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Machine guns as artillery: the Vickers as an indirect-fire weapon

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I haven't posted here for a while, but I came across quite an interesting article that should be shared with the forum and with BTS:

Machine Guns for Artillery

It's about using Vickers machine guns as indirect fire weapons. According to this article, Vickers heavy water-cooled machine guns were regularly used in both World War One and Two as artillery, pouring down a vertical hail of bullets in extended barrages. There were special machine-gun battalions, complete with Forward Observation crews, capable of "protective, creeping, standing and enfilade barrages."

The guns were capable of extended firing; the longest and heaviest barrage fired in World War One consisted of ten Vickers firing nearly one million rounds at a target about 2000 yards (1829m, for those of us used to thinking in CM terms) distant in one continuous 12 hour (!) bombardment. Interestingly, the Vickers were none the worse for wear: "Of the ten guns used in this attack there were no major breakdowns and all were completely operational at the end of the barrage."

During the inter-War period, the tactics were more fully developed, and specialized sights and training for the gun crews came into effect. Prismatic optical range finders were used to determine the targets' range when it was in sight, otherwise more typical maps and special slide rulers were used (see this page). Also, "charts for determining adjustments due to the relative elevation of the target to the gun and for wind speed and atmospheric conditions" were developed, indicating that the somewhat unconventional use of a machine gun in this respect was a well-defined doctrine with support from the highest levels.

According to the article, each infantry division was equipped with one machine gun battalion as division-level support, each battalion having 48 Vickers guns, and some 4.2" mortars. Further, each individual battalion had its own gun platoon of four Vickers with equipment for indirect-fire.

The article gives an indication of the accuracy of this method: at 2000 yards, gunners would fire a 25-round burst, then literally tap the handle of the gun a precisely trained amount to move the barrel exactly 1/4th of a degree, then fire another 25-rounds, and repeat until the barrel hit the pre-positioned stakes placed to the sides of the barrel to limit traverse, at which point the gun was tapped back the other direction. Each tap would move the impact area of the bullets 25 feet to the side, and in this way, a sweeping field of fire could be arranged.

I started thinking of this, naturally, in terms of Combat Mission. This, it seems to me, would be a useful tool in our support weapons toolbox. I would think it would be at least as or more deadly against dug in enemies in open ground than most light or even medium artillery, save for things like tree bursts and VT fuses, since a ground-level artillery burst doesn't effect things very much that are below ground level (i.e. in a foxhole). In the light of the largely open desert terrain and presence of British forces in the upcoming CMAK, I can anticipate some interesting uses for a sudden, massive, long range machine gun barrage that comes down on top of unsuspecting enemy heads. As well, its use against half-tracks and other open-topped vehicles or in a suppressive role against enemy front lines or gun positions would probably be especially effective.

Due to the relatively short range (just about directly in between the on-map Soviet 50mm and 82mm mortars in CMBB), if it were handled in the game like artillery is, we would need to have the capability of on-map artillery units that had both a gun and a Forward Observer component, unlike the current artillery model, in which only the Forward Observer is physically on the map. This would open up the possibility of counter-battery fire, which the article specifially notes as one of the applications developed during World War One. While it's possible that this method could be implemented in the same way on-map mortars are now (i.e. having an on-map commander spot for them or use direct LOS), the article seems to indicate that the Vickers units were used just like conventional artillery, and would need to have the ability to operate independently as battalion-level support units with the capability of blind-firing based on map coordinates, and not just limited to the LOS of the commander unit.

And this whole paragraph is interesting:

One late-war development in pre-assault bombardment was termed the 'pepperpot' method. The idea was to use the combined power of the machine gun battalions with all of the by then relatively unused anti-tank and anti-aircraft units. These, along with mortars and direct tank cannon fire, were all used together to blanket a target area with fire. This provided for a type of 'close-support' bombardment that could be used to supplement the normal artillery bombardment.
I think it's time to address once again the presence of on-map indirect-fire artillery units (or the lack thereof), in addition to the conventional off-map variety, since this would open up some new tactics for us, particularly on the larger maps that are now available. Counter battery fire would become a possibility, and an enterprising player could use forces operating behind enemy lines to hunt down their enemy battalion's artillery support. This wouldn't generally come into use except in the longer, larger battles or operations, as this is usually outside of the game's level of abstraction, but there would be no avoiding it with Vickers groups at least, it seems to me, and the Vickers can also always be turned level with the ground and used as conventional machine guns in other situations.

