Golden Journal No. 32:
Royal Marine Pieces
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
By 1967, Britain had decided to retreat from her commitments East of Suez. For the past decade, the Royal Marines had been the sharp edge of British policy in the region. Royal Marines carry no battle honours on their colours; there are so many that they can’t be carried, and thus are all symbolized by their Great Globe insignia. So when Egyptian officers sought an explanation for their defeat in the Six-Day War, several of them hit on a novel explanation: the Israelis had the aid of Royal Marines. Egyptian President Gamel Nasser had already railed against the British for their support of Israel, and seemed pre-disposed to believe them.
Royal Marines had spearheaded the Anglo-French assault on the Suez Canal in 1956, conducting history’s first heliborne assault. More recently, Royal Marines had been involved in fighting against Egyptian-supported insurgents in South Yemen even as Egyptian troops battled British-financed insurgents in neighboring North Yemen.
Our Golden Journal No. 32: Four-Five Commando allows you to play out this excuse, with British Royal Marines battling the Egyptians in Panzer Grenadier (Modern): 1967 Sword of Israel. Let’s have a look at what these elite light infantry bring to the battlefield:
Though self-described as light infantry, in 1967 Royal Marines followed an organization similar to that of the British Army. The commando, as the Marines called their battalion, included three rifle companies, each of three rifle platoons - properly called a “troop” rather than a platoon in Royal Marine parlance. Each company had its own unique letter designation; 45 Commando’s were X (X-Ray), Y (Yankee) and Z (Zulu); W (Whiskey) Company of Royal Netherlands Marines joined the Commando in 1972.
The riflemen each carried an L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle, the British-produced version of the Belgian-made FN FAL 7.62mm assault rifle, employing imperial rather than metric measurements. Unlike the FAL, the SLR did not have an automatic fire setting. The troop’s three sections each had an L4 light machine gun - the venerable Bren gun, re-chambered to take the standard NATO 7.62mm round - as its automatic weapon. The L4 could take the 20-round magazine of the SLR; the SLR could in theory operate with the 30-round box magazine of the L4 but since the Bren was designed for gravity-assisted feed this did not always work.
For close-range anti-tank defense, the Royal Marines replaced the American-made 3.5-inch “Super Bazooka” with “Charlie G,” the Swedish-designed 84mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle. Its rifled barrel gave much better range and accuracy than other anti-tank weapons of the time, and it was highly effective against tanks of the time. It also featured a massive back-blast that would badly burn if not incinerate anyone standing behind it when fired, and a powerful blast wave that could cause traumatic brain injuries in its gunner after repeated use. But it was a lightweight weapon that could be carried and fired by just one man, making it extremely valuable to a light infantry organization.
Royal Marines left their medium machine guns behind on many deployments; since the actions in our Four-Five Commando set never actually took place we’ve given them all of their weapons (and they’ll need the added firepower). The Vickers had given way in the late 1950’s to the L7 GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun), a British-made version of the Belgian FN MAG machine gun that like the SLR was identical to the Belgian weapon but measured in imperial rather than metric units.
The L7 was an outstanding weapon, and remains in use with both British Army and Royal Marine units. Neither British service adopted the “heavy barrel” variants of the SLR developed in Australia and Canada to allow fully-automatic fire of the standard infantry battle rifle, preferring to issue actual machine guns. The L7 was intended to serve in both the light and medium roles, but the Royal Marines kept the L4 as their section (squad) automatic weapon, citing its better reliability in harsh conditions - its box magazine kept out dirt that sometimes fouled the L7’s ammunition belt.
While the Royal Marines often stood behind the British Army when receiving new weapons, they adopted the new L16 81mm mortar very soon after its introduction and would have had it in use during in intervention in the Gaza Strip. The L16 had been a joint British-Canadian project to replace the venerable Ordnance ML 3-inch (actually 81.5mm) mortar introduced in 1937.
The new mortar featured much greater range than World War Two-era weapons, and could be broken into three loads for transport by its crew (other soldiers or Marines had to carry the ammunition, helpfully packed in two-round plastic boxes known as “greenies”). British special forces made heavy use of the L16, and after its brief replacement by lighter, more modern mortars in Afghanistan it has returned to the British Army and Royal Marine arsenal, upgraded with laser-guided and GPS-equipped targeting systems.
The Royal Marines would later adopt mortar-carrier vehicles for the L16, but in 1967 they carried it on their backs.
The British Army accepted a recoilless rifle (the 3.45-inch RCL) in the last days of World War Two. It could theoretically be fired from the shoulder, but at 75 pounds (34 kilograms) the firer would need a very brawny shoulder. The inventor, Sir Dennis Burney, also developed a special type of ammunition for it, known as HESH (high explosive, squash head). While his weapon had a relatively short range (less than 1,000 meters) and wore out quickly, his ammunition was devastating against armor plate and development began on a better recoilless rifle that could make use of the HESH round.
Burney designed the HESH round to crush concrete fortifications with a powerful shock wave; this turned out to also be pretty effective against steel armor, as the shock wave threw off fragments inside the tank at high speed that shredded the crew, their equipment and anything else inside. Spaced armor and special liners inside the tank were eventually developed to defeat squash head rounds, but in the 1950’s and 1960’s they were considered extremely effective.
The new recoilless rifle, known as the BAT (Battalion Anti-Tank), entered service in 1953, replacing the earlier recoilless rifle and the 17-pounder anti-tank gun. It was a 120mm piece, much larger than the 3.45-inch RCL, but had greater range and fired a larger shell. It was also much heavier than other nations’ recoilless rifles, and in 1964 a new gun known as the WOMBAT entered service. This had still greater range and lighter weight, but it still could not be physically carried though its crew could drag it along on its tiny carriage if necessary. It became the standard heavy anti-tank weapon for the Royal Marines until useful missiles arrived, and it also served as artillery support with a good high-explosive round plus cannister and flechette ammunition.
And those are the Royal Marines of 45 Commando.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold approves of this message.