June 27, 2019
By Garry James
Photos by Jill Marlow and Phil Schreier
The Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944 was the largest amphibious operation that ever was — and ever will be. The plan was audacious, elaborate and risky. Involving almost 200,000 allied troops, the bulk of the force was made up of Americans, British, and Canadians, but there were also contingents of soldiers representing at least a half-dozen nations. Waiting for them were some 80,000 determined Axis defenders who, while initially caught by surprise, mounted a fierce resistance.
A quarter-century ago, my wife Susan and I accompanied our good friends Terry Kaplan and Karen Efron to the 50th anniversary of the D-Day celebrations in Normandy — le Jour-J for you Francophiles. Kaplan shipped over his 1943 white M3 Scout Car, which was our conveyance from event to event. The festivities were overwhelming, made all that more poignant by the large attendance of Normandy veterans. Alas, attrition and advancing years will result in us seeing far fewer of the actual participants on this year’s 75th, but those who can’t make it will undoubtedly be there in spirit.
The amount and variety of materiel seen at Normandy was staggering, and it would be presumptuous of me to attempt to cover it all in the room accorded in a monthly magazine. Still, it is interesting to take a passing look at some of the more basic arms fielded by the major forces, many of which were also used by others, either by issue or happenstance. Accordingly, I’ll compare — as thoroughly as space permits — the principal arms, sans crew-manned weaponry, wielded by individual soldiers of the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Germany.
Despite undergoing bloody, contentious landings, the average American GI had one great advantage over the enemy in France — he carried the finest battle rifle of World War II: the M1 Garand.
Unique among all the forces at Normandy, the majority of U.S. forces were equipped with a rugged and reliable, eight-shot semiautomatic chambered in the man-stopping .30-’06 Springfield round.
Designed by Canadian arms genius and Springfield Armory employee John C. Garand, and after considerable experimentation and refinement, the M1 Garand beat out many rivals. In 1936, the M1 Garand was accepted by the U.S. Army as a replacement of the venerable Model 1903 Springfield bolt-action.
Today, Garand’s system seems almost elementary, but when it first appeared the M1 Garand was considered a marvel. Using a sheet metal en-bloc clip as part of the feeding system, the first round was stripped off manually. When fired, gas was tapped off to move a rod which ultimately operated a clever rotating bolt that extracted the spent case, cocked the internal hammer and chambered the next cartridge. When the clip was empty, it popped out of the receiver and the action remained locked open for the insertion of another loaded clip.
Weighing a not-so-unsubstantial 9½ pounds and measuring 43.6 inches overall, the rifle mounted a sophisticated rear sight involving a peep that was adjustable for windage and elevation by means of a pair of click-dials that were sophisticated and practical.
Depending on when a particular gun was made, the M1 Garand had a buttplate compartment for oil, grease, pull-through containers and one of a couple types of combination tools. Such items were accessible through a stubborn-to-operate hinged, spring-latched trapdoor.
The M1’s safety involved a catch set in the center-front of the triggerguard where it was easily flicked on and off with the shooter’s trigger finger. Initially manufactured by Springfield Armory, demand was such that Winchester soon entered into Garand production. By war’s end, some four million M1 Garands were produced.
Like other battle rifles before and since, the M1 Garand was set up to accept a bayonet. While the gun could accommodate the standard U.S. Model 1905 blade, originally used on the ’03 Springfield, more up-to-date versions of the bayonet were available by the Normandy invasion. The Model 1905 Type 2 had similar dimensions as the original 16-inch blade, but was parkerized and sported ribbed plastic grips rather than walnut panels. They first appeared in late 1941. There were also wartime variants of the 1905 Type 2 with 10-inch blades that were either original or fabricated from 16 inchers.
If the Garand was reasonably maintained, it worked almost flawlessly, even under the most adverse conditions. It was a war-winning piece of ordnance and one which must have given American troops considerable comfort and confidence.
The M1 Garand wasn’t the only semiautomatic longarm carried by U.S. forces on D-Day. An attenuated, lightweight, almost pistol-caliber repeater also found favor with the rank-and-file: the M1 Carbine.
Originally designed as a special rifle with which to arm clerks, cooks, machine-gunners and the like, the M1 Carbine was also favored by soldiers whose duties made carrying around a bulky M1 Garand impractical.
Built on a straight-cased, .30-caliber round that fired a 110-grain bullet out of an 18-inch barrel at some 1,975 feet-per-second (fps), the M1 Carbine produced a muzzle energy of 955 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.). That’s considerably less velocity than the 3,000 fps provided by the 150-grain .30-’06 service round.