"With the rapid expansion in the wartime army many officers were not exposed to the use of the machine gun firing from behind their positions as either a support for attacks or for defensive coverage. This tended to make them cautious of their employment." Let us not make the same mistake; here's my vote for the inclusion of this unique method of indirect fire in CMAK.


p.s. A couple of minutes searching on Google yielded this old thread on a World War 1 mailing list forum here. Several of the posts reference historical data, including the use of the indirect-fire method by British, American, Australian, Canadian, and German troops in World War One, and that the crews (the British ones at least) were training in blind-firing at night with targets given as map coordinates.

Edited to correct a broken link...

[ April 23, 2003, 07:32 AM: Message edited by: lewallen ]

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Some time ago, there was an argument about how Shermans were from time to time used in indirect fire role, by driving them into a slope. It was there suggested that this should be in the game, but Steve said it was out of scope because it wasn't something done impromptu in CM type battle but carefully prepared beforehand and better applicable with a 75mm FO team.

There isn't a .303 caliber FO available, though, but then it goes to just how likely were you to encounter something like this in a typical CM type battle. I know that this same thing was practised with Maxim HMG's in Finnish army before the war, but I have never actually heard of it being done in true combat situations, not even during the Winter War when Finland was in desperate shortage of artillery and grenades. Does any of your sources claim it was done during WW2 in scales of any importance?

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Originally posted by Sergei:

not even during the Winter War when Finland was in desperate shortage of artillery and grenades.

Given that they were also short on ammunition (and the MG's to fire them as well), I'd think using MG's in such a way would've been considered downright stupid. I can only imagine how much such usage can waste ammo for no useful results at all.

[ April 23, 2003, 09:54 AM: Message edited by: Engel ]

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Indirect MG fire has been discussed extensively in the CMBO forum; a search of the archives should yield some interesting reading.

Indirect MG Fire

Don't forget to read the Bren Tripod Thread, either! :)

The article quoted in the original post is quite good; it mentions only British MG battalions but of course the other CW formations employed them as well. The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (MG), the Toronto Scottish Regiment (MG) and the Saskatoon Light Infantry (MG) all served as divisional machine gun units in Europe; the two armoured divisions also had independent MG companies attached.

The Canadian Militia actually set up a Machine Gun Corps between the wars, and from 1921-1936 this corps IIRC was an independent arm in the manner of the Royal Canadian Artillery. During WW I, the Canadian Corps had a motorized machine gun brigade, and even in 1915 had recognized the value of the MG, sending its infantry battalions to France armed with Colt potato-diggers. Recently before that, the British had been reluctant to add Vickers guns to infantry battalions, fearing it would "throw off the balance of firepower" (!) whatever that means...

In 1936 the Militia was reorganized, and the MG corps was done away with but many battalions remained designated as "M.G." battalions - the "M.G." being made an official part of their title and even appeared on their cap badges. So the use of MG battalions did not begin as a wartime innovation by the British in WW II by any stretch of the imagination.

The MG battalions were considered "infantry" - the article talks about British "infantry" regiments being converted to MG battalions - what was the situation pre-1939? Did Britain not have MG units before that? I had thought the Canadians patterned themselves after the British - after 1936, there were three types of "Infantry" Regiments in Canada - "rifle", "machine gun", and "tank". Early in WW II the tank regiments were taken from the infantry and helped form the new Canadian Armoured Corps. The MG units stayed as part of the infantry.

The MG battalions also had a company of 4.2 inch mortars by the time they got into the fighting, and in the Canadian example at least, they were referred to as "Support Battalions".

[ April 23, 2003, 10:44 AM: Message edited by: Michael Dorosh ]

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Back during one of the MG debates in CM:BO, I was doing some research and came across some guy who collects, of all things, slide rules. But he has a slide rule used for aiming the Vickers in just such a manner described.

