In the mid-war period (1942) there was a desire for a greater concentration of infantry support weapons, presumably to improve command, control and communications, as well as the administration and logistics of the specialist weapons. This resulted in the conversion of the Divisional (Machine Gun) Battalion to a Divisional (Support) Battalion that now included the 20-mm. light anti-aircraft gun (the Polsten, Oerlikon or Hispano) as well as the Vickers machine guns and the 4.2-inch mortars.
The intent to was have a mixed support group attached to each brigade of an infantry division for more flexible support. In some divisions, this meant that there wasn’t a battalion headquarters needed, whereas others seem to have retained the full battalion structure.
- II/236/2, 25 May 1943 – Brigade Support Group.
- II/238/2, 25 May 1943 – Support Battalion Headquarters.
Only certain Regiments and Divisions used the Divisional (Support) Battalion set up. It was not universal and in the case of the Cheshire Regiment, it was frowned upon so much that none of the Battalions of that Regiment used it in action at all and retained the Divisional (Machine Gun) Battalion formation.
No Battalion of the Regiment actually fought in Support Groups. This account is only included as a matter of interest, for some of our Battalions were “organized” into, and luckily out of, these Groups.
For the invasion of Sicily in July, 1943, and at Salerno in September of the same year, Support Groups went into action with the 78th Division and the 46th Division respectively. Each division had a Support Battalion of three groups, which involved a considerable increase in the establishment of men and vehicles normally found in the medium machine gun battalion.
The group was organised with a Headquarters, a Machine Gun Company of three platoons, an Anti-Aircraft Company of four platoons and a Mortar Company of two platoons. In both divisions, Support Groups were allotted initially to Infantry Brigades, although as the campaign in Italy developed, the groups of the 46th Division were combined to carry out divisional tasks when movement became more difficult. The Medium Machine Gun Company was organised normally with 12 guns moved in carriers. The Anti-Aircraft Company consisted of sixteen 20 mm. quick firing Oerlikon guns each drawn by a 15-cwt. truck. Each of the two mortar platoons had four 4.2 inch mortars again carried in a 15-cwt. truck. Group Headquarters was organised to function independently both from an operational and administrative point of view.
The employment of the Medium Machine Gun Company in this group differed in no way from that of the Medium Machine Gun Battalion. Whenever a Brigade was in action for any great length of time, the strain of gun numbers became acute. Casualties imposed an almost unacceptable strain whenever they were suffered in any marked degree. Rest was obtained only when the Brigade went out of the line, and often when battalions were relieved within a Brigade it was the practice to leave the Medium Machine Gun Platoons in action.
There is no doubt that the Anti-Aircraft Company was fully justified in its inception at a time when air superiority could not be achieved to any appreciable extent for any length of time in the land battle areas. This fact wqas clearly demonstrated in the beachhead at Salerno when nearly 1,000,000 rounds were fired by the company of one particular group. It was clear, however, that the weapon was redundant as soon as our air strength became effective in Italy.
Although generally not subjected to such a casualty risk as the Medium Machine Gun Company, the two Mortar Platoons also found great difficulty in maintaining an adequate strength in order to remain in action effectively over an extended period. A third platoon was badly missed.
It can now be said that these groups were formed to provide support for specific Infantry Brigades within Divisions. Their organisation was not suitable for quick re-grouping to carry out divisional tasks, nor were the numbers of men sufficient to remain in action effectively for periods of many weeks. A Support Battalion Commander with three of these Groups under his command was redundant, and could do little personally to aid his Divisional Commander in control of a supporting arm.
Although various experiments in grouping sub-units of the Medium Machine Gun Battalion were carried out in other divisions in Italy during 1943, and early 1944, the final solution always reverted to that of a normal Medium Machine Gun Battalion, with 4.2 inch Mortar Company.
It was only by employing the Battalion in this way, through his Medium Machine Gun Battalion Commanding Officer, that the Divisional Commander could ensure that the full weight of his Medium Machine Gun and 4.2 inch Mortar fire power could be brought to bear when and where it could be deployed to best advantage for any length of time.
- Crookenden, 1949
- The National Archives, WO 24/947 War Establishments 1943 April to June.