Measuring slightly under 3 feet and weighing 5½ pounds, the M1 Carbine employed an economical and reliable mechanism. When the rifle was fired, a small amount of gas passed through a barrel port, moving a short-stroke piston which then pushed a slide to the rear to open the rotating bolt and eject the case. A coil spring in the operating rod then returned the bolt forward, stripping off and chambering a fresh cartridge from a removable 15-round, sheet-steel box magazine.
When the M1 Carbine finally went into production in 1941, it became a hot property. Initially built by Winchester, a number of contractors and subcontractors were put on the M1 production project once the U.S. entered the war, which resulted in receivers being marked with the names of almost a dozen makers.
The carbine’s safety was a simple push button sited on the front of the triggerguard and behind a similar control that released the gun’s 15-round magazine. In the heat of battle, it was found that many soldiers mistakenly hit the mag release instead of the safety, unwittingly dropping the magazine. This problem was later rectified by the drop-in modification of a lever-style safety.
A simple flip-over L-shaped peep sufficed for a rear sight, though a more sophisticated dial-operated unit was eventually designed for the gun. In mid-1944, M1 Carbines would not be equipped to take bayonets, nor would they until the latter part of the war.
Along with standard rigid walnut stocks, an M1A1 variant with a folding wire buttstock was developed for the use of airborne troops. Both versions of the M1 Carbine saw considerable use at Normandy.
America’s primary sniper rifle at Normandy was based on a simplified variant of the M1903A3 Springfield, the M1903A4. This rifle, unlike its predecessor, had a number of stamped parts and a simplified receiver-mounted rear sight. During its lifespan, the sniper variant — the Model 1903A4 — was eventually fitted with four different scopes: the M73B1, available commercially as the Weaver 330C; the M73, commercially the Lyman Alaskan; and the M81 and the M82, which were really the same scope with the exception that the M81 had a crosshair reticle and the M82 a post. All used a special Redfield mount with different rings to accommodate the scopes’ differences. The 1903A4 sported a C–style pistol-grip stock.
Model 1911 & Model 1911A1
The principal American-issued handguns on D-Day were the famed Colt Model 1911 and Model 1911A1. Designed by John M. Browning, this seven-shot repeater chambered in .45 ACP is still regarded as one of the finest arms of its type ever to be produced.
On March 28, 1911, the U.S. military officially adopted Browning’s then-new .45. Like so many great designs, simplicity was a keynote of the Model 1911. It was a locked-breech single-action and employed a swinging link pinned to the barrel’s underlug which lowered and unlocked the barrel from the slide as it retreated to the rear.
The general mechanism employed an economy of parts and controls that were simple. They consisted of a slide release, safety catch, hammer-half-cock safety and a grip safety. When the last cartridge was fired, the slide remained open and ready to receive a new magazine. The first round was then chambered by thumbing-down the slide-lock lever or by manually pulling the slide to the rear.
By June 6, 1944, the M1911 had already been modified. In 1924, the original flat mainspring housing was replaced with an arched component; the trigger was shortened; cutouts were made behind the trigger; the grip-safety spur was elongated and the hammer spur modified. The resulting “Pistol, Caliber .45, Automatic M1911A1,” as it was termed, would soldier on well past World War II. The finish on guns produced during World War II were Parkerized, and grips were of a molded, checkered plastic.
Colt continued to be a major manufacturer during the war, but other contractors, including Remington Rand and Ithaca, Union Switch & Signal and Singer (only 500), also came into to the fore to contribute.
The M1911 and M1911A1 were carried by officers, support troops and it seems just about anyone who could wrangle one. The .45 ACP round was a great stopper and the pistol was rugged and reliable. It was a trusted companion for soldiers negotiating Normandy’s hedgerow country.
Smith & Wesson Victory Model
American soldiers used other handguns besides the M1911 and M1911A1, though in far fewer numbers. The two most prominent were the Smith & Wesson Victory Model and a .38 Special version of the famed K-frame S&W Military & Police revolver. It was double-action with a parkerized finish and plain walnut grips.
Colt Model 1903 & Model 1908
Colt Model 1903 in .32 ACP and Model 1908 in .380 ACP were hammerless semiautomatic pistols that found their way into the theatre, mostly as the sidearm of a general officer. Gen. George C. Patton, especially, was known for carrying one. Patton wasn’t alone in appreciating the attributes of this fine pistol, if a bit underpowered for military usage, but with little blowback. The finish was commonly parkerized, and grips were a checkered walnut. All were marked “U.S. PROPERTY”.
