Bare with him. There is a point at the end.
In May 1939 Adolf Hitler attended a demonstration of Waffen SS battle tactics. The Führer was keen to see how the Waffen SS was using assault groups of infantry together with field artillery and how effective this was in a battlefield scenario.
For the demonstration the Waffen SS Regiment Deutschland was to attack an enemy outpost and drive the defenders back to their main defensive positions. Once this happened the supporting field artillery was to open up on the enemy positions, at which point the assault troops would break through the barbed wire defences with bangalore torpedoes to capture their objective.
Twenty minutes after the exercise was due to start Hitler asked when it was going to begin. He was told that it had in fact been under way for the previous twenty minutes. Hitler then became aware that he could see brief glimpses of Waffen SS soldiers moving quickly from cover to cover. Needless to say the exercise with the field guns went exactly according to plan and was a complete success. As a result Hitler ordered artillery to be added to the Waffen SS formations.
Eight months later, in January 1940, Winston Churchill visited the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Norfolk Regiment, in its positions on the Belgian frontier. Although not yet Prime Minister he was at that point First Lord of the Admiralty and already heavily involved in developing wartime strategy. The Royal Norfolks had been spending much of their time digging trenches, an activity which would have been familiar to any old soldier from World War I, as part of a defensive line called the Gort Line, after General Lord Gort who commanded the British Expeditionary Force.
When Churchill arrived he was accompanied by three senior generals and a clutch of staff officers. He was shown round A Company’s positions by Captain Peter Barclay, the company commander. Barclay had acquired a small dog which had come across from the other side of the Belgian border and which he used to hunt rats and rabbits. As they were walking along inspecting the positions the party came to a pile of wooden bundles. The dog immediately started barking, having sensed a rabbit, and Churchill was interested. He asked Barclay if they might have a little sport. Barclay replied that that he would need three officers on top of the pile of wooden bundles to jump up and down to get the rabbit out. Churchill promptly ordered the three generals on to the pile where he directed their jumps to make sure they were all jumping at the same time to get the rabbit to bolt. There was some embarrassment as the generals bounced up and down while their aides-de-camp looked on. But they were all delighted when the rabbit shot out and was chased by the dog, which duly caught it.
The difference in approach between the German and British Armies had started at the end of World War I. And what was interesting was the way in which the German Army used its defeat to its advantage whereas the British Army learned very little from its victory.
The victory of the Allied armies over the old German Army in 1918 was more than just a simple defeat for Germany because the German people had believed sincerely that victory would be theirs. Because of their implicit faith in their army it was all the more traumatic for them that it was their army which had failed them. The Armistice had dealt another blow as the Treaty of Versailles restricted the post-war German Army to 100,000 men, including no more than 4,000 officers.
For General Hans von Seeckt, appointed Chief of the German Army Command in 1921, the situation must have appeared a gloomy one. But, crucially for the German Army, he was not infected with the trench warfare mentality which afflicted the British Army for so long. Seeckt had served on the Eastern Front in World War I and refused to believe that Der Stellungskrieg, trench warfare, was the future. His experiences had taught him that the use of fire and movement under the control of good leadership, was the way forward. For Seeckt mobility meant machines, armour, artillery, infantry, all mechanised and mobile and working together. In 1921, while the British Army was fighting an uprising in Ireland, the German Army was conducting its first exercises with motorised units.
Between the wars the German Army devoted much time to exercises in the field. All units took part and used blank ammunition to fire their weapons at the enemy. This is an important point because already the German soldier was being conditioned for service on the battlefield in World War II where, as we shall see, the type of training was to have a profound effect on the course of battle.
With constant training and refinement the German Army was ready in principle, if not in men and machines, for the Blitzkrieg by the time Hitler came to power in 1933. And it was Hitler’s enthusiasm for the Panzer and for the concept of Bewegungskrieg or mobile war which led to the creation of the first Panzer divisions in 1935.5
Of course the British Army had not been idle during the interwar period. But the British themselves were sick of war and by the 1930s the general feeling was that another war was best avoided at all costs. And there were other priorities. There were the colonies to police. There were social obligations too – while the Germans were practising endlessly on exercise with armour and infantry, British cavalry officers were busy on the polo field. The notion that they should give this up in favour of more soldiering in tanks and other armoured vehicles was, of course, quite out of the question.
