Organization of the WWII U.S. Army Infantry Rifle SquadTony wyaad September 13, 2019 100 Comments
This video will cover the composition of the U.S. Army infantry rifle squad in World War II. It will specifically focus on the squad circa 1944 through 1945. The U.S. rifle squad actually changed very little throughout its involvement in World War II; always consisting of a dozen men, numbered 1 through 12. Number 1 was the squad leader. Numbers 2 and 3 were riflemen who functioned as scouts. Numbers 4 through 6 formed the automatic rifle team. Numbers 7 through 11 were riflemen, and number 12 was the assistant squad leader. The squad leader position at the beginning of the war had the rank of sergeant, but by 1944 that had been bumped up to a staff sergean This continued a trend of recognizing the increasing importance of small unit leadership. Squad leaders in World War I had held the rank of corporal. Similarly, the assistant squad leader began World War II as a corporal, but was upgraded to a buck sergeant. When this happened the rank of corporal all but disappeared in the rifle platoons. The rest of the squad held the rank of private or private first class. The shoulder sleeve insignia for a PFC back then was a single chevron. The squad leader’s job was to lead the squad, naturally. According to the manual: The assistant squad leaders job was, unsurprisingly, to assist the squad leader. So the squad had two NCOs, who led by example, and when the squad split up they each took a team. The automatic rifleman was supported by two soldiers: the assistant automatic rifleman and an ammunition bearer. While the BAR was operated in combat by a single soldier, the other two were basically riflemen who kept him supplied with ammo, and we’re ready to take over as automatic riflemen if necessary. While all members of the squad were familiarized with the BAR, the automatic rifle team had special training in its employment. They even had a different MOS; SSN 746 whereas the rest of the squad was a 745. The automatic rifleman was armed with an M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle, commonly called the BAR. Always pronounced “B.A.R.,” never “bar.” G.I.s were issued bars, but they were Hershey, Nestle, Milky Way… Everyone else in the squad was armed with a U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, Semi-automatic, M1, nicknamed the Garand. I know there’s been a push in recent years to pronounce it “Gehr-und” or however the inventor’s name was pronounced. The man may have been “Gehr-und,” but the weapon was a “guh-Rand.” I have never heard a veteran from World War II or Korea pronounce it any differently. Now, you can call it what you want, but I’m sticking with “guh-Rand” because that’s what G.I.s said when they weren’t just calling it an “M1.” Semi-automatic, of course, means rounds can be fired as fast as the trigger can be squeezed. This made the basic U.S. rifleman unique, as every other combatant armed its riflemen with a bolt-action weapon as standard. Some other nations did develop semi-automatic rifles, but their rates of adoption were marginal compared to universal. Training film audio: “One man firing a Garand can do nearly as much damage as three men using the old type Springfield rifle with its hand-operated bolt. Bolt action rifles weren’t completely phased out of the U.S. Army. For example, earlier in the war, rifle squads had a single grenadier armed with a bolt-action M1903 Springfield rifle with an M1 grenade launcher. This was issued to the assistant squad leader, though the role could of course be delegated to another, and there was a position in those squads for an alternate grenadier. But this ’03 rifle has led to much confusion with some authors, even authors within the army itself who make the assertion that there was a sniper rifle in EVERY squad. This was never the case. The M1903A4 sniper rifle was a different weapon, that couldn’t even accept a grenade launcher, which needed a front sight on the barrel which the ’03A4 did not have. These scoped rifles were platoon-level assets and there were only three in the entire company. So, no sniper rifle in every squad; only one-third of your squads at best. While there were still some non-scoped ’03s soldiering-on in Normandy, the vast majority had been replaced with the adoption of the M7 grenade launcher for the M1 rifle. These launchers were shipped to the U.K. in huge numbers before the invasion, more than enough to supply every rifle company causing channel. The reason grenadiers with ’03s can be spotted in photographs taken in Normandy may be down to local failure to acquire the new launchers in time, or maybe just individual comfort with the old weapon system that caused some to be retained. But most Springfields seen at this time are in possession of support troops. Any soldier that needed an M1 had an M1. At any rate, M7 grenade launchers were allotted three per squad, intended for the assistant squad leader and two additional riflemen. It doesn’t mean all three were in operation at the same time but anyone with an M1 could now be a grenadier when needed and the extra launchers meant a squad could really make it rain grenades in a pinch. There were several types of rifle grenades available like purpose-built fragmentation, HEAT (as in H.E.A.T., High Explosive Anti-Tank) and white phosphorus rifle grenades. Then there were adapters to launch hand grenades like the common frag or chemical