The Bren Is One Awesome Machine Gun
Soldiers loved the light machine gun and ‘Ronnie the Bren Girl’
In April 1945, an entire brigade of British special forces joined the massive effort to attack the German army until its back was against the Po River.
If successful, the Wehrmacht would have no choice but escape across the river and evacuate Italy — or stay and fight, facing the prospect of heavy losses.
Cpl. Thomas Peck Hunter, a 21-year-old member of 43 Royal Marine Commando, was Bren gunner in charge of his section during Operation Roast. Deployed for combat on April 2 near Lake Comacchio, Hunter and his fellow Royal Marines faced German soldiers behind three fearsome MG-42 machine guns lodged in nearby houses.
The Germans were well-protected and had a clear field of fire for hundreds of yards. Hunter realized that the German machine gun fire would mow down the British troops, who had no cover.
Hunter grabbed his Bren gun and ran 200 yards, dodging both machine-gun fire and mortar rounds. He fired from the hip and reloaded on the run, purposely drawing fire toward him and away from his fellow Royal Marines.
Hunter was shot and killed. But his actions — and his Bren gun — likely saved the lives of his fellow Commandos.
“There can be no doubt that Corporal Hunter offered himself as a target in order to save his Troop, and only the speed of his movement prevented him being hit earlier,” stated his citation for the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valor awarded to members of British and Commonwealth armed forces.
“The skill and accuracy with which he used his Bren gun is proved by the way he demoralized the enemy … so much so that under his covering fire elements of the Troop made their final objective before he was killed.”
Hunter is the youngest winner of the Victoria Cross, and to date he is the last Royal Marine to receive the award. But the weapon he used saw action not only during World War II but in wars fought by British and Commonwealth troops ranging from Korea to the Falkland Islands, the Malaysian emergency and the Mau Mau uprising.
Troops who used the Bren often expressed remarkable loyalty toward the gun, according to Neil Grant, author of The Bren Gun.
“Almost all regarded it as a reliable and effective weapon, and it was striking that when discussing the Bren with veterans who had used it, their first response was almost always the same — a nostalgic smile, and the words ‘It was a great gun, the old Bren …’ or something similar,” Grant wrote.
Based on a Czech design with British improvements, the Royal Small Arms Factory built the first Bren gun in 1937. The name comes from the two factories responsible for the weapon’s design — Brno in Czechoslovakia, Enfield in England.
The inspiration for the weapon was the ZB vz/26, a reliable and hard-hitting light machine gun. British designers chambered the weapon to accept the then-standard British .303-caliber rifle round, and they created a curved 30-round magazine to hold the ammo.
The result was an air-cooled, gas-operated light machine gun that fired 500 rounds per minute — not the fastest rate of fire, but one that promoted accuracy out to nearly 2,000 yards. In addition, the weapon only weighed 22 pounds and was a little more than 45 inches long, making it easy to carry.
Gunners grew fond of the Bren. Not only was it reliable, it was easy to field strip and clean. Its long service-record attests to how well the weapon worked even under atrocious battlefield conditions.
In the heat of battle, an experienced gunner could change a hot barrel in seconds. Reloading the Bren with a fresh magazine was also easy — although the top-loading design of the weapon required the use of offset sights to aim it accurately.
After World War II, armories re-chambered the Bren for the 7.62-millimeter NATO round. Because of the change, the Bren remained in use with British and Commonwealth forces who also carried the L1A1 battle rifle — the British incarnation of the famed FN FAL.
This meant that any squad with the Bren and the L1A1 could use the same ammunition interchangeably, a boon during a firefight.
The Bren was even part of a Canadian morale-boosting campaign that featured a young woman posing with a weapon fresh off the assembly line.
In 1941, Veronica Foster worked at the John Inglis Co. Ltd. in Toronto, one of Canada’s leading arms manufacturers. While at the plant, government photographers noticed Foster.
She agreed to pose for a number of photos of her and a Bren — including one picture where she is stroking the barrel of the machine gun provocatively while exhaling a plume of cigarette smoke.
Years before the fictional “Rosie the Riveter” made a splash in American wartime propaganda art, Foster — an actual worker in a defense plant — went on to portray herself in other photos with Bren guns. The National Film Board of Canada used images of Ronnie to recruit women into the wartime workforce.
Eventually, the Canadians dubbed her “Ronnie the Bren Girl” — and she became an iconic figure who represented more than a million Canadian women who worked in the war industry.
For soldiers in the field, she became something of a machine gun sex symbol. Foster received hundreds of marriage proposals from Allied soldiers who saw her photograph in newspapers around the world.
It also was the start of Foster’s entertainment career. Following the war, she worked in modeling and singing. Which takes style and a bit of a panache — which fit the British weapon perfectly.