Despite these limitations the British Army did make progress. In 1926 and 1927, Lord Milne, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, allowed the Army to experiment with armour. And some regiments did make the changeover in the inter-war period. One example of this was the Rifle Brigade. This was a regiment which had started out as sharpshooters in the early 1800s but whose riflemen had served in the trenches as ordinary infantry in World War I and which moved to being a motorised regiment in the late 1930s. It was to use Bren carriers with anti-tank guns in the desert to great effect.
All of this gives us clues as to why the Germans were better prepared for World War II than the British. And it is the Allied generals who take the blame for the early success of the German Army. Most historians will point to bad leadership by the British and French generals and their staffs as the reason why 1940 was such a disaster for the Allies. After all General Erich von Manstein’s master strategy for the Blitzkrieg went exactly according to plan and the French, British, Belgian and Dutch Armies were crushed by a numerically inferior German force.
But there was something else which contributed to the downfall of the British Expeditionary Force. And that something else has been overlooked by modern historians just as it was by the British Army itself before the war. Yet it was a key factor in the way the whole of World War II was fought and it tells us why some British units were far more effective than others.
The simple fact was that British soldiers were not very good at killing.
In 1947 a United States Army general called S. L. A. ‘Slam’ Marshall surprised the military world by writing his classic book Men Against Fire. The book detailed Marshall’s observations on the battles of World War II which he had studied in his role as a US Army military historian – a task which he had undertaken by travelling all over the battlefields of Europe and the Far East where he talked to soldiers in the immediate aftermath of battle.
Marshall’s central theory was simple, ‘We found that on an average not more than 15 per cent of the men had actually fired at the enemy positions or personnel with rifles, carbines, grenades, bazookas, BARs, or machine guns during the course of an entire engagement. Even allowing for the dead and wounded and assuming that in their numbers there would be the same proportion of active firers as among the living the figure did not rise above 20 to 25 per cent of the total for any action.’
The idea that in battle only a quarter of soldiers were actually prepared to kill was a surprising one. However, Marshall was not alone. During the Sicily campaign in 1943 Lieutenant-Colonel Lionel Wigram of the British School of Infantry had observed that only a quarter of the men in a typical British platoon could be relied upon in battle.
Therefore Marshall’s conclusions would seem to be solidly based. But the new edition of Marshall’s book contains an introduction by Russell Glenn in which he outlines problems with Marshall’s methodology. In the late 1980s Dr Roger Spiller of the US Army Command and the General Staff Command started to investigate Marshall’s work. He reviewed Marshall’s notes and his letters and he talked to one of Marshall’s fellow combat historians, John Westover, who could not remember Marshall asking soldiers if they had fired or not. Spiller therefore came to the conclusion that Marshall’s theory about the numbers of soldiers firing at the enemy was not based upon solid evidence.
Marshall’s legacy received another blow from Marshall’s grandson who quoted one of Marshall’s friends as saying that Marshall had invented the 15–25 per cent proportion on the basis that these were what he believed, rather than knew, were the accurate figures.
After this the academics weighed in with their own debunking of the ‘Marshall myth’. In 1999 the Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, Joanna Bourke, wrote An Intimate History of Killing in which she dismisses Marshall as someone who ‘did not interview as many men as he said he did and not one of the men he interviewed remembered being asked whether or not he fired his weapon.’ She goes on to suggest that documentary evidence from soldiers themselves, mainly in the form of letters home from the front in World War I which describe in gory detail the pleasures of killing, meant that soldiers loved killing, ‘Warfare was as much about the business of sacrificing others as it was about being sacrificed. For many men and women this was what made it a “lovely war”.’
At the same time Niall Ferguson, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford, was writing The Pity of War18 in which he takes a fresh look at World War I. He too makes the case that soldiers enjoyed killing and quotes personal accounts from World War I to support this theory. He concludes by saying that, ‘men fought because they did not mind fighting.’
However, at the same time as these two historians were researching their books a former US paratrooper, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, was writing a book called On Killing. Grossman is not only a former soldier, he is also a psychologist and Professor of Military Science at Arkansas State University and in this book he comes down firmly on the side of Marshall.