The Vickers Slide Rule

If something like this were ever to be included in CM, I would suggest it be handled like on board indirect mortar fire, with the spotter a HQ unit, rather than a FO for an offboard MG.

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I recently read "Freyberg's Circus", the reminiscences of, yes, a Kiwi, in a four-gun Vickers unit.

He talks about the aforementioned technique for patterning an area, on this occasion to support a tank assault: "We fired over and between the tanks; their back vents had been pulled shut as arranged...Early in their training the Number Ones had learnt to repeat certain sayings to themselves, the better to control their fire, and many were repeating these to themselves incessantly as they blazed away: 'Fire...tap...check,' for firing and 'Crank-handle on to the roller, belt to the left front' for loading. And there were many more such sayings as occasion demanded.

Before they were fired, the guns were paralleled, the target was described and the range determined. Then came the balance of the fire order which went something like this: 'Right and left - one tap - Fire!'

The Number One would loose off a burst, then take his right hand off the handle and give it one tap to the right. This would move the sighting of the gun 15 minutes or one quarter of a degree to the right. Then he pressed the trigger and fired off another burst before traversing (by tapping) back to the left and firing again. In the event of the orders being three taps he would continue on to the right for two more bursts, taps and checks, and so on...

By firing and traversing our guns as described we were able to pattern a whole area. This is because the bullets of a machine-gun don't all fall in the same spot, but in an elongated ellipse, which gets larger as the range increases, rather like water squirting from a hosepipe. To complete the patterning, the tapping ensures that each ellipse hits the ground immediately alongside the previous one. So it didn't matter if you were firing in daylight or at night, you could effectively pattern the area you were trying to neutralise...we could go on as long as the ammunition lasted with our water-cooled guns, even if they bubbled, boiled and spurted, which of course they frequently did."

On that occasion, being in a long term dug-in position, they effectively had an unlimited amount of ammunition.

He mentions that in WWI the gun had a range of about 3000 metres but early in WWII they received new, streamlined ammunition (the Mk VIIIZ bullet) which almost doubled that. He says "the uses of the Vickers with the new ammunition and its longer range were many. Roads in the enemy back area could be covered at night by indirect fire, causing the enemy considerable trouble as they could not use the roads while we were splattering them. The enemy called our guns "whispering death" because the sound of the Vickers' rapid fire was not audible at a distance and the only warning was a faint shizzing, before the crushing impact of the Mark VIIIZ bullet".

On another occasion their target was a battery of 25pdrs that the Germans had captured, but he does not mention the range.

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The "tapping" of MGs was told to me by my grandfather when I was much younger. He was a machine gunner (I assume a vickers) on the southcoast of england when invasion fever was at its height. He told me they used to drill firing into the sea. The CO would be shouting distances which they were expected to be able to target then "tap" the guns to adjust the distance/range.

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D'oh, sorry, I should have done a search for the other threads. Looks like some good references to use of this method in WWII, and the web site I referenced had a manual for a Vickers in 1951, and it has sections titled "Consistency of tap", "Controlled corrections, indirect (elevation)", and "Controlled corrections, indirect (direction)".

In game terms, they would use a ton of ammo. Maybe they could be modelled like heavy mortars in that they have a lot of ammo when placed, but if they move, they have to leave the ammo behind.

The Bren tripod idea doesn't seem too stable (so to speak), but there seems to be a lot more documentation for the Vickers.

Thanks for all the great posts so far.


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Ah this subject rises again

Yep a useful but technically difficult, I investigated the use of the 50 cal for indirect fire in 1983-84 for/ with the US Army Field Artillery School

Short answer, yes it can be done but has several limitation. One is what you mention-a lot of ammo-which we calculated would be easier to suppress with existing mortar systems.

Difficulty of getting infantrymen to "level their bubbles" ie set up the system correctly plus for indirect work, surveying in the position.

Cool idea if you can devote the resources and time to it. Successful in the WWI - but heck they had the time!

In our research we also found that it had been looked at extensively during the Korean war - but again rejected due to complexity and the superiority of mortar systems to do the same thing

One advantage of MG indirect, undetectable by even todays mortar/artillery finding radars.

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