Thompson Model 1928A1 & M1A1
The United States’ primary subgun at Normandy was the elegant and blued Model 1928A1 and simpler M1/M1A1. Chambered in .45 ACP and blowback operated, the M1/M1A1 was the simplified M1928A1 variant. The differences in the M1 and M1A1 were the bolt assembly and cocking handle, which were moved from the top of the action to the right side, as well as the removal of the Cutts compensator and the barrel’s cooling vanes. The rear sight was also simplified. These were superb arms designed towards the latter part of World War I by John T. Thompson. The most common mags were 30-round so-called “stick” style, though the M1928A1 could be fitted with a larger capacity drum.
Thompsons were superb, but they weren’t cheap to build or lightweight to hold. They required time and care in manufacturing. Early on in the war, the U.S. began searching for a simpler, more cost effective substitute. After a considerable amount of development, the M3 submachine gun emerged.
The M3 was a handy, blowback-operated, .45-caliber machine gun with a slower 400 rounds-per-minute (rpm) than the M1928A1’s 835 rpm, and the M1’s 625 rpm. Notably, the M3 could be produced more inexpensively than a Thompson at around $18 each. Nicknamed “Grease Gun” because of its uncanny resemblance to the automotive tool, machining was kept to a minimum, and the gun’s Parkerized finish made no effort to conceal the welds and seams. Controls were simple and easy to use. In lieu of a walnut stock, the M3 featured a sliding wire arrangement. The gun was cocked by the user simply inserting two holes in the bolt and sliding it to the rear.
Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)
During World War I, and about the same time that Thompson was working on his submachine gun, John Browning was busy designing an automatic rifle that chambered in .30-’06 Springfield designed with the intent for clearing out German trenches. Some early versions did make it to France but arrived too late to see any degree of active service.
The gas-operated 1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) proved to be a winner and continued to be used by the military and law enforcement (and some bad guys) during the interwar years. As good as the arm was, it was occasionally altered and upgraded in 1940, resulting in the Model 1918A2. This rugged 20-pound heavyweight featured a folding bipod (often removed by users), and a switch that provided a dual-rate of fire. “Normal” was 550 rpm and “slow” was 350 rpm. The gun’s box magazine held 20 rounds.
Legend has it that the smallest guy in a unit was contrarily chosen to be the BAR man. While some period photos seem to bear this out, the story may be apocryphal. Finish was Parkerized. Largely seen as a squad automatic weapon, the BAR was highly appreciated by its users and went on to a long service life with a number of nations.
Great Britain & Canada
No. 4 Mk I
The main battle rifle used by Great Britain and Canada was the No. 4 Mk I. It was a bolt-action having antecedents stretching back to the latter part of the 19th century, beginning with the introduction of the Magazine Lee-Metford Mark I. Originally produced in rifle and carbine versions, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) was introduced in 1903 as a one-size-fits-all version.
At the start of the 1920s, various versions of the SMLE had been experimented with, and by 1926, the service rifles’ nomenclatures had been permanently altered. Initially, the Mark III was to be called the No. 1 Mk III, and a Mark VI variant became the No. 1 Mk VI. After several modifications, the No. 1 Mk VI emerged in 1931 as the No. 4 Mk I.
With the approach of hostilities with Germany, tests on the No. 4 were stepped up, and in late 1939, the pattern was officially sealed. This gun, along with the No. 1 MK III that continued to be made in Australia and India, would be Britain’s main battle rifle during World War II. It was manufactured at a number of indigenous facilities, as well as in Canada by Long Branch Arsenal. The Canadians also adopted the No. 4 Mk I and it was imported into the United States by Savage.
Once finally approved, the No. 4 Mk I measured some 44½ inches overall with a slightly-over-25-inch barrel. The action was beefier than that of the Mark III with its screw-adjustable rear aperture sight moved from the barrel to the receiver, which graduated it from 200 to 1,300 yards. The basic cock-on-close Lee-Enfield action was retained, as were the earlier guns’ sheet steel magazine which could be loaded with 10 rounds of .303 ammo by way of two stripper clips. Unlike the Mark III, which had a nosecap extending to the rifle’s muzzle, the No. 4’s barrel extended beyond the forend by almost 3 inches, allowing a short, spike-style bayonet or grenade launcher to be easily fixed to it.
In 1941, a No. 4 Mk I* was approved that had a simpler bolt-head release system. These guns were manufactured by Savage and Long Branch. Both Marks of No. 4 were later fitted with a simple flip-type, two-aperture battle sight intended for 300- and 600-yard ranges.