Both Grossman and Spiller point to the fact that it is only Marshall’s methods which have been discredited and that there is still merit in considering whether his conclusions were right. Spiller notes also that Marshall did indeed visit the battlefields immediately after the battles of World War II and that he was a good observer of the human being under fire, despite his lack of accuracy as a historian.
Grossman points to a large body of historical literature and study which supports Marshall’s findings that, in any battle, most soldiers will not be firing at the enemy, instead they will be running errands, loading weapons and generally supporting the minority who are fighting. He goes on to state,
There is ample indication of the existence of the resistance to killing and that it appears to have existed at least since the black gunpowder era. This lack of enthusiasm for killing the enemy causes many soldiers to posture, submit or flee, rather than fight; it represents a powerful psychological force on the battlefield; and it is a force that is discernible throughout the history of man.
The question – are human beings natural killers? – is one which has also preoccupied professions other than military historians. According to evolutionary psychologists such as David Buss, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas, the answer to this question is a simple yes. In his book The Murderer Next Door he states,
According to the theory I’ve developed, nearly all the many kinds of murder – from crimes of passion to the methodically planned contract kill – can be explained by the twists and turns of a harsh evolutionary logic. Killing is surely ruthless but it is also most often not the result of either psychosis or cultural conditioning. Murder is the product of the evolutionary pressures our species confronted and adapted to.
This idea that evolution has forced humans into becoming killers because of the benefits of killing other people in the great competition of life is taken to its logical conclusion by Buss who suggests, after reviewing hundreds of case files of murderers in the USA that, ‘Murderers are waiting, they are watching, they are all around us.’
However Buss’s theories are flatly rejected by anthropologists who are moving our understanding on by taking a fresh look at the fossil record and the behaviour of other primates. Robert Sussman, Professor of Physical Anthropology at Washington University (St Louis), states,
If murder statistics vary from place to place, one simple evolutionary, biological, universal explanation cannot be correct, when so many cultural ones are so much better. There is no evidence whatsoever from the fossil record or from primate behaviour to support this type of adaptationists’ scenario.
Sussman’s book Man The Hunted, written with fellow anthropologist Donna Hart from the University of Missouri – St Louis, shows where the evolutionary psychologists are mistaken,
We humans are not slaughter-prone assassins by nature. We often act badly, maliciously, cruelly but that is by choice and not by our status as bipedal primates. We can state this because our closest relatives use cooperation and friendship as the most expedient method for gaining what they need and want. Yes, just like humans, chimpanzees occasionally act brutally wacky – usually because of stress, resource shortages or unknown factors that evict them from their comfort zone. Sound familiar? Isn’t that exactly why we humans get crazed?
Whatever the arguments about Marshall’s methods, on looking at Marshall’s work in some detail it quickly becomes apparent from his combat notes30 that he was indeed interviewing combat soldiers in the aftermath of battle, sometimes as part of a group and sometimes alone. Although his notes do not record the issue of non-firers it does seem likely that Marshall could easily have asked the question without recording it formally, although whether the questioning was in any way scientific is another matter entirely.
This view is consistent with the recollections of First Lieutenant Frank J. Brennan Jr who accompanied Marshall on similar post-combat interviews during the Korean War. After this war Marshall stated that the ratio of fire had improved so that more than half the infantrymen were now active firers. In a recent interview with historian John Whiteclay Chambers, Brennan recalled that Marshall asked a lot of open questions and that he did ask about firing but without pushing the issue. Crucially, however, Brennan recalled Marshall making only occasional notes during these interviews.
Having interviewed Brennan, Chambers concludes that Marshall’s ratio of fire figure for World War II, ‘appears to have been based at best on chance rather than scientific sampling, and at worst on sheer speculation’. Chambers also concludes that Marshall was writing as a journalist rather than as a historian when he came up with his 25 per cent because, ‘He believed that he needed a dramatic statistic to give added weight to his argument. The controversial figure was probably a guess.’ Chambers’s final thought is that, even if more of Marshall’s field notebooks are found and they contain more interviews like those with Brennan, They probably will not contain the kind of data necessary to substantiate the controversial assertions of Men Against Fire.’
