the Naval Shore Parties. It’s also relatively rare to see STENs in North Africa. You might have seen some of these photos, taken by Royal Navy photographer Lieutenant L.C. Priest, in our video looking at the unusual fighting knives the Commandos are equipped with.
The plethora of photos from Kabrit show a fairly standardised design for the grip. A metal ring, seemingly tightened by a wingnut on the left side and a generous wooden grip that was long enough to fit all four fingers on. The grip appears to have some finger grooves and a fairly standard shape. A photo (see above) of Naval Commandos on parade shows the men with the STENs tucked under their arms, holding the front grips. This is identical to how the STEN MkI with its front grip was paraded with. The photo also gives us a good look at the uniformity of the grips.
While the photos from the Combined Training Centre at Kabrit represent the largest number STEN front grips seen in one place and several units there are a few other photos which are really interesting. First up is this photograph of a Corporal from the RAF Regiment taken in Libya sometime in 1943. The Regiment had been formed just a year earlier. The corporal is sat cleaning his STEN MkII with the butt removed but the bolt still in the weapon. On the barrel nut of his weapon he has a wooden front grip. Again seemingly attached to a metal band around the barrel nut. The wooden grip appears to have some rudimentary finger grooves. Sadly, I couldn’t find any other photos of this Corporal and his STEN. But the design of his front grip is very similar to those seen in the Kabrit training photos and could well be of the same origin.
Finally, we have a photograph from a completely different theatre – Burma. The caption for this photograph reads: “Men of the 2nd York and Lancaster Regiment searching the ruins of a railway station for Japanese snipers, during the advance of 14th Army to Rangoon along the railway corridor, 13 April 1945.” This soldier’s STEN MkII has a grip just in front of the trigger mechanism cover and behind the magazine housing and ejection port. It’s actually in a position close to that of the original STEN MkI’s integral folding pistol grip.
At the end of the day the adaptation is a good idea, a front grip provides a means of pulling the weapon into the shoulder and a more natural place to grasp other than the barrel nut, the trigger mechanism housing or the magazine – which was discouraged. It is interesting to note that I’ve yet to see any examples of a MkIII being fitted with a front grip like these.
This is certainly something I’m going to do more research into to see if there’s any documentary reference to the use of front grips like these. With the introduction of the MkV, with its front grip, it seems that the idea was sound enough. If you know of any other examples let me know in the comments!
This week marks the 81st anniversary of Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk Evacuations, so we’re examining the very first onscreen depiction of the evacuation – Channel Incident (1940). Channel Incident is a 15 minute Ministry of Information film directed by Anthony Asquith and starring Peggy Ashcroft, Gordon Harker, Robert Newton and Kenneth Griffith.
You can watch the whole film on the IWM’s online archive here!
While doing some research for a couple of upcoming videos I came across some photographs of Commandos training, at the Combined Training Centre at Kabrit in Egypt, which showed men equipped with some interesting fighting knives.
Typically when we think of Commandos and fighting knives we think of the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife with its stiletto point and cast grip. So much so that it became the iconic symbol of the Commandos.
Well these Royal Navy Commandos appear to be armed with fighting knives crafted from earlier standard issue bayonets. The knives have the standard stiletto blade but quite clearly do not have the Fairbairn-Sykes’ instantly recognisable cast ringed grip.
In the series of photos taken during training at Kabrit, we can see numerous Commandos equipped with them and featuring in some quite dramatic photos from June 1943 – seemingly taken during training for Operation Husky. At first I thought the knives might have been made from the still-in-service 1907 Pattern sword bayonet used by the SMLE No.1 Mk.3. In some of the photos the scabbards appear to look like shortened 1907 bayonet scabbards with the same brass fittings and the knives appear to be retained by Pattern 1908 webbing bayonet frogs.
I also thought they might have been adapted from the even earlier 1888 Pattern bayonet for the Lee-Metford. But while they have a scroll to the front of their quillon/cross guard the shape of the pommel and the bayonet attachment point clearly differ.
Not being a bayonet expert I was a little stumped so posted about the photos on twitter and Kevin Dann was kind enough to mention that the knives are in Ron Flook’s book on British & Commonwealth Military Knives. Flook identified the knives as adapted 1903 Pattern Bayonets, originally introduced with the SMLE before the move to a longer bayonet.
It seems that these knives were used by Commandos and they are also seen in some photos of SAS operating in the Aegean. I’m not sure who made these knives, some sources mention Wilkinson Sword making some F/S style knives from old 1888 and 1903 bayonet blades but state these had different grips. Perhaps these were put together by a unit armourer if proper issue knives weren’t available.
On the 14th May 1940, the British Government announced the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers. By the summer of 1940 nearly 1.5 million men had volunteered to serve. The force was later renamed the Home Guard in July 1940 but remained under-equipped throughout the summer of 1940. Many of the newly raised militia units had just ‘LDV’ arm bands, some civilian firearms and improvised weapons, as uniforms and service weapons were in short supply.
