At one stage or another, almost every unit in the British Army has used a Vickers Machine Gun. The form in which these guns were used, and the specific type of gun, is varied and changes by time and the role of the unit.
1912 – 1915
At the introduction of the Mk. I in 1912, the Machine Gun was held in the Machine Gun Section of Infantry Battalions and Cavalry Regiments.
The British Army Order of Battle for 1912 – 1915 and information on those units is available here.
In addition to this, Motor Machine Gun Batteries were formed as part of the Royal Field Artillery and attached to each Division as a mobile asset.
It went to war with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 in this manner and, apart from an increase in the number of guns from two to four in February 1915, remained so until October 1915.
To ensure that there were enough trained machine gunners for the increase of two to four machine guns, the 2nd Army send out a question to all Divisions asking for the state of their machine gunners and whether they had enough men.
1915 – 1922
October 1915 saw the formation of the Machine Gun Corps and the guns were centralised and formed into Machine Gun Companies and Squadrons which were attached to Infantry and Cavalry Brigades (the Regiments of Foot Guards had the Guards Machine Gun Battalion to support them).
Terminology of machine gun units was officially set out in 1917.
Machine-Gun Corps.- The following definitions are laid down for the Cavalry, Infantry and Motor Branches of Machine Gun Corps:-
Section = 4 machine guns with personnel.
Sub-Section = 2 machine guns with personnel.
Detachment = 1 machine gun with personnel.
Training Manuals and War Establishments will be amended accordingly.Army Order 164 of 1917.
In 1918, further centralisation took place and the companies were combined and formed into Machine Gun Battalions which were then attached to Divisions.
1922 – 1936
When the Machine Gun Corps was disbanded in 1922, the guns reverted to service as a Machine Gun Platoon of the Infantry Battalion, which later became a Machine Gun Company. The Cavalry used their MG assets as a Machine Gun Squadron of a Cavalry Regiment.
The Order of Battle for the British Army in 1922, and further information on those units is available here.
Mechanisation of the army in the late 1920s and 1930s saw the increased use of armoured cars and the conversion of cavalry regiments to armoured car units.
The Royal Tank Corps and the mechanised cavalry regiments used the .303-inch Vickers Armoured Fighting Vehicle variants extensively during this period, alongside the Mk II and Mk IV .5-inch guns.
1936 – 1945
However, with the eve of war approaching again, 1936 saw the reorganisation and mechanisation of the Army and centralisation of MG assets took place once again. Rather than form a separate Corps, the centralisation took place in the form of converting Infantry Regiments into Divisional (Machine Gun), some of which later became Divisional (Support) Battalions. These were then attached to Infantry Divisions. It had initially been intended to convert up to 14 infantry regiments; however, only four were finally chosen. The Regiments that had Battalions converted to the new role were the:
- Cheshire Regiment
- Manchester Regiment
- Middlesex Regiment; including the 13th (Princess Louise’s Own Kensington) London Regiment
- Royal Northumberland Fusiliers
Some individual Battalions of Infantry Regiments were also converted on a Battalion level, or individual companies. Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Gordon Highlanders and Devonshire Regiment provided independent MG Companies or Battalions; however, these were disbanded and returned to regular infantry units later on in the war.
The mechanised cavalry regiments of the army and the Royal Tank Regiment became part of the Royal Armoured Corps in 1939 and these units continued to use the .303-inch Armoured Fighting Vehicle variants of the Vickers in their tanks and armoured cars until they were replaced by the Besa and Browning machine guns in later tank developments.
To provide a fast response to any proposed invasion threat in 1940, a series of Motor Machine Gun Brigades were formed using Cavalry and Armoured Regiments. These were numbered the 1st MMG Bde, 2nd MMG Bde, and 3rd MMG Bde. They were lightly armed yet highly mechanised.
As Armoured Divisions developed during the war, they included an Independent Machine Gun Company. These provided the machine gun support to the Infantry Brigade of the Armoured Division.