Since Marshall is no longer alive the best people to ask about his theory that only a minority of soldiers were firing at the enemy are those who fought in World War II. The results are surprising. Many think that there might have been something in what he said. Those who do not agree with Marshall at all are the ones who would be best classified as being in Marshall’s 15–25 per cent of active firing soldiers. A typical response comes from Henry Taylor, ex-7th Battalion, The Rifle Brigade,
If you ask me if any of our blokes had a problem with shooting Ted [Tedeschi, Italian for German, used in soldiers’ slang], then I can only say that everyone I knew would shoot to hit him. If you did not and that Ted went on to kill a mate, you would have that on your mind.
Some of these ‘active firers’ asked how it was that so many were killed if not many were firing but Marshall’s supporters point to the fact that artillery accounted for large numbers of casualties in World War II and that artillery battles are conducted at enough of a distance for the firers not to be so obviously troubled by their consciences. This argument is helped by the fact that the artillery is held to have been the most effective arm of the British Army in World War II.
Some veterans also mentioned the power of emotion. A soldier who might not be taking an active part in the battle might lose control if his best mate were killed next to him and the enemy soldiers who shot him then tried to surrender. The most dangerous time for any surrendering soldiers was the period immediately after they showed themselves as surrendering. And of course when soldiers knew about enemy atrocities, as was the case in the war in the Far East in particular, there was an additional incentive to kill the enemy.
What about the opposite viewpoint? – the idea championed by Joanna Bourke in particular, that men enjoyed killing. The suggestion that most men enjoyed battle met with universal rejection, even from those best classed as the active firers. Certainly in talking to the veterans and reading their accounts of World War II, it is very difficult to find stories about the joy of killing. Of course many of them look back on the war as a time when they enjoyed the comradeship and the shared danger, but killing, no.
Of course there were individual participants in World War II for whom the term blood lust would not be inappropriate. Men such as Anders Lassen VC of the Special Boat Service of whom it was said, ‘If he had the opportunity he’d kill someone with a knife rather than shoot.’ So such men do exist; it is simply that they appear to be either less common in World War II than in World War I or that fewer of them wrote about it in World War II. So why is there this body of literature, particularly from World War I and the Vietnam War, in which soldiers talk of the joy of slaughter?
For Britain World War I was a different kind of war to World War II. The country entered World War I in a burst of enthusiasm; men joined up fired by a desire to see the Germans put firmly in their place. Perhaps some of them, responding to the public mood, wrote of their experiences in terms which they felt would be welcomed at home rather than to reflect the reality of what they actually saw. Historians always need to be wary of personal accounts which talk up the achievements of the author. The more medals a veteran has, the less likely he is to blow his own trumpet. And if you read Lyn MacDonald’s books on World War I or Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Great War there is little there to support the idea that men took pleasure in slaughter.
Peter Hart, the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum for over twenty years, recalled that he had come across only one man he could remember who took any real pleasure in remembering the men he had killed in all his long experience of interviewing veterans. He went on to say that,
Most men regarded it as an unpleasant part of the job to be carried out as dispassionately as possible. Many seem to have consciously or unconsciously suppressed the details of the fighting. It was only in letters home, diaries or in slightly vainglorious memoirs that men were occasionally to be found boasting of their killing exploits. Here it appeared there was often the intent of impressing the intended audience and indeed an element of fantasy could creep in – a very real element of ‘giving them what they want’ – that would provide fodder for the shallow thesis of the future. Such macho posturing was not found in dispassionate oral history interviews where the soldiers’ real feelings usually emerged.
Vietnam was a different war again. By using the methods outlined later in this chapter the US Army had managed to make its soldiers far more effective at killing than their fathers had been during World War II and their grandfathers during World War I.
Logically too some of Marshall’s arguments make sense. After all peacetime society, both before World War II and since, demands that its citizens live peaceful lives. Killing someone in any civilised society usually attracts severe punishment. It is perhaps therefore little wonder that men found it hard to kill.