I recently came across a really interesting piece of footage showing a Hampshire Home Guard unit training with an ‘incendiary weapon’. With few heavy weapons available during 1940, some Home Guard units improvised. This remarkable original colour footage appears to show a reasonably effective incendiary weapon of some sort. But beyond what we can see we know very little about the weapon.
The footage shows a battery of five launchers, each seemingly with a 3 man crew. One man aiming, another loading and another firing. The footage is undated but from their arm bands we can see that the men are Home Guard so definitely post July 1940. The men also appear to be quite well equipped with caps, denim trousers and blouses and belts. No webbing is seen but we can potentially date the footage to between late 1940 and mid-1941.
The incendiary weapon itself is extremely intriguing! I haven’t seen a similar weapon before and I couldn’t find any direct reference to it in the available original documents, newspapers or photos. The footage comes from the Wessex Film and Sound Archive, it is described as showing Home Guard men from Swanmore, a rural village in Hampshire, demonstrating the weapons. Before the incendiary weapon is demonstrated we see a company sized force of Home Guard parading, without rifles or other equipment, and then a single Home Guard member demonstrates loading an SMLE. From the footage we can get an idea of how the weapon would have worked.
The men run to the launchers, which appear to be made of wooden boards. Beneath them are rifle stock shaped pieces which the man at the rear seems to shoulder – probably to aim the weapon. The other two crew members kneel either side of the launcher. The footage then cuts away to another angle from the other side and shows one of the kneeling men hitting the rear of the projectile with a hammer. Then with a flash and puff of smoke the projectile launches forward. The man who aimed the weapon appears to have moved away, out of shot. Frustratingly the footage is a bit underexposed and quite dark so we can see too much more detail but we can see that the chap with the hammer is definitely hitting the rear of what looks like a length cylinder. The cylinder shoots to the rear while a projectile fires forward and the launcher’s crew look downrange.
We then get footage showing what seem to be a series of impacts, likely from the projectile’s fired by the launchers. Then we get another clip of the men running to man the launchers and some more shots of the incendiary weapons exploding. From the available footage its pretty difficult to theorise how the launchers work. They appear to be using an almost proto-recoilless rifle-like principle with the launch cylinder shooting backwards and the projectile leaving the cylinder and firing towards the target. The crew member with a hammer may be hitting a percussion cap to detonate some black powder which projects the incendiary bomb. This system may have been developed to remove the need for a fixed, pressure bearing barrel. Making the weapon much simpler to manufacture.
The footage doesn’t give us too much indication of the range of the weapon but it’s distant enough that the men firing the weapon don’t appear to recoil when the projectile hits the target. The incendiary effect downrange is actually quite impressive and a battery of five of the launchers would have been an impressive sight and perhaps quite useful as a road ambush weapon which was something the Home Guard focused heavily on at the time. It wasn’t until later in 1941 that sub-artillery like the Smith Gun, Northover Projector and the Blacker Bombard began to enter service with the Home Guard. Until then some of the units took it upon themselves to create their own weapons, improvising contraptions like the one featured in this video.
I was recently I was taking a look through the Imperial War Museums’ online image collection when I found a pair of very interesting photographs taken in Scotland in April 1942. They show Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee handling a STEN MkII submachine gun while visiting Polish troops. Most interestingly though is the folding front grip which has been added to the Sten!
The MkII, introduced in August 1941, did not have a folding front grip as standard. The earlier MkI had had a front folding grip, but the MkI*, introduced in October 1942, had eliminated this to speed up production. The original caption of this photo reads:
“Mr Attlee tries the weight and feel of the Sten Sub-machine gun used by the Paratroops.”
Attlee was visiting the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade during a visit to the 1st Polish Corps) at Cupar in Scotland. In the photos he’s accompanied by Colonel Stanisław Sosabowski, the commander of the brigade. In this second photograph, Attlee is holding the Sten by its trigger mechanism cover and we can see the folding grip more clearly.
It appears to be made up of a band of steel which slid onto the barrel nut housing – much like the later MkV foregrip. The grip appears to possibly pivot on a rivet and the grip itself appears to be tubular metal. Sadly the photos are fairly low resolution so we can’t see too much more detail.
These were the only two photos of the grip I could find and I haven’t yet been able to find any documentary references to them. It may be that the grip was experimental and provided to the Polish paratroops for testing or it was an adaptation unique to the unit – perhaps something the unit’s armourer made. I’ll need to do more research in the future to try and find out more about the curious STEN accessory!
For more on the STEN check out our video on the origins of the STEN and it’s name below:
The Polish Army In Britain, 1940-1947 series, Imperial War Museum, H 18884 & H 18883
It’s essential for soldiers to know how to use and maintain their weapons properly. We’ve been collecting training manuals, pamphlets and handbooks (as part of the TAB reference collection) to give us a wider understanding of how troops were trained and how they used their weapons.
In this video we take a look at the British Army’s 1942 small arms training pamphlet for the ‘Thompson Machine carbine’.
The pamphlet, issued in July 1944, is written for instructors to train troops how to handle, maintain and use the Thompson. The pamphlet was eventually superseded by one covering both the STEN and Thompson.
The pamphlet is just 12 pages long but includes some interesting insights and an appendix looking at the ‘spotlight projector’ training instrument.