No. 4 Mk I (T)
The No. 4 proved to be more than adequate for the sniping role, and a large number of these arms, designated No. 4 Mk I (T), were mounted with an excellent 4X No. 32 scope made by Enfield, Holland & Holland, and Birmingham Small Arms (BSA). These rifles, with their respective scopes, were completed with olive-drab-painted wooden chests. The No. 4 Mk I (T) has been considered by many to be the finest sniper rifle of World War II with many more seen at Normandy.
Enfield No. 2
In World War I, the British were armed with one of the finest military revolvers ever made: the top-break, stirrup-latch Webley. Various models, or so-called “Marks”, were seen in the trenches, but the apex of the series was the Mark VI that appeared towards the end of the conflict.
Like most of its predecessors, this sturdy, rugged double-action was chambered for the .455 Webley cartridge, and was a good manstopper. It was a big revolver, measuring some 11¼ well-balanced inches long and weighing 2 pounds, 4 ounces.
The Enfield No. 2 remained in service following the war, but authorities felt the gun could be lightened without losing effectiveness. In 1928, a diminutive Webley-inspired double action that was some inches shorter than the Mk VI and weighing 10 ounces less, was adopted and produced at Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) in the London Borough of Enfield.
The No. 2 chambered a .380-caliber round with dimensions very similar to those of the .38 Smith &Wesson (S&W), but with a 200-grain lead bullet. Termed the “.380/200 Mk I,” its load was not as powerful as the .455, but recoil was light, and it was felt to be an adequate military round. The bullet was later changed to a 178-grain cupro nickel jacketed style, somewhat reducing the gun’s effectiveness.
Originally designed as a single/double-action, the No. 2 Mk I revolver, as the Enfield No. 2 would come to be known, had its hammer spur removed and the mechanism rendered DA-only. This was done (supposedly) at the behest of the Royal Tank Corps who complained that the hammer spur kept getting caught on the equipment inside their tanks.
The No. 2 Mk 1 went through several minor modifications, resulting in added “star” redesignations. It was an adequate arm, but certainly not in the same class as the U.S. M1911A1 or German P38.
The No. 2 Mk 1 was the primary handgun carried by British and Canadian forces, though other types were seen, the most prominent being Smith & Wesson Model 10 chambered in the British service round.
President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program gave military aid to any country whose defense was vital to the security of the United States.
By making good use of American Thompson subguns, Britain realized early on in World War II that its forces would need large quantities of submachine guns that could be produced easily and inexpensively.
Work was undertaken at RSAF Enfield, principally by designers Major Reginald V. Shepherd and Harold Turpin, who then developed a 9mm-caliber, blowback repeater. It shared similar features as the earlier domestic and foreign arms, but like the U.S. M3, could be built largely of stamped arts in a matter of hours.
The “STEN” gun as it was called, derived its designation from the first initials of the last names of Shepherd, Turpin and Enfield.
Employing a 32-round box magazine copied from that of the German MP38, the STEN underwent a number of different incarnations with the most common ones being the Mark II and Mark III. Manufactured at a number of different UK sites, as well as at Long Branch Arsenal in Canada, the STEN was rugged, though it was prone to stoppages due to fouling, and gripping the side-mounted magazine while firing. Ofttimes less-than-smooth feeding of the staggered rounds within the magazine occurred. Still, the STEN cost about $10 per unit to make and was generally considered a trusty sidekick. It was a gun that was well received and gladly used in France.
The .303-caliber BREN gun was another example Britain’s penchant for arms with omnibus acronyms. The acronym “BREN” was the combination of the first initials of the Czechoslovakian city Brno, combined with the two letters of Enfield. This was appropriate, as the BREN, adopted by the Brits in 1937, was actually a licensed variant of the Czech ZGB light machine gun (LMG).
The well thought-out gas-operated repeater was interesting in that its curved, 20- or 30-round box magazines were sited at the top of the receiver. Weighing roughly 25 pounds when unloaded, the BREN could be shoulder fired, worked from a sling, shot prone with an attached bipod, managed from a tripod and employed on motorized vehicles. Also among its many features was a quick-change barrel capability which allowed for extended continuous fire. Cyclic rate was between 480 and 550 rpm.
Manufactured in both the UK and Canada, the BREN progressed through several “Marks,” with the Mark I and II seen on D-Day. The Mark II was a somewhat simpler variant of the Mark I but with a less complicated rear sight, fixed-height bipod, and a fixed-rather-than-folding cocking handle. The rear grip was also eliminated. The BREN was a splendid arm, which, like many other pieces produced during the war, was retained in peacetime. The BREN was even converted to 7.62 NATO after the war and saw service with the British until the early 1970s. Ultimately, BRENs of various stripe were used by scores of countries.
