Battle Drill 1941

Battle Drill

During 1941, the 47th (London) Division (at right is the “Bows and Bells” patch of the division), a training formation of the British Army, began to demonstrate its new system of training, called “Battle Drill” to officers of the Canadian Army. Lieutenant Colonel J. Fred Scott and Captain John Campbell of The Calgary Highlanders attended a demonstration on 8 October and found their imagination fired by what they saw.

On 22 October, Captain Campbell, Lieutenant Buchanan, and Lieutenant Nixon attended a battle drill school at Chelwood Gate, and according to unit historian Roy Farran, “No more fanatical disciples of the new system could have returned to the unit.”

The Calgary Highlanders immediately set up their own Battle Drill school at Burnt Wood, and on 23 October, a demonstration was made before Colonel Ralston, the Minister of Defence, General McNaughton (General Officer Commanding the Canadian forces in England), Lieutenant-General Crerar (commanding I Canadian Corps), and Major General Odlum (commanding 2nd Canadian Division). The platoon that participated in the demonstration were complimented by the senior officers.

The entire battalion began to cycle through the battle drill school in two week rotations, each course culminating in a demonstration to which officers of neighbouring units came to observe. While Battle Drill began to spread through the Canadian Army, opposition to it from the British War Office led to the 47th Division school being closed down in November. “Battle Drill bibles,” originally printed by the 47th Division, had to be printed “surreptitiously” in the Calgary Highlanders orderly room, in order to be distributed to other interested Canadian units.

Opposition to the new training met with opposition in the Canadian Army as well; the First Canadian Division forbade their troops from attending the Calgary Highlanders’ battle drill courses, to whom NCOs from other units were routinely invited. By the end of December 1941, the Highlanders had sold more than 50 of their “Battle Drill bibles“, twenty of them in a single day after demonstrating the new training to the Second Canadian Division on 30 December.

For the Calgary Highlanders, and indeed, the entire Canadian contingent in the UK, Battle Drill was a relief from months of monotonous training. The War Diarist of the battalion, writing on New Year’s Eve, remarked that “morale is higher than at any time in the past two and a half years. A man is proud to say “I have taken Battle Drill” because without a doubt it is a physical accomplishment, particularly to the private. To the Junior Leader who has added Battle Drill to his training, it is both a physical and mental achievement.”

In January 1942, General Crerar wrote to the battalion to say “It is evident that a very satisfactory number, both of officers and ORs in the Canadian Corps have obtained the tactical and psychological advantages which are so evident in this particular course.” On the 16th of January, demonstrations were held for representatives of many Canadian units, with another demonstration on the 30th. The orderly room printed 250 more copies of the Battle Drill bible.

What was Battle Drill?

Section Battle Drills

At its most basic, Battle Drill taught at the section level simply taught men how to react when coming under enemy fire. In an article in Military Illustrated: Past and Present (No. 20, Aug/Sep 1989 issue), section battle drills were described by eminent British historians Ian V. Hogg and Mike Chappell as follows:

On to a limitless expanse of asphalt march ten men, in step, arms swinging, rifles at the slope. The instructor bawls “Under Fire!”: the men halt, face the enemy, order arms, and stand at ease. Then, in unison, they shout “Down, Crawl, Observe, Fire!” and snap to attention. “Rifle group, follow me!” – and on the word “Fire” they snap to attention, which indicates that they are firing. The section commander gives his stereotyped orders: “Rifle group engage; right flanking; Bren group over there!” The Bren group stand at ease (no longer firing), turn right, and double off to the flank; they halt, turn to face the enemy; “Down, Crawl, Observe, Fire!”; and snap to attention. “Rifle group, follow me!” shouts the section commander; they stand at ease to show they have stopped firing, and double off behind the commander, around behind the Bren group. They halt – and go through the whole rigamarole again. Finally, having reached the last position, the section commander orders “Charge!” Away go the riflemen, rifles at the hip, bayonets fixed, and shouting (officially…) “Bullets, bullets, bullets!” to show that they are firing.

It sounds ludicrous; but it impressed the system in the mind, until civilians-in-uniform could be relied upon to snap into it when cold, tired, scared, disoriented, and under real fire from real enemies.

The above illustrates several things; firstly, that at its most basic level, Battle Drill could be a parade square exercise. Also note the “Down, Crawl, Observe, Fire!“; more than just a motto, many Canadian regimental histories make mention of this phrase, which was driven home firmly into the minds of infantrymen, who would need to practice it instinctively when in combat:

Upon taking fire from the enemy, infantrymen were trained to:

The section had to be taught to operate in two groups; the Bren group and the rifle group. Ideally, one group would provide cover fire, to distract or inflict damage on the enemy, while the other group exposed itself by moving to close the range. The section commander had to be able to instantly appreciate what cover was available, and order an appropriate maneuver, such as a right or left flanking.

