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The Armory Article 4 - WW2 Infantry Arms

Published on April 22, 2024

Welcome back to the Armoury. In honor of Headquarters: World War II having released we will be taking a look at infantry weapons used during the Second World War. As usual we will start with a rundown of the history of an infantry companies arsenal, and then get down to business on how Headquarters models these weapons. To get the ball rolling we need to go back to the First World War before we take a look at the weapons of the sequel.

Russian guard units occupying Intersburg 1914

At the start of the First World War infantrymen were primarily issued with long bolt action rifles and bayonets. In terms of offensive infantry weapons that was effectively it. The theory was that massed rifle fire and aggressive, fast moving infantry attacks were the way to win battles. With mass and elan an attack could be carried out and, while losses would still sometimes be heavy, defenders could be overrun and flanks could be found and turned. This is not how things turned out.

A likely staged photo of German troops on the Marne

The machine gun and the massive size of European armies, combined with the small frontage of Western Europe, created a problem that hadn’t been seen before in warfare of this scale, the flanks were essentially gone. Machine guns can cover very wide sectors with very few men, meaning from the Alps all the way to the channel, automatic weapons and artillery fire could create an impenetrable wall of lead and steel. Aggressive attacking infantry couldn’t find flanks to exploit. No matter how much mass or speed was given to an attack, the men simply couldn’t close in and exploit a gap or overrun a sector of the line. 1914 saw hundreds of thousands of very brave men gunned down trying to launch physically impossible attacks. This lead to trench warfare developing, allowing the infantryman to escape the slaughter of open battlefields.

German hussars fighting from a trench

Combined arms and communications improvements eventually helped end trench warfare. At the tactical level the infantry company changed immensely. The development of the trench mortar gave infantry companies a light piece of artillery that could be kept on hand very close to the fighting. If you needed a bomb dropped right now on a particular target, the mortar gave an infantry company that capability. Light machine guns like the Lewis gun gave squads and platoons the ability to bring sustained automatic fire right up to the front line. Telescopic sites allowed a sniper to reach out hundreds of yards to target officers or the crews of specialist weapons. The flamethrower was developed for burning out defenders from entrenchments and buildings at close range. Hand grenades played a similar role, giving your average rifleman an alternative close range weapon to his bayonet.

An officers about to throw a Mills bomb...

...and Portugese troops loading a Stokes trench mortar

As the 20th century wore on and the Second World War approached many of these weapons fundamentally remained the same, but improved with the technological advancements of the time. Light machine guns became even lighter and more portable. Rifles trended shorter in length as engagement ranges were found to be far closer than expected. Where a rifle company was previously a formation purely for riflemen, it was now a combined arms formation with organic mortars, snipers, machine guns, sub machine guns, and hand grenades. Flamethrowers could still be attached if they were expected to attack fortifications. All of these new weapons added to the complexity and firepower of infantry companies.

An American M1919 medium machine gun in Aachen, two of these guns were organic to every rifle company

The invention of the tank necessitated the creation of a whole new field of anti tank weapons. By the middle of the Second World War the earlier anti-tank rifle had been usurped in most national armies by shaped charge weapons. A shaped charge uses a hollow conical space to focus a molten metal jet to penetrate a tanks armor. This can kill the crew or damage internal components. Delivering that shaped charge remained a key problem. Before the era of guided anti tank weapons, an infantryman could either try to creep close enough to a tank to throw an anti-tank grenade, or use a dedicated anti-tank launcher like the American Bazooka, British PIAT, or German Panzerschreck. Armor was vulnerable in urban environments or dense forests because it gave infantry ample opportunity to creep in close and use these short ranged tank killing weapons.

A British PIAT rifle, a spring-loaded anti-tank weapon that launched HEAT warheads at enemy armor

Previously a company commander had to worry about when to form his company from column to line of battle, and how to quickly execute an attack. Now he had to worry about where to place his machine guns, his mortars, how he could counter enemy armor, if he had snipers where to place them, if he had flamethrowers attached where they should be sent etc. The advances in weapons made everyone's jobs much more complicated and technical. Specialist positions and training became an important new component of military life. All of those enlisted men, NCO’s, and junior officers needed to be taught how to effectively use these new weapons.

The small arms and infantry weapons of the British...


..and Americans

This brings us to Headquarters, where you have these infantry weapons and tools at your disposal. Riflemen are equipped with rifles and grenades and are your main infantry maneuver element. By not being weighed down with crew served weapons they can attack and deploy relatively quickly, and even have AT grenades to deal with armor. What they don’t have is any specialist weapons to really lock down a sector with automatic fire, or to destroy armor at long range. It’s a callous thing to say but much like in real life, a large part of an infantryman's role is to hold and die protecting the heavy, crew served weapons. These units are your PBI, theirs is but to do and die.

Headquarters also models Paratroopers, Elite Infantry, and Scouts. Paratroopers are organized and equipped similarly to riflemen in terms of combat power. Their specialist training however gives them a bonus to hiding, making them more difficult to detect.

Scouts are better at both hiding and detecting enemies, but are equipped with smoke grenades instead of AT grenades. This increases their survivability but means they have practically no weapons to destroy armor with.

Elite Infantry have better storming capabilities and morale, meaning they hold up better when attack enemy positions. They are also more likely to survive contact long enough to use their AT grenades to smash enemy armor.

Specialist infantry weapons are on full display in Headquarters. Flamethrowers, machine guns, snipers, anti tank teams, and mortars are fully modelled. Much like in real life, these teams are concentrations of firepower but have some hangups that prevent them from manoeuvring and fighting flexibly like riflemen. Flamethrowers are great at clearing fortifications and can even destroy lighter vehicles. Their short range makes them vulnerable to fire while closing the distance.

Sniper teams excel at hiding and remaining undetected while they pick off high priority targets from long range, but are only fielded in small specialized teams and are not meant to take and hold ground.

Machine guns can lock down a sector with torrents of automatic fire, but remain heavy and cumbersome. You cannot assault very effectively while lugging around a tripod, 15+ kilograms of machine gun, and a thousand rounds of ammunition.

Anti tank teams can shoot a shaped charge further than an infantryman can throw a AT grenade, and can maneuver faster than an anti-tank gun. They should avoid tangling with enemy riflemen, they are a wasted asset fighting other infantry when there is armor to crack.

Finally, the mortar is an indirect fire weapon that lets you put a bomb where you need to. It could be into a machine gun nest, a building thats serving as a strongpoint, or into an attacking rifleman squad. Just don’t put it so far forward that it risks getting knocked out by small arms fire.

As a World War II infantry commander, you have a lot of tools in your arsenal. Most of these were introduced in World War I but have now reached a maturity and effectiveness that has improved their lethality and portability. Use your crew served weapons to create opportunities to maneuver and attack. Use your riflemen to exploit these opportunities to close with and destroy the enemy. Check out Headquarters: World War II now on Steam and the Slitherine Store.

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