Aside from these units which were attached to the Infantry and Armoured Divisions of the time, there were a few Infantry Battalions which retained their Machine Gun assets within their Support Companies. These were primarily those Battalions which performed specialist roles including the Parachute Battalions of the Parachute Regiment and the Airlanding Battalions of the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions. These were:
- 1st Airborne Division
- 1st Bn, The Border Regiment
- 2nd Bn, The South Staffordshire Regiment
- 7th Bn, The King’s Own Scottish Borderers
- 6th Airborne Division
- 1st Bn, The Royal Ulster Rifles
- 2nd Bn, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
- 12th Bn, The Devonshire Regiment
On a similar theme, the Motor Battalions of the Armoured Brigades of Armoured Divisions and Independent Armoured Brigades also retained the Vickers MGs within their Support Companies and these units were:
In June 1944, Operation OVERLORD took place as the invasion of France. During this period (often simply referred to as ‘D-Day’) there were several different units using the Vickers machine gun (in several forms). For more information, watch our YouTube video:
The Vickers also provided a mobile support weapon for a number of specialist Regular and Special Forces units. The Vickers provided them with mobile indirect and direct fire support that was required when working independently of established lines of communication and regular support troops. At one time or another, the majority of units used the Vickers. These included:
- Reconnaissance Corps
- Royal Marines and Army Commando
- Long Range Desert Group
- Special Air Service
- Raiding Support Regiment
- The ‘Chindit’ Special Force
At home, the Home Guard were also issued with Mk. I and American-made M1915 Vickers MGs.
The Vickers Gas-Operated No. 1 was used by several units of the Army; although designed as an RAF weapon. It was used by the Reconnaissance Corps on light armoured vehicles, as well as jeeps of the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron. It was also used on similar armoured vehicle of the Royal Armoured Corps and on some tanks.
In addition to ‘regular’ usage of the Vickers, the No. 1 gun was also used by the Special Air Service and Long Range Desert Group mounted on jeeps and some larger trucks. The No. 2 gun was adapted for use by Army Commando units in the ground role.
.5-inch Gun (and .303-inch AFV guns)
The .5-inch Vickers MGs were used by the Royal Armoured Corps and Royal Tank Regiment fitted within light tanks as the main and secondary armaments. The units of the Royal Armoured Corps were generally formed as Army Tank Battalion within the Armoured Divisions and Independent Armoured Brigades or as a Divisional Cavalry Regiment acting as a light armoured reconnaissance unit. This was only for a limited period from the time of their introduction in the 1930s through to the mid-part of the Second World War (approximately 1942).
Even as early as 27 September 1939, the war establishments for a ‘Heavy Armoured Regiment or Battalion’ and ‘Light Armoured Regiment’ show Besa machine guns in place of the Vickers.
As they equipped light tanks, the .5-inch was used wherever the light tank was employed. This included Military Mission No. 10, which was a liaison and intelligence gathering unit attached to the Belgian Army from the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. They were mounted in Tanks, Light, Wheeled, Mark 1 (Guy Armoured Car) and six of them were used, and subsequently lost, during the German advances. A full transcript of the War Establishment for Military Mission No. 10 is available as a PDF download.
When the guns became too limited for use as a tank weapon, some were used by the Long Range Desert Group as a heavy machine gun mounted on the rear of lorries.
1945 – 1968
With the cessation of hostilities in 1945, the British Army had a large-scale release of personnel and there was insufficient numbers to retain the quantity of Infantry Divisions that had been in place during the war. Therefore, the MG assets were once again split up and returned to Machine Gun Platoons within Support Companies of Infantry Battalions.
The Infantry Battalions that went to serve in Korea had their Infantry Battalions organised like this. For more information on the service of the Vickers in Korea, please watch our video on YouTube.
This is how the guns were to remain in use until their disbandment in 1968. The majority of the regiments were unchanged from 1922 until reorganisations in the 1960s.
It is also worth pointing out that while not ‘armed’ with the Vickers, some units had a major part to play in the role of the gun within the Army. These were the Armourers of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and the Instructors of the Small Arms School Corps.
In 1968, the Vickers Mk. I was declared obsolete and removed from service. It was such a momentous occasion that it warranted an article on the front page of The Times on January 09, 1968.
- Bouchery, 1999
- Flags of the World, 2006
- Joslen, 1960
- The National Archives, WO 24/936, War Establishments 1939.
- The National Archives, WO 95/1512/1 5 Division General Staff April 1915.
- The National Archives. WO 123/59. Army Orders 1917.