Battalions based around the machine gun were established as part of the mobilisation of the British Army in the mid to late 1930s. They were formed under the same principles as the Brigade Machine Gun Companies of the Great War, which eventually became the Machine Gun Corps. The theory was that Medium Machine Guns were best as part of a Divisional or Brigade asset and the Infantry Battalion would have lighter weapons, with few exceptions (for example, Chindits, Airlanding Battalions, and Parachute Battalions).
They were first called Infantry (Machine Gun) Battalions, then Machine Gun Battalions and finally the Divisional (Machine Gun) Battalion.
Machine Gun Battalions were formed by converting regular Infantry Battalions to the new establishment. It was originally intended that a large number of Battalions would be converted; however, it ended up being just a select few Regiments, with, in some cases, only a few Battalions of those Regiments being converted.
The Regiments that had Battalions converted were:
- Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
- Cheshire Regiment
- Gloucestershire Regiment
- Gordon Highlanders
- Kensington Regiment
- Manchester Regiment
- Middlesex Regiment
- Royal Northumberland Fusiliers
The broad structure of the Battalions is shown below. Detailed breakdown of the Machine Gun Platoons is also available. The full establishments are available to download as PDF transcripts in the bullet-point links.
As of February 1939, the trade of motor mechanic was created and machine gun battalions were one of the first units identified as they were some of the most mechanised. Their establishments were allowed to include 4 motor mechanics for battalions at home (including those on short tour or emergency duty abroad) or 7 for battalions in the colonies.
Immediately prior to the Second World War starting, the establishment of the Infantry (Machine Gun) Battalion – as opposed to the Infantry (Rifle) Battalion – was issued on 31 May 1939, with an addendum on 26 July 1939 outlining the organisation of the battalion.
At the start of the Second World War, with the rapid expansion of the Army, there were insufficient subalterns available to be platoon commanders. A new rank was introduced – Warrant Officer Class III (Platoon Serjeant Major) and nine of these were authorised in a machine gun battalion, with 5 appointed on 1 November 1939 and a further 4 on 1 May 1940.
The War Establishment was updated on 14 August 1940 with minor amendments that included the change of name to further differentiate it from the infantry battalion.
Minor changes to the establishment were made in 1941, with two identical examples of the War Establishment being issued corresponding to two different volumes of the War Establishments contents. The main content difference between this issue and the previous August 1940 issue appears to be the loss of 8-cwt. trucks and Warrant Officers Class III were no longer employed (the rank having been discontinued).
- II/1931/12 C/4 19th March 1941, A Machine Gun Battalion
- III/1931/32E/2 19th March 1941, A Machine Gun Battalion
To allow for the specific requirements of the fighting in the Middle East, a variant of the Machine Gun Battalion used there included 2-pounder anti-tank guns and a 3-inch mortar in each machine gun company headquarters. Rather than just standard 15-cwt. trucks it allowed for the ‘Truck, 15-cwt. 4 x 4, Armoured Personnel’ to be used where they were available, more commonly known as the M3A1 White Scout Car.
In February, 1944, the machine gun battalion establishment was changed. The most substantial differences were in the inclusion of a Heavy Mortar Company, using the 4.2-inch mortar, and the MMG fighting elements were transported in Universal Carriers.
As Universal Carriers weren’t available to equip all machine gun battalions across the British Army at that time, the Middle East variant of the Machine Gun Battalion was changed (and referred to as a Motor Machine Gun Battalion). This included four machine gun companies (without a heavy mortar company) but three of the companies were transported in 15-cwt. trucks, whilst only the fourth had Universal Carriers. It also had a reduced organisational structure without a separate Headquarters Company – these functions and personnel were within the Battalion headquarters.
This battalion establishment had a signal section supporting it. This consisted of 14 men from the Royal Signals in a jeep, three 15-cwt. trucks and one 3-ton lorry.
The October 1943 variant of the battalion saw the anti-tank rifles change to Ps.I.A.T. and cup dischargers were removed – the individual weapons of the personnel were no longer recorded.
Not all of the divisional organisations suited the use of the Universal Carrier and an alternative ‘light division’ was organised. It’s thought that this was the airportable division formed using 52nd (Lowland) Division in 1944, with the 7th Battalion, Manchester Regiment as their machine gun battalion. The machine gun battalion in a light division used 5-cwt. cars (jeeps) in its normal organisation as these could be fitted into gliders or transport aircraft (the Dakota C-47). An alternative organisation is also given that uses 3-ton lorries in lieu of marching troops. This was presumably when they were travelling by road rather than aircraft.
Whilst the Machine Gun Battalion was the organisation that they started and ended the Second World War with, there was a deviation to the Divisional (Support) Battalion that incorporated a Brigade-focused structure with three Companies, each with machine gun, mortar and light anti-aircraft assets.
In 1946, and possibly the last iteration of a machine gun battalion, there were minor changes to the war establishment and these did not affect the machine gun companies themselves – the battalion commanding officer received different transport and the trucks used were changed from 4 x 2 to 4 x 4 vehicles.
The brigading of machine guns stopped soon after the Second World War ended and the machine guns were, once again, returned to Infantry Battalions as a Machine Gun Platoon.
- Goldsmith, 1994
- Joslen, 1960
- Newbould, 1992
- The National Archives, WO 24/936, War Establishments 1939
- The National Archives, WO 24/938, War Establishments 1940 July to December.
- The National Archives, WO 24/939, War Establishments 1941 January to June.
- The National Archives, WO 24/944, War Establishments 1942 July to December.
- The National Archives, WO 24/946, War Establishments 1943 January to March.
- The National Archives, WO 24/947, War Establishments 1943 April to June.
- The National Archives, WO 24/950, War Establishments 1944.
- The National Archives, WO 293/24, Army Council Instructions 1939.
- War Office, 1946
- Young, 2009