Once the section had mastered basic battle drills, the next step was platoon training, where the platoon commander had to also demonstrate his appreciation of tactical situations and be able to employ his three sections effectively.

Battle Drill Training

What the Calgary Highlanders found being taught by the 47th (London) Division went beyond mere Battle Drills however, and an entire system of training, also falling under the blanket description “Battle Drill”, was not only observed, but quickly adopted by the Highlanders.

Battle Drills, whether at the section, platoon or company levels, came to encompass more than just the drills themselves. Soldiers were put into their full battle kit and made to double time everywhere they went. Battle inoculation became part of Battle Drill training, where live ammunition was fired over and around them, with the addition of simulated artillery fire and grenades (“thunder flashes”). Some troops were taken to livestock slaughter houses, or else made to run obstacle courses littered with blood and animal entrails, in order to accustom them to the sight of gore. The obstacle courses were quite popular with instructors, and combined with speed marching, contributed to “hardening training” – turning soft civilians into tough soldiers.

Terence Robertson (in his book The Shame and the Glory) described Battle Drill as:

…that incredible British conception in which dummy bullets were thrown away and replaced with live ammunition. This compensated to some extent for the lack of a real enemy, and if a soldier had a particular feud going, he could often settle it with the live rounds he carried quite legally. There were plenty of accidental woundings, but how many or how few were caused by malice could never be determined. Instead, the troops were ordered to approach battle drill with a good deal more care and a little less enthusiasm.

There were other reasons to “tone down” Battle Drill training, according to Farran’s history. One Calgary Highlanders company is reported as having refused to attend church parade, citing that since they were given such “barbaric” instruction during battle drill, they could not see the point in attending church.

The opinions of several Calgary Highlanders towards Battle Drill training is recorded in Bercuson’s regimental history:

Bert Pittaway: “….running wide open and killing yourself for nothing…it was crazy, you never did anything like that in action.”

Calgary Highlanders during Battle Drill training in England; full kit is worn and all men move at the double. Photo taken from The Glen, from the Private EA Kellar collection, courtesy Robert Weir

Arthur Wildeman: “Us ignorant privates, we’re supposed to run across there, and jump through this god-damned stuff, and wade and hold your rifle up so you don’t get it wet. You don’t go around any obstacles, you go through them or over them….The sarge was running around yelling ‘kill, kill, kill.”

Calgary Highlanders during Battle Drill training in England. Photo taken from The Glen, from the Private EA Kellar collection, courtesy Robert Weir

Perhaps, however, the most revealing description of Battle Drill training comes from a lieutenant in the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment named Farley Mowat, in his book “And No Birds Sang”:

Major Ketcheson turned…to teaching us “real soldiering” by packing us off to a battle drill school where we joined twenty or thirty other raw (junior officers) in a course that was intended to toughen us up, both physically and psychologically.

Calgary Highlanders during Battle Drill training in England. Photo taken from The Glen, from the Private EA Kellar collection, courtesy Robert Weir

It was conducted on a waste of blasted heath overgrown with thorny gorse. Our day began before dawn and lasted until dark, and everything we did, with the exception of defecating, was at the double, weighed down by full battle equipment.
We marched or ran a minimum of ten miles a day and twenty on Sundays. We crawled, squirmed and wriggled for endless hours through gorse thickets while the training staff fired live ammunition under, over and all around us; threw percussion grenades between our outflung legs, or heaved gas canisters (which made us puke) under our noses. For variety we practiced unarmed combat with bronzed killers who hit us in the windpipe, kicked us in the testicles, cartwheeled us over their shoulders and belted us across the kidneys with rifle butts.

…The piece de resistance was a half-mile obstacle course, mostly constructed of barbed wire, that had to be surmounted or crawled under in four minutes flat. One day our personal demon of an instructor decided this was not enough and added a new wrinkle. As we staggered over the last barbed-wire entanglement, he ordered us to double to the right, over a hill, and swim a pond on the other side.

Somehow we managed the hill and fell rather than ran down the far slope. There was the pond – a huge, open septic tank in which stagnated the sewage from most of the military camps in the Witley area.