grenades like smoke. Some enterprising G.I.s even used them to heave 60 mm mortar rounds. There was also a rainbow of pyrotechnic signal grenades; red parachute flare, green star cluster, that sort of thing. Despite what you may have heard, rifle grenades were absolutely designed to be fired from the shoulder for direct fire. Just watch old film. However, angles needed for indirect fire required the rifle butt be placed on the ground for anything but emergencies. This method was fine for lobbying fragmentation grenades into fixed enemy positions, but hitting a moving vehicle with an anti-tank grenade required fairly flat trajectory and you’re only going to get that firing from the shoulder, or supported under the arm. You can’t use it like a mortar and then hit that halftrack that’s coming at you unless Lady Luck is really on your side. Let’s take another look at that photograph from the beginning of this video, the one with the squad from the 90th ID loading up on June 2nd before D-Day. I’m sure now you can pick out the BAR team. There’s the automatic rifleman himself, followed by two G.I.s armed with M1s but carrying ammo for the BAR. They probably have ammo for their M1s in their ammunition carrying bags. Right behind the BAR team are grenadiers, complete with M7 grenade launchers attached to their rifles. Things can naturally change in the field, but this is the allotment according to the T/O&E. 11 M1s and BAR is how a squad of leg infantry would arrive overseas. Once in a combat zone, G.I.s were famously resourceful. BARs seemingly had the ability to multiply.
Submachine guns could materialize out of thin air. A popular story illustrating this phenomenon involves the 1st battalion, 23rd infantry regiment, 2nd infantry division, who by 17 June 1944, after having found themselves in some lopsided surprise encounters and hedgerows of Normandy, had acquired 87 submachine guns from anti-aircraft units defending Omaha Beach. Vehicles had submachine guns for the drivers, but the dogfaces convinced them that those weapons were needed elsewhere. By the end of June 1944, to partially acknowledge what was happening on the ground, the T/O&E (that’s the Table of Organization and Equipment) had been amended to include more automatic firepower. Six BARs and six submachine guns were added to the company weapons pool. (At this time, six additional Browning light machine guns were added to the battalion weapons pool, but that’s beyond the scope of this video.) Keep in mind that these new weapons were distributed as the company commander saw fit. Maybe they were all needed for a particularly aggressive combat patrol. Maybe they were all given to an assaulting platoon in a company attack. But the changes meant that two platoons per company could double their BARs and still be right with the tables. Submachine guns were of special importance for patrolling and scouting, and especially during house-to-house fighting. Assuming an even distribution, a company commander in the summer of 1944 could officially arm most of his squads with two BARs and a submachine gun, but still not officially all of them. Though several units did that. Tables be damned. A history of the 164th infantry regiment notes that by the Bougainville campaign: Word from Okinawa echoed that: The same was true in Europe. This is from an infantryman’s journal entry during the Battle of the Bulge: And a soldier in the 84th division describing a February 1945 attack in Germany recalled: Now that may not be with your old uncle Frank’s outfit did, but keep in mind there were 243 rifle squads in a regular U.S. infantry division. That’s well over 17,000 standard rifle squads in combat around the globe facing a variety of threats. So, they weren’t all going to be mirror images of each other Alright, squad teams. While the U.S. army defined the squad as “the smallest tactical unit,” the rifle squad was subdivided into two, or was it three, teams. (Depending on who you ask and when you ask them.) These were not modern symmetrical fire teams. They were specialized to perform different roles. I mentioned the automatic rifle team earlier. This team is named as such in FM 7-10, the field manual for the infantry company. There were also scouts and riflemen. But the 12-man squad could also be thought of as two halves. One veteran recalled: Now it makes a lot of sense to lump the scouts in with the BAR team so that the squad can be split evenly, one half for each leader. Not just in a firefight but for things like security and reconnaissance missions. FM 7-10 uses the term “half-squads.” For example: or Anyone who’s read enough first-hand accounts knows that some veterans will refer to their half-squads, for example: There’s the scoped Springfield for everybody. Other period sources refer to the two primary halves of the rifle squad as the “BAR team” and the “rifle team.” You’ll hear this terminology used in training films, like this one about working with tank support: “A tank always draws fire. To avoid casualties though ricochets, the infantry is well dispersed; BAR team on one side of the tank, rifle team on the other.” Even that film mentions the scouts, earlier, being in front of the tanks. So, were the scouts part of the BAR team or the rifle team? Are the scouts their own team? The answer is, “yes…it depends…” A 1944 article about the Infantry School at Fort Benning, in an issue of Army Life, the U.S. Army’s official recruiting magazine, states: