Weaponry is a significant theme of ‘The Lucky Shilling‘ – my father’s story about survival and combat in the Second World War.
The Bren Gun
Undoubtedly one of the best general purpose light machine guns of the Second World War, the Bren Gun came into service in 1937 in time for Bill and his companions to take it to France in 1939. In fact new guns, still encased in manufactures grease, arrived in the Battalion just before they embarked and were still being worked upon as they crossed the Channel.
When the Germans attacked over the River Dyle on the night of the 13th of May 1940 the Bren proved itself to be a formidable weapon, but when on the next night the Bren uncharacteristically jammed Bill realized that if he didn’t get a replacement the Germans would spot the reduction in firepower and push through their weakened position. If the Germans had broken through their platoon position, the Company’s and the whole Front was in danger
Bill’s citation for his Military Medal reads, “When a Bren Gun was damaged he went alone in face of enemy fire to obtain a new one.” Bill got the replacement Bren Gun back in the nick of time.
The Lee-Enfield Rifle
The mainstay of the army since 1895 the Lee-Enfield was Bills faithful companion from joining the army n f937 until, when captured, the Germans relieved him of it.
A countryman born and bred, Bill was taught to handle a .22 rifle and shotgun when he was nine years old so, by he time he joined the army in 1937, shooting was second nature to him. He immediately took to the Lee-Enfield and soon after joining the First Battalion in June of 1937 quickly found himself qualified as a ‘marksman’ wearing the crossed rifle badge and in the Battalion shooting team. He took his Lee-Enfield to inter Battalion competitions and to the National Rifle Association ranges at Bisley in Surrey. He was even took part in a ‘Fire Power Demonstration’ at the Infantry School at Warminster, demonstrating that a section of riflemen armed with the Lee-Enfield No 4 could fire quicker than a Lewis Machine gun.
Bill put his skill with the Lee-Enfield to good effect during the battle on the River Dyle in May 1940 and it was Bill, who as the ‘ marksman’, had to shoot the German mortar spotter out of the tree when they were pinned down in the bloody battle for Coutrai.
2- inch mortar
A lightweight and simple platoon weapon firing high explosive and smoke bombs it served Bill and his companions well in the hellish and chaotic retreat after the battle of the River Dyle.
The success of the mortar lay in its ability to be quickly deployed at the point of contact with the enemy. This was demonstrated when Bill’s platoon, under the command of Sergeant Bob Payne, are ordered to clear enemy out of nearby woods and are caught by heavy enemy small arms fire. A number of the platoon are immediately cut down and Bob quickly deploys the mortar calling for the high explosive shells. However on landing the bombs turn out to be ‘smoke’ which actually, luckily, work to greater effect and the platoon, screened by the very effective smoke, are able to continue their advance on the enemy position.
A few days after the bloody battle on The River Dyle, when his platoon are in headlong and confused retreat Bill finds himself on night-time guard duty.
It is difficult and unnerving to be alone at night on guard. Bill is bone tierd and the events of the last few days are running through his head. His whole body is crying for sleep but the thought that he is all that stands between the enemy and his comrades being slaughtered keeps his eyes wide open.
He has his trusty Lee-Enfield by his side, a cocked and loaded Bren gun and a Verey pistol with a flare cartridge ‘up the spout’ to fire if the position is attacked .He almost fires the Verey pistol and opens up with the Bren a number of times as he knows that the enemy are close at hand and bushes and trees play cruel tricks on his tierd eyes.
Bill uses the bayonet on his rifle to great and effect when the fighting is hand -to -hand on the retreat from the River Dyle. Just after the battle his platoon are ordered into a village to rescue some elements of the Royal Welsh, but on entering the village they discover that the Welsh are gone and it’s swarming with enemy. The fighting is bloody and savage with Bill and Bob fighting for their lives with bayonet and rifle butt.
Boys anti-tank rifle
A heavy large caliber rifle Bill’s platoon are issued with theirs before the Germans attack over the river Dyle on the 13th of May.
However, on the second night of the battle that they come under attack from Panzers and Bob calls for the Boys to be deployed. They engage the tanks, but don’t seem to do any serious damage. Luckily the tanks move off to their flank to attack units of the Durham Light Infantry. They keep the rifle with them as they start the retreat, deploying it against the continual threat of tank attack.
One of the best close support field guns of the war, it was quick firing, highly mobile with a lethal shell. Artillery batteries of 25 pounders supported Bill and his companions at the Battle of the River Dyle and tried valiantly to cover the subsequent chaotic retreat.
When Bill’s platoon is heavily pinned down by small arms and shell fire in the chaos of Coutrai an Artillery Observation Officer, arrives to supply close support from a 25 pounder battery. They quickly ascertained where the German batteries were, and promised to silence them. However, only one barrage of friendly shells screams overhead, as the battery has to quickly withdraw in the face of an imminent German attack. It just reinforced to Bill how desperate the situation had become.
Chapter 3: Steady Boys Steady
Excerpt-William Marsh’s own words from The Lucky Shilling (e-book):
“It was the night of May 13 when, just as the sun was sinking, the Germans opened up on us with their artillery. The noise was deafening and it was terrifying not knowing where the next shell would land. This was the first time we had been under fire and, with the phenomenal noise of the explosions and the earth shaking with each shell, it was difficult to force yourself to keep a look out for the enemy infantry and not to just cower in the bottom of your trench with your teeth chattering, feeling completely helpless. I don’t think I have ever been so scared – my mouth was bone dry – I was almost too afraid to swallow.To start with, the German shells landed behind us, but then they started to fall amongst us as the artillery adjusted their range. We were in luck this time however and didn’t suffer any serious casualties. Then our artillery opened up on the enemy and the noise was now truly incredible, it made it difficult to function or to think clearly. It seemed to me that this really was a glimpse of hell on earth…”
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