The leaders of our panting mob drew up in horror on the edge of this stinking pit, but the demon was right behind us tossing percussion grenades under our tails, so in we plunged…

Before the first week was out we had lost eight or nine of our number, three of them wounded during live firing excercises. The others had been returned to the Depot as “unsatisfactory combat material”…

Calgary Highlanders during Battle Drill training in England. At top, infantrymen smash through an obstacle; below, instructor Lieutenant Cross keeps troops under cover with a thunderflash. Photo taken from The Glen, from the Private EA Kellar collection, courtesy Robert Weir

Other Calgary Highlanders had great appreciation for the training they underwent. Again, from Bercuson’s history, several Calgary Highlanders veterans comment:

Arthur Ames: “It was a tough course….In December…you were out there in the wet…soaking wet…we never saw a hot bath…the whole time the course was on….(it was) the only training we got in the army that was realistic.”

Floyd Rourke: “(When a machine gun opened up) You would drop and hit the dirt, and then possibly return the fire or give covering fire so that somebody else could move in from another direction…you have no time to stop and think, you have to deal with it right now.”

Red Anderson: “When you went into action, you knew that you would be in good shape and know what to do.”

Robert Bingham: “We didn’t like that kind of tough training, but it was all for the good. When you got into battle, everything felt so simple.”

In Action

Battle Drill training has been soundly criticized by many historians after the fact, feeling that it contributed little to preparing the Canadian Army for the combat it would encounter in Normandy and afterwards. It is worthy to note that British General Bernard Law Montgomery, at that time the commander of South East Army in England (under whom the Canadians were placed) had some very definite criticisms as early as March 1942, when he visited the battalion.

Montgomery (quoted in Terry Copp’s book “The Brigade”) wrote that as far as the Calgary Highlanders were concerned, “It does not seem to be understood that Battle Drill is really a procedure, applicable to unit and sub-unit action. The company still has to be taught how to carry out the various operations of war.” His notes further elaborated his criticisms:

The Co(mpan)y Training period is now nearly over. But so far no company has done more than about two days really proper co(mpan)y training i.e. complete company exercises, as a company. A good deal of battle drill training has been done; but this is not Company training; it is practicing a procedure. The Co(mpan)y has got to be taught the art of war:

How to fight the contact battle.
Offensive action in fluid conditions.
The set-piece attack.
Re-organization, and holding the ground gained.
The counter attack.
The night attack.
The dusk attack.
Forcing the passage of obstacles.
These things have not been done.

At this time, Montgomery was inspecting all the Canadian units in the United Kingdom and passing his judgements (often very quickly reached) to the senior Canadian commanders. The Calgary Highlanders benefited from his low appraisal of their state of training when the Dieppe forces were selected; while Fourth and Sixth brigades were tapped to comprise the assault force, the Fifth Brigade was only asked to contribute a company of the Black Watch and a platoon of Calgary Highlanders.

Battle Drill’s Fate

The British Army placed General Utterson-Kelso, the former commander of the 47th Division, in charge of the infantry-training directorate, and his chief Battle Drill instructor, a Lieutenant Colonel Wigman, took command of a newly created GHQ Battle School, while authorizing the formation of battle schools in each division. In the Canadian Army, Calgary Highlanders carried the new doctrine to the rest of the army. Lieutenant Colonel Scott, sent to Canada to instruct at RMC, soon found himself in command of the new Canadian Battle Drill School at Vernon, BC, while the Battle Drill Wing of the Canadian Training School in England was commanded by Captain John Campbell.

Battle Drill, in the end, prepared platoons and companies for battle, but the Canadian Army would have to look beyond simple battle drill to prepare their brigades and divisions for combat.

The Calgary Highlanders received national press coverage for their pioneering efforts in “Battle Drill” – as this article reproduced from the Toronto Globe and Mail shows. The article originally ran on 31 January 1942. Photos are additions by the webmaster. Note that Vern Stott’s name was spelled incorrectly in the last sentence.

‘Sweat Saves Blood,’ Is Cry As Tough Canadians Train

(Canadian Press) Somewhere in England, Jan. 30

As battle drill becomes fighting doctrine for infantry of the Canadian Corps, the Calgary Highlanders are running the toughest, roughest battle drill school in the overseas force. The course is as hardening and difficult as anything Commando training ever conceived.

No mercy is shown in this training for the men of the foothills and a sprinkling of Toronto Scottish.

For seven hours daily during the two weeks of the course, platoons storm about the training area under real Bren-gun and rifle fire, fording ice-sheathed rivers with water up to the armpits, smashing through defenses and practicing village fighting.

Many units are carrying out this training but the Calgary regiment is away out in front with ideas. Spend a day with a platoon at the school and this is what goes on:

At 9 o’clock on this winter morning, with a cold wind whipping through the parkland, the zero whistles sounded and the platoon, consisting mostly of officers and non-commissioned officers, started off with a whoops and a cheer from a grove of trees. Moving on the double, the riflemen and grenadiers seemed to be running interference for Bren gunners, anti-tank gunners and mortarmen. The Highlanders stormed a ridge and routed at bayonet point a half-dozen batmen, acting as the enemy.

