During the British evacuation of Dunkirk in the spring of 1940, many civilians with boats were pressed into service to rescue British soldiers trapped on the beach. Desperate to give his boat some means of protection, one of those civilians went to an ordnance depot before departing to ask a veteran British chief petty officer for some firepower.
Perhaps frazzled that he had to help organize the rescue, the CPO sarcastically asked the man what sort of gun he wanted.
“How about a Bren?” the boat owner responded. “They’re handy little tools, aren’t they?”
“Ever fired one?” the CPO snapped back.
“Well, no,” the man admitted.
“Take my advice, chum,” the CPO growled. “Fix yourself up with a Lewis. Brens are too bloody accurate. With a Lewis, you get plenty of spray and that, plus the motion of your cockleshell, should get you out of trouble.”
Stories about the accuracy of the Bren light machine gun are legion among the thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers who relied on it during the war. “If you fire a burst at oncoming troops,” some troopers claimed, “all the rounds will go through one man…and only leave one hole!”
That might be overly dramatic, but it was a fact that on a range and in the hands of a skilled gunner, a Bren could fire a single burst of five rounds that would usually display the same grouping as five single shots. The gun’s unique features helped account for that level of accuracy. The butt, for example, contained two sets of springs: the butt-plate buffer spring and the piston-return spring. Both were arranged to minimize the weapon’s recoil.
Added to that was the gun’s mechanical design, which directed all movement backward and forward. The reliable adjustable bipod, together with the well-placed pistol grip and carrying handle for further support, ensured that the operator had good control over the weapon. Elevation could be adjusted while the firer was prone by increasing or decreasing the distance between the elbows.
The gas-operated, air-cooled Bren— usually known simply as the LMG, at least in the British army—was developed from a Czechoslovakian machine gun, the ZB26, designed by brothers Václav and Emmanuel Holek. Originally produced in the state-owned Zbrojovká Brno factory, it was eventually modified and put into production at the British Small Arms Factory in Enfield—hence the name, which draws from the first two letters of both towns.
The .303-inch standard rifle ammunition fired by the Bren was fed to the breech from a 30-round curved box magazine. To prevent damage to the spring, however, magazines generally were loaded only with 27 to 28 rounds. As the gun was fired, empty rounds would fall from an aperture on the underside of the gun immediately in front of the trigger.
Measuring just under 46 inches, and weighing a total of 23 pounds with a full magazine, the potent weapon could easily be carried into battle by one man, assisted by a “number two,” who was responsible for bringing preloaded magazines and a spare barrel.
In skilled hands, a Bren was accurate at up to one mile and was capable of firing 500 rounds a minute, making it an immense improvement on its forerunner, the robust but clumsy Vickers. To cut down on ammunition expenditure and barrel wear in combat conditions, the weapon was usually fired in short bursts of four to five rounds. If done properly, this would give up to a minute of firing time before having to reload. Firing that way required practice, however. The gunner had to learn how to hold the trigger and count “one hundred and one” at a moderately slow pace.
Resorting to true rapid fire was only needed for real emergencies, and the Bren’s instruction manual, Know Your Weapons, warned against that. At a full rate of fire, the gun would go through four magazines in a minute, and the barrel would have to be changed after 10 magazines or, as the manual noted, the gun “may get so hot it starts playing tricks.”
To change barrels, one simply lifted the barrel-nut catch and pulled the barrel forward, after which it could be cooled in water. A spare pail of water was often not available, however, and in combat most Tommies did without that simple procedure. “The Bren was a good weapon,” a member of No. 4 Commando recalled, “but if you fired it too long and too quick, the barrel heated up and the accuracy decreased. When that happened most of the boys just [urinated] on the barrel to cool it down.”
One of the weapon’s greatest strengths was its simplicity of operation. Before firing, the operator would lie prone, resting the butt of the weapon on the ground and sliding the magazine’s opening cover forward. The gunner would pick up a full magazine with his right hand and, after verifying that the visible cartridges were loaded correctly, would engage the lip of the magazine at the front end of the opening and tilt the magazine backward until the clip engaged. The gunner would then pull back the cocking handle on the right side as far as possible before returning it to its forward position and moving the selector switch from the “S” (safe) position to either “A” for automatic fire or “R” for rifle fire (i.e., single rounds).