Given that there is probably some truth in Marshall’s assertion that not all World War II soldiers were firing at the enemy the only question which arises is the extent of this phenomenon. Was Marshall right in suggesting that only 15–25 per cent were firing their weapons at the enemy? Was it as simple as Marshall made out? Did soldiers either shoot to kill or not shoot at all?
There is some evidence to suggest that there was another group of soldiers between the firers and the non-firers, a group not recognised by either Marshall or Bourke and a group whose size cannot be quantified. This group of soldiers did fire their weapons but only in the general direction of the enemy – in other words they fired but did not fire to kill, or they did not know that they had killed. This theory is certainly consistent with British and American fire policies whereby they fought with lots of fire to cover an advance.
Consider this example:
Rifleman Joseph Belzar, 7th Rifle Brigade, Monte Malbe, Italy, 1944
I saw the long grass of the field below parting and I followed the movement of the German observer as he moved towards our position to lie motionless at the edge of the field. He was obviously observing our positions less than 100 yards away; I don’t believe he realised how close we were. I drew my rifle forward prior to taking aim but was too late as he scuttled back to his mortar position. In retrospect I am glad I was too late in firing. At that distance I would not have missed and now, looking back over fifty years later, I should hate to have had the recollection of looking down on a person for whose death I had been solely responsible. Generally in any battle situation there is collective action and one could never be sure whose bullet had found the target.
Given that the situation on the battlefield may not have been quite as straightforward as Marshall made out it is also worth remembering that, apart from the ordinary infantry there were also many Special Forces units formed during World War II. Chief among these were the Commandos whose special training regime produced soldiers second to none and who were close to the 100 per cent of active firers.
But there was something else. Some of these Commandos also said that Marshall might have had a point when it came to the ordinary infantry units they belonged to prior to joining the Commandos but their training as Commandos had been so effective that they became ‘proper’ soldiers. According to David Cowie, who served with the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry in France in 1940 and who subsequently joined No. 4 Commando,
It  was an absolute mess from start to finish, not because of the men but bloody bad officers and a complete lack of knowledge about the German Army … There was a complete lack of any training and I believe Marshall was right … The Commandos trained me to be a real soldier.
So what was so special about the Commandos? The answer is that they worked out what made soldiers kill long before today’s armies and before even Marshall came up with his theory about ratios of fire. And to understand the Commandos we need to understand what changed after World War II and how it is that soldiers of both the US and British Armies are now approaching a 100 per cent firing rate.
Colonel Grossman’s research is particularly valuable because he has identified exactly what it is in modern training which produces soldiers who can kill.
When we look back at the training of most World War II soldiers it is clear that it fell into three categories. Firstly there was drill, drill and more drill. The idea was that soldiers would respond immediately to orders and that drill conditioned them to instant obedience. Secondly there was weapons training which consisted of firing rifles on the ranges against bullseye circular targets. Thirdly there was fieldcraft, the necessary skills needed to move around the battlefield.
Compare this to the training given to the modern soldier as identified by Grossman. Modern soldiers do learn drill, fieldcraft and they obviously have weapons training. But now there are three additional factors: desensitisation, conditioning and denial.
Desensitisation is all about getting soldiers used to the idea of violence and killing through attitudes and language. Some old soldiers from World War II have been upset they are when they see modern British Army or Commando training on the television. Whereas these old soldiers were used to a degree of respect and tolerance from their NCOs, today’s recruits face a constant barrage of the language of violence including bawling out and bullying.
Conditioning is arguably the most important single factor in producing a soldier capable of killing. Instead of aiming at inanimate targets on a range, today’s soldier fires at lifelike pop-up targets which fall over when hit. They do this day in and day out until the whole process is automatic. According to Grossman this is based, either by accident or by design, on what is known as operant conditioning as identified by the famous psychologist B. F. Skinner. The stimulus is the human-shaped target popping up, the response is to fire the weapon, the reward is seeing the target go down. Do it often enough in training and in battle it becomes automatic.
Not sure? Consider the following:
Private Dick Fiddament, 2nd Royal Norfolks, 1939
It’s one thing to fire at a target made of paper and wood and it’s another thing to deliberately fire at something you know is like you – flesh and blood and bone, who has a family, probably married with young children, a mother and a father.
