It’s time we ditched the myth of German small-arms supremacy

It is amazing how much entrenched myths about the Second World War persist, despite the number of major new books on the subject. It seems that no matter how much good work is done on the human experience of war or the truly global nature of the conflict, some aspects remain unchallenged. James Holland writes.

This article was first published in December 2011

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Take kit, for example. In terms of the British experience, it is widely believed that our uniforms, our small arms – even our tanks – were widely inferior to those of the Germans.

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The much-maligned battle-dress is seen as rather Blimpish and stiff, when in fact, its short-cut blouse was quite radical at the time of its design in 1937 and saved our government a large amount of money by using considerably less wool than the earlier tunic. It was functional, had no frills, was durable, and was later adapted into a denim version.

The German equivalent, the feldbluse, in contrast, would have made a Savile Row tailor blush it was so intricate, and used almost twice as much wool. German troops may have looked the part, but their uniforms were a gross waste of money. What’s more, unlike Britain, Germany had few sheep and no overseas empire to draw on for such resources.

If German uniforms were over-engineered, then this was as nothing compared to their small arms. The ‘default to myth’ stance is that our Sten was pitiful when compared to the Schmeisser (MP 38/40) and that German light machine-guns, the MG34 and especially the MG42, were in a league of their own compared with any others of that period.

Says who? And on what are they being judged? Both machine-guns had a very rapid rate of fire – 900 and 1,500 rounds per minute respectively – whereas the British Bren was around 500rpm. Yet, stated rate of fire and practical rate of fire are very different things.

German gruppen – sections of ten men – carried with them no less than six spare barrels, because firing at that rate, barrels very quickly overheated; and when they did so, began to melt and lost accuracy – horribly so.

Infantry manuals warned against firing more than 250 rounds without a barrel change. At 1,500rpm, that meant changing the barrel every ten seconds. Ten seconds! What’s more neither the MG34 or 42 had a wooden quick-release handle attached to the barrel, which ensured the German MG crews had to carry giant padded mitts with which to change the burning hot barrel on their weapon.

With the long belts of ammunition needed, plus the spare barrels, most of the German gruppe ended up servicing the one machine-gun. And all this for a practical rate of fire of around 120 rounds per minute. There is a reason why current light machine-guns do not fire at this incredible rate today.

The Bren, in contrast, had a barrel that was thicker and less prone to over-heating. It also had a wooden quick-release handle. It was magazine- rather than belt-fed, which forced its users to stop firing after 30 rounds, and which gave the weapon an enforced chance to cool. Its practical rate of fire was 120 rounds per minute – exactly the same as the MG42.

The Bren was also a less-engineered piece of kit, and therefore cheaper and easier to mass-produce, taking around 55 man-hours. The MG34 took a staggering 150 man-hours to make, while the MG42 still took 75. In a long war, cheap mass-production is generally better than over-engineered, expensive equipment, especially if, like Nazi Germany, natural resources are scarce.

So why has the myth of German small-arms supremacy persisted? Largely because the evidence comes from first-hand testimonies of Allied troops who came into contact with the terrifying sound of their rapid rate of fire, but who were equally unaware of their many shortcomings. After all, numbers of man-hours and intricacy of engineering are hardly the concern of the Tommy or GI suddenly coming under fire. It does not mean their view is correct, however.

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In these pages [Christmas 2011 issue], Gary Sheffield noted that there has been a “quiet revolution” going on in academic circles with regard the Second World War. Let’s hope it continues.