The Germans did have semiautomatic rifles in the field, principally in the guise of the G41 and G43, but the main arm of the average soldier was the justly famed Karabiner 98k (K98k, or Kar98k) Mauser bolt action.
The K98k’s basic action was derived from that of its progenitor, the Gewehr 98 (G98), which appeared just prior to the 20th century and was Germany’s primary battle rifle during the Great War. The G98 was a bit on the long side at almost 50 inches. In 1935, shorter versions were produced that resulted in the K98k.
The K98k was a superb action with its one piece, cock-on-opening bolt design with two sturdy front-mounted locking lugs. It was also fitted with a non-rotating extractor that eliminated double feeds by grasping the rifle’s rimless 7.92x57mm round as soon as it cleared the magazine. The rifle had a flush, five-round magazine that could be loaded by a stripper clip, and there was a side-mounted sling arrangement adopted from the earlier Karabiner Model 1898 AZ (Kar 98AZ). The K98k was also set up for a practical 10-inch-bladed knife bayonet, the majority of which mounted plastic handles of various black and brown hues.
Manufactured at a number of sites in Germany and elsewhere, premier K98k rifles were works of art with most parts being machined; fit and finish was generally top-notch. As the war progressed, however, more stamped components were employed and cosmetics — while still acceptable — were diminished somewhat.
The K98k action was so good that it has provided the basis for uncounted sporting rifles, as well as the pattern on which the M1903 Springfield rifle was based.
While the M1 Garand and British No. 4 Mk I were exemplars of their type, they had more than a worthy opponent in the K98k Mauser. Millions were produced during the war, most of which had their makers’ identities concealed by an elaborate system of manufacturing codes. One thing that couldn’t be hidden was the sheer excellence of the arm. Rugged, reliable and accurate, it was a force to be reckoned with.
The K98k also provided an excellent platform for a sniper rifle, and a number of different varieties were constructed using various mounting systems and scopes.
The German arms-maker Walther was no stranger to double-action autos having come out with the superb PP, and a later PPK pocket pistol in 1927. The concept that a pistol could be carried with relatively safety with a round in the chamber and the hammer lowered was clever. To fire the piece one had only to pull the trigger.
Though at the time the famed P.08 Luger pistol was the standard arm of Germany’s military — although under restrictions imposed by the Allies following World War I — experiments with a service-caliber double-action semiautomatic were also undertaken. After a few false starts and some tweaking of improved models, the Walther P.38 — so called because it was officially adopted in 1938 — became the standard sidearm of the Wehrmacht armed forces of Nazi Germany. The Luger also continued to be produced and used throughout the war. Eventually, the Luger upstaged the P.38 as the favorite trophy among returning GIs.
The P.38, chambered in 9mm, employed a mechanism with a tilting block to provide locking and unlocking. Flanking side-mounted recoil springs were also used. The gun had a decocking safety lever and loaded-chamber indicator, and its magazine held eight rounds. The pistol had an overall length of 8¾ inches and hefted some 34 ounces unloaded. Grips were of brown or black Bakelite material.
Initially made at Walther Arms, production was later taken up at Mauser-Werke, as well as Spreewerk GmbH. It was a superb piece and perhaps the most sophisticated handgun of the war. Its viability was further enhanced as it continued to be a popular military, police and civilian sidearm after the war.
Germans also carried a number of other handguns, including the Walther PP (Polizeipistole, or “police pistol”); PPK (Polizeipistole Kriminalmodell, or “detective police pistol”); Mauser HSc and Sauer 38H (often called “H”) pocket pistols. There were also other handguns appropriated from the lands captured by the Germans or allies and neutral countries such as Spain.
Misnamed by its adversaries as “Schmeisser,” Germany’s primary submachinegun was correctly termed the Maschinenpistole 38, or MP38. The later simplified guise became the MP40.
Designed at Erma-Werke (Erfurter Maschinenfabrik), the MP38 was a straight-blowback design with a cyclic rate between 400 and 550 rpm. Featuring a 32-round detachable-box magazine, the MP38 was one of the first guns of its type to feature a folding stock, making it useful for standard infantry use and great for airborne and armored troops.
The MP38 was not a cheap machine gun to manufacture, nor was the time in construction economical, given its intricately machined receiver. Its successor, the MP40, followed in its forefather’s basic design, but differently. The receiver and frame were of metal stampings which made them faster and cheaper to build. Ultimately, fabricated at a trio of sites with some parts furnished by sub-contractors, several million were turned out between 1940 and 1945. The MP40 was certainly one of the best subguns of the war, if not the best.
It spoke with deadly efficiency at Normandy.
There you have a brief revealing of the more common small arms seen at Normandy on D-Day, 75 years ago.
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