Private Michael Asher, 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, 1972
It was our first day on the ranges and we were letting rip at ‘figure elevens’: pictures of little yellow men who charged at you with gigantic bayonets and menacing snarls. Whang! Whang! Whang! The targets went down … we doubled forward to check the targets. Six bullets smack through the target’s midriff. ‘You zapped him, soldier,’ the corporal said… We handled the weapons for hours every day, repeating the rituals over and over again until they became instinctive… Familiarity was what our training was about. Handling your weapon had to become so instinctive that you could kill automatically.
One of the benefits of this type of conditioning for modern armies is that, because not every response produces a result or reward, it is hard to undo the conditioning. In other words, when a modern soldier misses a target or the enemy soldier, instead of giving up he carries on until he hits the next one and gains the reward. A similar idea is used by breakfast cereal companies in getting us to eat more of their products – have you ever had a bowl of muesli with a few elusive bits of strawberry in it? You keep eating to find the next piece of strawberry.
Another part of conditioning is the battle drill. Although criticised by some historians49 the World War II Commandos introduced their own and found that it was a useful way for soldiers to react instinctively when a set event occurred, for example the moment when a unit comes under fire. Modern armies make extensive use of battle drills.
The third element identified by Grossman is denial. The idea is that by continually rehearsing the act of killing the modern soldier is able to believe that, when it comes to the real thing, he is not killing a human being but simply another target. Modern armies do not talk about killing enemy soldiers, they talk about engaging enemy targets.
Although the modern British and US Armies make much use of these methods neither was the first to discover them. The Commandos and other Special Forces already used some, if not all of these methods to produce supremely effective killers in World War II.
Elsewhere other perceptive individuals also realised their value. In 1944 Denis Edwards had already seen action at Pegasus Bridge and was a very good sniper even though his training was entirely conventional.
Private Denis Edwards, Airborne Sniper, 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
15th July 1944 – my 20th birthday
At midday I went out on a lone sniping trip and the moment I got into one of our ‘hides’ I realised why things had been so quiet yesterday. The Jerries had been doing a change around and this was obviously a new lot who were wandering around in the open and without a care in the world. It was a reasonably clear day and they presented excellent targets. I contemplated making a fast trip back to our lines and getting out a couple of other snipers but just as the thought passed through my mind a big fat German stopped right in the middle of a wide gap in the opposite hedgerow. The target was just too good to miss and I let fly and the fat man leapt into the air and fell forwards, flat upon his face and still out in the open.
19th July 1944
We [Edwards and a fellow (unnamed) sniper] went out to the sniper hides before dawn. We both spotted a German standing in a gap and yawning his head off. We let fly together and put him back to sleep. Then we peppered away along the enemy hedgerow in the hope of making them think that we were mounting a dawn attack. We may not have hit any more but I guess that we must have caused a fair bit of panic.
We stayed for some while and had just decided to return to our lines to get some breakfast when I spotted a German who must have had the same idea in mind. He flitted past two gaps in his hedgerow and I selected the widest gap in front of him and the moment he appeared I let fly. I think I hit him, but how badly I could not be sure as he hit the ground almost immediately and was lost from sight.
22nd July 1944
Went out sniping first thing and soon realised that a new lot had moved in across the way. Having been ‘hit’ by us several times in the past and well aware of the dangers, yesterday there was not a German to be seen. Today they were strolling casually around in the open without a worry in the world. It seemed odd to me that the outgoing lot did not advise their incoming comrades of the danger from British snipers but it would seem they never did.
A big fat German ambled leisurely into one of the biggest gaps in the hedgerow and casually raised a pair of binoculars to his face and slowly scanned our hedgerow. Equally leisurely I raised my rifle, took careful aim, gently squeezed the trigger and fired. Fat man crashed backwards and made no further movement.
25th July 1944
Was issued with a brand new sniper rifle straight from ordnance, wrapped in greaseproof paper and covered in a thick layer of grease. I spent a lot of the day taking the rifle apart and cleaning it.