A 30 second breather followed: then the galloping battlers were off again on another attack, which took them to the side of a lake . Orders were given on the run and men fired from the hip as they moved-, against opposition in the forest.

A rubber reconnaissance boat was rushed up and rowed over the lake by two soldiers, followed by an assault boat carrying most f the platoon. Concussion grenades burst about them as they landed and dived into the underbrush, only to be confronted by another water crossing – a thirty-foot stream covered with thin ice.

“Keep going, you birds.” shouted Lieutenant Herb Dann of Calgary, an instructor, chanting, “Sweat saves blood, me boys, sweat saves blood.”

“It’s tougher than this in Russia.” cried Lieutenant Bob McLean of Calgary, another instructor, as he ran at, full speed with 1he platoon. “You guys got. it easy . That water will cool you off.”

Sweating Albertans and Torontonians plunged off the bank, pushing their boats into the stream and, clinging to the craft, sank into the

water. Holding weapons over their heads, they broke their way through the ice and splashed to the opposite bank. The water was over the heads of the shorter soldiers and they swam. Every one was soaked to the skin, but the course had toughened them up.

“Come on, come on-hate, hate kill, kill,” bellowed Sergeant Les Kemp and Sergeant Phil Brotherton, Medicine Hat, Alta ., instructors, as their charges scrambled for cover.

Out of the bitter cold stream at a vulnerable spot came Lieutenant T.H. Lines of Toronto, Lieutenant A. H . McCullen of Drumheller, Alta, Company Sergeant-Major Jim Bremner of Toronto, Corporal Ed Bailey of Calgary and Sergeant Al Palfenier of Medicine Hat. They cursed every one and everything, but shook the ice out of their boots and laughed as they lay in a muddy ditch waiting for the next thrust.

Pushing the heavy- assault boat over the stream like an ice-breaker was Captain D. A. McDonald, Sergeant Jack Siemens, Lance Sergeant. G. F. Guise, all of Calgary; Lieutenant Beresford Slimon of Toronto, Lance Corporal Art Ames of Pincher Creek, Alta ., Sergeant J. O. Dutton of Redcliff, Alta ., and Lance Corporal J. V.Bayes of Port Dover, Ont.; Frost formed on sodden battle dress but nobody seemed to care. Then the platoon started off on the double again to “kill” every hypothetical enemy around . A ten minute stop at an auxiliary service tea wagon for tea and biscuits was the only break in the day, and most days the platoons go wiithout food during the manoeuvre.

Al Palfenier

Evangelical Fervor

Major E. A. Langston of Calgary popped up the troops with spirited chatter. He shouted with evangelical fervor, tuned to battle language. Without even changing their soaking clothes, the troops continued their marathon assaults, capturing with neatly conceived pincer movements some farm buildings representing a village.

With tommy-guns, bayonets and grenades they cleaned the batmen-enemy out of upper stories and “killed” snipers in haystacks.

Then off they went again over the fences and fields through the trees and bracken. Bursts of Bren gunfire cracked out in the bitter air and the assaulters plopped into a stream to be hidden by the banks.

For 500 yards they slithered forward in this stream, knee-deep in water and slime but making good progress toward their objective .

Incredibly grimy, with faces and hands scratched by brambles but still grinning like iron halfbacks, they shouted as they slogged along.

Bremner of Toronto

H.A. Marshall

In this ditch foray were men like Corporal George Bremner of Toronto, brother of the sergeant-major, Sergeant E.W. Embree of Vancouver, here on special training, Private Bill Matthews of Hardisty, Alta- one of the few rankers ; Lance Corporal Fred Mathews and Corporal H.A. Marshall, of Calgary; Corporal E. Harris of Redcliffe, Alta . ; Lance Corporal L. E. Ferriar of Chilliwack, B.C . : Corporal E. C. Welling of Medicine Hat, Alta,. and Company Sergeant-Major H. W. McArthur of Innisfail, Alta .

An attack on a woods and a defended locality around a pond completed the day’s workout and the platoon was rushed in trucks to camp, where hot baths and dry clothing awaited them.

Tactics Reviewed

Throughout the day the special battle drill tactics were followed carefully and errors were corrected right on the spot . It showed the infantry in a new powerful role, with all weapons utilized to the full. In battle the whole battalion would use these principles, the colonel said.

Considerable credit is being given to this regiment for its aggressiveness and initiative in pushing this battle drill school . Other majors in the unit, besides Major Langston, are T. B. Donald, Jack Taylor, Doug Robertson, H. C. A. Hervey, all of Calgary, and R. D. Bryan of Innisifail . Lieutenant Vern Scott (sic) of Calgary is adjutant.


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