All that was needed to fire the first round was a squeeze of the trigger. A charge of gas pushed the bullet two-thirds of the way up the barrel, at which point a proportion of the gas was directed through a vent and onto the piston head via a regulator. The gas regulator had four positions, each allowing an increased flow of residual gas (which had to be adjusted for individual weapons). Gas from the regulator then drove back the piston, actuating the mechanism so that the next round left the magazine and settled cleanly in the breech.
Instantly, the breechblock containing the firing pin moved forward, the firing pin striking the cap and firing the cartridge. When set to fire single shots, a sear was positioned to engage the bent on the piston post and prevent its forward motion until the trigger was squeezed again. It was always possible to tell a .303 cartridge fired from a Bren because the firing pin left an oblong dent in the fulminate cap.
Another virtue of the weapon, particularly in combat conditions, was that it was easy to keep clean. All the gunner needed to do was draw out the body-locking pin, which was designed to be pulled just far enough to remove the butt and no farther—a valuable feature that ensured the piece could not be put down and lost. The butt was then pulled to the rear, and the breechblock and piston removed. Once the barrel-nut catch was lifted, the barrel would be drawn out with a half-twist, and the weapon was ready to be cleaned.
It was such a straightforward operation that one member of the Commando Brigade taught his wife to strip the LMG and clean it after he returned from night exercises so he could sleep. “My wife was part of the Commando, the same as the other boy’s [wives] were,” the well-rested green beret remembered. “They all knew one another, and they were part of the force—it kept the unit together.”
For all its commendable qualities, the Bren was not perfect. Magazines had to be loaded carefully, with the rim of the .303 cartridge placed in front of the rim of the one beneath it. Also, because the magazine was on top of the weapon, the foresight and backsight were offset. Adjusting the backsight for elevation was by means of the backsight drum.
Firing distances ranged from 200 to 2,000 yards, and the elevation could be altered in 50-yard clicks. This click mechanism was useful at night, when to set the range the drum was moved as far back as it could go and the range was then set by moving the drum forward two clicks for every hundred yards. Unlike a rifle, the LMG was correctly aligned when the tip of the foresight was in the center of the target.
The intricacies of properly loading the magazines bothered John Smale, an original member of No. 3 Commando. Once, Smale and his fellow troopers were waiting in the main hall of the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, when he found to his horror that 15-year-old naval cadets were loading the Bren magazines. “Well, of course, you’ve got to know what you’re doing,” he said, “because if you don’t do it right, you’ll get stoppages. We had to knock that one on the head pretty quick, but I’ve often wondered whether the Duke of Edinburgh was one of those little boys.”
Miraculously, given the cash-strapped state of Britain’s armed forces before World War II, Tommies began receiving the new LMG as early as 1933, meaning that by the time war was declared in 1939 the Bren had become the standard light machine gun for all British and Commonwealth forces.
The Enfield factory alone eventually made more than 220,000 Brens, with another 190,000 produced by such subcontractors as Monotype in Britain, Lithgow in Australia and Inglis in Canada. The overwhelming majority of users favored the weapon’s weight, accuracy and ease of operation. It was so versatile that it could even be used in an anti-aircraft role, the gunners normally discarding the 30- pound tripod and firing at attacking Stukas and Messerschmitts while lying on their backs.
Although the weapon had been in service for nearly a decade, it was during the evacuation of British and French forces at Dunkirk that it truly came into its own. As the perimeter around the port closed, the LMG repeatedly laid out a blanket of withering and highly accurate fire that turned back repeated attacks and bought more time to get soldiers away to safety.
Brigadier Beckworth Smith, commanding the 1st Brigade, Coldstream Guards—part of the British Expeditionary Force’s rear guard at Canal des Chats—issued instructions to his men on how to shoot down an enemy plane: “Stand up to them. Shoot at them with a Bren gun from the shoulder. Take them like a high pheasant. Give them plenty of lead. Remember, £5 to any man who brings one down.”
The fighting around the canal was so hot that a number of the Coldstream’s Brens became unserviceable because the firing pins simply melted away.
And when D-Day came on June 6, 1944, the Bren went back to France, albeit with some nonstandard modifications that had been attained on battlefields around the world during the intervening years. Lionel Roebuck of the East Yorkshires remembered: “In addition to their French money, we all had a tin of boiled sweets and two FLs [condoms]. The latter were used to protect rifle and Bren barrels from sand and seawater during the landings.”
The Bren remained in service until the end of the war, and its original design was so excellent that it is still used by many British units to this day, while foreign variants continue to soldier on all over the globe. Although now chambered for the standard 7.62mm NATO round, the venerable LMG can still be counted on to provide “bloody accurate” fire when most needed.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.