27th July 1944
Mid-morning I scrounged a couple of old biscuit tins, went into a nearby field, propped the cans against a shell-scarred post, lay down about 150 yards away, fixed the telescopic sights to my new rifle and began firing away. Unfortunately the tins kept jumping around so it was impossible to correct the sights. What I really needed was a few obliging Jerries. My chance came when at lunchtime I was allowed to go out to one of the sniper hedgerows and a German kindly presented enough of himself in a small gap, just long enough for me to take aim and fire. Judging by the way that he disappeared backwards I was satisfied that the new rifle was correctly zeroed. Like a kid with a new toy I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening wandering around in no man’s land looking for likely targets but none appeared so I guess the first hit must have been good and that the rest of them were keeping down.
Several friends and acquaintances – particularly amongst the generation born after the war ended, who have read this manuscript, have asked me the question, ‘What did it feel like when, as a sniper, you looked through your telescopic sights, had a German in view and squeezed the trigger of your rifle knowing that you were taking another human life?’ I have thought about this since and the answer is that as a trained soldier fighting in a war where you killed, or could just as easily be killed yourself, you did not regard the enemy as human beings – they were simply targets to be hit and I had no different feelings about hitting these targets as I did of hitting the targets on the rifle range. The only difference was that the targets on the rifle range could not fire back but the ones we met in action could. Thus there was more satisfaction in hitting live targets since it meant one less enemy to fight in the future. One less to kill or wound my comrades.
Denis Edwards also points out that the Commandos and other Special Forces were full of volunteers whereas the rest of the Army was full of conscripts, many of whom had little appetite for war. This is a very important point, one overlooked by some historians. Joanna Bourke dismisses the Commandos as units whose status she says was, ‘based largely on very effective self-promotion’. She also refers to a 1941 report which found that, ‘A large proportion of men arriving at training centres had not been aware they were volunteering for the Special Service and promptly asked to be returned to their unit.’ The fact is that the Commandos gained their deserved reputation from their operations, and their ability to reject volunteers at any stage during training was key to their success as highly effective soldiers.
Denis Edwards’s point about conscripts is also valid today. The modern British and US Armies rely on volunteers, recruited at an age when they are susceptible to the type of training outlined above. Any who are unsuitable do not make it as soldiers and this helps ensure that all soldiers are firers. A conscript army may not be entirely useless but many of its soldiers are.
So what happens if you put an army trained in modern techniques against one trained the World War II way? The answer is that a small modern army can wreak havoc on a much larger force. Colonel Grossman points to Richard Holmes’s research into the Falklands War as a prime example of this as explaining how the British Army won a famous victory over the Argentines who were trained in the traditional ways.
So far we have talked about the British soldier of World War II. But what of the German soldier? As has already been mentioned German soldiers spent more time on exercise and used blank ammunition on exercise. This meant they were probably more conditioned and better prepared for battle than the British. But the problem of inactive firers also troubled the German Army. Günther K. Koschorrek fought on the Eastern Front and noted the following of one of his comrades,
Grommel can’t aim and pull the trigger. Even when he is forced to shoot, he closes his eyes as he pulls the trigger, so he can’t see where he is shooting. Yet he was one of the best shots in the training camp.
But the Germans did have their conditioned killers, many of them to be found in the Waffen SS, crucially an all-volunteer force. Waffen SS training contained all the elements necessary to produce soldiers who were not only ready but also willing to kill. For example members of the Waffen SS Division Totenkopf spent 1330–1730 hours each day on battle training and weapons practice and 1900–2000 hours each evening listening to lectures which included Nazi politicising. Crucially the weapons training included shooting at various targets which were either partial or full body shapes.
And, just to make sure they were thoroughly brainwashed, as well as all of this the soldiers of the Totenkopf Division spent some time on guard duty at the headquarters of the Totenkopf branch of the Algemeine SS at Dachau concentration camp.
This is a book about the reality of fighting at close quarters in World War II. However, we have already seen how it is possible for academics to fall into the trap of painting a picture of the battlefield which is somewhat at odds with the experience of those who were actually there.
Therefore this book will visit the battlefields of World War II and tell the story of some of the actions which were fought in order to see how they support the ideas outlined in this chapter. And in doing so the book will also describe some of the weapons and tactics which were used and which played a part in defeat or victory. Clearly the whole war would be outside the scope of a single book. So for each theatre one or two individual actions have been chosen to illustrate what it was like to fight there.