So a squad is two teams, plus two scouts… but the scouts can be part of a team. There were some who pushed for the automatic rifleman to be made a corporal, as he could often be left in charge of the BAR team. In the absence of a squad leader or assistance squad leader there may have been some reluctance on the part of the assistant automatic rifleman and ammo bearer to take orders from someone they felt didn’t have the appropriate authority and it was felt an extra stripe could formally recognize that authority: Now, an article published four months later in Military Review indicates the squad is subdivided evenly, firmly placing the scouts in the BAR team: I can hear some of you saying, “wait, I thought the U.S. Army infantry rifle squad was divided into three teams called Able, Baker and Charlie?” You are also right, if you’re talking about troops training at the very end of the war. While these terms are used online, in popular history books, and even some of the Army’s own historical monographs, as far as I can tell (and granted, I’m just some guy on the internet) this was a very late war change. The Able, Baker, Charley teams (and that’s Charley with an L-E-Y) don’t actually find their way into field manuals until shortly after the war, in FM 22-5 published at the beginning of 1946. But field manuals accumulate changes, so this is not the first mention of Able, Baker, Charley nomenclature in training material. I’m sure everyone’s seen this image floating around from a February 1945 basic training workbook. There it is, clear as day, Able, Baker, Charley. These same teams are mentioned a month later in an Infantry Journal article titled, “Battle Drill for Squads and Platoon.” The content of that article is very similar to the material later printed in FM 22-5 and it’s presented here as a preview of a new training circular. Over all, the changes in squad operation are minute, but it does feature the new team designations. Here’s exactly what it says: Yet it goes on to say Able usually joins Baker, and that it may also join Charley. So it’s the three teams until, it’s two, maybe not the same two… It should all sound very familiar. Given the late publication date, I strongly doubt any G.I.s trained in the Able, Baker, Charley system made it into combat, certainly not in Europe. Even the abbreviated 15 week training schedule put in place during the post-Bulge replacement crisis, when you add transatlantic travel and processing it’s certainly not probable. There’s plenty of veterans that will mention the BAR team, for example, but I’ve never heard one of them say, “…and then Baker laid down a base of fire,” unless the automatic rifleman’s name was Baker. I have this scenario in my mind, where a new replacement at the tail end of the war is assigned to a BAR team and says, “So, I’m joining Baker?” And the squad leader says, “Baker? No. This is Fox company.” And then they both look at each other and think, “this poor guy doesn’t have a clue and he’s going to get us all killed.” Now, having said all that, there may be an earlier example out there of these team names in print. And if anyone knows of one let us know in the comments. But for now, all evidence points to these specific team designations appearing too late to be any factor in the fighting. Even after the war, during the conference on the infantry division, which admittedly may not reflect the latest training circulars, when discussing present and future organization they described the squad as having two rather than three parts: Finally, I’d like to cover something which curiously garners few mentions in the field manuals of the day, the buddy system. According to the February 1986 Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Newsletter: A May 1944 article in Infantry Journal, about controlling fear, advises G.I.s to: An article from Fort Benning’s Infantry School Mailing List published in july of 1944 notes that: The buddy system was apparently something that was first adopted in the U.S. by the Rangers, but eventually went army-wide. A January 1945 article from the newspaper at Camp Walters Infantry Replacement Training Center states: I’m not exactly sure when it caught on with non-elite units but a June 1943 newspaper article informs its readers that local boy: In a letter to his parents, Morris B. Redmann, Jr. wrote from Fort Benning on January 9th, 1944: George W. Neill, a rifleman in the 99th division, wrote: Another veteran wrote of his training at Fort Bragg: Now, not everyone was thrilled with their buddy. A G.I. who trained at Fort Hood in 1945 recalled: So, while it’s nearly absent from field manuals, the “buddy system” does show up in supplementary training material and contemporary writing, and was clearly something that U.S. infantry had embraced by the latter years of the war. I wanted to bring it up because there will be further references to it, and examples of it, in future videos. But this video is long enough already In future videos I’ll cover exactly how the squad and its constituent elements was trained to, in the words of FM 100-5, “Close with the enemy and destroy or capture him.” This video was about normal squad organization and weapons, but I’ll leave you with one last example of how the realities of combat often invited some improvisation. Well, there you have it. The organization of the U.S. Army infantry rifle squad during the second of two world wars. You have made it to the end.