After Dunkirk, the British were desperate for small arms
by MATTHEW MOSS
Following the disastrous Battle of France and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940, the British Army desperately needed to re-arm. Especially with a German invasion force massing on the French coast.
Britain’s response to the dire need for small arms was to develop a family of weapons that it could quickly and cheaply manufacture.
When 338,000 Allied troops evacuated Dunkirk, they left behind a massive amount of equipment — hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition, 11,000 machine guns, 2,500 artillery pieces, 650 tanks and 65,000 assorted vehicles.
This huge loss of equipment left Britain with only enough vehicles and heavy weapons to properly equip two full-strength divisions — approximately 15,000 men.
The British Army needed new weapons. Fast.
At the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield in December 1940, Harold Turpin and a team of designers began work on what would become the STEN submachine gun. Turpin’s team demonstrated a prototype by February 1941 and the Ministry of Supply promptly ordered 100,000 copies.
The simple STEN Mk. I had just 59 parts and could be produced with by relatively unskilled labor using stampings and a bare minimum of machine tools. London ordered 300,000 STEN Mk. Is. The Mk. II that followed in the fall of 1941 was even simpler.
The British Imperial General Staff described the STEN as “one of the best bits of design on small arms carried out in England for a very long time.”
In June 1940, the British Ordnance Board requested designs for a light machine gun that could be produced in smaller workshops throughout Britain in the event that the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield was bombed.
Henry Faulkner, the Birmingham Small Arms company’s chief designer, developed the Besal light machine gun. Faulkner’s design was basically a simplification of the Bren Gun. Chambered in .303, it fed from standard Bren Gun curved box magazines but featured a no-frills trigger mechanism and a simple pressed gas cylinder, positioned under the barrel like on the Bren.
Its stamped body was held together by pinning and spot welding. In the event of a German invasion, the British Army planned to recall the spare barrels it issued with each Bren Gun and use them to make Besals.
Unlike the STEN, the Besal never went into production. Testing began in March 1942, by which time the immediate threat of invasion had significantly declined.
A shortage of rifles posed a challenge, too. The Enfield Design Department developed a number of prototype simplified rifles based on the action of the Pattern 1914, which could be quickly manufactured.
The Simplified Rifle, 1941 boasted a simple stock and a receiver that required less machining than other rifle types did. The Simplified Rifle, 1941 would have had an integrated spike bayonet and rudimentary sights. But it, like the Besal, never entered production.
Britain’s last-ditch weapons were designed and developed during the darkest days of the war for the Allies. The tide turned in late 1941 and, in a few years, it was the Germans — on the defensive and fighting on several fronts — who were desperate for easy-to-build small arms.